(RNS) — I think I’m starting to get Ezekiel.
Ezekiel is one of the most memorable of the Hebrew prophets. The Old Testament book that bears his name portrays him prophesying God’s coming judgments through a series of bizarre actions: eating a scroll given to him by the Lord so as to internalize the Lord’s message, making a miniature model of Jerusalem portraying an attack by Babylonian enemies; shaving off his hair to symbolize Israel’s coming degradation; lying, for over a year, first on his left side then his right, as a way of bearing the iniquities of Israel and Judah; and during this time spent on his side, eating bread baked by fuel made from dung.
Such actions by the prophets are called sign acts. A sign act is “a non-verbal theatrical display” that visually portrays “the outcome of a prophecy.” A sign act consists of “two primary components: the divine command to the prophet to perform the specified action, and the interpretation of the sign act,” according to “Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets.” Or, as “The Bible Project” explains, a sign act is “nonverbal activity coupled with verbal proclamation.” (It’s important to note that biblical prophets communicated God’s message, not their own; their actions did not precipitate God’s actions as false prophets today claim to do.)
Ezekiel’s sign acts may be among some of the oddest parts of the Bible. But some weird events in my own life have helped me to better see how, through biblical prophets like Ezekiel, supernatural realities were made manifest in the natural realm.
Five years ago this week, on my way to a meeting with others from my church denomination, I entered a crosswalk and was struck by a bus. Five years later, I still can’t get past the strangeness of the entire event.
Now on one level, we know I got hit because I stepped in front of the bus when the bus had the right of way. Even so, as others at the time pointed out, spiritual layers seemed to surround this physical event. In the weeks before the accident, I had taken a leading and public role in fighting the mistreatment of women by the leadership and culture of my Southern Baptist denomination. In doing so, I was joining — and advocating for — a long-standing, increasingly loud chorus of people decrying the way in which entrenched structures and systems within the convention had long been “throwing women under the bus.” And all of a sudden, this metaphor became a literal reality.
Then, just two weeks ago, as this anniversary was approaching — and with it the heightened recollections triggered by body memory — while out on a morning run, I was suddenly attacked by a pit bull.
I had planned that particular day to be the first in a long time of peace and relaxation after weeks of travel and months of work and ministry-related pain and trauma. Instead, I found myself in the back of an ambulance for the second time in five years.
Besides the physical pain and the mental and emotional jarring that came with the encounter with the bus and then with the dog, I’m also kind of embarrassed. I’m not accident prone. Or at least, I wasn’t. (For the first 50 years of my life, I suffered no sort of mishap beyond a separated shoulder after being thrown by my horse.) I’m also not the kind of person who likes drama. (No way around it: Getting hit by a bus and attacked by a pit bull are pretty dramatic.)
But the greater reality is that I’ve been drawn into years of unwanted drama through ongoing in-fighting and fracturing within my religious community (the same sort that seems to be polarizing most communities these days).
Both the nature and the timing of these two incidents parallel (too closely for comfort) spiritual realities in my life: Getting thrown under the bus and being attacked by a vicious dog are the perfect metaphors for what not only I but many others have also experienced over the years. The political, denominational, racial and gender power struggles marking every facet of life these days are much more than what they appear to be on the surface. They are spiritual battles, too.
While recovering from the wounds of the dog, someone reached out to me with this reminder. “You have helped us to make our own encroachments into enemy territory,” he said. And “those who are in the vanguard in the great battle in the unseen realm are more often attacked in the realm of flesh and blood.”
Another friend urged me to take the dog attack as a reminder that amid all my efforts and concerns over the years with the spiritual realm — my ministry of teaching, writing and speaking to serve the church — I need to protect my physical health and bodily well-being.
This separate counsel from two different friends taken together offers a total picture, a picture easily distorted when we neglect one part of the counsel or the other.
The picture is this: The physical and spiritual realms are not separate, not in each of us as individual bearers of God’s image, nor in the world in which we live, one that consists of both a physical realm and a spiritual one. Reality consists of both. Angels and demons are as real and as present among us as dogs and buses. The universe, as some theologians put it, is organic. It is less a machine made up of discrete parts than, as Iain McGilchrist explains, a stream — living, flowing, changing and mutually affecting all that are in it.
We need not — ought not — go about seeking a spiritual explanation for everything, good or bad, that happens throughout our day. But we also ought not to forget that everything that happens throughout our day — and our life — can draw us nearer to or push us farther away from God, depending on how we respond.
In this way, all of life here on earth is a sign act. Our earthly existence prepares us to live with or without God for eternity. We are offered the chance to “read” everything in that light, even while recognizing the finitude of our reading comprehension as well as our knowledge.
But sometimes the symbols in this allegorical journey we call life are painfully clear. It is then, I find, that my need to draw nearer to God becomes more obvious, more urgent and more desired. The sign acts point me more clearly to the Way.
And I’ve chosen a new route to run.