By: Brian Harris

Many years back I read Paul Tournier’s A Place for You, and was struck by his story of a young man who said simply: “Basically I’ve always been looking for a place – a place to be.”

Perhaps it was because I identified, and realised that most of my life I have felt as though I belong – but also as though I don’t. It’s an oddly ambivalent feeling – being at home, but not really. And here was Tournier putting words to it -this search for home, a place where you can be without pretence, a place you feel you truly belong. I’m not sure I have ever fully found it. Don’t misunderstand me – my home is wonderful – truly wonderful. And I have great friends, and my church family is very supportive, and my work colleagues are amazing. I am ridiculously blessed. But for all that I am a free thinker and in my mind find myself going to many different worlds. And when people speak I often find myself thinking, “I see that so differently to you.” Sometimes I manage to put words to it – sometimes I think it would break the peace and say nothing.

Perhaps that’s why Richard Rohr’s concept of “living on the edge of the inside” resonates strongly with me. Living on the edge of the inside – it’s that space where you are neither an insider not an outsider. You belong – but your place is on the edges, or you are a bit of an outlier.

This is not a plea for pity. To the contrary, there are so many benefits that come from the edge of the inside.

The Benefits of Not Being in the Centre

It can be the most creative of places. You hear the noise from the outside in a way those at the centre never can. You are not as locked into the status quo. You have less to lose in the event of change. You are free from the seduction of the centre – which often thrives because of disinterest in alternate views. You can therefore see both the strengths and weaknesses of those in your group as well as those on the outside. The outside is, after all, just a step away, and if you took it, you could be a part of a new tribe, though you’d probably still be on its edges. It sets you up to be prophetic, for your vision is not blocked in the way it is for those in the centre.

It is often a liminal space, that place where you know you are on the point of moving somewhere, but you are not sure where. You hover on the brink of a move, but haven’t yet made it. There are boundary issues at play. It is one thing to know what you are leaving behind, but another to know what you will find. Who says the new place will be better and what if it is a lot worse?

There are also times when though you have long been in the centre, you find you have drifted towards the edge. Change often does that, disrupting previous power holders who wonder why they no longer have the influence they once did.

Some of that applies to me. Having held positions that put me very much at the centre, my gradual transition to retirement sees that slowly slipping away. You can’t be much more at the centre of church world than when you head up a denomination’s theological college – so even though I never felt fully at the centre, I guess I was. I find being more obviously moved away from it is sometimes alarming (why didn’t they ask me what I think?) but more often liberating. When it’s clear you are on the edges, you bump into some extraordinary people that you otherwise wouldn’t meet – and you can listen to their stories more deeply than when you are at the centre, because it no longer matters if they are not tidy and don’t fit the way things are supposed to be. It’s so much easier to point to God’s unconditional grace and love when no one is checking to make sure you have added all the necessary qualifiers.

Longing for Something Better

The writer of Hebrews 13:14 says: “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” That’s about standing on the edge of inside and longing for something better. When you are in the centre, it’s hard to look for the city that is yet to come, for there is so much stuff that gets in the way, and that you have to keep in place. All that “stuff” often obscures what Philip Yancey calls “rumours of another world“. Those rumours are truly beautiful.

Jeremiah 29:7 reads, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” It’s an interesting sentiment. You are in a place of exile (and therefore never in the centre) but should pray for the place you have been banished to.

I’ve always thought that Heb 13:14 and Jer 29:7 belong together. You are looking for the city still to come while praying for the good of the city you are in. There is a simultaneous then and now focus. We long for then, we live fully in now… and we do that though we are in exile, and on the edge of the inside.

I’m not sure if any of this is meaning much to you. Perhaps it sounds a little theoretical – being in, or on the edge, or out.

Why not think about your groups?

If you are part of a church – where do you locate yourself? In the centre, or on the edge of the inside? Here’s the thing. When Jesus came to this planet, he found himself on the edge of the inside of his Jewish nation. Those in the centre objected to virtually everything he said. Actually in the end they pushed him out altogether, and hung him on a cross.

If like me you often feel on the edge of the inside, you are in excellent company. Jesus invites us to stand next to him as he welcomes those on the outside in, and points us all to the city that is still to come, even as we pray for our land of exile.

Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.

About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.

Feature image: Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash