Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Bones and Breath

The elections at John Wesley UMC went very well. We elected seven officers to the Church Council, and everything seemed to be done in a true spirit of patience and gentleness.
I took a deep breath, thanked God, and returned home.

The next morning, I woke up to read Ezekiel 37, the passage about the prophet and the valley of dry bones. I’ve read this passage a hundred times, of course, and sung the cute children’s song that accompanies it. But the story took on new meaning this time.

In the story, God puts Ezekiel into the middle of a valley which is full of bones. He asks the prophet, “Do you think these bones can live?” The prophet wisely replied, “If you want them to live, they will live!”

So God orders Ezekiel to speak to them. Ezekiel does so. And as he speaks, the rattling bones begin to assemble themselves into the shapes of human beings. Then tendons, flesh, and skin grow over the bones.

But they are still not alive. The valley is now full of corpses.

God then says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the breath …” God still had the most important task to do; to fill these lifeless bodies with the breath of life. Ezekiel prophesied to the breath, and an army of strong, living, breathing men and women got up off the valley floor.

I suddenly realized something. Church structures and organizations are like assembled bones, tendons, sinews, muscles. They are vitally important; they are connective and give shape to the body.

But by itself, this body is lifeless. Even when the bones are put together correctly, ankle bone to leg bone, leg bone to hip bone … without breath, the body is useless. Even when the muscles are attached properly … without breath, the body is lifeless. Even when the skin is stretched tight as a baby’s bottom … without breath, the body is simply dead.

There’s not much difference between a valley of bones and a valley of corpses.

A church that is well-organized and put together efficiently can still be dead, lifeless, and completely useless to the community. A church that has all the right committees, chaired by all the right people, and trained to do all the right things, can still do all the wrong things.

Methodists have always been a well-organized people; that was John Wesley’s strength. If anything, he was a little anal-retentive about policy and procedures. But even though it was Wesley’s strength, it wasn’t the secret to the success of his movement. The true secret of Wesley’s ministry was the fact that the Holy Spirit breathed through his work. Whenever Methodists have been successful in spreading God’s love, peace, justice and hope, the Spirit has been at work.

God has one more thing left to do at John Wesley UMC. He has to breathe new life into this body.

That’s something that I can’t do. Nor the pastors. Only God can do it. And so now all I can do is stand back, like Ezekiel on the mountain, and pray: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.”