Reflection: April 6, Fifth Sunday of Lent

Let us pause for a moment in prayer:

Holy One, Source and sustainer of life,
You breathe new life and vibrancy into our worn and weary lives.
Like Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones
You connect us together and remind us that without your spirit
there is just the appearance of life
without meaning, enthusiasm, or purpose.
On this day, as a gathered community,
open our hearts, and our lives, to your life-giving spirit
that we may live in the fullness and vibrancy of life
that you intend for all people.
With thanksgiving, we offer our lives to you. Amen

This morning we heard the incredibly dramatic story of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones. It is important to remember that Ezekiel, and his people, had been forcibly removed from their homeland in Judah and were exiles in Babylonia. This was a terrible time in the history of their people. Not only were they captives in a strange land but their sacred Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and lay in ruins. They were disconnected from their homeland, their God, and their sense of unity as people of faith. One commentary that I read this past week puts it this way,

“Ezekiel’s vision is given for a people who have lost heart, who are suffering a death of the spirit, a living death in exile in a foreign land. …Ezekiel witnesses the soul of his people gradually wither and die, becoming as lifeless as a valley of dry bones.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, pg.125)

Ezekiel’s vision of dry and lifeless bones would have powerfully captured the sense of hopelessness and despair of his people. However, from the very beginning of Ezekiel’s description of this bereft and lonesome valley God is present. God reminds the people of their covenant relationship that has powerful ramifications for their situation. God begins with a simple question, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel, somewhat stunned by the devastation and hopelessness of the situation says something like, “How should I know? You’re the one that knows those kinds of things, O God.” God tells Ezekiel to embrace his prophetic role and to do what prophets do and prophesy to the bones directing them to “hear the word of the Lord”. God’s word is simply, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” Miraculously the bones begin to come together and are knit together until Ezekiel’s people are reconstituted. But one thing is still missing and that is the soul of the people. We hear in the story the lifeless cry of the people, “our hope is lost; we are cut off completely”. God’s response is to reiterate the promise, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” (Really live – not just go through the motions of life but really live into the fullness of life that God desires for all people.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this story from Ezekiel this week and about what lessons I can learn in my own life and what lessons and inspiration this story can provide for our church today. And, it seems that everywhere I’ve been and every conversation that I’ve had recently has led me back to the themes and wisdom found in this story from Ezekiel. For example, last weekend I attended the Spring meeting of Kootenay Presbytery in Grand Forks. This meeting differed from our regular routine in that we dealt with all the formal presbytery business on Friday, which enabled us to spend all day Saturday having meaningful conversations that didn’t require formal motions and decisions. We utilized an Open Space Process that was facilitated by Chris Corrigan. In his introduction of the process, Chris explained that when he met earlier in the year with the Planning and Visioning Team (PVT) of Kootenay Presbytery two themes consistently emerged in their conversations. These themes are connection and enthusiasm; two words that embody the essential hopes of the PVT for revitalization of our presbytery. Chris went on to remind us that the root of the word, religion, shares the same root as the word ligament. The root word from Latin is ligare and means to bind together—to connect. The word enthusiasm comes from the root entheos, to be divinely inspired—literally to be “in God”. These two definitions immediately reminded me of Ezekiel’s people longing for connection: with their homeland; God; and each other. It also reminded me of the power of inspiration—the divine breath of God—that breathes new life into people of faith.

There are many things over the years that have sucked the life out of our presbytery and made us tired and worn out. I won’t go into specific detail about these things – we all know the church in general is facing challenging times. Fewer people are trying to maintain structures and systems that worked effectively in years past but are currently draining time and energy rather than energizing and activating the people with faith and hope. We are in a transition time in the United Church: in our presbyteries, congregations and national church. At every level of the church we are adapting and evolving in response to changing circumstances. In a variety of reports that I’ve read and conversations that I‘ve participated in recently, a recurrent theme essentially echoes the words in Ezekiel, Can these bones live? The answer that I experienced at this recent presbytery meeting and the Ministry Wellness Network meeting that I also attended this week is a definitive, Yes—with God’s mysterious and life-giving spirit—Yes!

We, in the church, are recognizing the importance of strengthening the connections between people in every level of the United Church. We need to care for each other in more caring, life-giving ways. We need to recognize the challenges and stresses of being in ministry together and care for our spiritual, physical, and emotional needs as people of faith. There are ways that we can partner with other congregations and share resources that will enhance worship and address pastoral, educational and outreach issues in our communities of faith. We are in a time of great transition and many positive steps are being taken. In our own small community of Kimberley I am excited and heartened by the blossoming of closer ecumenical relationships and more proactive networking within the wider community. More and more often, as a representative of Kimberley United Church, I am being invited to attend a variety of non-church community networking meetings. (The most recent invitation I’ve received is to attend an initial meeting focusing on a Community Youth Engagement Strategy for Kimberley.) At the presbytery level there is a commitment to find more effective ways of creating connections of care and support between United Churches in our region and beyond. At the Conference level there is a growing awareness of the essential importance of encouraging and supporting healthy spiritual and physical lifestyles for ministry personnel and for the congregations they serve. And, the national church has been consulting United Church membership and assessing the best way to share the knowledge and resources of the whole United Church in ways we connect with each other structurally and theologically.

This is an exciting and promising era in the life of the church if we allow ourselves, like Ezekiel, to trust the presence of God’s enlivening spirit to breathe vitality and renewed life into our community of faith.

We, as a community of faith, have much to offer the wider world in which we live. Everywhere, people are hungering for connection, for a sense of meaning and purpose, for hope in the present and for the future. People, everywhere, are yearning for spiritual connection with other people, with creation, and with the divine Source of Life. The mantra, “I’m spiritual but not religious” often reveals misunderstanding about what it means to be religious. As human beings we are knit together – connected with all of all God’s creation. With recognition of the pervasive presence of a divine source we are strengthened in community to enact our faith in our individual and communal actions.
In his book, The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox maintains that in the early formation of Christian communities that, “scattered congregations were united by a common Spirit”. (Harper One, 2009, pg. 5) Cox believes that in the twenty-first century that we have entered the Age of the Spirit that involves a reclaiming of the power and importance of the direct experience and influence of God’s spirit in our midst. (Ibid, pg. 13) Like Ezekiel, we are waking up to the power and presence of God’s Spirit who is breathing new life into our world.

With this in mind I’ll end with a line from a poem by Dempsey Calhoun:

It was never about the bones anyway
Rather a glimpse of pure power
A reminder of who’s in charge of restoration
Real hope lies in the Source
[which is the divine Spirit of Life].

Thanks be to God for this blessing and promise!

 

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