The gift of the limit

This is one in my series of sabbatical posts.  I started this series in 2013-2014 and, now, the generosity of my employer means that I pick it up again.  Technically, this time it is called study leave rather than sabbatical.  But I don’t have a blog category for that.

Holding the space for Jesus.  That’s what I’ve called it all these years that those people have been doing it for me.  Yet it’s more than that, in ways that those years too have taught me to articulate.  Once again, theology and praxis and spirituality are one big, beautiful tangle for me.  And in my academic work, you’ll see me teasing at the tangle, owning where the threads begin and end.  You’ll see me set out the starting points of my imagination, the thread colours which determine how imagination’s arc will take shape through me.

Yes, in my academic spaces you will see me lay it all out on the table.  In book.  In academic journal paper.  In classroom.  All of these spaces are open invitation to pull at the threads, see how the tangle shifts and reorders when starting points and thread colours are named and rendered vulnerable to reshaping.

You will see me lay it out on the table.  But you will not see me untangle it.  For theology and praxis and spirituality for me are irrevocably tangled, and never more so than in my book where theology comes out of ecclesial praxis and deep-held spirituality, and yet weaves back in to shape the whole tangle in one way rather than another.

In this space, too, I will not untangle it.  For in my life, spirituality and theology remain interlaced, and one cannot hold without the other.  Today was case in point.  That thing I’d written in the book, laboured over during the last sabbatical as I sought to understand it, to inhabit as my own – that thing was uppermost in my mind as I drove home from a summerhouse conversation.

The conversation had been one of those where my friend and God had been tag-teaming.  And I was undone.  (I’d forgotten how good she was at this.  It’s been a while since we sat quite as we did today.)  She’d said something which was a pushback to what I had said I thought God wanted to do.

In fact, she’d teased me about how irritating it is when God doesn’t get the right agenda items on the list.  And I laughed.  Because I know me and she knows me – and there really isn’t much point me thinking I can hide.

I laughed.  But, inside, I received that No to what I thought was best as a kind of ‘resistance’.  And, in that split-second, I knew I could accept the resistance as the gift that it is.  I could accept it as a divine limit or I could plough on with my own agenda for what needed to happen.

Internally, I felt myself slam into that limit.  Think ‘slow-motion collision’: what I thought I needed was not on offer.  And then a decision to make – to accept it or to resist this fact.

To say to the Father the Amen which echoes Christ’s Yes.  Or to say the No that echoes Eden.

In Eden, the limit in question was the tree of knowledge of good and evil, a limit which made free response possible.  For in prohibiting that tree, God invited humanity to the freedom of accepting him, rather than themselves, as the limit of their created existence.  Suddenly, that man and that woman could say the Yes of obedience to God or, equally, they could say No.  And in this simple choice, relation with God became a matter of freedom.

Maybe you’ve noticed: there’s no tree today.  Or at least, if there is, then we can’t find it.  The space around those four rivers is pretty large!  But that’s less of a problem than we might think.  Because in Christ everything changed.

Now, it is not the tree but believers who embody the limit by which others (including other believers) are confronted with Christ.  The divine Spirit is now in us.  And so, in embodying that limit (Christ in us), believers confront others with Jesus:* we embody for third parties the ultimate Other, the One whose demands operate as the context enabling a free response of obedience to him or, if those third parties prefer, the No that echoes Eden.

We carry Christ for the sake of the other, that they might choose for him or against.  And, in the particular tangle of my theology and spirituality that was today’s conversation, my friend carried his presence for my sake.  What she offered me was herself, who she is.  Yet Spirit confronted me there too, that I could choose submission to him or wilfulness.

I chose rightly.  After that split-second.  And the gift of it was great.  For, after one more of those mic-drop questions from my friend, suddenly the room opened up and all I can really say is that he showed up with his agenda.

And let’s just say that it was better than mine.

Photo credit


For what it’s worth, I have really tried in this post to avoid academic thinking overshadowing the immediacy of divine encounter.  For me, of course, the one does not overshadow the other so as to make it dark: the overshadowing is more about an enlightening.  But I know not everyone sees it that way!

So here is my one footnote, for those who want more than I’ve given above – and, yes, I am here more or less self-plagiarising my very expensive book, called Ecclesial Leadership as Friendship and due in the next few weeks with Routledge.

*John Macmurray, in his philosophy of personal encounter, concludes that the self cannot exist personally in isolation because personal action requires the ‘resistance’ of a fellow agent, the other who constitutes a limit to the self thereby enabling the self to experience itself as agent. ‘Resistance’, as the experience of movement against the agent, generates the possibility for action constitutive of an agent-self. Such action depends on what Macmurray calls a ‘clash of wills’ forcing discrimination between objectives by the agent-self – i.e., forcing a choice of Yes or No, submission or independence.  According to Ray Anderson, who depends in varying degrees upon Tom Torrance and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Divine Spirit ultimately always chooses to indwell flesh as the way of enacting the resistance necessary to give humanity the freedom of choice, first in Christ and, derivatively, in us.

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