It blows down dry streets in eddies, dead. It gathers in corners. It forms into rich earth, and out of it sprout tiny seeds. It compacts into warm and rich clay, which can be cut and slammed and shaped by hands and wheel into pots, and bowls and little figures of stout women and tiny men. It blows in the stellar winds in furthest space. It is dust.
We are dust.
Do we read it as promise or as curse? As a cause for humility, or a reassurance? It is a complex image. We are dust, blown around for a moment on one corner of the planet Earth that we call home, and the next become ash and mud. Stand for a moment on any hill, and look down on a road, a city, to see how tiny each figure is in comparison to the great world we live upon. We are specks on the face of a mighty globe. It puts us firmly in our places: all the books published, the families reared, the academic recognition, the wealth earned, the tests passed, the career ladder climbed, all these are as nothing in comparison to the mighty Earth, still less in the face of the universe. Look at the dust eddying down the street. That is the totality of your achievements.
On the other hand, being dust limits our failures. The family row, the declining attendance at our churches, the catch dropped, the dead-end job, the constant grind to make both ends meet, well, that too is dust, insignificant, and unimportant. All of us are so tiny in the sight of the universe that it hardly matters. It is not that it will all be the same in a hundred years. It is all the same now. I struggle to imagine a universe so huge that the pinprick of light I see from my dark hillside, unpolluted by street-lights, is, in fact, an entire galaxy. Stand outside on a clear night and see the glittering dust in the sky and know that what you see as a speck of light is in fact not just a star but a galaxy of stars with their own planets. Let your miseries fall behind you and rejoice in being part of a dance of life so incredibly huge you cannot know all of it, indeed you cannot even imagine it all.
It is hard to believe that we, tiny little specks of dust, set on the face of a planet which is itself a speck in an immense universe, can be of huge value to God. That he can bend near us, and listen to our worries, and our anguish and our delight. Yet that is what we are taught. I pour out my joy for a new lamb born safely to one of my ewes, or my pleas understanding of the next steps that my path of life should follow to God, and this God is the same God who dances on the seas of some planet in that same bright speck of a galaxy. The sheer immensity of it all is what brings me my most agonising moments of doubt.
But then, I am dust. Dust is so limited. Our faith has always known that. As a liberal, I am frequently berated for trying to create a god who fits my limitations. Actually I don’t think I do. When I stand outside on a clear night, and compare myself to a speck in the mud on my wellies, I am acutely aware of the immensity of God. If the sheer scale of it all brings me doubt, it also brings me reassurance. No wonder there is so much I cannot get my mind around. No wonder the pain of the universe puzzles me. I cannot even understand how time and space can be the same thing; at least I cannot understand that intuitively. I know that there must be truths even more profound beyond my reach.
How then to make sense of it all? How to accept my intellectual limitations, and grasp both my lack of stature as dust, and also my belonging to God? I turn to that same One who dances on some distant planet as even now it comes into being, in the curved space/time continuum. Ah, that, then, is the worth God gives to dust: he becomes it. Dust may be limited but it can embody every value of God. My task is simple: to begin on the path of embodying those same values. Did I say simple?