Becoming Whole Again
I remember starting the 5th grade. There was some confusion about what teacher I had that year. You see, my teacher had just been married. The previous year, she was Ms Slaughter…not exactly the name you want to see on your Welcome Back to School letter. “Your in Ms Slaughter’s class!” After getting married over the summer, Ms. Slaughter became Mrs. Simple. Pretty dramatic change in names… at least in the mind of a 5th grader.
Her class was one that most kids wanted because of a big end of year field trip to Camp Durant. Well, the year went by and I was a good student and of course got to go on the field trip. At least, I was a good student until that trip. You see, I got lost during that class field trip.
Now, the story may knot sound all that dramatic, but it was for a young boy of eleven who wandered off to explore and I stead got lost. It may have only been for a few hours, but, when you are lost and eleven years old in a forest and you are supposed to be with your entire class doing an assignment, a few hours seem like a lifetime.
Actually a small group of us wandered off. We were doing our assignment and getting ahead of the rest of the class. Having fun… exploring the creeks, hiking over rocks, and climbing over fallen trees. Doing rubbings of things in nature, making molds of animals tracks out of some concoction our teacher gave us. And everything was fine until we realized that the class was no longer right behind us. In fact we could not even hear them. And the feeling of freedom turned to concern when we realized after some time that We were all lost.
We tried over and over to find our classmates. And each time, We were sure that we had found the right path. But, of course, we couldn’t…every path we followed just got us more and more lost. Eventually we just wanted to get out of the forest. We would try a new direction, and think we had finally found the way…only to discover we had either gone in a circle or just gotten more lost and confused than before. The truth is, we wanted to get out and so we only saw what we wanted to see…
Eventually, We accepted the defeat. And just trudged along fearing two things. One, that we would end up on the news, “kids eaten by bears while on field trip.” And second…and in our minds the worse of the two possibilities….we would find our way back and face the wrath of our teacher. And we had no illusions that she would live up to her married name Ms Simple, if we found our way back. We knew that she would live up to her maiden name….Ms Slaughter.
Well, eventually we came upon a peak along the path where we could some of the forest. And because of the height, at least as i remember it, we could see the cabin areas where we were staying. And once we could see the entire forest and the place of those cabins in it, we ran as fast as We could to get back.
And this was a good lesson for a 5th graders. As we went from tree to tree, from rock to creek, we got anxious, worried, stressed. When we realized we were passing a tree we had already passed before, we began to feel lost and alone. And when the trees and paths and rocks just all seemed to look the same, it was as if there was a barrage of forest being thrown up at us as if to laugh at us because it was all to big a maze, to immense of a puzzle for our young minds to understand and find our way through.
We all feel lost, anxious and lonely from time to time throughout life. Consider:
- Have you suffered from anxiety? Or at least feel anxious from time to time?
- Have you found that at times in your life you have just been too tense, too wound up, too strained, stretched or stressed?
- Have you have felt lonely…? Alone in the world despite the family and friends around you, as if no one understands you or your life circumstances. Or maybe there are just not enough people around you…and you truly are alone more often than not.
- Have you felt that sometimes life just throws too much at you, that the needs of family and friends require more time that you have to give, that you seem to be sick more than you are well, that tragedy after tragedy has made crisis seem normal….and you just need a break, some relief…something good…?
When I feel like this, I try to stop and be still. I breathe. And I usually discover that there is this great dissonance within me. That life is just too full, overwhelming me with pain and problems.
And yet deep within I feel empty, broken, fragmented, and lifeless. As if life needs me to be an overflowing fountain of goodness and service, solutions and positivity, of love and grace…
But I am not overflowing, I’m not running water… Heck, I’m not even a dripping faucet… I am just bare bones dry…parched, full of nothing but dust.
I have felt this way a lot in my years of ministry. But never more than months right before I moved back here, to home. Life was throwing everything it could at Joanie and I… supporting multiple couples in our lives who had experienced infidelity in their marriage, one of those couples essentially kicking us out of our home and their lives, job opportunities that ended in choosing another candidates, selling our Charlotte home at a loss, still reeling from leaving the ministry and community we founded and our former partners in ministry essentially writing us out of the story, wondering where God was in all these situations… struggling to find peace, to stay focused, to follow God’s call….and that is just the beginning…
Never have I felt more overwhelmed, barren, empty and dry as that time…
I suspect you have experienced something similar in your life… Perhaps triggered by the loss of a job, a friend or loved one. Perhaps by the choices of a child, or a spouse or maybe even your own choices. Perhaps those feelings were triggered in you by some failure or maybe a hope that did not come to fruition. Perhaps they have even been an accident, illness, cancer or disease….that just brought you to the end of your rope.
And don’t think of my story – or any one else’s – as more dramatic than what you may have experienced. Sure there are large than Life situations that you hear others have experienced, like the young man I met this week who has experienced loss after loss within his family to such a degree that you just have to say aloud, “that is more than anyone should have to experience in one lifetime, much less such a young person.”
The truth is we have all experienced times of despair and depression on some level. Times when we were not sure we could make it through. Times when we felt like we did not have enough strength, enough fortitude, enough prayers, enough hope to get through a difficult moment. Times when we just felt worn out, burned out, empty, dry and lifeless.
This is the kind of time that the Prophet Ezekiel spoke to. A time when Israel had lost everything. Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem, including the Temple, and the Israelites had been deported and were now scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire. If ever there was a time for people to feel anxiety, loss, despair, strained, lonely, stressed, overwhelmed, broken, empty, dry and full of nothing but dust, this was it.
Listen to the story Ezekiel shares with his fellow Exiles. To the description of their life situation. And to what God will do:
The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.
He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”
I said, “Lord God, only you know.”
He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word! The Lord God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.”
I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.
He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”
I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.
He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.”
This is the word of God…
Listen to this key line again:
Our bones are dried up. Our hope has perished. We are completely finished.
YET god promises to open our graves, to raise us up, to saturate our dried out souls with living water until we are fertile, to strengthen us by putting muscle upon our barren bones, to breathe life into our lifelessness.
And the best news about all this is it is not just an image of a heavenly resurrection, of our spirits resurrected from dead bodies, of passing from this physical life into an everlasting spiritual life. No, not at all. This is about being brought back to physical life. About being reanimated by God. About the dryness and emptiness of your earthly life being physically nourished and filled here, now, today. This is a resurrection of the flesh. This is what NT Wright described in his book
Surprised by Hope:
Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about. …
The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.
And I think one of the keys to getting through the dry times of life is right here. Realizing that what you do with your life in the present matters. What you do, what you think, how you respond….it matters. Every time you listen to someone, every time you help someone, with everything you do you touch someone’s life, you literally build the kingdom of God everyday with what you do!
So…Stop. Be still. Breathe deeply. You are alive! Realize that.
Life is a gift. A gift you receive everyday. When someone makes you laugh, that is an amazing gift. When someone cries upon your shoulder, it is a treasured moment. The food you eat, an amazing creation of God and a gift for your health and happiness. Your family….your greatest blessing (even despite how frustrating they can be!). Your friends….how many of us would be here today without them. Treasured memories of loved ones passed on…. those are all part of the goodness of life and if we stop, and think about the simple things we take for granted, we can, with God’s help, put ourselves back together.
In fact, your listening, your paying attention, your realization of the goodness of God in the simplest and smallest of things… this is part of how God stitches us back together like Ezekiel describes. God puts sinews on our dry bones by showing us the kingdom we are helping to build, by reminding us that everything we do matters, by showing us our value, by continuing to give us life day after day.
And all we have to do to receive the gift of being stitched back together, the gift of resurrection, is to stop, to slow down, to pay attention, to listen and realize that utter awe of living. It means slowing down and not seeing just tree after tree of problems and issues and trials and difficulty.
But instead backing away from the trees and looking at the entire forest….and realizing that it is good. When you do, you may just find that God is breathing new life into you and, just like those dry bones, you are becoming whole again.