In 2014 I started a new job as a pastor in a small church in the Midwest. There’s a picture of me on my first day, taken by my wife, in the parsonage we had recently moved into with boxes all about, wearing a new work outfit, a shy grin on my face, like I was headed off to my first day of school.
If I could go back and talk to that 2014 version of myself, I would say this: “Today, you will be stepping into one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. All of your passion and idealism and new energy will be met with the force of a group of people who are pretty comfortable with the old, familiar ways of doing things. A few will be excited by your new energy. Many more will be terrified. You’ll be beaten up and torn down with words and gossip by people who are hurting and scared, but you’ll also have the opportunity to grow substantially in your emotional and spiritual health. You’ll find new ways of being with and relating to others where you can be more fully present. Your marriage will become stronger, and you will find mentors and friends to lean on in the middle of the lonely season ahead. You’ll learn to run and shape a local church ministry. You’ll learn to listen to God’s Spirit, and you’ll learn to be a pastor. This is going to be hard, and many days you will want to walk away. Much of what you think you know will be undone by this experience, and it will be painful. Remember this though: at some point in the future, you will come to see that the pain will be worth it.”
I had no idea what I was getting into.
New beginnings have a way of feeling hopeful, almost joyful. Endings can feel this way too, depending on what we are leaving behind. But it’s the space between the ending and the beginning that I’ve become most interested in. The space in between the ending and the beginning is called a liminal space.
The word liminal comes from the Latin word limen, which means threshold, or the bottom of a doorway where we cross over as we leave one space and enter another. Liminal spaces are the in-between spaces, where we’ve left behind the familiar, and begin entering into the unfamiliar. These spaces can be hopeful, but they can also be disorienting as we leave behind what is known to us and enter into the unknown. In this way, a liminal space is marked by the sense of already-but-not-yet. It is a feeling of excited anticipation that comes with a weighty tension and many of us have become experts at avoiding it. We would rather have the predictability of knowing what comes next than live with the tension of the already-but-not-yet.
A liminal season is the pregnancy test that flashes a positive, the preparations for welcoming a child into our lives, but the reality of the third trimester, full of swollen feet, lower back pain, and the sense of readiness to get this child out of me. A liminal season is the good news of a job offer, but the reality of resigning from our current role, finding a new home, a new community, new friends, and a new routine. A liminal season is when we are leaving behind what was, but what comes next isn’t altogether clear to us yet. The waiting for the new thing to happen, full of anticipation and trepidation, without the ability to go back to the familiar—this is a liminal season.
Wandering in the Desert
The book of Exodus is the beginning of a liminal season for the people of Israel. Leaving behind the agony of slavery in Egpyt to follow after God’s activity, through the leadership of Moses, the Israelites cross over the Red Sea and into the desert. What follows should have been a two-week trek across this barren land and into the Promised Land. Instead it is forty years of wandering in the desert, marked by confusion, disorientation, hopelessness, and despair. Yet, it is in the desert where God shapes God's people into their new identity. It is in the desert where the Israelites are given the Ten Commandments, the purity laws, the sabbath instructions, and the provision of manna and quail. It is in the desert during those forty years where God gives God's people a structure for worship, including a line of people, the Levites, who were to lead God’s people in their worshiping life and care for the very presence of God on earth, the Tabernacle. Through this liminal season in the desert, full of heartache, and setbacks and disappointment, God shapes God's people into those ready to receive the good gifts of the Promised Land.
2020 has been a liminal season in the lives of God’s people once again. We have been thrust out of our routines, both professionally and personally, and we’ve been held under the thumb of a global pandemic. It has been disorienting, disappointing, and full of setbacks. I know this personally and as a pastor. Yet if we are indeed in a liminal season, where we’ve left behind what was and what comes next isn’t quite clear just yet, we would do well to pay attention to the presence and activity of God’s Spirit as something new begins to emerge.
Liminal seasons have the potential to shape us in significant ways, if we allow this shaping to take place. The truth is we always have a choice with what we do when these seasons come our way. We can fight them, we can resist them, and we can declare the new thing happening to us and within us is wrong, bad, or evil. Or, we can embrace these new things—no matter how much they hurt—as God doing some significant work in us and through us for the formation of our lives and for the sake of others.
Accepting the Invitation into the Next Thing
We’ve all been living in a liminal season collectively for the past year. We’ve left behind what was, but we’ve not yet begun to step into what comes next. We know we can’t go back to what used to work for us, but we’re still creating the path forward.
Yet God has been with us through it all, comforting us, inviting us to receive the gift of the unknown, inviting us to choose each day what we will do next. We can choose to trust the shaping and sustaining presence of God, even in the middle of our disorientation, or we can run away from the invitation, desperately trying to cling to what used to bring us comfort. I’ve oscillated between these options daily, but I can see with my own eyes and feel with my own heart the God who is there, with me, present all along. There have been many days where I’ve simply said to God, “I don’t want this,” or I’ve asked, “Why is this happening to me?” There have been many days where I’ve said, “I don’t know how to do this.” But my sense is I’m beginning to move through those questions and slowly by slowly enter into the space of, “I’m capable and able to do what is set before me to do.”
Like the Israelites in the desert, I’ve longed to go back to Egypt time and again. I’ve complained in salty language how I’ve been given the short end of the stick. I’ve wondered if God is with me at all. Yet, when I slow down, get quiet long enough, and listen to that still, small voice, I cannot deny the presence of God, even on the days where all has seemed lost. God is with us, moving us through, inviting us into the next thing, even when we don’t want the invitation, even when we don’t know what to do next.
This is what I hope for in the coming weeks and months: that I would continue to become the sort of person who is able to receive the gift of this liminal season. That I will resist the urge to pine after the good ‘ol days. That I will feel the strength that has been building within me as I’ve exercised new muscles I didn’t even know I had a few months ago.
Cover image by Matthew T. Rader.