Paul Olsen

on the way…not there yet

The Incredulity of St Thomas

Last Sunday,Easter Sunday,Day of the Resurrection Sunday,you could almost get away with a fluffy Easter. Something soft and cuddly,all milk chocolate, no nuts;a go down easy   Easter. Yeah, there was that bit about an earthquake,some hint there that resurrection might just bethe most earth-shattering,destructive, disruptive, catastrophic eventyou’ll ever know;angels that hit you like lightning,leaving the …

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These Bones Shall Live Again

April 6, 2020

Here’s a God question for you,
a question God puts to you:
“Mortal,” God calls you, “can these bones live?”

I’ve been thinking about the prophet Ezekiel,
prophesying to that valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37.
And I’ve been thinking about these dry, anxious, fearful times
we’re living in.

We are all anxious right now,
whether you feel it or not—
because I’m not talking about a feeling
but something more like a state of being.
We’ve been threatened by something we can’t see,
a virus, a danger we don’t know how to stop.

I think we have come face-to-face with our mortality,
our inherent human weakness,
our helplessness;
we see ourselves for what we really are—
mere mortal creatures of fight or flight,
and it’s driving us crazy.

We are helpless and don’t know what to do,
so we will do anything
just to feel like we are doing something,
even if it’s nothing—
so we binge shop on toilet paper
(our defense against mortality is mere tissue paper),
as if chucking a few rolls at this thing
will knock it off course.

Who can go to the grocery store,
watch everybody else,
and not feel
like they should scoop up some more
of whatever it is they don’t really need?

Our humanity,
our human-ness,
is showing.
So I love this story:
God brings Ezekiel into the wilderness,
and sets [him] down in the middle of a valley … full of bones …
there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

God’s people had lost hope,
they’d lost everything,
they couldn’t see the future,
didn’t know what to expect next.
There is no more life in them,
they don’t know how to live in these times.
They are past fear and past anxious:
They are helpless and hopeless
as dry bones.

So God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

And the answer is obviously—no.
But Ezekiel is stretched to his limits, too,
and prophet or not,
he can’t bring himself to face the obvious.
And yet, can’t bring himself to put his trust in God, either.

So he vacillates:
“O Lord GOD, you know.”

“Prophesy to these bones,” God says,
“say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.
Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones:
I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you,
and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live;
and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

So Ezekiel does what he’s told.
He prophesies, and before he can get the words out of his mouth,
there was a noise, a rattling,
and the bones came together, bone to its bone.

Flesh and skin covers the bones like real bodies—
but there was no breath in them.

“Prophesy to the breath,” God says,
“prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
Come from the four winds, O breath,
and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

… and the breath came into them, and they lived…

And suddenly, it’s a new beginning;
it’s like God creating human life all over again,
just like the second chapter of Genesis.

Then [God says],
“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;
and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.
I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live,
and I will place you on your own soil;
then you shall know that I, the LORD,
have spoken and will act, says the LORD.”

God is a God of life.

In these dry and anxious times,
whenever you start to feel helpless,
whenever you find there is nothing you can do,
but you find yourself looking for something,
anything to do,
just to feel like you are doing something,
even if it’s nothing—

Driven Outward and Inward

April 6, 2020

Yesterday, out of the blue, an old friend 500 miles away, sent me a text message—just wanted to send greetings, she said. We hadn’t been in touch for over two years.

Same day, a friend thousands of miles away in Brazil, posts on Facebook how in the craziness of these days the whole world is living through, her personal practice of meditation has become more meaningful to her—it’s what has gotten her through, she says.

But that’s what I’ve noticed: Faced with a virus we cannot control, self-isolating out of love and concern for our neighbors, we seem to be driven both outward and inward.

We cannot touch, we cannot even get close to one another; if we venture out at all we do so cautiously, with distance and avoidance. And yet.

I see families doing things together, parents and children out riding bicycles, walking in the park. “Come see Disney!” I find written on the sidewalk, and I follow the arrow to a home where a family has covered their driveway with Disney character chalk drawings, reaching out with a joyful gift to all their neighbors.

People I meet give me a wide berth, but they also give me a smile, or a wave or a nod; no longer buried in their cell phones, they look up to acknowledge my presence. We are more distant from each other than ever, yet we feel a need to reach out to each other, and a stranger’s subtlest gesture of recognition is overwhelmingly touching to me.

Some of you, like me, live alone. Being careful for yourself and others, you may have been self-isolating for weeks or months. I realized the other day that it had been 30 days since I had touched or been touched by another human being, and that it very likely would be at least another 30 days. One of the last people to touch me was a nurse, who had to in order to put a needle in my arm. And it made me think how very important touch is to healing and health and wholeness; and how very hard it must be on our health care workers to find ways to care for us safely with distance.

In every Easter story, there is closeness and distance, presence and absence, connection and isolation, rejoicing together and meditative solitude. I love the story in the 20th chapter of John’s gospel, where the Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty; lost and lonely, she just weeps. Jesus, on the other hand, is out walking in the garden, as if nothing could be more important upon rising from the dead than to smell the flowers again. But he breaks his contemplation to reach out to her by name: “Mary.” So close! But he will not let her hold him.

Thomas, alone and honest in his doubts, yet again Jesus reaches out to him; Thomas, who has to touch Jesus to believe.

This Sunday, we will hear of two disciples walking the road to Emmaus (Luke 24)—6 feet apart from each other, we can only imagine. A stranger comes near, maybe a little too near, but in their fear and confusion they cannot recognize the presence of Jesus in their midst. Not until he breaks bread do they recognize how close Jesus had been all along—but then, of course, he vanishes.

In the loneliness of isolation, in the pandemic fear of others and yet the pressing need for connection with them, I find a lesson I hope I will keep and never lose. I hope I will remember how these days have driven me both inward and outward. I hope I will remember how prayer and contemplation became not only difficult but ever more necessary to me; how, driven inward, the emptiness of my prayer nonetheless stumbled upon the fullness of God, nearer than I can ever realize.

And I hope I will remember that the love of God is empty religion without the love of my neighbor. That nothing has been more important in these days than to honor the command to care for my neighbor, to make no decision without regard for her safety, to acknowledge my neighbor and the God-given connection that has always existed between us, to greet him and to love him as myself.

In Matthew’s gospel, the last words of Easter (Matthew 28:16-20) are both outward and inward: Jesus’ commission to broaden my heart to embrace all nations, all people; and Jesus’ promise: to remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.