Can These Bones Live? April 2, 2017

One of the strangest jobs that I have ever had was spending a week or so dusting and re-stacking boxes of human skeletons for a small archeological museum across from my dorm at Harvard Divinity School.  It made quite an impression on me, being in a stuffy storage room with stacks and stacks of remains that were in these special, elongated shoebox-like cardboard containers.  Each of them was covered with a gray film of dust.  Moving bones made an impression, not only because I wanted to know something about the lives of the various people that I was moving, but also because I found myself apologizing to the bones when I rattled the box a bit too much.

We weren’t really supposed to look inside the boxes during our work, but of course I did, because I have always been a bit too curious for my own good and because I knew there was a human being inside the box– and I was a human being too.  So after another quick apology to the bones, I carefully and quickly took a peek.  The skull was neatly divided from the other bones, like the way that you might separate various pieces of silverware in a drawer.  The bones were not really white, like you see in Halloween advertisements, but a yellowish-brown, which also came as a shock.  They looked more like leather, than bone.  But those boxes were oh- so- much heavier than I could have ever imagined.  Cradling those boxes made such an impression on me. I wondered if these could be my ancestors, branches of an ancient family tree.  But I didn’t have much other information to go on except a vague catalogue number on a self-stick label at the end of the box.

They were heavy, those bones. And because they were heavy, and because it is not everyday, thankfully, that I walk among a storage shed of bones, I remember and wonder what Ezekiel must have thought as he witnessed an valley filled with the remains of his ancestors, his people.

Ezekiel’s passage is hard to read without thinking about the terrible massacres that are a part of our human history.  Right away, our minds start to catalogue and count the various valleys we, as a people of God, have both created and known: whether in Syria, Rwanda, Darfur, Auschwitz, or in the various wars and conflicts which have plagued our world.  Yet most of us, fortunately, are not as fully present to calamity like those who witness such awful events firsthand.  We are often spared turning our full gaze upon the collective grisly remains of a terrible human encounter, except perhaps a brief mention on the nightly news.  Many of us have been altogether shielded from such things.

This wasn’t the case for Ezekiel.  Ezekiel was not removed, but deeply involved.  These were, after all, his people, a people that had been in exile, a people that had seen the Babylonians invade, disrupt, and destroy.  He, too, had been exiled. He, too, had seen his share of pain and misfortune.  Perhaps this is why Ezekiel has been given this vision. He has chosen to see what others refuse to see. Led by the hand and Spirit of the Lord, he stands overlooking that desolate valley of bones. God has told him to lift the cover of human indifference and to look beneath the surface and confines of death—to blow off the dust of hardened apathy and get to the marrow of the situation.

And such a sight he sees!  Bones lay scattered, brittle and dry, detached from their moorings, unhinged.  Everything was visible, death was not closeted or bracketed or metaphorical.  It was real. And it was personal.

Now, within this space, our Creator asks Ezekiel a question: “Mortal, can these bones live?”  It is a question that confronts him– and us– whenever we are granted a vision of destruction.  In his stunned silence, Ezekiel fumbles for a reply.  Everything in him wants to say “no,” that there is nothing left here, nothing but tears for what has past, nothing but human failure, disappointment and despair.  Yet, though he might answer, “no” to the Lord’s question, he can not. To do so would deny his own humanity, his own deep hope.

There is something in us that yearns to see life rising amidst the ruins, like a phoenix rising from dust and ashes.  We spread our arms across the field and walk hand in hand looking for survivors who dare to live among the cemeteries and wastelands of human grief.  When asked if these bones can live, Ezekiel fumbles for a “yes” that eludes him.  He knows that it is by God’s hand that he has been brought here to this valley as a living witness, even if what he sees makes him numb inside.  Can these bones live? Ezekiel replies by saying the only thing that he can in the midst of that horror, “Oh, Lord God, you know.”   

Each time we enter our crypt or our closet –wherever we have shelved or stored our own aged skeletons— we are like Ezekiel confronted with that question, “Can these bones live?”  Each time our souls are dried up or we lay scattered and fragmented, God asks us, “Can these bones live?” For in the midst of our own valleys of despair and disconnectedness, God asks you and me if we will believe that life is being restored.  Or do we resign ourselves to the conclusion that our situation is broken beyond repair?  When Ezekiel fumbles for an answer, so do we. Sometimes it is all we can say to reply, “Oh Lord God, you know.”

Can this relationship survive?  “Oh Lord God, you know.”

Will this mess become untangled?  “Oh Lord God, you know.”

Will these tears or this pain ever end?  “Oh Lord God, you know.”

God doesn’t just ask Ezekiel to stand as a witness to the valley of bones.  No, he tells him to prophecy—to speak to the bones—speak in such a way that they may live.  To prophecy means to speak truth, a truth that does not deny or evade or equivocate.  It is through truthful witness that God  makes whole what is scattered and broken; it is by stating our truth in its complexity that old bones may take on flesh, spirit, and soul without forever haunting us in their dangerous repose.  God asks Ezekiel to speak about the vision so that those who were slain might live, so that those who were formerly cut off from the community might be restored, and those who dwell in despair and anxiety about their future might have certain hope.

Do you believe that your bones can live?  Can you speak about your life or your situation in such a way that they can?

Walter Wink once said, “[This] is how history is made: by envisioning new alternative possibilities and acting on them as if they were inevitable. That is how despair is overcome: by the declaration of unlikelihoods welling up from the center of reality, by prophesying a course of action God is conspiring to bring to pass.”[1]


Ellen Bass is a writer and poet.  Some of you may know her book, The Courage to Heal, a book about surviving sexual abuse, another hidden valley of tragedy.  She also  wrote a poem called, “Eating the Bones.”  She has given her permission to share it.

  (reading of “Eating the Bones”    –written by Ellen Bass [2])


Ellen wrote and shared this with me via email:

“As to its inspiration, the back story is this. In my wife’s family (I changed it to my family because it seemed more direct that way), the women do eat bones this way—chicken bones, especially. And I learned to follow suit. If the chicken is organic, the marrow has many nutrients, as do the cartilage and gristle. After many years of eating like this, it always seems such a waste to me to see a perfectly good chicken bone sitting on someone’s plate intact—and sometimes without even all the meat gnawed off! The more I thought about this, the more it seemed to me a way of embracing all of life and of using up all you have to give in this lifetime—not holding it back. I came across this passage from George Bernard Shaw once (I don’t remember if it was before or after writing the poem) that I love:

‘This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.’”[3]


Ellen continued: “I can’t say that I feel my purpose is ‘a mighty one,’ but I do want to offer up what I can and love as hard as I can, leaving just those splinters at the end.”[4]


Can God’s spirit breathe new life into an exiled people?  Can Jesus raise the dead?  Can these bones live?  Today and every day, we choose our reply and our response impacts the lives of those around us.

About a month ago my young son—this time, Griffin– had a small tantrum at the table because he had wanted meat with a “big bone in it.”  Basically, he wanted a chicken leg but there were no chicken legs left, so we cut up breast meat and gave him that.  My child would not be consoled.  “I want meat with bone, meat with bone,” he wailed.

I imagine God saying the same thing.   Not skeletons stripped of life or life left on the plate resigned to death, but heart, flesh, and bone united in love. Where is our marrow?  Where is the flesh that can help these bones to live?  Oh, Lord, you know. Amen.



[1] Walter Wink, “These bones shall live: Living by the Word,” Christian Century, May 11, 1994.

[2] Ellen Bass, Ellen’s poem can be found at

[3] George Bernard Shaw, as quoted by Ellen Bass.

[4] Ellen Bass, in an email to the writer, April 1, 2017.

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