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Sunday, April 10, 2011

New Life in Death Valley

"Dead man walking" is a slang term prison guards use, I’m told, when escorting a death row inmate to the execution chamber. It is also the name of a book (and later a movie) about the story of Sister Helen Prejean, and the close relationship she establishes with both Matthew Poncelet, a condemned murderer on death row in Louisiana, and with the families and loved ones of his two victims.

According to this Sunday’s lectionary texts (it was my turn to lead the study at our house church congregation today) we are all like dead men and women walking. Since our mortality rate is exactly 100%, we are each well on our way to becoming an obituary statistic. Death is inescapable. A pastor friend of mine recently reported that he’s had to conduct nine funerals so far this year alone in his aging congregation.

But there are other forms of death to which we are also subject, according to today’s scriptures. In the Ezekiel 37 reading the prophet is lamenting the death of his people as a nation. They have experienced a humiliating defeat and a forced “trail of tears” in which he and thousands of his people were forcibly escorted on an estimated 800-mile march to far off Babylon.

Likewise, Psalm 130 is about the death of hope (“Out of the depths I cry to you...”). The gospel reading in John 11 is about the mourned death (and resurrection) of a dearly loved friend and brother. The reading from Romans 8 is about deliverance from the devastation resulting from our addiction to sin, and follows the lament in the preceding chapter “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

In each of these cases, there is nevertheless hope for new life, even in Ezekiel’s grim vision of a valley strewn with the dried up bones of his conquered people. It appears there were simply too few battle survivors to bury their dead. But in each scripture it is also clear that just as God is the original author and creator of all life, so God’s Spirit (the Hebrew “ruach” is translated as spirit, wind or breath in the Ezekiel story) can breathe new life into all that lies in our dark valleys of death.

I think about that especially at this time of the year as we are finally emerging from what we refer to as “the dead of winter.” A lot of plants literally die in the fall. If it weren’t for their seeds, they would become extinct. Other plants and trees go through a form of hibernation in which their leaves drop off and they go dormant.

But there is an amazing resurrection that occurs each spring. Buds and leaves reappear in lavish abundance, representing a whole new start. Life not only reappears, it does so in miraculous multiplication. As someone has observed, we may be able to count the number of seeds in a single apple, but only God knows how many potential apples there are in each seed and in each bud that appears on the fruit trees in our back yard. Countless!

Of course we are powerless to make this kind of miracle happen. We can prepare soil and carefully plant our seeds and plants in it, we can prune and pull weeds and water the soil, but only the original creator can actually produce life or restore life out of death.

So can dried up bones ever live again?

When the Spirit of God enters Death Valley, anything can happen.
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