Dry Bones: We Need “Church” Now More Than Ever
The most famous part of Ezekiel’s ministry is very clearly the “valley of bones” vision. Ezekiel is told to prophesy to a valley of dried-up bones. The bones reflect Israel, the bones reflect the valley of the shadow of death…the bones reflect moments in our life full of despair and cut off from any sense of the future. The words of Marcus Aurelius from the movie “Gladiator” come to mind: “There was once a dream that was Rome, you could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish.” And it has vanished before his eyes.
I think it is into such a moment that Ezekiel is called. God questions if life can return to such a place and people in history…and then urges Ezekiel to free his imagination and allow life to seep back into this forbidden landscape. Ezekiel does—and the text tells us you can hear the noise of bone hitting bone as these scattered and parched legacies of ruin rattle together and sinews wrap them like wild vines and skin grows up over these bony protests that life still has a chance…but this is not yet life.
A miracle? Sure. But life? Not so much.
I love this moment in the text. To me here is its real power: sometimes we have all our bones back in place—but there is not yet life in us. We are the walking dead… still very much feeling the pull of the grave clothes holding us to the tomb, and suffering from “the sickness unto death” that is despair: a life without a future. And into this Ezekiel is provoked by God to prophesy a SECOND time. Ezekiel calls on the breath that is carried on the four winds to breath itself (again) into this dust that it might have life. We were God-breathed once…and we can be again. “There was a dream….” And then these sacks of dried-out bones become alive. TRULY alive. They gasp for air and their lungs are filled and it had to be as shocking as their death: to find that promised life and realize it had found them against all odds at this late date.
And then God says something like: I will do this and more for Israel, so go and tell them that they shall yet live and feel my breath—my Spirit—pass between their lips…and it shall be good (the liturgy of Genesis’ creation story is not done with us, not ever).
I share this vision to Ezekiel with you because I think we live in just such a valley right now. I think we live in the moment after Ezekiel’s first moment of prophecy but before the second and we are walking around wounded and in the place of death and despair…and we aren’t really alive. The bones are all there—but no muscles, no real flesh and no blood. We are just barely holding on.
Youth and children are feeling a crippling sense of anxiety, and we are not mobilizing enough resources to help them all. This all predated COVID but has been greatly exacerbated by it, and we are experiencing a mental health crisis all around us.
Employers are saying no one wants to work, workers are saying no one will hire them (I have been on both sides of this; please do not dismiss it—this challenge is real), and places of business have unpredictable hours as they are simply shutting down when they lack the resources to be open.
Almost every city is experiencing a housing crisis…add in a wage crisis…and there are seemingly insurmountable challenges to offering a sustainable livelihood for all people. Given current inflation rates, most people will need at the very least a 10% raise in salary to hold even with inflation (not to earn more, just to have the same buying power next year that they had this year). How many do think will get it?
Whether it is Church or PTO or Marching Band or the Soccer club (those are just the ones emailing me), no one can find the volunteers they need whom they had a few years ago…no one. All of these groups are staring at parents, saying: we need you. And all our parents are saying “we have nothing more give…we are the tree at the end of the book (The Giving Tree) and at best we are only a cut-off stump now.”
Isaiah uses THAT metaphor. Through the buildup of Isaiah’s initial ministry, he keeps returning to the idea of Israel as a forest of trees cut down, stumps all around. until he gives that famous word: but a shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse….
I think we live in a time of stumps and bones…and I do not believe I’m overstating it. In fact, I think I am barely scratching the surface. I’m not going to leave you here because that is not my objective, so I cannot keep scratching for now. We do NEED to see our context and the landscape correctly if we are going to take the next steps… and we need to take the NEXT steps. Because the valley doesn’t stay bones; and the shoot does come up: the grave is not the end.
I believe the Church of flesh and blood is needed in such a time as this. I believe that more than ever we find ourselves in a time when we need the Church: not steeples and budgets, but the church that is conclaves of resilient people reminding themselves that they are not alone. Communities of grace, people of unyielding love, carrying each other in turn through the hardest stretches of our shared journeys because we have made the decision that these journeys shall be shared. It is no mistake that Ezekiel does not raise and create a single skeleton and then a single person living and breathing. God has no small vision. God does start out to save individuals—God is the God of all-or-nothing gambits: let’s raise the whole dang valley of bones!
I work for a Church, so it’s no surprise that I think it’s a special kind of answer to our current plight. Hear me: I do think it’s a special kind of answer. But it doesn’t have to be my church…or any church, per se. What it does need to be is communities of covenant vulnerability and togetherness. We need places where we share our real lives and our real struggles, and we don’t give up on each other or ourselves. We need places that are willing to double down on wonder and curiosity and hope. Not a hope that someone else will fix all this, not magical-thinking hope, but gritty “get in there and bring down the injustices and plant seeds and pull weeds and water the dang ground even when no crop will break up through that parched and weary land.” Hope that says you will not keep me down… because that me is actually us and together we are just too stubborn to lie down and die. The kind of hope that made Ezekiel start talking to bones, as ludicrous as it was.
We are all tired. We have all had too much asked of us. We are all more than a bit paralyzed about whether we can do anything about it. And I’m not sure that I’m in any better place…but I strongly suspect that the way forward will never come so long as I’m looking for it alone. We need each other. And the heart in me that longs for wellness in you is begging you to let the sinews of commitment and the flesh of shared lives and the blood and Spirit of hope flow in you again—to get yourself up, find a group of people whose lives you might imagine will enrich yours and whose lives most surely will be enriched by you,: and go there and hang out there…and let life thrive in you again.
We cannot do this alone. But we can do this. To paraphrase my favorite benediction (thanks to Marvel and the show WandaVision): we have said goodbye (died like this) before… so it stands to reason we will say hello (life will find us together) again. Amen to that!