"We are Under Construction"
August 30, 2015
May only truth be spoken, and only truth received. Amen.
In late November this past year I was in France as part of my Outtatown trip. Outtatown is a university program connected with Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. In Paris one afternoon filled with clouds and breaks of sun my friends and I went to visit the catacombs. After waiting a couple hours in line we took a winding staircase that goes 20 metres below the rumbling city into a quiet, dark, and reflective place. Walking down those stairs I thought there would be a couple of tombs or maybe a pile or two of bones. However I learned the catacombs cover nearly 300km beneath the city of Paris and they contain more than six million skeletons. Before I knew it I was walking down halls in which real human bones and skulls lined the walls in an eerily artistic way. While walking I said to my friends, this is crazy these used to all be living people. It’s not like they were young, these people probably had kids and jobs. Then something like a daydream or vision came to me. If you would like you may close your eyes to imagine what I will describe. Imagine you are in a tunnel within the catacombs and you’re looking down that tunnel. There are yellow lights hanging from the sides of the walls. It is quiet. The air is cool but there is no breeze. On either side of you about three feet from the wall are stacks of skulls and behind them various other bones are stacked. Imagine you hear a rattle. It stops and you look around. Nothing. Then it starts again but louder and you see some parts of the stack of bones along the wall fall over. The bones seem to be connecting together like magnets; creaking and cracking till foot bones connect to leg bones. Fingers and hands to arms to shoulders and ribs. Even the spine comes together. Dust from the ground rises and fills the cracks in the bones. Skulls go back to where they once belonged. Then muscles appear on the bones like fungus on an old fallen tree. Skin grows back, as well as hair, teeth, and nails. Eyes appear but there isn’t a sign of life. Then suddenly a deafening and howling wind blasts through the tunnel. You have to cover your ears because it is so painfully loud. A loud pulse goes through the tunnel followed by the gasps of what sounds like an army. The people cough and shake as they adjust to breathing again and their newly beating hearts and all of them look at you with the curious stare of newborn children. I imagine this is what it would have felt like and looked a bit like to Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones.
The vision of dry bones that Ezekiel received is not random. To understand its significance we have to understand the larger narrative going on. Ezekiel’s vision came at a time when the Israelites were in exile. They were cut off from their home and under occupation in a foreign land that left them physically alive, but with a sense of death as a nation. Before the exile, the people of Israel had split into two kingdoms. Ten of the twelve tribes went into the north named Israel and the other two into the south to form Judah. 200 years after the split, the Assyrians came and conquered the northern kingdom Israel. The Assyrians then scattered Israel across their empire. These Israelites disappeared from history. Over another 200 years, the southern kingdom Judah was caught between Assyria, Babylon and Egypt. Babylon won out of the 3 and took 10,000 of Judah’s people. The primary people taken were the upper class, which would have left Judah devastated. This is the context Ezekiel found himself in as one of those exiles.
So we return to Ezekiel seeing this valley of dry bones. The dry bones are like the state of the Israelites. Ezekiel is told by God to prophesy over the bones. Next thing he knows, there is an earthquake and the bones come together to form people again. The text doesn’t say how Ezekiel felt but it was likely both terrifying and exciting. Putting all of those bones together was a great feat of re construction.
And being under construction by God means something different to each person. On Outtatown I was in a group of 12 students and 3 leaders. We came from all over Canada with very different stories and we were all at different places in our lives. Some were just out of high school. A couple of us had done a year of university. In our group we had many groups represented such as Dutch reform, charismatic, Mennonite, Mennonite brethren, Baptist, and a few others. There were occasional tensions and frustrations, but we got along quite well. Personalities clashed far more than denominations.
An event that comes to mind on this topic is my group’s drive from a town called Oaradara in the south west of Burkina Faso to the capital Ouagadougou in east centre. My friend Rachelle recorded this event quite well in a blog post that I’m getting some details from. On November 13 at 5:30am we got up to get ready to leave Oradara. At 6:10 we fit the 15 of us with 3 others in a pick up truck with all our gear. At 6:30 the pick up truck that till then had no trouble holding us couldn’t take all of us at the same time anymore. Our weight was making the pick up reach close to the ground. So we split half the group into another vehicle. 7:34 a bad sign of what was to come occurs. One of our bags that we said looked like it wouldn’t stay on the truck falls off. 8:15 we arrive in the city of Bobo for a stop and the group piles into one bus. 1:27pm we stop for lunch and it starts feeling like a regular travel day. 2:13, there’s bus trouble so we get some car parts and keep going. 4:30pm the bus breaks down. 5:08pm a new bus picks us up. 5:31pm we make a quick stop to see and touch the tails of some crocodiles considered sacred by the locals, which was safer than it sounds.
6:17pm, we have our first flat tire. 6:43pm we’re back on the road. 7:09pm, we have a second flat tire.
7:58pm, while waiting for another tire we have a dinner of oranges, peanuts, and mango flavoured biscuits.
8:27pm, we got back on the road and we must have been losing it because we started singing Christmas songs which went on for quite a while. The temperature was over 30 degrees but at least it was November.
8:54pm in the middle of another carol we have our third flat tire. There was laughter and yelling.
1:00am, no one was able to help us so we slept on the side of the high way under a tree where we had pulled over to when the tire burst.
6:00am, everyone wakes up to the sun.
8:53am, a new bus arrives.
9:10am, we loaded 20 people into a 10-passenger van.
9:52am, we arrive in Ouagadougou. What should have taken 7 hours took 27 hours.
It’s funny and ridiculous, but it has a lot to say about the complexities of being under construction. Most apparent is, failed expectations. Have you started a project or trip and it’s the opposite of what you expected? Have you started a university program that turned out not to be what you wanted? How about any jobs that didn’t work out how we thought they would? Or life dreams that feel like they were flushed away? So why am I making you think about that? It hurts. It’s anything but fun. But those situations are where we find the good news. God has not abandoned us. We are under construction. All of those falls, mistakes, or disappointments are steps. And when we take steps God can do more than if we sit in a dark room and do nothing. A second observation from this story is waiting. Although God can do more when we’re moving sometimes God wants us to stop and wait where we are. God doesn’t need us to do everything or else we wouldn’t need God. In that space of waiting, we have time to rest and allow God to prepare whatever is next for us.
As part of my internship I have been reading and writing about baptism. In William H. Willimon’s book “Remember Who You Are” he emphasizes that baptism is something God does to us and isn’t only a decision we make when we are old enough. In our commitment to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit we are not expected to be perfect, but everyday we turn back to God. God knows how often people fail to keep their promises, but God doesn’t fail to keep his promise. Like in Ezekiel’s vision no matter how far gone we are, God can bring life into places that only seem to be filled with death.
I’d like to talk a bit about baptism. I confess I’m not baptised and there are others here who aren’t either but I think it’s still important to talk about it. For those of you who are baptised I’d like you to think back to your own baptism. Did you have water sprinkled on your head or were you submerged? Remember how you were feeling when you felt the water and heard the words spoken over you. Whether you felt nothing or felt the most wonderful feeling, did it feel like God did something to you? Did it feel like you died and were raised again out of the waters? And did life change or feel different afterwards? I’ve spent a lot of time reading and wondering about these questions with particular interest in the theologian Karl Barth’s ideas. One of the ideas Barth focused on was the idea that God does something to us in our baptism. It’s quite a mysterious thing. John the Baptist talks about Jesus coming and baptising people with the spirit and fire.
One way to look at this could be to say that fire refers to cleansing from our sins and spirit refers to the gifts of the spirit that Paul talks about in his letters. What I want to high light is that God does something to us in baptism.
Perhaps baptism is another form of being under construction and again there is an element of expectation and waiting in the before, during and after of baptism. We might wait for a long time to be baptised until we feel ready. I’ve been in that waiting and wondering mode for a while. The expectation follows. What is going to happen? How will I be the same? How will I be different? And for those of you baptised was baptism what you expected? For those you not baptised if you have thought about baptism what do you expect it would be like? I wrote a paper on baptism this summer as part of my internship and I still wonder what it would be like. What I think I know is that it’s different for everyone. Again a cycle of expectation and waiting is found.
Our construction under Gods plan goes through this cycle again and again. So really the Bible is all about being under construction. God has not wound up a clock and let it work itself out; he is in creation working with it in a continuous cycle of construction and reconstruction is a great comfort to me. It is reassuring to know that we aren’t alone and we don’t have to do everything on our own. We do not need to be afraid of being watched by God. God watches not to strike us when we fall but to lift us up again.
God is at work in all of our lives in so many real ways. I never thought I’d hear the stories or meet the people I did. I met someone who had felt bones move inside another during a miracle healing, someone who had exorcized demons from people in Thailand and India, people freed from addiction, and people who had heard the voice of God. But those aren’t the only stories, even when God doesn’t reveal a burning bush to us he is still working in each of the 7 billion lives on this crazy planet. Whether that’s Christian groups giving out hot chocolate, mittens, and prayers to prostitutes in Winnipeg’s north end, mysteriously providing money and resources when we most urgently need them, being present in youth group meetings of new Christians in Leamington or saving me from depression. God is real. Not just in our Bible, or a far away place, but here in this place.