March 29, 2020

New Life for Dry Bones

Passage: Psalm 130; Ezekiel 37: 1-4

Synopsis: We’re all adjusting to social distancing and trying to stay safe in this coronavirus pandemic. We’re all feeling grief and the loss of connection. The language of Psalm 130 about “waiting on the Lord as those who watch for the morning,” is so fitting as we prepare for the onslaught of the pandemic in many places. David Kessler, the world’s foremost authority on the stages of grief, explains that our power lies in coming to “acceptance” but that we also want “meaning” in these darkest hours. God’s message to Ezekiel in the vision off the valley of dry bones, is that these bones can live and that we can be agents of transformation.

This is the fourth week of social distancing during our church services. We began with elbow bumps, doing namaste, and foot taps instead of our usual handshakes and hugs as we passed the peace of Christ. The next Sunday we learned how to use sign language in passing the peace, kept even more social distance between ourselves, and omitted finger-food snacks during our fellowship time.

Last week, following health department guidelines, we canceled our physical meeting and had our first virtual worship service. I was a bit anxious, but it went quite well, with only a few minor glitches. We received lots of positive feedback from participants. Now here we are in our second virtual worship service. I’m beginning to feel more comfortable in this new normal.

How are we doing? I’m sure we’re starting to go a little stir crazy in the midst of canceled school, disrupted work, and social distancing. My family has been group text messaging as we attempt to connect and stay sane. Our daughter Krista has had to self-quarantine in her apartment in Bangkok for two weeks following an international trip. Most of us are now working from home.

Melissa Florer Bixler, the pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church, admits that she has never been good at contemplative spiritual practices in isolation from other people. Her spiritual practices are, instead, material and communal. She says, “I love people. My spiritual practice is to hold space for the celebration and sorrow of people’s lives.” Now, she reflects:

Coronavirus snuck into our lives during the liturgical season of Lent, when Christians around the world spend 40 days in waiting, preparation, and expectation for Easter. . . This year my Lent may last longer. I anticipate that the absence of my spiritual practice of loving people in their bodies, just as they are, will continue to widen a space that cannot be filled with virtual access. Giving attention to the curve and shape of that empty place, being drawn back to longing for the lives that will fulfill it—this will be enough.[1]

Like Melissa, I’m really starting to miss our weekly worship service, seeing your familiar faces, connecting, singing together, engaging you in response to my sermons, praying and laughing together, and supporting each other in various ways. I’m grateful that we’re able to connect virtually even though it’s not the same as bodily being in the same place.

My prayer is that we will all stay well. I especially think of our healthcare professionals who are on the frontline of this pandemic. Dr. Emmanuel is not part of our music team this Sunday because he’s on duty at the hospital. And I pray for all the vulnerable people in hotspots in our country like New York City.

My greatest concern is for people in overcrowded slums in cities like Kolkata where Ruth and I once lived when we worked with the Mennonite Central Committee. India has now been placed on a one-month complete lockdown; people are supposed to stay in their houses. But I wonder how that can work because more than 150,000 people live precariously on the streets of Kolkata. At night, I would see them lying side by side on the street in front of our apartment. Millions more are crowded into squalid apartments with limited light and air circulation. A Covid-19 outbreak would completely overwhelm their fragile healthcare system. The psalmist’s prayer speaks so powerfully to this kind of situation. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, hear my voice!”

This language speaks of drowning in distress, being overwhelmed and sucked down by the bottomless waters of troubles. Kolkata has been through this before. Mennonite Central Committee began working there in response to the Bengal Famine where more than a third of the population, about 10 million people, starved to death during the disruption and chaos caused by WWII.

What especially speaks to me in this Psalm are the words: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” It draws on the imagery of a watchman keeping watch over a city during the threat of an impending attack by an approaching army. This is the situation all over the world right now as we prepare for the onslaught of the coronavirus, especially in places like Kolkata. The psalm provides a stance for those in the depths who place their trust in God. Notice the paired words “wait / hope.”

It speaks of a time of trouble with the recognition that we will need to endure this present calamity with an active trust that we will see this through with God’s help. We endure the present with hope in a different future. We trust that we can learn valuable lessons that will help us create that better future. We trust in God’s steadfast love to strengthen and guide us. [2]

And this brings us to that valley of dry bones that God showed to the prophet Ezekiel. These bones were most likely from an actual battlefield where Judean soldiers fell in great numbers as they desperately tried to stop an overwhelmingly larger Babylonian army. Who among us has not at some time or other stood by the grave of our hopes; a situation in which any possibility of recovery seemed to be ruled out in advance?

I imagine how Ezekiel must have felt, looking at that valley of dry bones as he remembered how life had been before that recent horrible calamity. His sense of loss and grief had to be overwhelming. We’re also experiencing grief as the coronavirus completely disrupts our world as we know it. David Kessler, the world’s foremost authority on grief explains:

We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We’re not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.[3]

The question that God asked Ezekiel is also my question, “Can these bones live?” How do we begin to answer that? I empathize with Ezekiel’s tentative response, “O Lord God, you know.” Speaking to the bones, God’s answer is unequivocal, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” It’s a message of hope for those who lost all grounds for hope.

The Hebrew word for “breath” is the same word that’s used for “wind” and “spirit.” It’s the same “Spirit-Wind-Breath” of God that hovered over the earth in the Genesis story of creation. As people created in God’s image, we have a portion of this spirit-wind-breath in ourselves.  All this speaks to how we work through our grief to acceptance of our changed world.

As David Kessler explains: “Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.[4] And I might add, we can learn how to do virtual worship services and figure out how to connect with each other in new ways.  But what comes after acceptance? David Kessler adds:

I [do] not want to stop at acceptance when I [experience] some personal grief. I [want] meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times. Even now people are realizing they can connect through technology. They are not as remote as they thought. They are realizing they can use their phones for long conversations. They’re appreciating walks. I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.[5]

All this gives me a new understanding of Ezekiel in that valley of dry bones. There the Lord spoke to him, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (37: 9). Ezekiel was not a mere spectator, he was the agent through whom this transformation took place. Because people like Ezekiel clung to their faith and continued their work, renewal was possible. As a people, they did rise from the grave of conquest and exile.

I love the imagery of bones and sinews being reconnected. As in that old folk song I learned as a child, “The toe bone is connected to the foot bone” and on it goes until “the neck bone is connected to the head bone.” And then comes the chorus:

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around.
Now hear the word of the Lord.

We likewise are going through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and then acceptance. And we will find meaning in this as we learn new things about ourselves and our community. And, like Ezekiel, we will be agents of renewal. Oh yes, “Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around. Now hear the word of the Lord!”



[2][2] James May, Psalms: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 407.

[3] As quoted by Scott Berinato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” The Harvard Business Review (March 23, 2030).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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