Breathe on Us Breath of God
My grandfather attended the Newport News Apprentice School soon after the First World War. He then went to work for the Newport News Shipbuilding Corporation, where he worked his entire life. His closest friends were made on the job. He was a part of a community that he cared about and that cared about him. I am sure that a few of you can tell a similar vocational story, but not too many people in America can do so today.
The refrain of the old labor song, says, “We shall not be, we shall not be moved!” A more apt labor refrain today would say, “We shall not, no, we shall not remain.” Church sociologist and old friend, Loren Mead observes that “in town after town, company after company . . . workers are experiencing downsizing as a shocking betrayal – all the more shocking because of their assumptions about the company as a place of community. They thought they belonged.”
If the job was no longer a reliable site for finding community, Mead goes on to talk about looking for community closer to home. He writes, “Right after World War II a national obsession with finding community fueled middle-class America’s migration to the suburbs. The romantic image of a close knit suburban neighborhood was rarely realized. With the advent of television and self-sufficient technologies, we have spent more and more time within our houses. Fewer people today describe the place they live as an intimate neighborhood. On the contrary, more people today not only bowl alone, but find that though surrounded by houses and lawns and multiple car garages, they live alone” (Mead, The Downsizing of America, p. 47).
So, if we do not necessarily find community on the job or in our neighborhoods, surely, we can discover community in the church. A few years back, a Midwest conference of the United Methodist Church had the courage to do a unique survey of people who had visited congregations in that Conference but decided not to join. Few of the visitors described the churches they attended as places where they were likely to find community. Most often, congregations were viewed as self-satisfied conglomerations of like-minded people (see Mead, p. 52).
“The Lord’s hand was upon me, and he carried me out by his spirit and set me down in a plain that was full of bones. He made me pass among them in every direction. Countless in number and very dry, they covered the plain. He said to me, ‘O mortal, can these bones live?’” This vision from Ezekiel is not a vision of the death of a bunch of individuals; it is the vision of the death of a community of faith. Peering out over downtown Babylon, still smelling the ash in the air from the cinders of the torched Jerusalem Temple, wondering what happened to their mighty nation under God, Ezekiel is writing to people who have seen their community crumble into a bunch of dry, lifeless bones.
Soon after the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples huddled in a small room in Jerusalem. They waited and waited, just as Jesus had told them to do. Time gnawed at them. Questions started to nag them? What would become of them without Jesus among them? What if it were all a horrible hoax, fake news? What were they to do?
In Ezekiel, the dry bones were in Babylon. In Acts, the dry bones were in Jerusalem. You do not need to travel back in time or across the globe to find dry bones. How well do you know the person sitting next to you, in front of you, behind you? Do you know what keeps them up at night? Do you know if they are lonely, isolated, disconnected?
Look around at our own church denomination. Fewer Presbyterians sit in our pews each year and if it were not for immigrant congregations in America, the situation would be even more extreme. Dry bones are everywhere you look, even on Pentecost morning.
So, what are we to do? We are Presbyterians, after all. We have to do something. Maybe we need to appoint committees, commissions, and task forces to strategize, organize, galvanize, to get some life back in these bones, to create community in a valley of scared and lonely individuals. Maybe that is what we should do.
Or maybe not. Maybe we Presbyterians would do better to pay attention to our two Pentecost texts today, because neither text tells the story of a group of individuals conquering their fears and creating community. Ezekiel tells us: “Thus says the Lord to these bones, ‘I will bring upon you the breath of life . . . and I will put my Spirit into you and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’” In Acts, we hear, “The day of Pentecost had come and . . . suddenly there came from the sky what sounded like a strong, driving wind, a noise which filled the whole house where they were sitting . . . They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” In Ezekiel and Acts, community does not come from a committee; it comes as a gift from a life-giving God.
A favorite line of mine from Shakespeare’s, The Winter’s Tale is: “What fine chisel could ever yet cut breath?” (V, iii, 78). Even our finest efforts cannot restore dry bones, cannot create life, cannot create community.
So, what are we to do, those of us living in valleys of dry bones? The night before Lincoln was to deliver his address at Gettysburg on the occasion of yet another valley, literally of dry bones, a crowd gathered beneath his window. They made such noise that Lincoln was forced to rise from bed and address them in his bedclothes from the window:
I appear before you, fellow citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment. The inference is a very fair one that you would hear me, for a little while at least, were I to commence to make a speech. I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say foolish things. It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all. Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further.
Lincoln closed the window and went back to bed.
Perhaps on this Pentecost Sunday 2018, the church could benefit from Lincoln’s humor and humility. Perhaps there is nothing greater you and I can realize on this Pentecost morning than that the Spirit of God alone breathes life and creates community where before there was a mere collection of discouraged and anxious, lonely and frightened individuals.
Perhaps then what we should do on this Pentecost Sunday is to stop talking for a while, stop singing, stop playing our musical instruments, to be still and listen for the ruach, the pneuma, listen for the life-giving, bone-restoring, community-creating, breath of God. Maybe we talk so much in worship because we believe that if there is going to be any community around here, then you and I have to create it.
Perhaps the best thing we can do is to pray: “Breathe on us, breath of God. Breathe on these dry bones. Create something greater than the sum of our individual and collective imaginations; create a community of hospitality where every person is known by name, where loneliness has no place to nestle, where no one ever feels isolated and alone, and where love heals even the greatest wounds.”
So, would you join me in this simple and potentially life-changing prayer, “Breathe on us, breath of God.” And, after we utter those words together, would you join me in a time of silent prayer.
Please, pray with me: “Breathe on me, breath of God.”