“Whether it’s the first day of kindergarten, the start of a new job, puberty, or retirement, change – even when it is welcomed – tends to be challenging to cope with…. The notion of liminality offers an interesting perspective on the human experience of [organizational] change.
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“Anthropologists use the term ‘liminality’ to describe the sense of chaos and ambiguity that a social group endures during a time of transition. Coined by Arnold van Gennep in 1909, and then taken up by Victor Turner in 1967, the term is used to understand the point that occurs during a rite of passage when we are no longer what we were, but not yet what we will be. Liminality is that point in a transformation when we are ‘betwixt and between’; the structures that maintain social order fall away, and new forms of organization emerge once the transformation is complete. During the liminal phase of a rite of passage, members of the social group experience a strong sense of social solidarity, known as communitas. This feeling of social connection is a key part of a successful transformation.”
These words by Dr. Emma Aiken-Klar describe a term that has been nagging at me for weeks, now. Liminality comes from the Latin word limen which means “threshold,” and while this transitional time is a deeply personal experience, it is most often experienced within and supported by a group.
In one sense, all of life is liminal. As already mentioned, kindergarten, puberty, starting a new job and retirement are all liminal times. The womb, it has been argued, is the first liminal place and the passage from this world to the next is the last time of liminality. In between are lots of others: as Dr Aiken-Klar has already mentioned, kindergarten, puberty, starting a new job, retirement, and to those we can add the awareness of one’s gender identity, training for a profession, beginnings and endings of relationships, experiences of grief. To an extent, every time we walk through a doorway we are in liminal space; similarly, in those days not too long ago when airports were a part of our lives, at an airport we go through a series of liminal spaces: entrances and exits, security checkpoints, boarding, takeoff, landing.
People of faith are well aware of liminality. In the standard Christian progression when many of us were growing up, baptism started the journey and then confirmation was the rite of passage that took us into full adult participation in Church life. That was both expected and supported by the communitas of the Church. We lost something as those sequential rites of passage slowly faded, and I hear Indigenous cultures similarly lamenting how much has been lost as their traditional rites of passage have faded and with that, the role of elders in shaping and welcoming the next generation has also diminished.
The whole Judaeo-Christian tradition is filled with liminality. The gradual unfolding of Creation, leaving the Garden of Eden, stepping off the Ark into a new day marked by God’s rainbow of peace, the Exodus, are just a few of our ancient stories of being “betwixt and between” the old and the new The Exodus, in particular, is such a good example, because it involved leaving something settled but unsuitable – living under Egyptian enslavement – and heading toward a place of promise that was as yet unseen. In between, was the liminal space of wilderness. Forty flippin’ years of wilderness, as the story goes, and it took about two weeks for the complaining to begin. “If we were going to die out here, we would have been far better off just staying in Egypt” they bemoaned. But that’s the thing about liminal time; it’s a move towards emergence. It’s the move from the known, to the unknown. Tempting as it is to double-back, God leads toward the horizon. In our ancient religious heritage, in our membership in the human race, there is a lot of liminal time – times of testing and transition and new states of being.
In this morning’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus has gathered with the disciples in an extremely liminal time and space. Whether or not they know it’s liminal is not clear, but Jesus sure knows it is. The setting, is Jerusalem, the time, is what turned out to be the final week of Jesus’ life. Jesus picked up on the worry that was heavy in the room, meeting it with these beautiful words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (John 14:1, NRSV)
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” – what beautiful words to speak as his journey with them is drawing to a close, the sentiment spoken at the beginning of the Jesus story, from the angel Gabriel to Mary and from the heavenly host to the shepherds-in-the-fields-abiding, when they said, “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus senses what’s going on in the room and brings it out into the light of day. Rather than pretending that it’s not a scary time, or that fear is not a permitted emotion, it gets named. And, sensing that the fear is multifaceted, Jesus keeps on naming what is going on. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” says Jesus. “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2, NRSV) Jesus invites them to believe that this gutsy, engaged, powerful love that he has demonstrated for them in word and action, is not just a lifestyle choice; it is the way of his new realm. He invites his followers to take a big step in this liminal space, and embrace a pattern of thought and action that is so powerful it unites heaven and earth.
Those words of invitation and safety have been so comforting to countless generations of believers facing their own death, or the death of a loved one. They speak confidently of a dwelling place beyond this one, and assert that a life well lived will never be a life lived in vain. So Christ invites us to give ourselves to his pattern of bold and boundless love: seek the face of God in every neighbour; treat this world with love and respect, do not fall back into familiar ways, just because they are familiar. The Greek bit that most English translations render as “many rooms” express the spaciousness of this Divine love; the NRSV translates it as “many dwelling places”, the KJV, rather famously, as “many mansions” and the Common English Bible uses this wonderful phrase: “My Father’s house has room to spare.” Clearly, the invitation to cross this threshold, is a spacious offer for anyone willing to let their existence be shaped by love, equity and justice.
The dialogue in the 14th chapter of John, between Jesus and his disciples has many more rises and falls, not all of which can be dealt with in one sitting, but I do want to land on one more place where Jesus reads the emotional needs of the room, and responds. In verse 18, Jesus answers a question that nobody seemed to be asking, with these stark words: “I will not leave you orphaned.” (John 14:18, NRSV)
Anyone who lost their parents at an early age, or who never knew one of them or both of them, will know at a gut level just how big a promise this is. Even those of us whose parents lived to a ripe old age, know the gap when there’s no longer Dad or Mom to call. Jesus senses that much of the connective tissue holding this group together may well be him, and he wants them to know that when he is taken from them – and he will be – the next step is not aimless wandering. In his place, will be the gift of the Holy Spirit – and with the Spirit in their lives, at no time or place will they are left to fend for themselves.
That same promise has been made to each successive Christian generation since then, right up to us. We will not be left all alone. In these past two months, we may have started to wonder. In 2020 nearly every nation of the world has had to deal, to some degree or another, with a deep sense of isolation. To some degree, this liminal space has had a “communitas” as everyone’s reality has been jangled and we can commiserate to an extent, but each of us is commiserating in our own little bubble – and that is very different for those on the front lines, from those trying to fill time at home, or those busy at home trying to guide their children’s schoolwork, or those locked down in a care facility. And unfortunately, along with that isolation and the anger of being in a never-ending liminality, we’ve also seen a rising tide of racism and all types of intolerance.
In promising that they will not be orphaned, Jesus confirms for this followers that they are indeed in a liminal time. The fear they are experiencing, is the disorientation that comes with profound, pending change. He has prepared those who love him and trust him and believe the truth of what he is saying to them, to take the next step, to “find a new normal” if you will. He wants them to trust that the way of love is the way of life.
And that’s our call, too, in these days of transition. Right now, governments across Canada and in many jurisdictions in the world, are trying to re-start things, relaxing the regulations for businesses and parks and even Churches. I understand the desire to do so. But I also want to use this idea of liminality, as a way to understand the threshold before us. Now is not the time for communities or provinces or Churches to imagine that these past two months have been nothing more than a diversion from the usual path, and that the next task is to get back to the way things were. One commentator after another has pointed out, that the way things were in the way us humans were living, was killing the planet while creating huge discrepancies between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. The fast, hurtling amusement park ride we called everyday life wasn’t sustainable or healthy, and to try to go back to that is to ignore the threshold that we can step across. Similarly in Church life, any time we get uncomfortable in a liminal time, the first urge seems to be to go back to the way things were, and to do that quickly, abruptly, and uncaringly. Just ask Moses about the grumbling masses who figured that enslavement in Egypt, was better than uncertainty in the wilderness. But now is not the time to truncate what we are learning in this liminal time. Now is the time to keep being smart, and safe, and creative, to look forward to the new paths before us. Liminality is an unsettling space, but it’s an exciting space, too, giving humanity the chance to assert our lack of interest in what we had before, and for the Church to finally get with the technological changes that have been knocking at our door for decade.
Laurie Burrows Grad, reflecting on a time of grieving in her life, says this: “A state of liminality is one where the order of things has been suspended. It is an unsettling arena where I am learning to steer my vehicle and hoping very soon to guide it towards finding my new self. In liminality, the past is brought into play only briefly to review the loss. It is the future and the promise of transformation that I find so heartening about liminality.” We acknowledge that being in a liminal space is never easy or comfortable, but we also know that the lure to go back to the place we just left is rarely a healthy or helpful way to go. God’s invitation is onward, toward the light, toward the love.
Jesus reads the needs of his disciples, and says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
Jesus reads the needs of his disciples, and says to them, “God’s house has room to spare.”
Jesus reads the needs of his disciples, and says to them, “I will not abandon you.”
As disciples of Jesus in this time and place, we ask ourselves if we believe this. Am I willing to step through my fear, toward a new, healthier world? Am I willing to commit myself to a life filled with diversity, a world with room for all people, a world that can help mother earth regain her health? Am I willing to believe that even in isolation, love can be expressed, sometimes by the very act of self-isolating for a while longer so we all stay safe? May God’s wise and comforting Spirit, and the loving support of all people of faith and wisdom and good will, accompany us as we embrace the challenge and promise of these liminal times. Amen.
Aiken-Klar, Dr Emma. https://miscmagazine.com/learning-liminality/
Burrows Grad, Laurie. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/liminality-the-threshold-_b_13845666
© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.