There’s a sign on the road just outside the entrance to Ghost Ranch that catches my attention every time we drive by. It says gusty winds may exist.
Ghost Ranch is the Presbyterian conference center in the high desert of northern New Mexico where I do my annual sermon preparation every summer. Inevitably, as we leave that place of profound beauty, we drive by those words. When I see them I think of Pentecost, that day when powerful winds did exist, and the church came flaming to life in a hot moment in a house in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.
Next week we will join followers of Jesus around the world, including in our global partnerships, in remembering and celebrating Pentecost. Wear something red to show that Westminster still shares in the fire of that long-ago day. Even if you’re watching from home on the livestream, wear red next Sunday.
Gusty winds may exist.
It sounds like a warning – and it is, for drivers on that New Mexico road. Winds can whip up in that desert and come howling down the deep canyons formed by water slicing through the red and yellow mesas over many centuries. The same thing happens in other deserts. I remember living in LA and being warned of the Santa Anas, dry winds that come roaring down to the sea from the hot desert. In the Sahara they call them a Sirocco, the fiery blast that sweeps out of the bleak sands toward the Mediterranean.
Gusty winds may exist.
It’s a warning for the church, too – a week before Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is on the way, and we better be ready. Especially coming out of Covid, there’s no telling from where it will blow, how strong it will be, and what changes it will bring into our life as a congregation. But the wind will come. If we don’t see it, or if we try to ignore it, or run from what it brings, or treat it as a momentary distraction, we will miss the point of Pentecost and deny the faith that is in us, individually and collectively. We will be like a valley where wind passes through and nothing happens.
That certainly is not the case in the valley of dry bones of the prophet’s vision. A lot happens there. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to those bones. He does, and a breeze begins to stir. The wind quickly grows into a gale, and that valley starts to hum. The bones rattle and scuttle across the dry ground, pushed along by the sudden sirocco. They come to one another, bone to bone, tibia and fibula to patella and femur, ulna and radius to humerus and clavicle, pelvis to ribs and spine, mandible to cranium. They clack and snap together like so many Legos assembling by themselves. Sinews and skin stretch out to cover the sun-dried, white infrastructure.
And then they lie still, with no life in them. Those epidermis-wrapped bones need more spirit, so the one from whom all winds blow steps back into the prophet’s view and calls for help once more. Ezekiel, God says,
“Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
And suddenly that old arroyo full of lifeless bodies transforms into a valley teeming with resurrection:
“I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
Then, like Jesus explaining a parable to the disciples, God clarifies to an astonished Ezekiel what it all means:
“‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” (Ezekiel 37:9-11)
We don’t know the exact date of Ezekiel’s vision, unlike others he has. There may be a reason. Elie Wiesel says it “bears no date because every generation needs to hear in its own time that these bones can live again.” (Quoted by Kathryn Darr, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VI [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001], p. 1504)
We do know that at the time of Ezekiel’s vision, the people of Israel are in exile, far from home, separated from their families, from their people, from their place. They’re in utter despair, feeling null and void, as good as dead. Like refugees forced out of their homes today, whether in Palestine or South Sudan, Cameroon or Central America, China or Myanmar, they feel what the prophet sees: a valley of dry bones, with little left for which to live.
But gusty winds may exist, and when they come, they animate the hope that is ours as people of faith.
Over nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve often been with people in traumatic and desperate circumstances…At a hospital as they learn of a terminal diagnosis…In my office as they wrestle with an impossible decision…In a hospice facility as they sat goodbye to a loved one…At a school…In a jail…On the street.
Over and over again in those places, I have had an Ezekiel moment, as I watch the gentle draft of the Holy Spirit enter people’s hearts. Even when there’s no reason to hope, they still manage to find it because the Spirit provides it. The dry bones come clattering across the desert floor. You can almost hear it. They rise and find strength and courage because they know they’re not alone – that God is with them, and no matter the situation, no matter what happens, God’s love will not be stopped.
Pentecost is not a private experience. Our faith, by its very nature, is collective; we’re not Christians by ourselves. We are part of the Body of Christ. It’s not merely individuals who receive the power to hope from the Spirit. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones coming to life is meant to give hope to entire communities who have lost it, in this case the people of Israel, in exile in Babylon. The Spirit awakens the people of God.
It is the role of the church, of our church, to be attentive to the animating power of the Spirit.
There’s been a lot in the news recently about the decline of the church in the U.S. The Gallup Organization reports that membership in religious congregations in the US has dipped below 50% for the first time in the 80 years they’ve been tracking it. They also note that the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown sharply in recent years to 21%. Among those in their 20s and 30s, it’s one-third.
Some conclude that Christianity has entered a dry-bones phase in our land, that the winds of Pentecost have died down. But we should not be too quick to write the obituary of the church.
Bible scholar Kathryn Darr says that Ezekiel, looking out at that dry valley, begins to see not through his own eyes, or through the trends of the time, but through the eyes of God. “What does it mean,” Darr asks, “To look at our world, and at ourselves, through God’s eyes?” (ibid.)
Sometimes it’s only through the eyes of faith, that is, through the eyes of one who is beyond and above us, below and around us, one who is at once transcendent and immanent, that we can see our way into a future that otherwise is hidden from us.
Gusty winds may exist, and with them come new life, often where it’s least expected.
On Pentecost Sunday in 1999, Highland Park Presbyterian Church in north Minneapolis, held its last worship service as it closed down. That church had been started by Westminster in the 1880s, and as north Minneapolis changed, the congregation slowly declined. Its white members tried to build ministry with new Black neighbors, but did not succeed. It was happening across the nation: white flight to the suburbs. Hundreds of churches died, and Highland Park was one of them. Dry bones.
What does it mean to look at our world through God’s eyes?
The last members of that dying church had an Ezekiel moment. The Holy Spirit came a-blowing, and bones began a-jangling at the intersection of Emerson Ave. N. and 21st Street. As their church closed, they handed the building over to those who would establish Minnesota’s first African-American Presbyterian church. Westminster was there again, joining Black leaders and others to participate in the birth of Kwanza, now Liberty Community Church. Today the congregation is thriving, has two campuses in north Minneapolis, and offers vital ministry in the community. They’re in the midst of a $5 million capital campaign to create the Northside Healing Space to address the deep trauma of that community. The future looks good for that church.
Dry bones live.
Something similar happened with Grace-Trinity Community Church in Uptown. The aging congregation – we know this marvelous story – was in steep decline ten years ago and planning to spend down its endowment and close. The dry bones were being readied to be spread across the Uptown valley. Westminster came alongside the church, and working with their few remaining members, we felt the winds of the Spirit blowing. Today that congregation is self-supporting and flourishing. They’re renovating their facility to serve the community better. Their capital campaign already has raised 80% of the $2.2 million goal.
Gusty winds do exist. The life of the church depends not on us, but on how well we can catch the Spirit when it shows up and blows through.
In few places has that been more evident than in Cuba. The Presbyterian church there nearly disappeared after the revolution of 1959. Almost all the pastors and more than half the lay people left the island. And when Soviet-style atheism became the law, people abandoned the church. For three decades congregations held on by a thread. Some of them stayed open only because one family came every week to hold a worship service in the building, which kept it from being turned over to the State.
Dry bones were being scattered across the ecclesiastical landscape on the island, but those winds kept gusting. Spirit-led renewal is taking place across Cuba today. Our partner congregation in Matanzas is positioning itself to catch that wind, but they face daunting circumstances – some of which have been caused by our government’s policies.
The last U.S. Administration’s policies tightened the blockade – now in place for more than 60 years – further devastating the economy. Covid cut off tourism, a mainstay of the island. And this year the Cuban government began a major reform that quadrupled prices overnight. For most Cubans, who work for the government, salaries also jumped. But not for the church, which operates outside the socialist economy.
Cuban Presbyterian congregations have people but no resources. This is the first time in our 20-year partnership that the Matanzas church has asked for help. Our special offering next week will be a lifeline, and help them move toward self-sufficiency.
Faith rides the winds of the Spirit, and communities of faith rise or fall on whether they are light enough on their feet when the sirocco blows through that they can move and change and come to new life.
Gusty winds may exist. That is a warning for us. We should expect to be buffeted about. Change is on the horizon. The Spirit may come roaring through at any moment. Possibly even next Sunday, on Pentecost.
Let us be ready.
Thanks be to God.
O Holy God, you move on the waters and call to the deep, reaching in and through all of creation, for your love is vast and wide. You cried from a stable and whispered in silence, casting stillness on a chaotic world, for your power comes in small and surprising ways. We hear you in tomorrow and in the prophet’s wisdom of before, for your determination to reach out to us is timeless.
Spirit of gentleness, you are the one who blows through the wilderness, who leads us to places open and free, that we might be released of our rigidity and need for control. Spirit of restlessness, you push us past apathy and restraint, that we might move as you move, as instruments of hope and peace.
You have created us in your image, O God, diverse people with different needs and experiences, and in our humanity, we disagree with one another. Bless us to deal honestly with divisions, that we might find your reconciliation and resolution together, rather than imposing our own. We pray for those experiencing conflict within themselves, their families, or their wider communities. Help us to know that the more we understand our place in conflict, the more we understand each other and your will and your ways. May your restoring power be at the center of the work of repair. We pray for breakthroughs, for negotiations and compromise, dialogue and radical change. Especially this day we pray fiercely in the midst of expanding violence between our Palestinian and Israeli siblings. Occupy our hearts and our minds, our prayers and our listening, our learning and our willingness to engage. We are bold to pray for peace on a grand scale, but push us to wade into the complexities of this crisis, and hold us close to our partners in the region. Where bombs blast and buildings crumble, where people shelter or flee, where children perish and situations deteriorate…God in your mercy, hear our prayer. For cities we call home, for children whose innocence and care is under our good stewardship and protection, watch over them, keep them safe. The strength of a community is found in how it watches over and nurtures those most vulnerable.
O God, if it can feel as if we are surrounded by a world of dry bones, breathe new life into each one of us, calling us forward to resurrection love made manifest in your Son Jesus Christ. Breathe new life into those experiencing illness in body or mind, those who are undergoing cancer treatments and those who offer care. We pray for those who practice healing ministries of medicine and nursing, research and recovery, and we remember families who are emerging from the pandemic carrying the death of a loved one, of grief unfinished and unresolved. May they experience your Spirit of rest and companionship.
As we begin to emerge from behind masks and walls, separation and deprivation, help us, with proper spacing and pacing, to make and remake connections that last, that teach us more about who we are and who you seek for us to be in the midst of beloved community. May we see and reach toward those most likely to be forgotten or further excluded in the midst of our returning to new rhythms and patterns. May we know that we all share a story that happened in unique and universal ways. You live in the heart of relationships, so lead us to hear your voice in the narratives of others. Help us to trust that you invite us to a new way, one born of the melting, molding, and shaping of these many months passed. Use us in the living out of your grace for all and help us to trust in what we are becoming, in what we do not yet know.
Spirit of God, composer of the chorus of every new dawn, may we find you in a song or a whisper, in our deepest breaths, in the quiet of our hearts, in the life of the church. Remind us daily of your risen power. Confront us with miracles and prophets, and surround us with angels who serve selflessly, and may we join in their company. As your people in the world, as followers of your Son, may all that we do be to your glory, and may it all be rooted in prayer. Hear us as we pray together the prayer he taught us, saying…