[T]he Lord brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley. It was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel 37:1-3, NRSV
Can these bones live? Susan asked this question when she told me about her cancer diagnosis. She didn’t quote Ezekiel, but her tears voiced a fear and longing captured in those biblical words. Can these bones live? Can my bones live?
Susan also asked me, her pastor at the time, to pray for her to be healed. Her prayer request and others like it haunt my ministry. What is healing? And what does prayer mean when illness wearies our bones and depletes our bodies? Or when we encounter wounds that no kiss or prayer is able to suture closed?
In Ezekiel 37, God’s Spirit leads Ezekiel through an ancient battleground filled with the bones of exiles who died fighting. I imagine some of the exiles in Ezekiel’s vision died fighting for something they believed in. Others may have fought out of loyalty to a leader, or perhaps they fought to survive. The valley is covered with their bones, and the bones are “very dry”; hope of life has been bleached out by the glare of a fierce sun.
Ezekiel’s dry bones battlefield is not unlike some contemporary geographies. All of us have fought or will at some time find ourselves fighting for our lives or, like Ezekiel, straining our eyes to see a glimmer of hope while looking out over dusty war zones covered with very dry bones.
Striking about Ezekiel’s vision is that God asks Ezekiel a question we most often hear ourselves asking God: “Can these bones live?” God asks Ezekiel and us, “Mortal—you of the dust who will one day return to dust—what do you imagine is possible here in this place of dried-out bones?” Does God expect us to have an answer to this difficult question?
For me, as a liturgical theologian, possible responses to these questions emerge from the realm of the sacramental imagination. What is the sacramental imagination? Theologian Mary Catherine Hilkert shares her insights in Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination. A sacramental imagination, says Hilkert, sees God’s presence permeating all of creation and human lives. Much as sacraments in Christian worship invite us to see God in the matter of our lives—in water, bread, and wine and in washing, eating, and drinking—a sacramental imagination is attuned to how God is present in every aspect of daily life.
Hilkert explores preaching as an act of naming the presence of God in human lives. In a similar way, worship also names God’s presence. Through the prayers of the people, we name God-with-us as we journey through life’s Edenic gardens and dry bones valleys. As we pass the peace, we offer to the wounds of our humanity God’s divine kiss of connectedness; God is present in our hands as we touch each other with welcome and care. As we break bread at the Lord’s table, we remember Jesus as bread-breaker and broken body; we also perform, in a sense, the horrific breaking of human hearts and bodies by contemporary injustices and remember the groans of our earth as she gives herself, moment by moment, to human flourishing.
At the table, we have a chance to encounter God-with-us in the marrow of our bones as the nutrients of that holy meal intermingle with and draw together ancient scars, today’s wounds and weariness, and yet-to-be-embodied possibilities. In worship, we have the chance to name God’s presence in our midst and to imagine what it means that everyday actions and people and places and things are awash and alive with holiness.
How do these sacramental actions in worship relate to Susan’s prayer request? Hilkert’s work is again helpful in crafting a response. She pairs with her insights about sacramental imagination a definition of “dialectical imagination”: “The dialectical imagination stresses the distance between God and humanity. . . and the not-yet character of the promised reign of God.” Both imaginations—sacramental and dialectical—are present in Christian histories and theologies.
Both were also present in Susan’s prayer request. Even as she asked me to call upon God on her behalf, she expressed uncertainty about whether God cared about her or could hear her cries. This is part of the reality of what it means to be human and wrestle with faith. On the one hand, we delight that all that we see, hear, and touch in the material world has the potential to connect us to God. At the same time, we struggle to fathom how God is anywhere near those desolate places where blood from gunshots runs in the streets or where children are dying from abuse or neglect or where food and health care are not accessible to hurting communities.
When our bodies betray us or unending illness becomes a constant companion or we have to face the reality that whatever trauma we have experienced is not fading away with time, we can find ourselves staring across an abyss of separation from the one we call God. We can find ourselves in Ezekiel’s valley joining our voices to those of the house of Israel: “‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.’” (37:11). How, when this happens, do we respond to God’s question to Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Joel James Shuman and Keith G. Meador suggest in Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity that in many North American contexts religion and medicine are viewed as a means for people to “attain the. . . desirable commodity that is individual health.” For too many, religious beliefs and medical strategies focus on individualized diagnoses and cures that can be pursued as “goods” of the market.
Health, write Shuman and Meador, “is nothing less than the entirety of our day-to-day flourishing as contingent beings in a contingent world.” Health has to do “not just with the physical well-being of our individual bodies but also with the integrity of our being before God, our being with others, and our being with the world.” When we rely solely on medical remedies to restore individual health, we risk becoming disconnected from relational sources of well-being that settle our hearts and calm our spirits when no cure can be found for whatever disease afflicts us.
Theologian Shelly Rambo offers related insights in Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma. The contemporary prevalence of trauma, she says, requires us to recognize that “death and life are coterminous rather than sequential, entangled rather than clearly delineated.” A resurrected Jesus who returns to life with the trauma of death still etched in his hands, feet, and side, invites us to see our lives as “marked by wounds and yet recreated through them.”
I wonder: Can we think of sacramental and dialectical imaginations as also entangled or interwoven? What if we imagine healing not as a victory to be claimed once a wound has been sutured up but as a momentary glimpse of divine grace that we touch and taste and see when we bless and eat the broken bread at the Lord’s table? What if we imagine healing as work we do alongside others each day to become more aware of how God’s grace is with us in places where God seems most absent? What if we imagine healing as encounters with the Balm of Gilead given to us when we share a meal with friends, or when we taste springtime in winter air—when we encounter, as Rambo puts it, “life resurrecting amid the ongoingness of death”?
Ezekiel prophesies to the marrow-emptied bones of those who had been slain, who once “lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (37:10). Sacramental and dialectical imaginations intermingle as God imagines with Ezekiel the possibility of life rattling, clattering, even dancing up out of that Valley of the “ongoingness of death.”
In a sense, worship invites us to imagine with God each time we gather around the Lord’s Table. What are we to imagine? Possibilities of life in the midst of death, hope in the midst of despair. Then, with grace-filled possibilities breathed into our hearts and minds, worship dares us to imagine God’s Spirit infusing our very bones with new life. Worship dares us to hold mysteries of divine grace in our hands and taste mysteries of divine healing on our tongue, in bread and wine. Worship dares us to give voice to our lament and then to imagine God incarnate in the sinews and flesh of our human bodies. Then, in and through us, through our prayers and in our actions, sacramental and dialectical imaginations intertwine, and God’s Spirit is yet again set loose in our midst to breathe life over whatever is dried out and lifeless in our communities and neighborhoods.
Two years ago, on the first Sunday in Advent, some children in my church bedazzled my dialectical and sacramental imaginations. As the prelude began that Sunday, with no liturgical prompting, first one child, then two, then one more made their way to the front of the church and began to dance to the notes of the prelude.
I had arrived at church reluctant to begin another Advent season. My awareness of racism, violence, food insecurity, political unrest—so many painful realities that people face every day—made me resistant to singing hymns of waiting. Too many people have waited too long for healing to come their way.
Then those children began to dance in front of the communion table. Their unrehearsed joy reached out into the sanctuary and, for a moment at least, quieted my restless spirit. In that moment, dry bones were touched by the healing breezes of God’s Spirit-Breath. Sacramental and dialectical imaginations joined hands in an awkward but life-sustaining dance.
I was restless with impatience for Gospel justice to come, for God to intervene and restore God’s weary people. Those children invited me to imagine anew the meaning of God-with-us. Perhaps the sacred Star-flinger who in the beginning sequined the skies with light sows stars into hungry and thirsty wildernesses each day by infusing our weary bones with energy enough to dance light and life resurrecting in the face of death—even when we do not think we have rhythm or energy to dance at all.
My prayer today is that as those children grow up into their lives they remember the spontaneity and joy that infused their bones when they danced and prepared our community—hearts, minds, and bodies—to take up one more Advent journey.
december sun puddled on the sanctuary carpet.
splashing in the light, they swirled, twirled,
danced while people settled into empty pews.
child poet-prophets, eight years, five, only three,
they swayed, tender trees seeking, reaching,
spilling morning gold from their hands,
unrehearsed, as far as we knew, and unplanned
except perhaps by angels, if you believe in such things.
we heavy-footed grownups beheld them, wondering.
and they danced on, in the light,
in front of the remembrance table where
bread is broken, baptismal promises spoken and where
on that day? innocent joy
graced wilderness-weary waiting eyes
with a wreath of swirling, spinning stars.
the music stopped, and they scampered
away down the aisle. I rubbed my eyes—yes.
their feet left a trail of stardust.
the way was prepared.
Jill Y. Crainshaw is Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity and an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Her writing and teaching emphasize how Christian worship and leadership arise from and return to human experience. Her newest book, When I in Awesome Wonder: Liturgy Distilled from Everyday Life (The Liturgical Press, 2017), explores how worship’s sacramental elements such as bread, wine, and water are connected to local fields and farmers, waters and artisans. Crainshaw’s first poetry chapbook, Cedars in Snowy Places (Library Partners Press, 2018), was published last fall.
See Mary Catherine Hilkert, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination (New York: The Continuum Publishing Co., 1997).
Joel James Shuman and Keith G. Meador, Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 6.
Shelly Rambo, Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007), 7.
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Recommended Citation: Crainshaw, Jill Y. (2019): “’Can These Bones Live?’ Dancing with Skeletons in Unlikely Ballrooms,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 7. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu