Sometimes the best stories are the ancient ones. They provide us enough distance to help keenly see another people's dilemma, and thereby see our own. Such is the case of the imaginative story found in the Biblical book of Ezekiel 37.1-14, which I quote now from the New Revised Standard Version:
37The 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. 2He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord GOD, you know.’ 4Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I 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.’
7 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. 8I 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. 9Then 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.’ 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 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.” 12Therefore 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. 13And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I 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.’
This text may sound absurd to many modern ears, but not for those who have the gift for seeing things allegorically and mytho-poetically. A little creativity in interpretation, and imagination in application to our own day and age, can reveal some wonderful truths from this passage that can give our own lives, culture, and world some much needed perspective.
The world is filled with reasons to give up on hope of a better future. Skeptics and pessimists need not look far in the past or from their own place of living to report on all the violence, crime, injustice, oppression, and suffering that plagues our human existence.
Optimists and those of faith have a harder time overcoming the preponderance of evidence of a world getting worse, or at least not getting better, though they too can point out that some things do indeed appear to be getting better. Racism, sexism, and many other “isms” are not as pronounced as in decades past, and those who hate -even if they be persons of one’s own nation, religion, or family- are less likely to be tolerated for spewing forth their prejudices.
The fact is that we can support practically any view we might want to argue for given the availability of information available on the internet, television, radio, and our local library. But not all views are created equal.
The effect our perspective has on our own health is increasingly documented. And the old proverb, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones,” (Proverbs 17.22) seems to be backed up by studies in modern medicine.
But even if they weren’t, would it not make sense to have a more positive attitude toward life than a negative one? Granted that those who take more negative attitudes have some benefits they can garner for their pessimism such as believing themselves to always be right and knowing no one can really refute them. But surely this comes with some spiritual atrophy and emptiness. We, as a species, need to hold on to hope – even when it is obvious there is little reason to believe that our hopes will come true.
Hope, like faith, and like love, is an intrinsic good to our psyches. This is evident in theater, ancient and modern. Heroes, especially tragic ones, are often cast in circumstances in which there is no way out. Yet, they are heroes precisely for the fact that they did not let their circumstances take away the one thing that they controlled themselves: their hope.
I recall reading about victims in the Holocaust who kept hope alive even as they prepared to enter the gas chambers or ovens. I thought it odd how they could be so “deceived” about their circumstance. I thought they must have been in denial, or simply were ignorant of what was really going to happen. And perhaps that was the case for some. Yet the literature reveals that there were those who had all the foreknowledge of what was to happen and even willingly, without a fight, accepted their demise; yet did so with hope in their heart.
I have witnessed the same thing happen to those in hospice, who know with virtual certainty that they are going to die soon. While some are like Dylan Thomas who will not “go gentle into that good night” but instead may go kicking and screaming, it seems that the majority, by my observation, come to a gentle acceptance of the inevitable and may even welcome and look forward to it the closer that death comes.
We come to hope not because we expect our hopes to come true, but because they remind us of who we were, and who we will continue to be until our dying breath.
Hope is one of the few affirmations which no one can take from us, except ourselves. Some regard hope as a hanging on to illusions, and therefore a lack of integrity. As a student in an existentialist class, I even argued that myself. But the experience of having lived through much more in my adult life has transformed my views on hope.
Hope is the integrity of affirming in your spirit what the world refutes in your daily existence. It takes integrity to avow the virtues, values, and ideals that give our lives meaning and purpose – especially when confronted with all the vices, banality, and cynicism that are so pervasive in our culture. It is a constant struggle to find ways to hope. Life may disappoint us, and even disillusion us until we come to the point of despair. Yet, even then, hope resides deep within us and pleads with us to look at our circumstances in a new light – one that will illuminate our dreams and visions for a better world; if not for us, then for those who come after us…perhaps many generations from now.
Hope, Ezekiel seems to be saying, puts sinews and flesh on our dried out bones. It is a divine breath of life. It gives us Spirit. It is what it means to live life rather than to simply be alive. It is the difference between life abundant, and mere existence.
Hope is what we experience when we trust that the Spirit is greater than our circumstances. But Ezekiel’s point was that this should be true not just for the individual, but for the whole community. He was advocating for a communal resurrection. It was not one skeleton that Ezekiel saw in his vision, but an entire valley filled with dried bones – an entire culture and nation of people.
Can we be this hopeful and imaginative ourselves? Can we envision that our whole world will one day be transformed into a people vital and full of life? Do we believe that resurrection will be for the whole earth, and not just a chosen few? If so, I think we glimpse the beauty of the hope that Ezekiel spoke of to his people. His words became “flesh” to a people down on their luck and filled with despair. If it can change them, then why can’t it, with the grace of God, change us too?