Speaking of bones . . . I have a good friend who happens to be an orthopedic surgeon. I say happens, but not in the sense of happenstance, or fluke, as if one day he was a hedgehog and then—Presto!—Dr. Coles L’Hommedieu, Orthopedic Surgeon! Instead I hope to stress that his role as a surgeon is not essential to our friendship. We’re more apt to hold forth about the enduring merit of Golden Earring’s “Radar Love,” and swap armchair philosophy over Chinese at Wan Fu’s, than discuss the latest advances in laparoscopic procedures. We have so much more in common. He plays bass for a rock band called Hush House that once opened for The Dave Matthews Band. I once took drum lessons for a month. He was a soccer star in college till he blew a knee. I once blew a knee trying to catch the ice cream truck. (I still have a Pavlovian response to “Turkey in the Straw.”) He’s a God-skeptic. I’m God-obsessed. He likes to say inspiring things like, “Every day I just try to say Yes.” I say, “Every time you say Yes, you’re also saying No.” You see how I could go on about all the striking similarities between us.
Yes, he is also an orthopedic surgeon, one who traffics in our mortal bones. Whether broken, fractured, chipped or flat-out done-in, he’s up to his neck in bones. Often enough, he replaces knees and hips. Occasionally, when we’re out to lunch, my left knee-cap locks up as I try to rise from the table after downing a hefty plate of Kung Pao chicken. He likes to tap said knee and say, “One day this knee will be mine.” He’s creepy that way. I laugh uneasily. The meter’s running on my meniscus-challenged knees. His knees too, by the way.
Our friendship has little to do with his profession, but everything to do with his calling. Behind that surgical mask is a man who values others enough to take their bones and joints seriously. If you push Coles about his career choice, he’ll acknowledge more than a little connection between his blown knee in college and his desire to be an orthopedic surgeon. But how he doctors is just as important as why. Let’s say you visit Coles to discuss having your hip or knee replaced. He’ll listen, then ask you how bad the pain is. Maybe you answer, “It’s about as bad as it can get, Doc. I’m popping Tylenol like candy.” He’s liable to say, “Go home. If it’s still hurting in a week, call me.” He’s a surgeon, but surgery, for Coles, is a last resort. The important thing is not the “fix,” but how surgery fits our overarching quest for life, how we live with and manage the inevitable suffering that accrues with the miles and years on our mortal bones.
Mortal bones. Could we find two less popular words? Bones, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect. The skin, our largest organ, gets the most attention. Other body parts get their due, even memorialized: the heart on Valentines Day, the more sexy parts and muscles make magazine covers, even the hands get sculpted. Sure, skeletons dance about on Halloween, but then it’s back to the closet. And our culture is equally disdainful of mortality. Mortal equals morbid in our culture. Gauche. Even “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die”—every hedonist’s clarion call--has been cropped to “Eat, drink, and be merry!” Ernest Becker’s classic The Denial of Death nails our aversion to mortality. He won a Pulitzer for this book in 1974. It still rings incisive, alarming, and true. Becker makes a very persuasive case for the “vital lie” of our culture, our refusal to face our own mortality. I could rest my case here, but why stop now? Since none of us is getting any younger, why not turn playful and monkey around? Um . . . etymologically?
Used as a noun, mortality speaks of the state of being subject to death. Whatever we hope might happen afterwards, we all must fuss with and face this Ending in others and ourselves, this grievous undoing and loss of life as we know it in this world, our own peculiar patch of time and space. The adjective mortal draws even closer: We’re mortal beings. This is so integrally true that we often use the same word as a noun: We are mortals.
Mortality is our way of naming a common human happening called limits and demise, our process of dying and death. This happening begins at birth and takes a lifetime to complete. It happens with a tragically short life; also with a long life, but in a more fully arced way. It happens to vegans and carnivores, smokers and non-smokers, folks with good and bad credit. It also happens at an alarming rate. Time’s always outpacing us, so the dead always outnumber the living. 17 years ago, using the data compiled by Harvard’s Nathan Keyfitz, Annie Dillard observed that “the dead outnumber us . . . by 14 - 1.” But this estimate is conservative. Keyflitz guessed that the ratio could be as high as 20 – 1. All this, despite our world’s population explosion. Mortality is The Happening of All Happenings. It’s always happening to us from beyond us. (In fact, it happens to all of creation, but we’re the ones who are singularly aware of its happening.) “All flesh is grass,” the prophet Isaiah cries. We’re toast.
Now for the twist: You might be surprised to hear that the increasing clicks and creaks of our mortal bones are directly, albeit mysteriously, tied to our happiness. Think about it. The root of happiness is hap-, which appears in words as diverse as hapless or haply, but especially in happen. Traced back, we see that happen is rooted in the Old Norse word for good fortune, for chance or luck. This positive regard, over time, morphed into our more neutral word for happening as any occurrence whatsoever. What if we endued mortality, The Happening of All Happenings, with the original value-laden intimacy between happiness and happening? And if that’s not already too much of a reach, what if we also brought the original Norse sense of good fortune back into play as well? Can these mortal bones also be good, even lucky, bones?
Combining good fortune and mortality might not be such a stretch, after all. Just consider how often inexplicable or highly improbable things are ascribed to luck. “Harry musta had a patch of bad luck,” you might say, scratching your head when you find out that the drug that threw Harry’s cancer into remission also contributed to his heart failure. “I’m just lucky, I guess,” the old D-Day veteran says, after being the last man left standing from his platoon on Normandy Beach. Something against unspeakable odds happens, whether good or bad, so we speak of luck. And then there are those great-hearted ones who refuse to tease apart the good and the bad. “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth,” 37-year-old Lou Gehrig once said so memorably, and there wasn’t a dry eye in Yankee stadium. Luck gets the blame, the credit, or a little of both.
Or God. Many religious folk are often allergic to speaking of luck, especially in any causal way. “There’s no such thing as luck,” they chirp. Or, “There are no coincidences or accidents in life.” The assumption seems imply that God, being omnipotent, is dictating every little detail of our lives in some benevolent fashion, whether we know it or not. I’ve never been comfortable with this glib take on the mystery of life’s complexity. Nor do I agree that those who reject this chipper take on cause-and-effect lack faith. Such platitudes may appear confident, even happy, but I smell a rat. There’s more than a whiff of sweat and desperation rising up underneath. They may speak of God’s sovereignty, but the words feel forced, as if faith hasn’t the backbone for disappointment, or the knees for humble lament.
But happiness is not God. Whenever we worship happiness instead of God, we leave vast acres of our humanity on the altar. All glittering idols are hollow shells, they eclipse divinity and destroy humanity. Go ahead, pick one up from the beach. Lift it to your ear. You may think you hear the very ocean itself, but there’s nothing there. Authentic holiness fosters an incarnational wholiness, a lifelong path that involves facing, accepting, and integrating the full spectrum of our emotions and thoughts, not matter how unpleasant or dark. God in Christ never dodges the fullness of necessary experience.
Which brings us to the acceptance and loving embrace of our mortal bones. Bless all 206 of them.
They’re all in the dark. That’s where they live and do their work: feed on marrow, bend, flex, support and protect our organs and muscles, do all that helps us greet and engage the world each
day. We walk. We shake hands. We eat. Bones are why our head is hard. That smile, those teeth? Bones. Well, not really. Teeth are not bones, but our jaw is. You get the point. Our bones also
place us, limit us, help us know where we end and the other begins. That size 13D is my foot. Our yeoman bones do all the heavy lifting, unnoticed
until one breaks, or turns porous and crumbles away with osteoporosis. Our mortal bones do their limited best to attach us to our innards and to our world, to help us cohere in life-giving ways.
That’s why they are often linked to our mortality, both literally and metaphorically.
My neighbor across the street has kyphosis, which results in curvature of the spine. Hers is severe. If the angle of her posture were a clock-face, over the sixteen years I’ve known her, she’s moved from 1:00 to 3:00. It’s all she can do to look ahead, instead of down at the sidewalk. But she does, about twice a day, on walks to the neighborhood 7-11. I can’t tell you the odds of my neighbor having kyphosis. It happens. She did not choose this. But she makes other choices every day as to how she’ll bear up. The odds that she’ll greet you with great effort—will strain to look up at you with a grin and a hello— are overwhelmingly in your favor.
But, really, who wants to own up to their mortal bones? Hebrew Scripture tells this amazing story of how God had to sneak up on a man named Ezekiel to get him to pay attention to his mortal bones. God came in the dark of the night, in the form of a dream, when his ego was disarmed. Dreams are often God’s way of slipping past all the games we play, our protective rationalizations and denials. Like a courier under fire, God crawls under the barbed wire of our defenses and delivers a coded letter to our heart. In his dream, Ezekiel says, “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones” (37:1).
Let’s capture the tone here. Think ambushed. The Spirit sweeps by like a great bird and snatches him up, then drops him like a rock, a thud of dust in the middle of a valley of dry and clattering desolation. Jewish scholar and sage Abraham Heschel notes that Ezekiel does not seize the moment, the moment seizes him. He is overwhelmed. The moment of truth is “violently, powerfully urged upon him.” In other words, something big and beyond is happening.
And there in that valley Ezekiel is forced to tour the mortal desolation up close. God doesn’t simply take him to the valley; God leads him through the valley. God guides him “round and round” all these bones. They were “very many and very dry.” Everywhere desolation and desiccation. They’re downright unnerving, all these lifeless bones. It’s hard work, reading these bones. As Ernesto Cardenal says, “We want God’s voice to be clear as day, but it is deep as night. It is deep and clear, but with a dark clarity like an x-ray. It reaches our bones.”
And when God speaks, he calls Ezekiel by his true name. No, not Ezekiel. That’s what we call him, but not God. Instead, God asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Other prophets might get called by their personal names, like Jeremiah and Amos, but God never calls Ezekiel by any name other than Mortal.
Just maybe we could hear God more clearly and deeply if we knew Mortal as our deepest name. Maybe there’s really no such thing as normal—only Mortal. We are not God, not perfect, not spirit. We’re graphically flawed, small and passing, with myriad maladies. The greatest of us are simply Spirit-filled specks. And maybe the church is that place where this is most celebrated, and, thereby, apparent. We’re here because we’re “not all there!” We need to rub elbows and bump against each other. We need bony reminders of God. Someone once complained to William Sloan Coffin that the church was just a crutch. Coffin replied, “Oh, and you think you don’t limp?”
Call us Mortal, Lord, then maybe we can hear you when you ask, “Can these bones live?” These bones. Not those, but these bones. Our bones—never mind about that bag of bones over there. God is taking us on a tour of the valley that is our world. God is asking us and no one else. Again, “Can these bones live?”
Maybe mortality is not simply about scarcity and demise. Maybe being mortal is more about embodying The Happening of all Happenings that is our own particular destiny. Can we see our brief passage in this larger, more generous way, from grace to grace? This lively yet limiting sense we’re all born into, of being risked into the world for the time being, for now, delimited yet embraced by a healthy, healing dose of happiness, even luck? Can we live with nothing guaranteed except the beauty of our beloved God-created, God-redeemed, God-sustained givenness? Can we hear God calling us into the question of all questions, “Can these bones live?”
You could ask my neighbor across the road. Or talk with any of the 100s of people Coles has tended to on myriad medical mission trips to Belize. Or sit down with the two Belizian children Coles and his wife, Leslie, once took into their home. Both Sade and Adolfo had skeletal issues so severe they were brought to St. Louis for the necessary care. After multiple surgeries, weeks in body casts, and months of care-giving and tutoring by the L’Hommedieu family, they returned home to their families with blessed bones.
Or you could ask yourself, then watch the answer swell up from that dry valley where you once felt good as dead. It stirs, rattles about in the dark distance. It’s known by many names. Some call it faith. Others know it as hope. Many dare call it love. But the answer’s always been the same, “O God, you know.” Lord, you know, even when we do not know. We believe; help thou our unbelief. We trust you to know. Even now, something stirs—a mending, a re-pairing, a clattering together that choruses bone to bone, sinew to ligament to joint, the slowly unfolding spine, the God-breathed breath, the rising up.
--A version of this blog will be published in the forthcoming Fall issue of Desert Call.