In that past several months, I have had the privilege to teach a rather diverse group of men every Monday morning, and every other Wednesday. Unlike some of the other Bible Studies I am teaching during the week, this group of men takes on a deeper, more intensive thrust into the word of God. One of the first things that I told them upon beginning our first session was that we were going to launch out into the deep, drop the hook, and eventually that hook was going to scratch something in the depths. Sure enough, this has occurred almost every single time we have gathered together, often resulting in tears, soul-searching, and deep, probing questions.
Among the many subjects that we have covered, one of the fundamental ideas we have launched into on a continual basis is the fluid idea of spiritual formation. I say fluid because, up until recent years, the aspects of spiritual formation were typically discussed through the broad lens of textbook definitions. Words, such as discipleship and Christian growth, dominated any discourse on the subject. However, thanks to a bold Pentecostal hermeneutic the idea of spiritual formation began to move out of the realm of cognitive ideas and into the dimension of experiential disciplines.
Interpreted through a Pentecostal hermeneutic, spiritual formation finds its beginning with the kairological instant of Spirit-Indwelling (Acts 2:1-4 cf. Jn. 3:3-7). It is only after this divine instant that any degree of authentic spiritual growth can occur and, as newborn babes, the sincere desire for the milk of the word eventually begins to transition to the rich meat that lends toward the development and growth of others (I Pet. 2:2; cf. Heb. 5:12; I Cor. 3:2). It is important to note that what begins in a kairological instant must then succumb to the laborious journey of what is best captured in words such as process and development. Babes are not meant to remain babes. Children are not meant to remain children. Instead, as scripture expresses, a transition from childhood to adulthood must occur (I Cor. 13:11).
I like to call this the Theology of Process (not to be confused with the Process Theology of Philosophy). As I disciple and teach others, this idea has become one of my most avid lessons; something that must be conquered in all of us. We must, as I express in a phrase my students can now quote in their sleep, become stewards of the process. While I appreciate miraculous instants such as, “let there be light and there was light,” these spontaneous, miraculous instants are not the standard by which God typically works within the realm of humanity. Instead, just as creation was submitted to an unfolding process of six creative days, finalized by a day of creative rest, so also does God hold human growth (both physical and spiritual) to a process.
Consider the development of the human species as opposed to most other species. The newborn foal, in but a short time, is leaping, running, and gaining mastery over wobbly, unsure legs. Why? Their survival depends on a degree of dependence. Contrast this with the human newborn and we are confronted by a child that will demand the protection, nurture, and assistance of a mother and father for many years to come. God designed us to develop through process and, if I refuse to submit to the process, I will always frustrate progress! I must become a steward to the process. That being said, there is a key to mastering process and it isn’t found at the beginning or the end of the journey; it is found in the space between.
Coined by French Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1960), this space between would become known as Liminal Space, derived from the Latin word limus, meaning threshold. Gennep argued that every society had and has rituals (birthdays, graduations, Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah, etc.) that marked a transition from one stage to another. Further, Gennep argued that every society moved through three common stages in the passage; Separation, Transition, and Incorporation. The first (separation) had to do with a break from one’s past identity whereas the last (incorporation) had to do with one’s entry into a new identity. However, in the middle of separation and incorporation was the threshold called transition (the space between).
This threshold (the space between) what was and what is to become has become the focus of all my attention as of late. Spiritual formation depends upon the relationship of the individual (you and I) with this liminal space. Practically ever great figure in the Bible was confronted with this simple idea. Abraham was called out (separation) and promised he would be brought into (incorporation) a land where he would operate as a father of many nations. Yet, most of what we know about Abraham is relegated to the liminal space. This is the same for Joseph, Daniel, Moses, and even Jesus! Call it a desert, wilderness, or a wasteland, it’s all the same. It’s the space between that must be conquered!
Why did Israel wander for 40 years in the wilderness? Because they could not master the liminal space? It all begins the moment they come out of Egypt with a great promise and immediately are beset by thirst and bitter waters. The water narratives were designed by God to prove them (Ex. 15:25) but, never grasping how important the process was, they grumbled, complained, and longed to return to their former slavish identity. Consider, 40 days at the foot of the mountain and they are already fashioning a golden calf. You don’t conquer the giants if you can’t conquer the space between!
As a church-planter, I must become a steward of the process! I can’t frustrate the process! As a minister, preacher, teacher, deacon, bishop, or whatever facet you or I feel God calling us into, we must learn how to submit to the liminal space (I Tim. 3:10). Recently I warned a new convert to beware those who would offer position without preparation. Guess what? One week later he was propositioned to be an assistant pastor by a secular pastor. I’ll never forget this new converts words to me, “pastor, immediately your words came to mind: ‘beware the man who offers position without preparation.’” We must become stewards of the process and conquer the liminal space where true men and women of God are proven in the furnace of God’s divine process.
This article also appears in the Winter Edition of the Together Magazine.
Gennep, A. v. (1960). The rites of passage. London,: Routledge & Paul.