Bones and Legos

Sept 14, 2008



Ezekiel 37:11-14

Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.'  12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: 'I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’”


They call it “Serious play.” It sounds like an oxymoron—you know words that contradict each other, like “jumbo shrimp,” or “expect the unexpected”—if it is “unexpected,” how can you expect it? Or if it is “serious,” how can it be “play”? But that is what a number of executives are doing these days, and it has nothing to do with their golf games. Instead, they are playing at work, in an attempt to pull their corporations out of slumps and scandals. Lego, the Danish maker of colored plastic building blocks, is assisting them in this exercise.

What Lego consultants provide, for a fee of $7,000, is a two-day workshop where executives use plastic bricks to build “metaphorical abstractions” of business challenges. You might ask why some hardnosed business people would want to build “metaphorical abstractions,” but they have a practical purpose. Their purpose is to illustrate a problem in a clear and creative way.

For example, if your boss is crushing the spirits of everyone in your company, maybe your Lego creation would be an enormous boss figure smashing a collection of tiny people. I guess the workshop is a way to vent your true feelings using legos. You might ask, “Why did they not call it that—why did they not call it Building With Legos?” Because at $7,000 per person, it needs an impressive name—hence “metaphorical abstraction.”

According to The Economist magazine [“Piecing things together: What companies can learn from playing with Legos,” July 7, 2007, 66.], these workshops are now available in 25 countries, and business is booming, for the lego people. The results of the workshops can be revealing, and embarrassing, especially for senior managers. One chief executive was portrayed as so fat that he blocked a hallway, suggesting that his actions were clogging up the company. A firm with rotten customer relations was modeled as a fort under siege. An overbearing boss depicted his staff as soldiers, going into battle.

These Lego creations can provide a different way of seeing an organization. This kind of “serious play” unlocks understandings that might remain hidden in normal business meetings. Legos show the bare bones of a difficult situation, and hence can lead to insights for improvement.

The prophet Ezekiel was called by God to do some “serious play” when the people of Israel were trapped in exile in Babylon. They were far from home, feeling hopeless and lost, dried up and depressed. In the middle of this spirit-draining situation, the spirit of the Lord comes upon Ezekiel and gives him a vision of a valley full of bones—dead, disgusting, disorganized, disconnected, desiccated bones.

Speaking of bones, in the town of Sedlec in the Czech Republic, there is a famous cemetery. Some 40,000 people who died from the Black Plague in the 14th century and in the Hussite wars in the beginning of the 15th century were buried there. A church was built in the center of the cemetery, and underneath the church they constructed an ossuary to hold the bones unearthed in mass graves during the construction of the church. Thus, this church of bones contains the skeletal remains of 40,000 people, and they used human bone to decorate the church. They made an enormous chandelier containing all the bones in the human body. They made a coat of arms and put four bell-shaped mounds at the corners of the chapel, all of bones. It sounds totally creepy to me.

But let us go back to Ezekiel’s bones. “Mortal, can these bones live?” God asks the prophet (Ezekiel 37:3). I suspect I know what Ezekiel thought in response to that question, not what he said but what he thought. He thought what you and I would have thought in the same situation. “Is this a trick question, or what?” Dry, dead, disconnected, desiccated bones — can they live? Obviously not. Get real, God. Dead is dead and these bones are totally dead, and they are not coming back to life. Now Ezekiel is far too nice a guy to say that, and remember, he is talking to the Lord God Almighty, so what he says is very diplomatic, “O Lord GOD, you know” (v. 3).

But God is out to teach us something here, something we all need to learn. It does not matter whether we live in the 6th century BC or the 21st century AD. We need to understand who God is, and therefore what God is able to do. Often, we do not really expect anything from God. We talk about believing in God, but we do not really expect God to do anything. We pray, but we do not really expect answers. This passage from Ezekiel blows away that kind of negative thinking about God.

Prophesy to these bones,” commands the Lord; “say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD” (vv. 4-6).

That is God’s command. Ezekiel does not know exactly what is going to happen, but he is willing to go along and do some “serious play.” So he prophesies to the bones, and suddenly they begin to click together, like so many Lego building blocks.

With the toe bone connected

to the foot bone,

and the foot bone connected

to the ankle bone,

and the ankle bone connected

to the leg bone.

You know the song. I believe it is called “Dem Bones” and it is based on Ezekiel’s prophecy. In the prophecy, tendons and ligaments wrap themselves around the bones and are covered by by flesh and skin. But these rejuvenated bodies still have no breath (vv. 7-8).

So God says, “Prophesy to the breath … Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” So Ezekiel prophesies as God has commanded, and the breath comes into them, and they come to life — a vast multitude of living people (vv. 9-10).

This is “serious play,” but what does this vision mean? It is like one of the “metaphorical abstractions” being created in a Lego workshop. God interprets the vision for us, saying to Ezekiel, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’” (v. 11).

We think that Ezekiel learned of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in January of 585 B.C. It seems logical then that he had this vision of the valley of dry bones shortly thereafter. Ezekiel had been a priest in the temple before he was deported forcibly to Babylon. To him, it must have seemed like everything that made his life meaningful and worthwhile had been so thoroughly destroyed that there could never be any hope of any kind of recovery. It was like his whole life had been crumpled up and tossed into some kind of cosmic trashcan.

Not only Ezekiel thought that way, the whole people of Israel felt much the same: dead, dried up, defeated, scattered, wasting away in exile. By every logical analysis, they were right. The temple was not going to reconstruct itself out of ashes and debris. The walls of Jerusalem were not going to be instantly rebuilt. Armies to defeat the Babylonians were not going to appear out of thin air. As the people of what was left of Israel examined their situation, they rightly concluded that they were done. It was over.

But God was not done. God had not forgotten them, and God promised to open their graves and bring them back to their homeland. “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live,” promises the Lord, “and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD” (v. 14).

The key is God’s Spirit, an awesome, life-giving power that can bring hope to the hopeless and life to the driest bone. This is the Spirit that Ezekiel calls upon when he says, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain.” In the original Hebrew, the exact same word is used for wind, breath, and spirit. This is the Spirit that brings the dead to life, because it is the wind-breath-spirit of God that fills the dead bodies and causes them to stand on their feet, “a vast multitude.”

So the answer to God’s original question to Ezekiel is really quite simple. “Mortal, can these bones live?” Yes, if they are filled with the Spirit of God.

Now the ancient Israelites were people much like us. They tried everything but God. They bought into the self-help movement. We can do it ourselves. We can reform, reinvent, or reorganize ourselves into a more efficient or effective organization. We can lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We can be self-made people. Did not work. They failed. They bought into the self esteem movement. Feel good about yourself, think positively and everything will work out. Everything did not work out. They were destroyed as a people. Finally, here is a really revolutionary idea. Let us depend upon God, because God can actually do something about our situation.

That is the application of this passage of Scripture. It is a challenge to us to open ourselves to the life-giving power of God’s Spirit, a Holy Spirit that comes to us for one purpose only: so that we will know that God is indeed God.

That is why God gives life to the bones: so that they will know that God is God. That is why God brings the people of Israel to their homeland: so that they will know that God will act.

Back in Genesis, in chapter 18, the Lord visits Sarah and Abraham, and tells them that they will have a child. And Sarah laughs, because they are both old. Sarah said, “This is a joke, right? This is not going to happen.” And God asks, “Is there anything too hard for the Lord?” It is a rhetorical question. The answer is obvious. God is the creator, sustainer, preserver of the whole universe. He can give a baby to senior citizens, and he can bring life to dry bones.

God is able. That is what this passage is about. When we are lost, God is able to find us. When we are crushed by guilt, God is able to lift our burden. When we are without vision, God is able to inspire us. When we are overwhelmed, God is able to calm us. When we are attacked, God is able to deliver us. When we are depressed, God is able to lift us up. When we are feeling disconnected, desiccated and discouraged, God is able to reconnect us, refresh us and revive us. God can take death itself, and transform it into life. God is able.

And when God breathes his spirit on us, we are able. When our bones are dried up, our legos are scattered, our hope lost, and we are feeling completely cut off, at that precise moment, the challenge for us is to turn to God and ask God to fill us with his Spirit. The promise is that God will put his Spirit within us and we will live, and then we will know that this is what the Lord has done.

It comes down to this then. Do you trust God? Most people do not trust God. I know that all the polls show that more than 90% of all Americans say they believe in a personal God. That is just talk. What the vision of Ezekiel is asking us is Do you really believe that God can do something and will do something in your life? Ezekiel’s answer is God can God will. What is your answer? Do you really believe that God is able?


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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