Speaking to Dry Bones

I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.  He [God] asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  –Ezekiel 37:2-3

Ezekiel dry bones
Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones by Richard McBee

Folks around the world are quickly developing a new common language, becoming familiar with and using terms like social distancing, quarantine, shelter at home, and abundance of caution.  Our collective situation may easily create anxiety, and, so, parch our souls and leave our spirits dry.

There is, however, a God who can breathe new life into us and move us to renewed ways of thought and emotion.  The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel’s vision is a promise and a hope of resurrection, of revival.  No matter what our situation or who we are, we are all a displaced people – cast out of Eden and in need of restoration.  We, along with the ancient Israelites for whom he addressed, are in exile and long to return to our true home with God.  Along with St. Augustine we declare:

St Augustine quote

There are dry bones lying around – parched places in need of being reinvigorated.  Maybe you are experiencing the dry bones of hopelessness and despondency.  Maybe you are in a dark night of the soul where all of life seems like one shadowy oblivious hole.  Maybe you are wondering if God is really listening or is there at all because of the dry bones around you.  One thing for sure: Everything is upside-down right now; it is different.  At the first of the year, we didn’t see these current circumstances happening to us.  And, yet, these difficult times have much to teach us.

Let me share with you a “dry bones” experience from my own life.  Fifteen years-ago me and my family were in a car accident.  I was traveling on a highway in rural Iowa, and a small car on a gravel road blew through the stop sign without even slowing down.  There was nothing I could do.  I plowed into the rear quarter panel of the oncoming car, and it literally spun like a top off the highway and came to a stop.  Both the driver and his passenger were not injured.

Two of my three daughters were in the very back seat of our minivan (which I had just bought only a month before) with my wife and dog as front seat passengers.  The minivan was totaled.  My girls were not harmed.  However, my wife tore her shoulder’s rotator cuff protecting the dog and had an agonizing surgery to repair it.  My lower back was injured, yet, not in a way which surgery could repair it.  To this day I live with a kind of constant low-level aggravation of my spine.  Most days it’s not bad, maybe one or two on the pain scale.  On a bad day, I can barely walk across the room and need a cane to get around.

I have played the scene of the accident in my mind hundreds of times.  I have thought time and again about what I could have done to prevent it.  Honestly, there was no way to avoid it.  I thought about the fact that if we just would have left a minute earlier or a minute later from my parents’ house from where we were visiting, all would be fine.  Yet, I know that kind of thinking is a fool’s errand.  I have pondered every possible scenario in my head and have gotten nowhere.

It also took me awhile to forgive the young man who was driving the other car.  He changed my life, and not in a good way.  Although his insurance took care of everything and he was sorrowful about the incident, I was understandably angry for a long time.  I did, over time, come to the point of forgiving him.

Through the years I have learned to live with the limitations imposed on me.  I have now accepted the low-level aggravation of my back as part of my life.  On occasion, I sometimes can’t help but think of how my life would be today if I hadn’t been in that stupid accident.

About five years ago I was doing my usual routine morning prayers.  And God brought the accident to my mind.  I said to God, “Lord, we’ve been through this accident hundreds of times together.  I don’t want to think about it anymore.  Why are you bringing this up now?”

I’m not sure I really wanted an answer, but God brought it up because he knew I was finally ready to get his perspective on the accident.  Out of the hundreds of times I went over that accident in my mind, the one perspective I never took was that of the young man – the other driver.  God invited me to take a distinct viewpoint from the other driver.  So, I did.  I know that intersection like the back of my hand, so it wasn’t a hard exercise.

I imagined putting myself in the driver’s seat of his car.  I’m driving down the gravel road not paying attention to the fact that a stop sign is coming up.  I blow through the sign onto the highway and right in front of a minivan who slams on the brakes just enough to crush the rear quarter panel.  I spin out like a top and come to rest only a few feet from a huge Iowa grain elevator….

grain elevator

For the first time in my life I finally understood from a very different perspective.  God had a divine appointment for me that day.  You see, if I had not come along just when I did, that young man and his girlfriend would have blown through the stop sign and struck the grain elevator.  The impact would have killed them both instantly.

Suddenly, my attitude changed 180 degrees.  Previously, I had always thought about myself and my family.  I always considered my hardship and my change of life.  Now, I saw that God sent his servant to save two lives that day.  Had I not struck the young man’s car, causing him to spin and come to a rest unharmed, two people would have died.

From that time forward, every time my back acts up and effects how my life is lived, I’m reminded that it is a very small price to pay for the lives of two human beings.  God had me speak to the dry bones; and, the result was a revival of new thoughts and emotions.  This was such a dramatic change of thought and heart for me that it felt like a resurrection.

The biblical meaning of “repentance” is literally to have a change of mind – to see a different perspective.  The Bible invites us to view our lives with new lenses.  Our hurts and our pains, our sorrows and our sufferings, our changes and our limitations, are all part of something much bigger that God is doing in the world.  We are not always privy to his plans and purposes.  And, yet, God’s Word challenges us to take a perspective of the world, of humanity, and of ourselves that is counter to how we often think and feel.

It is a very small thing, right now in the admonitions to stay at home, to remain where we are.  Taking a mere one-sided view from my own perspective will bring frustration.  To see it from another angle as a temporary inconvenience, even with some permanent effects, which will save lives is a divine viewpoint.  To put it another way: We are speaking to dry bones.

Stay Home Save Lives

We might think and feel that we will be able to pursue God better without danger or hardship – that somehow difficulty is not to be part of the Christian life.  The dry bones exist, however, as an opportunity for God to give life.  That’s why Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s reaction to his exile in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia was to bless it, because it was there that, he said:

“I discovered that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul.”

God not only gives life; he restores life.  And this is an important truth to know and remember in the inevitable dry times of our lives.  God is not only a helper; he reanimates us from spiritual rigor mortis to lively resurrection through breathing on us.  And he does this for a reason.  Jesus came to his disciples after his resurrection and said, ‘“Peace be with you!  As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’  And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:20-21).  In other words, God resuscitates us for a purpose, so that we might be a blessing to the world.  Faith is not only a possession to keep, but a gift to give.  We glorify God in loving one another and loving the world as Jesus did.  God could have resurrected the bones without Ezekiel’s being a part of it.  Instead, the LORD used Ezekiel and had him participate in the revival by speaking to the bones.

Such a challenge to speak to the dry bones may seem overwhelming to us.  What do you do when your life is upended, even shattered – when such a profound change comes to you that it is impossible for your life to be as it was?  The questions and commands of God seemed totally absurd to Ezekiel, speaking to dead dry bones.  Maybe we ought to operate more in the realm of the absurd than in the realm of the safe routine.  Maybe we ought to expect our faith to be exercised and look for God to breathe new life into the dead and decaying.  To believe that something, someone, or even myself can change is to have internalized this amazing story of dry bones living again.

Our self-imposed graves cannot hold us because God is among us.  What we need more than anything in this world and in the church is a genuine heaven-sent, Spirit-breathed, glorious reanimation in which God sends his grace and raises the dead.

Perspective Changes Everything

perspective is everything

Today is one of my bad back days.  It’s days like today that remind me: perspective is everything.  You see, thirteen years-ago this coming May me and my family were in a car accident.  I was traveling on a highway in Iowa where we were living at the time, and a small car on a gravel road blew right through the stop sign without even slowing down.  There was nothing I could do.  I plowed into the rear quarter panel of the oncoming car, and it literally spun like a top off the highway and came to a stop.  Both the driver and his girlfriend passenger were not injured.

Two of my daughters were in the very back seat of our mini-van (which I had just bought only a month before), with my wife and dog as front seat passengers.  The car was totaled.  My girls were not harmed.  But my wife tore her shoulder’s rotator cuff protecting the dog and had to have an agonizing surgery to repair it.  My lower back was injured, but not in a way which surgery could repair.  To this day I live with chronic pain.  Some days it’s not bad, maybe a one or two on the pain scale.  But on my bad days I can barely walk across the room, and I need cane to get around.  Today is one of those days.

20180226_154906_resized

I have played the scene of the accident in my mind hundreds of times.  I have thought time and again about what I could have done to prevent the accident.  But there was no way to avoid it.  I thought about the fact that if we just would have left a minute earlier or a minute later from my parents’ house from where we were visiting, all would be fine.  Yet, I know that kind of thinking is a fool’s errand.  I have pondered every possible scenario in my head and have gotten nowhere.

It also took me awhile to forgive the young man who was driving the other car.  He changed my life, and not in a good way.  Although his insurance took care of everything and he was very repentant about the whole thing, I was understandably mad for a long time.  I did, over time, come to the point of forgiving him.

Through the years I have learned to live with my limitations.  I have now accepted the pain as part of my life.  But, on occasion, I sometimes I can’t help but think of how my life would be today if I hadn’t been in that stupid accident.

About three years ago I was praying alone in the church for which I was a pastor.  And God brought the accident to my mind.  I said to God, “Lord, we’ve been through this accident hundreds of times together.  I don’t want to think about it anymore.  Why are you bringing this up now?”

I’m not sure I really wanted an answer, but God brought it up because he knew I was finally ready to get his perspective on the accident.  Out of the hundreds of times I went over that accident in my mind, the one perspective I never took was that of the young man – the other driver.  God invited me to take a different view, from the other driver.  So, I did.  I know that intersection like the back of my hand, so it wasn’t a hard exercise.

I put myself in the driver’s seat of his car.  I’m driving down the gravel road not paying attention to the fact that a stop sign is coming up.  I blow through the sign onto the highway and right in front of a minivan who slams on the brakes just enough to crush the rear quarter panel.  I spin out like a top and come to rest only a few feet from a huge Iowa grain elevator.

For the first time in my life I finally understood.  God had a divine appointment for me that day.  You see, if I had not come along just when I did, that young man and his girlfriend would have blown through the stop sign and struck that grain elevator.  It would have killed them both instantly.

perspective changes everything

Suddenly, my perspective changed 180 degrees.  Previously, I had always thought about myself and my family.  I always considered my hardship and my change of life.  But now I saw that God sent his servant to save two lives that day.  Had I not struck his car, causing him to spin and come to a rest unharmed, two people would have died.

Now, every time my back acts up, like today, and it effects how my life is lived, I’m reminded that it is a very small price to pay for the lives of two human beings.  Perspective is everything.

The biblical meaning of “repentance” is literally to have a change of mind – to see a different perspective.

The Bible invites us to view our lives with new lenses.  Our hurts and our pains, our sorrows and our sufferings, our changes and our limitations, are all part of something much bigger that God is doing in the world.  We are not always privy to his plans and purposes.  But his Word challenges us to take a perspective of the world, of humanity, and of ourselves that is counter to how we often think only about ourselves.

The thread of God’s moral perspective, his view of human ethics, runs through the entirety of the Bible.  The psalmist reminds us that this Word is good, sweet, and more precious than gold (Psalm 19).  The Apostle Paul reminds us that this Word is our wisdom to live by (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).  And Jesus, as the Word made flesh among us, lived that loving and gracious Word with perfect moral and ethical goodness.  The temple, as the place where God’s Word was read and observed, was not to be adulterated with the view of making a profit – which was why Jesus drove out the money-changers (John 2:13-22).  Later, after Jesus died and rose from death, his disciples gained a new perspective.  They remembered their master’s words and affirmed them as being the Word of God.  They believed.  Their repentance and faith changed the world.

20180226_155620

God is inviting us to take up his Word and see our lives, the lives of others, and every event and situation through that lens.  We are to see Jesus, not only as a great teacher, a moral and good person, and a loving healer – but also as Lord and Savior.  In a very small way I suffered so that someone else could live.  But Jesus suffered sin, death, and hell in our place so that you and I could live – so that we might have the eternal life of enjoyment with God forever.

Allow the Word of God to shape your lives and form your thinking today and every day.  You might not always know what God is doing, but you can be assured that everything he does is just, right, and good.

May you know Christ better in this season as you reflect upon our Lord’s great sacrifice on our behalf.  May you know the love of God the Father, the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Luke 3:1-18

            John the Baptist wasn’t exactly a social conformist.  He lived, acted, and said things that were anything but mainstream thinking.  But John wasn’t out to win friends and please people.  His message was sharp and straightforward:  “You bunch of snakes!  Who warned you to run from the coming judgment?  Do something to show that you really have given up your sins….  An ax is ready to cut the trees down at their roots.  Any tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into a fire.”  John was the first-century version of the guy with a placard on the street corner yelling for everyone to repent.  He probably would have been relegated to the category of loony tunes had he not had an actual and substantial following of people who believed his message of repentance.
 
            The reason the masses did not dismiss John as some creepy clown is that he offered them something better than just being stuck in old destructive patterns of dumb decisions, unhealthy relationships, and bad habits.  John points us away from himself and squarely on Jesus.  Christ is the one who can and will unstick us from our downward spirals of complacency, mediocrity, and sinful behavior.
 
            To repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ allows us to bear good fruit.  Being with the Lord, rooted and established in him, allows us to spring from the ground like a fresh new shoot growing into something beautiful.  Dwelling in the presence of Jesus brings healthy patterns of life. 
 
            Jesus came once, and will come again.  We need to get ready for that day.  There are roads that need straightening; fires that need to be lit in order to burn away brush; dead trees need to be cut down; and, there are people who need to repent because the kingdom of God is near. 
 

 

            Lord Jesus, you are the rightful King of all creation.  I confess those sinful things I have done, and the good things I have left undone.  Your mercy is from everlasting to everlasting.  Help me to so hear your Word that new life and hope springs within me and produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control.  Amen.

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19

            Of the 250,000 Protestant churches in America, 200,000 are either stagnant (with no growth) or declining. That is 80% of the churches in America and maybe the one you attend, if you attend at all.  4,000 churches close their doors every single year.  There is less than half of the number of churches today than there were only 100 years ago.  3,500 people leave the church every single day.
 
            These sobering statistics make today’s psalm even more prescient.  Although the psalm speaks of Israel, likened as a vine which is withering away, it sounds like the cry of many American churches.  They scratch their heads wondering why in the world they are dying.  They are perplexed by the precipitous decline of their congregations.  Like Israel, they keep looking to outside forces as the reason for their loss of members instead of looking inward to their own lack of fruitfulness. 
 
            At least the psalmist cries out to God:  “God All Powerful, please do something!… make us strong again!  Smile on us and save us!”  Far too many churches do not even think to cry out to God, but have bought into the magical thinking that some tweak of the worship service, some program alteration, or maybe a new pastor will solve their woes.  But God is not looking for superficial changes; He is looking for wholehearted repentance.  Until we begin with our own hearts within our own congregations, our lamentations will fall flat before the Lord.  Revival starts with you and me.
 

 

            Mighty God, you planted thousands of churches throughout this country and the world in order to bear fruit and produce abundance.  Yet, we are withering before you because of our own stubbornness and blindness.  Search my heart and know me, O Lord; see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting for the sake of Jesus, my Savior.  Amen.

Hosea 11:12-12:14

            So, what will it take for someone to return to the Lord?  Ancient Israel and Judah were likened to adulterers straying from their one true love, the one true God.  They would go off and do their own thing, making excuses, as if they had done nothing wrong.  God’s message to them was simple and straightforward through the prophet Hosea:  “God’s name is the LORD, the LORD God All-Powerful.  So return to your God.  Patiently trust him, and show love and justice.”
 
            Times may have changed, but people basically have not changed much.  God still grows weary of people taking credit for their own success, making their jobs and vocations a priority over him, stepping on others to get what they want, and finding their security in money, position, and prestige.  If you have found yourself today giving reasons why you cannot meet with God in extended prayer; cannot go to that bible study or attend that small group; cannot fit worship of God into your schedule; have to do this, and do that, and go here and there; have to compromise on that decision; then, it could be that what is most needed is not being seriously considered.
 
            God isn’t into guilt trips, as much as the prophets might sound like it.  Rather, God goes out of his way to invite us into close relation with him.  He looks at us longingly, like a new husband enamored with his beautiful wife.  He wants to be with us.  But if we keep giving him the stiff-arm with all of our other priorities, then we are truly missing out.  Eventually it will bear the fruit of disappointment.  Taking time today to read the message of Hosea carefully might just be a good place to begin coming back to God and finding in him the true desire of our hearts.
 

 

            Almighty God, you are the Creator and Sustainer of all people.  Without you there is nothing strong and nothing holy.  So, increase and multiply the faithful people of this earth with your mercy in order that your gracious rule and reign will permeate the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Ezekiel 2:8-3:11

            When I was a kid my brother and I watched All-Star Wrestling every Saturday.  One of our favorite wrestlers was Rufus R. Jones.  Like all wrestlers, he had a signature move, a lights-out-nobody-is-getting-up maneuver that would always end the match.  Rufus’ move was the head-butt.  Slamming his hard forehead into the head of his opponent always brought raucous behavior from us.  We would act out the head-butt scene over and over, always a bit fearful of smacking each other’s heads.  The hardest head always won.
 
            God gave a message to the prophet Ezekiel concerning the stubborn hearts and hard heads of the Israelites.  The Lord was looking for repentance, for the Jews to turn their hearts and minds back to true worship and a real humble relationship with their God.  The prospect of facing such a task, such an opponent, seemed daunting to Ezekiel.  So, the Lord assured him:  “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with my words to them… Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces, and your forehead as hard as their foreheads.  Like emery harder than flint have I made your forehead.  Fear them not, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.”
 
            Ezekiel was told by God to pull-out the signature wrestling move and do the lights-out head-butt maneuver.  The promise Ezekiel possessed was that God was going to give him the harder head – there was no way he was going to lose the match.  Like Ezekiel, we are to speak the Word of God with the promise that we will not lose.  Prideful ungodly stubbornness will get us knocked-out, but godly, gracious, and bold stubbornness which determines to do the will of God shall always win the day.
 

 

            Almighty God, you give strength to those in the wrestling matches of life.  Embolden my witness for you so that I will speak and act boldly in the name of Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Repentance and Spiritual Fruit

 
 
            One of the issues that every pastor and church leader faces is how to measure the success of the ministry, or the lack thereof.  It is tempting to merely assume that attendance, state of the budget, and how many programs are up and running evidences success.  Lots of people, money, and ministries do not by themselves constitute a healthy church any more than eating lots of food and spending lots of money on eating-out constitutes physical health.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  So, where are we to focus our energies?
 
The two big ideas that Jesus hammered home to the crowds who followed him are:  1) you need to repent; and, 2) you need to bear spiritual fruit (Luke 13:1-9).  The two go together:  a fruitless life points to the need for repentance; and, to truly repent results in bearing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.
 
            Jesus, in exhortation after exhortation, and parable after parable, relentlessly went after the fruitless dead religion of his day.  Our Lord believed that such religion needed to be cut out and thrown away.  So, he went after the assumptions that people have about sin, faith, and judgment.  Jesus challenged the presuppositions that people often hold onto which are false.  In dealing with them, Jesus wanted to foster repentance and fruit-bearing.
 
False Assumption:  Other people’s sin is more serious than mine.
 
            It is a common human tendency, apart from Christ, to focus on the bad things in the world and the things that other people do, rather than focus on our own heart and life.              It is so much easier to be a simpleton and believe that _____ so and so needs to be “fixed.”  When there are problems and circumstances which are less than ideal, it is sinful human nature that goes after a scapegoat.  But Jesus will have none of it.  You and I cannot control, change, or fix anyone else; but we can practice self-control, change our personal habits, and be the solution to our own problems.
 
            Christ cuts through all the crud of scapegoating and blame-shifting by saying that every single one of us needs to repent, without exception.  What is more, Jesus’ parables challenge us with a very probing thought:  Are we bearing fruit, or just taking up space?  When we howl for judgment on others, but insist on grace for ourselves then we are the ones with the biggest need for repentance.
 
False Assumption:  My sin isn’t that serious.
 
            When things go awry, many people assume they got a bum rap and were the victims of circumstances.  But Jesus will have none of it.  Here are some personal questions that place the focus on repentance and fruit-bearing: 
Do I continually locate sin outside of my life, or do I see the sinfulness of my own heart? 
Do I believe people in hard circumstances are more sinful than me? 
Do I think that doing things the way they have always been done is what is most important? 
Can I envision that growth and change is necessary for life and for the church? 
Can my life be described as fruitful, or fruitless? 
How can I become fruitful? 
What must I repent of? 
What will happen if I don’t repent?
 

 

            Yes, other people’s sin is serious; but so is mine!  And I must deal with my own sin.  If anybody wants to eat a hot dog, they probably should never see how they are made.  And if anybody wants to continue in a life of being angry, bitter, complaining, and blaming others then they probably should not look at their own hearts and see where all those attitudes are made.  Penitent hearts are what Jesus is looking for in us.