'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?