Last year a leader in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization asked me if I would convene a group of clergy to advocate for at-risk immigrant families. We were going to be part a national effort to try to keep families together. We’ve all learned about children and parents being separated at our Southern border, we’ve seen pictures of these kids in detention, we’ve heard stories of their trauma. It’s been heart-breaking! And our hope was to highlight that this is not just a border issue. That immigrant families all around this country, in our city included, risk being separated. Particularly when you have citizen children of a parent or parents who are undocumented, well, we have millions of these kids whose families live in fear.
Getting involved in this cause, I discovered that for many people of faith, there are some common convictions we share. Regardless of our political affiliations or whatever we think about immigration policy, we feel there is something sacred about families, and about children’s rights to be with their family. And many of us – Christians, Jews, Muslims I’m working with – people of other faiths as well – think God expects us to treat immigrants with dignity and decency and honor, again whatever our views are on policy.
But I also discovered that sometimes we say yes to things we have no idea how to do. I’m a pastor, not a legal or political expert, but these past six months, I’ve been in conversations with national community organizers, with immigration and constitutional lawyers, with aids to high ranking politicians. I’ve been trying to do the good work I think Jesus is calling me to do, without needlessly offending any of you or anyone else in my life. And now and then, I’ve felt like I am out of my element.
I felt this particularly when I was with our GBIO clergy team preparing for a meeting with our state’s attorney general. We were strategizing about a big ask we were going to make of her, and wondering just how best to do that. And I thought: what am I doing, tying to advocate to our state’s top law enforcement leader in an area that she and her team know so much more than I do, and an area they care a lot about. Who am I to ask them to do more?
But then one of my colleagues reminded me that as people of faith, we have the opportunity to do this rather unique thing, which he called speaking prophetically – speaking in public as if what we hope to be true of God, is in fact true. Connecting the big, timeless hopes we have about God to timely reality.
And this call to speak prophetically gave us focus and courage as we prepared for our meeting with the attorney general, and as we’ve started to work on the follow-up to that meeting, after it didn’t go quite as we’d expected.
To speak and to live prophetically is not just the business or calling of religious leaders or people with faith expertise. It’s an opportunity that we all have.
As people seeking to practice Jesus-centered faith, we do that in a prophetic tradition. Prophets are people who try to feel as God feels, and to connect the heart and mind of God to our present reality. The Hebrew Scriptures, the Bible’s Old Testament is full of books of prophecy – collections of writings from the several hundred years before the birth of Jesus, where inspired people try to speak for God in their age, and to live in their embodied action as if God is present and relevant.
Sometimes this is really weird. The prophet Ezekiel for instance might represent the pinnacle of weird prophetic living. We did a little series in Ezekiel a few years back – it was fun. One of my colleagues was like – I don’t know, Ezekiel seems to belong in an institution more than in my Bible. Which might be part of the point – God can speak anywhere, through anyone.
Anyway, Ezekiel is trying to come to terms with the end of the spiritual and civic life of his nation. And he’s trying to imagine with God if there is any hope for their future, after the grim days he’s living in. Ezekiel’s contemporaries – and maybe Ezekiel himself – have no idea how significant these times are, and so to help prepare for their time of suffering and to stir hope for what may lie beyond it, Ezekiel does some really weird prophetic living.
He makes a little model of his city – you know, Lego style, and lies on his side next to it for over a year. He bakes bread over a fire of excrement. He shaves his head and beard, divides the hair up into little piles, and disposes of each pile in a different way – burning some, throwing some into the wind, chopping some of the hair up with a sword, and keeping just a little bit left, stuffed into his belt.
Yeah, prophetic living – living out what we hope to be true of God, living out what we think God is doing today – can be weird or obscure like that.
But it’s not only that. To live prophetically is to notice that there is a drift to life we’re just going to flow into if we don’t think about it. And prophetic living is to say what if not all that drift is the way life is meant to go? What if the Spirit of God can shape a different way of living and being in the world?
What if a living God has different values we’d love to see expressed in our life and times? Could we give voice to those? Could we put embodied action behind that?
Jesus himself did this. In an age that dismissed the testimony and action of women, he taught women, he honored them, he praised their leadership and service, and entrusted the first reports of his resurrection to their voices. That was prophetic living.
In a world where important people maintained their honor, and had others serve them, Jesus took off his dinner outfit, got on his hands and knees in his undershirt, and washed the grimy feet of each of his students, and said this is what friendship and leadership looks like. That was prophetic living.
Now people who seek to follow Jesus do that in this whole prophetic tradition that starts with Jesus and continues on through the history of many people – some famous, many unknown to us now – who have sought to speak and to live as if what they hoped was true of God really mattered today.
This was true of many of America’s great civil rights leaders, for instance, past and present, who connected their hopes in God with our own country’s public life and our need to see God’s goodness be made real for all God’s children.
This spring at Reservoir, we’re going to step alongside these prophets, and we’re going to try to imagine what it could look like for each of us to live prophetically in our time and place. To see if we too can live as what we might call people of God – not meaning a chosen group of people who because of a certain faith are better than others. No, people of God in that we learn to speak and live as if our best hopes of God are compelling, present realities.
I’m going to start today with Ezekiel, one of the less weird and obscure moments of prophetic living we find there. And in the weeks to come now through mid-June, Lydia, and Ivy, and Michaiah, and I – and a guest preacher, my friend Mako next week – are going to draw from the Old Testament prophets and from the life of Jesus as a prophet, to see if we can stir our imaginations to prophetic living, and to have I hope a little fun with along the way too.
So let me read a bit from Ezekiel and see where it takes us. Again, Ezekiel has been coming to terms with the great Jewish cataclysm of the sixth century B.C., when Babylon, the great superpower to the East, finishes its invasion of Judah, the last remaining bit of the ancient kingdom of Israel.
Babylon would destroy the city, its temple included, conquer the nation, drag its best and brightest off into exile, and bring the life of Israel to a bitter end. And Ezekiel is asking for himself and his whole people really: is this it?
Ezekiel 37:1-14 (CEB)
37 The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. 2 He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.
3 He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”
So, Ezekiel is having this vision in his imagination, seeing this valley of bones while he’s praying. And the only place you see a valley of bones is a mass gravesite – after a war or some atrocity. Which fits the awful times Ezekiel lived in – and here he is staring death in the face, with a question with an obvious answer. There is no life here.
But Ezekiel is open to the weird, what’s beyond his logic. Who knows? Bones are a sign of death, but from a different angle, hey, they are also the skeleton of life, so Ezekiel is like, well – you tell me, God.
I said, “Lord God, only you know.”
4 He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word! 5 The Lord God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. 6 I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.”
7 I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. 8 When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.
9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”
10 I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.
11 He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ 12 So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. 13 You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. 14 I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.”
So much that’s weird in this weird in Ezekiel’s vision. It’s like amazing zombie or or fantasy film, millenia before people could imagine film at all. Skeletons, becoming lifeless bodies, becoming a living, breathing company of people again.
And five times in this section this weird, obscure verb “prophesy.” Prophesy, my man Zeke, God says – speak it out. Say the truth. Say the hope. Say the words.
It’s weird, because God doesn’t meet Ezekiel in his dreams and just show him this thing God wants to do, or even that God will do. God meets Ezekiel in his dreams, or in his prayers, and and invites Ezekiel to co-create something with God. He shows Ezekiel how to speak a new world into being.
Prophetic living is to know that our lives matter, that most of what God does on this earth happens through inspired people, acting with hope and purpose.
And prophetic speech is believing that words have power. That the right words, true words, hopeful words, powerful words, can birth new life, and speak God’s hopes into being.
Historically, Ezekiel saw a vision of God leaving his state of Judah, and the capital of Jerusalem, just before the armies of Babylon rolled in. But later in this book, we see hope for God’s return and the people’s restoration. So historically, this vision Ezekiel gets has to do with God bringing life back to Israel, Ezekiel giving words to what he knows in his spirit that his culture, his faith, his country, his people are not dead, they’re just out of commission for a while.
They’ve been knocked down, but they’ll get up again. Their glory days haven’t passed them by – good things are coming ahead of them. There’s hope.
So there’s a specific historical import to this scene – to do with the Babylonian captivity, and the restoration of what would become the Jewish people in the Persian era to come.
But there’s something timeless here too. When Ezekiel is telling the bones to get up and live, it happens in two stages – first the body, then the breath. Ezekiel speaks to the breath, because in his understanding, this is where the life comes from.
And that word breath is the same Hebrew word as the word for Spirit. So when God says, “I will put my breath in you, and you will live.” It’s the same as saying, “I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live.”
And I’d like to suggest that this isn’t just a one-time hope Ezekiel has in a particular time and place. This is the nature of God, to breathe life into people and places and communities, and to do breathe life even where we can’t imagine anything but death.
And this is the nature of prophetic speech and prophetic living – to partner with God in speaking and bringing life into being. To co-create life with God in the world. To co-create faith, hope, and love in places where it’s most lacking, or where we least expect it.
One of the places I’ve been going to do this is to one of our local ICE detention centers. I mentioned that I’ve been getting involved in immigration advocacy work, and I’d heard that there are some clergy members who visit detainees in the ICE jail for pastoral counsel and prayer. I thought: that’s a lovely thing those people are doing.
And then I was meeting with a local rabbi friend of mine who does these visits, and without realizing it, she started using language that I’ve used verbatim with you all for discerning God’s invitations to more life and faith.
She’s like: sometimes, Steve, we have to see where something is so important to us that we find a way to turn our “no” into a yes. And immediately, I thought of our whole series two years ago on a life of faith’; we called it Adventures in Saying Yes. And I thought of how the one faith thing we ask in our membership agreement at Reservoir is that we all try to notice invitations from Jesus when we sense them and say yes to them.
And for reasons I can’t fully articulate, it was clear to me that Jesus was speaking to me through my rabbi friend, and that I was to say yes. So I said, Friend, what do you want of me? And she said, try a visit to the detention center. See how it goes and go from there.
And I visited a gentleman once, and I’ve kept going back.
Because two things are happening for me there. One, I’m doing what Bryan Stevenson talks about in his great Just Mercy work. What Ezekiel was called to do in facing down that mass gravesite. I’m getting proximate to pain. There’s a place in our city, I’ve discovered, that is desperately short on hope and life, and it’s one of the few places I can do as a pastor, a clergy member, that most people can’t go.
And I can’t say too much, but I’ll just say one of the guys I meet with – whatever you think about immigration policy, if I told you his whole life story from one angle, you’d be like: this is one of the people we should maybe keep out of this country, or send away. It’s not a pretty story.
And yet, even him, he’s lived a life of to me inconceivable trauma. And ironically, the three years before his detention with ICE were probably the healthiest, best lived years of his life – working a steady job, supporting his kids, contributing to his family and to society. And then in a bad stroke of luck, he’s picked up in an accident, turned over to ICE, and lives in this weird Kafka-esque land of detention – where, given the complexity of his youth as an orphan and a refugee, he has no idea if and when he’ll be deported or released, and no idea where either.
On a good day, this gentleman just wants to be free again, anywhere, any country. And then on a bad day, he’ll look me in the eye and say: sometimes I only have anger and hatred in my heart.
What do you say to that?
Proximity is not enough. It’s easy to be close to the kind of dry-bone, bleak pain you find in a detention center, and just be intimidated or sad, or shut down because it’s hard to be present and feel in the face of this pain.
It’s also clear to me in the face of this real dry-bones despair that this is much bigger than me, that I am no hero, that I am not enough to offer very much help or change. We’re all so small, and I feel that there.
But I’ve also found at the detention center that prophetic speech and prophetic living has power. Encouragement, words of life, have power.
So I look my friend in the eye, and I say, I understand. If I were in your place, I’d probably feel the same way. And I listen some more. But then I say: I see you don’t only have anger and hatred in your heart. You have pride too. And you have love for your children. And you have hope for your future. And you have the strength of the man you’ve managed to become in your life, which no detention center can ever take away from you.
And we hold hands and pray. I don’t know if the praying or the holding hands is what does more, but it always seems really powerful for my friends. It certainly is for me.
All I’m doing is affirming the life and hope I see, where life and hope can be in short supply. And when we pray, all I’m doing is saying our hopes to God, touching hand to hand, but this is in a place where human touch and spoken hopes and prayers are in short supply too.
And so I’ve realized this is prophetic speech and prophetic living, for my friends and I to talk and touch as if life and hope are there behind cement and bars, as if we aren’t free man me, detained him, citizen me, alien him, but we’re just men. Two humans together in the world.
The detention center is a pretty powerful place for prophetic speech, for words of life and affirmation, and for prophetic living that says you, my fellow human, are of inestimable worth, no matter what other message has been conveyed to you.
But you obviously don’t need to go to the detention center to speak life-giving words, or to communicate to someone that their one life is precious and worthy. We all live with people, work with people, shop with people, that need the prophetic speech of life and affirmation and encouragement.
Our culture, our economy tell us that unless we’re exceedingly wealthy or successful or educated, we don’t much matter. That in all the ways our lives are not instagram-worthy, they don’t much matter.
We don’t use words as dramatic as we find in Ezekiel – Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished!
But it’s not hard to find some version of these sentiments in our families, in our friend groups, in ourselves. And so we all need the prophetic speech to hear and to say: God always gives life. God’s breath is in us, and more is coming. This is not the end.
Anywhere, anytime, we can hold empathy and speak words of encouragement, words of affirmation, words of life, we are acting out of our prophetic calling.
I want to get to the end here with a poem. My friend, our pastor, Ivy, introduced me to the existence of this Irish poet and theologian Padraig O Tuama. I’m sure she’ll tell you more about him sometime. But when my daughter and I heard him read this poem, it stopped us in our tracks. It goes like this:
When I was a child, I learnt to count to five one, two, three, four, five. but these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count
one life one life one life one life one life because each time is the first time that that life has been taken.
Legitimate Target has sixteen letters and one long abominable space between two dehumanizing words.
It’s a poem about death in war, but more than that, about the sacredness of life, all life, the meaning and mattering of every immigrant family, no matter how they got here, the meaning and mattering of everyone locked up in detention, the meaning and mattering of all our dry bones, no matter how discouraged or short on hope we are.
God has seen our pile of bones, our diminished human glory, and has taken empathy, has said: I know how it is with you, I know how you feel. I see you. I hear you. I want to be with you in this.
And God speaks to us: this – whatever your “this” is – is not the end. My breath is in you. These dry bones will live.
Our prophetic speech to ourselves, to our loved ones, in proximity to discouragement wherever we find it, is to do the same.
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Get proximate to hope-starved dry bones in your work or community – and affirm each sign of hope and life you see.
Good affirmation, good encouragement is proximate first. It starts not with words but with empathy. To be with, to feel with. And from there, when the time is right, good affirmation, good encouragement is specific, is positive, and is hopeful about a realistic and bright future.
To be people of empathy, and of affirmation and encouragement, is to give life.
And our spiritual practice of the week is to welcome this from God to you as well.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
When you encounter fatigue, despair, or fear in yourself, pray: Breath of God, fill me. Dry bones, live! Then slowly and deeply breathe for a minute.