Message to a friend

It’s hard for passions to stay alive when you’re in a dry and dusty land with the dry bones of church lying all around

Part 4 of a series – What are we doing?

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I recently had a conversation with my friend Steve* who had just read my earlier article about Ezekiel, ‘Dry bones in the valley‘. He sent me an email about his thoughts and I sent a reply. Immediately I’d sent it I felt a strong sense that the Holy Spirit was encouraging me to post my reply to the blog as well; so with Steve’s permission, here it is:

Hi Steve,

Thanks for taking the time and effort to reply with your thoughts and feelings. It’s not work for me, it’s fun, it helps us know one another better, it’s a joy and a pleasure. We write about things we only skim over when we chat because our conversations are newsy and more about catching up – and that’s good too, I always look forward to our chats.

There are two journeys here – your personal journey, and the journey of the church. When I wrote the articles about Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones I was writing to and about the church. I felt at the time and still feel today that the church is sleepwalking and not really listening to what Father is saying. It’s a dry, dusty and fairly lifeless place to be when compared with the early church or with any of the great revivals in the last 2000 years. Church hurts people, disappoints people, dries people up spiritually, channels them into limited thinking and limited behaviour; that’s not what Jesus wants for his people! And it’s mostly because we focus our energies on programs, Bible studies, pre-programmed music, meetings, buildings to own or rent, prayer groups, money raising, mission planning, leadership training. Life is not in those things, real life is in Jesus.

But of course that doesn’t mean that Ezekiel has nothing to say to you personally, Steve. Papa will speak into your life as he does into every follower of Jesus. You feel – understandably – like Ezekiel must have felt by the river, before he had his vision about the valley of bones. I know you identified with the sense of captivity, loss, bleak prospects, endless struggle, and a feeling of hopelessness and no future. And those were the feelings of Ezekiel that the everlasting Father put his hand on. A gentle touch on the shoulder is easily overlooked, you might barely notice it. Yet it speaks volumes because it says, I am here, I am with you, I understand how you feel, I will come with you, have peace in your heart, you are not forgotten, I love you, you are my child, I am your Father and your friend, I haven’t abandoned you, I am here.

And as your brother standing nearby I can see that Papa has his hand on you. I’m a witness that he is touching you, Steve. I’ve seen you change, you are responding to his touch even though it’s not come in quite the way you expect or long for. The trip we made to Siddington was part of his touch, this conversation about the valley of bones is part of it, too. Having your children spend extra time with you is part of it. The practical and brotherly presence of another friend in your life is part of it. The new jobs you’ve been finding are part of it. The changes in your thinking about yourself, and about church, they’re part of it. Andy and Ellie are part of it.

His hand is on you and he will continue to show you stuff and use you. Even though you sometimes might not notice! 🙂

I’ve just been listening to Phil Wickham singing ‘All I am’. Maybe you’ll enjoy it too, it seems relevant.

You wrote, ‘I wish Father was more active and willing to power through for me instead of letting me learn through the journey‘.

Maybe learning through the journey teaches us more deeply, but he does power through as well when we are stuck. I think perhaps Siddington was an example of that.

You wrote, ‘I’m in a position where my passion’s dying due to not knowing if my actions in the church are what God wants for me anymore‘.

I was in that place, too. But the problem is not in you, the problem is in the church. If you were amongst a group of people who all just wanted to hear and respond to Jesus and only Jesus, you would find yourself being used – in your gifting and in a thousand other ways as well. It’s hard for passions to stay alive when you’re in a dry and dusty land with the dry bones of church lying all around. Believe me, Steve, if you were back in the early church you would be thriving and alive and contributing and passionate. And a little bit worried that Roman soldiers might kick the door in and arrest you! Church was alive back then – no buildings, no programs, no leadership training, no worship bands, no money raising – but very much alive and thriving and passionate.

You wrote, ‘I found it easier to walk a fair way out of the mess and sweep it all to the foot of the cross and ask God to deal with it…    but now what?

Ah, yes, now what? You asked him to deal with it, now you have to let him do just that. You can’t, but he can. You didn’t, but he will. And it’s very clear to me that he’s made a start already. I know that’s the truth because I’ve been part of the process.

A roller coaster, not very exciting until it starts moving! (Image licencing)

You may not feel it and you may not see it yet – but the ‘Now what?’ is already under way, Steve 🙂 You are on a journey with Jesus and who knows where he will lead you, but he’ll be right with you all the way. His ways are not our ways though, so expect the unexpected. He is turning the entire world upside down, and that includes your life!

Hang in there bro, hang on tight ‘cos it’s a roller coaster ride. We’re on Jesus’ roller coaster just sitting there thinking, ‘Nothing’s happening, where’s the excitement?’ Wait and see!

* Names have been changed.

See also: Valley of dry bones – Index

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Dry bones in the valley

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’.

Part 2 of a series – ‘The valley of dry bones’

< Ezekiel in exile | Index | Taking a good look >

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.

A desert scene
A dry and dusty desert (Image from Wikipedia – original and copyright details)

‘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.

< Ezekiel in exile | Index | Taking a good look >

Ezekiel in exile

Have we, the church (or at least the western church) been taken far from our true and full inheritance in Christ?

Part 1 of a series – ‘The valley of dry bones’

< No earlier items | Index | Dry bones in the valley >

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.

StormLight

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!

< No earlier items | Index | Dry bones in the valley >

Valley of dry bones – INDEX

Is it now time for dusty dryness to be transformed into vigorous, vibrant activity? This short series examines the implications.

Ezekiel’s writing about the valley of dry bones has much to say to us about life and death in the church.

Is it now time for dusty dryness to be transformed into vigorous, vibrant activity? This short series examines the implications. (First written in 2011, currently under revision.)

A desert scene
A dry and dusty desert (Image from Wikipedia – original and copyright details)

  1. Ezekiel in exile – Ezekiel’s words about the valley of dry bones seem significant.
  2. Dry bones in the valley – Ezekiel 37:1.
  3. Taking a good look – A question in the middle of the valley.
  4. Speak to the bones – Is there any point in speaking to what is dead?
  5. The word of Yahweh – The bones are to come to life!
  6. The bones come together – Ezekiel begins speaking to the bones.
  7. Sinew, muscle and skin – He watches as the bones are covered.
  8. Prophecy to the breath – Ezekiel is called to speak again.
  9. An overwhelming army – The bodies come to life and stand.
  10. The dry bones of church will live – A prophecy for the church today.

Taking a good look

Yahweh looks at Ezekiel and asks: ‘Can these bones live?’ Only a wise person would answer this correctly.

Part 3 of a series – ‘The valley of dry bones’

< Dry bones in the valley | Index | Speak to the bones >

‘He guided me back and forth amongst them and I saw a huge number of bones lying on the ground in the valley – very dry bones indeed. He asked me: “Son of man, is it possible for these bones to be alive?” I answered: “Yahweh Almighty, only you know”.’ (Ezekiel 37:2-3)

Take a really good look – Ezekiel is there in the valley and Yahweh leads him about amongst the bones. This is not just a casual look, it’s a really thorough examination of the situation. Notice how Ezekiel is guided back and forth, this is not ‘Go and look and I’ll wait here’ on Yahweh’s part. It’s an intimate togetherness in which they both go, we can almost imagine Ezekiel as a child hand-in-hand with a parent.
I should warn you that the rest of this article might seem very gloomy. But please remember, this is a low point in a deep valley and things get better – much better!

Dry bones lying on the ground
Dry bones lying in the desert. (Image from Wikipedia – original and copyright details)

For Ezekiel this is all about Israel in captivity under Babylon. For us it should also speak about the church in captivity under the thinking and dictates of the world. We can no more shake ourselves free from the influence of the world than Israel could have shaken herself free from Babylon. Yet we need to be free.

Because we are in the world it is very, very natural to apply processes like planning, teaching, organising and structuring, hierarchies, and leadership. We emphasise great presentation and engagement. There is nothing wrong with these methods in themselves, but they do have the sneaky potential to intrude on an intimate walk with Papa day by day. Methods alone are death, Jesus alone is life. Where would you rather be? If you choose both, be aware there may be some conflict – tread carefully!

We can learn from Ezekiel’s thorough examination of the bones. We really do need to be ‘guided back and forth’ amongst the remains of church. How can we encourage abundant church if we don’t first understand the nature of the problem? It’s time to examine the situation very, very carefully and thoroughly. A casual glance is not going to be enough. Father’s guidance is essential, not optional. The good news is that there are people being guided back and forth today; I am aware of some of them but I’m certain there are many more. This is not something we initiate, it’s something Father is initiating, guiding us by the Spirit of Christ to become aware of our situation. A study of church history can open our eyes to the sorts of error we may be tempted to make.

Consider, for example, some of the great movements of the past – the Reformation, the Celtic monastic movement, John Wesley and the beginnings of Methodism, the Welsh Revival, Azusa Street. The pattern is clear; it begins with revelation and fresh ideas, these are widely adopted, there’s a period of stagnation, then fossilisation, then there’s fresh revelation and the pattern repeats. Do we think that our generation is different? Is church today in its final and perfect form? Are we now the pure and unblemished Bride of Christ? Or are we, in our turn, waiting for fresh revelation?

Dry as a bone – Ezekiel sees that there are huge numbers of these bones, but he also notices that they are very dry indeed. This is significant. These are not the remains of something that was recently alive. Think about the process of decay – the muscle and other soft tissue is the first to go, skin and hair takes much longer, sinew and cartilage require even longer, and to get to the stage where the bones are disarticulated and scattered and powder dry takes a very long time indeed.

This is true of the church too. Please don’t miss the point – I’m not saying that individual believers are dead or dry, this is about how we are fitted together and active together – church. What should be a mighty army is dead, dry and scattered; church has been in that state for a long, long time.

So here is Ezekiel, arm in arm with the Almighty Power behind the universe, checking over the state of the remains. And Yahweh looks at Ezekiel and asks: ‘Can these bones live?’ Only a wise person would answer this correctly. Reason tells us dry, scattered bones cannot live – ever. They have already had their chance. But Ezekiel says: ‘You tell me, Lord!’

If only we would stop talking to one another and begin listening to Father together instead. If only!

Death is in the world but life is in Christ. If careful inspection shows dry bones then we need to know that Jesus is our only hope. Every time we have come off the church rails it’s because we’ve turned away from Christ and trusted instead in mission, or training, or… fill in the blanks. We do not need a new programme, we need a new vision of Christ!

When we examine the state of the church and how it needs to change, are we walking arm-in-arm with the King or are we going on our own, for our own ends, in our own wisdom and strength?

How about you?

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