The hand of the Lord came upon me and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. There were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know” (Ezekiel 37: 1-3).
Worn out. Parched. Picked clean. The valley of dry bones reminds me of the land around my hometown, Midland , TX —its vast plains spotted here and there with withered livestock, ambling tumbleweeds and old oil pump jacks, abandoned and forlorn. I must also say that it reminds me, at least of late, of a tract in my own spiritual landscape.
“ …‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’”
Indeed, I’ve been wrestling with something these last few weeks that has almost gotten the best of me—and that has given my reading of today’s Old and New Testament lessons, with their haunting visions of risen dead, a truly personal resonance. What am I talking about? The way I have let myself become anxious and angry with my older brother since the death of our mother in December. How to describe a complex history quickly and simply? Let me start by saying that—thanks in part to a sober
reading of Ezekiel and John over the course of this week—I have had a rude awakening. The voice of self-recognition has spoken, saying, Dana, you can’t control him—and you don’t like it, do you?
I better explain a little bit more.
In August of 1998, my brother was in a terrible motorcycle crash. Paramedics had to resuscitate him twice where he lay in the gravel beside a hairpin turn outside Indianapolis . He’d ruptured several internal organs. He’d broken his neck. He’d shattered his spine. He endured one hospital after another for nine months. The doctors told us he would probably be tethered to a respirator and dialysis machine for the rest of his life, and that he would certainly remain paralyzed from the waist down. This experience taught me that any hope for recovery was not to be gleaned from the mouth of a doctor.
As his primary caregiver and advocate, I initiated what amounted to a nation-wide prayer campaign. My goal was to prove to Jeff how much he was loved so he wouldn’t give up. Jeff made his living building Indy 500 racecars—his entire sense of worth and existence hinged on his physical body. I knew that prayer and nothing short of a miracle was all we had to go on. For a month and a half after the accident Jeff did nothing but lie completely still in his bed.
He could move the muscles of his face and arms, but only a little. The rest of his body was dead weight.
And then I got the call. Jeff’s neurosurgeon yelled into the phone that he had witnessed a miracle. “Jeff has moved his feet!” he shouted. “Not once, but several times. He’s moving his feet!” I could hear his nurses celebrating in the background. Eventually they all got on the phone to give me the play-by-play.
A priest who happened to be present said to me through her tears, “We have witnessed a miracle.”
And you know, that wasn’t the only miracle. Against all expectations, Jeff’s one remaining kidney kick-started itself after two months, and he eventually weaned himself off the respirator. This after his doctors had said it would never happen.
“Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live”(37: 5).
Fast-forward to the present day. My brother, confined to a wheelchair, lives independently. He can drive a car. His mobility has its limitations, but he is perfectly capable of doing exactly what he wants to do. My younger brother and I are realizing now how much my mother cared for him before her death. He became her financial and emotional responsibility. She did everything from paying his bills to dropping off meals on her way to work. I never really understood the depth of his dependence upon her until it fell on my younger brother and me.
Perhaps you think I am angry by way of being saddled with my brother’s care. My position, around which I’ve been stubbornly digging trenches, is that I would love to take care of him if I felt he was doing his part. He said/she-said—the same story in every family, right? My brother has been digging trenches of his own. We bicker over how he manages his money. We bicker over the ins and outs of his medical care: I say there’s more he can be doing to rehabilitate himself; he says I don’t understand his pain. No doubt each of us is half right and each of us is half wrong. Many times before she died, my mother told me that Jeff just wasn’t going to live his life to suit me, and I should learn to deal with it. Wise woman. “Oh, but mother,” I would say, “why would he want to live exiled from a full life? He’s not Christopher Reeve. Why can’t he make lemonade from the lemon life handed him?” In my “expert” and “professional” manner, I have told him to work his body out, to get a part-time job, to go back to school, to have a life outside his apartment. To return from this exile of television and disability.
But a wise person said to me recently, “He has a life. Who are you to judge him for not leading the life you think he should lead? As far as he’s concerned he is living his life.” Touché. These are obviously my issues.
In my hopeful mind, in the spirit of second chances, in appreciation for God’s miracles, in gratitude for resuscitating his body, I thought Jeff should be doing wheelies in his chair in praise and thanksgiving for being brought back from the dead. And after reading John’s Gospel, I could not help but think about Lazarus and his sisters. Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” With the sound of his voice, Jesus brought a man back from the dead. A miracle! Scripture doesn’t give us an account of Martha and Mary’s reaction to seeing their brother walk out of tomb. We can only imagine the Halleluiahs!
Lazarus, like my brother, walked out of his tomb with the rest of his life to live. I wonder: Do you think Martha and Mary had expectations as to how he should live his renewed life? Would they expect him to be a better person? Would they expect him to make the most of his second chance at life? What if he didn’t? Would he be worthy of all the fuss? Let us say Lazarus simply lived his life as if nothing had happened. Couldn’t earn a living wage. Developed a drinking problem. Didn’t return to the temple to show his gratitude. Maybe it’s just me, but I imagine his sisters feeling disappointed, frustrated—and nagging a whole lot.
It also occurred to me that Jesus did not outline any conditions for his resuscitation of Lazarus. His love for Lazarus was unconditional. The miracle of God acting through Jesus was just that—a miracle, given freely for its own sake. It is true that Jesus loved Lazarus. But he did not call him back from the dead for Lazarus’s sake. Nor for his own glory. This gift of life revealed the glory of God to Martha, Mary and all who witnessed it. The miracle was for them.
With that said, it occurred to me that I have had it all wrong for three and a half years. God raised my brother Jeff from the dead for his benefit, certainly. But also for mine—and perhaps for yours. I was the one who needed to witness God’s miracle—I was the one for whom God acted. Jesus did not resuscitate Jeff to make him the poster child of second chances. Just as he did not resuscitate Lazarus with the expectation that he would live this way or that. As far as I know, Jesus and my brother did not get together to hash out any quid pro quo. This revelation, which came to me while reading today’s passages, hit me like a Mack truck. I am humbled by it.
Jesus testifies to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11: 25-26). These words need not be offered to us only at Easter or funerals. Their power offers us a vision into everyday life, because these moments too, whether we like it or not, are also lived in the face of death. The only condition set by Jesus is that we must believe, and we must die to our old self. We must claim this truth for our own lives: The resurrection life means that we will remain in the full presence of God during life and in death.
The core message of the Paschal Mystery we are about to enter into in the next two weeks is that there is no darkness—no tragedy or misfortune or death—that cannot be called out of the tomb as Lazarus was called. Lazarus in the tomb represents you. Lazarus in the tomb represents me. What have I learned from this? Part of me has to die. I have to be dead—dead to my anxiety, dead to my anger, dead to my fear, dead to my lack of control, dead to my presumption, dead to my self righteousness, dead to my nagging. Lazarus inching his way into the light embodies the power of the truth of Jesus to make all things new—even things that have been dead for years.
“Unbind him, and let him go.”