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New life for old bones

[Note: Ezekiel 37 is in the Revised Common Lectionary as an alternate reading for Pentecost Day in Year B as well being the Old Testament reading for Lent 5 in Year A]

Back in the sixties, we used to call him the psychedelic prophet, old Ezekiel. He was a man of strange visions -- those conscious dreamlike states that were then being sought out by people, usually young people, "seeking" something new in human consciousness. In those days when people started "turning on" to strange new states of consciousness, there was the thought that perhaps the key to some greater truth might be found in deliberately induced states of consciousness. Indeed I saw the beginnings of it in the late fifties at Harvard when they began to experiment with drugs to produce these changes. On one occasions I was asked to be present, as a non-participant observer, to take notes of what happened when they first tried the cactus drug that had been used in the ancient civilizations of Central America; and I wrote it up for a class in Anthropology. Later, by the time the new music and lighting effects that were associated with these visionary experiences became part of popular entertainment, some of those early experimenters were more or less loss in the cultic groups of the drug culture. They were revered as pioneers among the flower people of San Francisco ten years later. But, for most of them, the quick "trip" to an exotic land of "liberated" human consciousness failed to provide the foundations for an alternative life style that could endure. Yet the yearning for new life that drove them to these extremes is still with us today.

Searching for alternatives

Many and various ways have been tried and still are tried to "catch a glimpse into the spirit land" as the hymn writer put it many years ago. Besides drugs, others means were tried too, like meditation, ancient or modern rituals of group life, escape to life in a commune, absorption in the various creative and expressive arts, varieties of sexual experience, explorations of alternative religions, crystals, taro cards, astrology, tea leaves, all kinds of fortune telling, alterative therapies, and who knows what. Much of it has been caught up in what is known broadly as the New Age movement, which includes a great deal of nonsense and provides an income for many well intentioned people who are able to appeal to the superstition and credulity of a population that is hungry for spiritual things.

Anything goes, it seems, as long as it is not Christian! Having given up the church and traditional religion people seek alternatives to satisfy their spiritual hunger. Book shops are full of alternatives. Even where there is an interest in Christian traditions, the most fanciful, even ridiculous, constructions of the life of Christ sell very much better than straight forward accounts. Why do people prefer alternatives to the real thing? Why do people accept so much nonsense while refusing even to consider the riches of the Christian tradition? Perhaps it is because while the real thing offers more it also demands more, and in our consumer society people want everything at the lowest possible price, but there is more to it than that and some are prepared to pay high prices for the latest offerings.

The New Age movement does at least have the merit that it recognizes the spiritual nature of human beings. In that respect it is not far removed from the ancient or primitive religions it has sometimes sought to revive. These things all show that people are made for spiritual communion -- communion with what, they do not quite know, but with "God or something like that" perhaps. As St. Augustine prayed: You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.

If only people today would lay aside their prejudice and be prepared to learn from the Bible and Christian tradition they would find there great riches. Enough even to satisfy all their curiosity, the human capacity for wonder, and our ability to relate to something beyond ourselves and our everyday world. The riches of the kingdom far exceed any alternative, and they are worth the highest price that we can afford. Incidently, the riches of what we have received and the spiritual depth which is our heritage will not be shared through a few happy songs, puppet shows in worship or friendship meetings. There is nothing wrong with those things in themselves, and they can make a contribution to the life of the fellowship, but they are junk food compared with the solid food one needs to survive a dark night of the soul. A light undemanding consumer religion for a consumer society will inevitably leave people dissatisfied in the long run. There is no substitute for the real thing -- no short cut to the truth about God. And it is no accident that those religious organisations which do not compromise and make significant demands of their own have been doing well in recent years

It is worth the effort to know God. The One to whom we are directed is the Creator and Sustainer of all life and all that is. Being related to God, who is both beyond this world and still found within it, our ordinary lives begin also to make more sense. So when we come to the visionary prophets we find on the one hand strange characters whose experience in relation to the spirit world is as far removed from everyday life as any modern guru could hope to attain, yet we see in their visions a word spoken to the life of ordinary people, to the human family and nation. The visions of Ezekiel, the psychedelic prophet, illustrate a way through alternative consciousness to a greater truth, and at the same time offer words of warning and encouragement relevant to the life of church, family and nation today.

Ezekiel's vision

What do we make of Ezekiel's vision of the valley of the dry bones? [Ezekiel 37:1-14]. The central message is clear enough: God can breathe new life into old bones; it applies to a community of faith, like a church which appears to have been defeated, even destroyed like an army that was overcome in battle; and it applies to the individual person who feels defeated in life and faith and has no hope. You can live! If you hear the Word of God and respond to it you not only can live, but you shall live. The dry bones will come together no matter how far they have been scattered, and sinews will come upon them so that they can work together again, and flesh and skin will cover them, and even the breathe of life will come into those dead bodies when the wind of the Spirit blows. It is a message of hope -- the same hope that Jesus gave when he raised Lazarus from the dead.

But I have a problem with this. Did you notice that the story is not really focussed on what happened to the dry bones. The actors are not the bones, or the bodies they represent. The real characters in the drama are firstly God, who calls the prophet, Ezekiel, and tells him to prophecy to the dry bones, then there is character of Ezekiel who actually speaks to the bones -- "O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord" -- and to the wind -- "Blow upon these slain"; and, of course, the wind or spirit is the other active character. God, the prophet and wind-spirit are the characters who produce the action. It was quite a challenge for the prophet to do what God told him to do. It was quite an act of faith to tell the dry bones that they would live, and the first point of the drama, even in a dreamlike vision, was to decide whether Ezekiel had the faith to do that. Now my problem is this: while I have no doubt that God has the power to make old things new and to give life in the place of death, I am not sure whether I can apply this to our situation. Does it make any sense for the prophet to speak to the bones if they don't know that they dead?

Well, you might say it is a silly idea anyway - talking to a lot of old bones. Whoever thought of any sane person doing that. Like Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb, you must have great faith in what you are doing to do that; or better, you must have great faith in what God can do. Yet if you really believe in the power of God to give new life, and you believe that he cares enough to answer our pleas for life, then you might have faith enough to speak the word of hope to even the most hopeless. But what if there is still a pretense of well being. What if a little more relevance in the message, a little more attractive music, or human warmth and friendship might be what people want, but it is only so much more trivia? What if the dryness of the bones goes unrecognized! What if people, as individuals or as a body in the church or nation, do not know that they are dead? I suspect that in fact, when the life has gone out it, most people do know, as is were in their bones, that it has gone. Yet I fear that all too often we are afraid to admit the state we in.

The message of hope can only be heard when you are prepared to admit you are in trouble, when you can feel the dryness of the bones. As Kierkegaard, the Danish founder of existential philosophy, said We hope only when we cease to hope. I used to think when I was young that was a very profound saying, but I did not understand it. Now I do understand. It takes a lot of faith to proclaim the message of hope with honesty when you do not know whether people recognize the marks of death that are upon them.

My message first then is be realistic, stop looking for quick fixes or easy ways to bringing new life to an old congregation or to a personal life that has gone dry, or to a nation or community that has lost its way. Short cuts to the new world are an illusion. First face the reality. There is not just a little bit of sickness around, but a mortal shadow is cast. To change the metaphor if you don't know that the ship is virtually on the rocks you might not be very interested in changing direction; and, to stay with the metaphor, it takes a lot of time and effort to turn a ship around. It can be done if your small strength is multiplied by the mechanisms that are built into the ship and you make use of power beyond yourself, especially the driving force that propels the ship. In the olden days we would have said we must allow the wind to blow the ship in the right direction. The point is that whether you are steering a ship or commanding an army in the desert you have to know the dangers you are in and the source of life which gives you power to change if you are to survive.

Ezekiel had the faith to proclaim the word of hope to a people without hope. He believed in the power of God to breathe new life into old bones in a bleak windswept desert valley. When you too can see the scattered dry bones of defeat, you too will be able to hear the message of the psychedelic prophet. In the New Testament, as the raising of Lazarus gave promise of the raising of others from the dead, we are encouraged through the raising of Jesus from the dead to expect new life for deadest selves and most hopeless institutions, even those seduced by the revival of pagan religions and superstitions, all the dead bones can live again:-

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