I drove by the Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course the other day when the wind was up. It was odd to see dust blowing across the course. There was something forlorn about it. On the other hand, it seemed like the desert was reclaiming its own. On Ash Wednesday, millions of Christians received the sign on the cross on their foreheads in ashes with the admonition, “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is the spoken decree of God in Genesis 3:19 as Adam and Eve are tossed out of the garden. There is something powerful yet troubling about those words. I remember one year marking the cross on a beautiful baby and nearly choking on what seemed to be such a dark proclamation. She was not a year old, just how depraved could she be?

While there is an undeniable truth to our finitude, the words tend to ring with futility. As I watched the dust blow over the golf course, I realized that it isn’t dust at all, at least not in the same sense of what we wipe from the furniture and from under the bed. What was blowing was soil, the same stuff that held the green grass once occupied by golfers.

The Hebrew word in Genesis 3:19 means “soil.” It is the same word used in Genesis 2:7 to describe the creation of humans. Like the golf course, we are made from the earth, and one day the earth will reclaim us. What matters is what happens between our creation and our reclamation. In Genesis, what happens is a garden.

Here is Arizona, we call them dust storms, but they are really soil storms. Sometimes that soil blows where it will, and sometimes it produces wonderful food and beautiful flowers and trees that shade us from the hot desert sun. This sounds more like fertility than futility.

For several years now, our congregation has been working to turn some of our piece of the desert into a community garden. Right now we have two beds, we have plans for 18 more. And while the purpose is growing fresh food, something else has happened: people are experiencing community in a different way. Some of the gardeners worship with us, others don’t, but they are still part of our community. They provide regular learning experiences for our preschoolers, some of whom never knew that food grows from the soil, or that vegetables can taste so good. They are part of our community, too.

Years ago, I was walking with my daughter on the beach. She may have been three. We came upon the carcass of a sea lion. Dead was a new concept for her. I told her that all living things die, and that when the tide came in, it would take the sea lion back, and that all things return to the earth. She made me sit and watch until the tide rolled in and carried the sea lion out. She stood and said, “OK, we can go now.”

Remember you are soil, and to the soil you shall return. Your choices play a role in making what happens in between fertile or futile.

• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.

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