image by Matthew Schwartz from Unsplash
The valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 is one of the most graphic and powerful visions given to us in the Bible.
I've always been fascinated by the imagery of that scene. Imagine seeing it come to life on the big screen. It gives me vibes reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean and Qin Shi-huang's terracotta warriors for reasons I can't explain. Slightly creepy surreal; yet without the horror element.
For the context of this vision: the people were unable to believe Ezekiel's prophecies of restoration in chp 36, because the bleakness of their external situations made them lose hope. There was a general atmosphere of despair, hopelessness, pessimism, even bitterness.
We don't have to look far to see traces of that same attitude in our world today. It's hard not to be depressed. It's hard not to be overwhelmed by the vast problems in our lives, our immediate situations, or on a larger scale; in our communities and countries.
God gave Ezekiel this vision for a reason--to show them that hope lay not in how conducive or hopeful their external situation was, but in Him.
He did not comfort them by saying, "oh, it's not that bad, you shouldn't be so pessimistic!" He did not present a strategy after analyzing all the pros and cons of their situation, the statistics for success, the potential actions they could take. "Never say die. Believe in yourself. Here are the odds, and here's what we can try." He didn't encourage them to work harder, to put in more effort: "You just have to push yourself harder for what you want! You got to fight for this! The real war is in your mind! The only place left to go now is up!" and all the other motivational pep talk phrases you can find on laminated posters in bookstores, in capitalized Times New Roman font.
God showed the people of Israel exactly what their external situation was like--dry. Bleak. A valley of bones; not just dead bodies with traces of life still visible on them. Dry bones, all the signs of life and potential evaporated from them. God showed Ezekiel, not in one isolated action but in a specifically ordered process, how He restored those dry bones. He caused them to connect to each other, the skeleton army to reform; He caused the sinews and flesh to appear on them in a grotesque rewind.
And finally, most importantly of all, He breathed life into them.
The external situation was not the determining factor; no matter how dry the bones were, how impossible it seemed for life, God's power to transform and restore remained the same. Instead of obsessing over the bleakness of their situation and wallowing in despair--"Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!"--they should have sought God, looking to His ability to restore when human hope seemed impossible. It was not a question of whether God could restore them, but a question of whether they believed He could.
Similarly, even when all the apparent signs of life were there, when the external situation was promising,
He showed them that it wasn't what really mattered. They were still dead, despite the skin, the hair, the muscles; "...but there was no breath in them." It was still a valley of death, as surely as when they had been heaps of dry, disconnected, random bones lying around. Without God, even the best, most ideal external situations cannot disguise the fact that we are still dead. Spiritually dead, surrounded by death, despite the deceptive appearance of life.
It was God's breath of life upon them that transformed a valley of bones--of bodies--into "an exceedingly great army," a force to be reckoned with. With this symbolism, God introduced His promise of transformation and restoration from within, not just externally: "Then you shall know that I am the Lord...I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it." (v13-14)
If your life is going amazingly well, if you're flushed with success and pleasure and you have no griefs or anxieties driving you to seek God--please don't forget that we can still be like Snow White in her glass coffin; life-like to all appearances, but virtually dead.
If you're struggling with despair and hopelessness, feeling like you're one of the dry bones in the valley-God calls you through Ezekiel, exactly as you are: "O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live." He promises you what may seem impossible right now. Peace. Joy. Fulfilment. Forgiveness. Grace.
To both of us, He offers the same promise: "...I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore...I will be their God, and they shall be My people."
image by Ihor Malytsky from Unsplash
Having grown up, come to faith, and become a member in the same church, I've only known what it's been like to be in a small church, all my life. Even after so many years, we're nowhere nearer to outgrowing the "small" category. I like to watch the expressions of Christian friends when they tell me their church "isn't very big, couple of hundred only," and then ask me "how about yours?"
There are many challenges to being a small church. I would be the first to say that. For those of my readers who come from large churches, please don't misunderstand. This article is not a weird flex, an awkward attempt to feel better or appear superior or holier. Not by any means. I just want to challenge the unquestioned sense of pity that we (myself included) associate with small, struggling churches. To challenge the mentality that being small and struggling means that God hasn't blessed us. The temptations to feel envious of more "successful" churches, to wallow in self-pity, or fall into discouragement and despair stem from this mindset.
We all struggle. Struggling is not an indication that God has forsaken us, or cares less about us. When we focus too exclusively on the (inevitable) struggle we can end up blind to the gifts that He just as surely gives.
1. being in a small church = desperate lack of manpower = opportunities for us to realize--constantly!--that we need God's help and cannot rely on ourselves.
I'm aware that this is a problem that all churches face--on different levels. We always need more people to serve, we always fear that all the work is being thrown on the shoulders of a faithful few, the "core group." However, in a small church, this problem takes on whole new proportions. It's a looming problem constantly in your face, the first consideration of every decision. We're talking about every Sunday's worship service; managing to survive week by week, not having any backups, having to cancel or modify plans simply because there isn't enough manpower, or that one key person isn't available.
This is far from ideal by any human standards, of course. It leaves you in a state of constant instability and uncertainty, that can easily spiral into anxiety and discouragement. But instability and uncertainty are God's fertile grounds to grow faith, truly strong, tested faith. When you can't rely on your own planning, on people, on backup plans and strategies, you're forced to realize from the sheer bleakness of your resources that yes, you're not doing this with your own strength and ability. You're constantly aware that every Sunday, every prayer meeting, every event and every sermon, is enabled by God's sovereign will and power.
Too often we reduce the church to an institution, especially when we get lost in the multitude of admin/logistical needs and worries. And institutions are built on human effort and human ability--they look to human effort and ability for maintenance and progress. For any institution to improve, the humans running it try harder. Plan better. Purposefully expand. It's the recipe for success which we unthinkingly apply to so much of life.
But churches are so much more. They are the living fruit of God's Spirit working in God's people; each church in its unique context, with its unique abilities and needs. It is an organic, ongoing growth of the individuals within a community, and the relationships they have with God, both on their own and as a body. (yes, this is heavily influenced by the concepts of fellowship, or koinoinia, as developed in True Community by Jerry Bridges)
The kind of growth that cannot be defined in numbers, in graphs, or KPI.
A church that lost its pastor, or had a major split, or by all human standards seems to be struggling, may be spiritually thriving more than at any other "successful" point in their history.
This is not to say that we can only experience blessing/spiritual growth in the midst of trials, of course. But God delights to subvert the human ideals and standards for success, often to challenge them directly with how He works out His.
After all, He is the One Who reminded us that His strength is made perfect in our weakness.
2. pressing needs/urgent limitations = motivation to pray more
When you're face to face with your limitations and needs, you don't forget to pray. It's as simple as that. We are proud creatures; we don't like asking for help, or acknowledging that we need help, unless we absolutely have to. Often it completely slips our mind that we need help, in fact. We just get so used to managing, to getting by, that we let ourselves get entrenched in self-reliance. We take it for granted that we can manage, and that we can.
However, when the odds seem impossible, when you're faced with your own insufficiency, when you have nothing to find reassurance in--you don't forget to pray.
Prayer meetings became a much more personal, intense affair for me when I started seeing how urgent the needs of the church were. It truly became God's people meeting to pray together, to confess our neediness and unworthiness, to plead with Him for His help, to seek to grow in faith as we try to obey Him and serve Him amid many reminders of our inadequacy.
In our worst times, we come closest to Him. In our neediest situations, we glimpse His abundance and power, far more clearly than we could when we are contented and flushed with success or prosperity.
3. less excuses, and less barriers, to form friendships and relationships; to practice Biblical fellowship.
I've heard from so many friends on the challenge of being in a big church, where you don't even know where to start, where you feel lost, and where--in too many cases--you end up settling for coming jusssst in time for the sermon and sneaking away the moment it ends, in order to avoid the mass of people and inevitable initial awkwardness. (I can relate to this, almost every time I visit a--comparatively--large church. Guilty as charged.)
Sadly, this means we miss out on the huge blessing and privilege that Christian fellowship is meant to be. And even if we try, we often end up settling for smalltalk over coffee and snacks as "fellowship."
One blessing about being in a small church is that you have a much better chance of knowing everyone's names, and of seeing the same people each Sunday. There are more opportunities, so to speak, to build deeper relationships, simply due to the lesser number of people.
But just to be clear, nothing--not the most conducive environment in the world--can replace the genuine desire to reach out, and purposefully acting on that desire. If our hearts aren't in it, there will always be reasons (perhaps excuses would be a better word) to keep us from reaching out.
4. similarly--less excuses to get involved in serving. After my (already small) church went through a major split a few years back, we were even smaller than we were initially. Without the deacons who had been faithfully serving all those years, we suddenly faced manpower issues on a whole new scale. For the first time, the youths and young adults made the decision to step up and serve, despite our lack of experience. For many of us, who still felt that we were relatively young in the faith, we would otherwise continue assuming we weren't up to the responsibility, and settle comfortably for assisting in smaller, less "important" ways. Teaching Sunday School? Sharing at prayer meeting? Leading worship? Organizing camp? But I feel like I'm not up to such a big task! When are we, though? (in fact--feeling like we are may not actually be a good sign.) Again, it's a reminder that we don't serve because we're good at it, or because we're holy enough to qualify; we serve with the strength that God supplies. (1 Peter 4:11)
We get discouraged so easily. We think the answer lies in getting a church venue of our own--or a bigger, better one--in having more people--in having more funds--in having better pastors, teachers, leaders, structures, programs. We worry, sigh, feel sorry for ourselves, and lonely--when in reality He is among us.
I remember being struck by how the Christians under persecution seemed to be in touch with a strong, vibrant joy and sensitivity to Christ. Despite their very real struggles and trials, this joy and consciousness of God's presence only became clearer and more important. They were truly enabled to find out how much He loved them, and how precious He was--an overwhelming knowledge greater even than the fear and uncertainty of their circumstances.
How much more so us?
Whatever the size of your church is--there will always be anxieties. There will always be struggles. But that's not the main thing. How we respond to those struggles, how we learn to draw closer to God and see His presence in every situation... If I've learnt anything, it is that.
We worship a good God.
image by Cameron Offer from Unsplash
It's a horrible feeling, isn't it, when you realize what you should have done--but didn't.
After the storm of an outburst fades, and the fury gripping you gives way to regret.
When you realize that the bitterness you clung onto poisoned your relationships and ruined chances for reconciliation and healing, both for yourself and others.
When, unable to resist, you end up contributing to the private gossip sesh behind someone's back. What felt like harmless, negligible entertainment doesn't feel like that when you're looking at them face to face.
After that sudden eye-opening jolt when for the first time you feel convicted of laziness, selfishness, pride; you see how they've been leaving dirty tracks over each day, each seemingly small action or scene.
Failure, especially failure to do what you should have done.
We talk a lot about Christ's death for us on the cross (and we ought to) but when we reduce it to an isolated event we diminish its staggering significance, the full weight of its impact.
The context of His death--the OT prophecies and history of God's covenant with His people, which the Gospels so insistently refer to, to remind us--the symbolism, the parallelisms, between the Old and New Covenant, between the first and the last Passover Lamb--and also, the life that He lived on earth, before it culminated in the cross. As Wayne Gruddem points out, we often neglect this aspect in our discussion of Christ. Jesus's "active and passive obedience," as the term goes, are the two halves of His perfect redemption of us. They mirror the concept sins of omission and sins of commission, which I still vividly remember learning for the first time from Edna Gerstner's lovable book Conduct for the Crayon Crowd.
"Do not steal," "do not lie," "do not kill,"...these are sins of commission, things we ought not to do, but did.
"Honour your parents," "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and strength, and mind...and your neighbour as yourself," these are sins of omission, things we ought to do, but didn't.
All those years on earth growing up, going through all the mundane processes of childhood, adolescence, puberty, the burdens of adulthood, but WITHOUT SIN--Jesus lived the perfect, spotless life we all should have lived. He wasn't simply biding His time, waiting idly until the time for Him to die on the cross. Every day--every moment--in every small everyday routine and action of His 30 years, He was purposefully, faithfully, steadfastly, working out His redemption for us.
The cross is the ultimate expression of Christ's love for us, but it is precious to me to think of how each ordinary day in Christ's life was also dedicated to His love for us.
He fulfilled what we failed to do.
And His passive obedience? For our sins of commission--all that we did, which we should not have done--He took the punishment for them on the cross, meekly and humbly accepting what He did not deserve, even though any moment He could have stopped it, found relief for Himself or revenge on His enemies.
He suffered what we deserved to suffer.
And His redemption of us is perfect. Complete. Comprehensive.
It redeems us from guilt.
When you struggle with this sense of inadequacy, when guilt for what you failed to do haunts your mind and cripples you, remember that the perfect life--so impossible to us now!--has already been accomplished for us, that on God's record, we have already done all, done well.
"...perfect redemption, the purchase of blood..."
As I prepared for this lesson, I did some reading up on the topic, mainly because last week's lesson had given me so much food for thought. One thing I am very thankful for is how engaged the children are. They constantly ask questions and offer opinions which show me how much--young as they are--they're thinking through and relating to what we're studying. It is humbling to realize how much you don't know, at the same time you're trying to teach so much--a paradox that I've experienced only when I'm teaching spiritual things.
On the other hand that also means being frequently stumped by baffling questions. Do babies go to heaven if they die? can girls be pastors? if demons/fallen angels repent can they go back to being angels? do we wear clothes in heaven? isn't God really annoyed or busy if He has to listen to everyone's prayers and requests at the same time? if God already knows what's in our minds why do we still bother praying? won't we feel sad if we're in heaven but we know that our loved ones are in Hell? does Satan feel joy? if God is all-powerful why can't He come up with another way to save us instead of Jesus having to suffer so much?
And all this was just in one class! Teaching Sunday School is no simple thing. It feels like a crash course in theology sometimes. Four out of ten times I feel woefully inadequate, praying nervously throughout the weekend as Sunday approaches. But it's a challenge which has made me grow--at a rather breathless speed perhaps (try answering weighty theological questions thrown at you from five different kids on different aspects of the Bible at the same time)--spiritually, in ways that I would never have otherwise. Let's be honest--how many of us are dedicated enough to read up and research on questions we might have? I had questions, of course, but was too lazy to bother studying and thinking them through--or too fearful. I think many Christians are too fearful of addressing doubts and tough questions that can't be answered pat. Acknowledging and understanding that there will be questions, there will be things hard to explain, is a form of spiritual maturity, a form of applying what that crucial Biblical phrase means: "the truth will set you free." (John 8:32) We shouldn't shy away from them in the misguided idea that we're "thinking too much," that we might end up losing our faith or becoming a heretic, is hardly what Paul calls us to be when he urges us: "For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but of power, and love, and a sound mind." (2 Timothy 1:7)
We have God's sovereignty and other attributes--our knowledge of Who He is and what He is like--as our guidelines, as well as the bottomless treasure chest of the Word.
image by Alex from Unsplash
Looking back, when you try to grasp at specific memories, you tend to find yourself lost in a confusing blur of split second images, fragments of a phrase, and the abstract but poignantly tangible memory of emotions.
I was just musing the other day on how life goes by without us really purposefully acknowledging memories. If you asked me to think back and select any one memory that I remember the most clearly, the painful ones are often the ones you are most conscious of. We take so many photos, and we call that "making memories," but we don't often sit down to rewind those happy memories--or do you? To me, we seem to pass through them gleefully like a cloud of confetti and move on in search of more before the pieces hit the ground. Pessimistic as it sounds. I made a point to be more consciously thankful and aware of the golden moments that God gives me in life, to have them polished and accessible in my mind.
Perhaps it's because as you get older, you have so many regrets. You can't help remembering them, because those are the moments you've relived the most often, replayed in your mind, wishing uselessly that you could change what happened. And that's why you know them so well, why they leap to the front whenever you look back.
One of the greatest lessons I learnt as a Christian and as a young adult was being able to let go of guilt.
Let me take a moment to differentiate between guilt and repentance, seeing them as the "worldly sorrow" and "godly sorrow" that the Bible talks about. Repentance and guilt are similar and yet so distinct that it's well we have different terms for them. Both indicate a recognition of a mistake, taking responsibility for it by acknowledging it was your fault, and feeling regret for your actions. However, guilt implies a sense of helplessness, confined to facing the past, to what can't be undone; whereas repentance implies a sense of hope, looking forward to the future with a resolution to learn from what happened.
Learning to understand that all things--even our mistakes--even our sin--happen within the providence of God.
Also that, as children of God, our mistakes do not define us. They did, previously, branding us as sinners; but a new name has been given to us, a new identity.
"...the glory of God shall be your rearguard"--Isaiah 58
I couldn't understand this phrase the first time I read it, but I loved the sound of it. Like poetry, the cadences stuck in my mind. Why, though? How did glory become your rearguard--something which protects, which enables you to move forward confidently, which is full of military connotations and is much closer to struggle and conflict than glory?
Looking back on our pasts, as Christians, the legacy that we have in Christ also includes rescuing us from the guilt and regret that so often makes us fixate on the past, makes us feel our courage for the future fail.
To trust that even our mistakes and sins can be part of God's plan, can be part of the process of our sanctification, since they no longer define who we are. And since even Christ's death--the ultimate proof of man's sin--became the greatest proof of God's mercy and love, became the greatest manifestation of God's glory.
The doctrine of God's sovereignty, the attributes of His wisdom and providence, become truths that have a vital, direct impact on our everyday lives, on our emotions, on the moments when we weep, when we wonder how we can face tomorrow. They are so much more than musty theological jargon and abstract concepts that don't seem relevant to our struggles and experiences.
Trusting that His glory can be manifested even despite our mistakes and failures and outright sins, by His power and providence--that flawed as we are, destructively self-willed as we seemed, we are yet His instruments, and we have never fallen out of His hands, we have not ruined what He was working on.
We can look back. With regret, most likely. Who wouldn't? But without being consumed by guilt. With the knowledge that God's sovereignty transcends man's sin. With the knowledge that our lives can and will be used to manifest His glory, even our weaknesses and shame.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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