‘You are beloved dust and immeasurably important, yet life is incredibly short’

During worship and Bible study, conference participants are reminded that God values each life

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Anna George Traynham of Shallowford Presbyterian Church in Atlanta prepares to place ashes on worshipers’ foreheads. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — During worship Wednesday at the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Music and Worship Conference, it was Ash Wednesday.

To the singing of “Sign us with ashes merciful God … Mark us and make us your own,” 400 in-person worshipers inside Anderson Auditorium at Montreat Conference Center came forward to have ashes imposed on their forehead.

The  Rev. Anna George Traynham, conference liturgist, said, “You are beloved dust and immeasurably important, yet life is incredibly short.”

And then conference preacher the Rev. Cecelia (Ce Ce) Armstrong of St. James Presbyterian Church in Charleston, S.C., began her message from II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 with a story about a dying believer. One of the man’s friends said to him, “Farewell, I won’t see you again in the land of the living.” To which the dying Christian replied, “I hope to see you in the land of the living where I am going,” for this earthly realm “is the land of the dying.”

Armstrong also remembered the department chairperson at the high school where she taught mathematics before hearing God’s call to ministry. He came to her with a sad look on his face saying, “I’m dying.”

“My heart failed,” she said.  “I didn’t know what to say.” Seeing her reaction, the department chair said, “You’re dying too. We all are.”

The Rev. CeCe Armstrong urged worshipers to be the beautiful butterfly God created them to be. (Screenshot)

With this in mind, Armstrong encouraged worshipers both in person and online to live a life that honors Christ. “Our brokenness should transform us to serve,” she said.

Whenever Armstrong runs into something new, a transformation of some sort takes place, she said. Whether she likes it or not, this happens in three parts. First there’s some sort of tragedy, or resistance to something that’s hard to overcome.

“Something goes wrong,” she said. “That must be treated.” After the treatment, there is a testimony, or “an eyewitness account of what it means to be transformed to service,” she said.

Armstrong sees this exact pattern playing itself out in Scripture. The apostle Paul uses the testimony of transformation that happens to servants of God who are committed in every way. By using weapons of righteousness, Armstrong said, they can rejoice in all their hardships. While poor, they are making others rich. Having nothing, they possess everything.

Unlike many preachers who wear a cross around their neck, Armstrong has a butterfly, which represents what the cross is to her.

“I’m no longer crawling in the space where people said I wouldn’t amount to anything,” she said.  “God held me tightly in a cocoon and then gave me wings to fly.”

Then Armstrong inspired others to allow God to do the same for them, and then to show their beauty.

“Go back to the word of God to discover how you can empower the tragedies of life,” she declared. “In the going from dust you came and dust you shall return, be the beautiful, unique butterfly God created you to be.”

Continually seeing the face of God

 Earlier on Wednesday as part of the week-long Bible study of Matthew 18 being led by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, participants learned while studying the Parable of the Lost Sheep about the inherent value of every person in God’s economy.

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer began Wednesday’s Bible study on Matthew 18 by showing multiple images of shepherds caring for their sheep. (Screenshot)

Aymer said it’s important to see how the parable begins, with a warning that we are not to despise the little ones. Then Jesus tells them that “in heaven their [the little ones’] angels continually see the face of my father in heaven.”

Matthew was written 15 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection to a Greek-speaking Jewish community that had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.  During this time, only one in two children survived to their fifth birthday. If the father didn’t want to take care of the children, for any reason, they could end up in slave labor.

According to Aymer, it was also not uncommon for children to be born severely disabled in those days.

“Disability was quite common in their world,” Aymer said. “People viewed the disabled as God showing them disfavor.”

So Aymer asked, “How do these children, disabled or no, hear this message that the shepherd rejoices more over finding one who was lost than the other 99 — who could’ve wandered off or been attacked?”

“Like we really matter,” Aymer repeated from an answer that came from an online participant.

Then she wondered how the refugees in Matthew’s community — by now the temple had been destroyed and no one was living in Jerusalem — might be hearing this passage.

“Wow, even us,” said a person in the room.

“It begins with not despising,” Aymer said. “Your value is not what you do, it’s who you are. We are all vulnerable [like the little ones]. But God has not let you go, even if you’re in exile.”

“What came to me today,” said a person in the room, “is the equality of people in the kingdom of heaven.”


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