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.

light hearted

I am on a waiting list for surgery on my heart. It was something of a surprise when I was told that I needed an operation and, if I’m honest, being on a waiting list has been rather disruptive to my life and work as I have not been able to book things in my diary very far ahead having been told that the surgery would be “soon”: I have discovered that “soon” is a very flexible and indeterminate length of time! I would much rather have the surgery “soon” so that I can get on with getting better but I am having to be patient before I can be a patient.

During the waiting time I have had lots of different tests and conversations with medical staff to prepare me for the operation and have discovered lots of new terminology and seen images and video of bits of me that I never imagined I’d see. The most significant meeting was with the surgeon who will be carrying out the operation. He was really reassuring (I would characterise his attitude to the operation as seeing it as ‘routine but serious’) and was also very honest about what lies ahead of us in terms of the length of time of the operation, length of time in hospital and length of time convalescing and rehabilitating. He also mentioned that, as with all surgery, there are risks – albeit minor – and reassured us that every possible precaution is taken to minimise them.

As I have waited and pondered what lies ahead I have realised how much I take for granted in my life and the people around me. And I think there’s a truism to be found here: we take so much for granted and only notice its significance to us when it is threatened or taken away. Maybe it is only in shadows that we fully appreciate the light: illness sharpens our awareness of what it means to be healthy; sadness and grief poignantly make us hope for joy; poverty and debt heighten our appreciation of wealth; loneliness makes us yearn for companionship; incapacity inspires us to value freedom and mobility.

In one of my favourite films ‘Evan Almighty’ there is a moment when Evan’s wife, Joan, has an encounter with God. God (brilliantly played by Morgan Freeman) serves her in a diner and says: “Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, do you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?”

This is left as an open question in the film but it does make a lot of sense to me. Taking that thought and applying it to what I said earlier, I believe that God uses our shadow experiences to help us appreciate the light. I don’t believe that God causes illness, sadness, grief, poverty, debt, loneliness or incapacity but I do believe that he can speak in and through them and perhaps at those times we are more attuned to listening.

In words that are often read at this time of year in Carol services from the beginning of John’s Gospel we read: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5). For John ‘the light’ is Jesus. But the word we translate as “overcome” can also be translated as “understood”, “seize”, “grasp”, “comprehend”, “overtake”, or “suppress”. Because the irrepressible, inextinguishable light is beyond the experience and comprehension of darkness it stands in stark contrast to it. From an experience of darkness (an absence of light) the light becomes all the more attractive and we begin to appreciate it, realise what it means and move towards it.

If you are in shadow or darkness now, I hope and pray that you will experience light or at least catch a glimpse of it and find that the power and hold the darkness has on you is diminished as a result. If you are in light now, appreciate it and make the most of it – and share that light with those who need it.

Be blessed, be a blessing.