This is a fact of life. Everyone goes through times when they feel invigorated and excited -- full of purpose and curiosity. And everyone goes through times when you feel like a crusty old fossil. But this passage suggests that God can renew even a pile of very old bones, can “Cause breath to enter them” and to bring them back to life. Traditionally this passage refers to the people of Israel, but in that moment at our preaching workshop Forbes , a minister himself, was trying to give encouragement to us and to our congregations. He wanted us to have faith that even if we felt like dry bones, the spirit of life can re-animate us.
Have you ever felt like a pile of dry bones? Sometimes it’s easy to re-animate ourselves; going out of town for the weekend, a fresh coat of paint, or reading a new book will make us feel right as rain. Other times, the dryness goes on so long and so deep that we begin to think “well, this is who I am now.”, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But his strange passage in Ezekiel makes a promise that when we are dried up and hopeless, so hopeless that we can’t even imagine renewal, it is still possible.
That promise is hard to believe no matter who you are, even for folks who believe in the God of the Hebrew scriptures. But it can be even harder if you are an atheist or an agnostic. Whenever I struggle to believe I turn to nature; when I look at the natural world I learn things as amazing as any miracles in the bible. Recently I found such a promise in the ecosystems of the dessert. Writer Craig Childs has spent years wandering deserts in search of water, finding ephemeral pools of all sizes that come and go as rains fall and water evaporates. Here in the twin tiers, we sometimes have a dry month or two, but in the dessert it could be years, decades or centuries without a drop of water, and yet when rain does fall the pools spring to life as Childs describes here:
“Skirting a pool that measured about one hundred feet in length, we could see a prickly pear cactus lurking in the depths. It was surrounded by Triops and a cloud of fairy shrimp. The cactus had not fallen in. It had grown there prior to the water, indicating that years of drought must have preceded this water. When this pool is dust, it must retain the seeds of aquatic life for however long it takes a cactus to grow.This, to me, is a hopeful promise. Even when all indications lead us to believe we are dry dust devoid of life, somehow life finds a way. Like a valley of dry bones these little organisms wait for the water that must one day come.
To survive, these aquatic-desert organisms have taken an evolutionary course that rejects mechanisms of survival used by most everything else. … They shrivel up until they are dry as cotton balls, releasing all of their water, entering a state known as anhydrobiosis. Life without water. [p. 61]
“There appear to be no working parts in these orgnaisms; they are as dead as rocks. If a Mars lander were given a scoop of dust from a dry water hole and allowed to run all of the spores and shrimp eggs and desiccated adults of various species through its battery of life-finding tests, it would conclude that no life was ever present.” [p. 64]
A few Christmases ago, a friend gave me an amaryllis bulb. Who knows how long it had sat in a box on a warehouse shelf before I put it in my window and watered it. This poor thing went literally months without growing. A fingernail of green kept me hopeful so I continued to care for it. Then all of a sudden, with no change in the care I was giving, it began rapidly growing what seemed like inches a day. A beautiful flower bloomed and then withered in its time. Long green leaves filled up my window long after the flower was gone. The following winter I waited obediently for it to die back and flower again, but it never did. The lush greens enjoyed the sunny window, but it never flowered that year. Without a dormant period, the plant never flowers. I took it outside over the summer and waited, as fall came, for it to die back. The days got shorter and colder, some nights neared freezing, but still no change. Finally the first hard frosts came and I put it in the basement to force a dormant period. It was sad, when I went down there to get the snow shovels, to see the green leaves looking wilty and desiccated, until it died back to a brown husk. Finally the alarm I had set on my calendar chimed and I was free to bring it back inside. It looked really dry and brown. A week went by. No change. Had I killed it? Finally after 10 days that fingernail of green peeked up like hope.
The story of the amaryllis not only reminds us that renewal is possible, but that renewal is part of a cycle. Dormancy is not a disorder. Periods were we don’t grow, don’t flower are inevitable parts of life, are necessary parts of life, as we rest and preserve our resources for the return of the rain. If you feel like dry bones right now, that doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong. It just means you are in a dry patch. It doesn’t always feel good to be dry, to be dormant, especially when we can’t see even a sliver of green, to assure us that renewal is possible. But life promises that no matter how old we get, no matter how dried up and withered we feel, something new is always possible. That’s the nature of life; life finds a way.
This is what I think the poet Longfellow meant in our hymn
“O Life that Meketh All things NewThe renewal of other creatures that we can see with our own eyes, gives us faith that our own thoughts, our own gladness can also been renewed. We Unitarian Universalists put this promise right there in our principles and sources “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, …, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit.”
The blooming earth
our thoughts within
…in gladness hither turn again”
Renewal is something that every spirit needs. So this morning I invite everyone to consider, where are the places in your life, in your spirit that feel dry and withered right now?...
Join me in a moment of silent reflection…
Just notice whatever feelings, whatever images arise…
As a symbol of our innate capacity for renewal, I brought a gift for each of you today- a Gladiolus bulb. [Acidanthera Murielae]
As dry and brown as this bulb may be, inside it is stored everything it needs to grow two feet high with beautiful white flowers.
You might invite the spirit of life to bring renewal to this little bulb, and to those places in your own life where it is most needed.
When you get home, put it someplace where you can see it. Unlike the crocuses and snowdrops starting to bloom in my backyard, this plant needs to wait until after the threat of the last frost to be planted.
And when that day finally comes, find a sunny spot and plant it about 5 inches under the soil with the pointy part pointing up. If you don’t have a spot for it, give it to a plant-loving friend you trust. And then hope, and wait.
Whether or not we believe in God, our hope for renewal is ultimately an act of faith; we don’t really know what will happen to these bulbs, or to our own spirits. We don’t really know what change, what renewal might be possible. But whether you prefer the promise of Ezekiel and the dry bones, or you prefer the promise of fairy shrimp in the dessert, or bulbs in the winter, let us have faith in the promise of Life that maketh all things new. That’s what life does when it has the chance.