Keeping in Touch 17: Now and not yet

Jacob wrestles with the angel of God

Dear friends,

At theological college I remember much talk of ‘liminality’, the experience of disorientation in the midst of a transition, a threshold: from childhood to adulthood, from school or training to work, from ordinand to ordained. The rites of passage we celebrate in church are liminal places. The theology of the New Testament is liminal – the Kingdom of Heaven has broken into the world in the person of Jesus, but its full effects are still in the future. Faith itself is a liminal experience, as we continue to make transitions in our understanding of who God is, and who we are in the light of God, as we encounter him in the Bible, the sacraments and in the people around us.

Well, little did we realise how handy all that chat would be in the summer of 2020 as we transition out of lockdown! This time is something of a liminal space – we’re out of the full lockdown but we’re not back to normal. We can shop and eat out and go to the pub, but not without the precautions we’re all used to – ‘socially distantly of course!’, our new most frequently used phrase. And on the church front, we’ll be returning to public worship in the building next Sunday 19th July, but in a limited way. And some of us will take longer to cross the threshold out of lockdown than others – those who are shielding, those who are feeling anxious. It is potentially a disorientating time, so keep keeping an eye out for each other. And in the wider world there is a sense of disorientation and transition, slow as it may be, as communities and groups stand up to racism. For those of you who are online may I remind you of the resources on the online services page of the website, some of which explore this issue, help us to learn about it or suggest how we can respond.

Another way of thinking about liminality is the idea of a ‘thin place’: times, places or experiences where the barrier between heaven and earth seems to be thin; a threshold. Life events are such moments. Special places, shared with the people who are special to us, might be another example. One of mine is St. Albans cathedral, a place saturated in prayer, pilgrimage and praise, and the legacy of a saint. Our shared thin place is All Saints. Yet in this transitional time we can’t share in it as usual. When we return to public worship on 19th, it will be in a limited way and the guidance around hygiene, test and trace and social distancing will have a significant impact on what we are able to do. There will be detailed information about what we have done, what we need you to do and what to expect in next week’s newsletter. Please read this very carefully. The PCC will be trialling the arrangements this Sunday and the service will be live streamed at 9.30am via the website. Virtual coffee will be at the later time of 11am.

The transitional place, the threshold, the liminal space is a place for meeting with God. The experience of disorientation and transition is often a place of encounter in the Bible. Jacob wrestles with God the night he crosses the Jabbok stream, refusing to let go of his unseen assailant without his a blessing – he receives a blessing and a new name: Israel (Genesis 32.22-32). In a disorientating vision of God enthroned in the Temple, attended by mysterious seraphim who put burning coals to his lips, Isaiah is commissioned as a prophet (Isaiah 6). Mary is frightened, confused and sceptical about Gabriel’s message, modelling wrestling with and questioning God just as much as Jacob – a divine encounter which is much more than a demur ‘let it be’ (Luke 1.26-38).

Coming out of the lockdown is a work in progress. We are all works in progress. The journey of faith is a work in progress. There are new thresholds to cross, new transitions to make, more ‘thin places’ to experience. And God is with us in the tension and the disorientation – after all, he has shared the liminality of human experience in the person of Jesus. He is with us in the now and not yet.

For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Cor. 4.6-7)

With my love and prayers for you,

All Saints Vicarage,
Thursday 9th July 2020