A Mysterious Presence
Learning from liminality.
For those who crave certainty and are comforted by unchanging traditions, these past two years have been unkind. The experience of living through a global pandemic has disrupted most of our routines and heaped anxiety and uncertainty upon our everyday living. Churches have not been immune to this disruption and many congregations now find themselves emerging from the pandemic in a continuing state of change. Who is coming back to worship in person and who is remaining online? Who will stay with us and who has ghosted away? What to do with these newfound tools of technology that can at times enhance a sense of community and other times challenge our very understanding of an incarnational faith?
I met with a pastor recently over coffee and asked how things were going in his congregation. “It’s a bit of a weird time,” he said. “We’re back together but things have changed. It feels more like being on the threshold of a new and uncertain future, rather than a return to home.”
This language of threshold was compelling to me. It reminded me of the work that Susan Beaumont has done on liminality. Beaumont has been speaking for several years on the theme of liminality and congregational life. Different than an intentional season of change management, Beaumont suggests that liminal seasons for congregations are moments where continuity of tradition is called into question, and uncertainty about the future fuels doubt. During these seasons, it is like we are standing on both sides of a threshold where we have one foot in something that is not yet over, and another foot planted somewhere not yet defined. Beaumont writes:
“Organizational life is full of liminal experiences – seasons where something has ended, but a new thing has not yet begun. Seasons where watching and waiting can be difficult, over-planning can be futile, and it simply isn’t helpful to pretend that we understand what happens next. Liminal seasons are challenging, disorientating, and unsettling. We strive to move forward with purpose and certainty. Instead, we feel as though we are trudging through mud, moving away from something comfortable and known, toward something that can’t yet be known. Liminal seasons are also exciting and innovative. The promise of a new beginning unleashes creative energy, potential and passion. All truly great innovations are incubated in liminality. God’s greatest work occurs in liminal spaces.”
Indeed, Beaumont further argues, “The Christian story is, by design, an invitation into liminality. The hoped-for reign of God is already inaugurated in the figure of Jesus Christ, but not yet complete.”
Behold, the threshold
Recognizing one’s place on the threshold, as an individual, a congregation or a community, is knowing that we are participating in the mystery of God’s call and character. We know this feeling when we discern what to do after high school and which education program to enter, which person to enter into relationship with, who to stand with before others and say, “I do,” whether to move from one community to another for work, when it is time to leave one faith community and join another. We know this liturgical liminality when we stand on the threshold of new parenthood or when we hold the hand of a loved one slipping from our care to the Communion of Saints.
Part of the mystery of this moment is when God remains silent and when God speaks. I’m teaching the Introduction to Preaching course at Vancouver School of Theology this fall and enjoying a wonderful group of students well on their way to effective pulpit ministries. Students preach four times in the term, delivering a one-, three-, four- and six-minute sermon in class. The preaching text is a chapter each time from the Book of Jonah. Recently students were preaching their three-minute sermon(ette) on Jonah 2, Jonah in the belly of the fish. Many of the preachers noted God’s silence in the midst of Jonah’s distress. Three days in the unpleasant belly of the fish moves Jonah to deep prayer, turning back to the one who he had fled from like a momentarily lost child searching for their parent in a crowded shopping mall. Part of the liminal moment is honestly not knowing what to do next, but trusting that God, even when silent, is already moving ahead of us. God’s character is a way-maker, God’s action a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
A thin PLAce
For those of us in the Reformed tradition, a key symbol in our worship spaces reminds us of God’s surprising, mysterious presence in the midst of our everyday, ordinary lives. As I reflect on my experience speaking in Reformed communities over the years, there was always a symbol present in the gathered community. From a rural Presbyterian Church in Taiwan congregation to a large PC-USA gothic church in South Carolina, the symbol was there. Whether it was Irish farmers in a Presbyterian Church in Ireland congregation in County Armagh or Kenyan farmers in the Ngong mountains worshiping in a Presbyterian Church in East Africa congregation, the symbol was there. Even here, at St. Andrew’s Hall where I serve as Dean, the first thing you see when you enter the chapel is this symbol. The burning bush. Nec Tamen Consumebatur. Burning yet not consumed.
This foundational story for Reformed Christians found in Exodus 3 offers us a beautiful image of God’s revelation in the midst of everyday, ordinary life. Moses, working for his in-laws’ family company, comes across the strange sight of a bush on fire, yet not burning up. From the midst of this flame comes a voice, “Kick off your flip flops, you’re standing on holy ground.” Unexpected. Unplanned. Unbelievable. Without realizing it, Moses has encountered the living God and what was once an ordinary space becomes a liminal one. A moment that Celtic Christians called a “thin place” where heaven and earth kiss. This unplanned, uncontrollable encounter with the living God brings with it a deep and profound sense of call that will push Moses beyond his own human limits to rely solely on divine agency as he responds to God’s plan to liberate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. This holy ground, this thin place is a liminal space where we, and the world around us, attend to God’s presence but are also no longer in firm control. This lack of knowing, of not being in charge can be scary, even threatening to us as human creatures and requires deep trust that God is indeed with us.
Forward in faith
After the disruption of leaving Pharaoh’s home, losing his status, power and wealth as a prince of Egypt, finally Moses was settled into a new home, new family and new country. And now this burning bush. After God’s silence, but certainly not God’s inactivity (when you consider the faithfulness shown to Moses in this long transition period), God speaks. But guess what? God is as mysterious in speaking as in silence. Who are you, God? I am who I am. Moses stands on the threshold. He is in a liturgical liminality as Moses encounters the living God and decides on his next, most faithful step. No need for a five-year strategic plan. No need to have everything figured out. No assurance that things will turn out the way he had planned. Just God’s presence, mysterious both in its detection and in its perceived absence. Too much knowing may not be helpful. If Moses had known everything that was to happen, he might have said, “No thanks.” Confronting Pharaoh again and again. Plagues. Death. Standing and holding back the Red Sea. Wilderness wandering. Ending his earthly life on Mount Nebo in plain sight of the Promised Land destination he had longed for decade after decade. No, maybe at times, for as hard as it is, the threshold moment, the liturgical liminality of praising God in the moment uncertain of the future is what we need as human creatures and communities of faith. Maybe just one burning bush every now and then is what it takes for us to not step backwards off the threshold but take a tiny step forward in faith.
God’s mysterious presence
I felt one of those threshold moments recently when I sat on an old tree log washed up on the rocky shore of the Sunshine Coast. It was the end of orientation week at Vancouver School of Theology where I teach as Professor of Mission Studies. Our wonderful Director of Presbyterian Formation at Vancouver School of Theology and equally gifted St. Andrew’s Hall Chaplain were leading our students in a weekend retreat on vocation and discernment. We were based at Camp Douglas, the Presbyterian summer camp purchased by the Women’s Missionary Society in 1947 and set on the most beautiful property that includes acres of old growth forest, a stream running through the property, simple cabins and a retreat centre, as well as pristine oceanfront access. While my colleagues were leading the students in spiritual exercises and bible study, I slipped out to sit quietly on the rocky beach. The night before, I had dropped my eldest child, now an adult, at the Vancouver airport as she left for a gap year of Christian service in a congregation in Australia. Her departure opened a liminal space for me and for our family.
As a parent, I am a professional worrier when it comes to my children, even if they are adults. Maybe you can relate? And so, I sat in silence accepting the liminality of that moment. The ocean waves crashed against the rocky shore nearby, the wind moved through the old growth trees in the outdoor chapel behind me. Eagles soared overhead and I slipped easily into a posture of prayer. While God may have been silent in that moment to me, God’s presence was palpable. The mysterious nature of God’s accompaniment of our fragile and fallible human lives is a gift that we can never forget. I looked at my iPhone for the exact time. I knew what time my daughter’s plane was scheduled to land in Sydney and then the limited amount of time provided to change planes to her final destination.
As I sat on the old log, I prayed gratitude for the privilege God gave my wife and I stewarding our daughter’s life as well as the reality that she was launching from our nest, in service of God, taking steps with God into the unknown, a place that I could not accompany her. I also prayed for God’s protection and guidance knowing that her heavenly Father could offer her so much more than I could now as an earthly Dad. I sat. Watched my iPhone for signs of activity. And I waited some more. Suddenly, my phone lit up offering a visual that made my heart leap – three little blue dots in the message app appeared on my screen. Granted, it was not as impressive as a burning bush, but in that moment it was revelatory. And like Moses with the burning bush at Horeb, a message followed. The dots transformed into a note from my daughter. “On the ground in Sydney, changing planes. Love you.” It was a gift.
Not that all was revealed. Not that the transition or liminality was complete. Still a threshold moment. But just enough. . . for that day. Just enough to be reminded that the ongoing presence of the God we know in Jesus Christ invites us again and again to place an uncertain future in God’s certain hands. The reality of God’s speech and silence remains a mystery in the limitations of our human frame. Yet in the end there is a gift in learning from liminality.