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Threshold - Reflections for May 2021
1. What should we leave behind, and what should we take with us?
I became aware of the concept of liminal space some years ago. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, consider it the space where you’ve left behind security, but haven’t yet arrived in the new place to call home. Traditionally, liminality was a key aspect of any rite of passage and was accompanied by deep uncertainty, as the uninitiated warrior moved from one space to another. It concluded with the young initiate being welcomed safely after enduring a time of testing and discomfort.
As many of us become able to take steps away from our time of testing and discomfort, there’s less clarity on the new space we move into. Over this year, the temporary spaces and the permanent spaces have become less defined. Our liminal space comes with blurred edges, and the constant question, “how long will we be here?’’ has hung in the air.
Circumstances have demanded so much from us. We have navigated loss, change, and powerlessness, underpinned by disruption to all of our life giving rhythms.
On this new threshold, we don’t have the security of the initiated tribe on the other side calling to us: ‘we've done this, you’ll be fine.’ To most of us, even with the excitement of the new, there is deep uncertainty. Some of us might struggle to believe it is safe. Is God truly with us?
Before we make our move, let us take stock of our surroundings:
I’d invite you to pause.
Feel the ground under your feet once again.
Breathe the air (there’s a scent of blossom, perhaps?)
Become aware of the presence of God, if you are able to.
Feel the breath in your body, as you breathe deeply.
You are in a unique space. A threshold.
These temporary spaces offer an opportunity to view our situation with a new clarity. We still can see both the old terrain and the new terrain--a unique vantage point. Before the new becomes so familiar and we forget the old, we can take stock from here. Perhaps you could picture yourself on top of a familiar viewpoint, observing where you’ve climbed and where you might be heading?
“What should I leave behind, and what should I take with me?’
What are the things we’ll be delighted to let go of--to see the back of?
These may be related to loss, discomfort, confinement, distance; there are many more.
What are the aspects of this time that have been a gift to us and we would like to retain?
These may be related to the patterns, activities or people that helped us keep afloat this year.
As we consciously engage in this question, let us become equipped for the journey ahead. May we embrace the opportunities that come our way, as we let go of what was and move in our uncertainty to the place where God is both ahead of us and with us, in myriad ways:
“For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.’’*
*”As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ Gerard Manley Hopkins ”
2. Exploring Post-Lockdown Excavation
Unless you’re one of the 10% whose wellbeing has reportedly improved throughout the pandemic, you’re probably in a space of what I’m calling ‘post- lockdown excavation.’ That delicious or perhaps painful period where you start to find memories of your life as it was. Some parts are going to need gently dusting down to be found, others need a deeper dig. Others might need to be carefully restored.
It’s important to see this as a communal affair.
Allow me to illustrate.
I went to visit my neighbour and her twins. The girls spent their early years next door to me, and have been a constant source of delight. They’ve been away. I was invited to sit on the threshold. In my experience, six year olds are always ready with one question: ‘will you play?’ Another more serious question followed: ‘can you guess which animals I’m hiding in my tights?’’ (These were plastic farm animals, should you be concerned.) After many months of playless moments I suddenly found an old part of me slowly stirring back to life in the invitation from two 6 year olds. A piece of me was gifted back to myself. It was a true gift in that I didn’t know I needed it until I received it.
This restorative experience led to me reflecting on Jesus' words in Luke, which connects us to an expansive vision.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4:18-19)’
We may already be discovering our own path of restoration of the lost parts of self and life. Many of us have the agency and the energy to make the very best of our new opportunities. We may justifiably be thinking, “how can I compensate for what’s been lost? How can I make the best of this summer?’’ Whilst exploring this we can also be mindful that others around us are still trying to stay afloat.
Throughout the pandemic, we have become more aware of our need for each other, yet as time has gone on, the absence of physical proximity has led to isolation for many. We have stopped rubbing up against one another in the ways we once did. We may need to rediscover the practice of what it means to be in community. Some of us may be feeling left behind. Indeed, some of us we may need to explore how our relationships might be restored. Even good friends may have become distant. Both reconnection and restoration may take time.
As we look too for personal restoration - there is another invitation. Let's be mindful of drawing those on the periphery closer to the centre. Those who otherwise might be missed. Here’s a question to help make this more interesting; “In some way, may I gift a piece of this person back to themselves?” This opens questions of how we include, how we listen, who we invite. We can all do this - and may even find on some occasion that in attempting to gift something back, something is gifted to us. And as we do our best to find restoration for ourselves, we can also ensure the margins are wide enough for others. May our margins be wide enough for a moment of grace, the kind when unexpectedly, a six year old asks you “will you play?’ and we find the gift we didn’t know we needed.
3. What shape is your boat in?
If we ever revisit news archives from the past year, we’ll see a number of phrases which will be forever associated with it.
“We’re all in this together.” “Unprecedented.’’ ”Flattening the curve.’’
Terms that were neutral or initially encouraging have become inextricably linked to a challenging set of experiences. Of course, there have been lighter moments, too. I was tickled recently to find a range of mugs and t-shirts declaring: ”You’re on mute.”
There were also metaphors. Here’s one I appreciated:
“We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.”
It offered two insights. In highlighting inequality, it reminded us to be wary of drawing comparisons with the choices others make. It also challenged us to be aware of those who may be struggling. Yet, it was soon swept along in the news cycle and quickly became tired—just like us.
I would like to suggest we repurpose the phrase for this time of transition. It might even offer us something fresh as a metaphor for easing out of lockdown.
In a period that may feel tentative, can we picture our boats gently settling as the storm recedes? If that feels like an appealing image, I’d invite you to explore this further.
Coming out of the current storm, there are many pushes and pulls. Expectations are increasing, both our own and those of whom we love and care for. Diaries may be filling up, or may feel more empty than we would like. Some of us may be starting to experience difficult emotions which may have been unexpressed until now. Beneath the hope that these changes are bringing, we are still tired. My friends, expect yourselves to be leaky. Try to offer yourself and others as much compassion as you can muster.
I’d invite you to consider these verses from Psalm 107, and allow these words to percolate as you reflect on the questions.
“He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.”
Next, let’s return to your boat. It may feel like the storm has passed at this point; you may be less certain of its passing. When storms come and go, boats need care, restoration, repair.
What shape is your boat in?
Are there any obvious knocks?
Where are the bits that feel bruised that need careful attention?
Are there any spaces which will need more work, in time?
If you can't get home to dry dock, where does your boat need patching?
What is essential for you to get to your next destination?
Where might God be in relation to your boat?
Truly, what do you need at this time?
Also, if you can, I’d invite you to think of someone you know who has been in a storm-tossed boat. Perhaps this is someone you feel has endured more than they can handle.
What do you think they might be feeling at this point as we ease out of lockdown?
Where do you wish God would be for them?
As you think of their state, is there anything you can offer at this time?
As we journey on, there will be challenges to our own recovery, as we seek to support others in theirs. Whilst we enjoy the relief of lighter days we may also face the weight of shouldering unresolved cares. Let’s not forget that many of us have been close to exhaustion, and will take time to recover. When we struggle to offer ourselves and others compassion, come let us be reminded of God’s compassion for each one of us- and celebrate the signs of it wherever we find it.
4. Drawing from a deeper well of compassion
This year has gifted me with many examples of kindness in endurance.
I’ve found myself moved by a friend who has endured, despite the odds, living with a life-impacting mental health diagnosis, and always with an eye to how others are doing. Or by another friend who braved home-schooling, never expecting to look at equations again, but finding bonding moments with their children in the frustrations. Or the teenager who offered gentle support to a friend who developed symptoms of anxiety, in one of the most testing years of their lives. And others who have doggedly kept going, despite the down days and exhaustion, looking out for others.
However, I’ve noticed that we often find it difficult to consistently offer the same sort of kindness to ourselves. We might be prone instead to pour self-judgement on our shortcomings and minimise our efforts. Yet our ability to offer ourselves compassion in times of difficulty is a key factor in avoiding emotional exhaustion. Given that we are all hard-pushed at this time, what can really help? As I delved into this topic, I was drawn to research which identified self-compassion as a way to shore us against burn out.
The researchers described self-compassion this way:
1. It entails offering kindness, patience, and understanding to oneself during times of failure or disappointment.
2. Individuals high in self-compassion recognise that others go through similar experiences and feel connected rather than isolated during times of pain.
3. Individuals who are high in self-compassion neither ignore nor ruminate about their own shortcomings.
The research identified that those who displayed these traits and approaches were less prone to emotional exhaustion.
For any of us who find ourselves particularly tired at this stage, the list might offer a call to make some adjustments. The question is, how? It is difficult to do. It really is. I know. A few of us manage it on our own but most of us need help.
How might we embed self-compassion- a profoundly spiritual invitation - in our lives? Jesus’ words from Luke 6:36, “Be compassionate just as your father is compassionate” might look like a straightforward directive. My own forgetfulness of the enduring love of God tells me it’s not. But perhaps there is the possibility of drawing deeply from God as the source of compassion. We can make choices to explore practices or content that remind us of God’s compassionate nature, and our need to dwell in the spaces where it is experienced. I wonder where those spaces might be for you? Where are the spaces where the most critical voices are quietened? Who are the people that offer that? And also, in scripture - or silence - where are we most at home in our bones; where do we feel a deep goodness in our bodies? The business of feeling at home seems to me to be a place where we are able to tap into self-compassion most readily.
A spirituality which offers a sense of the deep compassion of God is not self-indulgent in that it offers something for others too. Yet it does count on the possibility of believing that “our Father is compassionate.” If we can risk embracing that the God we seek is the source of all compassion, then we might also find that there is a deeper well to draw from than our own. In turn, we might see the kindness we can readily offer others, and ourselves, is one that overflows from this constantly replenishing source.
 The Relationship of Clergy Burnout to Self-Compassion and Other Personality Dimensions. Laura K. Barnard & John F. Curry. 2011
Corin Pilling is the UK Director of Sanctuary, equipping the Church to support mental health and wellbeing.