A fluid environment, the individuals free to move in every dimension, yet always aware of one another and responding to one another.
This morning, swilling out the cafetiere, watching the dark coffee grounds fan out and spiral down the drain, a word popped into my mind – ‘murmuration’. This word is used for a flock of birds flying together, swirling hither and thither, flying together as one yet moving independently and in smaller groups within that one flock. Starlings are particularly known for this behaviour as they go to roost in the evening light, and the dark specks of coffee reminded me of a murmuration of these birds.
But looking at those coffee grounds made it very clear to me that only living things can form a murmuration. Not only that, the individuals must all be alive with the same kind of life, don’t expect to see seagulls and starlings together in the same formation. The living entities must also be in a fluid environment (air or water, large shoals of fish can exhibit the same phenomenon). And they must be aware of one another and able to respond rapidly to one another’s movements.
So it should be with the church. A formation of individuals all alive with the same life, the life of Christ, all filled with his Spirit. Church should be a fluid environment, the individuals free to move in every dimension, yet always aware of one another and responding to one another.
When the church flows like a murmuration, individually alive with Christ, individually free to move yet mutually aware, responding to one another’s presence and movement, unconstrained except in obedience to Christ, then, my friends, we will see her transcendent glory revealed and the whole world will gasp. People will say, ‘Oh wow, how can this collection of individuals flow together with such transcendent beauty and grace?’
If not, we are little better than coffee grounds swirling into the drain. Not alive at all, merely acted on by random currents as gravity draws us ever downwards. Paul expressed this when he wrote to the church in Ephesus,
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Most churches in western society have some form of communion service, based on the Bible’s accounts of the final meal that Jesus ate with his disciples. This usually takes the form of a well defined ritual involving bread and wine or fruit juice. But that is not the way Jesus and his followers would have eaten.
That final meal was a Jewish Passover and has special significance, but Jesus typically ate with friends in a home, in fields, or on a journey.
Reading about church life in the book of Acts, it’s clear that the norm for the early church was that when they met (usually in someone’s home) a normal meal was part of the process. OpenBible has a list of references about eating together. Bear in mind that ‘breaking bread together’ was a normal way of saying ‘eating together’. The people would have remembered Jesus as they ate bread and drank wine as part of normal life.
Dispense with wafer-and-sip Holy Communion and promote breaking of bread with simple Agape meals (love feasts) from house to house, that believers take with glad hearts, ‘and the Lord added to His numbers daily’. The Lord served roast lamb, bitter herbs, bread and wine ‘in a house’ for the Last Supper. Father God had lunch with Abraham under a tree and discussed Sarah’s pregnancy, Sodom’s ruin and Lot’s rescue plan. Acts 2:46-47; 1 Cor.11:20-23; Gen Chap 18
So – why does this matter?
When we eat a meal together everyone contributes to the conversation. We serve one another (‘Would you pass the potato please? Thanks.’) We smile and laugh, we become informal, we enjoy the flavours and the aromas. It’s a fun occasion and everybody, even the youngest, plays an active part. This is a time of bonding, especially when we regularly eat with the same group of people.
If your church has Small Groups, consider eating a meal together when you meet. Simple is good, bring and share, visit everyone’s home in turn, don’t make this into a complex or arduous task for anyone. If there are no small groups just get together regularly as friends. Let the Holy Spirit lead you in this as in everything. Be flexible, don’t make rules, keep it really simple and easy. Meet as often as you can, invite friends who are not yet following Jesus, invite people who have nowhere to go or are lonely or short of money to buy food. Be the good news in the neighbourhood.
What is preventing you from sharing a meal with others?
Who are you going to invite to join you?
Church is a family; will eating together make you more or less like a family?
If it’s wide and deep vision that you are looking for … then read this book
I don’t often write about books here on JHM. But I just have to tell you about 5Q.
If it’s wide and deep vision that you are looking for, a penetrating gaze into the truth written with passion and humility, then read this book; you will not be disappointed. It’s a book for everyone who is serious in following Jesus. 5Q will challenge you, encourage you, and maybe shock you, but it will also illuminate your thinking and understanding.
5Q is a book by one of my favourite authors, Alan Hirsch. In it, he examines church as commonly understood in the West, and challenges his readers to look at it with fresh and inquisitive eyes. For many years now, Alan has been accumulating knowledge and experience about the way we tend to do church, and sharing his thoughts on what fundamental changes are needed. He has delved deep into both theology and practice, he’s written and taught extensively about the understandings he has developed. And it’s not merely theoretical stuff, much of it is good, practical guidance and advice.
5Q is based on frameworks Alan has described before, namely his ideas around the APEST gifts to the church described by Paul in Ephesians 4. These are the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. But he has gone much further in the grand synthesis that is 5Q; his excitement and passion shine out on every page.
This time we’re going to take a look at the first verse of Ezekiel 37; the start of the section on the valley of dry bones. Let’s see what Father has for us in this verse.
‘Yahweh’s hand was on me and he brought me out by the Spirit of Yahweh and set me in the middle of a valley. It was full of bones.’ (Ezekiel 37:1)
We can’t tell whether Ezekiel visited a real valley or whether the entire section from verse one to verse fourteen is a vision. Perhaps it’s most likely to have been a vision. But it doesn’t really matter, it’s far from being the most important thing.
‘Yahweh’s hand was on me…’ – That’s what Ezekiel says. And this is always Papa’s heart toward us; unless his hand is on us we cannot move except by our own efforts. This is fundamental to everything the Almighty does. He speaks, he moves, he demonstrates, he heals, he forgives – and in all these ways he touches us.
Have you noticed how often Jesus touched people? He touched their eyes and mouths and ears when he healed. He touched what was ritually unclean – a leper, a dead girl. The most intimate thing we can do is to touch someone. Touch brings us closer than words ever can. What do we do when a child is afraid, or anxious, or hurt? We pick them up or hug them or kiss them better. We need to touch and be touched. So Yahweh’s hand was on Ezekiel.
And notice that this is the first thing that happens, before Ezekiel sees the bones or even goes to the valley, Yahweh’s hand is on him. This is the touch that says, ‘I am going to use you’. The Almighty lays hold of us because we are his instruments and he plans to use us in some way.
Have you felt his hand on you in your life? I hope so! But if not, pray that he will touch you and use you in whatever way he chooses. If he knows you are truly willing he will use you. That’s what he longs to do with all his people. He has chosen to use us to do his work in this world today. We are to go in his name (Matthew 28:18-20); we are his body; we are his hands, his feet, his eyes and ears and mouth (1 Corinthians 12). Isn’t that extraordinary?
‘…and he brought me out by the Spirit of Yahweh…’ – He brings us out and he does it by his own Spirit. Out from what? Out from the place where we currently are! See how he is one with himself in doing this? It’s explicit in the Hebrew, the name is used twice. Yahweh uses the Spirit of Yahweh. He chooses what he wants us to do, and then he uses his own Spirit (the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ) to guide us. If necessary he will nudge us.
Sometimes we get stuck in a place. I don’t mean physically, I mean a place in our lives from which we are unable or unwilling to move on. Sometimes we are simply waiting for direction. It might be something we’re doing or a thought pattern we return to or just that he has finished using us in one situation and now wants us in a different one. Whether we are stuck or not – he brings us out, he draws us on, he sends his own Spirit to lead us into the next thing, the next place. For an example read about Roy Godwin. If you want the full story you can buy his book.
And notice this, if Ezekiel had not moved he would not have come to the valley. We have a propensity to cling to what we know and to keep doing what is already familiar. But we need to be ready to allow the Spirit to move us at any time so that we can receive something new, Father’s next thing for you, for me.
‘…and set me in the middle of a valley.’ – And so Yahweh sets Ezekiel in the valley. Now a valley is a low point and must be surrounded by higher ground. Ezekiel is placed ‘in the middle’ of this valley, right at the lowest point. He is as far from the surrounding hills and mountains as it is possible to be.
We know this feeling don’t we? Life is hard and promising to get harder yet. There are low points in our lives and there are also low points in the life of the church. Such valleys are places of defeat where there seems no hope or joy or victory; these are assuredly not ‘mountain-top’ experiences. We’ve all been there. Ezekiel was aware of the state of Israel in captivity under Babylon, but Yahweh’s Spirit brought him here so there must surely be a reason for it. Does it sometimes seem as if church is in a valley? A slough of despond? At times like these we need to remember that Papa has something in mind to show us. Jesus didn’t just come to redeem people, he came to redeem situations too.
‘It was full of bones.’ – What do bones usually signify to you? Are they always just the dusty remnants following final and permanent defeat? Or might they suggest that what was once alive might yet be restored? More on this next time.
For much of my life Ezekiel’s words about the valley of dry bones have seemed highly significant. I now feel I should work through the passage in detail here. I’ll take it verse by verse and we’ll see what it has to say to us today.
First, a little background; Ezekiel saw the valley in a vision, as part of a series of visions. Right at the beginning of the first chapter he gives us the details.
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.
On the fifth of the month — it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin — the word of Yahweh came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians.
There the hand of Yahweh was upon him. I looked, and I saw… (Ezekiel 1:1-4)
Living in exile – There are several things to notice right away. Ezekiel was an exile from the promised land and was among other exiles. In other words he was not alone, but along with others he was not where he truly belonged. Worldly powers had taken them far from the land of their inheritance. But Ezekiel was a Jew and of a priestly family, that personal inheritance could never be taken from him.
Is that true for us? Have we, the church (or at least the western church) been taken far from our true and full inheritance in Christ? I’m not talking about salvation here, nor do I mean our individual lives in Christ and he in us. Those cannot be taken; I mean the posture and behaviour of the church.
The Almighty has permitted the church to be captured by all kinds of worldly attraction and methodology. We have replaced falling on our faces in the presence of his glory and power with worship bands. We have replaced going in the name of Yahshua (Jesus) with outreach initiatives. We’ve replaced sitting at his feet, hearing him speak and watching him work with training sessions. We’ve replaced loving our neighbour with leaflets through doors.
Of course all these things have their place and all are useful – worship bands, outreach initiatives, training sessions and attractive leaflets are not bad in and of themselves. But they should not and cannot replace his glory and power, going in his name, listening and watching him or loving our neighbour. Peter’s intentions on the mountain were good, but he missed something significant. What you and I can do for Jesus is not the point, what he wants is that we listen to him (Matthew 17:1-5). And implicit in hearing the Master is obedience.
But all is not lost! – As an exile from the land of promise, Ezekiel was by the river when the heavens were opened and he saw visions of (or from) the Most High. Do you think that might be true for us too? Is it possible that in the middle of this foreign place the church has been taken to, the heavens might be opened and we might truly see the Most High? Notice what he says at the start of verse 4 – the hand of Yahweh was on me. I looked and I saw.
Is his hand not also on us? If we look, we too, will see. But we surely won’t see unless we look! King David wrote, ‘Taste and see that Yahweh is good’. (Psalm 34:8) We need to look, listen, and taste. What does this mean? Simply this – it’s time to check Papa out, it’s time to hear what he is saying, see what he is doing, and taste the flavour of his nature and love. We will not be disappointed! Others are asking the same sorts of questions. Alan Hirsch for example, in his book The Forgotten Ways, argues strongly that we need to think afresh and re-calibrate our behaviour. Ed Stetzer, in his foreword to Alan’s book writes:
‘The Forgotten Ways’ has become a foundational text for exploring the missional nature of the church, challenging … what it means for the church to reactivate anew its forgotten ways.
We haven’t even started on the dry bones passage yet, but we have set the scene. We know that even if we are in exile the Master can reach us with a new vision, that he can touch us, and that we are free to look and see. There is everything to play for. Are you up for this?
Next time we’ll look at those dry bones – I promise!
Whatever your views on faith, discipleship, mission, community or the nature of church, this book will encourage you to fresh thinking.
Ten years ago a significant book was written by a guy called Alan Hirsch. He titled it ‘The Forgotten Ways’ and in it he laid out his thinking about a new paradigm to explain the rapid flourishing of movements such as the early church.
A few days ago a new edition appeared with significant changes following ten further years of thinking about explosive missional movements. Alan has refined the book by adding new examples, making some changes to the terms he uses, and making even more persuasive arguments.
The new version is a great book; read it! Whatever your views on faith, discipleship, mission, community or the nature of church, this book will encourage you to fresh thinking. It will take you down some rarely travelled roads, through unexplored countryside, and it will open new vistas and opportunities.
There are a few links below, you might explore these if you are new to Alan’s thinking. And if you’re familiar with the first edition you’ll certainly want to read the new one.
The twenty-first century is turning out to be a highly complex phenomenon where terrorism, disruptive technological innovation, environmental crisis, rampant consumerism, discontinuous change, and perilous ideologies confront us at every point. In the face of this upheaval, even the most confident among us would have to admit, in our more honest moments, that the church as we know it faces a very significant adaptive challenge.
He’s absolutely right! But what can we do about it? A very plausible answer will unfold as you read this book.
We have been lost sheep, our shepherds have led us astray, our shepherds caused us to … wander, to forget our own resting place
What do you think of when you read the words ‘bad shepherds’? Perhaps you imagine a man with a crook lying asleep in the shade while the sheep wander off. Or you might think of a man with a dog, hitting the sheep with a long stick to make them go in the right direction.
Bad shepherds are mentioned in Jeremiah 50 beginning at verse 6. Yahweh, the mighty Lord of Israel is speaking to the prophet Jeremiah and he says,
My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place. Whoever found them devoured them; their enemies said, ‘We are not guilty, for they sinned against Yahweh, their verdant pasture, Yahweh, the hope of their ancestors’.
The people had been in captivity in Babylon when Jeremiah heard this message, and out of that terrible situation they would cry tearfully to Yahweh; and these verses were part of his response. Israel had begun very much in Yahweh’s presence, they were his chosen people. But they had done so much wrong that he had expelled them from the land and sent them into captivity. When Paul wrote in Colossians 1:27, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (and it’s a plural ‘you’), he was repurposing a Jewish prayer. The Jews of his day were praying for the Shekinah glory of the Presence of Yahweh to return to the Holy place in the Jerusalem Temple. This was ‘the hope of glory’ that Paul refers to. But the glory would no longer rest in the Holy place in the Temple, from now on it would rest in the ekklesia, the church.
The church began really well and will end well, she is the wife, the Bride of the Lamb (Revelation 21:1-4). She is chosen, not just as individuals but as a body, all of us together. Do you think the church has also been sent into captivity? What is our ‘Babylon’? Just think, what began as a joyful, exuberant, free, living expression of new life in Christ has so often become solemn, restrained, enslaved to ritual and tradition and seemingly dry and dead. We have become fractured into many denominations so are no longer ‘one body’.
The solution for the church today is the same as the solution for Israel in Jeremiah’s day. We must ‘go in tears to seek’ Jesus our Lord and King (Jeremiah 50:4). We must ask the way back and turn our faces towards it; we must come and renew the bond we have to him and not forget (verse 5).
We have been lost sheep, our shepherds have led us astray, our shepherds caused us to roam on the mountains, to wander, to forget our own resting place (verse 6). It’s time to turn back to Jesus alone, to follow him, to hear his voice and do his bidding. There is a reason that he said, ‘I am the good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my sheep and my sheep know me’ (John 10:11, 14).
But please don’t hear what I am not saying. I am not saying there is no place in church for leaders, just that there is no place for bad shepherds. And I’m not saying that that we should fill in the structural cracks of denominationalism in our own strength, instead we should all make sure we’re connected with the Head so that through him we will all be part of one network. He has a plan for the church that will work, I don’t and neither do you. He said, ‘I will build my church’; and he will!