Home Culture Liminal Space and What Happens When You Love Certainty

Liminal Space and What Happens When You Love Certainty

by Frank Powell

We’re coming out of a pandemic, one of the worst in the history of humanity. I think we’re coming out of a pandemic, at least. Historians and sociologists and such will write about these years in textbooks and use this pandemic as case studies in classrooms, maybe as long as humans tread on this dusty ball. 

I’ve been fortunate to this point. I haven’t lost my job. No one close to me has died. But I’m still affected by the collective grief and loss caused by this virus. So are you. My kids missed a year of school. We didn’t step inside the walls of our church for a more than a year. I can’t watch a movie without getting anxiety after two people hug. You’re not supposed to hug, anymore. Do Monica and Chandler not know? 

Though some will arrive on the other side of this pandemic with more acute pain than others, none of us will arrive unchanged. 

The question we must ask ourselves is will we allow this season to change us? Will these hard and pain-filled times birth something new in us? Or, in our anxiety and haste, will we return to the way things were before? 

We’re in a liminal space, as individuals, but also as a society. 

WHAT IS LIMINAL SPACE?

Liminal space is an ancient phrase that means between one place and another. We are neither here nor there. In a spiritual sense, and that is the sense I am concerned about, liminal spaces are essential for transformation. Until and unless we are thrown out of the world we know, the world of certainty and order and so on, we won’t change. We will continue with business as usual. We will idolize normalcy, and therefore fall asleep to God. You can’t worship God and the status quo, and that’s what most of us do before and unless we enter a liminal space. 

Liminal space is, therefore, sacred space. In this sacred space, our old world falls apart, and a new world is revealed. We lose control, and we’re forced to open our hearts and minds to the Divine. In these spaces, God molds and shapes and transforms us. God prepares something new, a new way of seeing him, of approaching and interacting with him.

Eventually, we emerge from this most painful place, transformed. 

Or do we? 

That is the question before us. In this season, where so many have suffered and lost people they love, where we endured the pain of isolation and loneliness, where we battled with the fear and anxiety of a virus that could strike at any time, will we emerge from this pandemic changed? 

I fear we won’t. I fear we will run back to the old ways. We will return to business as usual. We will resurrect the idol of normalcy. I fear this for myself, for our culture, for the church, for our world. I see signs already, as return to my church, after months of online worship, and nothing has changed. Nothing. The church has grown increasingly irrelevant over the years. Now with an opportunity to re-imagine how we engage with the culture and love our neighbors, we go back to the same old thing.

But, Frank, why does it matter if we return to normal? What’s so bad about that? 

Here’s the thing about liminal space. In a liminal space, reality as we used to know it goes away. Liminal spaces exist to lead us into a new reality. If you return to business as usual, if you refuse to change and grow after emerging from a liminal space, you’re signing up for slavery. It is the classic story of the Israelites, which is also our story. God leads the Israelites out of slavery and into a liminal space, the wilderness, to prepare them for the Promised Land. Rather than entering this new land, though, the Israelites, long to return to Egypt and to slavery. Why? It’s safe. It’s comfortable. 

It’s an indictment on our image of God when we choose to live in shackles rather than step into the unknown. God ordains the future. He baptizes it in his presence. Why are we so afraid to enter it? Answer: we don’t believe God will take care of us. 

We trust the demons of the past more the God of the future. 

WILL WE STEP INTO THE FUTURE OR RETURN TO THE PAST?

We’re in a similar position now, still in the wilderness, but on the cusp of a new reality. Will we enter this new place, this new world, or will we return to Egypt? 

The choice is ours, of course. This is the grace of God, that he gives us freedom. But if you choose to return to Egypt, you will find it dry and desolate. You will find that God’s presence isn’t there, because he’s leading his people somewhere new. 

If you return to business as usual, you will grow stale. An angst, which is the prelude to bitterness and cynicism, will sprout like kudzu and take over. You, eventually, have two options: give in to the cynicism or fall asleep and live your days on auto-pilot. Most people fall asleep to the pains of the world because they’ve chosen to live in a reality that no longer exists. This false reality is comfortable, though, so they remain, but they can’t bear the pain of God’s absence, so they numb themselves with food or drink or drugs or Netflix or Amazon. 

You can’t grow spiritually if you idolize normalcy. You can do spiritual things – read the Bible, go to church, pray, etc. – but you have no fresh or compelling vision of God. You have nothing to say to the world or even to yourself that will awaken awe and wonder. You find it a worthy and worthwhile thing to fight for the way things used to be, to preserve the old way of doing things. Nostalgia is your closest companion.

In a world where people don’t emerge from liminal space and step into a new way of being, you have a community who believes it’s more important to preserve institutions than protect people. You’re riddled with fear, ungrounded and superficial, unsure of your identity. You attach to a political party or a football team or whatever, and leech your identity from that group, which always leads to unhealthy loyalty. God is no longer alive and dynamic, but always the protector of your worldview. God never leads you to a new place or reveals to you a new thing. He always thinks like you and acts like you and supports your decisions. 

Meanwhile, a remnant remains, a small band of people, who enter the Promised Land, who choose to embrace the unknown, who dare to see God in a new way. This way is scary. Walking with God is always that way. But these are the people whose lives flow with milk and honey. When you step out of liminal space and into a new reality, you come alive and live with purpose, meaning you have a reason to wake up every morning that connects you with the greater good. You become self-aware. You feel the pain of the world, but also have relentless peace and joy. You less sensitive to criticism and people who don’t like you. You’re walking with God, and the Spirit of God is un-offendable. You love everyone. You don’t choose sides. You choose life, justice, and wholeness. 

As we emerge from this pandemic, will we emerge different? Will we open ourselves to new ways of seeing God? God wants to reveal new things to you right now. But you must be still. You must endure the anxiety that comes with silence. You must be willing to tear down some old ways of seeing God. God might invite you to make changes. He might ask you to look honestly at your relationship with your children or your spouse. He might open your eyes to the ways your church places loyalty to the institution above justice and reconciliation, and he might ask you to do something about it. Maybe that means you leave your church or maybe that means you stay and call for change. God might ask you to look at the man in the mirror and assess his or her priorities. Is the Creator really your God, or do you worship success or fear or validation? 

I don’t know the changes God is calling you to make. But I know right now, in this season, we have an opportunity to experience a deeper knowledge of God’s love and peace. God wants to reveal himself to you, and though this revealing will scare you at first, it will eventually heal you.

May you have the courage to emerge from this liminal space and step into the Promised Land.

Grace and peace, friends.

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