Liturgy in Hard Times

The Sunday morning after the horrendous events of September 11, 2001, my husband and I made our way to church in England’s Cheshire countryside. It was a long way from New York City where I had lived in the 1980s and 90s before we were married. Disoriented and upset, feeling far away and powerless to help, I was looking for connection, solace and acknowledgement of loss in a congregation I’d known for five years.

Moments before the service began, the minister came over to me and whispered in my ear: “I feel we should carry on as normal this morning.” I felt my stomach turn over and my back stiffen. What followed was a service with barely a mention of events an ocean away. Prayers towards the end of the service included a few generic words about what was taking up 24/7 television coverage on almost every channel. There was no sign of the specific prayer request for my young goddaughter in New York City whose best friend’s mother had been missing since the attacks. I felt sick. Following the service, individual congregation members sought me out and kindly asked about family and friends in the United States. However, by that point, my husband and I couldn’t get out of that sanctuary fast enough. We didn’t go back for more than a decade.

I have never forgotten the feeling of devastation I felt that morning in church. The lack of any real mention of these terrible events during an act of worship, where I expected them to be acknowledged and prayed over, made it worse.

I came away from that Sunday morning with some valuable lessons that I’ve carried with me ever since, especially into my work as a chaplain in Britain’s National Health Service.

One morning I arrived at a specialist mental health facility to the terrible news that a young doctor on her very first day had collapsed on the wards within hours of her arrival. She died never regaining consciousness. The medics on duty immediately had begun CPR compressions within a minute of her collapse—right there on the ward in front of staff, patients, and visitors. They continued heroically for the better part of thirty minutes, until the ambulance arrived.

New East Window of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Shirazeh Houshiary, 2008. Photo by David Hawgood. License CC BY-SA 2.0.

What seemed to make it worse was that no one who knew her personally was present in this catastrophic moment. The very first thing I did was to confirm her name and how to spell it. Within a few hours I managed to find a staff member in another part of the organization who trained with her. He told me she was in her early 30s, married with two young children and had hopes of a career as a general practitioner. He also let me know that she was a practicing Muslim and that her body would likely be flown back to her home country of Pakistan for her funeral. In the facility’s small multi-faith room I set out electric candles, a book of condolences and a single white rose on the table. I wrote a brief paragraph about this young doctor and placed it next to the rose. I sent out a message to staff and patients welcoming them to stop by that multi-faith room for a chat or just a moment on their own, should they need it.

Two days later my Muslim chaplaincy colleague and I held a ten-minute “time of reflection.” It wasn’t a religious service but included prayers from the Koran recited in both English and Arabic. The gathering spilled out into the hallway. Afterwards, it was the medics, usually the first to leave to get back to their clinics, who lingered to talk. They received multiple reassurances from others that they had done everything they possibly could have to save a colleague whom they would never know.

It was terrible that this doctor’s life ended so suddenly and unexpectedly and that in that moment we hadn’t been able to do more for her. But together, we could say that her death mattered. We could name a sense of loss and acknowledge the pain of powerlessness, wishing this young woman’s first day with us could have gone in a different way for her, her family and for those who will never know her as colleague, doctor, or friend.

In a 2007 New England Journal of Medicine article called “The Code,” Dr. Katherine Treadway described the evolution of her own simple ritual following the death of a patient. As a young trainee hospital doctor, she was frequently called to drop everything and run to assist in emergency resuscitations of patients who had “coded”—meaning that their hearts had stopped beating. After one such failed attempt, and on her own in the resuscitation room, Treadway recalls that “half remembered words from the end of a Requiem Mass came into my head and I said out loud: ‘May choirs of angels greet thee at thy coming’—less a statement of faith than a simple attempt to acknowledge the passing of a life. Since that day, I have never had a patient die and not said those words—my small attempt to remember what it is that we are ultimately doing: trying to protect our patients’ lives.”[1]

Too often the shared Christian rituals that we call liturgy or worship become spaces where only certain forms of words belong.

The article that she wrote about this received an unprecedented response from the medical community. Many clinicians wrote to say that they applauded Dr. Treadway for acknowledging the emotional toll that such work takes. A number of them went on to describe their own personal rituals and processes for honoring the end of a patient’s life. Such a response underscores the need for the ritual marking of significant moments in life, whether in secular or religious settings, in some meaningful way. And yet, sadly, there are many people who do not find their losses and struggles explicitly named or acknowledged within traditional worship settings. Nor do they carry away potentially important words of support from that worship into their everyday lives.

Too often the shared Christian rituals that we call liturgy or worship become spaces where only certain forms of words belong. We are used to praying together in specific ways and with familiar words. There is a richness and power in such repetition and familiarity. However, what’s “missing in action” is often exactly the less formal words associated with the pain and challenges as well as the joys of ordinary life—the work and experiences that make up our lifetimes.

This came home to me not long ago when I received a phone call from a parish-based clergy colleague whom I’ll call Caroline. She was looking for liturgical resources that address marital breakdown. “I’ve come to realize that most of the real-life troubles and pain that our people live with are just not addressed in our traditional liturgies,” she lamented.

In the past, she and I have talked at length about the challenges of supporting families who are grieving over less visible losses such as a failed fertility treatment, or struggling with crippling regret over breaches that they can no longer rectify with parents, children, or partners. Both of us agreed that too little of our worship directly and explicitly mentions the circumstances of some of our deepest losses and suffering.

Caroline explained that she had been supporting a woman who was struggling with guilt over leaving a marriage in which she had known years of domestic abuse. While supportive pastoral conversation and informal prayer had helped, her parishioner continued to feel beyond God’s forgiveness for breaking her marriage vows. A gifted liturgist herself, Caroline had suggested that the two of them might create a liturgy together that could acknowledge her parishioner’s feelings of guilt and offer solace and release within a formal act of worship.

Hands holding candle

A week later, Caroline got back in touch. Making use of both her denomination’s worship tradition and more contemporary liturgical resources found online, she was able to create what I believe was a sensitive, powerful and specific piece of liturgy that flowed from relationship and tears shared in pastoral conversation and a deep longing for a new beginning and release. Caroline’s parishioner read through the service and liked it, but after consideration, decided not to invite anyone else to take part. It would just be just the two of them together in the sanctuary, a sacred space where her parishioner had first made her wedding vows. They lit candles. Caroline put on a recording of some appropriate contemplative music. Then, together, they began the liturgy that they had created, drawing on long, cherished church tradition, but also naming explicitly the painful life experience that had brought them to that place. Shared prayers expressed desire for healing, wholeness, and, at her parishioner’s specific request, forgiveness.

“Jesus gave authority to the Church to bind and to loose, so we loosed her from her marriage vows,” reflected Caroline. “Lighting the candle, playing some music, creating a prayerful place of worship. . . .  [my parishioner] left knowing that she would still have to come to terms with her emotions. They would not disappear overnight. But she had that sense of an actual release happening. And she can go back to those words again and again when she feels overwhelmed. . . . The formality of liturgy offers a way of looking at what we believe in a form that we can go back to and use as an anchor to carry us through difficult times.”

This intimate and personalized liturgical experience provided acknowledgement and release for Caroline’s parishioner in a particular way that nothing else had. But in other circumstances sharing a scarring or traumatic experience also can be healing precisely because it is shared with others who have lived through that experience.

Conor Stainton-Polland is a Roman Catholic priest who understands a thing or two about the important role that shared ritual and liturgy play in the life of whole communities who live with trauma. He grew up in Belfast as the son of one of Northern Ireland’s few Catholic police officers during the violent years of The Troubles. He laughs, observing, “I had a very balanced upbringing in that nobody [neither Catholics nor Protestants] liked us.”

Today, Stainton-Polland is priest in charge of two Liverpool parishes, one of which is on the doorstep of the Liverpool Football Club (a professional soccer team). In 1989, during a league match at the Hillsborough Stadium, ninety-six Liverpool supporters—including many children and young people—were crushed to death in what has come to be referred to as the “Hillsborough Disaster.” For years, he has supported this community in public and private acts of worship as they live with lasting effects of unresolved trauma and grief. In both large public and smaller church settings, finding well-chosen words, as well as the poignant silences—something he learned from his Quaker education—has been integral to his regular professional parish life.

Stainton-Polland says he is grateful that Catholicism has centuries of tradition that have instructed and informed the set liturgy. “Liturgy can provide words and formats where the weakness of us as ministers and members fails,” he explains. But he also says that it is crucial to “make room for people.” He describes the set liturgy as “scaffolding” around which there is an opportunity to “dress it” for different individuals and their experience. Fr. Conor believes without question that you “can’t just stick to the rules” and that the Christian message “must always be the assurance that no one is alone.”

In March 2019, Stainton-Polland took part in an ecumenical service at London’s Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, supporting a different community: those affected by suicide. This annual service is called “A Time to Talk,” and people attending come from across London and beyond. He was there to tell his story about the night that he considered taking his own life.

The church’s vicar, The Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells says that Stainton-Polland’s talk of “his own near-suicide was an electric experience of one who many might think of as a judge becoming a fellow sufferer—a truly incarnational moment.” He adds, “Sometimes you just have to create the right context and let the Holy Spirit do the rest, and this was one such moment.”

Wells maintains that “more than anything, the service is an opportunity to overcome isolation” for those who have lived with suicidal thoughts, been bereaved by suicide and those supporting such bereaved people. In his book, Liturgy on the Edge, Wells emphasizes the importance including shared informal time over coffee after such services to help extend the time of support and sharing.[2]

Some, understandably, may feel suicide is not a word or subject that belongs in a formal liturgical setting. Stainton-Polland, however, believes that excluding it, “excludes [people’s] grief and pain from the Christian experience, which is about reaching people in their darkest places with compassion (suffering with) and communion (unity with).”

I couldn’t agree more. In her essay, “Ritual Formation,” worship designer and professor Marcia McFee asks if we really invite our communities of worship to speak about “the deepest things.” “Do we truly believe God invites us to speak honestly in the context of our rituals of worship, of pain and uncertainty? . . . We need rituals of care that provide safe spaces in which to feel the full range of emotions.”[3]

Pacific School of Religion professor Dr. Karen Lebacqz explains why this is essential: “Bland worship avoids both pain and joy. In our anesthetized life, we are so afraid of pain that, in our desire to mute suffering, we sometimes stifle joy. The gospel is good news. But it is good news in the midst of pain and suffering. If we try to avoid pain and suffering, we will not be able to hear or embody the gospel. We will not be able to incarnate the Word.”[4]

We can never really know the full extent of what people, even those whom we have known for many years, bring with them into worship—what need or connection or grief or joy or doubt or hope they come looking for. But those needs, griefs, and joys will be there in the room, in the sanctuary. We cannot know who will linger for a moment and, seeing little of their life in the worship experience, never return. They turn away not so much in reaction to what is there, but to what has been left out or glossed over, not named, or simply not noticed of their life and the life of the wider world.

Our liturgies, informed by rich tradition and reflection, can make space to name and reflect on our present real-life struggles with personal disillusionment, terrible losses, and difficult emotions that are hard to acknowledge even to ourselves. They can be amazing places of connection and comfort and healing. They can be something “that we can go back to and use as an anchor to carry us through difficult times,” as Caroline observed. They can be a place of an “incarnational moment.” Or not. Even to begin to try to acknowledge more of life’s hard times in our liturgies is an act of faith and healing.

Kathleen LaCamera (Yale M.Div.’83) is a writer, film-maker and healthcare chaplain based in Manchester, England.  She has a special interest in conflict resolution in communities divided by race, religion, culture, and poverty and has reported from troubled regions including Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and sub-Saharan Africa.  For the past thirteen years she has also worked as a chaplain in specialist multifaith mental health and general hospital settings within England’s National Health Service.  Chaplaincy has formed a major influence on her writing and film-making over the past decade, including the award-winning series of national public information films using comedy to tackle taboos around dying and bereavement. An ordained Methodist minister since 1981, she has official standing within both the United Methodist Church and British Methodist Church.

[1] Katharine Treadway, M.D., “The Code,” New England Journal of Medicine (September 27, 2007), 357.

[2] The Christian Century (February 19, 2019), reprinted from Samuel Wells’s forthcoming book,  Liturgy on the Edge: Pastoral and Attractional Worship  (New York: Church Publishing, 2019).

[3] Marcia McFee, “Ritual Formation: Liturgical Practices and the Practice of Peacebuilding” in Conflict and Communion, Reconciliation and Restorative Justice at Christ’s Table, Porter Thomas, ed., (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2006), 67–77.

[4] Karen Lebacqz, Word, Worship, World, and Wonder: Reflections on Christian Living (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 72–73.

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: LaCamera, Kathleen (2019): “Liturgy in Hard Times” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 10. Available at

Congregations and the Healing of Creation

The four-acre plot on which my congregation’s building stands includes three kinds of gardens:

  • Rain gardens—deep-dug hollows filled with native plants, whose roots cleanse the water that drains from this land into an environmentally sensitive watershed near Lake Michigan
  • Flower gardens—signs of welcome, bursts of beauty
  • A memorial garden—a circle of earth shaded by trees, where human ashes are buried, and where we remember that we were formed by God from the dust of the earth and that to dust we shall return (Gen. 3:19)

On other church properties, in this region and across the country, vegetable gardens flourish, as careful tenders cooperate in the hard work of planting, nurture compost to rebuild depleted soil, and delight in harvests of fresh vegetables to share with their hungry neighbors.

In such gardens, healing is taking place. But this is not healing as it is often imagined in contemporary Western culture, where specialized professionals provide therapies for specific ailments—in this case, ailments afflicting the natural world, such as ecological imbalances or environmental degradation. If seen as corrective therapies, our gardening and similar modest acts of what congregations often call “creation care” accomplish very little. The damage already done to creation is so massive that congregations could recycle every worship folder, compost every ounce of kitchen waste, and eschew every trace of pesticide, while making only miniscule contributions to creation’s repair. Creation’s wounds are so many—forests and soils destroyed, waters poisoned and depleted, species extinguished, and the atmosphere heated to life-threatening temperatures. How could our little gardens even begin to make a difference amid such widespread degradation?

Small-scale, community-based activities such as these participate in healing of a different kind. In Christian tradition, practices of healing pursue wholeness—a wholeness experienced not through cure, necessarily, but through the restoration of right relationship. In the gardens springing up around churches, congregants are practicing how to live more fittingly within creation; they are rehearsing right relationship, trying it on for size, and increasing their capacity to inhabit it. They remember with their bodies the story of how God created humans to tend and keep a garden—a garden that needs human care just as much as humans need the garden’s produce (Gen. 2:15)—and they make life-giving connections between work, soil, and the needs of those who are hungry. They learn about local waters and strive to protect them. They notice and cultivate beauty. Caring for the simple burial places of those who have died, they remember that they, too, are mortal creatures, formed by God from the earth itself (Gen. 2:7).

All this is necessary because beneath creation’s visible wounds lies another wound: a great tear in the fabric of creation caused by the self-separation of human creatures from the nonhuman members of creation, and from one another in the human family. Humanity’s most privileged members have pursued their own desires with little regard for the well-being of the rest of creation, including the marginalized people most affected by environmental degradation. Perhaps the most important practices of healing that a congregation can undertake involve forming the faithful to live toward the healing of this wound, this great rending which is at the root of so much damage to the earth and its most vulnerable members. The first signs of such healing may appear in congregants themselves, even if the initial impact of their actions on the physical world is small. But as they rediscover their lost, yet rightful, sense of belonging in creation, they gain the freedom to live responsibly and act boldly beyond the congregation. In other words, a community’s apparently modest forms of creation-care contribute to freeing its members from harmful patterns of behavior and form them to participate, deliberately and generously, in the massive economic and cultural transformations that are required to avert climate catastrophe.

In Laudato Si’, an encyclical letter addressing the environmental crisis, Pope Francis provides a trenchant analysis of the sources and effects of environmental degradation, and he advocates numerous specific remedies to be undertaken on a global scale. Undergirding the encyclical as a whole, however, is the urgent summons to recognize, embrace, and love the earth as “our common home”—a home that is “common” to an “us” that includes every natural element and all living creatures, especially those who suffer the effects of poverty and environmental degradation. Drawing on the spiritual insight of St. Francis of Assisi, the pope writes that “if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously,” creating in us “a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”[1]

Each congregation worships God in a unique location on creation’s dazzling, complicated map.

But how can we arrive at a sense of being intimately united with all that exists? For Christian congregations, it is worship that most fully unites them with all that exists. To affirm this is not to co-opt liturgy as a means to the end of ecological renewal. Rather, it is to highlight affirmations that already shape Christian liturgies and the people who participate in them. When we gather to worship God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all that is, we are invited into right relationship with God and all that God has made. The specific words and movements through which this grand reception of right relationships is expressed differ from one liturgical tradition to another. But in this context, creation is sung about, and prayed for, and reimagined, not at all as an object to be used and controlled, but rather as a beloved home to be inhabited with gratitude, joy, and care.

Each congregation worships God in a unique location on creation’s dazzling, complicated map. Often, it’s this location—its distinctive beauty, its specific environmental hazards—that brings certain elements of the liturgy into special prominence. In my congregation near Lake Michigan, for example, our landscape is wet and green—a good thing—but it is also subject to frequent floods caused by unwise development, and its streams and lakes have absorbed poisons released by harmful industrial processes. What does it mean to pray over water, on this landscape? Prayers for the healing of imperiled waters are sometimes included in our prayers of intercession, but another prayer—a prayer of thanksgiving—brings the living water on which we depend into worship in a way I find especially powerful. Offered while water is poured into the font during a baptismal service or at the beginning of some services of Holy Communion, this prayer praises God for water and all the blessings water has borne.

Joined to Christ in the waters of baptism
we are clothed with God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Let us give thanks for the gift of baptism.

Holy God, holy and immortal, holy and mighty,
you are the river of life,
you are the everlasting wellspring,
you are the fire of rebirth.

Glory to you for the waters of the earth:
Glory to you for Sand Creek and Lake Michigan,
for rainfall and wetlands,
for Silver Lake and the Kankakee River,
for the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico, and all the earth’s oceans,
and for the life that flourishes in and near these waters.

Praise to you for your saving waters:
Noah and the animals survive the flood.
Hagar discovers your well.
The Israelites escape through the sea,
and drink from your gushing rock.
Namaan washes his leprosy away,
and the Samaritan woman will never be thirsty again.

At this font, holy God,
we praise you for the water of baptism
and for your Word that saves us in this water.

Breathe your Spirit into us and into all creation.
Illumine our days.
Enliven our bones.
Dry our tears.
Wash away the sin within us,
and drown the evil around us.

Satisfy all our thirst for your living water,
Jesus Christ, our Savior,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

Here the waters of the world and of my local watershed flow together, and God is at work in them all. God is also at work in and for those who pray these words today, as God has been at work in and on behalf of their forebears, bringing liberation and redemption. Prayers such as this one invite worshipers into intimate union with God and all creation. When I pray using words such as these, I realize that my baptism immerses me in Christ and, at the same time, immerses me in God’s watery creation, from which I cannot be separated and live.

In a congregation located on a desert landscape, other natural elements might open more stirring paths into connection with creation. At the United Church of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Pastor Talitha Arnold and her congregation have attended closely to the dry land in which they dwell, asking how the desert shapes them and draws them close to God and all creation. Arnold has spoken of how alien the hymns of transatlantic culture sound in that context. “Field and forest, vale and mountain, flow’ry meadow, flashing sea, chanting bird and flowing fountain”— where are the arroyos, the red rocks, and the prickly pears? This congregation, Arnold has written, needs “a liturgical life that connects the people to the desert around them,” and it has developed one.[3] A large piece of fiber art hanging at the front of the worship space depicts a landscape of dry hills, layered in browns and tans and reds; in the foreground is a native plant, bent by desert winds—it is their Tree of Life.[4] The congregation’s “Whole Earth Covenant” commits the people of United Church of Santa Fe, corporately, to “develop through worship, education, and our interpretation of Christian traditions, a spirituality that reflects our home in the desert and our respect for all of creation in all its diversity.” As individuals they have pledged to change their lifestyle and consumption patterns, engage with issues threatening the planet, and to “recognize that as desert dwellers we have a special responsibility to protect its delicate ecosystems, and not least, to wisely use water which is precious to all life.”[5]

Even while living into the kind of healing that bears witness to wholeness and right relationship, I long and hope for the other kind of healing as well—that is, for a cure, a redress of environmental injury and illness, so that there might be a life-giving climate, plenty of clean water, and soil that supports growth. Efforts to repair creation’s material wounds will require economic, technological, and cultural changes in which Christians join with people of every nation, class, and creed.

In congregations, members can encounter many entryways into the urgent, indispensable work that lies before the entire human family at this crucial juncture in the history of the planet. Some may start in the garden, others on an altar guild charged with bringing creation’s beauty into worship or on a building committee trying to lower the heating bill. Some may work on a hospitality team committed to stopping the use of disposable cups and utensils. Others may attend a presentation on Laudato Si’ or read a denominational policy paper on the environment. Most important, all will be renewed, in worship, in the awareness that they themselves belong to Christ, through whom all things have been created and in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:16–17). And at the end of the liturgy, they will be sent out into the world to love and serve God and the world that God has made.

Congregations whose members hear the call to participate in the healing of creation can find rich resources to support deeper engagement. GreenFaith, Interfaith Partners in Action for the Earth ( and Blessed Tomorrow (, an interfaith advocacy and education organization supported by many U.S. religious bodies, provide material for further learning and action to address climate change, as well as links to numerous denominational programs and civic organizations working for environmental justice. Anne and Jeffery Rowthorn’s critically acclaimed book, God’s Good Earth: Praise and Prayer for Creation (Liturgical Press, 2018), contains an abundance of ecumenical resources for prayer, reflection, and worship.

An increasing number of congregations, some of them environmental leaders in their communities, heartily collaborate with people of different faiths, or none, to renew the common home they share. For example, during the Global Climate Strike on September 20, 2019, dozens of Twin Cities congregations joined a historic youth-led protest at the state capitol. Afterwards, some protesters gathered at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Minneapolis for prayer, reflection, and conversation about next steps. Such participation in a global movement for change reflects this congregation’s ongoing concern for creation’s repair, a concern that finds vivid articulation in OSLC’s regular worship life as well. This community often gathers around the large stone baptismal font at the entrance to the nave; its basin, flowing with living water, is carved in the pattern of the Mississippi River, which flows just a few blocks away.

Throughout what is likely to be a long and difficult struggle to renew the health of this planet, people who are formed in practices of healing within embodied, worshiping Christian communities will continue to be nourished and emboldened in communion with God, humankind, and all that is. Even when damage seems overwhelming, we will sing psalms that help us to see creation in its God-given wholeness, a wholeness of which we ourselves are part and to which we fully belong. We will praise God for creation’s wonderful variety and complexity, in song and image and words. We will pray for creation—both the parts that brim with beauty, and the parts whose wounds make us weep. And we will be sent out, filled with longing for the well-being of all these parts of creation, and with awareness of our kinship to them within our common home.

Dorothy C. Bass is a practical theologian and church historian. During twenty-five years as director of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith, a Lilly Endowment project on how greater attention to practices might contribute to the renewal of Christian congregations, theology, and life, she wrote, edited, or coedited more than a dozen books, including Practicing Our Faith, Receiving the Day, and Leading Lives That Matter. She is now Senior Fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program at Valparaiso University.

[1]Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, no. 11.

[2] Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2006), 71. I have written this adaptation, following a pattern of naming local waters that I have heard in my own and other congregations.

[3] Arnold’s description of the congregation’s liturgical needs and her comment on hymns are from her contributions to the Yale ISM Congregations Project, (accessed September 9, 2019).

[4] Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 367.

[5] United Church of Santa Fe Whole Earth Covenant (Adopted by vote of the whole Congregation on June 21, 2009), (accessed September 9, 2019).

Recommended Citation: Bass, Dorothy C. (2019): “Congregations and the Healing of Creation,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 4. Available at

“Can These Bones Live?” Dancing with Skeletons in Unlikely Ballrooms

[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?

Photo by the author

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.[1] 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.”[2] Both imaginations—sacramental and dialectical—are present in Christian histories and theologies.

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.

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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5]

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”?[6]

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?

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.

advent prelude

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.

[1]See Mary Catherine Hilkert, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination (New York: The Continuum Publishing Co., 1997).

[2]Ibid., 15.

[3]Joel James Shuman and Keith G. Meador, Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 6.

[4]Ibid., 12.

[5]Shelly Rambo, Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007), 7.


This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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