A Pentecost reflection on Ezekiel 37:1-14
The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry. He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?” I said, “Lord God, only you know.” He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word! The Lord God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.” I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them. He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.” I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company. He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. I will put my breath[a] in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.”
In the tradition in which I grew up, I was taught that there was a divide between the body and the soul. That the soul was what was important and that care for the body was second to care for the soul. I think that all of us struggle with this body and soul divide in one way or another, especially when it comes to dealing with society and bodies. Society loves to tell people how they have to be in the world, and it can lead to pain and confusion when what you experience doesn’t match up to what society is telling you. In some situations we’re continually told to deny our bodies and just focus on our souls because that’s what really matters. But then we turn to this passage in Ezekiel and we see that bodies mean something.
Ezekiel is led to see all of these bones in a valley and he is told to prophesy to the bones, and to prophesy to the winds and by doing so he makes these bodies come back to life. This passage is written in the midst of Israel’s exile. They were taken away from their homes and their land and forced into captivity. They wondered if they would ever be able to find a way back. These bones become people had died away from their homes, alienated from all that they knew. They were cut off from their community, from life itself. But now they were experiencing resurrection, and not just a spiritual resurrection. When I read this passage I was really struck by the fact that this resurrection is bodily. It wasn’t just their souls being sent to heaven, or a spiritual return to the land, it was bodily. It was physical. And the reason this struck me is because that body and soul dualism has been so ingrained me. I have been continually taught that only the soul matters and so when I read that maybe bodies matter too I was taken aback. It’s hard to overcome the ways we are taught to think about ourselves. This idea of exile; exile from our bodies is ingrained into us.
I think we all experience exile from our bodies. We feel alienated from our physicality for any number of reasons. And we live in a world that so devalues bodies that the murders of three gender variant people in the last couple of months have gone largely unreported by the mainstream. The stories of these people drive home the point that even now people are being left as dry bones in a society that pushes them into exile. Even now this disregard for bodies allows the murders of people we deem unimportant. It allows us to demonize others in the press. It allows us to demonize ourselves when we don’t measure up to society’s standards.
And it’s not just queer people; it’s all people that don’t measure up to what society sets as the ideal. And somehow we all seem to fall short of that ideal, by being not beautiful enough, not thin enough, not athletic enough. We are marginalized by thinking we are just not good enough. Or for some, maybe your body doesn’t work like you think it should, or like it once did. And so we reject our bodies. We turn to intellectual pursuits or to the development of our inner life, and while these things are important, it’s important not to neglect our bodies either. What does it mean to live in a body that you feel alienated from?
For me exile has taken the form of being a transgender person. I have experienced life in a body that does not match my soul. I have been perceived by society to be something that I am not. And so I felt and sometimes continue to feel that alienation in the core of who I am. From constantly hearing people use the wrong pronouns for me, to looking in the mirror and seeing a form that does not reflect who I truly am. It has been a long journey to be able to even have the words to explain this truth about myself. Growing up I was never taught that there were some people who didn’t feel that their gender was correct. I was taught that my only options were to deny myself and to try to fit into how society told me to be. People were constantly telling me how to live. So I ignored my body. I wore baggy clothes to hide my developing frame. During the times when I tried to dress in female clothing to make other people happy I just looked awkward and uncomfortable. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started to really take ownership of my own body, but even that had its limits. I was still perceived as a female and still felt that the labels that were placed upon me didn’t fit. Coming to claim my transgender identity was hard. I was afraid of what people would think, I was afraid of losing my family. I was afraid of not being able to get ordained or being able to get a job. But finally it was the fear of losing myself that outweighed all of those other fears. The need to reclaim my body as my own and to live into my own truth. The need to be able to be seen as the man that I am. Those desires are what led to me finally coming out and embracing my transgender identity.
My journey has led me into a bodily resurrection of sorts. I am working on reclaiming my body. As a way to return from exile into the promised land of being at home in my own skin, and reuniting body and soul together. I am reshaping my body into the male form that matches my mind. I am asking people to address me in the way that fits who I am. I am being firm in standing up for myself and asking people to see me; all of me, as a person, as a man. By doing this I begin to reclaim my body as my own. But it’s definitely not an easy process. It takes time for the reshaping to complete. It took time for people to perceive me as I am. And it means dealing with people who will hate me simply for telling the truth about myself. It means dealing with well-meaning folks who refuse to get my pronouns right. It means facing the fact that I am sometimes in danger from people who can’t get past their own hate.
Taking charge of my body in this way has led me to be in touch with it in a way that I never have been before. It’s helped me to take better care of myself, and to make sure that I am getting the medical care that I need. I care about my physical body for the first time in my life. It has also been teaching me how it is that we come to terms with bodies that aren’t the way we would like them to be.
But it’s not an easy task and there are no easy answers. There isn’t a magic formula that allows you to feel at home in your body. It’s hard work. It means letting go of the expectations of society and not allowing anyone to define who you are. It means being willing to risk yourself with honesty. It means accepting that you might never be completely the person you wish you were, but realizing that the person you are has merit and value.
It means accepting your scars and learning to love them. Embracing all of who you are. Working to reunite your body with your soul, not denying either of them, but finding fullness and wholeness.
I think queer bodies have a lot to teach all of us about how it is that we experience our bodies and live into who we are. But it’s not just about being a queer person; this resurrection is open to us all. It takes the form of knowing who you are at your core; taking the time to find out what it means for you to be at one with your body. It means not allowing other people to define your body and how you use it or what it should look like. We live in a world that wants to break our bodies, our spirits and our hope. Our traditions and our societies often leave us as dry bones in the valley. But we are not lost. We are not left in exile. We have the wind that comes into us and makes us live. When we take the time to reclaim our own bodies, as holy and whole, we come back from exile.
This is a process that never ends. We are continually reinventing and rediscovering ways to be at home in our bodies. But we must live into our bodies to know what it means to be whole people. And while we are on this journey we learn to challenge society and their standards in the hopes that we will lead others back from exile.
Our duty, once we have experienced this resurrection for ourselves is to be Ezekiel in our world. But we are still left with questions:
What about the people who aren’t raised? The people who can’t reconcile their bodies and their souls? The people who are murdered because of who they are? Who will bring these bodies back from exile? Who will prophesy to these bones and make them live?