Both Death and New Life are Real
The Grittiness of Creative Transformation
Preparing for Holy Week
My friend Nancy was a judge before leaving the bench to spend more time as a hospice volunteer. She later went on to seminary and is now a deacon in the Diocese of Texas. But there’s one family she met during her time with hospice that she’s never forgotten. And after hearing their story through her, I’ve never forgotten them either. It was a couple whose son, Devon, was born with a devastating, terminal illness. The parents were young, and as Nancy watched Devon become sicker and sicker, she thought about how much this whole event must have changed those young people’s lives--she thought of all the things they must have had to give up. One day, Devon’s mother began to talk about how he had changed their lives, and Nancy asked her what gifts Devon had brought with him. His mother replied: “Oh, when God gave us Devon, God gave us back our lives.” Before Devon came along, their life had consisted of going out every night, living only for the moment, with no apparent purpose, everything focused inward. But this child changed everything. In the mother’s words, they got their lives back. The truth is that in that bed where Devon lay losing weight and growing weaker by the second, his mother could still see life, springing up in the very middle of what was, by all outward appearances, a valley of dry bones.
Today’s Old Testament reading is from the book of Ezekiel; it’s a story we’ll hear again at the Easter Vigil. Ezekiel was both priest and prophet, and he lived in Judah during the time of the deportations to Babylon. He was himself actually taken into exile in 597 BCE, a few years before Jerusalem fell and the temple was destroyed. Early in his career as prophet, he proclaimed the coming destruction of Jerusalem. But after the fall of Jerusalem, his message shifted and became one of hope--of the eventual restoration and rebuilding of Israel. Today’s passage comes from this second half of the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel is transported in a vision to a valley full of bones--not just any bones, but desiccated, cracking, and ancient bones. God asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel wisely deflects the question, saying, “O Lord God, you know.” God has Ezekiel prophesy to the bones, and the rattling begins--bones coming together, followed by tendons and flesh and skin. Then God has Ezekiel prophesy to the breath, and the four winds come together and enter the bodies, and the vast multitude of bodies come alive and stand on their feet--the whole house of Israel is restored.
This vision is an answer to those who have been crying out in despair from their places both in exile and in the midst of the remains of Jerusalem, saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” With this vision, God replies, “Have hope. Just look what I can do with dried up bones.” Where the people see dry bones, God sees the potential for new life. Is that just the way God sees things? Even in the midst of death and despair, is new life always a thought and plan in the mind of God? And, if so, can we learn to see like God? Just like we’ve come to understand with the discoveries of science that empty space isn’t really empty after all, but is brimming with activity, can we also learn to find the promise of new life even in the midst of pain and death, to see a beginning in an ending?
Now I want to acknowledge that there’s a danger here--namely that we’ll take this new way of seeing too far. It’s a danger because to look past Israel’s destruction as if it weren’t really there would be to reduce the miracle of our faith to nothing. To skip over the death of Israel--to spend no time lingering in its sting--and, instead, to move straight to restoration would be to miss the point entirely. Because the gospel is that in the very midst of loss, pain, suffering, despair, and even death, God comes and speaks a word of life and love more powerful than anything else. That’s why we can’t pretend death isn’t real and still leave the gospel intact. And, frankly, I don’t believe God skips over suffering and death either. God sees the dry bones--cracking and scattered--just as God hears the laments of Israel. Both death and new life are real.
But even though the promise of restoration and resurrection doesn’t do away with pain, loss, despair, and death, it does change the way with live through it. It opens our eyes not just to life that lies on the other side of despair and death, but also to the flashes of resurrection that happen in the very midst of that despair and death. And it readies our heart to receive new life when and where we find it, all along the way.
In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen writes about a cancer patient who brought a story to his appointment:
My patient, a physician who has cancer, comes to his session enormously pleased with himself. Knowing my love of stories, he has found a perfect story and tells me the following parable:
Shiva and Shakti, the Divine Couple in Hinduism, are in their heavenly abode watching over the earth. They are touched by the challenges of human life, the complexity of human reactions, and the ever-present place of suffering in the human experience.
As they watch, Shakti spies a miserably poor man walking down a road. His clothes are shabby and his sandals are tied together with rope. Her heart is rung with compassion. Touched by his goodness and his struggle, Shakti turns to her divine husband and begs him to give this man some gold.
Shiva looks at the man for a long moment. “My Dearest Wife,’” he says, “I cannot do that.”
Shakti is astounded. “Why, what do you mean, Husband? You are the Lord of the Universe. Why can’t you do this simple thing?”
“I cannot give this to him because he is not yet ready to receive it,” Shiva replies. Shakti becomes angry. “Do you mean to say that you cannot drop a bag of gold in his path?”
“Surely I can,” Shiva replies, “but that is quite another thing.”
“Please, Husband,” says Shakti.
And so Shiva drops a bag of gold in the man’s path.
The man meanwhile walks along thinking to himself, “I wonder if I will ever find dinner tonight – or shall I go hungry again?” Turning a bend in the road, he sees something on the path in his way. “Aha,” he says. “Look there, a large rock. How fortunate that I have seen it. I might have torn these poor sandals of mine even further.” And carefully stepping over the bag of gold, he goes on his way.
Dr. Remen goes on to reflect on the story…
It seems that Life drops many bags of gold in our path. Rarely do they look like what they are. I ask my patient if Life has ever dropped him a bag of gold that he has recognized and used to enrich his life. He smiles at me. “Cancer,” he says simply. “I thought you’d guess.”
Now, I don’t want to imply that cancer itself is “a bag of gold.” Those of us who have had cancer or have had loved ones with cancer know that it’s not, although even cancer can, in God’s hands, be redeemed in some ways. I tell this story simply because it makes me wonder: Maybe seeing as God sees, with dry bones and new life inextricably bound one to the other, opens our eyes to see grace in places and in ways we would never expect to find it, maybe even in an obstacle itself.
Next Sunday we will begin our journey through Holy Week. It will bring with it a certain tension--reliving sadness, loss, pain, and death, and yet knowing also that Easter will come as surely as the sun rises each morning. We’ll walk through the valley of dry bones all the way to the cross, but with the sure knowledge that God can do incredibly wonderful things with dried up bones. And with that knowledge tucked deep inside, may we, “walking in the way of the cross, find it to be none other than the way of life and peace.”
 Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996). I owe this story to Sr. Louise Sharum.
 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 1979), 220.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; 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.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 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.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “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.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, 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,” says the Lord.
The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved
The images by Roz Dimon, Sherry Byrd, and Chillon Leach are found at Episcopal Art Cafe: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/. This cafe is a continual source of inspiration for those among us who seek God with our eyes. And the homilies by Teri Daily, a pediatrician and Episcopalian priest, are likewise inspiration for those who seek to understand the God we find with our eyes.
Also by Teri Daily
Mothers of God GO
What I Learn from Process Theology GO
Embracing Tensions: Relational Power and the Cruciform Life GO
So You Want to be a Doctor: Appreciating a Medical School in India GO
Beyond Theatricality and Open to Novelty GO
The Space to See Things Differently GO
The Space within the Trinity: All Beings Included GO
Bearing Witness to Broken Bodies GO
A New System for Healthcare in America GO
Angels Everywhere: Revelation's Image of the New Jerusalem GO
Love's Oblivion: Mary Anoints Jesus' Feet GO
Holding a Broken Heart GO
May I Try That One Again? The Grace of a Million Second Chances GO
Love Made Gritty GO
Fear of Missing Out: Thinking about the God-Shaped Hole GO
These Kids are Gorgeous GO
Beyond Catfights: A Feminist Critique of the Mary/Martha Story GO
All the Saints: They See The World Just as It Is GO
The Unquenchable Fire GO
The Gentlest of Judges: God's Critique of Perfectionism and Purity GO
The Grace of Being Known: The Woman at the Well GO
Anchoring the Quest for Justice: Learning from Leviticus GO
Grace that Both Disturbs and Delights: Dinner with a Rabbi GO