Dry Bones pt2

dry-desertThis is the second part of couple of blogs based on a teaching day at Sarum College, Salisbury this year. The day explored the exile story as a means of engaging with the missional challenge for the church in post-Christendom Britain. It focussed specifically on the vision of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” (Eze 37: 4 – 14)

Having defined the reality of Israel’s predicament and let go of any attachments toward unrealistic salvation by the old methods, Ezekiel is given a vision of hope. The cry of the exile is to go home, it is for restoration of what seems so precious now, but which was normal before the crisis; security, identity, peace. Ezekiel’s vision however suggests not restoration but renewal – a recreation of what it means to come home.

What becomes clear I that a new thing is taking place. The hope for Israel is not restoration, a return to the former things – God has something more creative in mind. Recreation. Resurrection.  The giving of the Spirit echoes the creation story of Gen 2:7, humankind is created from the dust of the ground and life breathed into them. It also foreshadows the breathing into the disciples of the Sprit after the resurrection in John 20.

In this vision the primacy of God’s initiative provides the context in which Ezekiel is invited to participate. God creates the space in the narrative for Ezekiel to participate, but the initiative is always his. The repeated declarations of ‘I will’ from the voice of God are a constant reiteration of God’s agency and initiative.

Fundamental to the vision is the Spirit. The use of the word ruach binds the passage together. Used creatively and with variety – translated wind, Spirit, breath, and applied to humanity, nature, God.  The Spirit is the animator of resurrection. Indispensable to it. But the Spirit cannot be boxed or treated like a utility. There is a mysterious, multivalent, unpredictable nature to the Spirit. He is central and powerful yet decentred character in the narrative.

Renewal as a way home 

coming-homeThis resurrection and renewal then is explained as a homecoming. ‘’I will bring you back to the land of Israel’ (vs 12) ‘I will settle you in your own land’ (vs 14). This looks again like restoration – a return to former things, yet for two reasons we know that restoration is not what is in mind. Firstly, whilst there was a homecoming, the impact of exile was far reaching and creative. Israel did not see itself as having been restored even with the rebuilding of the temple and of Jerusalem. Hence the disciples can ask ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel’ (Acts 1: 6)

Secondly, all the foreshadowing of re-creation in this passage points to the emergence of something new, not a return to the old. Rather this is homecoming as renewal, a return to the sense and structure of home but in a new way. It is perhaps homecoming in the sense that TS Eliot put it, that ‘at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ 

Of course, there was a homecoming, under Cyrus of Persia (see Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai) but it is by no means a return to business as usual. Instead the post-exilic period saw a thorough and radical reimagining of what it meant to be the people of God.  As Brueggemann puts it : ‘exile did not lead Jews in the Old Testament to abandon faith or to settle for abdicating despair, nor to retreat to privatistic religion. On the contrary, exile evoked the most brilliant literature and the most daring theological articulation in the Old Testament’ (Cadences of Home, p3)

This reimaging can be described under 3 headings, and these provide 3 focusses for reflection in terms of our response to the place of the church in post-Christendom Britain.

Firstly a radical development in the understanding of God’s presence – from specific to universal.  Exilic literature asserts the presence of God in hitherto unimaginable places, foreign soil. God was still with them in exile, he had not disappeared, his presence was not bound by their assumptions of him.  Hence radical witness of the vision of Ezekiel – the overwhelming glory of the presence of God appeared to Ezekiel from the very beginning ‘while I was among the exiles by the Kebar river’ (1:1).

This relates powerfully to one of the great emerging emphases of the fresh expressions movement. The great rediscovery by the likes of David Bosch, hugely influential to early pioneers and to the Mission Shaped Ministry report, was the concept of mission Dei. That God is a missionary God in his very nature, and that his key agency for mission is his people.

This fundamentally changes how we think about and carry out mission. The key task as leaders of mission is one of listening and discernment. It is seeking to listen and discern a sense of what God is already doing in the community we are engaging with and coming alongside. Eze 37 bears out this pattern, God’s initiative in transformation and renewal is clearly articulated, the role of Ezekiel is to listen, and participate in humble obedience.

I call this contemplative mission – it is mission that starts first and foremost with an attitude of contemplation, of making space for God and the centre of life and ministry. It is a trained and discipline attentiveness to the context in which are called.

The anxiety of crisis, in Ezekiel and in the challenge facing the church, lends itself to quick fixes, to models and plans, anything to get us out of this crisis. But what we need is vision, imaginative and Spirit-inspired vision. Vision that will enable us to go somewhere neither we nor the people we are seeking to reach have been before.

Secondly a developed understanding and practice of holiness – from ritualistic to holistic. The exilic narratives emphasise faithful Jewish practice in the face of the challenges of a dominant culture. The holiness codes of Lev 17 – 26 generally thought to have been definitively shaped around the 6th century BC. This code is detailed and thorough and is testimony to a developed expression of holiness that moved beyond episodic ritual to holistic practice. Other exilic prophets begin to express circumcision as a metaphor for distinctive faith, ‘circumcise your hearts’ (Jer 4:4), whilst Sabbath keeping and tabernacle constitute recovery of the sacramental life of Israel.

We can similarly trace the expression of this response in the key emphasis in the pioneer/Fresh Expression movement of authentic community. For many the monastic pioneers of the Celts, Benedictines and Franciscans have been a source of inspiration. Whereas Christendom seemed fixated with orthodoxy and became endlessly bogged down in doctrinal disputes, the missionary imperative of post-Christendom argues for communities of Christian disciples committed to the pursuit of Christ-centred orthopraxy.

Discipleship is therefore of fundamental importance to these new forms of church, much more so than observance. The call is clearly to live lives of authentic witness in the midst of the dominant culture in which we are exiles. Authentic witness will be faithful to the gospels and countercultural to the prevailing values of the dominant culture.

Finally exile saw a reformation in Israel’s understanding of its mission, from attractional to incarnational. Exile brought about a renewed sense for Israel of being a people with a mission to bless the nations. Passages in 2nd Isaiah’s servant songs articulate a call on the Israel to once again act as a light to the nations.  Jeremiah writing to the exiles calls on them to ‘see the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile’ (Jer 29:7).  The didactic narratives also have a clear missional emphasis: Jonah preaching to the Ninevites who respond in repentance and faith, Daniel’s demonstration of the supremacy of Yahweh resulting in declarations of faith from Nebuchadnezzar.

There is a huge re-emphasis on the theme of mission, but this emphasis is clearly incarnational. It builds on the understanding that God is present on foreign soil and amongst foreign people. Whereas any sense of being a blessing to the nations seemed confined the welcome of stranger and aliens, now there is an added dimension of being a holy and distinctive presence amongst a foreign people.

Once again this reflects similar renewed emphasis in the mission of our time with the proliferation of incarnational forms of mission and church planting. In the long twilight of Christendom attractional methods of encouraging people to church may still have some traction. But exile suggests the issues are more fundamental than simply the distance between the church and the pub – the distances in cultural terms that we need to travel may be as great as Jonah’s journey to Ninevah, the exiles journey to Babylon, Paul’s journey to Athens. Mission cannot be an occasional, even regular, mission week or Alpha course, mission must become the orienting factor which shapes the very nature of church. It must be as much about who we are as Christian community as what we do. It was emanate from our radical presence amidst the people of the culture in which we live.

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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.