Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones!
Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones naturally lends itself to a lot of creative interpretation. It’s got great potential as music and visual art, for sure. As a straight up story it seems to have three distinct movements- almost like three separate acts in a play.
In the first movement, the prophet is brought by God into the valley where he’s given this vision of destruction. Of death and hopelessness. And then God promises Ezekiel that if he prophesies to these bones they will live again, that the very breath of God would enter them and give them life and flesh.
You can only imagine what was going through Ezekiel’s mind as he stood there looking out over this wasteland, preparing to prophesy to what looked like a lost cause and a waste of time. Maybe we can relate to this. Maybe we look out over our own lives, or the lives of those we love and we see nothing but loss and desperation, with no real conviction that it will ever be different, that it will ever get better.
Old Testament scholar and author Walter Brueggemann writes that “hope proclaims that the way things appear is precarious, so we dare not absolutize the present. We don’t take it too seriously.”
Or as a wise colleague once said: “despair is presumptuous. It presumes that God is done. But God is not done.”
There’s a great book by Garth Stein called “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” I love it in part because it’s narrated by the dog, but it has a lot of other good qualities, too. One of the critical points in the story comes when the main character, Denny, has a choice. He can sign some legal papers and give up fighting for custody of his daughter but to save his reputation and financial solvency, or to persist and face bankruptcy and losing everything. It’s been a long, hard fight to this point, and it seems that there is no hope. He’s about to sign the papers when the dog grabs them and destroys them in a way that really only a dog can do- I’ll let you use your imagination here. Denny takes this as a sign and perseveres, and in the end help comes from an unexpected source. The man who intervened did so because he was so inspired by Denny’s decision to keep fighting, and not only did he give him the means to win the legal battle, but to pursue his other life dream of auto racing. It seemed as if God was done, but Denny risked losing everything, and his act of faith opened the way for him to experience grace.
The second movement begins with a noise, a rattling. And what a great noise it must have been as bone was joined to bone, and as breath came from the four winds to enter into what had been lifeless bodies.
It’s worth noting that renewal and restoration- resurrection if you will, comes not from what the bones or the bodies have done, but by God’s action. Sometimes in the midst of all of our doing- which is good and necessary and important- sometimes, oftentimes, it’s in the act of surrender that allows God to do something truly extraordinary in us. Surrendering might feel like giving up, but this act of faith opens the door for grace to come in.
It’s also worth paying attention to the noise and the rattling. You can almost hear it. Go home and read this passage again to yourself- really spend some time with it- and I’m willing to bet you could almost feel the rattling.
There’s a scene in the second Harry Potter movie where the main character finds himself without any bones in one of his arms. Because this is the magical world there’s a potion to regrow the bones, but it’s going to hurt. Actually, it’s going to hurt a lot. As the nurse gives him the potion she warns Harry that he’s in for a long night because “regrowing bones is a nasty business.”
Anyone who’s every submitted themselves to the process of recovery- whether through counseling, a 12 Step program or even through physical therapy- knows there may be pain involved before there can be life again in what was once life-less. The hard part is enduring through the pain, and trusting God that there will be life again on the other side. Friends, never forget- Good Friday is always followed by Easter- it is true in our own lives, too. And remember- Lent is only 40 days but the celebration of Easter lasts for 50. Concrete numbers aside, joy overpowers sorrow, if we can endure to the end.
In the third and final movement we find that the dry bones are actually the nation of Israel. They cry out: “hope is lost! We are cut off completely.” But God promises that they will have God’s spirit within them, that they will live again in their own land.
In this famous passage there’s a temptation to completely spiritualize and personalize the vision of dry bones and of restoration. After all, most of us only had to hit middle school or junior high to relate to feeling like a sack of dry bones- and hopefully to also relate to that feeling of renewed hope and resurrected life. But this vision is ultimately about the restoration of a nation. Its implications include AND reach far beyond the realm of the personal and the spiritual.
And I don’t know about you but this sounds like good news in an era when there is rampant political strife in the Middle East and in Africa, natural disasters and radioactive mess spilling into the ocean, not to mention the political and economic climate in our own country. We may not know precisely how God will renew the earth and the nations, but we can have hope, and take some action all the same.
In one of his books Brian McLaren describes certain ancient practices that are common to all three Abrahamic faiths and he speculates that the health of the world is linked to the authentic practice of our faiths. To say it a different way, the fate of the world may be tied to our collective faith and practice. To our contemporary ears, this might sound presumptuous or maybe religious to the point of being crazy. To be clear, he is not saying that it’s the fault of the non-religious if the world falls apart. What he does mean is what Ezekiel and his fellow prophets say over and over again: the way we live matters desperately not only to our individual souls- but to the whole world. And if we follow the ways of God, the way of justice, God will breath life into us and will make things new through us.
When Ezekiel first looks out onto the valley of bones, he experiences a great contrast: the destruction that IS on the one hand, and God’s promise of Resurrected life on the other hand. The journey from Lent towards Easter is a lot like this. In Lent we’re invited to enter into the desert, the valley of bones, where we experience a place of scarcity, of danger and fear, even of death. But as we journey through it we can begin to discover that what it’s really all about is abundance and Life. Life- not in the absence of death, but in the presence of Resurrection.
Our journey through Lent is coming to a close. Do you hear a rattling? Do you feel a rattling? It is time to rise up. It is time to prophesy- to proclaim to tired souls and to the world that God is not done. It is time to claim the Hope that says the present reality is not all that there is. If we allow God to breathe life into us, dry bones will have new life again.