Plains Folk

Dry Bones


Much of my time is spent trying to atone for what I know my mother considers the great shortcoming of my life, that is, my failure to enter the ministry. She is somewhat consoled, whereas others around me are mortified, by my tendency to preach on occasions either appropriate or not, and by my rhetorical habits, which sound a lot like they were learned at Concordia Seminary, in St. Louis.


Which is to intimate, I am that other type of Lutheran, the outlaw sort of Lutheran on the northern plains: Missouri Synod. Which is to explain how, a few weeks ago, I sat listening to a real Missouri-Synod-style Pentecostal-Sunday sermon from the Book of Ezekial, Chapter 37. You know the one I mean.


The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. . . .


Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! . . . I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.’” . . .


So I prophesied as he commended me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.


Then he said to me, I will bring you back to the land of Israel.


Now if I were the Missouri-Synod Lutheran my mother intended me to be, I would have been preaching that sermon, but because I am not that good a Lutheran, I was just listening, more or less—less, because my mind wandered a bit, and more, because where my mind wandered was to another valley, another land of Israel: my home country, the Great Plains of North America. A land that for most of my lifetime languished in economic and demographic decline, its rhetorical traditions permeated and enervated by a declensionist narrative that intoned, Our best days are behind us. And like Ezekial in his valley, I in mine heard voices and saw visions.


So I set out on a journey, I mean a real journey in my truck, the length of the plains, which were as hot and dusty as anything traversed by Ezekial. One day in western Kansas, as I examined the bones of historic buildings built of Greenhorn limestone full of fossils, temperatures leveled off at 117o F., and I knew, this is it, the Valley of Bones.


Then I saw a sign in the window of one of those skeletal buildings, indicating that it was occupied by an attorney, a merchant, and a software engineer. I pulled back onto Highway 281, and it was thronged with custom harvesters headed north, happy and prosperous, because last year had been so bad, and this year was so much better. The heart of the southern plains, too, was alive with activity associated with the Mississipi Lime Play, the next big thing in petroleum development on the prairies.


I saw a vast army, and there was breath in it. And that voice said, Prophesy to these bones. I will bring you back to the land of Israel.


This little narrative I just delivered, you can accept it or not, as you will, but as for that voice—this was not the first time I heard it. The first time was in 1994, when I was asked to talk with a gathering of North Dakota officers about the state of the state, and I intimated that our worst days might be behind us, and better ones might lie ahead. Talk about a prophet without honor—no one was prepared for that message then. Our bones were dried up, and our hope was gone, but I felt something happening, in my bones.

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