[originally written 1/11/10]
I had some friends over yesterday to play board games. After a few rounds of another game, we played Jenga. I thought it would be a nice quick game, but I was wrong. This was the world’s longest game of Jenga. Several times, someone would be left with only a few stubborn pieces left to pluck out of the structure and we would all stand holding our breaths, sure the game would end with this move. In fact, we even called my cat over to the table to see if he would knock the game over. That way, none of us would lose. He literally jumped onto the table and snaked around the game several times, but this percarious pile refused to budge. By the time I finally knocked the tower over (yes, it was me), we all breathed a sigh of relief. The tower had been plucked clean and any piece one chose to remove would cause it to fall.
Just before my Jenga tower fell, it resembled a skeleton picked clean of its flesh. Jagged wooden “bones” stuck out in different directions. As leaders, we can easily end up resembling picked over skeletons as well. Hollow. Weak. Dried up. A shell of what we once were.
God led Ezekiel to a valley filled with dried bones. As Ezekiel looked out at the valley, God asked him whether the bones would live again. Ezekiel wisely answered, “You tell me” (my paraphrase). And God said, “Look, I am about to infuse breath into you and you will live. I will put tendons on you and muscles over you and will cover you with skin. I will put breath in you and you will live. Then you will know that I am the Lord” (Ez. 37:5-6, NET).
Ezekiel watched in wonder as the bones were given flesh once again and then the bodies were given ruach – the Hebrew word for both breath and spirit. Ezekiel’s vision was to bring hope to Israel that they would be restored. I believe it also gives hope to God’s people today. Christians have seen God restore what was dead to life. We believe that Jesus was dead and is now alive, conquering death forever. We have been brought to life in him and given his Spirit.
So why, as leaders, do we end up looking like dried bones again? As I prayed this morning, I thought of how similar Jenga is to our spiritual lives as leaders. How often do we chip away out our foundation, brick by brick and pile more on top? It never seems like a huge amount to forgo praying one day or to cancel personal responsibilities (especially fun ones) in lieu of work; however, every time we neglect to take care of ourselves, it is like pulling a brick from our foundation and adding weight to the top.
At first we don’t notice any changes. Then we might pull the wrong brick and feel a bit more wobbly, but still solid enough to move on. It is only when there is little left to pull that we even begin to think that something is wrong. By the time the Jenga tower was ready to fall yesterday, I could feel it in my body when someone approached it to take their turn. My hypothalamus was firing, telling me it was time for “fight or flight,” when the tower finally began to fall. Afterwards, a friend commented that Jenga was way too much stress for a weekend. We all felt the surge of adrenaline and the fear of the inevitable crash.
Something is very wrong with that picture. We’ve been playing the game all wrong for far too long. It seems like the point is to build the tallest tower and to avoid crashing as long as possible. I think the point is actually to build the strongest foundation that will withstand all the storms and challenges life and ministry bring. I believe with all of my being that who we are is our ministry. This means that when we are picked clean and empty, we have no ministry. Sure it may look like we’re ministering to others. We may persist in doing many things, but we have nothing left to really give others.
My prayer is that as leaders we would have the courage to refuse to pick our bones clean with work and obligations. May we minister in a sustainable way. And if you’re feeling picked clean, may you hear the rattling of dry old bones and feel the renewing of God’s work in your life.