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God's Breath

Ezekiel 37:1-14 (The Message)

I’ve been in conversation with the Ministerial Relations Committee about setting some goals for myself for the year, and one of the things I suggested I was thinking about was getting back to practicing yoga.

Even during the first year of COVID, I did well with maintaining a yoga practice. Only accessed on Live Stream at that point, I tried to be mindful during the class, listening carefully to the teacher although I knew he or she could not see me because I would block my camera. I tried to keep up the pace. I tried not to just sit on the floor, eating chocolate. But this past year presented some physical challenges for me and my practice of yoga drifted away.

So this reflection from Christian Century’s Katie Hines-Shah caught my attention this week when I was beginning to think about our scripture reading today from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. She wrote:

“Ever since my first call [to a church] in Berkeley, California, I’ve practiced yoga. I’m no aficionado, but I can complete a whole sun-salutation without direction and can recognize some Sanskrit shorthand. And, of course, I know about the importance of breathing.

“Or rather, to be quite honest, I know the importance of giving lip service to breathing. Every yoga teacher I have ever had has said something about how breathing is the most important part of yoga. Some suggested they could offer a whole class on the breath, just sitting on a mat. But I never met a teacher who dared to actually do it—until I went to India.

“Last fall my family traveled to India, where my husband’s cousin invited me to her yoga class. I was interested to see how yoga is taught in the land of its origins. Would I finally learn the secrets of the handstand? Perfect my mountain pose? Be shamed by my insufficient cat/cow? We would have a full 90 minutes of instruction, so anything seemed possible.

“In the crowded, un-air-conditioned room—in India, hot yoga is just yoga—we prepared our mats and bolsters. Our teacher explained we would do just three poses that day, all lying on the floor, because we were going to focus on the breath. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.”

Ezekiel must have had similar reservations. When the Book of Ezekiel opens, the prophet is in exile in Babylon and the city of Jerusalem is under siege. Though Ezekiel spoke about God’s judgment against the Hebrew people, it still must have come as a shock when Jerusalem actually fell, and the temple was destroyed. Its one thing to prophesy destruction and another to see it accomplished. Ezekiel must have wondered what God would do now.

And then he has a vision of a valley filled with dry bones. Years of exile and war have taken their toll. The people have been killed, their city ruined. A valley filled with bones is not an exaggeration. We’ve seen pictures of these kinds of valleys in war-torn places.

But equally relevant is their spiritual wasting. Centuries of idolatry and sin have left the people with lifeless, hardened hearts. They have worshiped foreign gods and perpetuated acts of injustice against their neighbors. When God asks Ezekiel if these bones can live, the answer seems to be a clear no. But Ezekiel holds out a sliver of hope. God may know a way.

God, who created human beings from the dust of the earth, pledges to recreate the Hebrew people, and Ezekiel’s prophecy starts the process. The bodies come together, hip bones connected to thigh bones and so forth, but there’s a hitch. Despite Ezekiel’s words, there is no life in these newly restored bodies.

They need to breathe.

In yoga, I have learned there are different kinds of breathing. Sometimes we are led to breathe in through our noses and out through our noses. Sometimes we are led to breathe in through our noses and out through our mouths, and we make a fair amount of noise. No matter the type of breathing, I find it strange—and usually challenging—to focus so completely on a normally automatic process. When I can do it, I find it oddly meditative. Concentrating on the breath really does make it easier to clear the mind and just be.

Katie Hines-Shah continued to reflect about her yoga class in India. She wrote: “At the class’s conclusion, the teacher had us gather around. She reminded us that while someone can breathe for you for a short time, ultimately each of us has to breathe for ourselves. We had practiced our breath in easy postures so that we would remember what to do when poses were harder. The feeling of the breath was important. If we could remember what breathing meditatively felt like, we might be able to do it again, even outside of class. This class was just a beginning, she reminded us. It would be up to us to take its benefits further.”

God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. The dry bones, reconstituted as bodies, get a kick-start—divine CPR from the four winds, filling them up and making them live. But they don’t seem to do much else, at least not yet. Ezekiel’s vision ends with a vast multitude of living bodies, standing in that valley, waiting. God promises to put God’s spirit within them, to set the people on their own soil, to make them know that God is their God. But how will they respond?

Christians have long used the season of Lent to engage in devotional practices. We fast, pray, worship, study, and do acts of service throughout the 40 days. Ideally these are automatic habits for people of faith, but we sometimes forget. As I learned in yoga class, intentionally engaging in even basic practices like breathing can restore us. We practice our faith in the season of Lent so that we know what to do when things get harder. The discipline of the season prepares us for experiencing suffering, loss, and even death. Hines-Shah says, “Activities conducted in the sheltered context of our homes, small groups, and churches ready us to work in a sometimes hostile and ruined world. Our faith practices become a bolster, lifting us up, helping us hold our posture and even stand in the face of that which could destroy us.” Such important words of encouragement for us to hear, today.

But, of course, the next steps are up to us. As Lent comes to an end next Sunday and Holy Week begins, we must choose to apply what we have learned. Will we just give our faith lip service, or will we live it? Will we turn away from idolatry, worshiping God alone? Will we engage in acts of justice, coming to our neighbor’s aid? Or will we fall back into old habits and unhealthy postures? Will we waste away, losing our sense of connection and continuity?

When it all seems like too much, we must remember: God will not abandon us. Life can come even in the dry places. We don’t need to be experts. We already know what to do.

It starts with simply breathing.

Rev. Lisa Drysdale, March 26, 2023

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