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Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Secrets of Heaven #2916 (see below)
Well, if we could resonate with Samuel’s anxiousness last week, we can certainly even more so resonate with the valley of the dry bones today. Our text tells us of the Lord bringing Ezekiel to a valley full of bones, a great many of the floor of the valley, all dry, and lifeless.
It is powerful imagery, and it was written to a people in exile. The Kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians and its people were scattered. The Kingdom of Judah held on a while longer but eventually was also defeated by Babylon and its people taken into exile there. God’s promise to Abraham, that they would be a great nation, given many hundreds of years before, now seemed shattered to pieces. They were not only defeated and subjugated, but not even allowed to remain in their own land. Understandably, many felt there was no way forward.
The book of Ezekiel depicts this despair with the imagery of the valley of the dry bones. Could there ever be a picture of something more lifeless? Not just a dead body, but bones separated from each other, dry and dessicated. It’s incredibly bleak, no space for hope, no space for life.
These images are full of symbolism of course, which is why texts like these speak so powerfully. Swedenborg writes that a valley represents our lower states of mind, times of obscurity when it feels harder to see the bigger picture.(1) We recall Psalm 23: Lo, though I walk through the valley of of the shadow of death. Valleys can be low dark places, difficult to see where we are, difficult to see where we are headed, difficult to see how to get out.
The Bones themselves represent to us our proprium, our selfhood, which in and of itself is lifeless(2). Our selfhood is very often an immense and effective gift; it can take us a long way, it holds us up, it structures our life. We rely upon our selfhood and that is appropriate and good. But our selfhood can only take us so far. The dry bones scattered on the valley floor represent to us the limits of our selfhood, the limits of self-reliance, the limits of believing we can do it all and control everything. And these bones are also so very dry, which represents a lack of truth, a lack of a way to structure our thinking and our acting(3). This definitely strikes a chord —how thirsty we all are these days; how often do we go to Facebook or the news, desiring to know something, anything, about what is the right thing to do in this situation, some little piece of understanding that might give us hope. And finally, the bones are scattered about, disconnected. We can see this reflected in our social state of course! None of us are allowed to be near each other. Virtual connection is wonderful but it is not the same, and it is reasonable to feel dislocated from those we are used to seeing in person. And in a larger sense, in times of crisis, it is also easy to feel disconnected from providence, from a sense of God’s care. Swedenborg writes that angels can easily see how things are connected but it is harder for us, even in normal times(4). And so we find ourselves in the valley of the bones: shadowed, scattered, desiccated, and seemingly alone.
I know that I am in the valley of the dry bones right now, my friends, I don’t know about you. This is a hard time. We are all grieving in our own ways and for our own losses. But what marks these past weeks, this time in particular, is that we are also experiencing anticipatory grief. We are grieving for things that might be lost, in the future: lives, livelihoods, and the way of life that we knew.
In the regard, there is one article that I have found to be really helpful, and I included a link to it in our newsletter for this past week (or see below). In it, grief expert David Kessler speaks about strategies for dealing with anticipatory grief. He says:
Unhealthy anticipatory grief is really anxiety, and that’s the feeling you’re talking about. Our mind begins to show us images. [For example], my parents getting sick. We see the worst scenarios. That’s our minds being protective. Our goal is not to ignore those images or to try to make them go away — your mind won’t let you do that and it can be painful to try and force it. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image. [For example], we all get a little sick and the world continues. Not everyone I love dies. Maybe no one does because we’re all taking the right steps. Neither scenario should be ignored but neither should dominate either.(5)
It is hard not to imagine the worst right now. Our minds are very naturally go to the dry bones in the valley. We shouldn’t shame ourselves for that, it’s our brain’s job to do this for us. We have been trained over millennia to project and anticipate potential dangers and avoid them; this is how we survive. Our brains are trying to protect us. But, part of the problem is the scope and nature of this particular threat. Only a small part of it is within our control, and it keeps expanding. And so our brains keep returning again and again to the dry bones, warning us, prompting us to act. We continue in anxiety. And this can be exhausting and debilitating.
But the advice from the grief expert is good advice. We can choose how we try to balance the images we are focusing on. Our mind will continue to do its job and will talk to us about the dry bones; let us give thanks for its capacity for foresight. And also, let us with intention focus on the other images that God has given us in the Ezekiel text: breath and enlivenment. For we see that the dry bones are not the end of the story, that God has something else to say, something else to prophecy. Our minds prophecy in their own way, speaking to our own personal context of survival and loss and how-to-get-to-the-next-day. But God also has a prophecy to offer; one that speaks in a broader way about resurrection and hope and answers our most basic and plaintive question: can these bones live?
God tells us: Yes, these bones can live! This has always been God’s most basic and fundamental promise: what seems dead to us can live again. It is the heart of the holy day we will celebrate in a few weeks. The empty tomb with the stone rolled away is the same as Ezekiel’s valley where bone joins to bone, flesh and skin and breath come into being, and a nation of people figuratively come back to life. “Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.”(v13)
God can be relied upon to take the initiative, for this is the one true purpose of Providence, to always and forever bring us out of the valley that we find ourselves in, to give us a hand up and out of the graves we have dug for ourselves, to walk alongside us in any challenge that befalls us. God will bring life to the crucified parts of our lives, and in order to show us that this is so, God went first.
Now, enlivenment does not always arrive in the ways we might imagine. And no, we don’t get to direct the process or decide how and where the life and breath manifests. If we were in charge, we would just want things to go back to exactly however they were. When the people of Israel finally got to return to their land, it wasn’t the same as before. They had to rebuild their cities, they had to rebuild their society, they had to rebuild their relationships. And it wasn’t without challenge. But this rebuilding brought them closer to each other, and closer to their God. God hasn’t promised a lack of danger or difficulty; God has promised resurrection. God has said “I will put breath in you and you will come to life.” (v6). We just get to decide if we are open to it. We get to decide if we want to imagine it. We get to decide to make space for it.
In the valley of the dry bones, we find that we have reached the end of our selfhood. A necessary end, a painful and anxious one to be sure. But God whispers in our ear: “I will put my spirit in you and you will live.” May we see this vision God has promised us, and may our breath and the breath of God, join together as one.
1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ ” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ ” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. 11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ ”
Secrets of Heaven #2916
In the internal sense of the Word 'a grave' means life, which is heaven, and in the contrary sense death, which is hell. The reason it means life or heaven is that angels, who possess the internal sense of the Word, have no other concept of a grave, because they have no other concept of death. Consequently instead of a grave they perceive nothing else than the continuation of life, and so resurrection…Now because 'burial' means resurrection, it also means regeneration, since regeneration is the primary resurrection of a person, for when regenerated we dies as regards our former selves and rise again as regards the new. It is through regeneration that from being a dead person we become a living one, and it is from this that the meaning of 'a grave' is derived in the internal sense. When the idea of a grave presents itself the idea of regeneration comes to mind with angels…