courageous reasoning

With all the love, grace and encouragement I can muster I want to ask you to bear with me and read this bloggage to the end. It may be the most important one I have ever written.

One of the things that an imminent operation on your heart does for you is force you to face your own mortality. I have the utmost confidence in the surgeon and his team and have been assured that the risks of the surgery are minimal, but they are there nonetheless. I have had to think about and prepare for that very small possibility.

Christians believe in life after death (and life before death too). We don’t believe in reincarnation or hanging around as a ghost / spirit, but a full-blown life-as-God-intended no-holds-barred all-consuming experience of God for those who want it once we have curled up our tootsies and shuffled off this mortal coil. And when we come face to face with something that reminds us that we are not indestructible and that life is finite we have to consider whether we really believe what Jesus said.

That’s when the rubber hits the road as I have to consider whether I really believe what I proclaim.

rubber hits road

I want to say a wholehearted, unequivocal “YES!” I believe it with all my heart, mind and soul. I have staked my life on it.

One of my favourite definitions of faith is: “Reason in a courageous mood.”* You take what you can deduce, what you can learn, what you can understand and then extrapolate from that to the next logical step, and that extrapolation leads you to take a step of faith – following the trajectory of your thinking and understanding and acting on it.

So, by way of example, if you had to cross a ravine and there was a bridge there you would need to exercise faith in the bridge in order to use it and cross the ravine. Before you did you might examine the bridge to see how strong it is, you might ask other people who have used the bridge and you might even research online how and when it was constructed. But once you had come to the conclusion that it is strong enough for you to use safely you then have to take the step of faith and put that reasoning into practice by crossing the bridge. And you are encouraged when that faith is vindicated and the bridge holds.

All that I have read, considered, discerned and understood about Jesus of Nazareth confirms to me that I believe him and I believe in him. What he said makes incredible sense. What the contemporary records say about him reveal an extraordinary person. And the evidence for his resurrection is (in my view) pretty conclusive. All that points me to the conclusion that he is who he claimed to be: God with us. He is worth following and trusting and through faith in him I am able to have a relationship with God that is life in all its fullness now and beyond death. My reason has become courageous and I have been blessed, inspired and encouraged to find that this faith has been vindicated.

I want to say a hearty “Amen, amen, amen!” to these words written by Paul to the early church in Rome (Romans 8):

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? [If you read the preceding verses you see that ‘these things’ are pain, suffering and death.] If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

‘For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’[j]

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You have to make your own mind up about this, but please do so on an informed basis. Faith may be reason in a courageous mood but for many people lack of faith is not cowardly reason, it’s simply that they have never considered it. The difficult thing is that although you can investigate, research, discuss, listen and discern about the Christian faith, ultimately you’ll only experience it in its fullness by taking the step of faith. It’s like a stained-glass window. From the outside you can see lots of the shapes and images in a stained-glass window but you will only really experience it in all its glory once you go inside a church and look at the light shining through it – that’s the way they were designed.

stained glass 3

If you would not say that you are a follower of Jesus and if you consider me to be someone you trust then I want to encourage you to consider his claims carefully and investigate them for yourself. Then you can decide whether to get courageous with the reason.

If you are a follower of Jesus, don’t privatise your faith – live it 24/7. If it’s good news for you it’s good news for everyone.

If maybe you are a follower of Jesus but you’ve not been actively following him you will know that he would love to welcome you back into a closer walk with him – you only have to take the first step and you’ll find that he’s already there with you.

If you have never considered these things I hope and pray that we could have a conversation about it once I have recovered from the operation, but don’t feel you have to wait for that moment – talk with another Christian.

The reason I believe all of this is not because I am a Baptist Minister. I am a Baptist Minister because I believe that this is the most important thing in life (and death) and it’s worth dedicating my life to.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I believe this is attributed to LP Jacks from 1928, but I first heard it from one of my spiritual heroes, friends and Senior Minister in my first church: Revd David Richardson

thoughts on communion

This bloggage began its life as a ‘Thought for the week’ shared with the Ministers I serve in the Eastern Baptist Association. As you will see I have extended my thinking a little since the original ‘Thought’.

As you probably know by now I am about to undergo some surgery on 13th February, which will be followed by a period of convalescence. I was told about it about 3 months ago and have been on the waiting list ever since. (This is not a complaint about waiting lists – there were people with greater clinical need than me further up the list.) Because I could have been called at short notice at any time I have not been able to commit to meetings and events in my diary. That means that preaching engagements have been postponed because churches need a little more certainty about who will take the service than ‘I should be able to make it’. It has been frustrating. But it has also been liberating as I have found more space in my diary than I am used to and have taken the opportunity to catch up with people I haven’t had a chance to, I have done more reading than usual, and I have exercised the gift of administration and got on top of my emails and paperwork – almost emptying both the virtual and real inboxes. Now, however, I have some certainty.

One thing that has happened several times since the operation date was confirmed has made me chuckle. People have spoken to me about “the last time I will see you” or “your last meeting”. Now I know (or hope) that they have meant “the last time I will see you until after you return to work” and “your last meeting before you go on sick leave” but the apparent finality made me chuckle and I couldn’t help commenting on it along the lines of, “Do you know something I don’t?” and “That’s a bit final!” This morning as I recalled those conversations I had a glimpse of what Jesus may have felt as he was sharing the Last Supper with his closest friends. I had not really paid much attention to the element of provisional finality in what Jesus said before sharing bread and wine with the Twelve. And I had not given enough attention to how eager Jesus was to share the meal with them. “Eagerly desired” doesn’t really do justice to the passionate desire he had to share the Passover that ‘one last time’ (until…) – the Greek word ‘epithoumeo’ has the sense of ‘desperately longing for’, ‘setting one’s heart on’ and even ‘lusting after’! With that in mind, read Luke’s record of the Last Supper – (Luke 22:14-20).

14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.’

17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’

19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’

20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

At one time I was booked to have the operation just before Christmas and to be in hospital for the festive season. I was keen just to get it over with but my wife, Sally, was eager that we should have the whole family around the table for that meal. It was only in conversation with her after the operation was postponed that I realised just how important it was to her: she had set her heart on me being there because it meant something. That has helped me realise how eager Jesus would have been to share the meal with those he loved. Passover was a big deal: it meant something.

Jesus knew what lay ahead of him, and that made him even more desperate to share that special meal with these people who had become special to him. It meant something.pexels-photo-632043.jpeg

So how eager am I to share bread and wine with those I love? Sometimes, perhaps because of frequency or regularity, we may take sharing communion for granted. We add it onto the end of a service or perhaps even forget that it’s that Sunday in the month until we see that the elements have been prepared (have you had that experience too?). I am reminded of my Father’s ‘Priesting’ (Ordination in the C of E) which concluded with him leading the celebration of Communion. I was sat at the front and had received bread and wine from my Dad (what a moment!) so was watching the rest of the congregation line up. And I could see a man struggling forward from the back of the church with two walking sticks. He was really unstable and I wasn’t sure he would make it to the front. Each step looked precarious and painful but he was determined that he was going to receive bread and wine from my father on that special occasion so he persevered. It meant something!

When we share bread and wine in church do we eagerly desire to eat the meal with those we love and serve? We ought to because it means something.

pexels-photo-669730.jpegThis is the point at which my thinking has extended since I wrote the ‘Thought’. You see Jesus “eagerly desired” to share the Passover with the Twelve – his closest friends and his constant companions for the past 3 years. The very next verse in the passage reads:

21 But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table.

Jesus shared the meal with Judas – the one he knew had already agreed to betray him. Not only that, he eagerly desired to share the meal with Judas as one of the Twelve, even though he knew that Judas had become disillusioned with him and was going to betray him.

In many churches (and I have done this sometimes) Christians seem to feel the need to either to protect people from sharing in the Lord’s Supper if they are not believers or to protect the Lord’s Supper from people who are not believers (or both). But Jesus was desperate to share this meal with a man whom he knew had decided to become his enemy! Who, or what, are we protecting when we say something like, “If you love Jesus you are welcome to take bread and wine”? And some traditions even exclude you from taking communion unless you can prove you are a Christian! One of the most heartbreaking moments in my ministry was when we had a leader from another sharing in a service in our church and when it came to communion they felt constrained by obedience to their church tradition not to share with us. They had tears running down their face at that moment because they eagerly desired to eat and drink with us.

And with the greatest of respect to those traditions, and even mine, I think we have got it so wrong. This is a meal of welcome, a meal in which an olive-branch of reconciliation is offered, a meal in which even those who feel like enemies are included. It’s also an encounter with the core of the Christian faith – a tangible, tasteable and inspirational connection with Jesus as we are reminded of the extent of his love for us and the extraordinary lengths God went to in order to offer us forgiveness and a fresh start with him. If that is the case, surely we’d want everyone to have that, wouldn’t we?

“Stop right there, you heretic!” I hear you think. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, tells them that they should be very careful before they eat bread and wine together – there are dire consequences for doing so wrongly (1 Corinthians 11):

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.

Yup! I completely agree with you. But let’s remember that Paul was writing to a church of Christians about their behaviour, not about the behaviour of people who weren’t Christians. And the “unworthy manner” surely relates to the particular practice he was angry at where rich people ate separately from the poorer people in the church and gorged themselves while the others had meagre rations. Look at the whole of 1 Corinthians 11 (I have added italics to show the aspects of his teaching that all relate to this) and I think you’ll see what I mean.

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

Examining ourselves is not about whether or not we are followers of Jesus, it’s about whether our behaviour has excluded some people and is creating or emphasising divisions in the church. Paul suggests that if it is, then even if the elements are right we aren’t actually sharing in the Lord’s Supper!

If you disagree with me, that’s your prerogative. And if I am asked to come to lead a service in your church and that includes leading communion I will try to respect your traditions but I will also want to be as inclusive as possible in the manner of Jesus, whom I follow and serve.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

ahem, ahem **clears throat for important announcement**

pexels-photo-695948.jpegDear bloggists. Just a quick note to say that I have a date for my operation. I will be going in to hospital on 12th February for a 12,000 mile service (and some heart surgery). I may well post some bloggages before I go in, but I won’t be posting bloggages for a little while after then so please enjoy the silence!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

faq

Picking up a thought from yesterday’s bloggage got me wondering whether we ask the wrong questions and then are surprised and disappointed at the answers we get. Yesterday one of the questions that I suggested is thrown up by the apostle Paul pleading in vain for God to take away the “thorn in his flesh” was ‘why didn’t God take it away?’ It’s a frequently asked question about suffering and unanswered prayer.

pexels-photo-221164.jpegBut it’s a question that can lead to all sorts of unsatisfying answers (I don’t subscribe to any of the following answers, by the way). Some might suggest that God wanted to teach Paul something through his suffering. What sort of capricious God would want someone to remain in pain simply to learn a lesson? Others might suggest that Paul didn’t have enough faith when he prayed. But Jesus debunked that myth when he said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can move mountains. (For me the mustard seed measure of faith equates to ‘as much as it takes for us to pray). Others may say that Paul did not pray enough times – he only pleaded three times. But is God really the sort of being who needs lots of prayers before he responds – like a slot machine that asks for more coins before it dispenses a bar of chocolate?

Is it the wrong question because it leads to unhelpful answers?

What if the right question looks at things from a different perspective: ‘why does God intervene in answer to prayers?’ You see when we look at Jesus in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in our Bibles) we see that (especially in John’s gospel) these are ‘signs’. They point us towards something significant:  they reveal who Jesus is; they help us understand something about human nature; they help us realise that God’s kingdom is much bigger than we could ever imagine; and they help us face our own internal prejudices.

So could it be that when God intervenes in answer to our prayers we should be asking ourselves why he did rather than focusing on the times when it appears that he doesn’t*? What does he want us to recognise, realise or learn because of his intervention? What difference would it make to our faith if instead of asking “why not?” when God appears not to have responded* we ask “why?” when he does?

*I would also want to challenge the notion that God hasn’t responded when he doesn’t answer our prayers in the way that we want. Given that we are talking about a relationship with a God who says he is love, isn’t it fair to expect that he will answer – but perhaps we are looking for the wrong answer. Jesus gave us a hint about this when he was teaching about prayer (including giving his famous pattern for praying we know as The Lord’s Prayer):

11 ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

So when we pray we know that God wants to respond in the best way for us. When we pray we pray “your will be done” and seek to align ourselves with that rather than “my will be done” and try to convince God to agree with us. When we pray we should be asking for him to give us the Holy Spirit to give us the spiritual resources and gifts we need to become the person God created us to be, and to be able to listen to God’s answers. When we pray we should be seeking answers to the right questions.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

sufficient

I’ve written in the past about my experience of enduring years of chronic migraines and cluster headaches and how thankfully, following surgery, they are now no longer part of my experience. I am conscious that for many people chronic pain is still part of their experience – physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual pain is incredibly debilitating.

In the darkest days before the operation there were times when I felt like I was clinging on by my fingertips – clinging to my desire to carry on and clinging to my faith as a follower of Jesus. In those moments there was a verse in the Bible that was immensely helpful:

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (from 2 Corinthians 12:9)

open handsAnd I can honestly say that was my experience. God’s grace – his generously-given, unearned, sustaining presence – kept me going. I was able to live, serve and bless others from a place of weakness because God filled in the blanks for me. When I lacked words he provided them. When I couldn’t think he provided the thoughts. When I couldn’t see beyond the pain he lifted my eyes up towards hope. When I was battling through in my own strength he provided people to carry me and to tell me to stop and rest.

The context for those words in 2 Corinthians is filled with mystery:

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

What, or who, was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Chronic migraine and cluster headaches certainly feel like a thorn and are tormentors. We don’t know, and Paul doesn’t tell us because it’s not important.

I can certainly empathise with prayers pleading for God to take away the pain. And not just three times! So, why didn’t God answer his heartfelt pleading to take away this thorn? Why did God allow me to suffer for so many years before finally the surgery resolved the problem? Or, to widen out the question: why doesn’t God always seem to answer our prayers in the way that we want?

The answer Paul received was not a theodicy (answers to the question of how a loving God can allow evil, pain and suffering to persist). It was a promise. The promise was of a loving, gracious sustenance that was sufficient for the problem. Not a flourishing, dancing-in-the-aisles, swinging-from-the-chandeliers victorious healing. Just enough to enable Paul to cope. Sufficient.

Sometimes we receive more than we need. But we will receive sufficient.

And God will make up for what we lack. It may not be inner strength and fortitude. It may not be miraculous supernatural ability to rise above what is going on. It could be that it is other people coming alongside us. It could be that it is the ability to let go of some of the stress and allow others to help. It could be that it is the opportunity to receive love, support, encouragement and strength from others who can give you what you lack. It could be that it is the courage to stop and realise that we are not indispensable and that we don’t have to go it alone. And in that liminal space the paradox of weakness being strength, of grace sufficient for pain, of power perfected in impotence becomes reality.

The difficulty for us is that in order for this to happen we have to trust God and stop trying to do it all in our own strength. We have to trust that he will keep his promise. When you’re in the depths of despair it’s perhaps not so difficult to do that because you’ve already exhausted all of your own resources. My testimony is that this is true. Today I read Simon Thomas’s blog of his own heart-rending experience. He is finding the same to be true.

But if you aren’t in a wretched place the same promise is true – God’s grace is sufficient for you. You may need to let go of more of your security blankets and self-reliance to experience it, but I believe that he will prove himself trustworthy.

I pray that you and he will continue to know that God’s grace is sufficient for you. And that his power is made perfect in your weakness.

Be blessed, be a blessing

getting rid of the goat

pexels-photo-58914.jpeg

A fragment of papyrus has recently been found in the Sinai Desert. It appears to be part of a Hebrew Priest’s diary…

Day 3874 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Moses has told us that God has given us a new way of dealing with our sin: a Scapegoat. After he’d made himself pure Aaron placed his hands on a goat’s head and confessed all our sin, transferring it to the goat. The goat was then sent off into the wilderness as an atonement sacrifice and we were back in favour with God. Good news.

Day 3875 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Rather alarmingly the goat came back to the camp during the night. Clearly it was hungry and thirsty and as we’d looked after it all its life it decided that being with us was better than the wilderness. Aaron was not sure what to do as God didn’t give him any instructions for what to do if the scapegoat came back. He commissioned me to drive the goat away again so I shooed it far away.

Day 3876 Still not made it to the Promised Land. That pesky goat came back during the night again. I was rather relieved that Aaron didn’t notice so this time I took it a long way away from the camp and tied it to a bush. Glad to have got away with that one.

Day 3877 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Guess what. The goat came back again last night, dragging a half-eaten bush behind it. It must be part homing-pigeon as it keeps coming back home. This time I took it off to the middle of the wilderness and tied it to a rock. I made the mistake of looking it in the eyes as I left – I feel really sorry for it.

Day 3878 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Unbelievably the goat came back again last night. It chewed its way through the rope. I think we have bonded so I have decided to keep it. I will hide it in my tent and try to disguise it so that Aaron doesn’t find out. If anyone asks me about the bleating sounds and I will tell them that I have allergy issues that are making me sneeze.

[The next part of the parchment is missing and looks like it has been chewed by a goat]

Day 3891 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Scapey (the goat) has been chewing everything in my tent. It’s becoming really difficult to keep him hidden and he won’t stop bleating, even when I’m not in the tent. I find it difficult to do my priestly duties while hiding my guilty secret. Every time I see Aaron I can feel my face reddening and I am sure he suspects something. Got to stop writing now as someone is coming.

[The fragment of parchment ends here].

I wrote this parable following my morning bible study on the subject of ‘scapegoat’ from Leviticus. I wondered why the goats didn’t come back to the place where they were fed and given water, and what would happen if they did… the rest is in my imagination! It’s a parable we have shared with our churches to help them think missionally, but it also made me reflect personally…

  • The idea of a scapegoat is one with which many people (especially Christians are familiar). The Bible says that the scapegoat atonement has now been fulfilled in Jesus. Why do you think God wanted the scapegoat to take the sin away into the wilderness?
  • What could the priest have done differently? Why do you think he decided to try to deal with the goat on his own?When we confess to God what we need to be forgiven do we do so with the hope that we will be set free from them or are we just glad that we can be continually forgiven as we continue to do the same things?
  • How often do we seek forgiveness for our sins and then find that they have made their way back into our life? Is there an alternative to trying to deal with them on our own? Do we sometimes try to keep them secret instead of dealing with them?How does our attitude to forgiveness, failure and finding freedom affect our participation in God’s mission?
  • New Christians often make the most enthusiastic evangelists. Is it time for us to seek to rediscover the joy of our salvation?

Be blessed, be a blessing

liminality

I was talking with someone about the transition between 2017 and 2018 recently and they remarked on how often they have heard the phrase ‘liminal space’ in recent months. Liminal space is the time between what has been and what will be. It’s a threshold. It can be a moment (such as the split second before Big Ben bongs in a new year – the time between one year and the next) and it can be an a lengthy period of time of waiting. In some ways life is a constant liminal space – we are not time-travellers so live in an eternal present where we can’t go back to what was and the future is always just out of reach ahead of us.

It doesn’t even have to be temporal, it can be an emotional space or a spiritual space. Theologically Christians think of living in the Kingdom of God tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’. Liminal space can be unsettling because there is uncertainty. It involves waiting (patiently?) and is a time of potentiality. There may be hope, there may be fear. It is also a place of possibilities, a place where we may be transformed and where creativity may flourish because nothing is fixed.

I think that I focused on the phrase ‘liminal space’ because it resonates at the moment with my own personal experience. I am on a waiting list for some surgery that I have been told will be ‘soon’ but at the time of writing that is as definite as they are able to be. I was told that it could have been before Christmas (which meant having to cancel some engagements to allow churches to find someone else – ‘maybe’ is not a helpful answer to a church when they ask you if you are able to come and preach or take a service!) and am still having to work on a week-by-week basis as the phone call could come at any time. I found this very frustrating because of the disruption to those I am trying to serve and the restrictions it places on what I believe I am called to do.

Liminal space may seem like wasted space – it’s space where hopes and dreams remain just that and ambitions are unrealised. But I decided that I was going to look for the possibilities: the transformative and creative experiences that this liminality may offer me. One thing it has given me is more space in my diary so I have been able to do more reading than I often get space for (and reduced the size of my pile of ‘to read’ books). I have been able to exercise a bit more creativity and use my imagination in putting together some reflections on the Kingdom of God. I have been able to take the initiative in meeting up with some people (and as so often seems to happen finding that God’s timing was in this). And the contents of my email inboxes have been kept to single figures!

But what happens when we feel the weight of being in a liminal space? Psalm 40 feels like it was written when David was in a liminal space:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.

Blessed is the one
who trusts in the Lord,
who does not look to the proud,
to those who turn aside to false gods.
Many, Lord my God,
are the wonders you have done,
the things you planned for us.
None can compare with you;
were I to speak and tell of your deeds,
they would be too many to declare.

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire –
but my ears you have opened; –
burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
Then I said, ‘Here I am, I have come –
it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, my God;
your law is within my heart.’

I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
I do not seal my lips, Lord,
as you know.
10 I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
from the great assembly.

11 Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord;
may your love and faithfulness always protect me.
12 For troubles without number surround me;
my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails within me.
13 Be pleased to save me, Lord;
come quickly, Lord, to help me.

14 May all who want to take my life
be put to shame and confusion;
may all who desire my ruin
be turned back in disgrace.
15 May those who say to me, ‘Aha! Aha!’
be appalled at their own shame.
16 But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who long for your saving help always say,
‘The Lord is great!’

17 But as for me, I am poor and needy;
may the Lord think of me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
you are my God, do not delay.

(NIVUK)

The psalm starts positively – David had waited patiently in his slimy pit and the Lord had rescued him and put him on solid ground. Great! Things can only get better now – and the psalm certainly feels like it’s moving in that direction. Yet it finishes with a call for the Lord to remember David in his needy state and not to delay in rescuing him. Has he fallen back into the slimy pit? Or is this a psalm written while David is in a difficult liminal space so that his first statement was a remembering of past times when God rescued him and his last statement is a cry of hope for the future, built on the confidence of knowing that God had rescued him in the past?

One response to the weight of liminality is to remind ourselves of moments when we have experienced God’s presence and salvation in the past and re-build our confidence in the present on the foundations of God’s faithfulness to help us face the future. In the past David had sung a new song because of his experience of God’s rescue and that meant he was able to speak confidently about his God in the present even if he was in further difficult circumstances. The liminal experience became a creative experience. How might you express creatively your experience of God’s faithfulness (you may not be a singer but God has given you creative gifts perhaps as a poet, a flower-arranger, an artist, a dancer, a builder, a carer, a theologian or even a preacher!)? Or maybe you can take David’s words and make them your own.

And let’s also remember that when Jesus said, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” it was a statement of fact. For his followers we know that his Spirit is in us. He is with us. Fact. He doesn’t ride to the rescue at the last minute like the hero in a movie when all seems lost, he is with us in the slimy pit (or however our liminal space manifests itself). He is with us. It’s a fact that doesn’t even depend on whether we feel his presence. We are not alone even if our emotions are masked by depressive illnesses and God feels a million miles away – he is with us. If you go and stand in a deep dark cave with someone you trust and turn off the lights you may not be able to see them or sense their presence, but the fact is that they are still there. So is God. That knowledge may not change the circumstances but it may enable us to look at them differently.

May you know blessing, joy and peace of God’s presence and the encouraging comfort of remembering his faithfulness this year whether you are standing on firm ground or find yourself in a slimy pit.