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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

When life bounces us up and down

We live in unsettled and unsettling times. We’ve just voted in an election no one was expecting and no one knows whether those elected will even take their seats. This morning Theresa May is our prime minister. This afternoon, who knows? And that’s only politics. The economic basics are changing, changing fast, driven by disruptive technologies. All this is reflected in our culture which is continually pushing out the boundaries of what is considered acceptable. The temptation, of course, is to hanker after a past where we lived predictable and secure lives, an illusion of course. “People wish to be settled,” observed Ralph Waldo Emerson, “only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” I’m currently working my way through Acts, Luke’s sequel to his gospel. Sadly I’m a few days behind since I left my BRF Guidelines behind in London. Here these first disciples are straining to adapt to an altogether new understanding of Life and How To Live it, following the disruptive resurrection of Jesus. Gone are the old basics – food laws, circumcision and the like - and soon to go is the ultimate basic of the Jewish faith, the temple of Jerusalem. Above all, how to relate to those not of your Jewish faith, the goyim: no way would you have a meal with an Gentile. In my reading today, from Acts 10, the Holy Spirit sets up a meeting between Simon “the Rock” Peter and the Roman centurion Cornelius. In fact, Luke relates this episode no less than three time. Clearly, he’s making a point. The episode culminates with Peter entering Cornelius’ house in the Roman stronghold of Caesarea, Obviously Peter is very uncomfortable; he knows he shouldn’t be there. Somewhat tactlessly he explains this to his host “‘You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.” (Acts 10:28). Guidelines explains: “It was Peter who had to be ‘converted’ if he was to be a participant in what God was doing.” For what God was doing was opening the Kingdom of God to everyone, a profoundly unsettling experience for those early Jewish disciples. The writer of these notes is a George Wieland, a New Zealand missiologist with experience of ministry in Brazil. Missiologist? Someone who studies and is trained in the science of missions, a discipline where gospel, culture and the church intersect. From my experience, missiologists tend to be radical because they serve behind enemy lines. They see things differently, not least church life. Anyway, Wieland introduces us to the anthropologist concept of “liminality”, that is the in-between state experienced when one settled mode of existence has been left behind and what will be the new settled state has not yet been entered into. Not a happy place. It speaks of disruption, loss, uncertainty, anxiety. It’s the situation we may be in at the moment, certainly as we see our main political parties disintegrate before our eyes, possibly never to re-form. However, explains Wieland, liminality is “pregnant with new possibilities.” For Peter, discomfort precedes discovery as he witnesses the Holy Spirit falling on his gentile listeners. He exclaims: “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.: (Acts 10:34) The Greek text in using the present tense shows a dawning realisation for Perter of what is happening: “I now get it!” Or as in the Message translation, “Peter fairly exploded with his good news!” All this goes to show that Christians should welcome liminal moments, of a world which is changing rapidly. I recall in my own life the disruption directed by the Holy Spirit as I was considering ordination, something – of course – which I was avoiding. It reminded me of the experiment in the school physics lab when we bounced iron filing about on a sheet of paper overlying a magnet. Only then could the magnetic fields be seen. Such disruption though often painful is necessary if the Holy Spirit is to keep us moving in step with his purposes. Not easy. Certainly Peter didn’t learn his own lesson to heart. The apostle Paul later tells us of how some years later Peter retreated to his old ways under pressure. “But when that conservative group came from Jerusalem, Peter cautiously pulled back and put as much distance as he could manage between himself and his non-Jewish friends.” (Galatians 2:12, the Messagetranslation). It is the Holy Spirit who makes all the difference: he gives us poise, a sense of balance, when the ground beneath our feet shifts and shakes. We are comfortable in conditions of uncertainty. God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. (Psalm 46:1-3)

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