There is an old Jewish story that helps prepare us for Ash Wednesday and the coming of Lent.
A certain rabbi, seeking to know his place in the world, kept with him two notes. In one pocket he kept a note which said, “For me the world was created.” In the other he tucked a note saying, “I am nothing more than dust and ashes.”
You and I are made in the image and likeness of God; the whole creation comes to fulfillment in the birth of human beings. Remember that today when you think you are a little nothing or a failure.
And yet you and I are made of dust. That is what God gathers up to fashion our bodies. Then he tells us, “dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Remember that today when you think you are pretty hot stuff, when you forget that you had a beginning, that you will have an end, returning to the dirt.
These two notes help us to find the perfect balance between our astonishing transcendence and our utter humility.
Some days when you are having success and people are telling you what a genius you are, you may need to pull out that ‘dust and ashes’ note. It’s ok to be that great, and you don’t need to pretend that you are less than you really are. But the little note may help to keep you grounded in the earth so that you may use your power for good.
Some days (and there seem to be more of these) when you are not having success and people are telling you what a disappointment you are, you may need to pull out that ‘for me the world was created’ note. It’s ok to be a clod of earth and you don’t need to deny your brokenness. But this little note can remind you of the bittersweet mystery: that you are the pinnacle of God’s creation and the apple of his eye not because you are perfect, but because you aren’t. This is precisely how God has made us—imperfect, messy, mixed up—and we do not know why. Somehow God does not want to be around “perfect” people (and in this the Almighty is just like you and me), but takes glory and delight in people of the dust.
St. Paul said it beautifully. “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).