Forming character through the insights of literature, contemporary culture and Scripture.
by Bev Patterson
IF YOU'VE SEEN the recent image of Italian military trucks that seem to go on for miles, carrying dead bodies to the outskirts or the semi truck parked behind the Brooklyn Hospital waiting to put dead bodies on ice, you know this season is Lent times 100. We are in a season of global uncertainty and death; unprecedented as they say. Today’s passage is equally stark and like the virus we can’t jump ahead and pretend it’s all good. That would only end in a false sense of hope. No one knows when or how it will end and so we wait.
Permission pending from Robson Batista (click on image for details)
Years ago, Paul and I started exploring our own burial arrangements. We contacted a funeral home, started a lay away plan, chose headstones, picked a casket for Paul and an urn for me. Eventually Paul joined me in the cremation plan but inevitably after our meetings with the funeral director, I’d hear Paul say, half joking half serious, “I don’t know about cremation. Can God resurrect a body that’s not there?” Never considering it a theological problem, I would usually do an eye roll at this point and quickly come back with, “Yeah, but what about people who die in house fires? Surely God won’t forget about them!" After all God can do anything, right?
God asks Ezekiel a similar question. “Do you think these dry bones can live again?” It’s obviously rhetorical but God’s question begs more than an eye roll. What does it mean for something in a state of decay to carry signs of life? This is not just a question for Ezekiel. We wonder the same thing.
Ezekiel, widowed and wandering, spent most of his prophetic career in the Babylonian diaspora. Being a priest in his former life, he knew that the most pressing issue for these refugees was worship. Religion, essentially a social phenomenon, was dependent on communal participation through shared ritual, but the temple had been destroyed. The sacrificial system had fallen apart. From their perspective Yahweh was nowhere to be found. Any possibility of worship in this time of destruction was called into question. Singing songs to God in a foreign land felt impossible. Once covenant partners, God’s children became vulnerable, susceptible to distraction and spiritual forgetfulness.
In an ironic twist of planetary fate, we too are experiencing a sense of dislocation, trying to figure out how to keep singing, scrumming, sharing our humanity and how to stay spiritually connected and awake during this pandemic. It is a season beyond comprehension. We are in the land of Zoom, disembodied and scattered, like those bones Ezekiel saw. I wonder, in these early days, what kind of sinew will hold us together.
Ancient Israel had been called out to be moral and spiritual leaders among the nations. God’s deepest hope was that by their actions the world would know his character and come to love his Holy Name. Instead, fueled by their arrogance and spiritual idolatry, the “chosen people” became known for spreading terror throughout the land.
They even had their own version of fake news. Skepticism, disillusionment and mistrust of the prophets was on the rise. They had lost all confidence in the power and justice of God. The swing between ‘divine absence and return’ left them spiritually unhinged. They too were being hit by a plague. The virus of spiritual amnesia was making them sick to the point of death.
It is in this context that we find God in a fury. His holy name has been trashed. Just before the vision Ezekiel’s God goes on a rant in Ezekiel 36:22: “The return from exile is not on account of Israel’s merits; it is not even for the sake of Israel but rather to vindicate my holy name.” To this we say “Bad God image”! Visions of a petty tyrant come to mind where compassion is cast aside for the sake of a raging ego. I’m tempted to disregard this troublesome passage, pretend it has nothing to do with the dry bones. But what if it was their selfishness and their bondage to other gods that had sucked the breath out of their devotional life, leaving their spirits bone dry.
“Our bones have dried up, our hope has perished and our life thread has been cut,” the ancients cried. Sound familiar? “I’m no good, I can’t help the fear, the shame, the guilt, the anger. Everything is meaningless.” Dryness is precisely what makes renewed life impossible. Here nothing flows and nothing streams. It’s one thing to bring our woes to God in confession and trust but when we choose to go down the path of spiritual disregard, feeding off cynicism and mistrust, it only makes sense our lives would become parched and brittle. We seem to lose all sense of smell and taste, like one of COVID-19’s symptoms. At it’s worst, the breath of life is extinguished. We are in radical need of a divine ventilator.
Like soldiers who have lost the war, we march to the beat of lament. But God upends the metaphor. Instead of military weapons, God gives his half crazy prophets the shield and sword of the word. ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” says Zechariah. “You are no longer alone in this battlefield of isolation. I’m here to take you home." Words not from a warrior king but from a self-emptying king who speaks the language of comfort and truth.
What a time to have God’s name restored. We know COVID-19 isn’t a God ordained punishment but clearly our inflated experiments in self-preservation, control and escapism have failed. We see that on a large global scale but also in ourselves. “You meant it for evil but I meant it for Good” and the good here is that God is inviting us to try another experiment. Instead of predatory behaviour where selfish gain has the last word, we hear stories of self-extension and sacrifice. Caring for those who are vulnerable, sharing resources, creative support, prayerful waiting and moments of shared laughter reveals the real face of God and his Holy Name.
For this new way to be more than just a band-aid response, we need purification. Deep cleansing is not just a 20-second ritual. Boy I wish it were that easy! If only we could just: check off our daily spiritual practice, run that treadmill, read that book, make sure to check Instagram and quickly stitch those bones back together. They seem like good ideas but we end up more frantic and out of breath.
In this post COVID-19 world of isolation at home, I have been tempted to operate on automatic, go about my day “business-as-usual” and march to the beat of duty, schedule and routine. I get a little nervous when space and time stretches out, empty of activity and familiar purpose. While I welcome this reprieve, I also find myself waking up each morning to a hovering sort of dread. If I don’t take a hold of the day, I fear it will swallow me up and I’ll disappear. I don’t have a house to get ready for our Wednesdays and Sunday Watershed meetings or a lunch menu to send out, so who am I? In the spirit of Ezekiel, I ask, “Can there be life in this not knowing?” I worry about community too. In this weird version of exile on Zoom, we have become a community of talking heads, like war correspondents scattered across the world. My worry is that we will forget to rely on God or lose the impulse to trust each other.
Some translations say, “The four winds grabbed me and I couldn’t escape it”. Usually it’s our fears and compulsions that grab us. Our shame, grievances and need for control have such grip on us. Being set down in Death Valley sounds like cold comfort but maybe this is the only saving grace we have. To see who we are without the spirit is to see what Ezekiel sees - a vision of death. “Can these bones live again?” Out of desperation, with Ezekiel we whisper, “O Lord God, only You know”. (37:3) Our final act of giving up clears away the dust for a Vision of Life. We need to be immersed in Ezekiel’s underground steam where springs of water can cleanse the heart, slow the mind and create still waters of listening. We’ve been placed in a situation not of our choosing. In an upside down kind of way we are being invited to go underground, stop and step into the waters of reflection. To Ezekiel and to us, God says:
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be cleansed of all your pollution. I will cleanse you of all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it with a living one … you shall be my people, and I will be your God ” (Ezekiel 36:25-26)
Despite the current devastation, we’re hearing stories of clearing waters where fish can breath and heavy smog lifting to reveal blue skies. That is the hope for the earth but don’t you hope for that kind of renewal in Watershed? We are cautiously optimistic. Ezekiel probably felt that too when all those bones danced into life. Calling this scorched earth a garden, where seeds sprout hope and justice seems too good to be true.
But He’s done this before. God created life in the dry womb of Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth. When we first came into this world, isolated and disconnected, he gave us friends crafted from rib bones. Even our humanity comes from mud and spit. And he did it by suffering on the cross.
Illusions to resurrection are obvious, but it is more than just individuals rising up. It’s a new kind of army with different marching orders. Our incessant need to know and plan is being replaced by “Eternal God Only you know.” With these five words, the vision takes a turn.
By the broken bones and spilt blood of Jesus we, the Body in Christ, become more than moving parts. The sinewy Spirit-Word intimately wraps around each tendon protecting our ever-growing muscles of faith. Skin of spiritual resilience covers flesh that is warm and giving. God in his goodness fills us with blood that continually pumps out love and truth. And finally, a body fully bound together is activated by the spirit of God’s nostrils. No longer in bondage to our patterns of death, we are freed to live in joy and trust.
In Romans Paul reminds us, “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you.” (Romans 8:11)
Without Christ’s spirit, existence is just flesh and blood. Without Christ’s spirit, preparing for Wednesdays and Sundays is just another duty, texts and conversations sound like empty chatter, theological scrums turn into scrambling to be heard, prayers become hollow and our daily rhythms fail to meet us with grace. Whether we’re huddled together on Victor Street or social distancing on Zoom, we need God’s divine initiative to enliven our community life.
Not once, but twice in our passage, God says, “Then you will know that I am the Eternal One.” We are hard of hearing - especially in times of panic - but remember the experience Linda shared last week, where her 4 am terrors were calmed by God’s deep assurance? The spirit meant that for all of us, just like Lydia’s daily email meditations. A while back Jen asked, “What is your Love Language?” God’s Love Language is boundless and speaks volumes, through poetry, texts, phone calls, flowers, knitting, cookies, humour and movies when we need distraction, Skyping students and planning ways to feed friends in need. He loves us through our shared book studies and shared songs, art that brings colour to our thoughts and wise words that speak into our crazy. This is our daily manna, our essential services, blowing life into our tired bones even in times of threat, when the usual patterns of life become undone.
Alone and together, we hear the voice of the Eternal One. A new melody emerges. Instead of scarcity, anxiety, anger or dread, the song that sings us back together increases in volume with lyrics that say, “Don’t worry. You might not know but I know and I will open up your graves and carry you home.”
There is no place on earth, no when in time, and no what in sin or situation, that can keep God's Spirit from breathing love on us and our world. Like the virus, “Ruach”, the spirit of God, is sometimes messy, always unpredictable and hails in from every corner but unlike COVID-19, the breath of God always blows us into life. God wants us to know that the heart he has placed in Watershed can beat wherever we find ourselves.
This year, Lent has met us in ways we can hardly comprehend but in two weeks, we will be met by Easter. Most likely the world will have changed several times over. We have no clue how or what it means for us personally and as a community. But together we can say with confidence “Eternal Lord, Only You know. We are in good hands”.