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April 2, 2017

Can These Bones Live

Ezekiel 37:1-14 John 11:1-45

We live in a culture which gives us very mixed messages about death. On the one hand, we are bombarded with images of treatments and activities which promise to prevent the aging process (hence delaying death). On the other hand, as humans, we are prone to risky behaviors…death defying activities…racing fast cars, using substances which can lead to death in a variety of forms, participating in sports which can result in irreparable head injuries, and sustaining levels of stress which takes a toll on our bodies, you name it. We watch death in the movies, on TV or video screen, but it’s different there, isn’t it? Somehow we can keep it at arm’s length. The reality is, Death is hard. It’s stinky. It’s messy. It’s painful. I don’t know of many people who welcome it. And if you lose someone to death, whether suddenly or after a prolonged period…there’s no question about it. It’s just plain hard. The resulting period of grief can take a minimum of 1 to 3 years, according to experts. That’s normal. That’s human. That’s what’s needed. There’s no fast tracking the grief process. But it’s also not always tidy and able to be planned for. If you experience multiple instances of grief before one is completed, there’s a term for that: Complicated grief. The normal cycle of grief is interrupted and grief from the current incident takes longer to resolve because it gets mixed up with previous incidents of grief. But apart from clinical terms, grief can just feel complicated. If the person you’re grieving died violently, or if you had a difficult relationship with him, or even if there’s some relief that she died after suffering for a long period time, grief can leave you feeling depleted, lifeless, depressed, despondent and alone. Like dry bones out in a desert. And those feelings may not be felt solely by individuals but also by communities and even countries. Back in seminary I took a course called Death, Dying and Grief. My final paper was on the effects of complicated grief in the nations of Central America following the massacres they faced in the 1980’s. Day after day, people would discover that loved ones had gone missing, only to find them in mass graves along roadside ditches. Women would go wailing in the town centers to share their grief. That’s the only way they could express their sorrow in the face of faceless killers. I concluded that the complications of grief left a mark on those lands which will ever be felt and will shape them and the future of their peoples as a result …The one good thing they had going for them, was that their cultures allowed them open expressions of grief. The tendency of national grieving may be at work in other places as well. Think of war torn countries such as Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, where people see others dying every day, or hear bombs and gunfire on a constant basis. Whether those affected be troops or residents of those lands, the human spirit still faces grief. It’s just a human response to loss. Given that experience day after day, grief may surely become complicated and develop into despair. Feeling that level of pain is difficult. It’s no wonder we may want to distance ourselves from those situations. It’s too painful to care on that level. Too overwhelming. So we shut them out. But what if our inability to deal with death, comes from the fact that WE are already dead or lifeless on some level as a way of coping with our life circumstances? In an op-ed piece in the NY Times this week entitled Is the World More Depressed?, Stanford Anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann answers his question with a “yes.” He cites the Global Burden of Disease study from 2010 which found a 36.7 percent increase in the burden of mental illness and substance abuse disorders across the globe compared with 1990. And he also cites the CDC in 2011 which said that in the US, antidepressant use rose by 400 percent between 1988 and 2008. Luhrmann supports his hypothesis with these reasons: increased urbanization, increased use of technology which isolates people and decreases the amount which people actually think for themselves. He also says that increased information about other people causes us to be depressed. Think about it. If you’re constantly watching and reading about people who seem to have it all, or at least more than you do, and you’re having trouble saving for retirement or putting your kids through school…it can do a whammy on you. Or how about this? You’re busy trying to save, save, save, and hear a report that the stock market is rigged by those whose computers can beat out the stock orders of the largest investment firms by a millionth of a second, thereby costing you more money for your trades…the resulting frustration sense of powerlessness can cause depression. What’s the use? Maybe a little piece of us gives up and dies. While we may not be talking about clinical depression, it may result in some lesser form of life. The image of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel comes to mind. The background of the story is that Ezekiel was sent as a prophet of Yahweh to the Israelites in 592 BCE, during the time of King Nebuchadnezzar. The people had rebelled against both Yahweh and the king. They had done things their own way. The number of skeletons and conditions of the deadness, suggests that doom was their fate. The thing is…these bones represented not those who had been slain in combat. These were the survivors of the exile who had died because of their own wanderings and choices away from God. Their dead, and lifeless bones were the result of their having felt isolated and cut off from God. Maybe we can relate, on some level. Some part of us is lifeless, dry, feeling cut-off from God…and our bones just lay there without hope. That’s what I felt when I read Peter Lanza’s article in The New Yorker a few weeks ago. The words, “I wish my son had never been born,” had to have been spoken by a man who surely feels dead on some level. Afterall, how can a father possibly say that about his own flesh and blood…except for the fact that his son, Adam, gunned down 28 people, including himself, back on that December day in 2012 not far from here. This account, entitled, “The Reckoning” painfully recounts a lifelong journey of father and mother trying to make sense of a little boy who always thought differently …”Just a normal little weird kid.” He and Adam’s mother tried and tried to get Adam the help he needed. Years of doctors, assessments and diagnoses. And it ended with such horror. Lanza even called it evil. Massive death. The type of death which is complicated, and will forever change our region and our country. Still, somehow, in that article, I read the beginnings of a stirring of life. Telling the story, and this was the first time that he has publicly, brings a faint breath, even if to say, #%$#%. The image I have is that he’s been breathless since that day. Let’s go back to Ezekiel. As Ezekiel prophesies God’s word to those brittle, lifeless bones, they begin to rattle…then they begin to take shape, once again… as sinew, flesh, and skin come on to them. But there is still no breath in them, so God commands Ezekiel to prophesy again, this time the “breath,” or “wind” (Hebrew, ruah) enters into them, and they live and stand as a great multitude. Ruah is the Hebrew word for breath, spirit (feminine) the Hebrew word for of the Spirit of God. In just 14 verses, the word ruah is used 9 times. It takes that much power and emphasis sometimes to rouse a lifeless spirit and body. What does it mean for them to have the breath of God breathed into our bones, once again? It means life; it means reconnection. I’ll never forget a therapist presenting me with a choice long ago. As I was facing some serious work of calling forth life from parts of me which had for a long time felt like dead bones…she said, “You don’t have to do this work. You would be fine living up on this level. Most of the world lives there.” I looked at her with a “come on, now” look and said, “You know me…I have to go deeper. I’m not content living here.” And we did some work over the next period of time which unearthed some painful experiences… Experiences which had kept me imprisoned in an internal tomb for years. In a sense as we told the truth about the past (prophesied), ruah was breathed into me. I was called out of my tomb. The result was an increased ability to love and live deeper, to experience more forgiveness and more compassion. On Tuesday I got a call from our friend Kareem Adeeb, the imam of the American Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies. “Shannon, It’s Kareem! I’m calling to check in on my friend,” he said. Our friendly chatter soon got serious. He told me that he has had 6 operations since midDecember. It seems as though a birth defect has suddenly caused him trouble. The connection from his kidney to his bladder was blocked. His daughter and son-in-law are both on the staff at Yale NH, and so he got the very best treatment, but still he had all sorts of complications. The doctor told him if he had waited another day or if he had taken painkillers, he would have been dead. He said, “Thank God for pain, because it tells you something is wrong.” Sometimes we’re so used to the pain, though, whether physically or emotionally, that we don’t do anything about it. It’s become a way of life. I have a close friend who has experienced this with his son recently. The son has been at risk for some time. A star baseball player in high school with the hopes of playing further. Solid upper middle class family. But in high school and then in college, pot smoking became oxycodone use allegedly for sports injuries…and after 2 short college tries, he could only land minimum wage jobs. Bored silly, he eventually tried heroin, and got hooked. You see, heroin is much cheaper than it used to be. Fortunately for him he “got it” in detox…Ruah…come out of the tomb…whatever the voice, he heard it. Before it was too late, thank God, he heard it. He’s not out of the woods…he has court dates, and a long road of recovery, but he does it, not in isolation, but reconnected to the Divine source, and family, and a community of others who are walking that journey too. For congregations, like ours, who have tended to the dying and cared for the grieving over the past year, these texts do not glibly wash over the reality of suffering and death with the bright pastels of Easter. Nor should they; we are still in Lent, after all. Yet with all its brutal honesty, Ezekiel’s vision challenges us to see that the problem is not death but the fear of it, while the solution — God’s ever-present gift of life — is as near to us as breathing. Jesus knew there was value in letting death carry it’s effect and message, it’s finality. Mary pleaded…come quickly. Don’t let this happen! Even though Jesus loved Lazarus, he waited…so that everyone could hit bottom and feel it. And then he cried over the loss of his friend. Being cut off is deadly. Loss is painful. But it must be felt and experienced before one can live again. Otherwise, the gift of life is cheap. That’s why it’s important to live through Good Friday before rushing to Easter. We don’t like this part of the journey do we? We know enough to see the road ahead is not one we necessarily want to choose. The road to death. It’s not a great selling tool either. We’d much rather have the joyful messages which feel good. But that’s not where we are in the story, and this is a time to hang tight, go deeper and open to life to all the support that is around you…the Ruah, words of friends who tell you the truth and call you out of the tomb and this community which shares the meal of remembrance. We all walk this together. So, can these bones live? Where are the places in your life that are dead? Don’t ignore them. Follow the path through this journey of Lent through Good Friday…to Easter. Tell yourself the truth you need to hear. Listen to those who love you who have a word of truth to tell you. Let those bones have a chance. Feel the ruah…and hear Jesus say to you…Come out of the tomb

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