A little girl was visiting her grandmother one beautiful spring morning. They walked out into grandmother’s flower garden. As grandmother was inspecting the progress of her flowers the little girl decided to try to open a rosebud with her own two hands. But no luck! As she would pull the petals open, they would tear or bruise or wilt or break off completely. Finally, in frustration, she said, “Gramma, I just don’t understand it at all. When God opens a flower, it looks so beautiful but when I try, it just comes apart.” “Well, honey,” Grandmother answered, “There’s a good reason for that. God is able to do it because God works from the inside out!”
God works from the inside out. In a valley of dry bones, God works from the inside out, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Imagine you are Ezekiel, look to the right and to the left, there are bones everywhere.
Bones ahead of you, bones behind you.
Bare white bones gleaming in the sun, the life baked out of them.
Not one drop of moisture remains. These desiccated bones are a grim reminder of life that was.
Ezekiel stands there in the middle of this valley of dry bones, waiting expectantly for the Lord.
The children of Israel in exile know all about dry bones.
Israel is stripped to the bones, scattered in exile. The Babylonian Empire had taken over the land of Judah, the king of Babylon took the leaders of the nation away and replaced them with folks from a different place. The ones who were left were the poorest of the poor. They felt as if they are living in this valley – where life had been ripped away, where hope had vanished, where God felt absent.
They cried out, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
They were these dry bones, waiting…
I don’t know about you, but I’ve stood at the edge of a number of valleys of dry bones.
In Colombia, it’s not quite a valley of dry bones – they’ve not been dead that long – but it’s definitely a pit of bones, bones that were once part of the bodies of people who lived, loved and laughed, people who were killed for being on the wrong side of politics, or maybe for being in the way, or just because; but people who died by violence because of the powers that be.
In communities racked by grief due to a rash of suicides by their young people. Communities who questioned, raged, and prayed about what they could have done so that these young bones would not have lost hope in the first place.
Amongst mainline churches and small towns alike as young people move away or become disinterested, farms get bigger, so there are just less people in the same amount of space, and the bare bones of our society has changed so much over the years.
Those times in our own lives, when it felt like the life had been sucked right out of us. Hopefully it’s not all the time – and if it is all the time, there is help that is accessible – but beyond that those times when grief settles on us like a dense fog, things aren’t turning out the way we’d imagined, or we simply can’t figure out the meaning of our lives.
These valleys of dry bones are more common than maybe we’d like to admit to, and they appear in a number of ways, shapes and forms.
As Ezekiel was standing there, looking at this mass grave, looking at this massive loss of life, and at the lost hopes of a people; something happens. God spoke to him and said:
“Human, can these bones live?”
The obvious answer is no. Can dried bones live? Can bones without flesh or muscle, or blood, or oxygen, live? Can these bones that were killed by violence ever possibly find the will to live again? Of course the answer is no… right?
Ezekiel’s answer is something of a surprise. Maybe he knew God’s ways enough to know that no wasn’t an appropriate answer. Maybe this is why he was designated as a prophet. There should be no good reason for these bones to live again, but instead of despair, he answers with openness. Instead of saying “no” he says: “O Lord God, you know.” Oh Living One – you know.
God tells Ezekiel to prophesy – and he does. He prophesies that God will cause these bones to once again become human, living beings. As he was prophesying, there came a loud noise, and a rattling as the bones came together, broken bones knit together, and became bound by sinews and flesh and skin… but there was no breath. Now instead of bones, Ezekiel sees a valley of bodies. It must have been an awful experience, in both senses of the term full of awe, but terrifying.
So God asks Ezekiel to prophesy that breath will come into these bones from the four winds, and they will be alive. The winds blow, they come together to bring breath to those lifeless bodies, and all of a sudden, they are living again.
Now let me introduce you to one of my favourite words in the Hebrew language: ruach. Simply translated it means breath – but it also means spirit. It’s God’s ruach that hovered over the waters at the beginning of Creation. It’s God’s ruach that was breathed into the first human being. It’s God’s breath and spirit that are given to these dried bones to bring them life.
It’s God’s ruach that gives us life and spirit. It’s God’s ruach that breathes new life into situations of hopelessness. It’s God’s ruach that works from the inside out.
As often as I’ve witnessed valleys of dry bones, I’ve also experienced God’s ruach that breathes new life. In communities that have seen violence and grief, I have seen brave and talented people working to bring these communities together to find some form of healing. I’ve witnessed children laugh and smile when these were once foreign emotions to them. I’ve seen folks from very different, often conflicting faith backgrounds, praying together for hope and new life. The ruach of God breathes into situations of hopelessness.
In small towns and churches, I’ve seen groups celebrating what is with whoever joins in. Whether it’s three, five, seven, 10, 20, 50, or 100 or more – I’ve seen folks gather. Sometimes it’s with a meal, other times not, but gathering to work together, to sing together, to build each other up and/or share the happenings in their own lives. The ruach of God breathes into all who are present and willing.
In our own lives, experiencing those moments that we can only name as grace-filled and answers to prayers. A call out of the blue that lifts our spirits. Those times when things seem to mysteriously fall into place. The moments we have to glance back to times of hardship, and even if those places are still tender, we can see how the events placed us firmly on the path that we’re on, and yet, we’re glad we’re here. Release from bonds of addiction, abuse, or mental illness. Sometimes they’re the small things and sometimes they’re big, but the ruach of God inspires us to keep going.
God’s ruach surrounds us totally and completely. The Spirit brings us the promise that we are not alone and that things can get better. The Spirit breathes new life and hope into us no matter how dry our bones are.
In the Christian tradition – we talk about breath prayers – something you say quickly and to yourself as you breath in and out. It could be as simple as “God, come” or “God, help” each word said as you inhale, or exhale. It’s a prayer, but more than that – we’re breathing in God’s spirit. We’re breathing in hope and the promise of new life. God works in us from the inside out.