• Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Develop a global partnership for development

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Will These Dry Bones Live? - A Reflection on Ezekiel 37: 1-14 for the Day of Pentecost

I attend a large, affluent, successful church in a very wealthy community in northeast Florida (Christ Church, Ponte Vedra). Each Sunday, the pews are full. The sermons are first rate and the choir sings beautifully. If I did not know better, I would be tempted to believe that every Episcopal church experienced the same dynamism, enjoyed similar opportunities, and had similar resources at its disposal. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), I know better.

For thirteen years I worshiped in an Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Rhode Island that to this day fights for its very survival. In Rhode Island, a disproportionate number of parishes cannot pay their bills, spend down their endowments at an alarming rate, and face declining membership. This is not necessarily the fault of any one person or of the leadership of any particular parish. It is a sign of systemic cultural transformation. To put it mildly, the world in which our churches live has changed dramatically. Many church leaders in Rhode Island, for instance, have inherited aging, historic buildings, many of which are on the National Register, and all of which are incredibly expensive to maintain and whose architecture is anachronistic. The church unwittingly has found itself in the business of historic preservation rather than gospel proclamation. The church has become moribund at best, and leaders are virtually powerless to affect changes that will bring about necessary transformation.

I make this point in the context of the Day of Pentecost when we celebrate the “birthday” of the church. On this day, we read how the Spirit of God descended on the followers of Jesus, giving them power to proclaim God’s love and to continue the work of Jesus in our world. However, before we read about the Spirit, we read those famous words from Ezekiel about the dry bones.

Ezekiel was one of the great prophets of the exile. After the capture and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel’s ministry changed dramatically from offering oracles of warning to proclaiming prophetic words of hope. As a prophet of the exile, Ezekiel proffered the assurance of God’s faithfulness to people who experienced a disorienting and bewildering world. In the midst of hopelessness, Ezekiel offered the hope of restoration to homeland and temple.

Today, we read Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel. 37. 1-14). The Lord places Ezekiel in the middle of a valley that was full of dry bones – many dry bones. The Lord asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel wisely responds, “O Lord God, you know” (Probably a good idea to defer to God on this one). In fact, God does know, for the bones come together. Out of death comes new life – once dead bones resuscitated by the breath from the four winds.

This of course is a type of resurrection story. The dry bones are the exiles of Israel who had no hope of new life. They had no greater chance or restoration than the skeletons in the valley had hope of resuscitation. However, the trajectory of God’s work throughout the biblical record is from death to live. God always takes what is moribund and imbues it with new life and hope. The good news is that God moves God’s people in the direction of reconciliation, from hopelessness to hope, from division to unity, from discord to peace.

In fact, the people of Israel did enjoy restoration. The exile ended and some chose to return to a somewhat restored Jerusalem. However, it is fair to say that even restoration brought change. The old adage, “You can’t go home again” is true because while we were gone “home” changed. Therefore, anyone looking for God to restore things to “the way things were” will be sadly disappointed. That is just not the way things work.

Many churches in our Episcopal communion are moribund. They are on life support. They are spending down endowments, selling off property, transitioning from full-time to part-time clergy, cutting programs, circling the wagons – in short, doing anything to postpone the inevitable. They have become like the dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley. Can the dry, bare bones of the church live? The hard truth is that many of them cannot live in their current state.

When I served on the Congregational Development Commission of the Diocese of Rhode Island, we talked often about the need for transformation and consolidation. When something no longer works, it is time for bold, faithful action. It is time to celebrate the past and to embrace future opportunity. In many cases, future opportunity will not come until death is complete. However, we are a stubborn species. Often, we hold on until the very end, often allowing our affection for a familiar and perhaps even beautiful building, our love of tradition, or simply our comfort with the familiar, to supercede our desire to serve Jesus and to proclaim the Gospel. The work of the Commission, therefore, was virtually impossible because the churches that were closest to death were the most likely to hold on the tightest and to be the least effective.

I believe in transformation. I believe that the same God who restored the people of ancient Israel continues to work miracles of love in our world. I also believe, however, that the very institutions created to serve as vessels of God’s love have become the walls that prevent us from exercising the power that we proclaim at Pentecost. The dry bones can indeed live. God will see to that. However, we must be willing to let go, to allow some pieces of our institutions to die. Leaders will need to make difficult choices, to run the risk of offending, to speak the truth regardless of the consequences. We need to worry less about preserving institutions and more about loving people. We need to concern ourselves less with historic preservation and more with momentous transformation. God is with us, asking us, “Will these bones live?” They will indeed live – if we get out of the way!

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Hurry Up And Wait - A Reflection for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Icon of the Ascension, by Andrei Rublev, 1408 ...Icon of the Ascension by Andrej Rublëv. Image via Wikipedia

Hurry up and wait - an overused cliché to be sure. However, it fits the spiritual life so well Life often is so busy that “hurry up and wait” seems like an apt description of what we do everyday. Teenagers hurry to grow up, only to find that growing up requires a lot of waiting. We race down the road so that we can make a meeting, only to have to wait in a traffic jam. We hurry to make it to the doctor’s office on time, because we would never want to be late for a doctor’s appointment, only to wait for what seems like an eternity when we get there. Waiting is what we do. In our immediate, I want it now, lives, waiting is just no fun. Therefore, we try to find ways to find instant gratification, like microwavable meals, fast food, and all sorts of promises to make life what we want it to be – right now.

It does not take too long before we recognize that life just does not work that way. Hurrying may be an unavoidable part of our lives, but waiting is perhaps more important. In our sacred story, there is lots of waiting. During Advent, we wait for what lies in the seemingly distant future. During the hours between Good Friday and Easter, we await the resurrection, enduring the emotional trauma of crucifixion, wanting to fast-forward to the good news.

Today, we await something else. Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, the day that we tell the story of the resurrected Jesus’ last day on earth. What were his last words? In Acts, just before the ascension, Jesus says, “Wait in Jerusalem for the promise from the Father.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “stay here in the city until you have received power from on high.” Two words that we have a hard time hearing – wait and stay!

As we live out the story through our liturgy, we sit today in the waiting phase, waiting for the power from on high, waiting for the promise of God to become reality in our lives. Liturgically, we will experience the fulfillment of that promise next Sunday on the Feast of Pentecost. It is then that we celebrate the beginning of the era of the church, the era of the Holy Spirit, the era when God’s people possess the power to change the world. We will get to that next week.

However, this week we contemplate what it means to wait, what it means to anticipate God’s action in our lives in ways that we cannot imagine. We contemplate the exercise of spiritual waiting. The Lutheran author, Holly Whitcomb recently wrote a book entitled, “Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting.” She says that she wrote the book for those of us who have been brainwashed by the media to think that we have to have our desires fulfilled instantly. Waiting, she says, is a spiritual teacher that tutors us in patience, loss of control, living in the present, compassion, gratitude, humility and trust in God. She uses the metaphor of a river, suggesting that we spend our time pushing against the river, trying to redirect it to suit our needs and desires rather than learning to let go and to let the river take us where it will. Whitcomb quotes the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who advised: “Trust the slow work of God.”

Consider the ancient Israelites. After God liberated them from slavery in Egypt, they did not march directly to the Promised Land. They spent forty years waiting in the desert, no doubt frustrated, confused, and even angry as they wondered what God was doing with them. Even Jesus spent forty days waiting in the wilderness before he began his ministry – waiting, learning, struggling, questioning, allowing God to form him. These days were not wasted. They were days of formation, days when God prepared Jesus, taught him, gave him the told necessary for the days to come.

All of this waiting! Living with the slow work of God. It is enough to drive even the most patient among us a little stir crazy! In what parts of your life are you waiting? Are you able to trust in the slow work of God? Are you able to put aside your own agenda, your own timetable, and to let God lead you in ways that are best for you? Whitcomb challenges us to quit worrying and to relax into the grace of God. Of course, that is much easier to talk about than to live out in our lives. It is a great challenge to let go, to let the river of life take us where it will instead of fighting to go somewhere else. It takes great trust that God loves us, that God knows what is best for us, and that we live most completely when we place our lives in the hands of God.

Like any spiritual discipline, spiritual waiting requires that we be intentional about what we do. The best way to exercise this discipline is to take moments throughout the day simply to be in God’s presence, stilling the mind and the soul, letting go of our frantic quest to get somewhere. Letting go means training our mind to relax, practicing moving from busyness to stillness, learning simply to be in God’s presence.

We have a hard time with this – even in church. We move from one prayer to another, one piece of music to another. We become uncomfortable with silence. We want things to keep moving. And that is how we live our lives. On a personal note, I have been waiting a long time for the next chapter in my call to discipleship to unfold. It has been frustrating, agonizing at times, as I have tried to force my agenda, my goals, and my dreams. However, it has not worked. It is time for me to be still, to trust the slow work of God, to know that in this in-between time God is shaping me, healing me, equipping me for what is to come. I admit that it is painfully difficult. Yet, it is necessary work, work that entails letting life’s river take me where it will, work that requires me to stop paddling frantically upstream, work that necessitates that I trust that the God who has been with me so far will not forsake or abandon me.

If, like me, you are frustrated and wondering what on earth God is doing in your life, I encourage you to sit, to wait, to allow God to reveal God’s path in God’s time. Allow the slow hand of God to guide you where God would have you to go. Embrace the opportunity to wait, to rest, to regroup, and to refresh before God sends you back into the world to proclaim God’s love. Amen.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Consider the Lilies

Today’s Daily Office Gospel reading presents us with Jesus’ teaching about anxiety (Luke 12. 22-31). It opens with these words, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” Jesus encourages us to consider the ravens that God feeds, and the lilies that God clothes. Jesus teaches us not to strive for what we will eat or drink because God knows what we need. Instead, Jesus says, we should “strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given you as well.”

The Collect for the Sixth Sunday of Easter prays, “ . . . you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding . . .” Finally, the Prayer for our Country, found in the Book of Common Prayer, says, “In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in you to fail.”

Jesus’ words and these prayers speak about trust. Our job is to walk God’s path. God’s job is to provide what we need. Sounds great! However, I live in the real world – a world where manna does not rain down from heaven and water does not pour forth from a rock. I live in a world where worrying about just surviving is the reality for many people. So, how do we proclaim this gospel of hope and trust in the real world?

It is hard to trust. I will be the first to admit it. It is hard. When your back is against the wall, when you wonder how you are going to live, it is tempting to give up hope, to fall into the pit of despair. It is easy to become angry, to deny God’s existence, to believe that no one really cares. In moments like that, how do we proclaim the gospel of hope? Well, the only way to do it with any integrity is to speak from personal experience. Sure, we can speak of the biblical record, of how time and again God stepped in to rescue God’s people, to lead them to a new place, to provide for them. We can speak of the fact that God did not remove the difficulties, but rather provided a way through them. God provided the strength to endure, to survive, and even to thrive in the midst of the struggles. That is why the story is so compelling and endures to this day. It provides hope.

Ultimately, though, that hope needs to move from words we read in the Bible to expectation that we experience in the present. We have to believe that the same God who rescued the ancient Israelites will rescue us as well. We have to believe that Jesus is right – that the same God who provides for the raven and the lily will provide for us as well. But, who can proclaim that message unless they have experienced that reality for themselves? Who can ask someone else to trust who hasn’t themselves trusted? Authentic proclamation comes when we speak from our own experience, when we can say that we have stared anxiety in the face and, despite the temptation, have not lost hope, have not lost trust, have not lost the believe that regardless of what happens, God is with us.

Jesus’ message is simple. Keep your focus on living according to the values that Jesus has taught us. Keep believing that love is the most powerful force that exists, that compassion is the principle that will see us through, that justice is the guide that will shape our life decisions. When we live lives of love, compassion, and justice, life may not take the shape that we anticipated. However, a life lived in pursuit of the kingdom of God, of God’s values, will be a life worth living, a life where what we have is enough.

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