Sunday, May 17, 2015

Breath of God


Ezekiel 37:1-14
May 17, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

It is really hard to imagine the plight of the Israelites in the years nearly 600 years before the birth of Christ. Except for the poorest among them, they had been deported from their homes. They had lost everything – their houses, their children, their families; their faith, their temple, their God; their homeland, their culture, their songs, their story. How could they sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?

They sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept. It seemed that God had abandoned them, or had been defeated by a more powerful deity. They were bitter, full of hatred and the lust for revenge. Even if they could go home, everything they cherished was gone. They might as well be dead. They were nothing but dry bones – no life, no breath, no hope. And then, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and 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 I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, 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.”

I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “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. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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.




It’s a frightening vision.
Maybe that’s why the song, “Dem Bones” composed by James Weldon Johnson,
sticks in our heads so well.You remember the joyful rhythm of the words –

“Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone
Ankle bone connected to the shin bone”

Delta Rhythm Boys sing "Dry Bones"

Those are much easier to contemplate than the actual vision Ezekiel encounters by the power of the Spirit. He is taken by the Spirit and transported to this valley, this valley of dry bones. Spread out before him is a battlefield, scattered with the bones of the fallen.They have lain so long that they are dried up, picked bare of flesh and sinew by carrion-eating birds, dried in the blazing sun of that valley.

Desolation – absolute desolation.
Can these bones live?
Of course they can’t.
They are dead.
It is a bitter, wretched scene.
There is no hope, no flesh and blood, no breath, no life.

But Ezekiel does not say this.
Ezekiel says, simply,
“O Lord God, you know.”
Who knows how he said it –
“O Lord God, ……you know?”
“O Lord God, you know.”

In any case, God does indeed know that these bones can live.
Ezekiel obeys God and speaks to the bones –
“Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

The bones come together, but there is still no life.
They are bodies now, not just bones, but they are dead. There is no breath in them.
Again, Ezekiel does as God commands,calling the breath from the four winds.
The Spirit breathes, and the bones live.
The breath of God blows into the valley, and there is life."
"And they lived, and stood on their feet."
It’s the battle scene run in reverse, the bodies of the slain regaining their sinew, their lungs filling with air, they rise from the dust and live, a vast multitude.

We’ve been talking and thinking this month about the work of the Holy Spirit, the unseen wind of God who sighs through our prayers and prays alongside us, blowing where it will. The Spirit, "ruach" in Hebrew, wind, breath, sigh, the motion of air as a breeze, an unseen power.The Spirit, ruach, feminine in both Hebrew and Greek, is often characterized as the female aspect of the Trinity, a wind that blows where she will, the woman wisdom running through the town, a dove descending with peace, soaring on the wind, bringing God’s presence.

In the Christian tradition, we have a long history of this understanding of the Spirit as breath, as wind, as air, surrounding us, filling us, moving us, unseen and powerful, in every place and circumstance, God’s presence within us and through us.

We can’t live without air – we have to breathe.We Christians often forget the power and presence of the Spirit.And as Western Christians, as Americans,we are only recently reclaiming the ancient practices of breath prayers, of breathing as a form of prayer, breathing as a path of worship, as a way of resting in God.

In other traditions, breathing itself is a central and centering practice.In Yoga, in Buddhist meditation, in Eastern traditions, this breath of the Spirit  revives the dry bones and calls people to life.The focus on breathing centers the human spirit, allowing the holy spirit, the ruach, to flow freely in us and through us.

A few years ago, a research team found that emotions were associated with distinct patterns of breathing. When “ participants felt anxious or afraid, they breathed more quickly and shallowly, and when they felt happy, they breathed slowly and fully.”[1]

In a follow-up researchers told people to breathe with the patterns that were connected to various to emotions. As you might imagine, the people began to feel the feelings that corresponded to the breathing –
if they breathed like anxious people, they felt anxious;
if they breathed like calm and happy people, they felt calm and happy.

The study reports that “After participating in a 6-day workshop, veterans who said they had felt “dead” since returning from Iraq said they felt alive again. It’s an amazing and wonderful thing – the natural corollary to us “taking a deep breath” when we need to calm ourselves.

Lest you think I have wandered off to some netherworld of belief, let me remind you of the hymn, “Breathe on me, breath of God” It dates to the late 1800s and recalls this movement of the Holy Spirit as breath, wind, movement, the ruach.The Oxford educated minister who wrote it drew upon the Biblical witness from Genesis and the gospel of John. 

In Genesis, the Lord God breathed the breath of life into Adam, and he became a living being. In John, echoing Genesis, the risen Lord appeared to the disciples, saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even, so send I you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

So this idea of breathing in the breath of God is as old as our recorded scripture.
Breathe on me, breath of God.
Do you remember the words?

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Blend all my soul with Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

As we prepare our hearts and minds and lives for the extraordinary events and the season of Pentecost, I want to invite you to consider this breath, this Spirit, this ruach.

Ezekiel stood in the valley of the dry bones,surrounded by death and desolation, hopeless, cut off. God asked the prophet, “Can these bones live?” Through the power of the Spirit, ruach, the wind and breath of God, even the dry bones live.

Where there was a battle scene, there is resurrection.
Where there was death, there is life.
Where there was terror and desolation, the Spirit breathes peace and hope.

The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a simple exercise in breathing, and I invite you to try it with me now today, and then, “when you are just going about your daily tasks, pause every now and then and pay attention to your breath.”

Sit comfortably.
Close your eyes if possible.
Gently focus your attention on your breathing.
Don’t worry about deepening or controlling it in any way…just notice.
As your breathe in, say to yourself “I am breathing in.”
As you breathe out, say to yourself “I am breathing out.”
Continue for one minute.[2]

We’ll modify it slightly –
as we breathe in, we will say to ourselves,
“Breathe on me”
and as we breath out, we will say to ourselves,
“Breath of God.”

We’ll try this for one minute, and then we’ll sing together the song, “Breathe.”

I encourage you to continue the practice at home, 
inviting God’s Holy Spirit to breathe in you, with you, and through you.






[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-it/201304/breathing-the-little-known-secret-peace-mind
[2] http://plumvillage.org/mindfulness-practice/breathing/

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