The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
-Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Last week I had the privilege of traveling to Puerto Rico as part of my national denominational service on the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. Our meetings coincided with those of other organizations in the larger church. At one of those, our Stated Clerk, the Rev. Dr. J Herbert Nelson said these words:
We have been in a framework of lament for so long that we really don’t know how to recognize the joy of the Lord. We’ve lost the ability to have a conversation around what it means to serve God. That’s where the challenge is. The bigger picture has been lost and absorbed in the lament of business success. I think we are out of touch—I think we’re lost in what it means to be faithful in our relationships with one another. The challenge for us is to have an honest conversation. We are a corporate model that isn’t serving the denomination. I see so much that this denomination can do and be and become if we first ground ourselves in the joy of the Lord and put the cross back in our theology.
Over this weekend one of the members of Presbytery said to me that the last few meetings we have had together have been “an exercise in lament.”
We are grieving something. And it is taking its toll on us.
It seems to me we are grieving our past, or the import that we attached to the institution of the church, or the control we once had, or our buildings…or something. It’s probably different, this grief for each of us. But it is present. And it is there. And it is affecting all of us.
We get caught up in this lament cycle so often in the mainline church, because what we think we are seeing around us are a lot of dry bones. Dry bones embodied in buildings, aging congregations, empty pews, disinterested communities.
We think that is all there is. And we are stuck in that worldview.
The thing is, bones are not dry everywhere. But in our stuckness, which manifests itself in grief and anger we think all the bones are dry. The truth is that the way of “doing church” that we white mainline church people in North America and Europe are used to doing it is dying or might even be dead. But that’s not the case in immigrant and non-white Christian expressions in North America and Europe. They are growing. And the global church is experiencing exponetial growth in places like Africa, Asia, South and Central America. In 1900 68% of Christians worldwide were white. By 2050 71% of Christians worldwide will be non-white, 29% white and of that 29%, just 12% will be in North America. What exactly are the dry bones we are grieving? Because God is growing the Church – just not our current expression of it. The challenging question we must ask ourselves in this time is: What does our grief over dry bones say about us?
Two weeks ago at the NEXT conference, professor Soon-Chan Rah, associate professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary gave a deeply challenging and prophetic keynote on these issues. I invite you to watch it (below). No, I don’t just invite you to watch it, I implore you to!!!
In it he asked us many questions, but I wrote down this question of self-examination:
“What have you surrounded your world with?” He invited us to take some time in prayer and write down the last five books, last five people in your home, the last five people you have had a cup of coffee with, where your furniture comes from, what are the last five authors you have read, who are the characters on the last shows you have watched the last five times? He asked the question, “Are you learning under someone who is non-white?” He also asked the question in this important public talk, “Are you living in a dysfunctional theology?”
We have dry bones. That is the truth of the matter. We might just be the dry bones.
Lent is a time of penitence and self examination, and sometimes that is hard and painful. Dry bones are painful.
The question of Lent is, what do we need to make these bones come alive (because we still do believe in Resurrection don’t we?) and where do we need to be to participate in the bones that God’s Spirit is making alive around us – so that we can be a part of the next phase of reformation in our beloved Church? I hear the Spirit saying to us that it’s OK if that next reformation and next space of living bones isn’t all about us. Because it is in the end, all about God.
Image: Dry Bones Nathan Moskowitz 2010
Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo is the Transitional Presbyter for Albany Presbytery. She’s fascinated by the ever-changing landscape of culture and faith communities and how these changes are pointing us to new ways of living into God’s ongoing gift of resurrection. She can be reached at [email protected].
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