Sunday, April 10, 2011


Fifth Sunday of Lent

Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Sermon: Breathless

It was four summers ago that I experienced what, for men, is thought to almost rival the pain of child-birth. I gave birth to a stone that was ... was ... about this big (indicating quite a small size). When mild morning discomfort gave way to discomfort that bordered on the extreme, Jan did a stint as an Indy car driver and got me to a distant Tennessee hospital in record time. I was quickly wheeled into the emergency room on a sleepy Sunday morning and then everything but the pain seemed to slow down. A young doctor strolled into the ER yawning and picked up the clipboard. “You’re Mr. Ledbetter?” he asked. “Yes” I said through gritted teeth. Words were becoming a luxury at this point. “I’ve known some Ledbetters” he said. I tried to nod pleasantly. “So what seems to be the problem?” he asked blandly. “It hurts ... real ... bad ... right ... here.” I said through gasps of breath. I pointed to my side where it felt like something was trying to burrow its way out. “Hmm” he said, puzzling over this information. “Hmm” he said again. By this time I am literally—not figuratively, but literally—writhing in pain on the examination table. “Hmm” he said a third time. “Mr. Ledbetter,” he asked, “on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, could you—“ he paused thoughtfully, thinking I would appreciate this opportunity to participate in my own diagnosis, “—rate your pain?” I don’t quite remember my response, but I don’t think it was ... numerical.

Has this happened to you? Have you been asked to “rate your pain”? And did it fit neatly on a scale of 1 to 10? And in thinking about rating our pain, I found myself wondering if mental health professionals ever ask their patients to rate their emotional pain? “Mr. Ledbetter, I know you’re frustrated and discouraged, but on a scale of 1 to 10, just HOW frustrated and discouraged are you?” Perhaps there’s a new angle for mental healthcare.

So ... how DO you “describe” emotional pain? How do you describe Bewilderment? Loss? Grief? Desolation? Hopelessness?

Perhaps simple words won’t do. Perhaps a picture is needed ... a visual representation that makes words unnecessary.

Years ago, when I was a young pastor in New England, a frightened mother brought her teenaged son over to the parsonage and asked him to show me a drawing he’d done recently. Reluctantly, he pulled a drawing from a binder and held it in front of me. He was obviously a skilled young artist. His drawing showed, in great detail, all kinds of horrible violence being done to the subject of the drawing which, he admitted, was himself. Like his family, he was a young man of few words, but his drawing spoke volumes of the extraordinary pain he was feeling within himself.

This seems to be where we find the prophet Ezekiel in this morning’s reading. Ezekiel is a prophet who speaks to the nation of Israel in a time following crushing losses and the exile of many of its people to far-distant lands. We’ve made a huge leap in a couple of weeks time. We had been journeying with the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness following their triumphant escape from slavery in Egypt. Under the leadership of Moses, they slowly made their way to the promised land ... and were slowly shaped into a people worthy of their calling and worthy of the gift of the land.

In time, the people entered the land, established themselves, and were transformed from a wandering band of refugees into a nation ... the nation of Israel. King David was the first ruler of the unified northern and southern kingdoms ... and wise King Solomon succeeded his father. But the nation that should have remained the crown jewel in its creator’s crown became complacent and corrupt. They forgot their humble beginnings, they forgot how they were slowly forged into a people of God, they forgot the lessons of the wilderness, and they forgot the God who had shaped and guided them.

As they became complacent and corrupt, they also became highly vulnerable to being overtaken by their powerful neighbors. First the northern kingdom fell, then the southern kingdom and the city of Jerusalem and its temple along with it. Jerusalem and its Temple were the most obvious symbols of God’s favor, God’s blessing. When the city and the Temple were destroyed by invading armies, Ezekiel was among those deported to what is modern day Iraq. It is in that land, far from the place of his birth and far from the place of God’s promise that Ezekiel speaks his prophecies to the fallen people of Israel.

They had once had everything. Now they had nothing. No land. No promises. No faith. No future. No God.

Could you please try and “rate” your emotional pain?

Standing among the exiles, Ezekiel gives voice to the mood and the feelings of his fellow exiles. But the pain and the loss are so deep, that mere words will not do. Ezekiel describes what feels like a visionary trance ... in his vision, the Spirit of God takes Ezekiel to a desolate valley ... desolate like the people are desolate. But the desolation is deeper than that. It’s not simply a barren valley, but a barren valley full of bones ... dry bones ... the dry bones of “the whole house of Israel.”

It’s hard to imagine a more powerful way to portray hopelessness than this bleak vision of the prophet. And we do well not to move to quickly through the vision ... to allow ourselves to stand alongside Ezekiel and wordlessly ponder the immensity of loss, the enormity of grief, the deep and hollow hopelessness of a people who had lost so much that now it seemed they had lost the very future itself and the God who makes futures possible.

Ezekiel’s vision has “connected” with people over many, many generations ... paintings and literature and music abound with references to Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. Perhaps you, like I, grew up singing the old slave spiritual “Dem bones gonna rise again.” It was a fun song to sing around the campfire at church camp, but it pointed to a real experience of slavery and the desolation of those whose future had been robbed from them.

Jan and I have just driven by Donner Lake in the high sierra as we have many times over the years ... and I don’t think there’s a single time I have gone by Donner when I haven’t thought of that band of travelers stranded in the snow during a winter very much like this winter. The chill in the air I feel as I drive by Donner is not winter so much as it is the lingering hopelessness of a people who fear that their future has disappeared and their lives soon along with it.

Have you ever had the wind knocked out of you? I remember as budding 6th grade football star getting blocked by what must’ve been the biggest kid in the state. I sailed backward a good distance and when I landed on my back, every bit of breath was knocked out of my lungs and I thought I was going to die right there on the grass. I didn’t die, of course, but it felt like I was going to.

When you get the “wind” knocked out of you ... there is what feels to be an interminable period of time before finally, with a gasp, breath is drawn into your lungs ... but for a while it feels as though you will die ... but you don’t, it only feels that way ...

Ezekiel’s community is down for the count ... there is no breath within them ... and they feel like their end is near. And Ezekiel offers this extraordinary graphic depiction of Israel’s “breathlessness”. But Ezekiel’s calling as a prophet of God wasn’t simply to give voice to the pain and desolation of the people, it was also to give voice to the presence and the promises of God.

In his vision, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones: “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!” He prophesies to the dried bones of his people that God’s breath will come upon them, reconnect them, and give them new life and new hope. The breath and the wind that had been knocked out of them is about to reenter them and with the reanimating breath and wind and Spirit of God there also comes a new sense of “future” ... the future is no longer closed off, dead and dried. Ezekiel prophesies of a future that can be seen from the valley of dry bones.

In many ways, the story of the valley of dry bones is a story of learning to breathe again. It is a story of finding ourselves flat on our backs with no breath and no future. But the story doesn’t have to end there. For a powerful reanimating breath is available to those who will trust the days ahead, and trust that the Spirit of life that is God is more powerful than our despair and is able to create new futures out of dried bones.

In the middle East, in the midst of what must feel like suffocating realities, some of Ezekiel’s descendants are trying to breathe new life and hope into the seemingly hopeless pain of the ancient conflict between Jews and their neighbors. I’ve just read an email from one such descendant of Ezekiel’s who works hard to bring together different faith groups so as to encourage dialogue and understanding and new respect. He describes a December meeting of women on both sides of the ancient conflict. They visited one another’s homes in Galilee and enjoyed dessert and conversation. One of the Jewish women described Hanukkah to the others, they all lit candles and then they prayed together for a better future for everyone in their region.

Descriptions like these feel like new whispers of breath coming into flattened lungs ... and with the whispers of breath, hints of a new future that is brighter than the shadowed time in which these women now live.

The Spirit of God which can create new futures out of old dried bones seems to blow the strongest in community ... in our gathered times. It is when we light candles of hope together and breathe the same air as we pray for one another that the Spirit of hopeful futures seems most lively and present.

Perhaps what we need are more classes on “breathing” and “birthing”. As we think of the church as it seeks to take its rightful place in helping create new futures in our world, we could do worse than to think of ourselves as a “breathing and birth class”.

When we were preparing for the birth of Jordan—a quarter century ago this Tuesday, we attended birthing classes. And I’ve forgotten most of what I learned in that pre-natal class, but what I do remember is that the moms-to-be were taught how to face the coming pain of labor by learning to breathe properly and we birthing partners were taught how to coach them in their breathing.

Isn’t that a pretty good image of our role as peacemakers as a church and as hope and future builders with one another as we encounter some of life’s devastating times? Learning to breathe and learning how to coach others to breathe.

Sometimes we are the ones who need to catch our breaths and need the coach of a loving friend ... and sometimes we will be called upon to coach another who needs to catch their breath.

Long ago I described a college retreat where we considered the story of the paralyzed man who was taken to Jesus by four caring friends. Jesus pronounces the man’s healing by saying to him: “pick up your bed and walk.” It’s a hopeful declaration that announces new hope and a new future for that man. It was akin to saying, in today’s context: “Breathe, breathe, breathe.” We were then encouraged to speak that word to one another and I remember as well now as the day it happened my friend getting on his knees in front of me, taking my hands in his, looking me in the eye and declaring to me: “pick up your bed and walk, sucker.” It was my friend Steve who better than anyone in my life knew my own struggles and trials and paralysis. He was saying in effect: “You’ve had the wind knocked out of you, now breathe and stand and walk into a new future.”

In an ironic shift of time and circumstance, it is to Steve’s wife and now his widow that I have said more times than I can count over the past few months: “Breathe, Polly ... breathe.” And I can only hope and trust that the encouragement to “breathe” and her courage to continue breathing will help open up a new future for her and her two children.

The life and future giving Spirit of God is as inexorable and true as the growth-full powers of spring that calls forth new life into barren branches, puffs latent buds to blossom, and calls to a living fruitfulness what might have once been called a valley of dry bones.

Dear friends, let us not forget how to breathe in the life-returning energies of the one whose life and love cannot be overcome by death ... and let us not fail, when we, like Ezekiel, are called upon, to coach another to find her breath ... his breath ... our breath ... our hopeful future.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.


Sunday, April 03, 2011


Fourth Sunday of Lent

Psalm 23

The Divine Shepherd

A Psalm of David.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters;

he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff—

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

my whole life long.


Many of you likely know LeDayne McLeese Polaski ... she is the program coordinator of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. She preached here a month ago or so following the peace fellowship’s board meetings that we hosted. Recently I saw references on LeDayne’s Facebook update to “boot camp”. Now that’s a pretty odd reference for someone who helps direct a peace organization. I dropped her a note about this expressing my curiosity ... it turns out that it’s an exercise class ... a very rigorous and demanding exercise class ... it’s exhausting, but, I guess, also exhilarating.

Life can be like an ongoing boot camp, don’t you think? A boot camp that strips you, disorients you, leaves you panting with thirst ... but it can be exhilarating as well.

Lent is kind of like our annual “spiritual boot camp” ... it challenges us ... puts us to the test ... it invites us to draw on whatever inner reserves we have. And it can exhilarate us, all the same.

Lent is a season where we consider a bit more plainly some of the challenging conditions and questions of existence. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live on this earth? What does it mean to inhabit this unique body of mine? What does it mean to suffer? What does it mean to live in relationship with people who are so terribly imperfect ... just like me?

In the past three weeks of Lent, we have used the weekly lectionary texts to suggest some of the challenging conditions of life and living that we encounter on this winding journey we call life: the condition of being naked (that is: being stripped and vulnerable, yet finding grace) ... the condition of being lost (that is: leaving behind the familiar and losing our way, and finding new ways)... the condition of being thirsty (that is: naming the parched and fearful places within, and then discovering Jesus’ water of life). Painful though they can be, these challenging and sometimes painful conditions can be a means to spiritual growth and the deepening of our lives and faith. As one of my Lenten authors has said: “pain makes theologians of us all.”

Naked, lost and thirsty are only a few of the many challenging conditions of body and soul that we encounter along the way. It is to say, in part, that the journey of life is exceptionally “REAL”.

I have a close friend who has been living with prostate cancer for 20 years now. For a good number of those years his PSA count was so low as to almost declare the cancer gone. Almost. Recently his PSA levels began to rise and he and his physician decided it was time to get stern with the disease once more. For the past 8 weeks, my friend has been receiving daily radiation treatments ... nearly a hundred zaps each day from a machine that he has named “the Beast”.

My friend is a retired pastor who has heard it all and seen it all. One of the things he has decided he has seen too much of is “spiritual pablum” ... that is, inspirational drivel that too many of his friends and former church members send him that seem to him to trivialize life’s challenges and struggles and pain. Recently he decided to start his own blog with a few like-minded friends. In an introductory statement at the top of the blog, he expresses the reason for the blog this way:

He says: Sometimes, we grow weary of the inspirational stuff we receive over the Internet and long for something a little more personal, something that reveals the struggles, hurts, and doubts that occur in our lives, something that is “Skin Horse real.” “Skin horse real” is the name of his blog. He goes on: “Skinhorsereal” is an idea we borrowed from The Velveteen Rabbit, a wonderful fantasy story written by Margery Williams. In her story, the Velveteen Rabbit asks the Skin Horse, who had been around for a very long time and was very wise and rather beat up, “What is real?” The Skin Horse answers that when someone loves you for a very long time, that’s when you become real. This blog exists for this purpose.

I want to suggest that Lent ... this season of recognizing our nakedness and lostness and thirst is a season of seeking to become “skin horse real”.

VELVETEEN RABBIT by Margery Williams (this starts at the point when the Skin Horse and the Rabbit are talking)

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.

When we are naked and know our nakedness, when we are lost and know our lost-ness, when we are thirsty and know our thirst ... it is then that we become most vulnerable to LOVE and most vulnerable to God ... and it is then that we become most capable of becoming FULLY HUMAN and FULLY ALIVE to use that wonderful phrase from St. Irenaeus. Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Or ... to use Margery Williams’ word: REAL.

I want to suggest that the writer of this morning’s psalm—Psalm 23--is one such human being. This anonymous psalmist is, I believe, a devout and sensitive soul who knows his own nakedness, lost-ness and thirst, and knowing these things has become profoundly aware of God’s great care for him in the midst of these things. In the midst of life most challenging conditions, the psalmist has come to a deep awareness of the overriding condition of God’s love ... God’s sustaining love. Naked ... lost ... thirsty ... and sustained.

I think the people who have touched me the most deeply as a pastor are those who can name their pain ... and name the one who yet sustains them. I think of Katherine Crow who has lost two adult daughters in the past few months. I think of my old preacher friend Bill Coffin who lost his son in an automobile accident. Preaching ten days after that tragic loss, Bill said to his congregation: “God may not protect us in the ways we’d like, but God sustains us in the ways we need. I have been sustained,” he said. “I have been upheld.”

In the back of the church I pastored in Vermont so many years ago there is an enormous painting of Jesus, the good Shepherd, on the back wall of the sanctuary. It’s probably a copy of an original, but in this painting Jesus is at least twice life-size. It’s HUGE. Every single sermon I preached in that place was preached looking the good Shepherd in the eye. What I remember best about that painting is that Jesus has a baby lamb slung over his shoulders ... a lamb that he has loved and rescued.

It is just that sense of God that the psalmist speaks in the 23rd Psalm ... loved and rescued by the God who seeks to love and rescue all ... loved and rescued by God who abides with us when we are naked and lost and thirsty ... loved and rescued by God who will never leave us and who seeks ever and always to nurture and sustain and uphold us.

We recently celebrated the life of our dear 105 year old friend, Sue Smith. Sue is one of the great souls of which I speak who had known both the losses and pain that life can bring as well as God’s faithful, abiding, sustaining presence.

At Sue’s memorial, I read a paraphrase of the 23rd psalm that brings the words and the heart of the psalmist even closer to my own heart and life and faith. I close with these words and offer them as a prayer. Let us pray:

God you are my constant companion.

There is no need that you cannot fulfill.

Whether your course for me points

to the mountaintops of glorious ecstasy

or to the valleys of human suffering,

You are by my side,

You are ever present with me.

You are close beside me

when I tread the dark streets of danger,

and even when I flirt with death itself,

You will not leave me.

When the pain is severe,

You are near to comfort.

When the burden is heavy,

You are there to lean upon.

When depression darkens my soul,

You touch me with eternal joy.

When I feel empty and alone,

You fill the aching vacuum with your power.

My security is in your promise

to be near to me always,

and in the knowledge

that you will never let me go.

Psalms/Now, Brandt/Kent, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis 1973