How many signs of new life have you spotted this past week? Every single day our landscape is changing – sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes dramatically – and our brown, bleak scenery is slowly and surely filling with life and color. The annual miracle of life from dry bones! A true gift for us temperate forest, northern hemisphere dwellers each year before Easter. Enjoy the photos of some folks’ outdoor discoveries this week!
We are living in a strange time. And it would be easy to assume that no scripture passage could meet us here, in this bizarre and challenging modern time. Well, here is one piece of good news: there are a lot of strange stories in our scriptures, truly bizarre stories; and many of them come from very challenging times in the lives of our ancestors in faith. So it is with our reading today.
Things are bad for the people Israel. The great King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia and his armies have deposed Israel’s king and laid siege to the holy city of Jerusalem. Thousands of Israelites have been cast out of their land. Others are still living in Israel under foreign rule. There is no sign that things will ever get better.
Then God takes the Prophet Ezekiel out into a valley full of bones. If this doesn’t sound creepy enough to you already, the scripture assures us that there are very many bones in that valley, and they are very dry. And then God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies, “O Lord God, you know.”
God proceeds to instruct
Ezekiel about how to prophecy to the bones: how to speak so that the bones come
together, bone to its bone, with sinew and flesh and skin. And then the breath
of God comes into these reformed bodies. They live, and stand on their feet, a
vast multitude. Finally God tells Ezekiel that these bones are the whole house
of Israel. Israel says, ‘Our bones are
dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But Ezekiel’s job is to let them know that
God is going to bring them up out of the grave, and fill them with spirit, with
We are perhaps still at the beginning of the trial that this pandemic we are living through may become. But there are already stories of great devastation. And it has already impacted all of us: our social connections, our childcare, our work habits, our income, our mourning rituals. We may also find ourselves battling with inner devastation: a dryness, a hopelessness, a sense of being cut off from that which keeps us strong. We may find ourselves saying with the people Israel, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” How might this story of God meet us in those times of desolation?
One striking thing about this story is that God does not restore this valley of dry bones alone. Instead, God offers restoration in partnership with a prophet. God’s imagination and guidance, leads to Ezekiel’s proclamation, which in turn leads to physical changes. It may be that we have a role to play, that the human community has a role to play, in helping to communicate and enact what God knows can take place amidst the challenges of this time. Keep watch, pay attention to where this may be happening around you.
I am struck also that this scripture story is not simply a before-and-after story. God does not come and restore political victory to the people. Their exile is not ended at the end of the story. Rather, the reanimating words of hope come in the midst of devastation. The desert of dry bones, and the renewed multitude of living bodies, are existing in the same bleak reality. It’s not the exterior circumstances that change, but the sense of vibrancy, life, hope, in the midst of the circumstance. How might we live like a watered desert, like a re-membered people filled with God’s breath, even in the midst of isolation, in the midst of desolation?
Some questions for reflection:
- When have you felt dried up, without hope, cut off, like the people Israel in this story?
- What are the losses you grieve in this pandemic time, for yourself or for others? I think grief is a real and important thing to acknowledge for all of us, what we are losing, what we have lost.
- How, even in times like this, does God partner with us to open graves, give breath, fill us with Spirit?
In these times of physical distancing, it’s more important than ever to find social connection and solidarity. Our youth group is Zooming into connection every Saturday at 4pm, for sharing what’s hard and what helps, playing games, and joining together in mindful meditation. Laughing and breathing together has been a remarkable way to bond and to find some calm in these challenging times.
It also helps to have some recent memories of being together in person. The middle schoolers spent over two hours running around at Boda Borg in Malden, solving mental and physical challenges to successfully complete several rooms. And the high schoolers managed to “escape” their 13th floor apartment room with 6 minutes to spare at Puzzlescape in Hudson. Teamwork was key in both of these outings!
We also enjoyed some outside time at our last youth class. This memory of walking the labyrinth together is one that is keeping hope alive that better days are ahead!
At our most recent Zoom Youth Group meeting, we closed with these words from Carrie Newcomer and then closed our eyes and listened to our own breathing, alone and together. With God and with each other, we can do this hard thing!
Check out the great pics from last week’s interactive worship activities! Folks were asked to find rocks and build outdoor shelters to remind us of God’s everlasting love, strength and protection – especially in tough times. As always, thank you for sending your photos!
Reflection from Joyce DeGreeff, March 22nd
For centuries, and for many people, the Psalms have provided comfort in hard times. I also really appreciate them because they do not shy away from what’s real. They often name the pain honestly and offer quite explicit lament. In times such as we are experiencing today, I think it’s really important to practice both/and thinking. As we see in Psalm 46, there are expressions of hardship, anxiety, and uncertainty followed by the assurance that we are not alone, that there is something greater than ourselves that we can rely on in times of doubt and despair.
“Though the earth should change; though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; thought its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its’ tumult.”
This nature imagery for me lifts up a connection to what is very real for us right now… much is changing in the world around us, the “roaring waters” might represent our frustration, our lack of control, even our anger. And the “shaking mountains” we might feel in restless sleep, in our bodies as we hold our breath, clench our muscles, or experience any other bodily sensations of anxiety.
AND Yet…”God (Spirit, Love ….however you best understand the Sacred) is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” And this God invites us to “Be Still” and find Peace (ASL: Become Quiet), trusting that the Spirit is indeed moving in and among us.
I’m wondering: How do you experience God’s refuge and strength?
Hannah has offered us these questions to consider:
*What does it mean for God to be our refuge, our rock?
*How can you take your shelter in, or find your grounding on, God?
Summary of Responses:
Nature, Music, Stillness, Family Time, Pets, WCUC Community, Sunshine, Baking, Creatvity, Finding New Ways to Connect, Learning a New Skill, Resurrecting Old Ones!
*”We don’t have to socially distance ourselves from God!”
In fact, we don’t need to “socially” distance ourselves at all, we need to “physically distance” ourselves for sure, but now we need social connection and social solidarity more than ever.
Living in the “AND” … is where we find HOPE. Not wishful thinking, but a “ “hope” that is grounded in faith-based optimism and the knowledge that while we are more vulnerable right now, we are not powerless. We can draw on support from one another and from God to find our center, to experience grace, and find a sense of calm, even if just for a moment.
And I believe, that it is in quietness of hearts where we can best hear the still small voice of God calling us to act – to support our own family and friends, and to extend ourselves to others who are feeling particularly lonely, hungry, or scared right now.
from a recent Washing Post Article:
“Every hand that we don’t shake can become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid can become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another can become a thought as to how we might help that other, should the need arise.”
May each of us seek refuge in our loving God, so that we might be strengthened to share more love and kindness in the days ahead. Amen.
Necessity is the mother of invention? That’s what we’re all learning as we practice social distancing and adjust to so many changes in our daily lives. Here are some of the creative ways Sunday Fellowship is finding to care for one another and maintain our connections across the distance.
Last Sunday I asked folks to interact with some special resources during and after worship, and I got some great pictures showing all different innovative ideas! In connection with our Scripture story about Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman, I asked you to color and fill up a Living Water jug and then work to build some creative wells in your house. Enjoy the pictures highlighting the amazing creations!
This Sunday our congregation will be gathering online via Zoom rather than in person. This is not a decision that our leadership takes lightly. Rather, it is a sacrifice that we make, an act of love for the most vulnerable within and around our church community. It is not an act of panic, but a proactive decision based on awareness, compassion, and the hope of prevention.
Experience from past pandemics and this one suggest that social distancing BEFORE the virus is widespread is extremely helpful. This “flattens the curve” of disease transmission, easing the strain on our health system for those who need acute care due to COVID-19, flu, or other unrelated issues. Those of us whose health is not likely to be impacted by COVID-19 have an opportunity to care for those who are above 60 or whose immunity is compromised.
What if this turns out to not be a big deal in our area? This is the best possible outcome, and is most likely if a large number of organizations cancel events quickly! Unfortunately, in the past few days infections in Eastern Massachusetts have been dramatically increasing, so we do not anticipate that this will be the case.
How can we stay connected? As we practice social distancing in person, we will need to work harder to stay connected in other ways. Please read our eWord and let us know if you have a need or if you can be part of our Call Team, Delivery Team, or Tech Team. Attend our Zoom worship if possible and stay tuned for additional online opportunities. Pick up your phone and call someone you have met at church to check in!
When will we meet in person again? This is impossible to predict right now. It’s hard to consider going weeks without in-person worship, but it may be the kindest thing we can do for our neighbors. If this stretches out, as a UCC clergy colleague said, whenever we’re able to gather in person again, then it will be Easter! Let’s pray for everyone’s sake that this is resolved quickly.
Please be in touch with your questions, concerns, and ideas about how we can best care for each other and worship God in this time.
Nicodemus knows that someone named Jesus is making waves. How does he know? Maybe he has heard about how Jesus came out of the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit swooping down like a dove right above him. Maybe he has heard about how Jesus changed jars of water into a very fine vintage of wine at a wedding. Almost certainly, he has heard about how Jesus spent his first day in the holy city of Jerusalem driving money changers out of the temple. Nicodemus learns that someone named Jesus is making waves, and he wants to learn more. So this esteemed religious leader shows up, at night, at Jesus’ door.
Sometimes folks imagine that Nicodemus is ready to become Jesus’ disciple as he visits this night, if only secretly. I imagine Nicodemus is ready to examine this upstart uneducated Galilean Rabbi. What does this Jesus really believe? What has he been teaching the people? Will this youngster need to be reigned in before he causes trouble with the Romans? But Nicodemus doesn’t get a chance to ask his questions or offer his guidance. Jesus sees this experienced elder, and begins teaching him, instead. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
Now, as it happens, Nicodemus does not live in America in the 1990s. So, he has no idea that the phrase “born again” might have a spiritual meaning. Jesus’ teaching, therefore, seems simply ridiculous. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Nicodemus asks, bemused. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?”
Jesus replies, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus does not know what to do with Jesus’ answer. “How can these things be?” he asks. We might want to ask the same thing. It’s hard to be sure exactly what Jesus is saying, but he seems to be saying that to get close to God, we need to be reborn. Reborn, through water. Reborn, through the Spirit. Reborn, or born again, or depending on how you translate the original, born from above.
But what does it mean to be reborn, born again, or born from above? Isn’t everyone born just once? We only get one shot in life, right? There’s no starting over, physically or otherwise. Our past can’t be changed. We can only go forward.
Plus, even if we could start again – would all of us really want to? Especially folks like Nicodemus, who seems to have it all together? He’s educated, he’s respected. He’s probably financially secure. Nicodemus is even spiritually revered. Why would someone like that risk it all to be reborn? Why would he need to?
Jesus tells us that the way to get close to God is to be reborn. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
With God’s help, we can start over, Jesus tells us. But he’s not talking about starting over to build more successful lives, lives with more money or fame. Instead, this starting over has to do with loosening our attachment to the external parts of our lives, so that we can respond more freely to the wild, unexpected movements of God in our hearts.
This teaching of Jesus makes me think of the spiritual leader Richard Rohr, who’s spent time unpacking psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s ideas about the two halves of life. The first half of life, he claims, is dedicated to building an identity for ourselves through outwardly noticeable achievements. The second half of life begins when these outward achievements are no longer sufficiently meaningful. Instead, we begin seeking spiritual or religious experiences that can fill the outward structure of our identity with a new kind of inward satisfaction. This is the work of finding God deep within.(Read more here or in Rohr’s book Falling Upwards)
Consider the caterpillars we are learning from this season. Starting as a small egg, caterpillars eat and eat and grow and grow – just like in the book, the very hungry caterpillar. In fact, caterpillars are so good at eating and growing that they outgrow their own skins more than once! The goal of all this, we might imagine, is to become the biggest and best caterpillar out there. But just when they’re getting really successful at being caterpillars, caterpillars stop being caterpillars at all. Instead, they hang upside down, create a chrysalis, and give up their caterpillar lives to become something else entirely.
So I wonder: what have you been trying to achieve in your life so far? What have been your goals? Maybe you’ve achieved those goals spectacularly well. Maybe it hasn’t gone exactly the way you hoped or planned. Either way – are these the same goals that you want to claim for the rest of your life? Or is it time to start doing something else altogether – even if it means undoing parts of the life you’ve built, letting go of some privilege or prestige you’ve enjoyed?
Each of us is only born once. Nicodemus is right! We can’t enter a second time into our mother’s wombs. We can’t even undo our mistakes, or erase our scars. But Jesus wants us to know that everyone can still be reborn.
We can be reborn, if we’re broken and troubled and desperate. We can be reborn, even if we seem to have it all together. Humble or proud, rich or poor, successful or struggling, all of us can be renewed. All it takes is acknowledging the emptiness we feel inside the outside shell of our outer lives, and inviting God to fill us.
Simple, but not easy. Letting God fill our lives means moving into mystery, and letting go of everything we thought we knew. It means putting our trust in absolute eternal love, and not much else. This kind of life isn’t something we choose only once. Instead, being reborn is a choice every day: as we slowly deconstruct the self we thought we needed to be, to become the one we are called to be, instead.
Please pray with me. Holy God: You are the womb from which we all come, and through you, we can begin lives that are entirely new: empty of everything except the wind of your Spirit, blowing free. Help us each to claim this bewildering opportunity, this mysterious offer, today and every day, for the sake of our own lives, and for the sake of your world. Amen.
Beloved Is Where We Begin
If you would enter into the wilderness,
do not begin without a blessing.
Do not leave without hearing who you are:
named by the One
who has traveled this path before you.
Do not go without letting it echo in your ears,
and if you find it is hard to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what this journey is for.
I cannot promise this blessing will free you
from the scorching of sun
or the fall of the night.
But I can tell you that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you that you will know
the strange graces that come to our aid
only on a road such as this,
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause than to lean themselves toward our ear
and with their curious insistence, whisper our name:
March 14, 1860, “Walden Ice Melted,” from the journal of Henry David Thoreau
“As I stand there, I see some dark ripples already drop and sweep over the surface of the pond, as they will ere long over Ripple Lake and other pools in the wood. No sooner has the ice of Walden melted than the wind begins to play in dark ripples over the surface of the virgin water. It is affecting to see nature so tender, however old, and wearing none of the wrinkles of age. Ice dissolved is the next moment as perfect water as if it had been melted a million years. To see that which was lately so hard and immovable now so soft and impressible! What if our moods could dissolve thus completely? It seems as if it must rejoice in its own newly acquired fluidity, as it affects the beholder with joy.”
God of the March winds, blow over us and play in ripples over what is beginning to melt inside of us. Dissolve what has been glacial, and sweep tenderness into our frozen hopes, softness into our brittle moods, fluidity into our spirits, joy into our hearts. We have lived for so long with this winter in our souls. Promise what is essential has not gotten lost; gone underneath the surface, perhaps, but still strong currents, rushing rivers, living waters deep and running, waiting for spring. Amen.
- Rev. Andrea Castner Wyatt, at the time (2002), Assoc. Pastor, First Congregational Church, UCC, Holliston, MA