Bones

Philocrites : Liberal Religion : Sermons 1.20.03


From a sermon preached by Christopher L. Walton to the Second Parish in Hingham, Massachusetts, on March 21, 1999.


They say, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely." Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.

— Ezekiel 37:11-12, 14 (NRSV)

When life is too sweet to be resigned without a pang, when we feel its satisfactions to be all-sufficing, then it is time to die to the world in thought and purpose and affection; to disengage the fond heart from the warm embraces of fortune; to untwist the golden links of pleasure, and teach the weaned spirit to stand alone.

— Frederic Henry Hedge, Reason in Religion (Boston: 1865): 149-150

There is a famous story in the Buddhist tradition that tells of children who are playing in a beautiful house with the most beautiful toys. There is a chariot covered with jewels. There are dolls and costumes and wonderful ornaments made of gems and bells. There are musical instruments, rattles, swings, pillows — an endless supply of diversions. The house is on fire, but the toys are so beautiful that the children won't leave them behind. They sit there in the burning house playing with their beautiful toys, doomed and unaware.

For forty days, the Gospel of Matthew says, Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray. Faint with hunger from fasting, but primed for vision, Jesus encounters the temptations of the beautiful toys of this world: satisfaction, power, dominion.

"If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But [Jesus] answered, "It is written, One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.' (Matthew 4:3-4)

For forty days, Jesus engaged in an ancient discipline of the body in service to the spirit. He fasted. He let go of the world and its claim on his life, and returned from the desert wise enough not to trade his spiritual insight for worldly power and gratification. He knew how important bread is, but he had also learned our lives require more than bread.

The Psalm we read together says, "O God, my flesh thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water" (Psalm 63:1). A land like that Ezekiel describes: a valley of dry bones.

In a fitting bit of seasonal irony, the Christian calendar places a season of fasting and penitence and preparation in the months when winter finally loosens its hold on the northern world, and here we find ourselves considering a valley of dry bones just as the signs of spring are appearing in every neighborhood. On this first Sunday of Spring, on this fifth Sunday of the Christian season of Lent, I bring you a reflection on the practice of fasting, a message about a paradox Jesus identifies when he says,

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mark 8:34-36)

Fasting is a way of sacrificing something that has become vital to our lives precisely so that we may discover what is truly vital to our lives. Fasting is a way to begin the process of losing our lives in order to save our lives.

This is the first year that I have tried to observe Lent by giving up something. Lent is not a tradition my Mormon family observed when I was growing up, although we did fast — skipping two meals — on the first Sunday of every month. When I became a Unitarian, fasting vanished from my religious experience. Among my fellow religious liberals, the notion of fasting seemed archaic. Why should someone give up the good things of life? Didn't the whole idea of fasting express an otherworldliness, a reaction against the beauty and joy of this life? Wasn't fasting a kind of self-punishment, a rejection of God's gifts, a turn away from Creation?

When I first started thinking I wanted to try fasting this year for Lent, it took me a long time to come up with something to let go for forty days. I know people who give up coffee, but I couldn't do that. I know people who give up chocolate, but I don't eat that much anyway. Some people pick something they want to give up for good, like cigarettes, but I couldn't think of anything that dramatic — and, on the whole, I haven't found myself capable of really sudden changes.

I chose, in the end, to stop listening to the radio in my car. Wouldn't you know? I miss the radio a lot: Garrison Keillor on Sunday afternoons; the news in the morning; pop music on the way to the supermarket; jazz whenever I can find it. I miss all of that, every time. It's hard, even after several weeks, not to reach immediately for the dial. But, the sense of loss — which I feel every time — has been joined by a new appreciation for silence. The discipline is teaching me something. I can live without something I love. I will love it even more on Easter, when I can turn the radio back on — or maybe not. I'll love knowing how much I will appreciate the silence, or the music.

Henry David Thoreau spent two years of his life living in a cabin he built at the northern end of Walden Pond. He writes:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

And here is what helped me understand this ancient practice of fasting, of giving something up: "I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary" (Walden, Princeton University Press: 90-91). Thoreau names what we all sense, at various moments in our lives: that what we are living is not life, but some pale imitation of it. Thoreau decided to give up as much as seemed superfluous and excessive. He wanted to know what was truly essential, and build his life on that foundation. I do, too.

What is essential to your life? What holds you together? What keeps meaning alive in your life? Or — to return to the reading from the ancient prophet Ezekiel — what holds your bones together?

Ezekiel describes a powerful vision of his people filling a valley, nothing more than dry bones. In the prophet's vision, there is no one truly alive. Like a slaughtered army forgotten on the field of battle, the house of Israel has rotted away. Nothing is left but bleached bone.

And yet the spirit of God compels Ezekiel to prophesy to those bones, to bring divine truth to the lifeless, to restore them to vitality and true life. God tells the prophet, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' Therefore prophesy and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live'" (Ezekiel 37:11-12, 14).

The structure of human life is still present: the skeleton is there. But the connections — the sinews and the skin, the muscles and the organs — are missing. But once the bones are put back together and the flesh is put back on the bones, we are still not fully alive. The basic structure and the connections that give us the appearance of life, these are not quite it. The spiritual dimension — the breath — is still missing. What holds your bones together? Are you alive simply because your body is moving through the day? Or are you really alive?

It is not so hard to see that we too are walking through a valley of dry bones. Perhaps your life has felt at times like Ezekiel's vision. You know ways that our culture pretends to be alive but fails to honor what is real, what is human, what is true about life. Each of us knows something about growing numb or habit-bound. Each of us knows how hard it can be to act out of love rather than out of fear, or greed, or self-gratification. Each of us knows — deep down — that there is more to life than getting ahead, living it up, holding it together, and getting by. We need a hopeful word, and we need to breathe again the breath of creation. We need renewed lives.

Frederic Henry Hedge — a Unitarian minister from the last century, famous for his influence on Transcendentalists like his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and for his widely-used translation of Martin Luther's hymn "A mighty fortress is our God" — gave me a helpful way of understanding just why fasting can help restore and renew our lives. We don't fully embrace our lives, he says, because we are afraid of so much that is natural and real about our lives. We are especially afraid of death, which he says is really just a natural part of life. Our fear makes us cling too tightly to things that cannot fully satisfy us. We love the delights of life, as we should, but because we fear losing those delights, we cling to them desperately.

We become like the children in the Buddhist story, so enamored of our beautiful toys that when it comes time to leave them behind, we can't. We have become the slaves of our pleasures, the prisoners of our things.

Hedge doesn't suggest that we abandon life's joys. He's no monk, no prude, no teetotaller. He proposes moderation, enjoying life without getting trapped by our enjoyment. We fear death because we cannot imagine giving up the stuff of life. "He who dies with the most toys, wins," according to a contemporary proverb — but we laugh because it isn't true. We act as if it is, but we know better.

"When life is too sweet to be resigned without a pang, when we feel its satisfactions to be all-sufficing, then it is time to die to the world in thought and purpose and affection; to disengage the fond heart from the warm embraces of fortune; to untwist the golden links of pleasure, and teach the weaned spirit to stand alone." Untwisting the golden links of pleasure is not avoiding the pleasure, but learning to stand alone, no longer defined by external things.

If the bones in Ezekiel's vision are first put back together by the sinews and flesh, but are still not alive, maybe we sometimes try to live simply by joining want to want. Maybe we try to hold our bones together by the golden links of pleasure. But in Ezekiel's vision, the life returns to the bones when the breath is finally restored. Breath is spiritual — not otherworldly, but spiritual. We breathe in, and breathe out, and by it we live. We can't own it. If you inhale without exhaling, it's just as bad as if you exhale without inhaling. We need it and we let it go. One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God — every breath of the divine.

For Lent, I gave up a simple thing and discovered how much I miss it. I did not give up television or movies; I did not give up magazines and books; I did not give up wine; I did not give up coffee. I didn't even bother to catalog my bad habits. I just turned off my car radio. My life is well wrapped with the golden links of pleasure. I am still afraid to die. My fasting has been the discipline of a mere novice.

But fasting is teaching me to recognize how hard it is "to front the essential facts of life." I would like to think that I could give up my possessions to the poor, or even simply try my own version of Thoreau's experiment, but I know that I am not ready for that. Lent is teaching me how hard it is to follow Jesus, who loved life — who ate and drank with his friends — but who knew when even his life was worth giving up. All I have done, this time, is drive my car in silence, with my own thoughts, my own discomfort, my own awareness that I am only sometimes as alive as I would like. Other times, I am dry bones waiting for spiritual renewal.

Fasting is a way to sacrifice something that has become vital to our lives so that we may discover what really is vital to our lives. Fasting is a way to begin the process of losing one's life in order to save it.

What holds your bones together? When you are in a dry and weary land where there is no water, when your flesh faints and you thirst, where will you turn? Somewhere in your life there is a prophet speaking this divine word: "I am going to bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live." May you hear that divine word; may you live, not afraid, not enslaved, not trapped in a world of stuff, but free and loving and whole.



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Philocrites | Copyright © 1999 by Christopher L. Walton | clwalton at post.harvard.edu