Dust to Dust

Dust to Dust – A Reflection

                  By John Houk

When we lived in a multi and diverse Church environment in Eastern Kentucky, Joan discovered opportunities to bring Churches together for some common celebration.  Ash Wednesday was one such opportunity.  I have memories of Protestant participants getting ashes on their foreheads for the first time.  One woman said to me, with enthusiasm, “This is the first time I’ve been ashed!”  She had “been ashed.”  For the first time.  I let that sink in.

I’m old school Catholic so “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is what being ashed has always meant to me.  I don’t struggle with the newer “good news” version of being ashed, but that is not where my mind is on Ash Wednesday.  My mind is on dust.

Genesis comes right out and says God made us from the dust of the earth.  The name, Adam, means earth creature so they say, and my dust beginning.  But ending as dust, what does that mean?

Anyone who has kept house knows dust.  Are we saying that our dusting cloth contains someone else’s dust?  Really?  Of course, we can’t say for sure, but I know dust.

In learning how to build things in Arctic Alaska I came to know that much of the ground there was composed of dust from someplace else, mostly Siberia.  We are not talking a “dusting” but feet, even yards deep dust.  It’s called loess to engineers who must learn to work with it and build things on it.  First, if it is frozen in place, for heaven’s sake don’t thaw it out.  OK, back to dust.

So dust often comes from far away.  In Alaska it comes from Siberia.  In the lower U.S. it comes with the prevailing wind from Asia and sometimes from Africa and the Middle East.  It seems like everything is from China lately, even the dust on your table top.  Dust gets around.  It is statistically probable that every surface in our home contains dust from far away places.  But that’s not the end of the story.  There is new dust and there is old dust; some dust is so old that it was dust when we were being created.

The more I know about dust, the more I like it.  Dust floats in the air.  Dust is not stuck in one place.  Local dust gets mixed with dust from every place else.  New dust is mixed with old dust, really old dust, Biblical dust, Roman dust, OK, Chinese dust.  Dust is the ultimate equalizer; the ultimate organic unifier.  I like dust.

I doubt that the well-dressed Protestant woman’s mind was on the equalizing and unifying qualities of the ashes / dust on her forehead, but maybe it was.  I believe she felt part of a wider Church that she may never have felt before because it showed in her enthusiasm for being ashed.  Ash Wednesday can do that for a person.

Dust to dust we say, at least we used to say.  We know that’s how we began, and now we know what becoming dust can mean.  Yes, it means being humble, but also it means organic oneness.  Dust never means isolation or being forgotten.  Whose dust is on your table, or perhaps better, whose dust is at your table?  And don’t forget to get ashed.


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We Are Thankful for These Things

Bikes and balls and sunny sky,
Flowers, fruit and corn grown high,
Critters, birds and kittie cats,
Snow and sleds and soft warm hats,

Rain and ponds for catching fish,
Cake with ice cream in a dish,
School and books and fun vacations,
Cups of tea and relaxation,

Evening walks and campfire chairs,
S’mores and hot dogs in fresh air,
First responders, good friends too,
Loving family, and especially, you.

We give thanks for God’s blessings!
Joan Houk     November 1, 2020

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An October 2020 Reflection

An October 2020 Reflection written by John Houk 

While Joan is “busy with many things” I have time to reflect, and October is my favorite month.  I remember another October when Joan was invited to participate in the ordination of a new bishop that would take place in Stuttgart.  She asked me if I would like to go along.  My response was Germany in October?  Of course, I want to go, and I want us to go a few days early so we can enjoy Oktoberfest, and so we did.  

The room in our motel was average size, but the exterior window was huge, floor to ceiling almost wall to wall so we could look out on the world with, of course, the world looking in on us.  The bathroom with its shower was set off with walls.  The shower wall itself faced the living space, with its great glass window, and the shower wall was clear glass.

“Adam and his wife, Eve, heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  But the Lord God called to Adam and said, ‘Where are you?’  Adam answered, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked.’  God said, ‘Who told you you were naked?’”  The Lord God’s question continues to echo down through the ages.  Who told Adam he was naked?

October is the month we remember Saint Francis.  I love the story of his conversion from rich kid to poor man, and the freedom he experienced and now shares with us 800 years later.  He was free to be.  Francis, the poor man, was free to be himself.  In the October of our lives, can we be free to be ourselves?  Walk with me as we reflect on these two questions.

Adam was a creature of the natural world, then, suddenly it seems, he wasn’t.  The story says that he had “eaten of the tree of good and evil.”  Adam has now become a judge between good and bad.  Well, yes, of course, that’s what we descendants of Adam do; we judge between good and bad.  But wait!  What happens next?  Adam became afraid.  Someone told him he was naked, and now that he was a judge between good and bad, he made the judgement that being naked before God was a bad thing.  So who told Adam that he was naked?  He did.  Adam would now need to make judgements concerning his behavior and the morality of situations, but just being Adam did not separate himself from God.  That was Adam’s mistake.  Adam was still Adam, and God was still God.

Now let’s reflect on the second question.  Can we, like Francis, be free to be ourselves?  Legend tells us that Francis didn’t have a lot going for him.  He was small, not particularly attractive, had no money and only one old brown robe.  He was one of God’s creatures in God’s world, not separate from it.  He was comfortable in his skin, as they say.  Francis was a non-judgmental person.  That was his conversion from rich kid to poor man.  He didn’t judge others, he didn’t judge the world in which he lived, and most important of all, he didn’t judge himself.

That’s nice for our little poor man, Francis, but it is not the real world we live in; at least it’s not my world, you may want to say.  O.K., but it is God’s world.  Two worlds are set before us in stark contrast in the two stories we read in the book of Genesis.  First we read about creation from God’s point of view – God’s world.  Then we read about creation from Adam’s point of view – Adam’s world.  Which world is the real world?  Jesus tried to answer that question.

Jesus, the Messiah of God, insisted that God’s world was the real world and God’s world was not a meritocracy.  Our sense that we must earn God’s love is an illusion. In God’s world there is no need to judge ourselves as good or bad.  Do not be afraid.  God loves you.  Jesus said it over and over.  There is no reason to fear God.  God does not judge us.  We are God’s children.  Later, take a moment to read again the first creation story where the word “good” is used seven times – the perfect number.  That includes us.  “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”  Jesus lived it.  Francis tried to live it.  October is a great month for us to remember it.  In the October of our lives we remain God’s children even with, especially with, all the accumulated grit of our lives.

In our Stuttgart motel room with its great glass window and its clear glass shower we showered off the grit of our overnight flight and became refreshed for a new day.  Showers are like that.

The next time you shower, step out of the shower and stand in front of the mirror then do two things, drop your towel then sing this little song from our childhood.
Jesus love me this I know 
for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong,
I am weak but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me,
yes, Jesus loves me,
yes, Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so.

Pax et bonum,

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Season of Creation

Inferno on the ground; toxic air above.
Fleeing; can’t breathe.

Hurricane winds from above; surging waters from below.
Houses gone; life is drowned.

Are you listening?
Citizens of the U.S.A., are you paying attention?

This is the Season of Creation, September 1 until
October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.
What we do to creation, we do to ourselves,
for we are part of creation — not separate, but one with all.

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On Labor Day

Labor – A Reflection           by John Houk

Our home has seen a steady procession of people who work with their hands.  Masks were worn and doors and windows were open, and I stayed upstairs in the chapel to avoid exposure to COVID-19.  Joan became project manager for the weeks-long unscheduled mitigation and restoration of our moldy kitchen.  I liked being able to watch and celebrate Joan’s work.  I even bought her a white hard hat with her name on it.  If you know Joan you know this could never be just about replacing walls and cabinets.  It was all about people.

She knew everyone by name.  The sheet rock men and painters were George, Fernando and Pedro, the cabinet man was Jerry, and the hard work was done by Howard Jr and Ed.  Not only did she know their names, but their pets, their wives, how much they spend on rent; and when they didn’t have the right tool, she lent them mine.  But that’s not the only people she knew by first name.  There was the mitigation manager, Chuck, and crew chief, Jack, and restoration manager, Steve, site manager, Howard, Sr., the secretary, Amber, the USAA Insurance adjustors, Alexander and Victoria, the plumbers, Greg, Matt, Dave, Bryce and Lee, and their office manager, Bonita.  She knew everyone by name and used their names often along with many thank-you’s.  Why is this important on our annual celebration of labor?  It’s because there is dignity in the work of our hands that deserves respect and thanks.

People who work with their hands are not second-class people, repeat not.  They are not those who were not smart enough to go into college, repeat not.  These are the people who make our world actually happen.  Most obvious right now is that they are the people who put our world back together when it is destroyed by mold (our kitchen) or by storms as on the Gulf Coast.  The people who do the work not only deserve to be treated with dignity and respect because they are real human persons, but because we couldn’t live without them.

As Catholics we can take pride in remembering Pope Leo XIII, who in 1891 wrote Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor), which set our Church on the path of respect for the person who works with their hands.  Here is where we find the official teaching on the dignity of labor, workers’ rights, including the right to organize and even strike, the condemnation of child labor, for just wages, just hours of work, and much more.  Pope Leo set our Church on the pro labor path.  Thanks, Pope Leo.

Joan grew up in Pittsburgh with working class people and with a family memory of union members in its mills and factories fighting the Pinkerton hired guns for the right to organize and even strike for just wages.  She didn’t need Pope Leo to learn respect for the people who do our work, but today our country does.  So, in thanks for labor on Labor Day and a reminder of our Catholic positive history toward labor let us, celebrate this special day.  Celebrate especially by calling people by name wherever they work and whatever work they are doing for us, for us.  Oh, and many thanks again to Pope Leo, and thank God we have our kitchen back!  Amen.

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Feast of the Assumption of Mary, Mother of Jesus

We can honor Mary on this feast day by remembering that she was, and remains, part of our world, our personal and natural world.  Pope Francis reminds us over and over that the natural world and we are not separate, and certainly we must understand that we stand with the natural world and not against it.  He calls this integral ecology, which he elaborated upon in his encyclical letter, Laudato Si
(On Care for our Common Home).  If you have not read it, you really must.

Mary was part of our world in powerful ways so we have honored her in multiple ways in the history of our Church, even to include that God had the power to lift her to heaven in her complete self. Because she walked in our world and remains connected to us there is no life challenge that Mary does not understand.  She was there.  Mary knew what it was like to be pregnant without a husband.  She knew what it was like to be vulnerable, having no control over her life, even to the point of being displaced from her home.  She knew the grief of seeing her child tortured. Mary knew what it is to be a mother watching her son gasping for his last breaths.

We invite you to join with our global Church remembering Mary on this August 15th by connecting with our world and with her, knowing that she is always there for us.

John and Joan Houk

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Feast of St. Mary of Magdala, the Year 2020

In the Gospel according to John 20:17-18, we read:

Jesus said to her, 

“Do not hold onto me because 

I have not yet ascended to the Father.  

But go to my brothers and say to them, 

‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, 

to my God and your God.’”  

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, 

“I have seen the Lord”; 

and she told them that the Lord had said these things to her.

According to a fragmentary manuscript of the non-canonical Gospel of Mary, written in the late first or early second century, Mary comforts the distressed disciples telling them, “For his grace will be with you all and shelter you.”  Peter asks Mary, “Tell us the words of the Savior that you know, but which we haven’t heard.” Mary agrees saying, “I will re[port to you as much as] I remember that you don’t know.”  After telling them what she remembered, she fell silent.

However, Andrew says that he doesn’t believe Mary “be[cause] these opinions seem to be so different from h[is th]ought.”  Peter joins in, “Has the Sa[vior] spoken secretly to a wo[m]an and [not] openly so that [we] would all hear?  [Surely] he did [not wish to indicate] that [she] is more worthy than we are?”

Levi confronts Peter’s competitive, argumentative behavior.  In Mary’s defense Levi says, “If the Savior considered her to be worthy, who are you to disregard her?  For he knew her completely [and] loved her devotedly.”  We still have both Peter’s and Levi’s attitudes in the Church today.

Although Mary of Magdala is mentioned by name in all four canonical gospels as being present at the tomb of Jesus, and she is named as the first to see the Resurrected Christ Jesus, even given the name, Apostle to the Apostles, attempts have been made throughout the centuries to silence Mary Magdalene, to discredit her, and to excuse her experience, all because she was a woman.

We women today are still being silenced, discredited, and pushed aside, just because we are women.  St. Mary of Magdala, pray for us.  

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Surprising Reflections on the Feast of Pentecost 2020

John Houk

Where is the Holy Spirit?  Experts on the subject think that she can be wherever she wants to be.  But how do we know where she is?  She is where she acts.  You can ask and hope that she will act, which we do at every Mass when we ask the Spirit to be present with us in the bread and wine.  But the Spirit is where she wants to be, which often surprises the unexpecting.

The stories of the Holy Spirit being promised, then given and received exhibit a confusion of details among early writers in wonderful ways.  This is why it is important to read for the big message, which is that God is present to us in love shared, and not get bogged down in the writer’s details.  Matthew writes that Jesus gives the Spirit to the “eleven on the mountain”.  In Acts the Spirit comes unannounced, as it were, “as they were all together” waiting.  In John Jesus breathed on the “frightened apostles” and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” on the very evening of Jesus’ resurrection.

So, what are we to think?  Was the Spirit given to the eleven on the mountain in Galilee; given to the “frightened disciples” on the very eve of Jesus resurrection; given to “all together” waiting?  If you have come to know the Spirit acting in your life then you may know this wonderful confusion around the Spirit acting in the early Church is just like what she might do.  The Spirit was with the eleven, with all followers together waiting, and with the frightened disciples on the evening of the first day of the week as John wrote.  This is typical Holy Spirit.  She can go where she is called or just show up and act in our lives as she pleases, with power to lift us up, console us, delight, encourage, teach, drive out fear and surprise.  Could it be that she likes the surprise part best?  I have often thought that this may be the most fascinating thing we know about a Spirit that acts, who is never passive, never indifferent, and always surprising us with gifts personally wrapped, but with an invitation inside to become one with her.  How could you not love her and want her in your life?  Surprise!  She is already there.  There is no gap between us and the Holy Spirit.  Any separation we may feel is an illusion.  She is always waiting to surprise, and if we like surprises, and most of us do, the best thing to do is laugh.

If you were surprised by the use of the feminism to describe the Holy Spirit you may like to know that there is a tradition in the shadows of our Church for doing exactly that.  That tradition stepped out of the shadows when Pope John Paul I told the world that God can be both Mother and Father to us.  JPI is famous for being Pope for only 33 days.  I believe that when the Holy Spirit seeks us out to surprise us with just what we need, she is very much like many of the women I know.  The “she” fits.

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Holy Week – Easter Epilogue

My reflections during this Holy Week 2020 was intended to encourage you to remember the end-game story of Jesus’ life, which has become our Christian Holy Week Myth.  That’s nice, but there is a much deeper reason for these reflections, which is to encourage you to place yourself in the story.  This is one way that we can discover our human potential, and this is why my reflections emphasized the human person, who was Jesus of Nazareth.  Story becomes myth inviting us to find ourselves in the story, and in the process, discovering our own human potential.

Jesus speaks to us:  On Palm Sunday we can enjoy the adulation of the crowd, but we are wise to know its fickle nature.  A few days later they will call for our crucifixion.  Monday, we enjoyed the company of friends and the loving touch of a woman, who knew the risk we take just being there.  On Tuesday we realize that evil is stalking us.  We go from one of the best days to one of the worst.  On Wednesday we ate with a betrayer and a denier, but we did not exclude them from our table.  Thursday we could sense time running out, and we gave the world a common every meal, bread and wine, way to remember us.  Then we showed them how to wash each other’s feet.  On Friday we could have run away, but we didn’t.  Over the centuries countless Christians have followed my example.  Speaking truth to power was, and is, dangerous, but we are not going to run away.  Saturday is Sabbath, will always be Sabbath, a pause that the human mind and body will always need.  Sunday, the first day of the week, has become our day of new beginnings, new possibilities, which flow from trusting that life prevails, will always prevail, and that love always wants to be forever.

If we make the mistake in thinking that Jesus said and did wonderful things because he was first God, then we give ourselves a pass, thinking that lowly humans can’t do those things, can’t live like that, but we can.  He was first, one of us.

Holy Week / Easter Epilogue by John Houk

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Easter Sunday 2020

Early in the morning on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James set out toward the garden where they had seen Jesus’ body placed.  When they entered the garden, they saw to their amazement that the stone in front of the tomb had been rolled aside.  They had brought a lantern knowing the tomb would be dark, and when they looked inside, they saw the tomb was empty.  Looking around in the dimness Mary Magdalene saw a figure standing near and assumed it must be the gardener. 

“We have come to anoint the body, but someone has taken it away.  If you took it, please tell us where it is and we will go there.”

The dim figure spoke her name.


“Teacher, is that you?”

She dropped the lantern and ran to him, threw her arms around him and began to cry.  Then she felt that he had nothing to keep away the morning chill, and took off her cloak and put it over him.  The cloak was full of her warmth and smell, and for a moment he couldn’t speak.  Then she said, “Do you need anything?  I have a little food and some water.”

“Yes, Mary, there is something I need for you to do for me.  I am so pleased that it was you who came first to me this morning.  I must not go back into the city.  The guards ran away, but they will come back with more so I cannot stay here.  You must go and tell the others that I will go to Galilee and wait for them there.  Can you do that for me?”

“I don’t want to leave you.  I don’t want to ever leave you.”

The other Mary spoke.  “If you want to stay, I will go tell the others, but they will not believe me.”

“You must both go, and yes, Mary, they must see for themselves.  Both of you go, and hurry, because I must go now.

Mary asked, “When will I see you again?”

“You must come with the others to Galilee because there I will explain to you how important it is for you to help the others stay together, and how you must tell them all the things I have told you.  Now go to them.  They must see for themselves that I am no longer in the tomb.”

Then Mary the mother of James gently took Mary’s hand and pulled her away from Jesus, and they ran back toward the city.

Jesus stood there watching them go, and he took a fist full of Mary’s cloak in each hand.  It was the first time that he realized that leaving her would be the most difficult part.  He straightened his back and started down the road to Emmaus, and then to Galilee where he would tell them about the Advocate to come.

Stay tuned.

Reflection by John Houk

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