What do you see?

April 6, 2014




Rev. Anneke Oppewal

Ezekiel 37: 1-14; Psalm 130



“What do you see?”



Ezekiel 37 is one of my favourite Bible passages. Whenever I come across it, it never fails to touch me, move me and inspire me.


I find it easy to identify with Ezekiel. Not only because there have been times in my life where I have hit rock bottom and the world around me seemed to consist of nothing but dead, dry bones; but also because, when I look at the bigger picture, the wider world around me, I sometimes wonder, and at times can feel overwhelmed, by all the deadness and dryness that is in evidence around me.


The last few weeks have been such a time.


Losing my voice, being locked up at home, not able to talk and communicate, not able to throw myself into work, too sick to even venture out for a cup of coffee or walk the dog, my spirits started to drop significantly. With way too much time to worry, every molehill changed into a mountain, and thoughts that at other times I have been able to keep at bay, started to bug me with a vengeance.


Vulnerable, unwell, and, with physical and mental barriers down that usually protect me from getting too gloomy, I seemed to feel the sadness and deadness of the world more than I usually have time for, or more than I usually allow myself to indulge in.


It was not a pleasant experience. I would not recommend anybody going on a forced six week silent retreat like that. Ever.

Even for Lent.


However, I learned things that I would not have learned if it hadn’t happened and I am the better for it (I think).


I have been forced to have a good, long, look at any deadness and dryness in my life, without the ability to turn away, go for a walk and forget about it. I have discovered that I am stronger than I thought, physically, but especially mentally.


About half way, the song “We’re going on a bear hunt” came to mind. I don’t know if you know it. We used to sing it in the car with the kids on long road trips. It goes somewhat like this: “We are going on a bear hunt (2x), we’re not going around it (2x), not going over it (2x), not going under it (2x), we are going through it!” To discover at the very end of the song, after going through everything twice, that you are alright, and have learned from the experience.


One of the things that really filled me with gloominess was watching the news on Syria. I know there are lots of other desolate, dead and dry places in the world, but right now, for me, that was about as desolate as it gets. The images of refugee camps that go on for miles and miles and miles; the destruction, the children, the hopelessness of it all.


So when I was reading Ezekiel this week, Syria was the first thing that popped into my mind when thinking of a valley full of dead bones. If there ever was a valley of death, it must be on that small strip of land that connects Europe, Africa and Asia, which has been war-ravaged and conflict-riddled from the days before Abraham.


I also thought of our recent visit to Mumbai, where 62% of the 19 million population live in substandard conditions in that large, bustling city. And the many other places in the world where millions more are forced to live in places where mere survival is near impossible. Dead! Dry! Hopeless! And on a scale that makes it impossible to imagine it could ever be different, turned around, or made better.


Do you ever get overwhelmed by it all? I do, and over the last few weeks I got even more overwhelmed than I would normally allow myself to be.


So when I started preparation for this Sunday, the image of a lonely prophet, confronted with a valley full of dead, dry bones stretching as far as the eye could see immediately resonated with me.


Ezekiel is a prophet whose people had been forced into exile some thirty years before. Their country laid waste, their homes, their places of worship, their traditions, their families, their lives torn to pieces and reduced to rubble. It is likely that he suffered from what we would call today Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, laying him open to feelings of depression, sadness and despair.


“Can these bones live?” Looking at the reality of his life and his people, the immediate answer would probably have been “No, don’t be ridiculous!”


His response is somewhat more cautious than that, but it sure sounds like the prophet is too tired and depressed to even have a go at mustering faith and plastering a positive smile on his face and seeing the glass half-full. Ezekiel doesn’t say: “O sure God, nothing is impossible for you.” He says: “Oh, you know…, whatever….”


There isn’t any evidence here of a strong, great and glittering faith, an unbeatable optimism and trust that God can, and will, make all things well.


No, by the sound of it, Ezekiel is well and truly in the dumps. His faith has hit rock bottom and all he can see, stretching to the furthest horizon, is deadness. No future, no life, no positivity, nothing.


God does not admonish Ezekiel for his lack of faith and optimism.  He doesn’t tell him to get on with it, keep his chin up, be brave and make the best of it. Instead, God brings the prophet back to the source, back to the core of what brings life. The word. God’s word. A word he is to speak into the deadness. And that word, God’s word, is what then brings an incredible change, and works a miracle.


It is not Ezekiel’s hard work, but God’s word that makes the difference and fills the totally empty glass to the brim.


And the image of a valley of dead bones has, for people who know the story, who have read these God-given words, never been the same again.


Can these bones live? Looking at the photos of the refugee camps in Syria, we may wonder. We shake our heads in despair. Humanly speaking, from ground zero perspective it seems totally impossible. It seems totally impossible to imagine that crisis resolving itself any time soon.


I started to look for pictures to put on screen today of that image, and of that passage from Ezekiel.  I typed in “Syria” and “life”, and all sorts of things started to surface that gave me hope. With the words from scripture in the back of my mind, the pictures brought life into the deadness. They put flesh and muscle on those stark, desperate pictures I’d seen on the news. Smiling children, schools set up by aid agencies, food and water being distributed, a family around the table. Not that it changes the deadness, the despair, the hopelessness of the situation. But it breaks it up, gives it a face, brings it to life.


Suddenly I was no longer looking at an anonymous mass of pain, but at people, individuals in need. Suddenly I could see the hundred dollars given to the Share Appeal making a difference, even if only twenty-five of those dollars actually makes it to that little girl who lost her legs stepping on a mine.


Thinking of little boys making a peace sign, and looking so happy in spite of everything they are going through, somehow made it easier to pray, for them and for the mess they are in. It made it easier to imagine that some of them might make it to Australia, or some other country. It might be possible to make people care enough to let them in, offer them a chance, get them out. And it might be possible to make a difference and it would mean something if we did.


Another valley of dry bones I’ve struggled with is the Church. Not being well enough, desperation about what has been happening seemed to hit me even harder than before.  I’ve lost a lot of faith in the Church, in its functionality, in its future, in its life. I’ve felt betrayed, angry, lost, and sad. I’ve felt my faith being undermined by the institution that should be in the business of nurturing it, and my energy sucked up by disturbing and unsettling processes and turbidity.


The Church is my life, and it has been for the last 30 odd years.  Over the last couple of months, everything it stood for has taken a severe battering. To the question “Can these bones live?”, the answer would probably have to be Ezekiel’s: “You know God…but I really can’t see how.”


And then, perhaps because my health started improving, or perhaps just because fortunately God never leaves me very long in a black and desperate mood like that (at least so far), or because I am fortunate enough to be blessed with a mind and soul that stubbornly refuses to give in to darkness and death, whatever happens – light, and life, began to return, little by little.


First, I found Eeyore on the internet. He gave me an opportunity to put flesh and muscle around my sadness and express it. Where I found it difficult to smile at the feeling of desolation that had descended on me, it was much easier to smile at Eeyore and see that he was, and I might be, only a sad, lonely old donkey in need of a bit of tlc.


When I returned to Church, the word spoke, the hymns moved, the prayers touched, and helped me see past the gloominess, the emptiness, and hear the stirrings of life.


Then I talked (whispered) to a Church friend and confessed (and that is a hard one for me) how bad I’d been feeling. And she sat with me, shared the sadness, acknowledged that yes, humanly, objectively speaking, it didn’t look too good. That she shared my despair but could feel that somewhere, somehow, God was in there, shining a light, helping to hope, to trust, that God was not done creating and transforming the world yet.


Lovely messages on my answering machine, little cards, offers to help, they all helped to see past the deadness and find life and light again.


Reading Ezekiel made me realise that in the end, for me, it is very simple what God asks of me. God doesn’t ask of me to solve the world’s problems. He doesn’t ask me to worry myself sick about the suffering in Syria or Mumbai or anywhere else in the world. He doesn’t ask me to work myself into the ground trying to contribute and make a difference. And he doesn’t ask me to save the Church or feel guilty about failing to turn it around.


Reading Ezekiel (and preparing for my talk about call at the ladies lunch today) brought me back to my call. My call to preach the word and leave the hard work to God.


To me, that is what Ezekiel is about. The bones don’t vanish, they are not spirited away. The deadness, the dryness, it is there, but what makes the difference is the speaking of the Word of God into that deadness by the prophet.


Indicating that against all hope and expectation, words of hope and life will bring the Spirit down, and help us to see flesh and muscle instead of deadness and despair. It will help us evaluate the deadness in a different way, and will fill us with glimmers of hope.  In that way, the answer to the question “Can these bones live?” might, in some miraculous, totally impossible and unexpected way, be “yes”.


The hope of Easter. That deadness and dryness is there, it is part of life, and overwhelmingly so at times, but that it is not all there is. There is something different beyond it, a still small voice calling life from death, penetrating the darkest despair with hope. It assures us that there is life in the valley of death, that God is present, even there, and working on transformation, creating a new world. Amen.