Dry Bones and Lost Causes

“It’s a lost cause… What’s the point?”

“It’s a lost cause… Society’s burning, and the planet is drowning. It’s too late to reverse the damage we’ve done.”

“It’s a lost cause… The Church is dying; look at the numbers. There’s no hope of bringing back the people we’ve lost.”

“It’s a lost cause… He’s failed again; so why even bother? He’s fallen too many times for it to be worth giving him another chance.”

It kinda seems like a world of lost causes out there. Maybe you’ve noticed? Maybe you’ve seen them? I mean, maybe you’ve felt like you are one? I know I have in the past.

There are as many different ways to respond to lost causes as there are people alive drawing breath on this earth: confrontation, avoidance, bargaining, pity, contempt. But however we express it, running beneath all the different responses is the deeply human frustration we feel in the face of problems that we have no way to solve for ourselves. We might feel frustrated over circumstances, habits, or addictions we can’t kick. We might feel frustrated over beloved institutions crumbling around us. We might feel frustrated over the planet we’re supposed to steward and pass on to the future.

This frustration is a place of anxiety and helplessness. It’s a place that the psalms name ‘the depths’—in Hebrew Sheol—the grave. Humanity constantly finds itself crying out from those depths. As we reckon again and again with sin—with the unmanageable brokenness of ourselves and the world—we find ourselves stuck in a kind of a grave.

It might seem extreme, unappealing, or bleak to talk about sin in terms of death and the grave. But even though the brokenness we face as individuals can and does vary in extent and intensity and may not always be a matter of life or death, there’s good reason for our tradition to describe sin as death. The image of death captures how universal sin and its effects are. None of us can escape it. It captures how profoundly the brokenness shapes the world and our lives. And it captures how powerless we feel—how powerless we are, on our own—to accomplish the task of overcoming and fixing that brokenness. 

That’s at the heart of what penitence is: reckoning with this death and our inability to fix it. And it’s such an important theme to the season of Lent because it’s so central to that human condition which the coming drama of Holy Week turns on its head, as Jesus takes up our human brokenness and turns it inside out on the Cross. So, in this season, the Church holds up the Scriptures like a mirror, letting us see, in the stories of our forebears in faith, the brokenness we can’t fix, the sickness we can’t heal, the death we can’t reverse on our own.

The Church invites us to see ourselves in that valley of dry, broken bones—that image of the whole house of Israel who say to God, “It’s a lost cause… Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” The Church invites us to see ourselves in the frustration of Martha, the heartbroken sister who bursts out at Jesus saying, “It’s too late… If only you’d come sooner, then all wouldn’t be lost. But he’s dead now.” The Church even invites us to see ourselves in Lazarus, who is so utterly helpless—sealed up and silent—that he can’t even cry out and plead his lost cause. The last hope of “fixing” him slipped away days ago. He’s dead and rotting. There’s no point…

I wonder where you see yourself in the mirror of these stories. What are the lost causes you’re facing today? Or maybe ones you’ve faced in the past? What comes to mind in your life when you think about the hopelessness of the valley of bones, or the frustration of Mary and Martha, or the silent decay of Lazarus in his tomb? Maybe it’s a loved one or a cause or a group or even yourself. Someone or something you love that is struggling, that you desperately want to see thrive, but have no power in yourself to mend or remake—heal or resuscitate. 

For me (probably predictably at this point) addiction springs to the forefront of my mind. That day when I truly realized I was powerless over my addiction, that my life had become unmanageable, I was like Lazarus rotting in the grave. I couldn’t fix myself by sheer willpower. I was in the depths, in Sheol, in the grave. That death—metaphorical and real—is part of what we reckon with in this season of Lent, looking in the mirror and seeing the lost causes plainly.

Like I said, we don’t reckon with these lost causes in Lent because they’re important as ends in themselves, like some kind of morbid record of our failings to hit ourselves over the head with. We reckon with them because our God is in the business of doing the unthinkable with lost causes. We will see that culminate next week in the journey through Holy Week. But we see the unthinkable dawn breaking on us in the Scriptures already today.

In the valley, God speaks, and the sun-bleached bones come together, one to another. God binds them with sinews and tendons and covers them with living flesh and skin. God breathes his spirit into them, and they rise to their feet: a vast multitude of living, breathing people, where once there was nothing but scattered bones. In Bethany, Jesus opens the tomb and cries out to Lazarus—that corpse which by now must surely be stinking to high heaven. But instead of the stench Martha’s sure will overwhelm them, it’s Lazarus himself who walks out of the tomb, alive and still wrapped in the strips of cloth he was buried in. The hopeless case, too far gone for his family to do anything but mourn, is brought to new life.

And as marvelous as these moments of new life are, as awe-inspiring as it would be to see a valley of bones knit together into a nation, and as impossibly joyful as it must have been for Martha and Mary to see their beloved brother walk out of the tomb, these wonders are just signposts to something even greater. God says that the valley of dry bones are raised to new life so that Israel might know that the Lord their God has spoken and will act. And Jesus says that Lazarus is called forth from the tomb where he rotted so that those who witnessed the sign might believe that God had spoken and was acting in the person of Jesus. These moments of resurrection are signs pointing to Easter, to the drama of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ when God acts in the most decisive way imaginable to pull humanity out the grave of our unmanageable brokenness.

That’s why the Church invites us to look in the mirror to reckon with apparently lost causes in Scripture. And it’s why I would invite you to carry your own lost causes in mind as we move towards Holy Week. We reckon with sin in these weeks, not to beat ourselves up, but to name the grave for what it is. We name our sins—the tombs we find ourselves in—so that we can prepare ourselves to celebrate the Resurrection—the great mystery of Christ’s empty tomb. We take the apparently hopeless case of our human condition and place it at the foot of the Cross. And we look forward to the new light of Easter morning—just like Lazarus, and Mary and Martha—as we see that God is doing for us and in us what we could not do for ourselves:turning brokenness into wholeness and death into life.