Note: This post is adapted from my Ash Wednesday meditation at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS.

What a difference a day makes. One day you’re single, the next you’re on your honeymoon or on the other hand, a spouse dies, and you’re bereft of love. One evening you’re healthy and laughing with friends, the next you’re lying in a coma in ICU, fighting for your life. One day you’re eating tasty, rich pancakes with syrup on Shrove Tuesday, munching on Moon Pies from Mardi Gras, the next you’ve taken up the disciplines of Lent, receiving the sign of the cross with a smudge of ashes. As one of the ancient sages said: “the king of today will die tomorrow” (Sirach 10:10).

“Fat” is the metaphor the Bible often uses to refer to the prosperity of that king and his peasants alike. Eating the fat of the land is enjoying its good things. Peasants in the story of Deborah grew fat from the plunder of battle, reveling in bounty they would not otherwise have known (Judges 5:7). When the people were grieved at hearing the word of God, Nehemiah invited them instead to eat the fat and drink sweet wine, to celebrate, even as they shared good things with the poor (Nehemiah 8:6). Being and eating fat means you’ve got enough; you can turn your attention to other pursuits than daily survival. Maybe you can make art or reflect on a philosophical question or play music because you’re not preoccupied with where the next meal is coming from. Fat is blessing, abundance, goodness. It’s richness, protection, warmth, luxury. We might say it’s the marbling of life that gives it its flavor and juiciness, its appeal to the senses.

But “fat” also stands for the laziness and arrogance that so easily grips us. Those whose hearts are fat forget God; they begin to believe that their own efforts brought them their good things (cf. Deuteronomy 31:20). The arrogant, said the psalmist, have fat and gross hearts, and they smear the righteous with lies. The poet, on the other hand, delights in God’s law, a practice I suppose we could call having a lean heart, a life of discipline (Psalm 119:69-70). Fat and sleek, for Jeremiah, equals “sinful” (Jeremiah 5:27-28).

Along with these biblical images, I tend to think of fat as waste. We love our George Foreman grill because it’s designed to help us eat healthier, with the fat from chicken or a burger running off into a tray. The food is still tasty without all that extra fat; it becomes waste, poured into the grease can we keep in the freezer till it’s full and time to throw out and start another one. Fat of the wrong kind is unhealthy and harmful.

This Lent, I’m thinking of how much of my life is waste. Wasted time and effort for unworthy projects. Foolish choices that cost me money and caused me stress. Wasted resources, undisciplined purchases.

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“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13,14).


Remember that you fashioned me like clay; and will you turn me to dust again?” (Job 10:9)

It must be hard to be God. So much to remember. Covenants old and new. Assorted promises. Iniquities (or remembering to forget them). Individuals like Nehemiah who every time you turn around was asking God to remember him for this or that. Or the thief on the cross, who wanted our Lord to remember him when Jesus came into the kingdom.

 

How does God stay so organized? His prayer-mail (p-mail for short) inbox is always full, as Jim Carrey found out during his brief stint as God in Bruce Almighty. Of course, he has legions of angels who do his bidding, so like any good leader God delegates tasks. Maybe there’s an AS2 ( if you recall It’s a Wonderful Life) in charge of remembering the names of stars (cf. Psalm 147:4). Or little Timmy’s guardian spirit whispers the boy’s name in God’s ear when the child prays for Mommy and Daddy and a new puppy and please don’t let them serve pizza and green beans together at school. How about the seraph in charge of a nation who can recite from memory the details of its history or the reference librarian in the heavenly archives who can put a finger on just the right record at a moment’s notice?

 

But even angels aren’t perfect, so sometimes God must get frustrated with the process and do things for himself, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15). And some items he neither needs nor wants help with: memories so precious that he easily recalls them, promises he will never forget, creatures who never escape his notice.

 

Like the tiny sparrow he keeps his eye on. Or the flowers of the field, which he clothes with such beauty, though they are here today, gone tomorrow. Or you and me, human beings, made from dust and returning to it, fragile and transitory.

 

Predators, animal and human, see weakness and pounce on it to feed their bellies or their egos. Not God. He knows how we are made, and amazingly, the fact of our vulnerability is the very source of his goodness toward us. God does not take advantage of our vulnerability to destroy us. Instead, he is moved to compassion and forgiveness. He even chooses to put his treasure in jars of clay inscribed with your name and mine. “These fragile bodies of touch and taste,” as the song puts it, are his instruments to do great things! We are sacraments of God, concrete expressions of his grace.

 

“Remember, you are dust.” We hear those words spoken annually on Ash Wednesday. But even should we forget, God remembers, and because he does, he comes to our aid: to help, to heal, to forgive. Even with all the universe he has to oversee, all the details he must remember to keep everything going, we are never far from the front of his consciousness, never out of sight, out of mind.

 

God remembers.

 

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

 

Song lyrics from “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” by Bruce Cockburn