Last week I visited a tattoo parlour in Cardiff…and it was unlike any parlour I’ve ever seen before. Many tattoo parlours have clinically white walls with tattoo designs plastered all over them.
But not this one!
This particular shop had a staggering array of stuffed animals all over the walls and shelves – birds, bears, badgers scorpions, stags and a fox! I mention the fox because it’s in the shop window and is a quirky piece of taxidermic craziness that has been on my mind ever since. The fox (I don’t know his name sorry!) is stood upright in the shop window with a quirky cap on his head and a stick in his hand. I’m not a big fan of stuffed animals, but I have to confess that he’s pretty cool! And I guess that’s the point of him being in the shop window. Certainly the shop is a hive of bustling busyness and the artist I was chatting to informed me that people literally wander in off the street just to see the animals. Some stay in to get their bodies inked.
So why has this fox been on my mind all week?
Simply this – he’s cool, but he’s also…dead!
Truth is foxes don’t belong in shop windows wearing fancy dress. They belong in the woods, in the wild, skulking around farms and plundering poultry. A stuffed fox might turn heads…but his true mission is over!
It kinda got me thinking about church. As a church planter in the Welsh valleys who remains passionately committed to the cause of seeing more churches planted across these beautiful, broken valleys, Ezekiel 37 has always fascinated me. Indeed it was the text that I preached at the Hill City Church launch service back in 2008. For the uninitiated, Ezekiel 37 is the passage in which Ezekiel is taken by the Spirit of God to the middle of a valley littered with dry, brittle bones. God then asks the prophet a simple question:
“Son of man, can these bones live?” (v3)
It’s a question that could be asked of the South Wales valleys right now. Certainly articles like this recent one from the BBC raise many questions about the current plight of the valleys and over the years I have written extensively on this subject. However, while I refuse to write the valleys off (as many have), I’m not so blind that I can’t see that the moral, social, emotional and spiritual devastation that now scars the very fabric of these precious communities. I see the boarded up chapels, the dying congregations, not to mention the poverty, crime, depression and suicide statistics. And it’s heart-breaking!
It’s a scene of bleakness, brokenness and death, and it presents a question that demands a response – can these bones live?
As Ezekiel looked around at the valley of bones God instructs him to prophesy (speak out God’s Word) to the bones, and as the prophet obediently opens his mouth some crazy stuff starts happening…
“…there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them.” (v7-8)
It must have been quite something to witness. But there was still something wrong…
“But there was no breath in them.” (v8)
No breath = no life.
If this particular Bible account had finished here then it would have been remarkable, but not revolutionary. It would have turned heads, but not transformed lives. It would have been a bit like stuffing a fox – pretty cool, but still dead! Essentially this is my greatest concern for the church in the Welsh valleys right now. There are still buildings in each valley where small numbers of people gather under the banner of church…but is there life? Bone has come to bone, but is there breath?
If getting together with other Christians is the sum total of what it means to be the church then NOTHING is going to change. We need more than that. We need God to breathe His life into us! That’s why I love what happens next. God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. To literally summon the Holy Spirit of God to enter the dead husks of these newly assembled corpses. Check out how it goes down:
“Then [God] said to [Ezekiel], “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” (v9)
Again Ezekiel obeys and what happens next is jaw-droppingly, awe-inducingly (if that’s a word), mind-blowingly EPIC:
“I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.” (v10)
The difference between a gathering of Christians who call themselves church and an army of Christians ready to fight the good fight is the breath.
WE NEED THE HOLY SPIRIT!!!
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not merely banging the drum to see more pentecostal churches across the valleys (though that definitely wouldn’t be a bad thing!!) Neither is this an attack on more traditional churches. This isn’t about pentecostalism vs traditionalism. It’s about the breath. It’s about the Spirit. It’s about LIFE! The presence of the Holy Spirit being in His people goes way deeper than passionate up tempo worship services (though again, they’re not a bad thing!) A Spirit filled church is a courageous army. A joyful army. A faith-filled army. A gospel-wielding army. A supernatural army. A growing army. An unstoppable army. An army of LIFE!
No other kind of church is going to cut it.
- My prayer for my own church and for those other churches who still have breath in them is simply this – give us more breath Lord! More power. More life!
- My prayer for those churches that are yet to be planted is that their USPs would be nothing less than the life-giving presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
- And my prayer for all the dead and dying congregations across these valleys is that they would humbly cry out to God to pour His Holy Spirit out on them afresh.
May the Holy Spirit breathe into His Welsh church and may we rise up as a mighty army once again.
Dead fox religion can get stuffed!