I was invited into a conversation this week by a staff person at the national offices of The Episcopal Church about what he called the “future shape of the church.” The urgency of that conversation is rooted in the fact that the overall membership of The Episcopal Church (along with most other churches) has been declining slowly for a number of years. Often, a sense of crisis can also create a moment of opportunity, as people begin to look for more creative solutions to challenges.
The biblical metaphor that the person I was meeting with used for the church’s current situation is the story about the prophet Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. My conversation partner noted that in the prophet’s vision, he is standing before a valley of “very dry bones” and God asks him to prophesy to the bones, to tell the bones that God will give them life again. He also noted something I had never considered before: that God also asks Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, asking the breath to enter into the bones (after they have joined themselves back together and been covered with flesh) and bring life to them again. In Hebrew (the language in which this story is originally told), the word for breath is the same as the word for Spirit. In essence, then, God is asking Ezekiel to prophesy to the Spirit, to God, asking that the Spirit come and enliven these bodies. It was that invitation to Ezekiel to prophesy to God that I had not noticed before in this story.
In reflecting on this story, and my new friend’s insights, it seems clear to me that in asking Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones, God is asking Ezekiel to transmit God’s promise of new life. And in inviting Ezekiel to prophesy to God’s own Spirit, God is challenging Ezekiel to believe the promise that God has just made. It is a story of a sacred partnership between God and humanity, in which each has a role to play. God will send the Spirit to enliven that which seems to be dead, but we must ask for that life, we must be ready to welcome that life, we must set the stage for that life and – above all – we must believe God’s promise of life.
While the conversation I was having about this story concerned the challenges facing the church, each of us has a valley of dry bones that stretches before us somewhere in our lives. We look at that valley, whatever it may be, as a dead place. But the story of Ezekiel makes clear that God sees that valley not as dead, but as awaiting life. God promises that life will come, but God does not force that life upon us: God waits for us to believe the promise and invite the life-giving Spirit into the valley. When we are ready to open ourselves to God’s Spirit, then life rushes in, and new possibilities appear in valleys that previously appeared lifeless.