Sunday, April 6, 2014

Getting Through Your Valley of Dry Bones

Ezekiel's dramatic vision (37:1-14) of all those dry bones joining together and coming to life again strikingly resembles the vision of creation in Genesis 2: "Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." That same breath of God, always associated with God's ruah, God's breath, is what Ezekiel is told in a vision to call upon: "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live."

In this story God's creating spirit, who in the beginning had brought life into being by breathing into human flesh, is seen as recreating life out of death for the whole people of Israel, a people carried off captive into exile, and wondering if ever again they would become a strong, free, living people.
Ezekiel prophesies to them in their near despair, in their living death: "Thus says the Lord God: 'Behold I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel...And I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.'" Raising up dry bones, bringing life again where there is the emptiness of death, is the work of God's creating and recreating Spirit, a work which continues in our lives.

As humans, each of us who follow Jesus walk in our own personal valley of dry bones in two ways: 1) confronting and dealing with the reality of death; and 2) confronting and dealing with the reality of our limitedness and selfishness, also called sin. They're two unpleasant facts, however tempted we might be to gloss over them or avoid them, or pretend they're not so, or ignore them.
First, death. In John's Gospel (11:1-45) the family and friends of Lazarus, including Jesus, are faced with Lazarus' illness which leads to his death. Lazarus' sisters, Martha and Mary, and their friends ask, in effect, the question which we all ask at some time or other: "Why? Why did this happen? Why now? Why me, or my loved one?" Ultimately, there's really no satisfying human answer. Among the explanations offered is the one which holds that death isn't a punishment. It's simply a fact of life. All people who begin to live sooner or later stop living. Many people of faith recognize that God isn't the problem. It isn't God's choice that a person dies, especially if the situation is a particularly tragic and sudden one: a heart attack, cancer, a shooting, an automobile accident. Sometimes, other hold, there's simply no logical reason for death. Sometimes things happen at random, in those corners of the universe where the creative light of God's Spirit hasn't yet penetrated.

For those who try to understand with the eyes of faith, there are further explanations. In its directions for An Order of Burial, the Book of Common Prayer (p. 507) notes: "...It [death] finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised...This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend [Lazarus]. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn." Jesus, indeed, wept at the death of his friend, but he also affirmed that "...the one who believes in me, though he die, yet shall live."

The second unpleasant reality is our human finiteness and selfishness. Most of us, at least periodically, give in and accept this condition as "just the way I am", resigning ourselves to the reality of self-absorption and sinfulness. Look at the Israelites in exile: surely some among them had concluded that, for all the hardships they'd endured, for all the insult and indignity they'd suffered as a captive people, maybe this was the best that life could be for them, that to hope and strive for more was to dream an impossible dream, that it might be better to accept second-class citizenship under foreigners rather than to risk losing even that in pursuing something better.
We've all experienced the strong temptation to just "let things slide", to come to terms, perhaps too quickly, and to accept the failings of our human lot as a given. Not only that, but aren't we often strongly tempted to make believe that what we've settled for, that for which we've compromised, isn't really so bad an existence after all. At least, we get by.
Over and against all such glossing over who and where we actually are, Ezekiel throws down before us his vision of this valley of dry bones. He dares us to see ourselves within it. For all our attempts to convince ourselves otherwise, for all our covering up to the contrary, many of us, much of the time, are living in a valley of dry bones. When we gain the courage to face failure and fear, when we stand up and refuse to settle for the shallow, the sordid, the second-best in our lives, then we allow God's creating and recreating Spirit the freedom to raise up our dry bones, to breathe into them the refreshing, revitalizing power of God's presence. This, according to the Gospel, is exactly what setting our hearts on Jesus the Christ is based upon. This is what God did for the crucified Jesus, and what God ever does for you and me through the Risen Christ. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
How do you and I deal with all this during these two weeks before celebrating the great feast of the Resurrection? How do we come to that recognition and hopefulness when we're down and know we're down? Are we, at last, willing to admit it, and to reach out to each other, the community of faith, in whom the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ dwells, the Spirit who reaches out to raise us to new life. In the Eucharist you and I are most dependent on one another as partners in faith: on one another who often, quite unconsciously, through a word, a comment, a gesture, a look in the eyes, convey to each other in a marvelously real way the new life which God is ever holding out to us. We're not doomed forever to our valley of dry bones. Through God's Spirit, groaning within us according to St. Paul, what we bring to and renew in each other is Jesus' own promise: "I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me, even though he die, yet shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."

Rabbi Harold Kushner relates the beautiful story of a  Chinese  woman whose only son had died. She went to her holy man and said: "What prayers, what magical formulas do you have to bring my son back to life?" The holy man responded: "Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow, and we'll use it to drive the sorrow out of your life." The woman went out, and in every house she visited she found misfortune, suffering, or despair. She began to stay in each house in order to comfort those in grief. Eventually, she became so involved that she forgot about her original quest for the magical mustard seed, never realizing that, in fact, it had been driven out of her life. The lady felt herself awakening. She came to know the power of resurrection in her own life because she was willing to walk with others through their valley of dry bones.

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