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.
‘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!
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?