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“CAN THESE BONES LIVE?”
A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, April 10, 2011
“To be or not to be: that is the question.”
No it’s not. The question is: “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel, Chapter 37. He has a vision of a great valley, bleached white with the bones of Israel. The scene is obviously the aftermath of some great battle, but the real context is the author’s despair at the fate of a nation in exile. “Can these bones live?” Is there, by some miracle, a chance that God can breathe life into this dead corpse called Israel? Or is all hope lost?
A nation in exile. They wait, helpless. “Can these bones live?” Will there be the promised Restoration? In the meantime, there is only waiting. And waiting is hard. It is frustrating. It is depressing. We hate to wait. It is so inconvenient. We try to breathe life into the dry bones of our lives in many ways. We run up our charge cards. We mortgage our houses. We mug the ATM. We try to breathe into ourselves a kind of life called “enjoyment.” Remember the folk song called “Instant Breakfast”? It goes like this:
“Instant breakfast, instant life,
Anything easy ‘cuz that’s what I like –
Fast food places and banks with no lines,
Anything easy, that will do fine.
Polaroid cameras, remote garage doors,
Instant coffee, K-Mart stores,
Avon ladies right at your door,
Home computers, who could want more?
Instant Christian, changed overnight,
Anything easy ‘cuz that’s what we like.
Help me grow, Lord. Show me how.
Give me some patient. I want it now!”
Oh, how we hate to wait in the valley of the dry bones! It’s not only inconvenient, it is humiliating. We live in a society where power connotes immediacy. Those with power don’t wait. Those without are put on hold. Waiting is humiliating because it defines our powerlessness. We can work hard, but many times can’t see the result. All we see are those dry bones. But, “can these bones LIVE?”
One writer explains our existential uneasiness in terms of a railroad trip. Tucked away in our subconscious minds is a vision in which we see ourselves on a long journey. But uppermost in our conscious minds is our final destination. We see it as happening on a given day, when our train will pull into the station with flags waving and bands playing. It will be a day when all the jagged pieces of our lives will fit together like a completed jigsaw puzzle.
In the meantime, we restlessly pace the aisles, counting the miles, peering ahead, cursing the minutes for being so slow, waiting, waiting, waiting for the station. We repair to the diner car and enjoy a sumptuous feast, ever checking our watches. Then we party in the celebration car till midnight. Then it’s off to bed, hoping we will pull into the station in the morning. We wake up. There yet? We don’t even consider the possibility that on this set of tracks there is no station.
M. Craig Barnes, a Presbyterian pastor in Washington, D.C., tells the story of Norma. Norma is very involved in the local church and has been following Jesus for a long time. She went to a Christian college, married a Christian man and awaited a Christian family. But this was when her Savior became confusing. They discovered that they couldn’t have children.
So they adopted. Three times, in fact. Norma discovered that she was a good mother, after all, but she couldn’t reconcile the fact that Jesus didn’t come through for her so she could have her own, biological baby. She became disenchanted with her faith and stopped going to church.
Then one day a social worker called to ask Norma if she would consider adopting Debbie, an older child who came from a troubled background. Norma was eager, since this was what she knew how to do. She was sure she could change this little girl’s life by filling it with love. She was wrong.
Debbie had suffered much abuse as a child and the emotional scars ran deep. After valiant efforts, Norma realized that she didn’t have what it took to nurture this lost sheep who called her “Mom.” She didn’t know how to love this angry child. So she prayed for God’s grace. But you have to be careful about what you pray for, because God’s grace was going to take her to a place she’d rather not have gone.
For nine long years Norma and her husband struggled to raise Debbie. And on her graduation day from high school, Debbie ran off to Chicago with her friends, despite the fact that Norma had planned an elaborate graduation party for all of the out-of-town relatives.
It turns out that Debbie was, indeed, a gift from God. But she wasn’t given over to Norma’s care so Norma could prove something. It turns out that Norma was the needy one. It was Norma who needed to be saved from herself.
Since, Norma and her husband have returned to church. They are heading up a new program to help at-risk youth and when church members volunteer to help out, Norma spends a lot of time cautioning them about trying to “fix” the kids. She tells the volunteers to expect to be rejected. She tells them that they won’t be appreciated for trying to make a difference. But making a difference is not the point, she says. Giving away love is the point.
Fred Craddock remembers when he was a boy, on his back on the green grass, looking up at the clear evening sky. His father, next to him, asked him, “Son, how far can you think?”
He replied, “What?”
“How far can you think?”
“Well, I don’t know what you mean.”
“Just think as far as you can think up towards the stars.”
So Fred thought and thought and thought upwards. “OK, that’s as far as I can think.”
His father said, “Well, drive a stake out there. In your mind, drive down a stake. That’s how far you can think. Now, what’s on the other side of your stake?”
“More sky,” Fred answered.
“Then move your stake.”
Fred spent the evening moving his stake out and out and out. You can do the same. And one of those stakes will reveal the answer to the question, “can these bones live?”