The Long and Winding Road
Dr. Paul Spilsbury joined Regent College as Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament in August 2015. Dr. Spilsbury graduated from Regent in 1990 with a Master of Christian Studies. He went on to obtain a PhD in early Christian and Jewish history and literature from Cambridge. He was Professor of New Testament at Canadian Bible College in Regina, Saskatchewan, and later served as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of New Testament at Ambrose University in Calgary.
Bronwyn Spilsbury is a tour coordinator and host for Sacred Journeys to Bible Lands. She was Family Ministries Pastor at Foothills Alliance Church in Calgary before coming to Vancouver to support Paul’s appointment at Regent College. Bronwyn grew up in a missionary home in India, then obtained a degree in Religious Education, providing the foundation for a life of service. Bronwyn and Paul have two young adult sons.
Faith, Liminality, and Two Pauls
Paul and Bronwyn Spilsbury delivered a three-part talk entitled “The Long and Winding Road” at Regent College’s Warm Beach Retreat, September 2016. The following is an excerpt from these talks, in which Paul and Bronwyn explore the theme of liminality in Scripture. Here, Paul Spilsbury compares his life to that of Paul the Apostle: both Pauls have been defined by experiences of liminality; both encounter Christ in those experiences.
Navigating the Long and Winding Road
To live by faith is to be like Abraham. It is to say “Yes” to the divine call to leave that which we know, and to set out for a destination—even though we don’t know where we are going.
To be a person of faith is to be someone who can never really fit into the world around you. The journey of faith takes us into liminal spaces, where the comforts and certainties of settled life are not as easy to come by. There are many joys along the way—and there are also difficulties and challenges. Most of all, because God’s Spirit is at work, the journey is transformative. That’s the point of it! God uses the journey to change us. But change often comes through crisis, in critical moments, at crossroads.
Abraham’s yes didn’t lead to a clear road. There were many points of decision. There were many twists and turns. There was a famine that led Abraham into Egypt and to the debacle with Pharaoh claiming Sarah as his wife. There was the turning point of which land to choose. Where would Lot go? What about the family splitting up? There was the crisis of childlessness. How would God resolve that?
The ultimate test came when Abraham climbed a mountain, with his beloved son asking him, “What are you going to sacrifice, Dad?” And when the boy was bound on the altar, God called again, “Abraham, Abraham, stop. Now I know you are fully mine.” Our journeys on the long and winding road are not easy after the “yes.”
We see this pattern throughout Scripture. In fact, every one of the heroes listed in Hebrews had major crises and challenges in their lives. And the journey takes many forms. Listen to this:
“And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
But God didn’t only come in the olden days to people in desert places. God comes to us now, in the ordinariness of our lives.
Liminality and (this) Paul
My life certainly feels ordinary a lot of the time. And yet, one of the great blessings of my life has been certain experiences of liminality. These have served me as object lessons of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—himself a decidedly liminal person, as we’ve said.
At the age of 18 I said “Yes” to a sense of God’s call and left my home in South Africa, travelling to Canada to attend a Bible College in Alberta. From the moment I stepped onto the aeroplane I became a foreigner, something I had not been before—a traveler, and in some small way, a liminal person.
I had crossed over the threshold of what was familiar to me, and started down the long and winding road. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had left my childhood home forever, and was about to enter a world that would always be just a little “strange” for me. And I would be strange to it.
All of a sudden I had an accent. A single sentence out of my mouth in the mid-80s would start the questions about where I was from. And once that was established, it wasn’t long before I started getting asked the question: “What did I think about Apartheid in SA?”
So I became an impromptu diplomat, having to give an account of my country of origin, and its many sins. Though people probably didn’t mean any harm by it, their reactions to me always made we very aware that I was not at home, that I was from somewhere else.
It wasn’t long before people at “home” started complaining that I was changing too. In telephone conversations with my family, they would observe that I had started picking up Canadian expressions and ways of saying things. Like saying “trunk” instead of “boot,” “vacation” instead of “holiday,” or “cool” instead of “lekker”!
Now, after more than 30 years away from “home” I hardly
sound like a South African at all, though I can still fake it if I have to! But
nor will I ever quite sound like a Canadian. That’s something my two boys, born
in Saskatchewan, like to point out from time to time. My accent now belongs to
nowhere in particular. It is from neither here nor there—it is from somewhere
in-between—a place that doesn’t exist. There is no island in the middle of the
Atlantic where people talk like me.
I’m not claiming that my experience is particularly unique. But the significant thing for me is that being a “foreigner” in a land I have lived in for most of my adult life continually reminds me of an important lesson:
I am, in some sense, a wanderer and a pilgrim.
This gives me a certain detachment from the culture in which I live. It also gives me the ability to observe things from the margins. This has its downside, of course, but that’s how it goes, once you have set out on the road.
All of this is just an illustration of what happens on a deeper level to all of us. For me, I was 16 years old when my youth pastor said to me, “You know what you need to do. You know the choice you need to make. What’s stopping you?” I couldn’t think of an answer—a good reason why I shouldn’t follow Jesus. So that day, I said “Yes,” and the journey of a lifetime began.
I went back to school the next day and somebody asked me, “What did you do over the weekend” imagining I was going to say, “I went surfing.” But I said, “I became a Christian!” He said, “Don’t worry, that happened to my sister once, and it didn’t last long!”
When my physics teacher heard about it, he started calling me “sky pilot!” and would stand behind my chair during class, and sing, “Holy, holy, holy, Three full-backs and a goalie!”
Nevertheless, by the grace of God, here I am, how many years later, still on that long and winding road! Still trudging the middle lands, far from where the journey began.
Liminality and (that) Paul
Whether in Bible times or modern times, we are all called to be wayfarers—travelers, and pilgrims—whether we came from a land across the sea, or whether we came from next door. We’ve said “Yes” to God and so we’re on the way, and our identity is being shaped as we continually respond.
One of the New Testament figures who embodies this is the “original” Paul—the apostle Paul!
You remember how his story began, as a religious extremist persecuting the church, breathing threats and murder. But he was stopped in his tracks by a blinding light and a voice that spoke his name: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
Paul’s unique, devastating experience of the resurrected Jesus changed not only his vision and the way he saw the world; like Moses, it also uprooted him from his place at the heart of his culture and pushed him out to the margins.
God called his name and transformed his identity.
Imagine what it would have been like for a purist zealot such as Paul to realize that his devotion to God had been exactly wrong. His conversion in today’s terms would be like an extremist imam coming to trust Christ.
The truth of Jesus forced Paul from the certainties of his past life and flung him out into the uncertainties and ambiguities of the long and winding road, kind of like Dorothy and Toto finding themselves on the road in Oz.
As a young Pharisee and as a scholar of the Torah, Paul had been at the very centre of things. He had been respected and admired. He had prestige and authority. And best of all: he was certain. He knew the truth!
His startling encounter with the resurrected-crucified One forced him to rethink everything he had come to understand about God and God’s ways in the world. Unfortunately for Paul, very few embraced his rethought theology, or even understood it.
The displacement that resulted from his new belief was very painful for Paul. It shattered the stability and comfort of his life. Everything that had once meant the world to him came to be as nothing—as garbage. He was no longer at the centre of his community as he had been before.
Rejecting his old ways did not make Paul a hero in the church either. He was not accepted in his new community like some kind of celebrity. How could he be? He had wreaked havoc on the church in Jerusalem. His claim to have been confronted and called by Jesus on the road to Damascus would have seemed implausible to everyone—downright dodgy, in fact!
To make matters worse, Paul insisted on focusing his preaching on non-Jews, who didn’t even have status in this society. Therefore, in his new community of the Jewish church he was on the margins.
When Paul writes to the Galatians about the “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem it is all too clear that he’s not one of them. Galatians shows a troubling fault line, with Peter, John, and James the Lord’s brother on the one side and Paul on the other. At one point Paul seems to acknowledge them as leaders (2:2), but then just a little later he talks about them as “those who were supposed to be something—what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality” (2:6).
Paul had experienced the power and glory of the risen Christ; he had left his old convictions and practices; he had gone away into the desert and learned the truth of Christ. Then he returned to his fellow-Jews-come-Christians, full of life and vigour, but he found that many of them didn’t receive him.
Now he was truly a liminal, in-between person. He was not a Pharisee, not conforming to the early church, yet neither was he one of the Gentiles, to whom he took the gospel.
Do some of you ever feel like that? You’ve come to faith, and that excludes you from some of your early life friend groups. As you study, you’re learning more truths of the gospel, which make you feel like an outsider even in a church that doesn’t understand what you do! And yet you believe there’s more ahead—that you need to follow this call to the ends of the earth. If that’s how you feel, you’re not alone! Welcome to the world of Paul and the long and winding road.
Maybe because of this disconnect, because he belonged nowhere, and because he had a call to everywhere, Paul became a traveller. He was always on the way; he refused to set up shop in one place. Maybe if he had done so he might have been able to build up his own status and prestige; maybe he could have got people to realise that he was really a good guy, and that his teachings were harmless—make sure they followed his name, and not anyone else’s.
He could have founded a theological academy or planted a church in one of the major centres of Jewish Christianity, like Antioch perhaps.
Instead, we find him constantly on the move, travelling through out-of-the-way places like Cilicia and Galatia. I’ve been to those places. Some say they are the Saskatchewan and Manitoba of the biblical world (not necessarily a bad thing—our boys were born in Saskatchewan!).
Paul also traveled through Asia and Macedonia and Achaia— less remote parts—but crisscrossed by mountains, and swamps, and sea passages. These were places where malaria was endemic and bandits were common. There was no Hilton or Holiday Inn to stay in.
He did pause from time to time, but never longer than 18 months in Corinth and maybe three years in Ephesus. Imagine a life like that.
When eventually Paul was stopped in his tracks, his travels over, it was not by the patios of a seaside villa, but in the cold walls of a Roman prison—another very liminal kind of place.
As difficult as these experiences were for Paul, they did not dampen or discredit his faith. He understood them as integral to the journey. They became object lessons for him of the meaning of the gospel and the sufferings that Christ had experienced.
This is how he reflects on his own context and sufferings:
“I am talking like a madman—I am a better [minister of Christ]: with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor 11:23-30).
It is in this context that Paul tells the story about himself having to escape from opponents in Damascus by being lowered from a window in the city wall in a basket! He became the original basket case—unless Moses had that distinction! It was an episode that Paul evidently found embarrassing.
It is also here that he tells us of a chronic illness that he suffered. He says:
“Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor 12:8-9).
Paul came to see this paradoxical “power in weakness” as the essence of the way of Jesus. Jesus himself had lived a life marked by suffering and self-giving, and this is the kind of life we are called to as well.
It is the life of the long and winding road.
In fact, Paul identified so closely with Jesus that he saw his own sufferings as a continuation of Jesus’ sufferings. In Colossians he writes:
“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:22).
In 2 Cor 4, after speaking yet again of the many hardships of his life he adds:
“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor 4:10).
Death and life were at work in Paul at the same time. He even understood the physical scars on his own person as being in some sense the scars of Jesus. At the end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul says rather testily:
“From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body” (Gal 6:17).
He could also say: “We… are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor 4:11).
There isn’t a higher goal! On the one hand, Paul’s commitment to Christ had left him scarred. But those scars were a testimony to his union with Christ, and to the reality of the resurrection already at work in him.
One of Paul’s most moving and powerful passages on this theme is found in 2 Cor 4:16–5:5.
“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling—if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”
For Paul, as for Abraham, the life of faith is life lived in a tent. The tent speaks of the temporary and moveable nature of our existence now. For Paul, as for the writer of Hebrews, the house “not built by human hands,” the heavenly dwelling, is the goal of our faith.
That is where the long and winding road is headed.
In the meantime, we trudge the path by faith, seeking to be faithful on the long and winding road. We do not do this by sheer grit or willpower; rather it is the presence of the Holy Spirit who makes any of this possible. It is the Spirit who guides us and sustains us along the way.
People of God, God calls you by your name, and in naming you, God shapes your identity. Just as He called, Abraham, Abraham; Moses, Moses; Saul, Saul, so He calls us! He knows our name. He calls our name. He knows your name.
Pause a moment. Be still. Hear the echo of your name, as God calls you.
And when He was on the cross, the cry of the living sacrifice echoed back to heaven, as Jesus called, “My God, my God” and named the One whom we could never have seen, whose identity we could never have known if not for Him, our Lord Jesus, who had walked the long and winding road with and for us. Through Him we too behold God’s glory, full of grace and truth.
God knows that following Him doesn’t make our lives easier. No, it puts us in the most in-between place of all: connected to the cross, yet with eternal life dwelling in us. It puts us in the position of misunderstanding from our peers, from people we like, from the powers that be, until the only one we can call to is our God.
Cling to Him today. Know your name is engraved on His pierced hands.
Put your hand in His. And keep walking down the long and winding road.