I do hope my reflection here does not trivialize the power of the images before us now as we find ourselves in a valley of dry bones suddenly re-assembled and infused with breath once more and in the crowd looking on as Jesus’ beloved friend, Lazarus — dead these four days — is called out of the grave to life again. I hope my thoughts won’t seem to make small these giants of stories, as though anything we normally experience in our day to day ever comes close. Either way, here it is:
Having spent far too many hours in various dentists’ chairs these last weeks — having had to confront even a relatively small piece of my own mortality — I cannot now think of a more needed place for a chaplain — someone to help navigate from this place of “dying” to a return to a vision of life once more. I mean, maybe it’s just me, but I surely could have used one bringing gifts such as we hear about today. For, in fact, in those hours I found myself contemplating the fragility of God’s good gifts: namely, tooth #30 which has served me well even with a crown these last several years and before that, these many decades. For in short, this is how it has been: it seems the hollowed out root had cracked and an infection had taken hold. And while it caused little actual pain, it was starting to do damage. So after two weeks of attempted treatment and consultation it was determined the most prudent course of action was that the tooth should go.
And so it was I found myself in the dentist’s chair again several afternoons ago. As I waited for the Novocain to take hold, I surreptitiously wiped my eyes so as not to be observed by the ever perky dental assistant who refused to leave my side. I teared up as I marveled at how God had molded my very teeth to serve me well and now that one was soon to be lost, I felt its leaving even before it went. And this is what I mean when I say I could have used a chaplain then for my hidden tears were surely ones of grief — both at this present loss — but also anticipating ones yet to come — for all those dead dry bones which will also surely be cast aside in years to come.
It strikes me, though, that perhaps we don’t all go to that dark place well or often for we are certainly not encouraged to do so in the part of the world I call home. In fact, as I sat in the waiting room awaiting my ‘fate,’ my attention was drawn to the slide show conveniently placed there advertising the wonders of dental implants. One by one it offered reasons why such as this might be necessary. There was the image of the young man wielding a hockey stick, for, in fact, as the caption stated, contact sports can cause the loss of a tooth. And there was another of another young man hurtling head first off a motor scooter, carrying the implication that an implant might be needed after such an accident. Finally, there was the picture of the energetic, attractive, older couple smiling broadly at the camera and the caption explaining that perhaps you have simply ‘lived a good and active life.’ And then your tooth has to be pulled. No, indeed, my dentist does not speak of decay or infection in the waiting room — nor are fear or grief even hinted at in those images. Just the beaming smiles of those who have gotten past the diagnosis, the attempted treatment, the extraction, the months of healing, the installation of the post, and the molding of a new tooth which they say will feel just like the others it bumps up against. But I wonder if it will, even assuming all goes well between now and then. For in this life now, I know, we get used to things which try to step in for what God does best, but it is often never quite the same.
And so I went home with gauze in my mouth. I picked up a whole array of meds and pain killers and a specialty mouth rinse at the pharmacy and spent the rest of the day in a daze — not eating much. And not much wanting to anyway. And I woke up the next morning pain free with a curious hole in my mouth where there never was one before. And I found I was already moving away from that deep sense of desolation in my own field of ‘dry bones.’
And yes, it is so that time and space and antibiotics and specialty mouth rinses bring healing. But that is not the point, is it now, of the powerful gifts which are ours to receive as we gather around these astonishing images of dry bones dancing once more and Lazarus stumbling out of his dark tomb. No, these are not stories of human beings simply doing the best they can in the wake of death and despair and decay and desolation. Rather, these are nearly unimaginable offerings of life itself where there was no hope of life ever being again. Or again to use my much more meager example: these are images of smiles returned to the strength of an eight year old’s toothy grin whose strong new permanent teeth seem as though they will last forever.
And maybe it is so that 21st century dental care and the wonder of dental implants offer some kind of approximation of what is before us now. I’ll let you know. Even so, I cannot help but wonder if what those dry bones and Lazarus provide now is simply profound hope of what will one day be. Oh, I cannot help but wonder if all you and I can do between now and when we experience it for ourselves is cling to these now ancient images and simply keep our eyes open for smaller ones around us where healing triumphs over illness, where hope beats back despair, where light breaks open the darkness and where life seems to triumph over death at least for now.
And yet, this much I do know. You and I do have to wade through our own fields of dry bones first. We have to stand at the tomb and grieve the death of Lazarus before the wonder of these stories mean anything at all. And yes, at least for me, I have to face the truth that maybe, just maybe, the fact that part of God’s good creation had to be pulled from my mouth this week was partly from my own neglect or abuse, regardless of what the images in my dentist’s waiting room suggest. At the very least I took it for granted. And while if this so, it is certainly not to be commended, for this is also not a reflection of all that I am. Indeed, part of what we hear and vicariously experience in these images in Ezekiel and John this week is God’s great love for this very human race. And without a doubt, surely one of the best ways we experience that love is in forgiveness and acceptance and grace and new starts. Even when or if we have not been or done enough. Even if it’s in how we care or do not care for something as simple and precious as our very teeth. Even then. And if this is so, how much greater gift is God’s forgiveness when first we wade through the dry bones of other failures between us and for one another acknowledging our failure and seeking a fresh start … And what new life is possible then!
Oh, the tooth is still gone. And there is still struggle ahead. But even this does not mark me or any one of us. For grace covers even this failing, this weakening, this decaying, this grieving, this letting go. For today dry bones live. Today Lazarus walks out of his own tomb. And if these are so, out of God’s great love, what more must be in store for you and me and all of us in all this broken world? What do you think?
- So once more, I say, I hope my sharing my meager experience in these last weeks does not trivialize the remarkable gifts we are called to marvel in this week. It has simply been my own window into ‘dry bones.’ What would you offer instead?
- Do you agree that one has to wade through the dry bones in order to know enough to appreciate or even anticipate God’s remarkable gift of life — of resurrection? Why or why not?
- I am not certain that an anticipated tooth implant even comes close to dry bones put together and breathing again or Lazarus returning to life after four days buried, but maybe it does. Where have you seen anything like what Ezekiel and John describe today? Is there anything at all this side of heaven like it? What makes you say so?