A Word from Our Pastor 2010 June Liminality


With June, summer begins — for many of us, summer is an “in-between” time — the school year has ended and we wait for another to begin. It is a time of transition from one classroom to the next; it is also a time that is without a common structure — that is, not all families choose to do the same things during the summer (unlike fall and spring, when everyone is in school). This “inbetween-ness” is a kind of no-man’s land, where we are freer to make up the activities of our lives, and prepare for what is to come. There are many time in life when we are in an “in-between” space — graduation comes to mind, because so many people have this experience in June. Some (very few) people go straight to a job after graduation, but most of us have to search for the job or even a career after graduation. So, although we know that schooling has ended, we don’t yet know what will happen next: so we are in-between.

The technical term for this kind of “in-betweenness” was originally named by anthropologists, who called it “liminality.” Liminality comes from a Latin word meaning “threshold” — when you stand on a threshold, you are neither inside or outside the door. So, when people are in a liminal state, they are in a transition between two familiar or recognizable spaces. There are many examples: graduation, as I mentioned before; also engagement, a period between courtship and marriage; teenage years, a period between childhood and adulthood. The Bible has a 40-year liminal state: the time the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness — between Egypt and the Promised Land. In this hard economy, lots of people are in a liminal state, “between jobs.” We are also in a liminal state when we have a terminal illness — we are at the boundary between life and death. Some of these transitions we choose (like engagement), others are forced upon us (like being laid off of job).

It’s easy to think of a liminal state as just a waiting period: but it isn’t that passive. After all, pregnancy is also a liminal state, and that is a time of many and great changes, physical and emotional — joy, fear, uncertainty, fulfillment, and many more, all rolled together. Liminality can be supremely uncomfortable: we know we have stepped beyond our past, stepped beyond the things that are familiar, the activities that we know how to do, being with the same people. But we don’t know what it ahead: we may know a few things about it, but the experience will be brand new: it is out of our control, good things could happen, but so could bad things — and we probably won’t have an easy solution, at least right away. Therefore, it isn’t unusual to have anxiety, depression or even euphoria about what will be on the other side of the doorway.

So: how can we cope? This is, after all, an unavoidable aspect of life: no matter how much we try to inform and prepare ourselves for the future, we will never be able to control it. When we are in a liminal state, we understand just how insecure we are: actually we are always insecure, aren’t we? — we actually have very little control over the world. We are just more aware of that insecurity when we are in a transition in our lives.

The example of the wandering in the wilderness is a good one. You can imagine how happy the Israelites were at the beginning: they had been rescued from generations of slavery! After harsh treatment by the Egyptians, they were setting off to collect on the promises that God had given to their ancestors: a land of their own. And the promised land wasn’t so far away: today it is about a 10-12 hour car ride from Egypt to Palestine. BUT IT TOOK 40 YEARS for them to get there. In that 40 years, God tried to teach Israelites an important lesson: they needed to learn this before they were ready to receive the fulfillment of the promise: they learned to become a community that depended on God.

Prior to leaving Egypt, they weren’t really a community: they were living under Egyptian rule; so in the wilderness Moses received God’s law on Mt. Sinai, and then the people had to figure out how to live together in this new way, ruled by a new law, under the leadership of Israelites. They also learned that their survival was a gift from God: every morning their food arrived in the form of “manna” from heaven; they were instructed that it was not necessary to save this food, because it would arrive again the next morning. But people being people, they tried to put some aside, thinking that one day, God might fail them, and there would be no food. Of course, the manna they tried to save rotted, and the people had to trust God that there would be a meal the next day.

This story is a parable about life: when we find ourselves between the old “home” and the new one, we have to learn again that we are a community dependent on God — and that even in the difficult wilderness of our transition, God is in the process of fulfilling a great promise to us. Being a community is important, because no one gets through these uncertain times alone — when we are in transition, we need the help and support of others to make it through: sometimes that support is physical, emotional, spiritual and perhaps financial. We also have the opportunity to grow in faith: despite the insecurity we find ourselves in, we can choose to believe that this is part of God’s promise to us — good things are ahead, with some rocky times in between, no doubt, but God loves us and wants the best for us. Liminality reminds us that there are periods in our lives which are stable and familiar — kind of like the summer growing season of fruit, when it gets bigger and riper. But then there are times of rapid and tremendous change and upheaval, like the vulnerable seed below ground, which is transforming to the plant that will break the soil and bear fruit. God is with us during all these times, helping us to become the people that we are meant to be.
–Rev. Naomi