Bones and Breath 

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                              March 29, 2020

Ezekiel 37:1-14

 

In Peru there is a valley called Toro Muerto—meaning Dead Bull—in which there is a 5 square kilometer area with over 3000 boulders carved with petroglyphs dating back to the last half of the last millennium. Archaeologists believe that people came to this valley to die. While they waiting for death to take them, they carved their life stories on the rocks. The petroglyphs are stunning and well-preserved because there is no moisture and no life of any kind in this area. It never rains. There are no plants, animals, birds, nor even insects. You walk on only dust and rock. Off to the side, we saw some backhoe excavations that had uncovered graves. We were disturbed to see skulls and human bones scattered within and around the holes like refuse. This truly was death valley, where even the dry bones were not allowed to lie in peace.

This is the vision portrayed for us in the book of Ezekiel. The dry, white bones of a massacred people lay scattered and desecrated. Into this desolate place of hopelessness, God began to breathe life. The bones rattled back into position as sinew and flesh grew. But still, there was no life. And so God called to the Spirit, Ruach, from the four winds. The east wind with its new beginnings began to blow; the south wind with its energy and vitality moved through the bodies; the west wind with its fruitfulness and nurture began to nudge the still forms; and finally the north wind with its wisdom blew the final puff of breath into lungs that began to breathe on their own.

What did this strange vision of Ezekiel mean? The scattered bones represented the people of Israel, scattered in their exile, disconnected from one another. They had lost their land, their identity as a people, their very purpose of being. Ezekiel was telling them that, even in the worst of situations where there seemed to be no hope at all, Ruach, the Holy Breath of God, would breathe into them new life, bring them back to their land, and give them new hope.

Anthropologist, Margaret Mead was once asked what she considered to be the first sign of civilization. The person asking was expecting her to name fish hooks, clay pots or grinding stones. But instead, she said that she looked for a bone that had healed. She explained that when animals break a leg, they don’t survive long enough for their bone to heal. When she found a healed thigh bone, in particular, it told her that someone had taken the time to care for that person until their bone had healed. Her conclusion was that “helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.”

Even our bones tell the story of our humanity. The first evidence is our communal care for one another. We are socially-wired beings and our connection with one another is crucial for our emotional, mental, spiritual and even physical health. When we’re scattered and isolated in our own spaces, disconnected from one another, we begin to lose part of what defines our humanity.

A couple of weeks ago, it seemed as though I was walking through a ghost town when I went to the mall and found my tea shop closed, along with most other stores. Emotions were close to the surface that day as I breathed in the still air, with only shadows where crowds once mingled. Although I enjoy time alone—and even revel in silent retreats—I was caught off guard by how emotional I was to experience shuttered stores and empty walkways. The reality of our social isolation was beginning to sink in.

Our global society is in distress. People are losing their jobs and income; businesses are struggling to survive. The normal stressors of life are amplified. I am relieved, though, in the midst of this, to find that people are already beginning to search for creative ways to stay connected and to be able to care for one another. Social media platforms for mutual aid are springing up in Winnipeg, allowing us opportunity to share our resources with those in need. In Wolseley, every Saturday at 4 pm neighbours on a block stand on their verandas and form the Canora St. Social Distancing Choir as they sing favourite songs together. When we begin to reconnect creatively, we will find God’s Spirit of healing breathing life back into our disconnected lives.

Last Monday, in the middle of my sermon writing, I joined our block in hosting a birthday celebration for a 4 year-old boy, whose birthday party at the Children’s Museum was cancelled. When our block heard about it, they decided to decorate the whole street with streamers and balloons and then be ready to stand, each on their own veranda, to sing happy birthday when little Darik passed by on his daily outing with his parents. A musician brought out his string bass and played happy birthday. Another played his djembe. Yet others had made posters on their verandas. We all tried to keep our social distance while decorating and celebrating. Our whole block became alive and received the best antidote for social isolation. It was as much a present for us as it was for Darik.

The root of the word religion is “religare”, meaning to bind. At its very heart, religion of any stripe connects people to one another, bringing an ethic of social responsibility. Rev. John Pentland recently wrote that our current social responsibility honours physical distancing, not social distancing. As we keep our physical distance, our faith calls us to creatively strengthen our social bonds. This pandemic may actually increase social closeness.

We may also be finding a new way to live that is more life-giving for all of Creation. The laboured breath of the earth, itself, is beginning to ease. There are incredible maps of Italy and of China that show how the level of nitrogen dioxide has reduced significantly since the shutdown of factories. You can see the maps on a link in the notes on the website below the video.[1]

What would happen if, after this pandemic is over, we could globally collaborate on climate change as quickly and passionately as we have around COVID-19? Will we be a changed people? Will we welcome Ruach, the Holy Breath of God to sweep through our midst and bring healing not only to our bodies, but also to our spirits and to the earth, itself?

I close with a poem that has been circulating on the internet. It is entitled Lockdown, written by a Capuchin Brother Richard Hendrick from Ireland. Ironically, I received it on St. Patrick’s Day.

 

LockDown by Brother Richard

 

Yes there is fear.

Yes there is isolation.

Yes there is panic buying.

Yes there is sickness.

Yes there is even death.

 

But,

They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise

You can hear the birds again.

They say that after just a few weeks of quiet

The sky is no longer thick with fumes

But blue and grey and clear.

 

They say that in the streets of Assisi

People are singing to each other

across the empty squares,

keeping their windows open

so that those who are alone

may hear the sounds of family around them.

 

They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland

Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.

Today a young woman I know

is busy spreading fliers with her number

through the neighbourhood

So that the elders may have someone to call on.

 

Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples

are preparing to welcome

and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary

All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting

All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way

All over the world people are waking up to a new reality

To how big we really are.

To how little control we really have.

To what really matters.

To Love.

 

So we pray and we remember that

Yes there is fear.

But there does not have to be hate.

Yes there is isolation.

But there does not have to be loneliness.

Yes there is panic buying.

But there does not have to be meanness.

 

Yes there is sickness.

But there does not have to be disease of the soul

Yes there is even death.

But there can always be a rebirth of love.

Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.

Today, breathe.

Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic

The birds are singing again

The sky is clearing,

Spring is coming,

And we are always encompassed by Love.

Open the windows of your soul

And though you may not be able

to touch across the empty square,

Sing.

 

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2020/03/22/video-watch-from-space-as-air-pollution-vanishes-over-china-during-coronavirus-lockdown-then-returns/#3b167ef535f0