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.

Hateful

Over the last week or so hate has been bothering me. Not, I hasten to add, because I am feeling hated. And not because I hate someone else. I was reading some comments online from someone I don’t know but whom I respect about the level of negative, critical, judgmental, cruel and rude comments they were receiving. It was horrible.

And to make things worse, the comments were from people who said they were Christians!

It led me to post two Tweets:

It breaks my heart when I read judgmental comments online from people who follow Jesus. He was so inclusive of all.

Jesus welcomed and loved everyone (even the self-righteous religious people whom he called ‘hypocrites’).

I am acutely aware that by posting these Tweets I may well be guilty of judging too. But I feel a little bit justified because I am not naming and shaming someone. It’s not trolling. And as a note of self-restraint I recognise that therein lies the beginning of the thought process that can lead someone to feel justified in writing and posting horrible things about someone else with whom they disagree. Can’t we learn to disagree well?

These Tweets got an interesting and encouraging range of responses. I was getting ready for a lively discussion…

Then at 10:33pm on Monday 22nd May hate took on a hideous and heinous new form when a suicide bomber killed 22 and injured hundreds at the end of a concert at the Manchester Arena. The act in itself is barbaric, but to deliberately do it at a time and a place where you know that young people will be present adds an evil twist to an already evil act.

My initial response was stunned silence. I could not find the words to express how I felt. The tears that kept welling up in my eyes and the lump in my throat were the most eloquent expression I had.

Hands Holding a Lit CandleLater on I found myself reflecting on the hate that had been expressed. I thought about Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s words:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

These words appeared all over social media. They are deep, profound, defiant words that also express truth.

So I let them lead me into a personal prayer:

You cannot stop hatred with more hatred
You cannot prevent darkness with more darkness
You cannot reduce pain with more pain
You cannot defuse anger with more anger
You cannot defeat injustice with more injustice
You cannot reduce outrage with more outrage
So I resolve afresh to pray for love, light, healing, peace, justice and grace in myself that I might share it with others

You see the first response that matters in the face of hatred, anger, evil and all else that seeks to destroy and tear down is the one within us. We can add to them, or we can diminish them. We can give them energy or we can starve them of life.

In some ways it’s counter-intuitive, it goes against the self-preservation instinct within us all. It is selfless, it is generous, it is loving. I believe it’s a glimpse of God.

We saw it in action on Monday evening:

The homeless man who ran into the arena foyer against the flow of people seeking to escape the carnage – to see if he could help the injured and comfort the dying.

The taxi drivers who took people home at no charge.

The people who opened their homes to strangers who were bewildered and didn’t know how they would get home that night.

The emergency services who had to deal with the carnage with dignity and professionalism.

The hospital staff who turned up for extra shifts.

The many people who gave blood for the first time.

People who brought lunches and cups of tea for the overburdened hospital staff who had no time to stop.

And so much more.

Hate is an acidic, corrosive, ugly word. It’s an even worse emotion. And as an action it is beyond appalling.

But it does not win when love rises up in our hearts. Love wins. Love wins.

Be blessed, be a blessing

scar

If you are one of the poor souls who reads my bloggages regularly you will know that from time to time I mention that I suffer from Chronic Migraine and Cluster Headaches. From about 2002 onwards there has been a constant Migraine headache going on inside my skull. The only variation was in intensity of the pain levels. To go with this is a regular routine of Cluster Headaches. The CH attacks make the migraine feel pleasant by comparison and are debilitating beyond belief.

Before you start getting the handkerchiefs out for a sob story let me say that since I had an operation to install an Occipital Nerve Stimulator I have been more or less Migraine and Cluster Headache free while it has been working, which is life-transforming. The headaches are still there. They are still firing away, which I discovered to my painful cost when the battery in my first ONS expired and the headache pain resurfaced almost instantaneously. But the ONS means that my brain no longer pays attention to the pain signals.

(If you don’t like the idea of surgical implantation you might like to skip the next paragraph and pick up the bloggage below the picture).

I am SO grateful to have this gadget implanted within me and to feel the reassurring ‘fizz’ in the back of my head where the wires are implanted. Each week I sit for a while and re-charge the battery that is inserted just under the skin at the top of my chest (no, I don’t plug in, it’s an induction charging process).

charge
recharging

 

 

(If you skipped the last paragraph, welcome back). The great news for me is that because of this implant I am pain free on the whole. The headaches are there still, but I can’t feel them because my brain has been tricked into ignoring the pain signals.

However, occasionally I get a bit self-conscious about the bits and pieces inside me. Last weekend I attended the Baptist Assembly and as we were sitting in a row in the auditorium one of my self-conscious moments came over me as I realised that all of the people behind me were able to see the scar in the back of my head (oops, sorry, another potential squeam moment). I started to wonder what they were thinking about it, and if they were put off by it. I started to feel uncomfortable about it and wanted to put a hat on to hide it.

And then I realised that most people weren’t likely to be feeling as awkward about it as I was. I realised that if anyone asked me about it I would be able to tell them about the wonderful life-transforming nature of the surgery that led to that scar. And I realised that, once again, I was grateful that I have the scar rather than the headaches. I still wouldn’t mind if my hair regrew in that area and covered it (or indeed the rest of my scalp too) but I became comfortable once again in my own skin, scars and all.

That then got me thinking about how people can be really uncomfortable about how other people perceive them. We all want to be liked and appreciated. We don’t want other people to think badly of us. We try to keep our weaknesses and failures and difficulties hidden from others.

But as a follower of Jesus I want people to know that I have not got myself completely sorted, I still make mistakes, I still let people down, I still get things wrong. I want people to know that I am a work in progress. And while I don’t rejoice or revel in these things they are like the visible scar on the back of my head and I am happy that they are visible because they are testimony to the change that God is bringing about in me. I want people to know that my relationship with God, the example, teaching, forgiveness and fresh start offered by Jesus Christ and the personal experience and presence of the Spirit of God make all the difference in the world to me. Slowly but surely I am being changed to become a better person. The scars and wounds of fragile human nature and fecklessness are still present, but they now point to the fact that my identity in God has been changed to ‘forgiven’.

Just as my ONS means that my headaches no longer have the debilitating effect on me they once had, and it gives me the opportunity to live life with a broader smile on my face, so my relationship with God described above makes all the difference. It’s not that I am perfect and that bad stuff will no longer affect me – far from it. The bad stuff still happens but it happens in the wider context of God’s forgiving, all-embracing gracious love, his gentle presence, a certainty, a hope and a meaning for life within me that are life-transforming for me.

And my story includes an experience that without that forgiving, all-embracing gracious love, presence, certainty, hope and meaning for life within me during the darkest days of the rampant Migraines and Cluster Headaches I would not have been able to live in even the semblance of coping that I had. God’s grace was enough when there was nothing else but pain. The pain didn’t go away, but the all-consuming meaninglessness of it was given a different context of life, hope, love and strength that came from God, not from within.

I hope and pray that you might experience that for yourself too.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

who said that?

I was meeting with some church leaders recently and I said, “The past helps to shape our present but it need not define our future.”

One of the people there asked, “Who said that?”

My answer was not intended to be flippant: “Me.”

They wanted to know who I was quoting, but it was one of the rare occasions when something possibly profound came out of my mouth and I was not aware that I was quoting anyone else. I have since done an internet search for that sentence and while there are others who have written similar sentences and thoughts I am not aware of anyone who has said it in exactly the same way. (If I did inadvertently quote someone else please let me know and I will gladly attribute it to them.)

I have pondered this sentence since: partly because I could not believe I had said something that made sense and sounded like I was quoting from someone intelligent; and partly because I have reflected further on whether it is true. I still think it is. And it can be liberating.

A past success may have enabled us to be in a particular role or enjoy a measure of wealth or fame. But those things can fade if all we do is live on those past glories. I am a long-suffering supporter of a football team that has won domestic and European trophies at the highest level. But the last major trophy was well over 30 years ago and while we still rejoice in that success it is no guarantee of success or survival in the future.

A past failure may have shaped who we are today. But that does not mean that we have to be marked by that failure for the future. We don’t have to wallow in shame and self-pity forever. One of the joys of being a follower of Jesus is that he is in the business of offering forgiveness, fresh starts and freedom from past failure.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApparently there’s a saying in countries where there unpaved roads that develop deep ruts in wet weather – choose your rut carefully as you will be in it for a long time.  Once your car wheels have entered a rut you will find it difficult to escape it. The idea is that whether it’s the recent or distant past, events in our life will have shaped and define who we are and where we are today.

But need not remain in a rut. Grace, apologising, seeking and giving forgiveness, reconciliation and renewed hope can help us leave a rut of past failure. Learning from the past, looking with optimism, seeking fresh vision and a willingness to grow can help us leave a rut of past success.

Be blessed, be a blessing

But we had hoped…

Regular bloggists among you will know that occasionally something strikes me while I am preparing for a sermon and I will share it here as a kind of sneak preview as God is shaping what I say. Today I want to go back to what I shared last Sunday morning. We were looking at the encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus* (Luke 24:13-44). In that passage we get an amazing summary of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. what follows is more or less what I shared from that point in the narrative on Sunday morning…

Isn’t [Luke 24:19-24] an astonishing summary of Jesus’ life? In the Message version it is just 139 words long. If you ever want a summary of Jesus’ life you could do a lot worse than use the Gospel according to Cleopas and Mary*. And yet…

And yet it is an incomplete summary. It is full of hopes but they are hopes that have been extinguished. It is full of questions and doubts. For me the saddest phrase is the one that begins: “But we had hoped…” They had hoped Jesus was The One. They had hoped that this was God’s moment. They had hoped that Jesus would live up to their expectations, perhaps even when he was arrested and on trial. But those hopes were dashed when he was crucified and died. They were buried with Jesus in the tomb.

So as they walked back to Emmaus they carried with them unfulfilled hope, disappointment, sadness, bewilderment, doubt and confusion.

We all carry questions, doubts, problems on our journey of life like Cleopas and Mary. I include myself in that.

I have “But I had hoped…” moments in my life and in my ministry:

“But I had hoped that I would not let Jesus down as much as I do.”

“But I had hoped that I would not disappoint people.”

“But I had hoped that more people would become Christians.”

What are you carrying with you on your journey of faith? Do you have hopes and ambitions that are unfulfilled? Is there disappointment, sadness, bewilderment, doubt and confusion? Would you include the phrase, “But I had hoped…” in your own story of faith?

telescopeHow do we deal with “But I had hoped?” Let’s look at how Jesus responded to it. He revealed to Cleopas and Mary that they had been looking at the Bible from the wrong end of the telescope.

They had looked at the Bible as the story of how God would redeem Israel from suffering – seeing God as distant and remote – but instead the Bible is the story of how God would redeem the world through suffering – close up and personal.

Jesus went through the chronology of the Bible “beginning with Moses and the prophets… all Scriptures.” He showed them how it makes sense that God took the suffering, rejection and sin on himself in order to release people from it. He showed them how the Bible points towards the Messiah’s death on behalf of humanity.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if we are looking at things from the wrong end of the telescope. Does God seem remote and distant, not involved in our life? Or is he up close and personal? A remote and distant God cannot respond to “But I had hoped…” as much as a God who is up close and personal – within us by his Spirit.

A God who has dealt with sin and has experienced the pain of rejection and death, is one with whom we can share our “But I had hoped…” moments and ask for his help.

I find Jesus’ death and resurrection help me to read the Bible. It helps me regain a better perspective. It helps to increase my awareness of Jesus who died for me. It helps to regain an awareness of the Jesus who was raised from the dead. It doesn’t matter which part of the Bible you read, the Old and New Testaments both point to him, look for what the Bible is saying about Jesus and you may find that the telescope turns around and the distant God becomes the up close and personal God.

The reality of Jesus’ resurrection can transform how we see things. No longer is death and suffering the end, it is the means that justifies us in God’s sight.

One more thing I would suggest that will help us with our “But we had hoped…” moments is not to travel alone. Cleopas and Mary were travelling together, “talking with each other about everything that had happened.” It was as they discussed things that Jesus drew near. This is why prayer triplets, house groups or just informally sharing with others is so helpful. We can find that as we are honestly sharing our doubts and struggles that our companions can share them with us. And we may well find that as we pray about them together Jesus draws alongside us. we may not recognise him at first, but he promises to be with us.

It was their encounter with the risen Jesus as they walked along that rekindled their extinguished hope.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I believe that Cleopas is the same person called ‘Clopas’ in John’s gospel and described as the husband of one of the Marys who followed Jesus. That’s why I called Cleopas’s companion ‘Mary’.

Here be dragons

It may help you to read yesterday’s bloggage at this point and then come back, in order to set a context.

Done that?

Good.

old mapOn ancient maps, so we are told, where the map maker had run out of knowledge at the edge of the map they would write ‘Here be Dragons’ or similar warnings to keep sailors from sailing into unknown perils.

I have a sense that it would be easier to put a similar warning for churches about our future. Because of changes in legislation in the UK we face some difficult decisions and discussions on the question of same sex marriage.

Some people would rather we did not discuss this, reckoning that we are sailing in dangerous and uncharted waters or preferring not to have to talk about such things in church.

Others (on both ‘sides’) have already made up their mind about the issue and are just waiting for the moment to express their view in a meeting. They welcome the opportunity to persuade others to their point of view but I fear may not be so ready to be persuaded themselves.

Some people are still trying to work out what they think, trying to make sense of what the Bible says and are confused. If they had to make a decision now they would struggle.

Some are worried that this issue could divide the church.

And (we must always remember this) some come to this with personal experience – it’s not a theoretical discussion but affects friends and family.

As a church we are hosting a day with Revd Paul Goodliff, Head of Ministry at the Baptist Union of Great Britain (28th September) where we will explore the social context, what the Bible is saying to us and consider a Christlike response. I have been part of a day like this before and it is incredibly helpful. If you can be there, do.

Following that, in the nearish future, we have some difficult decisions to make and discussions to have. Because of the change in the law it is possible that our church could be approached to see if we would conduct a same sex wedding. What do we say?

As things stand I am sure, from conversations that I have had with people in our church, that if we as a church made a policy decision not to conduct same sex weddings there would be some people who would leave our church as a matter of conscience and principle. I am also sure, from conversations that I have had with people in our church, that if we as a church made a policy decision to conduct same sex weddings there would be some people who would leave our church as a matter of conscience and principle.

At this point I am tempted to stop and simply write ‘Here be dragons’ over the whole issue and not go there. Perhaps it would be easier if we did not conduct any weddings at all (which I think is the equivalent of ‘Here be dragons’). But that is not a helpful response and is not a Christlike response.

Instead I am praying earnestly for God’s grace, guidance and wisdom in this. Because the division and departures are only inevitable if churches are human institutions. If we truly are people and places that are full of the Spirit of Jesus, people of love and grace, then there must be a way ahead that does not lead to argument, hurt and division.

Please join me in praying for that for our churches and for ourselves.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

je ne regrette rien

We are following a series of sermons at our church at the moment: ‘Living life in all its fullness’. On Sunday morning we will be looking at ‘Living without regret’. It’s a theme that seemed important when I prepared the series. In preparation I have been wrestling with Peter after he had denied knowing Jesus. Or more accurately I have been wrestling with the passages about Peter.

I remembered that I had reflected on this before, and it had motivated me to write two pomes. They are in the ‘pomes’ section of the blog, under Bible, but I reproduce them here to save you from clicking.

I hate mornings.
I hate the sounds of life carrying on.
I hate the normality of it all.
It’s the end of my world and no-one has noticed.
And most of all I hate the sound
of that
damned
wretched
cockerel.
© 1995 Nick Lear

If only
I’d kept my mouth shut – making promises he knew I wouldn’t keep.
If only
I’d kept my eyes open – instead of falling asleep.
If only
I’d kept my mouth shut – when they
accused me.
If only
I could stop the tears from flowing.
© 1995 Nick Lear

 

firelight

Regret is not a bad thing. It is the beginning of repentance, restoration and renewal so long as we move on from regret. Peter’s regret was transformed by his encounter with the risen Jesus. It may seem naive and stating as I am about to will appear simplistic for anyone who lives in the shadow of deep regret, but I believe that the same is true for us today. Because Jesus is alive, the past can be forgiven, there is a mandate to live for today and we have a hope for the future. Peter found forgiveness, a mandate and hope after a cooked breakfast on the beach at Galilee.

The experience of this may be a process rather than an event, but it is part of living life in all its fullness as followers of Jesus.

Be blessed, be a blessing.