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No one was truly sure how it had happened. How do such things happen, anyway? And how long before they are noticed? It’s hard to tell. Yet so it was, in the little town on the hillside; the prosperous little town full of healthy, hardworking people. A happy town known for its hospitality and generosity in abundance.
Years later, when someone would ask, no one could say for certain when they’d noticed. It had been subtle at first, just barely perceptible in pants that felt loose, shirts that didn’t fit as well through the shoulders. Perhaps it was the very intimacy of these discoveries, the individuality of them, that kept people from noticing, right away. Perhaps it was the subtlety of the change: a pound gone here, another there, over the course of years. Slowly, though, the whispers began. First, about thelosses that others were enduring: parents in the schoolyard, talking in murmured euphemisms, of how their own parents seemed somehow to be fading; how, perhaps, have you noticed? the shop owner? the principal? the city councillor? is it just me, or…?
No one remembered how it started; no one remembered when. But they remembered the first time someone said it, during a town meeting. They remembered how the mayor had been reassuring, but unconsciously hitched up his own pants, just a bit. They remembered how the town doctors had gone to a conference in the valley, how they’d been relieved to know it wasn’t just their town, how they’d been reassured, when the doctors came back sure it was just an infection. These things happen, you know. Feed a cold, you’ll be fine.
They remembered how, at the town meeting called to hear the doctors’ report, a tiny girl had suddenly leapt almost out of her mother’s arms; had made the whole room laugh as she cried, “I FLY!”
The reassurances of that meeting, and the question of a virus that would disappear with rest and nourishment, had sparked a sudden bustle of recipes. They were exchanged in whispers, argued over, bragged about. Choice ingredients disappeared from the market, following one fad, and then another, only to be kept hidden in the back of pantries. Neighbors grew suspicious of one another, as they borrowed a cup of sugar and saw the pantry door, once thrown wide, was now kept half-closed. Community dinners, once lavish affairs, became more simple, as precious nourishment was kept within the family to try to stem the infection… or whatever it was, because no one could quite isolate it. And no meal, no expense, could stop what was, by this point, apparent: the town was getting thinner.
The terms used varied, depending on the person; the more politically savvy would say people were “leaner,” but everyone recognized that for the tact, the spin it was. The simple truth was that the adults in the town losing weight. Less so the kids, though the age varied: somewhere between eight and twelve, thereabouts – the age of maturity, the age of awareness. The town was getting thinner, and the wind that blew down the hill seemed sometimes as if it would blow them all clean away.
Meetings were called. Very soon the doctors’ findings treated with derision. Other specialists were called in: nutritionists, who called for a traditional diet; coaches, who recommended new workouts to hip music; consultants, who suggested treating the kids before they got it too… and not a few snake oil salesmen, as will happen, in situations like this. At every meeting, the townfolk became less convinced, and more skeptical – after all, nothing had ever worked, why should the new suggestions? And so the snake oil salesmen weren’t the only ones dismissed, after halfhearted attempts at working out to music that felt unfamiliar, or at treating kids for an ailment no one really understood anyway.
More than once, at a town meeting, the little girl had interrupted. Having soon grown too big for her newly-tiny mother, she would flap her arms and run up and down the aisles of the school auditorium where they all sat hunched up against the wind. The first time it had been cute; quickly, the adults, tense and anxious, asked her mother to remove her and not to bring her back, this little one who couldn’t understand the terrible gravity of the town’s problems.
But no one could remember how it began. Surely, something had changed? Some thought that perhaps, if they could just remember; just find the missing ingredient; the thing they’d had then, before the problems began… but as the years went on, the unity of the town began to splinter. Younger people, plagued with the same affliction, blamed their elders for not doing more, sooner. The elders blamed their children for not being more invested in finding a solution. They all blamed the wind, against which they struggled daily, wasting precious calories, having to fight to remain upright. Community dinners became tense affairs, with bland food in small dishes so there was hardly enough for those who brought the food, let alone for those who wandered in, hungry and tired, in need of hospitality. Indeed, it seemed that the whole town was collapsing inward: the stores closed, their owners weakened and tired. The roads cracked, potholes sank, street sweepers came less and less often. Volunteers kept up the flower beds, until their bodies grew too frail, and the wind rattled the weeds that sprang up in abundance.
The city council tried to step in, but dealing with a crisis like this was beyond anything they’d ever had to do, and they sat, looking at one another around the council table – at the gaunt, drawn faces, prominent collarbones showing under loose, ill-fitting clothes – debating for the twentieth time the same idea.
Town meetings were somber, bitter affairs by this time, lively only when they were antagonistic. On their way out, people were known to joke that they felt even thinner than when they’d gone in, and there might have been truth to that… but it was hard to tell. The children of the town were, by now, accustomed to adults who appeared almost skeletal, their eyes prominent above sharp cheekbones, their hands that seemed to be just a collection of bones wrapped tight in dry, leathery skin. Adults who leaned into the wind, struggling as though against an invisible assailant. And this sharp and brittle collection of people exchanged sharp, brittle words, as pointed as their elbows, seeking solutions and just as quickly picking apart the suggestions with bony fingers.
The little girl, not quite so little anymore, stood quietly beside her mother – old enough now to be allowed in the meetings; no longer flapping down the aisles after cutting her finger on the protruding hip bone of a former shopkeeper. She stood and listened to the wind, rattling among them through the old, leaky windows and the cold, hissing words. In a moment when the wind stilled, and silence hovered, she spoke her solution to the ever-present problem, her words still full and round and childish: “We could fly…”
Brittle, hard laughter crackled around the room until the mayor looked thoughtfully at the child. “Perhaps,” he mused, his voice tight, “it’s the one thing we haven’t tried.” The room, shocked into deathly silence, gaped at him. He shrugged, a gesture that seemed to put him in danger of collapse. “The wind is the one thing left to us, if we can harness it…” Each word fell from his thin, fleshless lips, as the crowd drew its collective breath.
It wasn’t that simple, of course, though it was not quite as hard as people would remember. No one wanted to leave the town. And between those who reluctantly began tearing down, convinced it was the end, and those who held on, certain it was their own bodies being torn apart, it was astonishing that it happened at all. Both sides were convinced that death was imminent. They saw it clearly in the walking skeletons who implemented tise final, desperate plan: the flying machine made of the schoolroom floors, the store counters, the mayor’s desk; nailed together with the accusations of precious materials held back and hidden safely away; sealed with the hopes born of desperation, that death might not come today; weighted down with the fears – on both sides – that this attempt, with everything at stake, would fail. For as the people grew lighter, as they grew to resemble walking bones, the possibility of flight weighed heavier among them until it seemed that even the strongest wind could not lift them from this place where they were rooted.
Finally, the flying machine was ready. Finally, the will of the people would be put to the test. Finally, the work of their hands would lift them out of the desolation that had once been a prosperous and happy town. And in the years to come, everyone would remember how it happened that the people – mere bones by that point -took their place within this creation of theirs, this product of their hopeful anxiety, their despairing dreams. In the years to come, everyone would remember how the wind came up and blew over them, rattled through them; how they shivered once and seemed to fall apart, how they could not move.
No one was truly sure how it had happened. How do such things happen, anyway? And how long before they are noticed? It’s hard to tell.
The little girl – the annoying one, the outspoken one, the bothersome one, with her crazy ideas about flying – was she among them, where they lay in the midst of all that was so precious? Was she still in the village? or up on the hill, looking upon them, her eyes full, spilling tears of grief, of compassion? No one could say, and no one would quite be able to remember, in the years to come, how long it was before the breeze stirred down the hill, through the village, around the flying machine; how the girl lifted her arms, leaned back, easily, gently, let the wind catch her lightness… let it catch her up as a parent lifts a beloved child to carry her to safety.
And how did it happen? How do such things happen, anyway? that the breeze brought her words back to stir among the bones of the people; words like the rush of summer wind:
“It is not the work of our own hands that we need. We cannot control the wind. It is not ours. But we can still fly.”
And the wind, soft, gentle, round and warm and full of promise, moved over those who had been reduced to their hardest parts. And the bones trembled with possibility, as they felt themselves take flight.
The hand of the Lord said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
“Thus says the Lord God; I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves…” – Ezekiel 37: 12
“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” -Romans 8:9
I have heard it said that Ezekiel is one of the hardest books in the Bible to read through, as modern people. The imagery can be difficult, for those of us uncomfortable with mystery and ambiguity; today’s text is a good example. An entire valley of dry bones, restored and renewed by means of prophecy – when even the idea of prophecy, the idea of having this direct, wordy exchange with God, seems to us almost inconceivable. This is one of those texts that seem to fit best in an historical context, removed from our realty.
In that historical context, it makes more sense, and the image seems more resonant when we remember that Ezekiel was speaking to a people in exile. The Israelites have been shipped off to Babylon, by their captors from that empire. These people who had understood themselves, for generations, to be God’s people, living in the land that God had prepared for them, worshiping in the Temple that was built to be God’s location on Earth, had been conquered – abandoned by the God in whose protection they had trusted. Worse still, their rebellion against the occupying forces had resulted in the destruction of the Temple and their removal from the Promised Land. It was impossible to comprehend: was God not still with them, protecting them? Was the covenant broken? How could they be the people of God without the Temple, the very place where they could be in the presence of God?
The lament of this exile, this separation from God, is poignantly heard in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung our harps. For their our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (vv. 1-4) Removal from the Promised Land, from Jerusalem and from the Temple was removal from God. Separated from the source of life, any wonder they dried up and broke apart?
Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.
I wonder if it wasn’t at least a little bit easier for the Israelites, having some awareness of the cause of their exile and abandonment? I wonder if it is easier to have clear source of grief, a discernible beginning for the descent into confusion and chaos?
I wonder, because we certainly don’t have that tangible starting point.
Walter Bruggeman, in a recent interview on the public radio show On Being, noted that the most polarizing issues in church – this church, any church – are no more than façades for the real issues we face. It’s not really about whether women should speak in church or be ordained; it’s not really about whether we should ordain or marry LGBT folk. The real question behind all of these issues – behind any issue we argue, political, religious or social, using religious language – is impending chaos. It’s the sense that “if we change this, will all hell break loose?” If we begin to change, are we at the start of a long, slippery-slope descent into chaos?
Part of this sense is due to the rapidly changing culture of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Technology is developing at such a rapid rate, launching us into a world that would have been totally incomprehensible in 1914, let alone 1900, and we have had nearly no time to process these changes. We’re still trying to find our footing on the shifting sands of the social landscape, and there is no end of the technological development in sight.
The other part – likely the more important one – is the culture of fear into which our consumer society has manipulated us so deftly. The ubiquitous nature of news blurbs that talk about a horrifying situation, and end with the implication, or outright statement, “it could happen to you!” Even if it’s a one in a million chance; hey, it could, so you need to watch out. Such rampant fear keeps us always alert, always afraid; it encourages us to produce constant low doses of adrenaline… and fourteen years of war should make us all very aware of the lingering effects of constant doses of adrenaline.
We are bombarded by this culture in which fear sells and anxiety is encouraged and safety is our most important good, until we believe in fear more than we believe in anything, and grace becomes the fairy tale we teach in Sunday School, but are too savvy to believe in ourselves.
Through fear, we are convinced that we live in a more dangerous time than did our parents or our grandparents – a conviction that those very people often share with us. But it is not true. There is no research at all to indicate that the odds of any one of us becoming a victim have increased, that we are not every bit as safe as we were fifty years ago. There is, however, research to explain why we don’t feel as safe: we are saturated with a constant visual of violence and hostility. The news has become more fear-based (once again, fear sells), and the prevalence of gritty, gory crime shows has increased… and there is a direct correlation between those who watch a lot of TV to a sense of fearfulness.* The more TV we watch, the more we are inclined to believe that our neighborhoods are unsafe, the more we are sure crime rates are rising, and the more we believe ourselves to be likely victims of violence or crime. There is also a correlation with the perceived need to own a gun.
Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.
Whether we’re talking about the Israelites or about us, the human reaction to fear is fight or flight. But when fear is internalized, where do we flee? We turn inward, becoming protective of ourselves and our inner circle – our closest friends, our family, perhaps our church. It’s what we so often do now; it’s what the Israelites had actually already done, before the exile, during their long years of war and infighting before the Babylonians ever took an interest in them. We see it in their abandonment of the hospitality and grace that had marked them as God’s people; the division of the Promised Land into two opposing Kingdoms, where even their fellow Israelites were not welcomed into Jerusalem.
Fear puts us in the flesh, as Paul would say: it traps us within ourselves so that we see to our own needs first. We become suspicious of outsiders, seeking and creating difference and barriers to maintain security. We break ourselves apart into fragments as brittle as dry bones, burying ourselves in graves of distrust, self-centeredness and fear, from which it is impossible to be people of the Gospel.
On about September 13, 2001, members of many New York City choruses were invited to stand on the steps of Lincoln Center to sing Mozart’s Requiem. It was the best tribute that a bunch of musicians could come up with. Organization, however, eluded us – no one brought a copy of the score – but we sang songs of peace and hope, songs that we all knew well enough. We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem”: grant us peace, O God. After a while, in the chaos of New York in those early days – in the chaos of Manhattan at rush hour – someone noted that there was a fire station around the corner, and that it would be nice if we went to sing there. We got as close as we could, given the flowers and cards and outpourings of love and support, and found ourselves staring directly into the face of grief, vulnerable and helpless. It seemed too hard, in that moment, to sing peace and grace to such raw devastation, and the songs changed, from peaceful to patriotic. And the mood changed, as we went from one fire station to another. I watched as anger replaced grief, hate shut down hope. I watched as these musicians, who had just been singing of peace, turned inward, becoming protective of those who had been lost, and feeling murderous towards those who had caused such pain.
There were not many bodies that came out of the September 11th attacks, but there were many graves dug in the days that followed, more just than the ones I witnessed among a bunch of musicians. People dug deep in a quest to feel safe from this new threat made real; safe from the helplessness we felt when faced with such profound vulnerability, grief… and all those other painful, tender things we feel when we dare to love.
Paul, speaking to Romans, may as well be speaking to us. We are not called to be a people of the flesh, inward looking and safe. We are not people of the grave, we who are dry bones upon this earth, disconnected from one another. We have become caught up in fear, clothing naked in a sanitized way, without actually having to see them; building prisons far from our communities, rendering the idea of visitation impractical and burdensome; blaming hungry and the homeless for their plight, granting them only the scraps from our heaping tables, begrudgingly given because we fear taking food out of the mouths of our nearest and dearest. We bury ourselves in graves of suspicion and doubt, and only welcome stranger who looks like us – which sounds a lot more like hanging out with our friends, than it sounds like a Christian practice of hospitality.
We were created as people of the Spirit: people who remember that we have been infused by God from the very beginning of this creation, and over and over again, renewed and sustained by God’s very presence within us. We remember that the breath that animates us binds not only the flesh to our bones, making us bodies, but binds us one to another, in one Body, and therby binds us to God and to life: a life we cannot live from the fearful little shelters to which we regularly flee.
We are called to abandon the graves we dig ourselves, feeling ourselves besieged and abandoned, where it is easy to forget that we, in our inward-turning, in our fear, are the ones doing the abandoning, living as we try to, in safety, confining ourselves to the known, certain, similar, and leaving no room in our fear for God to move.
God, who doesn’t play it safe. God, who went to the cross. God, who tells us to take up our own crosses.
God, who is hovering right outside our sheltering graves, calling us back, waiting to breathe life into our bones; waiting to call us out of ourselves and into community, out of individual desires and into systemic needs, out of fear and into love.
Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.
Because you, O God, have made us people of resurrection. We have been made into one Body: the body of the one who showed us death doesn’t have last word, and can never have the last word. We have been made as a people of incorporation, putting flesh on the bone, joining together in body and spirit, and trusting – trusting! – in God’s presence and guidance, even when it calls us out of safety. Even when it calls us into the chaos of the new and unexpected, and the possibility of all hell breaking loose. Even when it calls us into the uncertain, the untried, the exciting and scary realms of possibility. Even when it calls us into Holy Mystery: that place where certainty dissolves in God’s presence.
We who have been scattered, brittle and broken, are renewed by the breath of God, and the the grace that calls us over and over from our fears, our “no’s”, our inward-turning into new life, again and again; the grace that calls us back to God, no matter how often we abandon our covenant, how far we flee or how deep we dig. We are renewed by the grace that says yes, every time we would say no; that speaks love, every time we would live in death.
We are called to be people of the God of beginnings who can raise us from our graves – our nice, safe, certain hiding spaces; who can take us out of the flesh and into the spirit, and who can pour that spirit into our bodies and send us – fed, nourished, and united – out to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to welcome the stranger among us, all without counting the cost.
We are called by grace to love in a fearful world; to say Yes, to this culture’s prevailing No.
Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know we can.
*Bader-Saye, Scott: Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Brazos Press, 2007. p.15