Myron Cohen was a Jewish comedienne. He played the clubs of the Catskills… he appeared on the old Ed Sullivan show. One of the stories he told went something like this…
There were two garment workers in a sweatshop in New York. It was a miserably hot and humid day, and to pass the time they told each other stories of their lives.
The one asked the other if he had taken any good vacations. The other replied that indeed, he had. He said, “Last summer I went to Africa. I went on a big game hunt. We went into the jungle hunting big game.”
“Did you get any?”
“Sure did… we were there and came upon a herd of elephants. But we startled them and they came charging at us… well, we ran as fast as we could… but they caught up…”
“And what happened?”
“One of them ran right over me… he killed me.”
“What are you talking about? You didn’t die… you’re standing right here… living!”
The other replied…“You call this living?”
Lent is about dying… about dying to live. All of the passages that we read during Lent have some connection to Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. The Gospels all say that he knew he was going to die. Some interpretations have suggested that Jesus saw the future in some sort of psychic fashion – with everything laid out before him. Others think it was not so clear at the time – perhaps more along the line that Jesus knew his behavior was placing him on a collision course with both religious authority and the Roman government – and he was convinced he would not survive that encounter.
Ezekiel is Old Testament, but the passage is also about dying and living. It is not one of the more familiar books of the Bible. Scholars think that it was written by the prophet and then edited numbers of times by others through the centuries.
Its setting is during that time when the Israelites were held captive in Babylon. You remember the song from Psalm 137…
by the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down
yea, we wept
when we remembered Zion
Ezekiel was (what we might call) unusual. He was a PK (that’s a priest’s kid – nowadays known as preacher’s kid). Growing up in a clergy household makes for interesting dynamics in a child’s life – ours may be grown up, but they’re still PK’s.
Ezekiel had visions. He was observed pausing in the midst of the day and then spacing out into an alternate reality. To us, today, it sounds like magic mushrooms may have been involved. When you read some of his visions it sounds like that.
One of his visions is our scripture reading… the valley of the dry bones.
There is a famous spiritual that was written about this passage by two brothers … the Johnsons. James Weldon Johnson was an author and a civil rights activist.
Brother John Rosamond Johnson, wrote Lift Every Voice and Sing the song which is known as the Negro National Anthem.
The brothers Johnson co-wrote the spiritual, dem bones
Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to … the ankle bone
Ankle bone connected to the shin bone
…Now hear the word of the Lord.
In his vision, Ezekiel was in a valley full of dry bones. It represented the spiritual state of the Israelites being held in captivity. They said to God, You call this living? Ezekiel said – “God is the one who knows.”
I’ve been dealing with bones lately. Particularly the proximal humerus and shoulder connection. I have to admit that I had previously taken bones for granted. Not anymore. Gotta’ have them and they have to work.
I saw the orthopedist last week. After another round of X-rays he pronounced me healing well. Not healed… healing. Then he sent me to the physical therapist. Now I have exercises to perform multiple times each day. That’s good. I finally feel like I can do something to move this process along. I asked how long until I have full use … a full swing on the golf course?
You know what he said? Oh… eight or nine months. I looked at him quickly to see if he was joking. He wasn’t joking. But I can work on putting and chipping soon – just no full swings.
Fine. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. I’ve decided it’s a golf gift from God … my short game will improve!
There is some discomfort in doing the therapeutic things he wants me to do. Another life lesson. Renewal has necessary periods of discomfort both physical and spiritual.
Fine – no problem – I want these bones to live!
On Tuesday Karen and I drove up to Pasadena for a funeral. With last week’s stormy weather it was the worst day to be on the 5 freeway north during rush hour. When Karen and I deal with something difficult or unwelcome we joke and say It could be worse. The drive to Pasadena on Tuesday morning maybe could have been worse, but this was pretty high up on the scale.
We went for Weston Embree’s service. Weston had lived to be 100 years old. He asked me, 30 years ago, to do his memorial service. He was the patriarch of Holliston Church.
The church is an interesting story…
Holliston is beautiful, neo-gothic, with massive and ornate stonework. Akron plan. The sanctuary seats 700. It was built in a different location… about three miles west on Colorado Boulevard. Originally it was the sanctuary of the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Pasadena, consecrated in 1901. But times changed, the congregation outgrew the building, and the center of the city shifted. So in 1924… in what the newspapers reported at the time, a veritable orgy of giving took place.
First Methodist gave its building and pipe organ to another congregation – Lake Avenue Methodist. The deal was that the Lake Avenue folks would deconstruct and move the building to its new location on the edge of town, where it presently sits, at the corner of Colorado and Holliston (hence the name Holliston). They added a gift of $25,000 was included – in today’s economy that would be about $500,000.
So they disassembled the building. They loaded it up in wagons and wheelbarrows and walked it down Colorado Boulevard three miles east. Six hundred pound stones. The joists look like dinosaur bones. Up in the attic you can see the markings on the huge joists that let workers know how to put it back together in the right order. It is a massive building. They didn’t know that what they were doing couldn’t be done.
The building was taken down to its bones and reconstituted. The consecration was in 1924. My friend Weston was born the same year. He was in the nursery, all the Sunday school classes, the youth groups, the young adult groups, and the fellowship groups as an adult.
It has had a wonderful new life. Yet, like so many older downtown churches, it began to decline… from 1500 members in the 60’s to 250 when I went there in 1990.
In 1991 we experienced the Sierra Madre earthquake. It did a million dollars worth of damage to the building. Could it be repaired?… should it be repaired? I went to the Bishop and cabinet for guidance and they said, we’ll be interested to see what you do.
I went to the money guy of the denomination and he said, Eric, someone needs to tell those folks that they need to close.
The congregation held a prayer meeting and, with God’s grace, decided to do whatever it took to keep going. The SBA loaned some money, not enough, but some. The church claimed a verse from Psalm 50… God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Thus, money is not the issue. Weston Embree said to me, you and I will be the general contractors… Embree and Smith General Contractors. And so it was.
The church stayed open. Could those bones live? Only God knew.
Several years later that small and aging congregation welcomed a Korean Methodist congregation into the fellowship. On the appointed Sunday 500 new members joined Holliston Church. Today it is thriving.
I met the present pastor at Weston’s memorial. He spoke of the grace that Weston and those church folks extended to the new members. They were all part of new life in God. He said it was extraordinary… right?
I have thought of you this week. How are dem’ bones of yours? Are you livin’? This is no comment on anyone’s age. What do you think? Could be worse?
Of course it’s all a metaphor, so let’s see… These bones are the structure of our spirits… faith doesn’t work without them. What is it these spiritual bones represent?
How about this… hope…joy…peace… love… grace… trust… and compassion.
What I know about dry bones is that God wants you and me to live. The key factor is you… and me. We don’t make life – God does that. God has resources available. Your end of the deal is to trust God.
Years ago anthropologist Margaret Meade was asked what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The expected response might have been something like clay pots or tools, or religious artifacts. Instead, she said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 year old skeleton with fractured femur that had healed. It was discovered in an archeological dig. A femur is the longest bone in the human body – linking knee to hip. It takes about 6 weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal – this bone had broken and healed.
Meade went on to explain that in the animal kingdom if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger, you can’t find water or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for that bone to heal – you get eaten first.
This broken and healed femur was evidence that someone took time to stay with the injured person, bind up the wound, and carry that person to safety. The healed femur meant that someone cared … a long time ago.
Dr. Mead said, “Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.” Both then and now.
That’s how dry bones live. Through trust and compassion.
It is what God has always offered. As we trust… God has been, is, and will continue to be the animating power in our lives.
God will make your bones live.