Living in liminality — lessons in trust, gratitude, prayer and compassion from the body of Christ around the world
Our Head of International Ministry Mark Aldridge shares what he’s learned about living with uncertainty from churches around the world
For 25 years, I have had the enormous privilege of travelling the world on New Wine teams, for the last 10 years as Head of International Ministry for New Wine England. It has taken me to about 30 nations in six continents.
I have been asking myself a question during this time of global pandemic. What have I learned from the Church around the world that is useful for this time of mass vulnerability, disorientation and opportunity?
Much spiritual advance happens in the times when we are thrown upon God. These may be times of great flourishing when we see his hand of blessing and we cry out in praise for the sheer joy of it, or they may be in times of great suffering when no false comfort will be balm for our pain.
Liminality is that place which is like the hallway between two rooms. One room which represents a place of security and comfort but the one you are about to, or have already entered, is unfamiliar and feels like a place bereft of the usual furniture of life that makes living feel safe. In love and in loss, liminality beckons and part of our fear can be that we do not know what to expect next or how to maintain control — usually an illusion in itself!
During this time of lockdown, I have spoken with church leaders from across the New Wine family and there is this common experience of living in a historic moment of seismic culture shift. No one is quite sure what the ‘new normal’ really means and what this will mean for the church and for mission. The ‘new room’ is unfurnished.
It has been for many, and certainly for me, a time when my illusions of control have been removed, false comfort has been stripped away, and faith which I used to spell R.I.S.K. I now spell T.R.U.S.T. or at least I am trying to, as I inch my way towards understanding a little more of what that really means.
It is in this place that I hear voices from the global New Wine family down the years urging me forward. They are like some great cloud of witnesses guiding through uncertainty with a voice we can trust for they are the voices of those who have first heard God’s voice. So, here are my three lessons for liminality. Times of turning blind corners or leaving the familiar for the future, whatever that might mean?
Trust & thanksgiving
Years ago, I travelled deep into Siberia to teach at a Bible Summer School. After three hours of being driven across the tundra, a wild wasteland with virtually no sight of man or beast, I asked Nicholai my Russian driver what would happen if we were to break down. I was suddenly aware that my breakdown cover did not stretch to Siberia! I will never forget his answer, “In the morning, we trust and in the evening, we say thank you.” This was spoken not as a trite spiritual sweetener but as a truth much leaned upon in times of trial.
Belief is not a creed we state or a doctrine we give mental assent to. This kind of belief is a sacred trust. It cannot be measured in the giving but by in what or whom it is placed. So many believers worldwide that I have met have expressed this almost child-like trust in the goodness of God. I have heard it from the persecuted believers of India after their village was razed to the ground by religious militants; I have heard it from the poor of townships in South Africa and even convicted murderers in UK prisons. This is trust that is personal, raw and essential to sanity and to survival.
It is a trust that is reinforced by thanksgiving. It is part of the rhythm of life on the edge, between rooms, when people live in that place of not knowing where they are about to enter. It is a thanksgiving that reminds them that they do not walk in isolation from God but with the One who will honour his promise set out in Psalm 23, ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me’ (ESV).
So, what are you needing to trust God for now? Do you have testimonies from the past that might reinforce that trust? What can you thank God for now? In tough times, are you learning to count your blessings not just your bruises? Perhaps it might be helpful to write down or tell others of three things (or more) every day that you are thankful to God for.
After every death there is resurrection
Here I do not refer to our ultimate death but to the many deaths and resurrections of life. The numerous losses, disappointment and heartbreaks which while never denying their pain, are so often just before the stone is rolled away and a bigger reality becomes possible. A larger revelation of reality, life and God is entered upon. A new room blazing with light is entered and new possibilities become visible.
On Boxing Day 2004, a devastating tsunami hit the Indian Coast and something close to 230,000 people lost their lives. Three years later, I led a New Wine team down to Tamil Nadu and we worked with a pastor who had lived through this unspeakable tragedy. He had at first taken one or two orphans into his family, no other option being available. But as the need grew, so did his vision for what God could resurrect. By the time I met him, his ministry and churches were caring for many hundreds of children of the tsunami. He spoke with passion of a future generation of Christian leaders and disciples forged from the crucible of that disaster and formed by this resurrection Spirit. Love, not death, was to have the final word.
Song of Songs 8:6 says, ‘Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, it’s jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.’ Love meant that out of death came resurrection. God’s love even defeated death in the resurrection of Christ and the one sign that Jesus promised us was what he called the sign of Jonah (see Matthew 16:4).
Jonah, the runaway prophet, found himself in the belly of a great fish (Jonah 2) and on the edge of death. The doorway marked ‘exit’ from this life loomed large. Here was a soul in the ultimate lockdown. Death appeared to be the only way out. “You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me” (Jonah 2:3).
Such times of utter powerlessness, of having no control, at being at the mercy of another, were called askesis by our spiritual forefathers. This might be described as a spiritual training camp. My strong sense is that this time of lockdown has been something like a spiritual boot camp for many, both believers and unbelievers, with ‘prayer’ one of the most googled words during this global pandemic and evidence of huge numbers of people accessing church and spiritual websites.
In askesis, like Jonah, we become aware that all old and false securities are swept away. The illusions of control and false comforts that deceive us so easily are shown up for the imposters that they are. Will we, like Jonah, hand over our everything to God? “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them” (Jonah 2:8). In these Covid-19 days, what is that Spirit of Resurrection showing us? What is it that lived previously but no longer can, and needs to be left behind? What is the Lord showing us must be raised up for these days? ‘Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).
Mission is fired by tribulation
Perhaps one of the resurrections will be in how we do outreach? In the past seven years I have watched the New Wine network of newly planted churches in India explode with growth. It has grown like a wildfire of love as Hindus (almost exclusively) have turned to faith in Jesus Christ. Of course, the New Wine team have shared the good news with words, but alongside there has been prayer, mercy and countless acts of costly compassion. The teams have gone into the poorest slums, deepest out-backs, into the leprosy village right next to the city rubbish dump in Hyderabad and to the so called lost, least and last.
I have seen similar works in South Africa and Kenya and in a refugee camp in Sweden. The gospel is always words and works and wonders. It is not just a message, it is an action. In developing nations, the church sees obvious need staring it in the face all of the time. With this global pandemic the church in the UK has had this same privilege, not denying it is also at the same time a tragedy. The response has been awesome. From online teaching, worship and support through to foodbanks and neighbourly outreach. We have seen the need and the compassion has risen up. Lord, give us your eyes to see!
But what happens when Covid-19 is over? Will the need in truth be any less? Will the hiddenness of human suffering dull our response?
I wonder what the church in the UK needs to learn for these times? The message of the suffering church teaches me that compassion is birthed when we have eyes to see what is truly before us. When we at least glimpse the reality all around us. I have heard the word ‘re-set’ used a lot. But let it not mean that we will simply reset and return to life just as we did it before. Let us not reset in order to repeat. In 2020 we are perhaps learning what 2020 vision means for mission? What it means to see clearly how the church should reach a society that is obsessed with screens and technology?
And finally, we are learning the lifeline that is prayer. Devotion is the fire that propels mission. At our National Leadership Conference in Harrogate at the beginning of March, John Arnott of Catch the Fire spoke of how God had asked him to give him his mornings. Lockdown has helped there. Time that great gift of God has been given for the greatest need of all. For us all to grow in prayer, to develop the vital connection between Vine and branch, so that we overflow with divine life.
Prayer is the biggest lesson I have learned (slowly) from our global New Wine family and the biggest lesson of lockdown 2020. I think it is helping us all see more clearly.
What are the lessons of lockdown that you have learnt for yourself? For the mission of the church? About how to pray? At the beginning of lockdown, God spoke into my spirit from Psalm 85:8 where he promised me peace but told me not to return to my folly.
Lord, help each one of us to so grow through this askesis that we never return to foolishness but live with a new and greater wisdom, a new confidence, a new trust and thanksgiving, in the power of your Resurrection Spirit for the purpose of the mission you have called us all to. Amen.
Mark Aldridge is the Head of International Ministry for New Wine.
Our International leadership teams are responsible for setting the strategy for delivering our shared vision and values. Some nations have summer conferences but our main emphasis is on networks of church leaders and churches that will together seek to bring deep and lasting changes for the glory of God. This is made possible by building authentic and trusting relationships between leaders.
We currently have New Wine networks in Wales, Ireland, Guernsey, Jersey, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, India and New Zealand — with exciting new opportunities opening up in Brazil, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Pakistan and others.