A Valley of Bones

Have you ever felt the need to comment on something but find that you have no words to do so?  That’s how I feel in this moment. The country weeps in the wake of the newly discovered mass-grave on the property of a Kamloops Residential School.  Such things are what you expect to find in the despotic regimes of tyrannical rule.  It is not something you picture occurring in the lush landscapes of British Columbia.  The terrifying question is how many other graves like this exist. 

As if nothing could make this discovery worse, this unmarked, secret grave is filled with the bones of over 215 children.  This news makes my heart ache for so many reasons.  As a human being, I am sickened that anyone could so consistently, and flippantly, discard the bodies of children. As a Canadian, I hate that my country so easily adopted practices and attitudes that destroyed Indigenous lives and communities.  As someone raised in BC himself, I detest that Indigenous children were so de-valued, so unloved.  Did no one consider, even for one moment, that the bodies of these lifeless children should be treated with even the smallest amount of decency and respect?  Topping everything off, I feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment that Christian people, and the denomination that ran the school, could have so profoundly missed the point of the gospel.

Since the news of this discovery, I have been thinking a lot about Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones.  This is probably because the discovery was made a few days following our celebration of Pentecost, and I preached on this passage.  Still, the picture of Ezekiel standing in a barren valley, looking upon a pit of lifeless bones, all strewn about, is hauntingly relevant for this time.

In this text, God’s Spirit leads Ezekiel to a valley filled with dry, exanimate bones. The bones are dry because they have laid in this spot for years, maybe even decades. The bones are long discarded, the people and families that once animated them long forgotten.  It is a vision of hopelessness and despair.  In response, The Spirit poses a question to the prophet, “Can these bones live?”

What if this is the precise question that we are asked today, as Canadians, as neighbours, as Christians?  Can the bones of these children live again?

Yes, they can.  These bones will live if we are willing to be affected by this discovery.  These bones will move with life if we allow them to shock us out of our comfortable complacency, the pleasant but action-less lip service that we sometimes give to things like TRUTH and RECONCILIATION and JUSTICE.  The bones will be an empowered force of God if we allow them to dismantle the long-standing and systemic denial of personhood that the Indigenous community frequently suffers under in our country.

Most importantly, these bones will live if we treat them, in death, with the respect they deserved in life; If we make the effort to uncover their names, their families, and their histories.  These bones will live if we take the burden and cost upon ourselves to provide a proper and dignified burial. 

But the bones of these children will never live so long as we see them as nothing more than a problem of the past. The bones will not move again if we see them as a footnote in a history text that we never read.  If we refuse to let these bones reach out to us, we condemn them to be dry for eternity.

As I write this, I find myself applying this question to myself, asking whether my own bones can live.    What if the Spirit’s question does not refer only to the bones of the children, but also to ours?  What if our bones have become dry to decency and compassion? What if we have become so accustomed to those privileges that we label “rights”, that we have become desiccated to the ever-loving Spirit of God within us?

Can our bones live?  They wont if we allow this discovery to simply be replaced by the next news cycle.  Our bones will not live if we say “Well I didn’t do anything to those children!”  Our bones will not live if we look at what is right and decide that it costs too much of our money or our time.  Our bones will not live if we refuse to hold our superiors accountable.  We will neve be spiritually alive so long as we refuse to join the Lord as he weeps beside the grave.

Ultimately, Ezekiel’s vision of the hopeless valley becomes a vision of a valley filled with life.  The disconnected bones become a vast multitude, made alive by God’s Spirit.  This occurs because Ezekiel interacts with the vision.  He prophesies to the bones.  He allows those bones to be a part of his faith experience, and he is ever changed for it.  May we allow ourselves to enter into this current bone-filled valley.  Although it may be uncomfortable, may we, under the Spirit’s leading, also speak to these bones, and allow them to speak to us.  May we be changed by them, and by doing so, find ourselves changed by the animating Spirit of God. 

Lessons in Prayer 2: The invitation to be dissatisfied

Have you ever felt dissatisfied with your prayers? Have you felt that despite your best efforts you have never plumbed the depths of everything that prayer can offer you?  Have you looked longingly to the saints before you, wishing to uncover a fraction of the prayerful intimacy they seemed to enjoy? I know I have.

For many years, I condemned myself for these feelings.  Although I loved prayer, would speak of prayer, and preached on it often, internally I felt I was describing something of which I only scratched the surface.  My dissatisfaction with prayer even, at times, drove me away from prayer. I believed my dissatisfaction was indicative of my failings in prayer.

Dissatisfaction with our prayer life is a sign of deepening faith, not the absence of it. This shift in understanding is vitally important. We can spend an exorbitant amount of time condemning ourselves for our own frustrations, instead of recognizing that the frustration is Christ’s invitation to journey deeper. Deeper prayer begins with a sense of restlessness, a desire for more. Satisfaction in our prayer life is indicative of a stalled prayer life.

The saints before us, to whom we often turn when looking for inspiring instruction in prayer, knew this reality well.  Their lessons on prayer did not come from a point of mastery, but from the heart of desire. They desired more in prayer. This realization gives us the right to own our frustrations in prayer; to articulate them and act upon them.  It is as we rest in our prayerful dissatisfaction that we actively trust that God works within us to move us to deeper prayer experiences.

I have a sneaking suspicion that many today are like me. I would not be surprised to learn that many within the church have never received a lesson on prayer. It is assumed that all the talk, reading, and preaching about prayer will suffice in developing active and ongoing prayer in our lives. In my own liturgical context (Anglicanism), it can be easy to leave our lessons about prayer to the specific liturgies printed in our liturgical texts. I am guilty of doing this in my own ministry. It is assumed that those who spend their time diligently mastering the “what” and “where” of a particular prayer book will naturally develop a rich prayer life. This is not a criticism of The Book of Common Prayer, or any specific liturgical text. Prayer books have a strong place in Christian history. Indeed, periods of deepening in my own prayer life have often coincided with a more frequent use of liturgy. Since shunning Morning and Evening prayer in seminary, I have discovered the value of these rites for our spiritual lives. In fact, I would now make the case that an inner familiarity with the “what” and the “where” of the prayer book does develop a rich prayer life within us. Yet our prayers must progress past rote reading. If the use of the prayer book is the only thing that defines our prayer-lives, then surely something is missing.

Prayer must move past simply reading words on a page. If it is true that many in our churches have never been taught the way of inner prayer, then I fear the church may have slowly drifted into a casual prayerlessness – an inability to engage in the activity of prayer from deep within our hearts. Our prayers can far too easily become reduced to nothing more than the internal recitation of memorized words with very little contemplation or concern. In this case our hearts remain disengaged. When this happens in our churches, and in our Christian lives, prayer becomes so routinized that the internal force of prayer has been lost. Prayer becomes reduced to words that are spoken, either in the silence of our minds or in response to the instruction from the liturgical leader.

Have you been feeling that your censer has been running on fumes?  Do you lack the intensity of prayer, both in power and desire, which marked the saints of old? In my pastoral ministry I have come across countless lifelong, faithful Christians who harbor an inward guilt because this is what they are feeling. They look upon their internal feelings of dissatisfaction and believe that it equates to failing in prayer. Yet prayer is a journey, and we in the church need to recapture the radical notion that our dissatisfaction is but an invitation. This is the way of Christian prayer. None of us ever rise to the top; it is not a skill we master.  Prayer, for the follower of Jesus is a way of being, an internal movement of heart and spirit through which we respond to the Lord’s presence in us, and in the world. Prayer is not simply something that we add onto our lives, it is the very ground out of which our life grows. Without prayer we simply cannot, we do not, live the Christian life.