It had been more than a week since the doctors had moved me into the ICU, and more than a week since I had tasted anything liquid.
My tongue was dry and felt like leather. At night, I would watch the machines around me blink. The IV bags hung next my bed and scattered the light across sterile white walls.
I tried not to cry when I could no longer control my bowels. I lay there in my own filth waiting for a nurse to rescue me.
I came into the world unable even to clean myself and now it seemed I would leave it in the same state.
Finally the nurse arrived to help me.
“I’m thirsty,” I told her. “May I have an ice cube?”
She said no.
“Please? My mouth is so dry. Just an ice cube,” I begged.
Oxygen tubes inserted into my nostrils had rubbed my nose raw. I pulled them out.
I felt relief. I watched the numbers drop on the LCD screen. An alarm sounded.
I tried to put the tubes back when the nurse ran in.
“Mr. King, you need the oxygen,” she chided, skillfully replacing al the tubes and checking all the machines and medicines that flanked my hospital bed — all the things that were keeping me alive.
Death is never avoided, only delayed.
It is never glorious, only inevitable.
Death falls upon the just and the unjust, the evil and the good. In death there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, male nor female.
Death is for all and comes to all.
I stood in the middle of a valley. Hot wind whipped the sand at my feet. Dry bones, bleached by the sun covered the valley floor.
Son of man, God said, can these bones live?
I looked at the bones of friends, family and those whom I had loved. There were bones of men who died at war, women who had been killed at home and children who had grown up as slaves. The bones of families that were ripped apart in life and only united again in this mass grave stretching out before me.
Bones of those who had been loved, Bones of those who had been forgotten. Bones of the old who lived to see their children’s children and the bones of those who had died well before their time.
Son of man, God said, can these bones live?
My eyes stung. I tried to swallow and answer.
Sovereign Lord, you alone know!
Speak it! God answered. Speak the words I say to you.
Tell the dead and the dying, tell the sick and the lame, tell the hurt, tell the broken, tell the hungry, tell the naked.
Tell all those living in fear, tell all those who are oppressed, tell all those yearning for freedom.
Tell them, tell them, tell them that these dry bones will live again.
Tell them that I will give them breath, that sinew and tendon will grow, flesh will return and life be restored.
Though it pained me, I inhaled and spoke the words God had told me and the whole valley shook. The bones began to rattle as they found themselves once again. Arms and legs reformed and faces came together. Faces I had known, people I had loved and had long ago been taken from me. Others were strangers to me, but still each had a mother, a father, a family even if only for a moment.
And there they were before me — silent, unmoving, their eyes open, haunting and vacant.
Speak! God said. Speak to them! Come, breath, from the four winds of the earth and fill these bodies, those who have been slain, that they may live.
And I spoke.
The wind swirled through the valley. I felt it blow through me, fill me, my spirit lifted. I watched as the bodies rose. They stood, lifted their heads and as a vast army cried together: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty who was and is and is yet to come!”
Then God said, These bones are my people. They are dried up, cut off and their hope is gone. But I will open their graves, I will lift them up, return them to their homes and families. I will put my Spirit upon them for I am the resurrection, and the life: those that believeth in me, though they were dead, yet shall they live and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
It took me nine months to recover. Two months in the hospital and the rest of the time under regular care from visiting nurses. When I was well enough to travel, I went to my parents’ home. I still couldn’t eat and the pain hadn’t gone away, but I finally was getting better and for the first time since the sickness began, I was able to take a few spoonfuls of broth.
“I hope the sermon is good on Sunday,” I said to my Mom.
“Why?” she asked.
“Wouldn’t that be a great end to it all? Sick for the winter and then everything makes sense when Spring starts and we celebrate Easter,” I explained.
That Easter morning, I sat in the church of my youth. I was tired and in pain. It was the longest I had been up and out of the house since I first entered the hospital many months earlier.
I sat waiting for, but not necessarily expecting, my message from the Lord.
A woman got up and read the Easter scripture about the women who went to the Jesus’ tomb but found it empty. Part way through I realized the personalized message I had hoped for wasn’t coming.
Instead, I was listening to the same story that would be read in thousands of churches around the world that day. It’s a story that has been read countless times before and been a source of comfort, inspiration and strength to a great cloud of witnesses and others who had suffered far more than I ever have.
The most important message I will ever hear, I have already heard.
The most transformative story has already been told.
It is the same good news that St. Augustine searched for and finally found after 30 years. It is the same good news that sustained Nelson Mandela during 27 years in prison. It is the same message that has united billions of people over thousands of years.
It is a significant message because it is not new. It is powerful because it is not just for me but is a story for everyone and anyone.
We learn that before resurrection comes the cross. Before new life comes the passing away of the old. Before transformation comes the fire, and before rebuilding comes destruction.
The story tells us that death is not the final resolution.
When pain wracks my body, it is not the end. When I am beaten, giving up the fight and gasp, “I thirst,” it is not the end. When the cry leaves my lips, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” it is not the end. When my heart stops beating and my lungs fail to draw breath, it is not the end. When the earth quakes, the curtain tears and the walls begin to crumble, it is not the end. When the days go by and I feel foolish for having waited, it is not the end. When I go to the tomb, unsure of what I’ll find, it is not the end.
The end is an empty tomb. The end is when the sinew, tendon and skin return to those dry bones, when the bodies arise from their graves to stand as one and sing:
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty who was and is and is yet to come."
Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.
(Photo credit: Image of the desert near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile by Andoni Canela/Getty Images)