Valentines and the Valley of Dry Bones
Sunday, February 10th
“Wait, you live there?” he asked, a little incredulous.
“Do you know what kind of area that is?”
“Yes,” I repeated myself, trying to suppress a smile. “It is… dangerous.” I stopped smiling.
His expression became sharper. “Do you have kids?”
“Are you married?”
“Oh, okay. You’re expendable then.” I didn’t really know how to respond to that.
My family and I went to visit a church in the city of Wilmington. To be honest, we went expecting to find one type of urban community but found ourselves experiencing something quite different. It was a nice place, hosted in a local coffee shop and filled with nice people. We watched the sermon as a telecast on flat screen TVs. I watched people sipping cups of coffee during the service, which was a bit of a foreign experience to me. I felt comfortable though, and certainly very… safe.
After the service, I mingled with the other churchgoers and Christians. They were warm and pleasant and effusive, and once I mentioned that I was interested in learning more about the history of Wilmington, I was quickly introduced to a very kind gentleman. And then we had the above conversation.
Later in the afternoon, I went home to settle down and change clothes and think. The house was empty and it was cold enough to snow. I went up the creaking steps to my room, flipped on my electric radiator, and began absently pulling at my clothes while ruminating. What exactly was it that bothered me so much? It was a conversation I have had many times by now, and almost invariably people have asked me, “Why don’t you move?” “Why would you live there?” “You don’t have kids there, do you?”
These are the kinder, more polite, and more direct questions. But there are the other elements, little bits of discrimination that are difficult to describe and pin down… things that I used to say or used to think that, now, strike me in the same way racist comments might. They are the little jokes about getting shot, the helpless sighs about the intractability of poverty, the exclusive use of words like “bad area,” “ghetto,” “poor.” And while all these things are true in some way, they have made me increasingly uncomfortable.
Thursday, February 14th
I was frustrated, bitter, and irritated. A careless incident in the office had kept me at work late, and a careless remark reminded me that I had nothing to look forward to at home this Valentine’s Day. By the grace of God, I felt compelled to forgive, but the insult still stung and I vented some of that anger by doing a little grocery shopping and preparing a fresh meal, even though I knew I was likely to eat alone. My mood lightened as the aromas filled the kitchen and I sat down to eat.
I knew who it was before opening the door. I had left the light on, which was the neighborhood way of saying, “I’m home. You’re welcome to chat.” Sure enough, it was one of my neighbors, X. When I first moved in, I thought people would know me as “the doctor.” Hardly. They know me as “that guy who can cook.”
So we dug heartily into the meal. Over the past half a year, X and I had become good friends, mainly through cooking and food. More recently, we would just sit and chat for hours over a stew or a can of coke, and I surprised myself by starting to open up very personal thoughts and stories to him. We were talking about random things when he suddenly stopped and became serious.
“Dave, remember what you told me happened to you? When that crack-head nearly jumped you?” I doubted the man had been a crack-head, but I nodded. “Man, I had trouble sleeping. I was wondering what could happen to you.” He fell silent. I was deeply moved; this was a tough guy who had been jumped six times in his own life, three of which were at gunpoint. He went on. “I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately, thinking about God stuff. I wonder what heaven will be like.” I was silent, then asked him a question.
“What kind of people do you think will be in heaven?”
He paused. “I dunno… I’m not sure.”
“I tell you, heaven isn’t for good people. It’s for bad people who know they’re bad. That’s why I’ll be there.”
“Really.” He sat, thinking hard. “Man, that’s deep. That’s raw.”
And so we talked. We talked about people who died, about whether or not Jesus was really the son of God, about why we had so much trouble doing the right thing, about running away from God, and about what kind of people were going to be in heaven. I think he struggled a lot with his past, with the weight of sin. So before he went home, I read to him one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture, the Crucifixion of Christ and the criminal on the cross. We agreed that it was raw. And he went home thinking much. So did I.
Sunday, February 10th
Back in my room, I turned on some music and sat hunched over the sluggish radiator, shivering in my undershirt. The words came unhindered and unfiltered in the tiny room.
Then He said to me,
Prophesy to these bones and say to them,
Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!
This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones,
I will make breath enter you,
And you will come to life.
So I prophesied as I was commanded.
As I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound,
And the bones came together, bone to bone.
And I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them,
And skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
I felt the scars in my side, a remnant from my own lung surgeries, my own reminders of what it means to struggle for breath. I heaved a little and I wept for this city of the expendables, of the despised and the fearful, of the violent and rejected, of the walking dead. I wept because I was one of them, a body of weakness and dryness and deadness that was yearning and crying out for a source of life. I mouthed the next words of the song and Scripture:
Then He said to me,
Prophesy to the breath,
Prophesy, son of man, and say to it,
Conjure the four winds of breath and BREATHE.