"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Flourishing in the Valley of the Dry Bones: A Good Friday Reflection

Today, Christians around the world observe Good Friday, the sorrowful apex of the Lenten season, when Jesus Christ gave his life on the cross to atone for the sins of humankind. It marks an intense period of fasting and prayer, broken by many during the Great Vigil that begins on Saturday evening. At my own church, during a crucial point in this service, there are three sharp knocks on the church door. The music swells, the incense rises, and the drab banners of mourning drop, revealing a kaleidoscope of color and light. Afterward, there is a great feast, an abundance of wine and laughter into the early hours of Easter.

[pq]Good Friday rests on the razor’s edge between weeping and hoping.[/pq]

The period between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a microcosm of the time between now and the New Jerusalem. Although Christ has come, and is already making all things new, we are not home yet. We are still living in what the prophet Ezekiel called, “the valley of the dry bones.”

Sometimes this fact is splashed across the front of newspapers—religious persecution in Syria or abandoned little girls in China. Sometimes it is the local brokenness that splinters across our communities, families, and institutions. It is violence and endemic poverty in our cities. It is the disruptions in our DNA that cause a thousand devastating diseases.

This brokenness is not just external. It has roots in every human heart. Alexandyr Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer and survivor of the Soviet gulags—who saw human nature at its most monstrous—says in “The Gulag Archipelago” that, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” This is why attempts by humankind and the church to withdraw from the world to create righteous utopias have ended so poorly. The problem is embedded in each one of us.

Perhaps no one understood the valley of the dry bones better than St. Augustine, who lived and wrote in the fourth and fifth centuries, right after the barbarian invasion of Rome. Augustine saw the most powerful empire on earth crumble and the Christians around him trying to live faithfully in a world gone wrong. In his epic treatise, the “City of God”, Augustine sets up the paradigms of the heavenly city and the earthly city. Christians, the citizens of the heavenly city, are on temporary sojourn in the earthly city as they make their way to their true home:

Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven.

Although the peace of earth is imperfect compared to the peace of heaven, the heavenly city still engages with its earthly residents. This picture is not unlike Jeremiah’s command to Israel during the Babylonian exile:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters…multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

Both Augustine and Jeremiah are looking through a lens of hope. They know the kingdom of God is always approaching and they long for that day. But this does not diminish the mandate to seek the prosperity of the earthly city, which God is already in the process of redeeming.

Animated by that hope, here are a few ways we can work for flourishing while living in the prologue to eternity:

We can weep: As Christians, as humans, we naturally desire resolution in the face of suffering, but we should be cautious about rushing to the scene of the crime with canned answers. If we are not first willing to groan over the depth of our mortal wound, we will never understand why the Gospel is such good news. In the famously brief verse in John 11, Jesus himself, when he saw Mary and the Jews grieving for Lazarus, was “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” and “he wept.”  The season of Lent, and Good Friday especially, is a time for Christians to enter into the sufferings of Christ, and in so doing, understand the power of the resurrection with increasing clarity.

We can forgive: The promise of bitterness is that it will kill our enemies. The truth is that it slowly, but surely, kills us. Forgiveness does not overlook sin or absolve a person or institution from ever facing justice. Nor does it necessarily restore trust. Temporal justice and restitution may still be required, and there are times we are called upon to participate in that process. Rather, forgiveness says: I count your moral debt against me to be paid, just as Jesus Christ has paid my moral debt before the Father. I entrust justice to the established authorities, and ultimately to the one who judges justly. When we forgive, we are freed to flourish.

We can practice the spiritual disciplines: If the brokenness begins within us, then we cannot overlook the care and conditioning of own hearts. Although God sometimes changes our hearts in rapid, miraculous ways, more often our sanctification occurs slowly and painstakingly through everyday rhythms of retreat and engagement.  If we want to come to reflect Jesus Christ, we need to train our hearts, minds, and hands like he did. Faithful exercise of disciplines like solitude, prayer, repentance, fasting, service, giving, and even celebration are small, concrete ways in which our hearts are oriented to love of God and, as a result, love of neighbor.

We can exercise power well: Andy Crouch, the editor of Christianity Today, recently released a book called “Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power”. He says that true power—power as God intended it to be—does not lead to brokenness and abuse, but to flourishing. All of us have corners of creation under our power, whether it is in our families, schools, or workplaces. So we should ask ourselves some key questions: Are the people under my power flourishing? Are the groups or institutions I manage bringing about justice, healing, and hope? Do people experience greater wholeness and delight in their creator when they step into my home? Am I working to breathe life into the valley of the dry bones?

We can practice our gifts with creativity and joy: Gary Haugen, the founder and president of the International Justice Mission, says in his book, “The Good News About Injustice”:

The great miracle and mystery of God is that he calls me and you to be a part of what he is doing in history. He could, of course, with no help from us proclaim the gospel of Jesus with lifeless stones, feed the entire world with five loaves and two fish, heal the sick with the hem of his garment, and release all the oppressed with his angels. Instead he has chosen us—missionaries, agricultural engineers, doctors, lawyers, lawmakers, diplomats, and all those who support encourage and pray for them—to be his hands in doing those things in the world that are important to him.

Carrying out our various vocations—exercising our creative power as image-bearers of the true Creator—is a strike against the darkness. Our enemy can injure and asphyxiate, but he can never create. When we use our skills and gifts, even in everyday, ordinary ways, we enter into the creative, restorative, life-giving work of the triune God. Even though our work will never reach perfection in the here and now, we hope in the ultimate work of Christ, who will bring all things to completion.

Good Friday rests on the razor’s edge between weeping and hoping. In the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians, “we are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” Alive in Christ, yet chastened by the imperfectability of the interim, Christians can seek the flourishing of the earthly city with joy, creativity, and energy, until, in the words of C.S. Lewis, we enter, “Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has ever read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.”