Pain is disorienting. It’s like riding in a train car that appears to be moving forward when it’s actually moving backward, when suddenly you become aware of the real direction. Pastors walk through this experience weekly, watching beloved congregants suffer, and occasionally walking through it ourselves. In such moments, what do we see?
The real world has little in common with Walt Disney. Red in tooth and claw, Adam’s fallen race bites, grinds, and destroys, and natural disasters strike without warning. This is real life.
It was December 28, 1908, when the earthquake hit, just two years after my family emigrated from Italy. Initial tremors began at 5:21 a.m. A sharp boom, roar, and ground-shaking surge engulfed the city of Messina, just west of the waterway separating Sicily from the Italian peninsula. The sound of gas pipes rupturing, buildings collapsing, and fires raging caused many to flee from their homes. Those who reached the shore encountered the most frightening sight of all, a 45-foot tsunami. Clothed in a sinister-black haze, it rolled toward the coast at 500 miles per hour. A deep, heavy rumbling mixed with the howl of gusting wind greeted dumbfounded onlookers. The cry of terror died in their throats.
Most of those who remained in their homes were doomed to death. Families were swept out to sea, crushed under falling roofs, or impaled by debris shooting through the water. Those fortunate enough to have escaped to the streets were greeted by a virtual hell on earth. Bodies lay everywhere, like motionless leaves grounded by a cold evening wind, or frozen sparrows beneath a tree. Those living were in shock or suicidal. Cries from men and women trapped beneath rubble were heard from most directions. A manic father dove into a pile of wood and bricks searching for his 3-year-old son who wasn’t there.
The tedious demands of propriety don’t allow us to easily discuss such painful realities of life, but they are real nonetheless. Rebellious mobs, cancer cells, and our tired hearts cry out for explanation. The great perplexity of our time, the angst of our age, is the question of where to find deliverance from such pain.
Seeing the Way Out
There is one thing most everyone agrees on: there has to be a way out. Even the most rock-ribbed atheist desires greater joy and peace. In this regard, D. H. Lawrence speaks for humanity. Before Lawrence died at age 44 from tuberculosis, he penned his poem The Ship of Death. Here is an excerpt:
Have you built your ship of death, O have you?
O build your ship of death, for you will need it.
The grim frost is at hand, when the apples will fall
thick, almost thunderous, on the hardened earth.
And death is on the air like a smell of ashes!
Ah! Can’t you smell it?
And in the bruised body, the frightened soul
Finds itself shrinking, wincing from the cold
That blows upon it through the orifices.
Before breathing his last, Christopher Hitchens wrote: “Even if my voice goes before I do, I shall continue to write polemics against religious delusions.” To the extent that Hitchens continued in this trajectory, he refused to prepare his ship, even when he smelled the ashes of death approaching. Evidently, the pride of some runs so deep that they will attempt to swim the ocean of eternity before they bend the knee in contrition before God. Surely, there is no greater tragedy. In such instances we must proclaim what we see.
What We See
Art, theology, poetry, music—all the progenitors of human awareness and inspiration could never portray the full extent of what Ezekiel saw in the Valley of Dry Bones. Much like the shoreline of Messina in 1908, it was the epitome of annihilation and death. Although the prophet originally presented his vision to the Babylonian exiles, it is now addressed to us in chapter 37 of his book.
And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon 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” (Ezekiel 37: 3-6).
Plucked clean by marauding vultures, the bones were now bleached white by the sun. And what an odd question, “Can these bones live?” Yet what a brilliant question, for it is the same one that we must answer today. How should we address the human overture of pain and sorrow in our communities and in the world? Can these bones live?
With 107 deaths per minute and 150,000 per day, it’s a relevant question. One potential response is to encapsulate ourselves in the safety of our personal salvation, putting human pain in our peripheral vision. But God “brought [Ezekiel] out in the Spirit of the LORD and set [him] down in the middle of the valley . . . and led [him] around among them (1-2). The Lord wanted Ezekiel to take in the reality of death from the very middle of it.
Like Ezekiel, we step into the pain and death of humanity with eyes wide open, but we must not stop there. We believe that bones can live. Crazy as it sounds—indeed, “foolish,” according to the apostle Paul—it is true. The most tentative and enfeebled preacher possesses power to speak life into dead bones. Why? Because Jesus Christ swallowed up death. The Savior who shed his blood and rose victoriously from the grave. He is the true ship to which Lawrence points.
The apple has already fallen, thunderously upon the earth, but the last Adam has fallen with it. Therefore, we need not cower naked in the last branches of the tree of life. We need not build little boats with oars, gathering little dishes and accoutrements fitting for a departing soul. We need not collect little cakes and wine for the dark flight to oblivion. We need not fear the flood, for the Savior has poured himself out as an atoning sacrifice. This is what we see, and, because it is so marvelous, we joyfully proclaim it to the world.