These days we are all living in between, in a liminal space. Liminality is an in-between state, as if you’ve left one room but are not yet in the next room. It’s a place of transition that leaves us looking backward at what was, and ahead at what will be, sometimes feeling unsettled by the impermanence of being in neither place. Anxious about the loss of what was, without knowing the stability yet of what will be. Sometimes a liminal space feels like you’re on the threshold of the next thing, with the positive anticipation about the next step. At other times liminality feels like you’re feeling your way along a dark hallway with no light ahead.
We are living In between what life used to be before COVID-19 turned the world upside down and whatever normalcy will look like in the future. The virus is now the third leading cause of death in this country, and there’s no end in sight. We North Americans are not very good about putting up with ongoing inconveniences like masks and social distancing. And so the virus breaks out here and there, showing us who’s boss.
Many of us are in the liminal space of unemployment, between paychecks and on the edge of losing our homes. Teachers and students are trying to figure out how to teach and learn when the space between them is fraught with potential dangers. The families of more than 200,000 of us are mourning the death of someone taken by the virus. Millions of us have struggled with the disease, or are sick now. Some elder care facilities have become death traps.
The church, like everything else, is caught in the middle. Trying to figure out how to be church without handshakes, hugs, and potluck dinners. How to be a video church, or a gathered down-sized congregation that can’t even pass the peace. And many churches see budgets shrinking, while many plans for the future are put on hold.
And, as if that weren’t enough, wildfires and hurricanes batter our coasts, while the planet warms. We watch passively, lacking we the discipline to try to change anything. Racism rages, injustice plagues us, and the political arena has morphed from competition to war as we we await a November election and whatever else comes with it.
We live in a liminal place.
But it’s a place where the community of God has been before: slavery in Egypt, wilderness wandering, Babylonian captivity, diaspora from Jerusalem, Roman persecution, and on the list goes.
I find a story in Luke 24 of help while living in between.
It was Sunday after the crucifixion, and two followers of Jesus decided to walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, about 7 miles. Their journey is both a literal and symbolic liminality. They are between two towns: no longer in Jerusalem and not yet at Emmaus. And they are between two conceptions of reality: no longer with Jesus who is now dead and not yet to a place where they can imagine meaningful life again. They are in the liminal place of shock, grief, disillusionment, anger, confusion, hopelessness — unable to see a future.
As they trudge toward Emmaus, a man catches up with them from behind, a stranger. Except, of course, the stranger is Jesus. But they don’t recognize him; how bizarre that they cannot see him. The stranger asks what they are talking about. The two travelers stop in their tracks, grief flooding them, as they tell the stranger the tragic tale of the execution of the man they thought was Messiah, the one who had given them life, whom they hoped would save Israel. But it’s all over. Dead. He’s dead. What irony: explaining to resurrected Jesus how hopeless it is that Jesus is dead and gone forever.
One of the challenges of liminality is how easy it is to misperceive reality, being so caught up between the sadness over what’s been lost and a future that is so uncertain. They missed that Jesus was already resurrected and literally right there with them.
Yet, we are no different. Liminal spaces are often places where we find it difficult to see reality: to see what is actually going on. They are places where we can feel alone and abandoned, places where we obsess over what has been lost, past mistakes, joy and freedom lost, or the way others treated us unjustly. In our minds we so readily rush back to what was and let loose the anger, regret, and grief. Some of that work of feeling emotions deeply we have to do, we have to live through it — our souls demand it. But we can so easily be consumed by the dark emotions that we miss what is going on right in front of us. In a liminal place we can also obsess over the potential dangers of the future, obsessed with fear, and in that fear render our senses incapable of seeing the presence of Christ with us now.
After hearing the sad story from the two about his own crucifixion, Jesus said to his friends on the Emmaus Road, “Why are you so foolish and hard of heart?” As usual, he speaks like a Hebrew sage, using the language of the wise/foolish divide. A wise person is in touch with reality, able to observe the presence of the Spirit of God, capable of perceiving the divine good gifts of now. A foolish person is so stuck in a paradigm of illusion, thinking the appearance of disaster obliterates hope, assuming that the future can only be defined by the limits of what was experienced in the past.
At this point we find the challenge of living in between: can we hold the ambiguity of unsettledness loosely enough to see that God is with us and perceive that our vision of reality is precarious? Can we imagine a God who is both small and humble enough to be present with us on the journey, compassionate enough to offer true insights into reality, and big enough to be working on an unstoppable plan of reconciling all things in the cosmos?
In the liminal space of now, where we face so much uncertainty, difficulty, and confusion, our challenge is to see reality: the reality that we are not alone on the journey.
* Photo of hallway in the Tower of David, Old City of Jerusalem.