Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Living through liminal times

'Living through liminal times'
A reflection for Wed 24th June (Birth of John the Baptist):

  • Isaiah 40:1-11
  • Psalm 85:7-end
  • Luke 1:57-66, 80

Psalm 85, ‘righteousness and peace kiss’, www.shuna-art.co.uk

Do you remember when ‘going into someone’s house’ was something we took for granted?! When we didn’t give a passing thought to the moment we stepped over someone’s doorstep? When ‘popping round to see someone’ meant going into their kitchen for a cuppa, not knocking on the door and then taking four steps backwards?

The Latin word for ‘doorstep’ is limen – from which we get the English word ‘liminal’, the name for those ‘threshold’ times and spaces that are ‘betwixt and between’, ‘neither here nor there’ – times and spaces of ‘comings and goings’, of transition and change.

We’re in one hell of a liminal space right now. As a church, we’ve just (Sunday 21st) said farewell to Jenni, our curate for the last 3 years; we’re just about (Sunday 28th) to formally welcome Gloria into her new role and ministry among us as curate. As a country, we’re entering into a new phase in the easing of the COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ – and there are more possibilities for where we’re allowed to go, and what we’re able to do, whilst still having to be very careful to limit the risk of spreading the virus that hasn’t simply ‘disappeared’. And as a world, we’re continuing to dig deep into the questions of how we might live life differently, order our societies differently – what a ‘new normal’ might look like, in the wake of COVID-19, with the ongoing global environmental emergency, and in a world where, finally, many of us who are white are waking up to the racism that is so deeply ingrained in both our collective history, and in the present-day structures of our society. And then, to come full circle back to church, we who are Christians in Hodge Hill need to spend time asking ourselves, what might/should ‘church’ look like, in this different world? Yes, we really are in a profoundly liminal space right now.

Our readings today, on the day the worldwide Church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist, offer us a number of images that help us think a bit more about this experience of being in ‘liminal’ space.

In our Isaiah reading, we’re in the wilderness. The people of Israel – or many of them, at least – have been invaded, captured, and taken into exile. They’re a long way from the place they’ve called ‘home’. The place where they find themselves isn’t a desert, where there is hardly any life at all, but a wilderness, a wild place, where there is plenty of life, but that life feels strange, uncomfortable, threatening even. The wilderness is where nettles and brambles thrive, and the kinds of animals that we call ‘wild’ because they’re not necessarily friendly, and certainly not domesticated. Wildernesses are, by definition, not places that are easy to spend time in, or to travel through.

And it’s into this experience of wilderness and exile, that through the prophet Isaiah God speaks words of ‘comfort’ and ‘tenderness’. Enough is enough, the time has come, ‘here is your God’, coming to you, coming to feed you, gather you, carry you, lead you. God is coming to be with you in the wilderness, and to guide you through it.

I wonder, what parts of life – for you, for our church community, for our society and our world – feel like ‘wilderness’ right now?

I wonder what it might mean for us, to know that God is with us in the wilderness, and is guiding us through it? I wonder what we might do, very intentionally, to actively put our trust in that God, in the midst of everything that is going on in the world?

In our reading from the beginning of Luke’s gospel, we find ourselves with Elizabeth, in the middle of childbirth. As moments of transition go, giving birth is one of the big ones in many people’s lives – and being born is a universal experience, even if we probably don’t remember it! Childbirth can sometimes be quick, and can sometimes feel like it’s taking forever. I remember, over the hours in which Janey was giving birth to Rafi, praying the ‘how long, O Lord’ of Psalm 13, repeatedly. And however good the drugs are, labour always involves pain – a pain that some of us who’ve not been through it can barely imagine. When we talk of ‘new beginnings’, we would be wise not to forget the real, lengthy, painful labour that our most embodied of new beginnings involve. It can’t be rushed – it will happen in its own good time. It’s painful, and it’s fraught – even today – with risk, and the potential for grief as much as joy.

And then there is something quite particular about this birth, to Elizabeth and Zechariah. A birth heralded by an angel, a messenger of God. A birth that has involved a literally dumb-struck father – for a whole nine months – because he can’t believe what is happening. A birth that sees the child’s mother breaking with tradition, because it is she who names the child (not, as expected, the father), and because the name she gives him is a new one to their family lineage. Truly God is doing something new here, and Elizabeth, who had been cruelly labelled ‘barren’, is the one who brings it to birth. The onlookers are right to wonder, ‘What then will this child become?’

I wonder, what signs have we seen of something new coming to birth – in our own lives, in our church community, in our neighbourhood, in our society and our world?

I wonder where it is time to break with tradition, time for different voices to be heard, or time for us to use a new name, or new language, beyond the familiar?

And finally, in between Isaiah’s prophecy and Luke’s story of John’s birth, we have the words of Psalm 85. Words of a people longing to see God’s presence, to hear God’s voice, to live in God’s peace. ‘I will listen,’ says the Psalmist, ‘to what the Lord God will say’. The Psalmist who elsewhere says, ‘I will wait for the Lord’ (Psalm 130:5-6), ‘I will seek your face’ (Psalm 27:8), ‘I will hope continually’ (Psalm 71:14). Wait, seek, hope, listen. These are Advent words – for today’s Advent story. The Christian calendar does this at times – throws us into different seasons, especially in the long expanse of what is called ‘ordinary time’ that we’ve now entered. But even in this time of lockdown, when every day blurs into the others, there is no such thing as a time when ‘nothing much happens’. Now is the time for waiting, seeking, hoping, listening. Now is the time, even when our attention spans feel limited, for straining to pay attention to what is going on – both within us, and around us. And when we pay attention in a way that cuts through the media hype, the political spin, and the excitable adverts of re-opened shops, what will we hear, and see? Even in the midst of this time of distancing, disconnection and division, we will, with the Psalmist, see faithfulness springing up from the ground, justice looking down from the sky, steadfast love and faithfulness meeting together, justice and peace kissing each other – and inviting us to join them.

I wonder, how can we practise ‘listening to what the Lord God will say’? What will help us to pay attention, beyond the media hype, political spin, and advertisements to consume, to what God is doing? And when we do, what are we hearing and seeing – and how can we join in?

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Some questions for this time...

Some questions I’m pondering, inspired by these quotes..
1. Have we come to the edges? What have we found there? How prepared are we to make those edges our home - rather than stepping away from the edge and ‘going back’?
2. What is the ‘new garment’ beginning to look like? Whom/what is it fitting well? Who’s doing the stitching? Who’s being stitched up?
(Arundhati Roy)
3. Who is bearing the ‘rupture’, and/or prepared to stay with those who are? What are we, consciously or unconsciously, dragging through this ‘portal’ with us? And what are we prepared to relinquish, leave behind? *** I wonder, what other questions should we be asking at the moment...?

Friday, 5 June 2020

"We take a breath"

In the last few days, the world has witnessed the very public racist murder of George Floyd by police in the USA, the global wave of grief, anger and solidarity in response, and the ways in which this has highlighted ongoing, structural, socialised white supremacy and anti-blackness in our world, in our society here in the UK, and in our churches.

In a tiny, personal way, the last week for me has also marked the end of co-writing with Ruth Harley our book, Being Interrupted: Re-imagining the Church's Mission from the Outside, In. The book begins with the 2016 Brexit vote, and ends with the 'great interruption' of COVID-19. In between, it tries to explore the interconnected structural divisions in our (specifically UK) society - and church - down lines of race, class and gender, and also acknowledging the ways in which we push children, and our other-than-human neighbours, to the edges of visibility, value and power. And it tries to do that exploring - particularly my voice in the book - in a way which is critically conscious of my own multiple privileges, as a white, middle-class, male, adult, ordained priest in the Church of England.

Before the book's Epilogue, which reflects on the interruption of COVID-19 that we're still right in the middle of, the final two chapters of the book focus on the cross and resurrection. We imagine the journey of conversion that the Roman centurion at the cross might have gone on, becoming a traitor to the oppressive Empire of which he has been a representative. And we try to catch, and point to, glimpses of what a fearlessly honest, painstakingly careful 'joining together' in resurrection community might look like.


The chapter on resurrection finishes with a reflection on breathing - or 'respiring', to use a more technical or old-fashioned word... 

respire   /rɪˈspʌɪə/    verb
gerund or present participle: respiring
1.       breathe.
"he lay back, respiring deeply"
(of a plant) carry out respiration, especially at night when photosynthesis has ceased.
"lichens respire at lower levels of temperature and moisture"
2.       (archaic) recover hope, courage, or strength after a time of difficulty.
"the archduke, newly respiring from so long a war"

Breathing is a theme in the resurrection stories. Jesus comes into a locked room, and breathes on his fearful disciples. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost is encountered as rushing wind - powerful breath - that sends them out, to connect and communicate with others.

Breathing is something of a universal necessity. We breathe, to live. The rhythm of breathing, taking in, giving out, is something every moment needs, but is also an invitation to move, journey - to pay attention to the cycles and spirals within which we are moving.

"I can't breathe," gasped George Floyd, repeatedly, as he was choked to death under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis. "I can't breathe" gasped Eric Garner 11 times, as he was choked to death by a police officer in New York in 2014. Victims of state-sponsored, white supremacist, anti-black violence, six years apart, with so, so many in between. "I can't breathe," gasp Black sisters and brothers in the US, the UK and across the world, as our globalised white supremacist structures refuse to allow space for Black bodies, Black voices, Black lives to matter in the same why as white bodies, white voices, white lives apparently matter.

"I Can't Breathe" - graffiti art by Mohammed 'Aerosol' Ali, in Birmingham, June 2020

So what does breathing mean for those of us who are white, or whose identities are entangled in other forms of structural privilege? For many of us, even our breathing requires particular kinds of attentiveness. Some of us are just beginning to wake up, just beginning to pay attention, to our entangled pasts and presents, in ways that might make our future breathing, speaking, acting, more conscious and more consciously in solidarity with the multitudes of our kin - human and other-than-human - that struggle to breathe.

I wrote the words below, which conclude our chapter on resurrection, from that conscious position of multiple privilege, in the days after George Floyd's murder. They are not, as I say, the last word.


We take a breath
to resist the temptation to seize the initiative.

We take a breath
to avoid being the first to speak.

We take a breath
so we are better placed to hear others to speech.

We take a breath
to relax our defences,
to be better able to receive
as gifts.

We take a breath
to stay put,
to look,
and look again,
and to notice
the glory
in our common flesh.

We take a breath
to enter
into a shared unspeaking
with those human and other-than-human kin
who do not speak in words,
with those who have been silenced,
with those fighting for breath
because there is a knee on their neck,
a hand on their throat,
or because the air they inhale
is poisoned with toxic chemicals,
or because
they are breathing their last,
crucified by today’s Empires.

We take a breath
to ‘stay with the trouble’,
to let in the pain,
to be interrupted by the losses,
with cries too deep for words,
to breathe them in
and breathe through them,
to let them pass through our hearts,
‘making good rich compost
out of all that grief’.[1]

We take a breath
to let the work of relinquishing
and repentance
and reparation
begin in us,
to let the decomposers
and the processes of decomposition
do their thing,
break open,
chew over,

We take a breath
to let ourselves be stretched
even to aching point
into wormhole solidarities
beyond our familiar horizons.

We take a breath
to ready ourselves
to follow after
and among
our respiring
‘mass of swarming neighbours’,[2]
a ‘force field
of speechlessly breathing bodies’,
catching a breath
in shared silence,[3]
stretching the Moment,
opening the window,
leaping and racing
blown on the wind of the Spirit,
into the Background Realm
of Wild Reality
that is the kin-dom
of God’s shalom.

We take a breath
to pass up the last word.


Recommended reading - for white Christians especially (not remotely exhaustive!):

  • Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race (London: Bloomsbury, 2017)
  • Akala, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (London: Two Roads, 2018)
  • Afua Hirsch, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging (London: Vintage, 2018)
  • Anthony Reddie, Theologising Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019)
  • Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon, 2018)
  • Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Anti-racist (London: Vintage, 2019)
  • Layla Saad, Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise your Privilege, Combat Racism, and Change the World (Quercus, 2020)
  •  A.D.A. France-Williams, Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England (London: SCM, 2020)
  • Mukti Barton, Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection: Speaking out on racism in the church (London: DLT, 2005)
  • Michael N. Jagessar & Anthony G. Reddie (eds.), Black Theology in Britain: a Reader (London: Equinox, 2007)
  • Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
  • Ben Lindsay, We Need to Talk about Race: Understanding the Black Experience in White Majority Churches (London: SPCK, 2019)
  • Anthony G. Reddie, Is God Colour-Blind? Insights from Black Theology for Christian Ministry (London: SPCK, 2009)
  • James Perkinson, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) 
  • Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014)

[1] Macy & Brown, pp.276-8
[2] Tom Dewar, in a global #TogetherApart conversation, April 2020
[3] Keller, pp.164, 167