The Valley of Dry Bones

Reflection on Ezekiel 37:1-14

In South Sudan rebels and the government are blocking aid so people are fleeing their villages to camps where water is still scarce and cholera is rampant. With experts predicting droughts this year in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria, we will soon be seeing more and more starving people, 20 million who are nothing but skin and bones. All these places have been profoundly impacted by armed conflict. War and hunger go hand in hand.
Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones has always been popular with both Jews and Christians. Now more than ever, we can see why. Ezekiel must have been as disturbed as we are when faced with so much death.

The fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC was catastrophic for the Israelites. God had resided in the temple in Jerusalem. Now that the temple was no more, where was God?
Imagine being an exile in a foreign land. All your hope is placed in returning to the land you loved, worshipping where your ancestors worshipped. And suddenly, your home is no more. The city and temple have been utterly destroyed. Hope is lost and replaced by grief. Soon despair begins to set in. You are trapped. You can never go home.
Imagine being a refugee from Damascus. Daily you hear reports of death and destruction reducing your beautiful city to rubble. Or imagine being a refugee from South Sudan whose village has become a dust bowl. What now are you to do?

After the destruction of Jerusalem, Ezekiel prophesied, “Thus says the Lord God: As I live, . . . I will make the land a desolation and a waste, and its proud might shall come to an end; and the mountains of Israel shall be so desolate that no one will pass through. Then they shall know that I am the Lord, when I have made the land a desolation and a waste because of all their abominations that they have committed” (Ez 33:27-29).
Then they shall know that I am the Lord. This phrase is frequently repeated in Ezekiel’s prophecies. God wants for the people to know God. The leaders have corrupted the land and there are consequences, but ultimately the purpose of God’s actions are that “they shall know that I am the Lord.” More than anything, God desires relationship with God’s people. God wants them to remember the covenant they made. God promises, “you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
We cannot understand the valley of the dry bones without understanding the situation of the Hebrew people when Ezekiel was given this prophesy.

Then the spirit of God came upon Ezekiel and set him down, “in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. . . . And they were very dry.”
Image a flat dusty expanse. Imagine walking around thousands of bones. Scattered, fleshless, bleached.
Then God asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel simply replies, “O Lord God, you know.”
God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, to speak God’s promise of new life to them.
“Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
With a rattling noise the bones came together and were covered with flesh.

Ezekiel then speaks God’s word to the breath. “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” This multitude is the people of Israel who were cut off completely and whose hope was lost.
God says to them, “O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

Spirit, wind, breath.
They all translate the same Hebrew word, ruach. God’s ruach is the source of life. It is our source of hope, our source of joy. God’s breath is as close to us as our own breath.
For this reason the most basic form of meditation is to simply sit quietly and observe your breath. If you do this 10 minutes a day it will change your life, bringing peace by connecting you to the divine breath.
We are facing an ever-growing world crisis of refugees caused by famine and war. Perhaps God is setting us down in our own valley of dry bones.
Will we be able to speak and act God’s word to them?
“O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

The Water of Life

The picture above was taken in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina where there is abundant water and abundant life.

Recently I spent some time home in Colorado. The winter has been very warm and dry and the landscape looks tired, lifeless. Without water desert plants will stay dormant. Plants that are not adapted to the climate will die unless someone gives them water. Anyone from a dry climate knows well the intimate relationship between water and life.

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Prickly Pear

Last Sunday we read the story of Jesus’ conversation with a woman from Samaria in the Gospel of John. This is the longest recorded conversation of Jesus in any of the Gospels. And it’s with a woman! John portrays her as an ideal disciple. Our first clue is that it is “about noon.” In this gospel, time and light are symbolic. So Nicodemus, in chapter three, comes at night and remains perplexed by Jesus. The unnamed woman gradually comes to understand who Jesus is and then proclaims that truth to her village. Hence, she is an ideal disciple.

Jesus has no bucket to reach into the well, but offers the woman water. Not just any water, but living water. He knows everything about her, all the difficulties she has faced, all her sins, and all her sorrows. Because of these, he offers her salvation.

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Water is life and water is power.

Water sculpted this slot canyon and allowed trees to grow in the desert.

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Little Wild Horse Canyon, Utah
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Cottonwoods along the Escalante River, Utah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus offered the woman from Samaria not just water, but a spring of water, ever flowing, always giving life and power. All she had to do was ask and then accept the gift that was offered.

Jesus offers each of us life. We only have to ask and accept the gift that is freely and lovingly offered. We all have dry periods in our spiritual lives. We need to remember the woman from Samaria and with her say, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty.”

On Being Lost

I hike a lot, and have a fairly good sense of direction, so I rarely get lost. The times I have been lost were memorable. All my skills failed me and suddenly I felt a strong sense of danger. This picture was taken from the parking lot where I set out on a hike along a creek in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. From here, I hiked down to the creek, which I followed. There were no real trails. The scenery was beautiful, the weather was perfect, and I had a great day.

Setting out, I failed to take note of the fact that the parking area sat right at a fork where the creek split. I went in on the fork to the right and came out on the fork to the left. While I should have been retracing my steps, I began to realize that I did not recognize where I was. I began to have doubts, but kept walking. Then I realized that the water was flowing the wrong direction. Now I knew I was not where I was supposed to be. But how did I go wrong? And how do I get back? My anxiety level began to rise precipitously.

Reflecting on this experience I find it corresponds to our life with God, or, more properly, our life away from God. We can have a great time for a while. Life can be beautiful. But at some point we recognize that something is not quite right. We have taken a wrong turn. Sometimes a certain event clearly marks the point we went astray, but more often the misdirection has been slow and subtle. We start to worry and wonder how to get back. Usually we become increasingly anxious and even fearful. Our country seems infected with this fear. We are in danger.

At some point I stopped and was studying my map. Suddenly I heard–the voices of children playing. I have never been so happy to hear another human voice. I hiked up the bank from where I was on the creek bottom. The kids were there with their dad, relaxing and enjoying the day. Right on the side of the the road. We chatted a bit and he told me which direction to go to get back to my car, which was not far.

I had never been far from the road, but I could not see that from where I was at the creek. So it is when we wander from God. We are probably not as far away as we think we are. But often, in our blindness, we need someone to help us find the way back.

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 218)

On Being Dust

Yesterday millions of people all over the world engaged in the ritual of having a cross marked on their forehead with ashes to mark the beginning of Lent. I like to think of Lent as a way to jump-start my relationship with God. In the pressure of everyday life I often find myself neglecting spending time with God.

O God, we have meant to love and serve you in everything we do, but we have given you only the leftover hour, the spare energy, and the momentary prayer. Have mercy on us.

We start Lent with an invitation “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” Self-examination begins by recognizing that we are but dust.

As a father cares for his children,
so does the Lord care for those who fear him.
For he himself knows whereof we were made;
he remembers that we are but dust. Ps 103:13-14

We are star dust. In the beginning, God gazed into nothingness and BANG! the universe exploded into being. Eventually stars formed. This beautiful picture from the Hubble telescope shows a cluster of young blue stars of the Tarantula Nebula.

In Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, John Polkinghorne writes, “Every atom of carbon in every living being was once inside a star, since the interior nuclear furnaces of the stars are the only places in the universe where this element can be made.”

That element of carbon could have been in a trilobite or a fern or a velociraptor or an oak tree, before being part of us. As plants and animals die, their carbon returns to the soil. New plants take up the carbon out of the soil and animals eating the plants transform the carbon into their own bodies. Carbon is essential to the cycle of life. Everything that lives is connected to every other living thing in an intricate web of being. We are part of that web of being.

We cannot understand ourselves if we do not recognize our interconnectedness with all of creation. What impacts the world, impacts us. In polluting and exploiting the world, we are polluting and exploiting ourselves.

God loves what God has created. God loves us. But we are only a part of what God loves. And we are often a troublesome part and we need to recognize that and repent of it.

Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return. You are beloved dust. And so is every other living thing.

Anticipating Lent

As we approach Lent, we prepare ourselves for a more somber season of the church year. I have been thinking about how, over the course of the year, we observe in our liturgy the range of life experiences we all go through. Lent seems especially appropriate this year. These are dark times, wilderness times. Divisions are so deep in this country that our life together is fracturing. In a recent op-ed, David Brooks from the New York Times pointed out that economic activity has slowed precipitously since the beginning of this century. There have been fewer new patents, fewer new business start-ups, fewer people moving for new job opportunities. The United States “is decelerating, detaching, losing hope, getting sadder. Economic slowdown, social disaffection and risk aversion reinforce one another.”

Brooks goes on to ask, “But where is the social movement that is thinking about the fundamentals of this century’s bad start and envisions an alternate path? Who has a compelling plan to boost economic growth?”

This Lent provides a wonderful opportunity for Christians to prayerfully consider how we can offer the alternative path that Brooks is calling for.

Our recent readings for both Sunday mornings and the Daily Office have come from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us how to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We are not to be angry, or lustful, or judgmental, but we are to love our enemies. We are to be merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers. In all this, Jesus is telling us that our righteousness is dependent upon our relationships with others.

In chapter 6, Jesus also provides a few guidelines concerning money. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. You cannot serve God and wealth. Do not worry. These are personal guidelines we should follow, but how do we move the values of loving our neighbor, and even our enemy, into the economic structures which govern our lives? How can we bring hope to the world?

The church is called to be a reconciling presence in the world. Imagine what might happen if this Lent Christians:

  • devoted themselves to learning more about economic structures that divide people
  • applied their Christian imagination to their local economic problems
  • prayed to grow closer to God to see as God sees and to receive the power to act according to God’s vision

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Rev 22:1-2

Some interesting reading material from a variety of perspectives:

  • Kathryn Tanner, Economy of Grace
  • Daniel M. Bell, Jr., The Economy of Desire
  • Angus Sibley, Catholic Economics
  • Rosemary Radford Ruether, Christianity and Social Systems