This 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. 2 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. 3 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.