Dry Bones pt1

dry-desertThis is the first of two blogs based on some teaching I did recently at Sarum College in Salisbury based on the ‘valley of dry bones’ vision from Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14. The day explored the story of exile as a way of thinking about mission in post-Christendom Britain.

I would argue that exile is a powerful metaphorical lens with which to explore the identity and mission of today’s church. As in Israel’s exile the key treasures and symbols of an old and familiar dispensation have been dismissed and maligned and we are having to reimagine what it means to be the people of God.

The valley of dry bones is a liminal passage in the context of the book of Ezekiel as a whole. Whilst Ezekiel’s first ecstatic vision in the plain (3: 22 – 27) was the precursor to the destruction of Jerusalem, this vision provides a turning point between despair and hope. The rest of the books concerns the rebuilding of the temple and the return of the presence of God to it.

Lament as a step toward hope

“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. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Ezekiel is faced with a valley full of the bones of a great army. They are many and they are dry as dust. He is led on a detailed tour of the bones. The vision must surely convey that the state of Judah, its military, royalty, priesthood, prophets are dead, long dead. Furthermore, unburied, they are under a curse – they are beyond the favour and blessing of God, they are outside of his life. That Ezekiel is taken on such a detailed tour of these bones also suggests that the reality of this must be confronted with – not just glossed over – it must be addressed in detail.

In terms of leadership in a post-Christendom context a key task of leadership must therefore be to confront the hard reality that is the context of our ministry.  It means to study intensely the reality of the place of the church in our society, not shirking from the places that look hopeless. We can all tell stories of hope, and its right that we do so.  We also need to face hopelessness squarely, not wallowing in, or giving into despair in the face of it – but honestly engaging with it. We must not shirk from the pain, the confusion and disorientation involved in seeking to be leaders/ministers of faith in a context where the dominant values, language and practices are different from our own.

As leaders in the church we are too often scared of lament. We would much rather continue to deal out some form of hope. But true hope only emerges when we have faced despair, difficulty, pain head on. That is the testimony of the psalms of lament, all of which take time to detail an experience of anguish, all of which (except one) end with an affirmation of faith and hope.

As Lee Beach says ‘defining reality is an act of empowerment, because it orients people in a way that allows them to proceed with the facts as they currently stand. Without this act of truth telling, a legitimate hope can never emerge’ (The Church in Exile p144).

What Ezekiel’s tour of the bones does is bring him to a point where he must realise, and Israel must realise, that true hope begins when all our puppet hopes have been laid down in the dust. Then we can perhaps hear the story of hope that God wants to give us.

Surrender and the dark night of the soul.

The next part of the passage is illuminating. Ezekiel is asked what seems like a rhetorical question: ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’. It would seem that the answer is obvious.  Yet Ezekiel is able somehow to utter ‘O Sovereign Lord, only you alone know’.

He able to utter those words because he has crossed the liminal threshold from death to life in himself. He has modelled the confrontation with death in himself that enables him to put complete and utter trust in the power of God to bring life.

From there on Ezekiel is invited to participate in an initiative of God to bring change and to bring life. He is not redundant. Instead his is a surrendered participation. A willed submission to the freedom and sovereignty of God.

Dark night is a helpful way of getting some grasp on the painful reality of the challenge of leadership and ministry in the context of exile. The key elements of dark night are:

  • a realisation that the old forms, that have served us well in past no longer seem to work any more.
  • A disorientation – an experience of fundamental uncertainty (oscura – the word from the Spanish as in noce oscura, literally means obscured or uncertain) ie dark night may not necessarily be a time of trauma or pain, it may be more a banal experience of disorientation, of uncertainty.
  • vulnerability – a sense of nakedness, or humiliation, unclothing.
  • grief – a real and visceral sense of pain at the loss of certainties

Is it not significant then that Ezekiel is deliberately confronted with the sheer apparent hopelessness and death of the valley of bones and yet is able to say ‘Sovereign Lord, only you alone know’?

Dark night is sometimes the only thing that brings us to that place of surrender where can give God the central role in leadership and ministry that he is asking us for. Indeed it is the thing that God uses to bring death (of ourselves), surrender and the possibility of resurrection.

Dark night is the deconstruction of forms – forms that have outstayed there welcome or usefulness and to which we have become overly attached. Forms that have taken the place of ‘Sovereign Lord’ at the centre of our lives and communal life. Forms that have become and end in themselves rather than a means to an end.

The experience of exile then is similar to the experience of dark night – old forms have been discredited, they don’t work in the same way anymore, those brave enough to do so begin searching for new forms that will give some traction on uncertain ground, some light in the darkness.

Therefore as leaders/ministers we must choose how to respond faithfully and help others to do the same. We can ignore the reality of dark night, carry on as though it weren’t happening, or we can embrace its reality and lean in to what the darkness has to teach us and to what is emerging in the darkness. When we do that we are then able, like Ezekiel, to be surrendered and open to the voice and action of God that brings renewal out of despair.

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Stepping into Grace

stepping-into-grace-frontSo I’m pleased to be able to say my book ‘Stepping into Grace’ is published today by Bible Reading Fellowship. This blog was the training ground for many of ideas that made their way into the book. So it seemed apt to explain a little of what the book’s about and why I wrote it.

Most simply Stepping into Grace is a book about the beautifully formed and mysterious book of Jonah. About Jonah and his journey from Israel to Ninevah. A picaresque journey which is not primarily an external journey but an internal journey where Jonah’s faith, vocation and identity are all transformed.

But it’s the context of Jonah that makes it all the more interesting for our time and our situation as the church. Jonah is written after the exile and is a ‘diaspora advice tale’ – a story written by exiles to grapple with the challenge of exile. Who are we? Where is God? Can he be present amongst these people in this place? How do we continue to be the people of God living in a foreign land within a dominant culture suspicious of our faith and practices?

When we are living through the complexities of a crisis, we tell stories. Stories are good in a crisis. They are open forms to help us wrestle with the issues without closing them down. They are participative forms that draw us in and engage with the story in ways which enable us to engage with the challenge we face.  And it seems to me that Jonah is an exceptionally good story to help us reflect on the challenges and anxieties we face as the people of God today.

Before Jonah is called by God to preach to the Ninevites at the beginning of the book he is fully involved in a plan of restoration under the king of the northern Kingdom of Israel. Under this king (Jeroboam II) Israel experienced a small reversal of fortunes against the Assyrians and re-established its borders to a previous point of security. Of course, from the point of view of the later experience of exile this now looked ridiculous. Everyone knows it didn’t last. And when the inevitable came and the Assyrians exiled the Jews of the northern kingdom it was brutal.  It’s like that footage of Neville Chamberlaine coming down the steps of his airplane in 1938 waving that scrap of paper and declaring ‘peace in our time’. Hopeful at the time, but ultimately futile.

Jonah is stripped of this illusion of safety and security however when he is called to preach to the Ninevites – the very people who are Israel’s greatest enemy. He is forced in the story to confront what the exiles were already confronting – life as the people of God exiled from the land and face to face with the enemy.

And what transpires is a journey that maps out the journey of soul searching, lament, anguish and reformation that Israel went through as they dwelt in exile.

As I’ve written about on the blog before – I think exile is a pretty helpful and apposite metaphor for our experience as the Christian church in post-Christian Britain today. In many ways we are offered the same choice as Jonah – continue to attempt a programme of nostalgic restoration based on our own will and our own resources, or venture out into the call of God to participate with him in a movement of reform which is happening by the initiative of his Spirit.

And the thing is that if we, like Jonah, willingly or reluctantly, take on that call to venture beyond safety and security, face up to the challenge of mission to people who are not like us, we will find that it will change us, and stretch us and deepen our understanding and faith in this unboxable God of grace. Our vocation is not simply to do what God has called us to do, but to allow ourselves to be shaped into the people God would have us be, and that takes courage.

That has been my, sometimes painful, experience as a pioneer minister in Poole, Dorset. Given the role of creating something new that would connect with unchurched people I found myself travelling a very similar journey to Jonah, a journey that took me from confidence and ambition, through something of a dark night of the soul, to a renewed understanding of God’s grace.

Which is why the book is called ‘Stepping into Grace’. Because grace is not primarily a status, a kind of kite mark of authenticity. Grace is a flow of God’s life that he invites us to enter into, step into, be embraced by and led by. Grace aims to encapsulate and transform all that we are, our doing and our being throughout the course of our journey with God. And one of grace’s key modes of transformation is invitation – invitation to venture beyond ourselves and take on challenges that seem impossible and impractical, invitation to be vulnerable, stupid, in danger, without a plan or a strategy, so that the work of grace can get to those places where we cling on to the ridiculous illusion that we know what we are doing.

In exile God’s people discovered grace anew. They thought they knew all about grace, what it was and how to get it. Exile blew that all apart. That is where we are. Challenged to wrestle again with how to be people faithful to a God of grace without shrink-wrapping grace into presentable and manageable forms for the consumption of others. The challenge is enormous and it will take leaders of humility, vulnerability, obedience and courage to help us find our way. If in some small way this book helps people navigate this challenge, then I will be glad to have written it.

 

The church of 2030 starts here

I recently received an email to say that the course I had booked on had to be cancelled due to lack of interest. The course was entitled ‘Preparing for 2030: Mission, Megatrends and the Future of the Church Conference’. And I guess I thought it was perhaps church-technology-of-the-futurerevealing that a course looking at the kind of world we will be ministering in in 15 years’ time did not garner enough support. Some will argue that the course was fishing in a pretty limited pool given that a large proportion of current church leaders in the Diocese where I work will be retired in 15 years’ time. There is also the perennial issue of encouraging busy clergy away from their context to engage in the important-but-not-urgent stuff of ongoing learning.

Even so, that a course, oriented so clearly towards the future mission of the church, could not attract enough participants to run suggests to me that we have a problem. We are not sufficiently concerned about the future of the church to study what the future might look like. We are not sufficiently concerned about the future of the church to seriously consider what changes need to made now to plan for it. Perhaps, even worse, we are not sufficiently aware of the rapidly changing world we are in to see that unless we study the future we are forever living and ministering in the past.

In periods of rapid change any organisation needs to be extremely adaptable in order to remain effective. But to be able to adapt we need to be willing to adapt. And to be willing to adapt there needs to be a commitment to it. Gaining that kind of commitment requires some work, the telling of truth about the present as well as any casting of vision for the future. To some extent we all hold onto the present as the last remaining vestiges of a warmly held past and we do not let go easily. Adapting, changing and orienting ourselves for the future requires three things: reality, relinquishment and renewal. All too often to we clamour for renewal without first doing the work of enabling one another to face reality and relinquish the past.

As part of my ministry recently I have been meeting with a small group who represent a new worshipping community within a local parish setting. The new community was deliberately set up in the hope of engaging new people. Many of the group are committed to the future of the church but have also been a part of this parish for many years. They remember the past with great fondness. I have spent the past 6 months exploring mission for their context with this group. However, it has been hard for our discussions not to be drawn back into concerns for the church, that is the church building, a beautiful old building, devoid of heating, in completely the wrong place for its community. The last time we met however there seemed to me to be a turning point. I presented them with some harsh realities about the place and identity of the church in modern society and culture. I presented them with the concept of a church in exile; on the edge, no longer at the centre, no longer asked for its opinion, or respected for its views, no longer (physically or otherwise) at the heart of community life and able to reside there and see people come to it. As this picture developed and we discussed its merits, the mood in the room grew gloomy, then resistant and then finally resigned. It was a hard truth, but it was nevertheless the truth. The church of Christendom, able to command such an influential and prominent place in society and culture, has gone. We are in exile. And the sooner we face up to the reality of that and relinquish whatever false and nostalgic identities we have for our church the better.future-vision

Much as the exilic prophets did for Israel, telling them the truth of the disastrous nature of the situation they were in, church leaders must do for their worshipping communities. Unless we embrace the reality of our identity as people in exile we are never going to orient ourselves to be the sort of Christian communities we need to be now, or in the future. We need a conversion. We need to relinquish one paradigm and positively accept the reality of another, one where we must learn again what it means to be faithful witness to Christ in a culture that is not oriented by his message or ethics in any substantial way.

Recently Archbishop Justin Welby, speaking at the recent New Wine leaders gathering said this:

“I want to say to you today that I believe from the bottom of my heart that the long years of winter in the church, especially in the Church of England, are changing. The ice is thawing, the spring is coming. There is a new spring in the church.”

Encouraging words. But I am not sure many are truly aware of the reality of the winter we are emerging from. Or if they are, they look nostalgically to a balmy summer of yesteryear to inspire any hope for a new season. Some will not be able to spot a coming spring because, as I believe, it will look very different from the new season that might hope for. Renewal is not a return to some recycled past. Renewal, by its very nature, is the unexpected wonderful new reality of God’s inbreaking into his world and his people.

The concept of exile is powerful truth for us. Like Israel of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem we must face up the reality that the old dispensation has gone. We must learn to live in a new land and embrace being strangers and aliens instead of lords and leaders. To do this we must face the reality of our identity and relinquish hopes and visions inspired by warm feelings for the past. Only then might we begin to embrace renewal, the new thing that God is doing in his church to which he invites us to participate. 2030 may seem a long way away, but it starts now, with a conversion to a new way of seeing, a new paradigm of church identity and mission where we embrace the truth of our identity as exiles in a foreign land.