In the January 2008 issue of National Geographic, Charles Bowden wrote an article about North Dakota entitled “The Emptied Prairie.” It painted a picture of shuttered towns, deserted homesteads, forgotten schools, and abandoned dreams. His words blew like lyrical dust across a barren land, a contemporary valley full of dry, wasted bones.
Surely when Bowden crafted his story, the images of Ezekiel 37:1-14 (one of the readings for the fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A) didn’t dance like macabre sugarplums in his head. Nor did he imagine not one, but hundreds of “prophets” among the citizens of this prairie state standing up and speaking out. Such an outcry resulted that ABC News made an exception to the “Person of the Week” and named all the citizens of North Dakota recipients of the award. Yes, those North Dakota “dry bones” not only stood up and rattled around, but they also gave witness to the same hopeful spirit that breathed in the first homesteaders, that this spirit is still alive and well.
There is despair here: businesses fail, schools consolidate, and farms go up for auction. But despair finds lodging in all locales–from sylvan suburbia to the crumbling inner city and across the windswept rural plains. Even the most trusting and faithful soul among us can play host to the dark guests of sorrow, woe, and hopelessness.
If you’re old enough, you may remember a recurring sketch from the television show Hee Haw where a group of down-at-the-mouth fellows sat around singing “Gloom, despair, and agony on me/Deep, dark depression, excessive misery/If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all/Gloom, despair, and agony on me.”
While the sketch was truly funny, it also let viewers safely laugh at the common human reality of pain and suffering faced by all of us. Yes, at some time in our lives, we will “visit” Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones.
Even our communities of faith take up regular residence in this valley. We see dwindling offerings, aging members, new challenges to the “old ways” of being church, and countless cultural affronts to mainstream Christianity. We are afraid of what we might lose, and we circle the proverbial wagons and hunker down to preserve what we have left. It becomes easy to ask “Can these bones live?” Can our congregation survive? Will our denomination fracture? Will we meet the budget this year? Who will be left to carry on?
We can learn from the strong-willed, vocal residents of North Dakota, and say with certainty, “Yes, these bones do live!” God is faithful, and God is in control. Our Creator breathes new life into dry bones, fleshes out our hopes and dreams for ministry and mission, and calls us to walk in faith. Christ’s church will go on despite our often bungling, well-meaning, and pitifully human attempts to be good stewards of all that we’ve been so graciously given.
“‘I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,’ says the Lord,” to the people of Israel at one of the lowest points in their journey. These same words apply to us and to our communities of faith today. It’s a promise we can count on, believe in, AND act on. Our dry bones do live–they live to praise God, serve others, and to walk in faith and light.
(“Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me” was written by Buck Owens and Roy Clark for the long-running television show Hee Haw)
Copyright (c) 2008, The Rev. Sharron Lucas, all rights reserved. Used by permission.