There is a tale of old in which God calls a priest named Ezekiel to be a prophet. Ezekiel had a doozy of a task because the people to whom he was to prophesy were a conquered people.
They had lost their hope and vision; they were broken and depressed. They were alive but not lively. They wrote sad poems in which they said they could never imagine singing songs of joy in their new land. They hung their harps in the trees by the river, walked away, and lamented.
Yet Ezekiel was determined. He, too, was one of the captured, but he believed, even in their new undesired land, that they could flourish. So, he tells them his vision.
Ezekiel sees dry bones in a valley. Not just a bone scattered here and there, this was a veritable nation of skeletons littering a vast valley. This meant a lot to the people of his day. A body left unburied was considered to have been a person abandoned by God. This was a valley of dry brittle bones; bones picked clean by carrion and bleached by the elements. These were cursed bones left alone so long no life was possible.
In his vision, the bones come together, they are bound by muscle and tissue, then covered by skin. They are upright and looking as if they are alive, but they are not. It is not until God tells Ezekiel to call for the wind, the breath, the ruach, to enter the bodies that they truly come alive.
It’s not difficult to understand what Ezekiel saw. Although his fellow captives were alive, they had no spirit. They were lifeless, picked clean, dry. Still, it was in that valley, not in a better time, not in a better place, not when things got back to normal, but in that dry unpleasant valley that Ezekiel saw that they were to come alive, enlivened, spirit-filled.
To be the people of God, they were to breathe in the spirit of life, pull their harps out of the trees and not just live, but thrive.
Today we wander a large strange valley. A tiny enemy 125 nanometers in size (by comparison, the human hair is 75,000 nanometers in diameter) has disrupted societies and economies across the globe. Jobs have been lost, shelters are full, people are in isolation and lonely. Unconscionable acts of violence have been inflicted on African Americans, COVID-19 relief funds for indigenous populations are mired in lawsuits, and white nationalism rears its ugly head of ignorance and hatred.
We can choose to hang up our harps and slide into fear, resentment and self-preservation at all cost, or we can stand firm and breathe deep of God’s inspiration, take in the wind that comes from all directions.
We will wander longer in this strange and unwelcome exile. We don’t know when a vaccine will be invented, we don’t know how it will be distributed, we don’t know when lawsuits will be settled, when violence will stop, or when extremism will be laid to rest once and for all.
We do know that with over a billion people in the world practicing some sort of social distancing, we are participating in the largest act of human solidarity the world has ever known. We do know that millions across the globe have stepped out to say they will no longer stand for the death-dealing, bone-bleaching acts of racial degradation and violence perpetrated on people of color. We do know that many elderly are finding notes in their mailboxes from neighbors who before were "too busy" to stop and chat. We do know that with fewer cars on the road some city dwellers are seeing clear skies for the first time in years.
Ezekiel’s peers longed for new life, but they wanted it on their terms, they wanted it familiar, they wanted it normal. Ezekiel reminded them new life was all around, all they had to do was be willing to let the wind of change blow over and through them. That wind blows for us as well.
One never knows exactly what new life will look like until it has been birthed. What we are assured is that it is precisely here, in this strange and unpleasant valley that the ruach blows. It is up to us to decide if we will breathe it in, play our harps, and not just live but thrive.
Janet Maykus is the senior interim minister at Central Christian Church of Austin. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.