Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Some years ago I was in a desert in Southern California, literally wandering around in the desert after my mother’s passing. I had gone to the desert to come to terms with the monumental reality of losing a parent. Parents, of course, are the fundamental wellspring of love in your life. And even though I thought I had my act together, my life was surprisingly in confusion, my direction and purpose deeply shaken. I had no idea that losing my mother would create such deep turmoil for me. And so I retreated to a desert, the place to which even Jesus fled when his life was suddenly plunged into a new direction.
Surprisingly, it is in the barren, dry, silent desert---where life is threatened---that God’s reassuring Word is whispered into exhausted and broken hearts.
I had several powerful and challenging experiences during those days I spent under the dry heat and hot sun. I woke up one morning with a coyote staring right at my face, while I remained frozen and worried that he would smell my fear. I misunderstood the sound of a snake’s rattle and went closer to investigate the unfamiliar sound, and again froze like a statue when I realized the source. I survived both mortal dangers.
And one day when I was walking, I came across an extraordinary sight: hundreds and hundreds of dry-boned skeletons of animals. Spread out over a huge area were the skulls of what I assumed were cattle, and ribs and bones of smaller animals, the remnants perhaps of coyotes and rabbits and prairie dogs. Many looked like they had been there for a very long time, bleached by the burning sun, blasted by sand that had blown across them over the years.
How did they all come to be here, I wondered.
I noticed a depression in the landscape, and surmised that it had once been home to a source of water, a large lake of some sort, perhaps. And maybe these were the remains of those poor creatures who had instinctually come for the life-giving water that had somehow disappeared. I suddenly felt so badly for them, these innocent victims of the harsh earth on which they were born.
And as I was thinking about their fate, the wonderful story from Ezekiel came to mind, and the song about it came to my head. And since I was out in the desert all by myself, I had no trouble singing it out over the scene in front of me:
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones Now, hear the Word of the Lord.
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun' Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun' Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun' Oh, hear the Word of the Lord.
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna rise again Dem bones, dem bones, gonna rise again Dem bones, dem bones, gonna rise again Now, hear the Word of the Lord. Ezekiel tells how God led him into a desert valley filled with millions of dead dry human bones spread out over hundreds of miles. Ezekiel and his fellow Jews had been driven from their homeland by their enemies, and were again wandering around in the desert. God asks Ezekiel to tell the bones to hear the word of the Lord, promising that He will make them breath again. And Ezekiel did as the Lord asked, and God joined bone to bone, flesh grew over them, and then God breathed life back into them and they became a vast army for the whole house of Israel.
Back bone connected to the shoulder bone Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone Neck bone connected to the head bone Now hear the word of the Lord
Ezekiel’s story tells us that God can do whatever He wants to do. With God, nothing is impossible. If God wants these dead, dry bones to live, they’ll live!
“Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them…I will put my spirit in you that you may live.” Live again, these bones. But for what purpose?
After singing over them, I looked at dem bones of God’s creatures in the desert before me, and wondered if I sung the song over my mama’s grave on a hillside overlooking the mighty Hudson River, would the bones connect, the flesh come to life, would I hear her voice again calling me by my name, Jimmy? Would God give her back to me, even for a little while, and if so, for what purpose?
And then there was Lazarus. When he succumbed to the final sleep, his sisters with reddened eyes were upset with Jesus, who failed to arrive with his healing power before their brother died. I wonder, did they remember Ezekiel’s miraculous story of dem bones, dem dry bones? I don’t think that they believed enough in Jesus, I don’t think their imaginations were great enough to dream that Jesus could conquer even death itself.
Sometimes I’m not sure that my imagination is great enough either. I’m not sure I always trust that Jesus can conquer the death that I often see around me. Sometimes when I think of the church, it feels like I’m standing back in that desert looking at the remnants of a once life-filled community. Sometimes I look at the empty valley and wonder if the dry bones can ever be given life again. How to give our brothers and sisters hope that they are not alone, that life is filled with grace, that each one of us is so incredibly precious to the one who made us? How to help us see that we need each other, that we are not separated by our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, our politics, our wealth, our bodies, our minds, that we are all really and truly brothers and sisters and that we can be the face of Love and the Word of God to one another?
Them bones, them bones, them dry bones. Them beautiful bones, them amazing bones, them holy bones.
The bones were raised in Ezekiel’s valley and given new life, and the bones and flesh of Lazarus were reformed and revived by Jesus. Lazarus was resurrected, belatedly answering the prayers of his sisters Martha and Mary. The army that was raised by God through Ezekiel’s words went on to protect the people of Israel. But they didn’t live forever. They all died again, and their bones wound up on desert floors and in catacombs. You know, we never hear about Lazarus again in the Gospels, we have no idea what happened to him after that, no idea how much longer he lived. Lazarus returned from the dead for who knows how many years, but he did die again, you know, he did finally bite the dust for good. So what did those extra years amount to, what did they mean, and wouldn't he have been better off dead than having 15 more years in the rat race? What did resurrected life buy him or his sisters?
I thought about that as I looked upon the sun-baked bones of the creatures in my desert. I thought about my mama. What would a few more years with her have given to me?
I got my answer on the plane home from California. I was alone in my thoughts up there, my mind lost in thoughts of my own mortality. It's easy to think on a plane--that drone of the engines, the air gently blowing down from above, the cabin darkened in the night save for a few people reading by the lights above their seats.
I felt a slight pressure to my left, interrupting my thoughts. "Isn't that the most beautiful thing you ever saw?" he said, my neighbor to my left, a young guy maybe 20 years old. I hadn't even noticed him there, till he leaned over to look out at the glowing lights outside my window.
He was aglow himself, his face amazed, in awe, in wonderment at the sea of orange and blue-ish lights that stretched on forever in the land below our plane. "It's just like before my accident, when I was in California and we were driving along and I looked ahead at these dark blue clouds and they kept getting bigger and bigger, and then someone said, those aren't clouds, those are mountains, and it was the most wonderful thing I've ever seen."
He was smiling, looking out the window at the beauty of those million earth-bound stars, and I didn't completely understand, I didn't know what it was exactly that he was talking about, until I noticed, for the first time, the emptiness beneath his pant legs. And then I realized, then I knew what resurrected life buys you. I saw Lazarus sitting beside me on the plane.
I think that the dry bones of the Ezekiel’s desert and the deteriorating flesh of Lazarus were raised because God needed to show us who is the real fundamental wellspring of love in our lives. More than our parents could ever be, it is God who guarantees Love that is never bound by earthly time or earthly substance. We live and we die, and so does the Church, but we are always resurrected, aren’t we?
For centuries in mountain monasteries, the monks would begin a new day with one word, calling out from their beds when they awakened, 'resurrexit'-- ‘he awakens’, 'he’s awake'--to let the community know they were up and ready for another day.
Your eyes open in the morning to the sound of the garbage trucks outside your window, and you lay there in your bed and you say softly to yourself, and to God, 'resurrexit', he awakens, she gets up, he comes out, another miracle performed for us, Jesus Christ raising us from the dead of the night, another day given over to us to gaze in wonderment at the beauty that surrounds us, to shout it out ourselves to everyone within earshot of our voice.
Resurrexit, by his power we are awakened, by his power, yes, the Church will be revived, and by his grace we get up, come out for nothing else but to give praise and reverence to the one who brings everything to life, keeps every dry bone alive in his love on earth and in the heavens.
There is no more significant thing than that to do with our resurrected lives, to shout it out to everyone we meet, resurrexit, we awaken, we get up, we come out again and again, by the power and the glory and the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, praise him, praise God forever and ever, Amen.