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.

s l o w m o t i o n . . .

snailI had an interesting experience yesterday. I was preaching at a church where I had previously done a magic show for their leaders and their partners. Yesterday one of them told me that he had taken a video of some of the show, and in particular had a slow motion video of a ‘knife throwing’ illusion that I performed with Stew the Rabbit. Initially I was a little bit alarmed as I thought he would say that the slow motion video showed how I had managed to perform the illusion.

Then he showed me the video.

The video is about 38 seconds long but captures what probably only took about 10 seconds in real time. At first, because the action is slowed down so much, nothing seems to be happening. In fact for the first ten seconds you can’t tell whether or not the video is running – other than by watching the counter at the bottom of the screen tick over.

Then, slowly, imperceptibly, the illusion unfolds and (I am rather chuffed about this) even in very slow motion you can’t see any of the sneakiness I employed. Sadly I can’t post video on my blog site as I am too cheap to pay the extra needed to be able to do that, but if you are interested you can watch it on youtube (spoiler alert you will see part of one of my illusions).

Watching the video reminds me of how, because we live life at a fast pace, we can sometimes think that nothing is happening when what we really need to do is wait patiently. We hear about negotiations between parties who are at loggerheads (nations, employers / employees, partners) and because we don’t hear how things are going we think they are failing when significant progress is being made behind the scenes. We make plans and because we don’t see instant results we think that the plans have come to nothing. We pray and because we don’t get an instant answer (or the one we want) we imagine that God’s not bothering to respond this time.

But just because, from our perspective, we can’t see any visible results it doesn’t mean that nothing is happening, or that nothing will happen. Patience is a virtue for a reason (it’s something God’s Spirit enhances within us – slowly)! Perseverance is commended in the Bible because we see things in real time on a linear space-time continuum rather than from God’s perspective beyond time (and yet with us in it too).

Don’t give up just because it looks like nothing is happening, be patient, watch and pray. (This is also good advice if you have lit a firework and nothing seems to be happening!!).

Be blessed, be a blessing.

being a good patient

waiting-for-my-planeThis bloggage is nothing to do with my surgery or subsequent transformation into a Minion (see previous bloggages if you don’t know what I mean).

Way back in February I ordered an illusion from a manufacturer in the USA. And they sent it off to me in the post. I waited.

And waited.

I was patient.

And I waited some more.

Eventually I ran out of patience and emailed the company to say that it hadn’t arrived and we agreed that it was not going to arrive so they said they would send another one. The thing is that they make the illusions themselves so they had to make another one before they could send it.

Time passed.

Eventually they told me that another one was on the way.

(It was now May)

So I waited.

I was still patient (mostly).

I waited some more.

And eventually I contacted the company and they agreed that it was not going to arrive.

So they made another one…

And I waited.

Then (at the beginning of August) they sent the third one, just as the first one arrived back at the company marked ‘undeliverable’ with no explanation about why that was the case.

So now, guess what?

I am waiting.

I now have a tracking number that enables me to know that the package is currently at Chicago’s O’Hare airport waiting to cross the Atlantic.

But I have no idea if or when it will make it to me, especially as we are moving house on Tuesday next week and while I am redirecting the post I don’t know if this will be included in that.

They say that patience is a virtue.

I think it is more than that. I think (agreeing with St Paul in the Bible) that it is a fruit that God’s Spirit grows in us as we allow ourselves to be open to him. And I am not just talking about patience in waiting for parcels, events or even people. I think it is primarily about patience in waiting for God’s timing. That comes with a growing acceptance that God (who sees everything) has a far far better idea of what is going on and what the best thing would be than my best and most certain plan ever could be. It comes with a willingness to pray ‘Thy will be done’ and mean it. It comes with a willingness and determination to wait for THE moment even if it means staying in a slimy pit, walking through the darkest valley or even being willing to remain there until we shuffle off this mortal coil.

That’s not easy. But it’s much more than a virtue. It’s hard. It’s robust. It’s a determined attitude. It’s a willingness to surrender to God. It’s not easy to understand. And it’s not something we can manufacture.

But when we really do allow the fruit to grow (and help create the right conditions for it to flourish through a ‘Thy will be done’ approach to life) we will find that it is also a source of peace, strength, comfort and hope.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

wait for it

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Are you any good at waiting?

Are a patient person, or do you get frustrated when your plans are delayed?

Do you see a red light (or even an amber one) as an opportunity to stop, admire the view, and do some thinking or do you see it as an imposition and an irritation – drumming your fingers on the steering wheel until the light turns green?

Do you find waiting easy, even when things are out of your control, or do you want to do all you can to expedite matters?

In the Bible there’s a verse which in some translations says, “those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength…” (Isaiah 40:31). In my translation it says, “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength…” [my italics]. The first translation made me wonder whether it was about waiting on heavenly tables and getting a tip from God!

Why the difference? The Hebrew word that is variously translated as ‘wait’ and ‘hope’ has different meanings and nuances all contained in the same word. It can mean ‘hope in a certain outcome’; ‘waiting patiently’; and ‘resting trustingly’ and in fact all three aspects are right. As a teenager we had a labrador dog called Bonnie. We used to balance a dog biscuit on Bonnie’s nose and tell her to wait. She would look at us pleadingly as she waited for the instruction to eat it. She would also drool, which was often an encouragement to us to allow her to have the biscuit before we drowned in drool. But she waited expectantly / hopefully / trustingly / patiently.

People who are expectant, patient and trusting in their relationship with God are promised renewed strength. It’s as if we keep putting on fresh strength like we put on fresh clothes daily. The strength is not specifically physical, it is the strength to persevere, to rise above life’s difficulties and problems, to keep going despite the odds. It’s an unnatural strength.

It’s the strength seen in people whose faith in Jesus puts their life in danger yet they refuse to deny that faith. It’s the strength shown by those who faith in God is mocked and ridiculed by others who do not share it.

When my children were a lot younger when they got tired we would carry them. We would tell them to hold on, and they would hold on tight, but actually they were held anyway. Waiting / expecting / hoping / trusting / resting in God is like that – we hold on to him in faith while, whether or not we are aware of it, we are held.

Be blessed, be a blessing

waiting fulfilled

For those of you who have been waiting patiently for something vaguely coherent to appear on these pages for the past two days: thank you for waiting.

For those of you who have been waiting impatiently for something vaguely coherent to appear on these pages for the past two days: I refer you to the subtitle of this blog… and you seriously expect me to be coherent?

For those of you who have been waiting patiently for news of the trolley delivery: woohoo! It arrived today!

It arrived in kit form.

Along with a piece of paper with relatively vague instructions. After examining them, turning them upside down and then turning the trolley components upside down I finally got the right pieces in the right places.

You may need to tilt your monitor or head to view this correctly

Trolley!!

Worryingly, however, there are two sets of nuts and washers left over. There are no bolts for them to go on, and they don’t appear on the vague instructions, so I am relatively confident that they are surplus to requirements, but they are there nonetheless to put a little bit of doubt in the mind of the assembler that they may have missed a vital aspect of the assembly process.

Reflecting on this briefly (before I start transporting things gleefully around the house and garage) I wonder whether you think God ought to have given us clearer instructions, especially for being church. I mean ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ is not exactly a detailed blueprint for church, is it?

And therein lies the genius. Within the broad parameters of this church-building, disciple-making, people-dunking, obedience-teaching programme is the flexibility and possibility for the good news of Jesus to be made relevant to every era, culture and person. And there’s the opportunity to establish church in ways and places that most effectively enable followers of Jesus to be free samples to those around them.

It begs the question, “Why do so many churches look the same?”

And, did Jesus leave any room for nuts and washers that are surplus to requirements? Nope – we all have a part to play – whether people think you are a nut or a washer (baptist)!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

than queue for waiting

Queue Line 2Apparently we Brits are quite polite. At least that is a reputation we have internationally. Allegedly we naturally form queues when waiting for something when people from other countries and cultures will start some form of rugby ruck or maul and pile in. It seems that we have a reputation for being patient people. I think I need to offer the world some caveats and amendments to this reputation. I would also suggest that this perception may be amended during the 2012 Olympics.

  1. When waiting in a queue at a bus stop the little old lady who arrives at the last minute, just before the bus arrives, will always take precedence over those who have been waiting for hours.
  2. When there are multiple queues you will always join the one that is moving slowest. This provides you with plenty of opportunities for deep sighing, eyebrow raising and tutting in the direction of the person in whose direction the queue is pointing.
  3. The natural queueing instinct can be overridden when there is chocolate or ice cream involved.
  4. The speed of movement of the queue is inversely proportionate to the length of time left before your car park ticket expires.
  5. Patiently waiting for parcels to be delivered becomes more difficult if you have to go out later in the day.
  6. Parcel delivery companies will usually leave it until the last minute of the “delivery window” in order to deliver an item for which you are waiting. The exception to this rule is that if you assume a last-minute delivery and go out, take a bath, or engage in any other activity that makes it impossible for you to answer the door the parcel will be delivered much sooner.
  7. When waiting in a doctor’s waiting room or at the hospital patients are no longer called “patients” after half an hour. Beyond this point they may be designated “victim, grumpy, bored or impatient.”
  8. There is a threshold of time beyond which fellow queuers develop a queue camaraderie. This threshold varies according to the length of the queue, how fast it is moving, and the importance of the activity for which the queue is waiting. For further analysis of this phenomenon see also ‘Blitz spirit’.

It seems to me that if someone could patent something to make queueing and waiting more bearable they could make a fortune. How do you bottle patience?

This seems to be one spiritual fruit that rarely ripens!

Be blessed, be a blessing.