Dry Bones

This week in worship, in place of a traditional sermon, our worship leaders engaged in the practice of havruta (learning in pairs). The text that was discussed was Ezekiel 37:1-14.

The LORD’s power overcame me, and while I was in the LORD’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.

He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”

I said, “LORD God, only you know.”

He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the LORD’s word!” “The LORD God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again.” “I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the LORD.”

Ezekiel 37:1-6, CEB

It was noted that our present situation, with all of its restrictions and constant reminders of illness and even death, feels a bit like being in the valley of the dry bones. We wonder, when will this pandemic end, life return to normal, and the dry bones again have the breath of life. It’s not lost on me that the concept of breath plays so prominently in this passage, as we read stories of people having the very breath constricted from their lungs. It’s also not lost that a passage in the book of a prophet seems, well, prophetic in context of world events.

As we hope for the breath of life to once again come to our world, it was noted that the breath of God that comes to fill us may well be different than what we were expecting. We may find ourselves facing a new reality, when all this is over.


Let’s Dance

Philip Christman implores us, in Volume 99 of The Tourist, when we are tempted to write another “What is art in the face of ___________,” piece, to remember that C.S. Lewis already did it. Though a Christman uses slightly stronger language than I am willing to employ here, he makes his point. During the Second World War, Lewis wrote “Learning in War-time” as a sermon that he preached in 1939.

The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumable they have their reward. Men are different.They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffold, discuss, the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

This is by no means an argument to toss out precautionary measures against a certain threat. While Lewis points out that 100% of people die, most of us would rather do it later than sooner. It is, however, a moment to recognize that the world is never truly “safe” and waiting until it has achieved that status is likely to keep you from, as Morrissey would say, “doing all the things in life you’d like to.” We can shelter in place and still remain committed to learning, creating and expressing.


Going to Virtual Church

I am happy that my church decided to hold virtual worship service this morning, complete with singing, responsive liturgy, sermon and passing of peace. I wasn’t thrilled that it was done through Facebook, a platform with which I have many reservations (to be charitable). Our church isn’t used to this kind of thing, though, so choosing a platform for broadcasting is just one more hurdle to be surmounted as quickly as possible.

Jonas Ellison writes in praise of churches that don’t do the virtual thing very well, and hopes they ultimately keep it that way.

I hope churches like mine don’t get too good at this. I hope that they can under-deliver just a little bit as this social distancing continues (here in Chicago, EVERYTHING is closed including bars and restaurants starting in a couple of days).

Just don’t get too good at the remote worshipping thing, church. Don’t let us get too comfortable watching from home. No matter what you do, it just isn’t the same. But thanks for doing what you can to keep us gathered during this time.

I’m grateful to be able to have time to worship God with others, even through the distance of a screen on a coffee table. I’ve never attended a worship service in my pajamas, with my cat, prior to this crisis. I hope it doesn’t stay that way for too long, though. I want to be in fellowship with the congregation, safely elbow bumping through our messages of peace to each other.


Tread Lightly

John Pavlovitz found himself buying bananas the day after his father died. He was going through such a normal part of life, but inside he felt anything but normal.

Everyone around you; the people you share the grocery store line with, pass in traffic, sit next to at work, encounter on social media, and see across the kitchen table—they’re all experiencing the collateral damage of living. They are all grieving someone, missing someone, worried about someone. Their marriages are crumbling or their mortgage payment is late or they’re waiting on their child’s test results, or they’re getting bananas five years after a death and still pushing back tears because the loss feels as real as it did that first day.

I can vividly remember, in 2007, taking a walk on my lunch break from work, after finding out that my father was terminally ill. It was the most beautiful day imaginable, the sun was shining and the temps were in the seventies, but I was completely unable to feel the comfort of the perfect weather. I couldn’t even contemplate ever getting my way past that internal ache that was so much stronger than anything nature could provide as soothing balm.

Who among us hasn’t had these times? There are almost inevitably seasons where we’re unable to feel the cool breeze cutting through the punishment of a blazing sun. We don’t go around wearing signs, but Pavlovitz visualizes how helpful it would be, anyway. There often are no noticeable signals. No helpful indicator lights to let people know our emotional tanks are almost on empty.

Whether your reference point is Ecclesiastes or The Byrds, “to everything there is a season.” It can be hard to know in which season a person is dwelling, though. So we have to tread carefully with those around us.

Pavlovitz sums it up nicely.

We need to remind ourselves just how hard the hidden stories around us might be, and to approach each person as a delicate, breakable, invaluable treasure—and to handle them with care.

Christ and a blue heaven.

It’s the End of Advent, Merry Christmas

This year, around the holiday season, I’ve had a shift in my thinking about Christmas and the period of waiting that comes before. In the past, I’ve thought of the season of Advent as a joyous preparatory time for the a celebration that is Christmas. The onslaught of cheerful Christmas songs, that starts just as the tryptophan induced coma from Thanksgiving wears off, contributes to that way of framing things. Bing lets you know when it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and he doesn’t seem at all concerned that the holiday is almost a month away.

Recently though, I’ve started to view Advent in a more Orthodox way, as more like Lent. As a time of fasting, rather than feasting. A time that starts in the darkness, as we make our way toward the light. It’s a period of quiet contemplation, instead of the exuberant cacophony of bells from a sleigh, furiously driven to the big box stores in search of Black Friday door busters. Advent is to be waited out with patience and solemn hope.


We Demand A King

According to a new Pew Research poll, the number of Republicans who say presidents could operate more effectively if they did not have to worry so much about Congress and the courts has increased 16 percentage points since last year, from 27% to 43%. Among only those classified as conservative Republicans, the number of those in favor of more presidential power has doubled in the past year. The fears that this president has promoted the idea of a totalitarian state to his followers seems to have been well founded. That should come as no surprise to those who noted the president’s open affection for dictators, including those as brutal as Sadam Hussein.

It appears a certain segment of the population, particularly conservative Republicans, essentially want a king of the United States. This was the state of affairs in ancient Israel, in the time of the prophet Samuel. The prophet warned the people against putting themselves under the yoke of a king. However, the Israelites had lost faith in God as deliverer and wanted a king to lead them to victory over the Philistines.


Lord of Scripture

Pete Buttigieg recently gave a very candid interview to Rolling Stone. In the interview, he opens up about his Christian faith, which can probably best be described as “progressive.” Often, Christians on the more progressive end of the spectrum are thought of as having low biblical fidelity, sometimes even rightfully so. Buttigieg responds to those who accuse progressive Christians of cherry picking the passages of scripture that suit their world view.

Well, I think for a lot of us — certainly for me — any encounter with Scripture includes some process of sorting out what connects you with the God versus what simply tells you about the morals of the times when it was written, right? For example, the proposition that you should execute your sister by stoning if she commits adultery. I don’t believe that that was right once upon a time, and then the New Testament came and it was gone. I believe it was always wrong, but it was considered right once, and that found its way into Scripture.

And to me that’s not so much cherry-picking as just being serious, because of course there’s so many things in Scripture that are inconsistent internally, and you’ve got to decide what sense to make of it. Jesus speaks so often in hyperbole and parable, in mysterious code, that in my experience, there’s simply no way that a literal understanding of Scripture can fit into the Bible that I find in my hands.

Though I don’t agree with Buttigeig on every position he takes, and wouldn’t label myself necessarily as a progressive Christian, I do understand what he is getting at in this statement. There are contradictions in scripture, and it requires some critical thinking, research and prayer as to what to make out of those contradictions. It is undeniably true that Jesus speaks in hyperbole and parable. In fact, he tells his disciples that his wisdom is exclusively imparted to others in the form of parable.

He said to them, “The secret of God’s kingdom has been given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables. (Mark 4:11, CEB)

From this statement, we can take away that the form of teaching that Jesus used requires discernment.


Reformation Sunday

Two years ago, in 2017, was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. For those of us in the reformed tradition, it was a pretty big deal. This Sunday, we celebrate our annual “Reformation Sunday” in the Presbyterian Church.

Internet Monk recently had a repost from the late Michael Spencer, on the Reformation. Spencer studied the Reformation extensively. Though he remained a proud Protestant, he also came away with some pretty frank observations and critiques of either the Reformation movement itself or the way we have come to view it.

The post contains a list of insights (is it a listicle?) that came to Spencer during his studies. Here are some that particularly resonated with me.

  • I do not believe true Christianity was restored or rediscovered in the Reformation.
  • I’m convinced that it didn’t take long for Protestantism to accumulate enough problems of its own to justify another reformation or two.
  • I believe that a lot of Protestants say sola scriptura when they mean solo scriptura or nuda scriptura or something I don’t believe at all.
  • I now believe that tradition is a very good word.
  • I believe the Reformation was very secular, political and, eventually, quite violent. To act as if it was mostly a spiritual revival movement is naive.
  • I believe we ought to grieve the division of Christianity and the continuing division of Protestantism.

I would also tend to agree with Spencer that, after consistently saying the Apostles Creed, and confessing belief in the one catholic church, it does seem a bit odd to be celebrating Christian division.


Some Called Her A Prophet

I have been following the health status of, and praying for, Rachel Held Evans recently, as she lay in a coma induced to keep her brain from constant seizures. Yesterday, Evans passed away, after a fight to keep her alive following an ordeal that started with a reaction to antibiotics.