Liminal Time – 9/5/21

The time before I started at NCC was one of the more challenging times for me emotionally.  The pandemic was raging around me, and each day I feared for Kathy as she entered the ICU to treat her patients.  I feared for my parents each day, fearing they would  would succumb to the virus if they contracted it due to their age and poor health.  At her yearly mammogram, Kathy’s results were abnormal, and after seeing my mother’s battle with breast cancer I was overwhelmed with worry.  Pax was having a hard time adjusting to the constant changes in how school was being conducted.

I was also experiencing feelings of guilt.  Having just finished my residency, it was the first time in my life that I did not have a clear path ahead.  I had no idea where I would work again.  Knowing there were few Disciples churches in the Bloomington-Normal area, I wondered if I would need to leave ministry in order to find a position.  I feared I had made the wrong decision to leave my last church.  And I wondered how that decision would impact my family if something happened to Kathy.  While it is easy for me to see possibility for those around me, I have always struggled to feel a sense of possibility for myself.  In the face of the growing darkness around me, I wondered how long it would be before this time would pass.  And I wondered how I would find the strength to meet the challenges before me, when the light would emerge.

The word liminal comes from a Latin word meaning “limit or threshold.”  Richard Rohr defines liminal time by saying “It is when you have left, or are about to leave, the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”  One person compared liminal time to that of when a trapeze artist lets go of the trapeze and is seeking to grab hold of the next one.  Those times when you let go of a sense of safety and are grasping for what is next.

I have been thinking about liminal time lately in a variety of contexts.  The first, of course, relates to the pandemic.  For more than a year now, we have been living in a liminal time, in the space before the pandemic and after the pandemic.  We have not been given answers to what is next and when things will truly return to normal.  Nothing seems normal, and nothing seems clear.  So much of our lives feel like they have been placed on hold.

I have also been thinking of liminal time in terms of NCC.  This community is in a space between what was and what may yet be.  For more than a year, we have not met in person as a community.  As we prepare to gather in person next week, that sense of unease may not end.  The worship service will not have some of the elements we cherish for safety reasons, not everyone we want to see may be there.

Life changing events often enter us into a liminal time – after the loss of a loved one, at the end of a relationship, at retirement or the change of a job, when we or someone we love experiences a health crisis.  Times when we look back and clearly see a demarcation of before and after this event occurred.  Times when darkness begins to fill our vision, and the light we once saw is now difficult to see. What makes liminal times challenging is their unfamiliarity.  They are unlike anything we have experienced before.  And that lack of familiarity can leave us grasping for stability when the ground we stand on feels shaky.

In our first reading for this morning, we read of two people in a liminal time.  Two people who were followers of Jesus are mourning his death.  In the wake of the execution of Jesus, everything had suddenly changed.  The man they had followed, the man they hoped would bring the change they had so long hoped for, was dead and they were unsure what was next.  The gospel of Luke indicates they are despairing.  They are disoriented in the midst stories they are hearing, stories of the appearance of angels, of empty tombs, grasping to some certainty to cling to.  And as they walk, unsure of where their path will lead in this time between times, the presence of Jesus is with them.  But because of their sadness, because of their preoccupation with what has been and what may be to come, they cannot recognize that presence with them.  They are unable to hear and understand what that presence is trying to tell them.

It isn’t until they invite his presence in, not until they stop walking, sit and take a breath, commune with his presence that they are able to open themselves.  To perceive what was actually before them and had been with them throughout this time.  And even though they couldn’t see it at the time, they garner the strength from that experience to return to Jerusalem.  There they reconnect with their community, drawing strength from their experience in the liminal time.  They have received a new energy, a new strength, a new enthusiasm to face what is ahead.

I share this reading not as a literal resurrection story, but as a metaphor for what happens to us in liminal times.  In the wake of a loss, in the aftermath of a dashed hope, when the path we were on suddenly seems unclear, our senses can become dulled.  Our tendency is  to become stuck.  To stay still, to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass in the hopes that if we just make it through, things will be what they were before.  No longer holding the trapeze, all we see is the danger of the ground below us.

We are coming to the end of one liminal time in the life of this community.  After over a year being separated by the pandemic, next week we will finally be together in person.  But we also begin a new liminal time of discernment.  Looking back over what has been and being uncertain over what is next, it is a natural tendency to fail to recognize what is present in the moment.  My hope is that next Sunday as we look around the sanctuary, we recognize what is right in front of us, despite all of the uncertainty which swirls.  A beloved community committed to one another, able to lift each other up when the darkness seems all that we see.

I love the last lines of our second reading for this morning.  “We talk so much of  light, please let me speak on behalf of  the good dark. Let us talk more of how dark the beginning of a day is.”  I remember as a child, and even now, my anxiety was always worse at night.  And my mother, in an effort to calm me, would say “It will be different in the morning.  Everything seems worse in the dark.”  While it wasn’t always a comfort at the time, there was truth in it.  Recognizing that the night always comes to an end, that a new day will dawn can transform the dark.  The good dark is one we recognize as temporal, as a space to center ourselves, to rest from the turmoil which has surrounded us.  A chance to grieve, a chance to breathe, a chance to release – and a chance to gather strength for what the dawn will bring, to do the work we need to receive the possibility of the new day.

There are some practices which make these liminal times not only easier, but to make them meaningful.  The first is openness.  It is important that we name our feelings of being unsettled, fearful, uncertain.  In naming this, we are able to build an increased trust in our relationships within community, to better recognize we are not alone in this liminal time, and to open ourselves to new perspectives.

Building on this, the second is a shared creativity.  Because our norms are upset, a liminal time is optimal for trying new things, for altering our normal patterns to determine what is truly important and meaningful.  Rather than trying to recreate what we have always done, it is a time to experiment with letting some things go, to see what it feels like to invest our energy in new or different things.

Finally, in liminal times it is important to embrace flexibility.  In these times when our norms are disrupted, we need to be more willing to pivot, to change the direction we are moving when the path is disrupted.  And, as much as we can, we should try let go of our fear of failure.  Liminal times lend themselves to being more forgiving of our mistakes, to moving forward without guilt.

In living through my own liminal time, I learned a few things that I try to cling to when I am struggling now.  The worst does not always happen.  I had developed the mindset to always expect the worst so I would be able to prepare myself, to feel some control over the anxiety faced.  So I could be pleasantly surprised if things work out rather than devastated if they don’t.  But I have come to experience that thinking as destructive.  Because, like those people on the road to Emmaus, it blinded me to the Divine presence pointing me in a new direction.  I also learned that new possibilities can emerge from places I never thought possible.  That sometimes it is only by being in the darkness of the liminal time that I can see the light that is emerging.  And I learned that there is beauty to be found in those dark times before the light begins to emerge.  That maybe I don’t need to focus all of my energy on the light, but embrace what can be found in the good dark.

As each of us continue to move through this liminal time, may each of us embrace the good dark, to release our fear, our guilt, and embrace the possibility of what may emerge with the dawn.