Monday, April 25, 2016

Breathe and Live Again

The prophet Ezekiel ministered to the exiles in Babylonian captivity between roughly 592-571 BC.  One of his more famous visions, recorded for us in Ezekiel 37, is that of a valley full of dry bones.  He’s told by God that the dead, dry bones, are God’s people, Israel.  He’s asked, “Can these bones live?”  His response, “Lord, I don’t know – you know.”  God tells him, “Prophesy to the bones and tell them that I will cause breath to enter them and they will live.  I will make flesh and skin appear and the dead bodies will breathe and live again.” 

So Ezekiel prophesies to the bones and the bones reconnect, the tissues and sinews reform, flesh covers the bodies, but there is no breath of life in these corpses.  So Ezekiel is told to speak again, and as he speaks, breath, or spirit, from the four winds enters into the dead bodies and they live and stand up on their feet.  The message for Ezekiel and the exiles is that though Israel is dead and buried in exile, God will raise them up from their graves and bring them back to the Promised Land.  When this occurs, they will know that YHWH has spoken and will do what he says! 

This vision had a profound impact on the Jewish people for many years to come.  Though clearly metaphorical in its original context, the idea that God can and will raise up his people from the dead was one of the most important doctrines in first century Jewish theology.  The idea was that when God finally acted to deliver his people from pagan oppression, the faithful dead of all ages would be resurrected to enjoy life with God in a renewed and restored creation.  After the resurrection of Jesus, the early Christians continued to affirm that the final victory of God’s people would include the resurrection of the dead and the renewal of all things.  A poem I wrote several years ago incorporates these ideas.


Lying in the dust the corpse rots through and through.

There’s no more life to live, there’s nothing left to do.

Then the bones begin to rattle, the bones begin to shake.

The sinews and the flesh, new life begins to make.

Gasping deep, lungs expanding, Spirit’s wind, life’s breath.

The living God’s the giving God and life has conquered death!

His body hangs limp, beaten, broken, his side dripping blood.

On the faces of the women, tears stream down in a flood.

He was the one who’d redeem his people, but the cause is now lost.

None could imagine the pain and suffering, no one could count the cost.

And the tomb stands ready to receive his lifeless body dead.

But it’s Sunday morning now and resurrection wins instead!

She’s heard of resurrection, but it seems too good to be true.

Yet in faith her heart believes, so there’s nothing she won’t do.

Her dead body is buried; the grave of water sucks her in.

She’s covered in his blood, and she rises free from sin.
Her old life is behind her, in her new life she looks ahead
To the time when he returns and her body will rise again!

If we ever feel like we’re dead and buried, spiritually speaking, or otherwise, let’s remember Ezekiel’s vision and know that just as God acted on behalf of his people in exile, he can and will act on our behalf, no matter where we find ourselves.  Ask God to fill you with his Spirit so that you can breathe and live again! - Shay

Monday, April 18, 2016

Like a Bird in a Cage

One of my favorite stories in the Old Testament occurs in 2 Kings 18 & 19.  The northern kingdom of Israel has already fallen and gone into exile.  The Assyrian Empire is at the peak of its powers.  They are enlarging their territory southward into Africa and right in the way is the little kingdom of Judah.  Thus far, no one has been able to withstand the might of this growing empire.  For the ancients, this was a clear sign that the gods of the Assyrians must be superior to the gods of the nations they’ve overcome.  So, Sennacherib, the king of Assyria assumes that he’ll role through Judah and Jerusalem just like he’s plowed through the other nations in the area.  But there’s one thing that Sennacherib doesn’t know – the God of Judah, YHWH, isn’t like the idols of the other nations.  He’s not just the God of Judah, he’s the God of the Universe! 

Sennacherib sends a letter to Hezekiah, the king of Judah telling him that resistance is futile.  Rather than trying to sort out the situation through his own ingenuity, Hezekiah goes to the house of the Lord and spreads the letter out before God and, essentially, leaves the matter in the hands of YHWH.  And YHWH doesn’t disappoint.  He sends word through Isaiah that Sennacherib’s days are numbered and that he will not enter the city of Jerusalem.  In fact, that very night, an angel of the Lord descends into the Assyrian camp and strikes down 185,000 soldiers.  The remaining army retreats back home and before too long, Sennacherib is killed by two of his own sons. 
There's historical records mentioning that Sennacherib had Hezekiah penned up in Jerusalem, like a bird in a cage.  But the records don't mention anything else.  Spin is nothing new.  In other words, the best that Sennacherib could do was to surround Jerusalem, but just as God promised, he never entered the city.  The next time we’re faced with a seemingly unwinnable battle, may our first response be like Hezekiah’s.  Instead of seeking to sort out the situation ourselves, may we instead turn to the Lord and trust him for deliverance! - Shay

Monday, April 11, 2016

A Prophetic Voice

Many people equate “prophecy” with “fortune telling” or predicting the future.  But the Biblical notion of prophecy contains much more than foretelling within its meaning.  It does incorporate some aspects of seeing things in the distance, whether spatially or temporally, but the primary way that prophecy functioned in the Bible was to provide a word from God regarding the present situation in which God’s people found themselves.  Prophets generally operated from the margins (those that didn’t tended to be “yes men” more than true prophets) and more than anything, a prophetic voice provided a critique of contemporary culture. 

Both contemporary culture and the contemporary church need to look and listen to the prophetic voices around us.  We need to be challenged and encouraged by perspectives that come from beyond the margins of the mainstream.  Biblical prophecy provided encouragement to the broken and downtrodden and rebuke to the complacent and comfortable.  At different times in our lives, we need the same.  One of the ways that we can both hear and provide a prophetic voice for our brothers and sisters in Christ are through small discipleship groups.  When 2 to 5 people gather for conversation, prayer, study of scripture, and real life reflection, bonds are formed and forms of bondage can be broken.  When we learn to love and trust each other enough to be real, vulnerable, honest, and bold, the Holy Spirit molds and shapes us more and more into the image of Christ.  We can provide that prophetic voice - that voice of challenge, conviction, and encouragement for one another.  Not only is the body of Christ a priesthood of all believers, it can become a "prophethood" of the saints rather than merely a collection of "yes" men and women.  May God give us the wisdom and the strength to both listen to and provide a prophetic word. - Shay

Monday, April 4, 2016

Unity Within the Body of Christ

Division can be a nasty thing.  It seems that as much as ever, we live in a divided world.  In the US, we’re not just divided by political parties, we’re divided within political parties.  One has to be careful when discussing politics amongst one's fellow citizens, as honest disagreements and friendly debates can turn ugly in a hurry.  I find politics to be so divisive that I generally do my best to avoid political discussions if at all possible.  I don't mind discussing societal issues, but I don't root for political parties like I root for college sports teams or soccer clubs.  When partisanship enters into the fray, it sometimes becomes personal and I would rather discover what unifies me with others rather than what divides or separates me from them.  Some people I've met have expressed their frustration with the two main political parties lack of genuine dialogue and refusal to work together for the greater good of the country, while simultaneously refusing to interact with people of radically different political persuasions.  Irony comes in many forms. 
Political division is nothing new though.  As early as the 10th century BC, God’s people became divided when Jeroboam and the northern tribes of Israel broke away from Rehoboam and Judah in the south.  For the remainder of what we call the Old Testament, God’s people were divided politically, if not theologically. 

Sadly, division is all too common within the church.  Not only are we drawn and redrawn amongst denominational lines, even within denominations, God’s people are often divided.  To be sure, there are moments when different religious communities are forced to go their separate ways for the greater good.  We cannot strip away all of our distinctives and continue to function.  And there are some religious bodies that I cannot be a part of in good conscience.  But there's a fine line between taking a stand born from conviction and stubborn and willful divisiveness. 
Though we sometimes forget it, the Restoration Movement from where Churches of Christ emerged, initially began as a unity movement.  We had a slogan – “We’re Christians only, but not the only Christians.”  Somewhere along the way, a few of us removed the second, third, fourth, and fifth words of the slogan.  And we not only became divisive without, we became increasingly divisive within.  The danger in withdrawing fellowship over practical and theological differences is that before too long, we might find ourselves in a fellowship of one.  A more healthy approach is to continue to humbly kneel alongside our fellow flawed brothers and sisters at the foot of the cross where we all find grace in our time of need.  We don't have to agree with our brothers and sisters to continue to love them and to try to see their point of view.  Another slogan that the Restoration fathers embraced, though didn't invent was, "In essentials, unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things, charity."  May we within the Restoration tradition put this slogan into practice and may we recapture the essence of our movement and actively work for unity within the body of Christ. - Shay