John 11: 1-45
When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.
…Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.
…Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.
You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.
At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have travelled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
This is part of a poignant blessing from Benedictus written by Irish philosopher and poet, John O’Donohue. I always find it connects with anyone who has worked too hard and left the garden of their own soul untended…as well as with those grieving or exhausted by despair or anyone who has tried again and again to lift their spirits by sheer effort of will.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life….
…You have travelled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
The truth is, we can never push ourselves back to life, be we ever so determined. Life is not something we can create on our own; it is something we receive.
“Can these bones live?” God challenges the prophet Ezekiel and all who have ever felt that life is done for them, that their heart will never quicken again with love or joy, or that the future could never be better than the past.
God speaks to the prophet at a time when the people of Israel are suffering a death of spirit and hope, living as exiles in a foreign land. No temple for worship, their leaders killed or imprisoned and the horror of violent acts against their families compounding a hopeless fear that the soul of the people had died. There is violence that is physical, but there is also violence against the spirit and the soul of a culture that can leave a people stuck, unable to see where or how life may emerge again.
Ezekiel gives the people a vision of life that is against all evidence to the contrary- their people, their faith, their nation all seem to lie as dry bones in a valley where there is only death. The prophet reminds us of what a prophet does- speaks a word of life and truth. That flesh and breath can return to the people is through two things- the word of the prophet prompted by God and the breath- (Hebrew) ruach -Spirit. The people do not have to try to conjure life and hope through their own effort or will or works, but rather they receive life, imagined in the words of the prophet and breathed into them by the Spirit. The bones spring to life with a rattling of bone upon bone, rising to be covered in flesh and sinew and skin and shocked into life by the very breath of God. It is such a graphic visual image that the prophet gives us, and one that we can carry with us into our own lives and situations.
This image can speak to any moment where it feels like where there had once been life, there now is only strain and hard work; a sense of being dried out or dried up, stretched too thin or feeling that no matter how hard we work, the energy has gone. In many parts of the Christian church there is this sense of the social and spiritual landscape having shifted and a need to be reinvigorated by a fresh wind of the Spirit. Social commentators and youthful voices will point to problematic beliefs in the church leading it inexorably down the path of a dying institution. As we hear these voices, and look at figures of church decline in the West, we might find ourselves asking the same question as Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Brian McLaren in his book, The Great Spiritual Migration considers some beliefs of the Church that have supported and sustained not life, but systems of power that oppress, judge or colonise. He points the Church beyond its dead valleys to the heart of Christ’s call;
What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion, that makes amends for its mistakes and is dedicated to beloved community for all? Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life? Could Christian faith lose the bitter taste of colonialism, exclusion, judgment, hypocrisy and oppression, and regain the sweet and nourishing flavour of justice, joy and peace?
Can these bones live?
The good news is that Christianity has never been about a system of beliefs but always and ever about life. There are voices emerging everywhere that are helping humanity free itself of the simplistic binary choice people think has to be made between a religion of rigid beliefs or no religion at all. Prophetic voices speak the word of faith in our time that enfleshes the bones of tradition and incarnates a way of love and forgiveness anew for all people. The Spirit breathes life to the four corners of the globe and words of liberation are being spoken and heard.
The prophetic word is often associated with speaking truth to power, the calling out of abuses and the facing of corruption and oppression. But this is not the only voice in which prophecy speaks. We need the prophetic word sometimes to imagine something different- something to call us out into life and return us to love. To prophesy can mean to speak hope to the hopeless, love to the loveless and life to the lifeless. Jesus speaks a prophetic word to Lazarus even as the Spirit restores life to the entombed man trapped in a place of death. Christ calls to the Church today to come out from places that are deadeningly stuck and allow the Spirit to be enfleshed through the lives of all those who incarnate Jesus’ way.
But of course “the Church” is not something out there but is all of us here, each with our hopes and fears and struggles shaped by the world and our faith. What is the word you need spoken to return you to life? Life is not something you can manufacture for yourself but returns through Word and Spirit. The real question is, what part of you or your life needs to hear the words of Jesus to come out from a place of stuck lifelessness?
In a guided meditation written by Michael Hansen S.J, this question is explored in a powerful visualisation you might like to try slowly in your own time of prayer. Imagine now…
I re-create the valley of dry bones. In some detail, I add the bones, colours, sounds, smells… At my feet I place the dry bones of my own life: perhaps the bones of a lost dream, a barren relationship, a past hurt, a crippling injustice, or a heart-space of brittle fragility. Then, I take part in the action of Ezekiel’s story.
I enter the scene. The Lord commands me to prophesy. I imagine and experience, step by step, what happens when I say what God commands.
“I lay sinews on you, and cause flesh to come upon you, and you shall live.”
The power of this image reminds us that we are not left alone to find the way to new life and healing. Life emerges through the Spirit with us, and it emerges into life with others in beloved community. As the Rev’d Mervyn Thomas reminded us in this week’s reflection in the parish news, hard and painful things happen to all of us, but God never leaves us alone in our pain. New life begins when we surrender to the Word of the one who is named, God with us.
Are you tired? Stuck? Perhaps you feel you have travelled “too far over false ground”, away from yourself and away from life. If you are there now or have ever been there, know that the God who breathed you into life will never leave you nor forsake you to your valleys. As we approach Holy Week, may you recognise the voice of the one who calls you by name to be restored to life, communion and community. May you feel the breath of God sustaining you through the shadow of death, and recalling you to love. +Amen
 Mclaren, Brian D.. The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian . John Murray Press. Kindle Edition.