On the evening of January 18, 2005, the First Baptist Church of Jamaica Plain, Mass., burned to the ground.
The building was one of the oldest in town, with a beautiful Hook organ, hand-carved wooden pews, and a steeple tall enough to make the church visible for blocks from where it stood at one of the busiest intersections in the neighborhood.
But on that night, all that was visible of the steeple were the flames engulfing it, and the smoke mixing with the sleet and snow that was falling to form a thick cloud of dark ash. This was the third fire in the church’s history, and with membership dwindling, many wondered if it would indeed be its last breath.
The church decided to rebuild, and when I got there about three years later as a seminary student, they were worshipping out of a trailer parked in the green space on the corner of the lot, right in front of the hollowed-out corpse of the old church building.
We affectionately called this temporary house of worship the “Sacred Doublewide,” and did our best to make use of the space. Against the back wall was a rack where the ministers’ robes hung without ceremony right next to the congregation’s winter coats. Rows of folding chairs were oriented toward the far wall of the trailer, where in the corner a makeshift chancel was fashioned from a folding table covered with a piece of cloth whose color changed with the liturgical calendar.
On top of the table was a wooden cross, about two-feet high. Most of the year, the cross appeared to be simply a beautifully carved ornament of richly polished wood. But each year on Ash Wednesday, it was turned around to reveal its other side, which was charred black and ashen. It had been carved from one of the salvaged beams from the old sanctuary.
The wooden podium that served as the pulpit had also been carved from this salvaged wood. It had the same polished luster as the cross, only with dark lines running through it, which when you got close were revealed not as grain, but lines of char where fire had shot through.
And instead of using ashes from the previous year’s Palm Sunday branches, the church had taken the practice of imposing ashes from the their own sanctuary on their foreheads.
In that humble setting of a trailer parked in full view of the remains of the old church building, those penitent words, “You are dust, and to dust you will return,” took on a whole new meaning.
Of course, these words, which have become a part of our cultural parlance, are God’s last words to Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the Garden. Their trespass of eating from the forbidden tree has just been revealed and God has levied their judgment. They will no longer be permitted in the Garden, where they enjoyed such a special closeness with God. They’re to be sent out into a world unknown to them. A world of pain, of suffering, of labor, of death.
And it’s at the end of this judgment, as the two are turning away from God and toward the world, that God says these final words: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
We often read them as a kind of insult to injury, God throwing salt on the wound of the Fall. And yet, tucked inside this curse is a hidden promise: the promise of return.
I must send you out into the world, God tells them, and it will be harsh, and you will endure pain, and suffering and hardship, and at the end of it you will die. This is all very real, and at times it will overwhelm you, and at times you will fall short.
But as you go, remember where you come from. You come from me; you are mine. I fashioned you from the dust of the earth, and to this dust you will one day return, just as you will one day return to me.
In January of 2010, nearly five years to the day following the fire, the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain worshipped in their rebuilt church building. They’re still meeting in the community hall while they continue to raise money to rebuild the sanctuary, but are close to meeting their goal. The church actually grew in the time they were meeting in the Sacred Doublewide, and are now known around the neighborhood as the church that survived the fire and emerged from the ashes to become a hub of community life.
The folding chairs are gone, and I’m confident the ministers have a separate rack to hang their robes. But they did bring a few things with them. Worship is still led from the charred podium, and upon their new communion table is the same burnt-out cross.
Wednesday night they will smear the same ashes from their old sanctuary upon their foreheads and say again those words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Only when they do, they, more than most, will know it’s true. And with God, return is always a blessing in the end.