March 29, 2020
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 round 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.’
“Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
The cry of the people, heard by God, shared with the prophet Ezekiel, rhymes well with our experience these days. While Facebook Live and Instagram, Zoom and phone calls are keeping us connected, even letting us see one another’s faces, it feels so odd to be completely cut off from being in one another’s physical presence. I miss hugging you, holding your hand. I miss the bustle of being in community. And I know that I am lucky to live with my husband during this time of isolation. Some of us are completely isolated from the physical presence of others. I can barely let myself imagine that experience. Then there’s the dawning reality that the hope of this being over quickly is drying up. Our lives are going to be very different for a long, indeterminate amount of time.
Many of us are experiencing grief at the moment. We have lost our social connections, our habits and habitat, our assumptions and sense of security, our trust in the systems of our society, and many of us are feeling sympathetic loss for others who have loved ones who have died. Stephanie O’Neil recently published a story on NPR news about these experiences, inviting us to grieve. Part of this experience is a kind of grief that we don’t often talk about, that many of us are living through; anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief comes when we are filled with dread for the future, knowing that we might, or will suffer a loss. Many of us are anticipating the loss of loved ones, friends, family, and community members from death from this virus, and new disruptions to our lives. Anticipatory grief is often confused with fear or dread. But not naming anticipatory grief can short-circuit going through the important and hard work of grieving, and we can find ourselves reacting in ways that seem out of the ordinary.
This week I got to virtually hang out with one of my friends who is a doctor, and he shared that many of his colleagues have been posting on twitter about when they have fallen apart. On the way back to the hospital, a Doctor spills a cup of coffee, and she cries for forty minutes on a park bench. On the way home, a nurse discovers that there are no eggs at the store, and he is filled with rage and sadness in a way that makes him feel out of control. When we grieve any loss, however small it is, all of our previous grief comes with it, and we can find ourselves being unprepared if we haven’t named what we are experiencing.
There is a lot of grief in our hearts these days. And when we grieve, our tradition suggests to us that we cry out directly to God. Our tradition reminds us that it’s not our job to find hope all the time. God doesn’t tell us to always look on the bright side of life. Instead, we are invited to be like our children, and just let it all out, because Jesus loves us with the strength of a mother, and will hold us while we cry, rage, are afraid. The Holy One makes space for us to honor our grief.
Stephanie O’Neil gives us some advice about how to do this.
She shares that it’s important for us to bear witness to our loss and communicate it by sharing our stories with our friends, family, and faith community. We may need to ask for, and offer to one another space to “share [our] feelings without…offering advice or trying to fix anything…” That can be done over the phone, by text, by gathering a group of friends virtually to share about our losses, and utilizing these connections as often as we need. Some people will need to check in weekly.
We can write, create, and express. For some, this could take the form of writing a journal during these times, making a sculpture out of Play Dough or clay, drawing a picture, even creating a holy space at home where we can acknowledge our losses. Some folks find it helpful to breathe their sadness, fear and anger into a rock, and then take a walk and throw it away.
Meditation and prayer can help also, taking deep, calming breaths. One way we can do this as a community is by praying with Lori Conway’s spiritual practice videos on our Facebook page.
What I love though about Stephanie O’Neil’s article is that she reminds us that in our grief, we are invited to be open to surprising joy and gratitude. It can be a virtual happy hour, dance party, or hangout, but we might find ourselves filled with delight and thankfulness, while also grieving. Because in our anticipatory grief, there can also be anticipatory hope. It’s a kind of hope that we don’t fully understand, that we don’t know when or if it will arrive, but that somehow, impossibly, can show up. It’s not something you can manufacture, but instead has a way of bubbling up.
And this anticipatory grief and hope, that’s what I see in Ezekiel’s encounter with God in our reading this morning.
Ezekiel experiences this vision in the Spirit, this wild experience of prophesying anticipatory hope to the dry bones, before the people are led out of the Babylonian captivity. His people’s hope has dried up. There is no marrow left to bring life through the life source of blood. And it is in that moment that God delivers this vision.
Ezekiel sees the bones, and God asks the prophet ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’
And Ezekiel answers, coyly, “O, Lord God? You know….” It’s not an answer. It’s a hedging of a bet. I feel that this week. I know in my bones the hope and power of God, that Resurrection is real, in a way that destroys my understanding of reality, and time, and life. I believe deeply that God’s revolution of love and light is coming to rip our tyrants from their thrones. But I also know that there is so much I don’t know.
God will bring us through this, that we will enter a good and broad land on the other end of this disaster. But like Ezekiel, I’m with you all in this crisis. I’m afraid myself. Even in my hedging though, the Word of the Lord h holds hope and life for us, for when we are ready Death and disease do not have the final word. We will leave our homes again someday. We will again gather in this place, physically and, in the mystery, with those who will go to rest in the Lord in the hope of the coming Resurrection.
Overcome with gratitude at the vision of God’s New Life, the prophet Ezekiel shares God’s dream, God’s vision of new life coming to the people. He speaks first of the people’s dried up hope, and then of the bones of the people being reconnected. He is filled with visions of sinew, of connections between the people being restrung. He sings of flesh, of muscle and sinew, and the goodness of their bodies being restored to wholeness and joy, and pleasure.
And then, in one of the most beautiful lines of the Hebrew Scriptures, God says ‘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.’
There is more to our lives than just the Physical. There’s also the breath & spirit, in Hebrew the same word, Ruach. The Ruach of God playing over the chaos of the waters at creation, the Spirit, the presence of God beyond the temple, the table, outside, that inspires and transforms and shapes the community to love God and neighbor.
Beloved, some of us may be feeling hopeless these days. We may feel like our hope is dried up. We’ve seen institutions failing us. We’ve seen capitalism at its worst these past few weeks, with leaders saying that we should sacrifice the lives of our elderly for the stock market. We’ve watched as faithful public servants have been ignored, their warnings and advice gone unheeded. It is easy to hear our stories in the voices of the Israelites, finding themselves in a foreign land, in a world they no longer recognize, everything changed, saying “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
We’re not yet at the turning point of being led back into a new, transformed, good and broad land, of creating a new life after this pandemic. We’re still in the midst of it. But this week I have heard the Spirit, that breath, deeply in the wind, in the trees, in the center of God, preparing. Beloved, we may feel hopeless, and it is right and needed to lift up that cry. “Lord, our hope! It is gone.” Let us grieve. And let us also give ourselves grace in the moments where we might have glimmers, foretastes, visions of anticipatory hope.
Let us walk the path of grief, sharing stories about when we felt our bones dry up. And when we are ready, may we be surprised by the presence of the Spirit, of the anticipation of Hope and the Life Everlasting.