When I was 21 I worked for a year at St. Michael le Belfrey in York, in the youth and children’s department. It was a large Church working with lots of students and ran Alpha three times a year.
The Church has an inspiring story, when in the late 1960’s a young curate took over a dying Church in York called St. Cuthbert’s Peasholme Green, and the Bishops first words to him were “what are we going to do with you when we shut St. Cuthbert’s!” Hardly the encouraging words you want to hear from your boss!
This curate was called David Watson, a protégée of John Collins (who became the Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton) and the American revivalist and founder of the Vineyard movement John Wimber, and was an early advocate for charismatic renewal, God at work in and through his people working both through the naturally and the supernatural. He began to reach out, speaking evangelistically, exploring using arts and music in connecting with people and engaging with them, and the Church in York began to grow and grow, till they out grew St. Cuthbert’s (which became the Church offices) and planted themselves in a redundant Church next to York Minster at the heart of the city, continuing to reach out to the people of the city of York.
This image of Churches resurrecting and turning their vision around from inward-looking to “seeking first the Kingdom of God” lived out where God had called us was something that chimed with me and my story.
My dad, Bob Mason, was Vicar of a Church -All Souls’ Eastbourne- which was small, struggling and under threat from the diocese who wanted to shut it; the Church had had a lengthy interregnum and so was -like David Watson in York- a brave post to accept.
Dad worked both at the inward transformation of the Church, “upping the spiritual temperature”, seeking to engage in the local community, pursue “growth through evangelism” and make reaching the next generation a top priority; slowly at first it began to transform and grow slowly with ordinary, local people becoming Christians.
All Souls at that time was an exciting place to be (although initially was at times a tough slog) and sadly although we saw growth and changed lives we also had plenty of pain and suffering within our community too, now twenty years it is hard to believe that this thriving Church was once struggling and under threat!
When I was in my previous parish, this was something I thought about a lot, we often talk about “God doing a new thing” and about “planting new Churches” -both of which I am passionate about and believe God is calling us to do to see our nation transformed, but I also believe that part of our obsession with new Churches/plants etc is that we can have a “throw away and start again” mentality, whereas God is calling his people to both pioneer new Christ-centred communities with new people, and also to resurrect and renew the Church that bares his name in this country.
In many ways the callings that David Watson and my dad took on are difficult and unglamorous jobs, often having to over-come internal opposition and external apathy (and sometimes baggage too!). I believe that God is saying to our nation that he wants his Church back from whatever (or whoever) is holding it back from thriving.
One of our key texts Ezekiel and the vision of the valley of the dry bones, God asks Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” To which Ezekiel answers “you only know Lord” -they can if God brings his life to them, yes. This topic was our strapline for a sermon series for so long that Sam my former intern threatened to shoot me if I ever spoke about Ezekiel’s bones again!
The resurrection call in this vision of Ezekiel comes from his obedience to do what God says “prophesy to the bones, and keep prophesying even when they look ‘sorted’” the call for our Churches resurrection lies in our obedience to the God who will find a way where no-way appears. I have noticed that every failing Church has their own worked out narrative of “why it could not work here” often forcibly and persuasively deceiving many within the congregation, and yet we read here in Ezekiel that God re-creates dry bones to living flesh and resurrects by his Holy Spirit.
Although this was initially a picture to the nation of Israel, I feel it realise as though it can be a message to us personally, our community and our Churches. We need to remember and rediscover that God is a God of restoration and resurrection who is the bringer and breath of life. The bones come together and become covered in skin and tendons -they look alive but are dead -I have looked as a Vicar at many Church profiles and websites which look and appear alive, but are they really? In the vision the bones were only alive when the spirit of God breathed into them (echoes of the creation story in Genesis) and they became truly alive.
The scattered bones, became a unified army, unified in Christ, to often as Christians we are fighting our own agenda or preserving our own narrative rather than humbly seeking and following Christ corporately together, each carrying the others burdens and spurring one another on.
As I thought of the St. Michael/St. Cuthbert story I realise that some maybe being called to be Ezekiel’s in some contexts that might feel like a valley of dry bones. I have been there it can be a tough and difficult place to be, it might be easier to jazz up a web-page or update the Sunday morning worship play list, to look and sound alive, but I urge is all to hold out for God’s resurrection and restoration.
God call for our existing Church communities not to give up hope, not to sell out to defeatism or believe Satan’s lie that “it cannot ever happen here”, but instead seek God’s voice, the creating and re-creating breath that caused humanity to rise from the dust to come and blow again through us both individually and corporately, the Holy Spirit that resurrects his Church, raised Jesus from the grave and is active within us.
The story of York, All Souls’ Eastbourne and vision of the resurrection of the dry bones reminds us that with God there is always the hope of resurrection and new life, with God longing to partner with us in obedience, the issue is whether we focus on the death and dryness within the bones or the power of the living God?
I’ll close with another story also from scripture, the spies that Moses sent out to look at the promised land who came back and saw and spoke through the lenses of fear “this city cannot be taken, the people are giants!” whereas Joshua and Caleb said: “the Lord will give us this victory!”
Can these bones live? The answer if “yes, with God all things are possible”, yet the real question is will you be willing to partner with God through your obedience to see resurrection in our lives, communities and Churches.