Spirit’s Breath and Wisdom’s Call
Spirit’s Breath and Wisdom’s Call
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 and Ezekiel 37:1-14
June 16, 2019
Rev. Elizabeth Mangham Lott
St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church
My friend Susan’s father died recently, and I attended his funeral on Loyola’s campus this past Thursday. He had been a physics professor there for many years and was celebrated Thursday morning in that sacred space. I find it’s always a remarkable experience to sit in on the funeral of one I did not know. Sometimes it’s a colleague or neighbor’s loved one with a respectful but unemotional connection. And others it is a deep love and deep loss for someone whom I never knew personally but to one who is near to me. In either case, stepping into that remembering and grieving time taps into a place within us in ways we rarely anticipate—the memory of our own father or mother, the all-too-soon burial of a partner, the incomprehensible loss of a child, or maybe it’s the collective grief we all carry in all its forms. In that rare cultural moment, there is no more hiding from those thoughts and feelings and swirling memories. So I sat in a funeral for a man I never met and wept.
And as those warm, silent tears ran down my face, his granddaughter rose and read these words:
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[a] 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.’”
In a funeral, I expect Psalm 23. I expect that lovely part in Revelation where we are assured God will wipe every tear from our eye. I personally like to turn to Jesus’ words on the good fruit a tree produces and point to the family as evidence of that good fruit. But the dry bones of Ezekiel? I have never been bold enough to go there at death.
And so I have been returning to this image for days now of the powerful breath of God, the very Spirit of the Sovereign Lord, blowing into the newly living bones and giving them life. What a Pentecost image, if I may appropriate the Ezekiel text for this long season in the church! And what a terrifying one. Bones covering the land. The mighty hand of God dragging a man to a valley covered in dry bones—the bones of people long dead, no longer assembled in human form, strewn across an arid, barren place.
This is the story of something completely impossible happening. The scene is not one of death and destruction. The scene is one of a time far beyond. The death has happened. The sun has long sense blanched the bones like driftwood far washed up onto a beach. You cannot take a beautiful piece of driftwood, dip it in rooting compound, and expect a tree to grow from it again. That will never, ever happen. Likewise, it is beyond reason that these bones can live again.
What the prophet is saying to an exiled people is that in their absolute and utter despair, at the point BEYOND the point where they gave up, at the farthest edge of death when death itself is a memory, the Spirit of God can still breath life into the old bones. This is a powerful, Pentecost fire, Spirit breathing scene that scares us with its weirdness and wildness. I want to follow the unexpected breath of the Spirit this Pentecost throughout all its weeks, across the hot and humid summer, all the way through the time we call Ordinary.
I’m leaning into Spirit in this season of Pentecost and on this Trinity Sunday, in particular, I’m drawn to the Spirit language of Trinity because of its refusal to hold one singular space or function in our imaginations. We have Father language for God (which can be particularly helpful or hurtful depending on your own father experiences in life). We tend to focus on Creator and sometimes prefer that title over Father—one being functional, the other relational. With Jesus we know Son language but rarely focus on that relational term and usually opt for the more cosmic title of Christ. God dreams, imagines, and creates. Jesus walks, heals, teaches, and shows us the Christ Way or Path, too.
But Spirit. What do we do with Spirit? Honestly, at most, I think we ask for Spirit to serve as a divine message giver. “Tell us what to do, Spirit.” Our “Fix it, Jesus,” is “Lead us, Spirit,” but we only want an answer and not radical intrusion. On a less-than-inspiring week I will stare at a blank computer screen and mutter, “Give me some words, Spirit.” This is still more of a genie-in-a-bottle approach to the wild and mysterious movement of God than a proper understanding, but it’s something. It’s opening ourselves up to God in real time as inspiration and mystery. But that’s still not going far enough.
I think we mostly ditched Holy Ghost a long time ago because of all the ways other folks have made that language a caricature of the thing. We tentatively embrace Spirit as something like intuition or a gut check. A holy sense of knowing in our individual and collective bodies. Scripture tells us that the voice of God as Wisdom calls out in the streets. She raises her voice, she takes her stand, she cries out to all who live, she existed from the beginning of creation, she is the very delight of God.
And then Ezekiel incorporates all of this same breath/spirit/wind language for the capacity of something unthinkable, other-worldly, and singularly transformational happening when the landscape of our lives appears to be beyond death itself. This is what scripture holds out before us as the dancing, whirling, beyond functional identity of Spirit. Let’s embrace the mystery of her.
Friends, we know what it is like to be in a season of life that is dry and spiritless. Some of us even know what it is like to stand before our lives, after a period of devastation, not knowing what move to make next. When God asks, “Can these bones live?” we have asked that question, too. Can the dry bones of my marriage live? Can the dry bones of my career live? Can the dry bones of my loneliness live? Can the dry bones of this church live?
At first that may seem comforting to know that God also stands before the dry bones and looks at them with curiosity. Like a master gardener standing before a neglected plot of land covered in weeds and vines and overgrowth asking with eager, ambitious curiosity, “Can this live again?” But it is also a bit frustrating for God to ask us humans, “Can it live?” “Only you know, God,” responds Ezekiel. Maybe he’s thinking, “What kind of question is that?! If you don’t know, O God, then I surely don’t.” Maybe he’s doubting his own ability to know because he’s so afraid of being wrong. He’s terrified that the bones can’t live again even though it’s the only thing he wants to see happen.
This is when God’s ruach begins to do its thing. The word ruach appears 10 times in these 14 verses; it means Spirit, Wind, and Breath. This is God’s hovering, creative presence in Genesis—the wind that stirs up all things from nothing, the spirit that creates order out of chaos, the breath that gives and sustains abundant life.
Margaret Odell, noting that ruach is translated differently throughout English versions of this text, writes: “Whether it appears in one instance as breath or in another as wind, it is all the same life giving force. And it is all from God.”
Let’s consider how the Proverbs and Ezekiel texts might speak in conversation to one another. Can Wisdom calling in the streets of Proverbs speak to the dry bones laying in the sun before Ezekiel? Imagine Wisdom as a powerful wind raising her voice in the streets. Imagine Wisdom as a warm breath speaking noble things from her lips and telling the truth from her mouth. The wind and breath and Spirit present before mountains, swirling in the heavens, diving into the deep, beneath the foundations of the earth, soaring into the skies. The Spirit of God is far more than intuition and cosmic GPS guiding us. The Spirit of God is breathing and calling. The Spirit of God can and will speak to the dry bones of our lives and call us back to live again.
Friends, let us be ready. Let us be ready to hear and engage and embody the bold words of Wisdom. Let us be ready to catch the wind being blown into those old bones. Let us believe that Spirit is calling right now, today, this very minute. And let us ready ourselves, as Jan Richardson says:
Poured Into Our Hearts
A Blessing for Trinity Sunday
Like a cup
like a chalice
like a basin
like a bowl
when the Spirit comes
let it find our heart
shaped like something
that knows how to receive
what is given
that knows how to hold
what comes to fill
that knows how to gather itself
around what arrives as