Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent One: Hope is Our Work

I’ve been spending time this fall with Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones.

You know the story, recounted in a well-known spiritual: God brings Ezekiel to a valley full of dry bones, instructs him to prophecy, the bones come together, “toe bone connected to the foot bone,” until the bones rise into a mighty army.  The moral: an exuberant “them bones them bones gonna rise again.”

Seen from a comfortable distance, it’s an encouraging vision: even very dry bones, scattered and forgotten, can rise to life again.

The Valley of Dry Bones, Ben Zion, 1952, New York
The view is a little different up close.

Several weeks ago I was praying for some situations that seem beyond impossible. Let me rephrase that: I was supposed to be praying. Instead I was reflecting on how little prayer I had left, and lamenting my investment in a series of obvious lost causes.

I was due to meet that day with a group expecting me to bring a word of encouragement, and I had none.

Sitting with my Bible, brain and heart empty, I found myself picturing Ezekiel in a valley full of bones.

Not just a few bones – lots of bones. In a dry, barren, lifeless place.

I flipped through my Bible to Ezekiel 37: 
“Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Ezekiel, the man, the prophet, is an interesting study. There’s a real person there, if you read the book carefully. He’s precise about when his strange story starts: 
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River. 
And he’s precise as words allow about all he sees and hears, although he’s clear that the words available don’t quite fit, that his experience is beyond language. It’s all “like” something, like the appearance of something – several removes from what it really was: 
Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. 
In a book full of overwhelming sights and difficult instructions, Ezekiel reports as calmly as he can, with only small hints of his personal response. Twice he simply reports himself falling facedown; once he describes sitting by the river “for seven days – overwhelmed.”

But he says nothing of his emotional state in the valley of dry bones.

An alternative translation of Ezekiel 37, by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, offers insight:  
The hand of YHWH, the Breath of Life, was on me,
And in a rushing-breath YHWH brought me forth
and set me in the center of a valley -
Full of bones!
- And led me all around them, all around.
Here! - Very many on the face of the valley,
and here! - utterly dry.
And said to me;
"Child of Adam, earthling, can these bones live?"
I said - "Pillar of the World, Breath of Life -
You know-it-in-your-heart, and only you."
Today is the first day in the liturgical year – the first Sunday of Advent. In the Anglican tradition, we’ll light the first of four advent candles, read the words of Mark 13:24-37, celebrate the promise of Christ’s second coming.

And we’ll speak of hope.

The hope of earthlings, children of Adam, waiting for the Pillar of the World, Breath of Life, to breath his life into our dead, dry bones.

My son, home for Thanksgiving, handed me a book he brought for me to borrow: “The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good, by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, founder of the Two Futures Project and now chair of the World Evangelical Alliance's Global Taskforce on Nuclear Weapons.

I’m only a few chapters in, but already I know can see that Wigg-Stevenson has spent time in the valley of dry bones, like Ezekiel, and like me, and has considered the question: can these bones live?

He describes a conversion experience on a back staircase in the Fairmont Hotel in LA, not long after a less-than-successful protest against nuclear weapons: 
I was willing to do anything.  But there was nothing I could do. This realization dropped me midstride. I saw a service stairwell to my right, slipped inside and crumpled on the rough concrete stair. And I wept in despair for the world I so desperately wanted to save from itself. 
Then, for the first – and, to date, the clearest – time in my life, I heard the voice of God.
God said: the World is not yours, not to save or to damn. Only serve the one whose it is. (18)
 If our hope is in ourselves, we are headed for burnout, disillusionment, delusion, despair.
The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, Gustave  Doré,
1866, Paris, France

Ezekiel, in the valley of dry bones, appalled by the very many, very dry bones, knew for certain there was nothing he could do. Yet, when God said “Prophecy,” he did. When God said “Speak,” he said what he was told to say.

And then, in a way, the story grew more alarming. 
So I prophesied as I was commanded.
And while I was prophesying,
there came a voice, and - here! a commotion! -
and the bones came together,
bone to bone.
And I saw - here! - upon them muscles;
Flesh arose, skin covered them;
But there was no breath in them.
Which is worse: dry scattered bones, or lifeless bodies waiting for breath?

In a way, Advent is a celebration of this place in between: moving toward life, but not there yet.

The Kingdom of God is at hand. The Kingdom is still far in the distance.  

Peace has been proclaimed. Peace is nowhere to be seen.

The dead body is sitting up, but still not speaking clearly

The older I get, the more I invest in people and communities around me, the more clearly I see the depths of our dilemma and the more certain I am that the world is not mine to save.

I am not able to solve or even shake the entrenched racism and oblivious injustice that will put one in three African American men in prison, that continues to question the outrage of one more, and one more, and one more unarmed young man shot dead by those sworn to keep the peace.

My uneven boycott of slave-harvested chocolate, my uneven support of Fair Trade coffee, will never make a dent in immoral labor practices.

I'm not able to ensure safe food, water, air, for my own family, let alone this suffering, sorrowing world.

I can't heal the sick, restore broken families, fix broken systems.

As Wigg-Stevenson observes, in a moving chapter about a trip to Hiroshima to honor those who died there in 1944, 
The sin of the world is not some minor laceration. . . It is a vast and ragged puncture wound driven deep into the lungs and heart of creation itself. The divide stretches between us and God, and between every person and every other person. Even if we cared enough or were good enough to work in perfect concert to try to fix it (though we don’t and aren’t, and thus we won’t) we lack the capacity. The wound of sin is the very ground on which we live, eking out our unpredictable lives along its edge. (61) 
I look at the heritage of war, or slavery, or racism, I study the generations-long trail of abuse, deceit, abondonment, I listen to new stories of brokenness and ask:

The Valley of the Dry Bones, Abraham Rattner,
Urbana, Illinois, 1956
Can these bones live?

Honestly? From what I see? Is healing possible?


Give up.

Forget it.

Yet, we’re told not to give up. We’re commanded to hope.

And not just to hope for a time in the future, but to speak, act, live as agents of that future wholeness alive in this fractured present.

In Ezekiel’s vision, God simply said “Prophecy.”

Ezekiel obeyed.

When bones, flesh, muscle gathered into lifeless forms, Ezekiel didn’t turn and run, didn’t shut his eyes and pretend all was well. He simply waited for the next instruction.

Then obeyed again.

Knowing the earth wasn’t his to save, he chose to serve the one whose it is. 
Then God said,
"Prophesy to the rushing-breath-of-wind -
Prophesy, you child of earth! -
and say to the breathing-wind -
Thus says the Pillar of the World, the Breath of Life -
From the four breathing-winds come, O breath,
And puff upon these slain, that they shall live."
 There are days I start out with no vision of what the next step will be, and then words are given.

There are times when I stand in the middle of dry bones and watch in wonder as they spring to life.

There are moments when the rushing-breath-of-wind breathes through the valleys where I live, and I marvel, and go my way rejoicing.

There are seasons when I simply wait in hope. This is one of those seasons.  
No king is saved by the size of his army;
    no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
    despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him,
    on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
to deliver them from death
    and keep them alive in famine.
We wait in hope for the Lord;
    he is our help and our shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
    for we trust in his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
    even as we put our hope in you.  (Psalm 33:16-22)

modification of Velden Floating Advent Wreath, Johann Jaritz, Austria, 2009
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Austria license.

This is the first in a four week Advent series.

Earlier Advent posts on this blog:
Advent One: Rethinking Portfolios, Dec. 1, 2013
Advent Two: Resisting Idols and Injustice, Dec. 8, 2013
Advent Three: Redefining Home, Dec. 15, 2013
Advent Four: Rejoicing in Mystery,
Dec. 22, 2013
 Advent One: How Do I Know? Dec. 2, 2012
Advent Two: Outsiders In Dec. 9, 2012
Advent Three: Question. Fruit. Dec. 16, 2012
Advent Four: Sing Alleluia, Dec. 23, 2012
 Advent One: What I'm Waiting for, Nov. 26, 2011
Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011 
 Advent Two: John the Baptist,  Dec. 12, 2010
Mary's Song,  Dec. 19, 2010
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010