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Bishop's Column: Living in liminal times

Posted: March 26 2018 at 11:47 AM
Author: Bishop Sally Dyck


Bishop Sally Dyck

A few weeks ago, a well-known and respected church consultant, the Rev. Susan Beaumont, came to train our newly emerging Annual Conference and District Shepherding Teams in adaptive leadership (read more). The night before the training, the Annual Conference Shepherding Team had dinner with her and she shared some observations and thoughts that she has on where the Church in the U.S. is—not just The United Methodist Church but all Christian denominations.

She said, “The church is in liminality!” Huh? Liminality is a word from the Latin, meaning threshold. It’s a time of being betwixt and between, acknowledging that what has been is dying away or disappearing but what will be is not yet clear.

She used the example of when her son and his wife were pregnant with their first child. They knew that life as they had known it was about to end but they didn’t really have a sense of what life would be like when this new life emerged. They knew that they would lose some things, like spontaneously going to dinner or a full night’s sleep. But they were eagerly anticipating this new life—already loving this child and eagerly awaiting its arrival.

Elsewhere I have read that a liminal time is like “God’s waiting room,” where we are parked, maybe preparing, earnestly seeking as to what yet shall be. In God’s waiting room, there is no certainty about what the future will be and how it will be different from now or what has been in the past. We don’t know what the Promised Land will look like but we have to leave Egypt and even wander around in the wilderness to get there. Whatever is dying away or disappearing may or may not be a good thing but the uncertainty of not knowing the future is agonizing for us! There is grief at the loss of whatever was good about the past way of being and doing even if it wasn’t all good.

It helps, Susan said, when we have some kind of image or sense of what might yet be. An expectant couple has all kinds of expectations of their child but also wonder at the difficulty of the changes the child will bring! The children of Israel had visions of milk and honey but also of giants in their minds. Liminal times contain hope and also anxiety; joy and also grief.

The celebration of Easter is the celebration—and assurance—that God is in the liminal time. With Easter we affirm that who Jesus was—a physical man in a specific time and place—had died and now is so different from how he looked and acted just three days ago that even Mary Magdalene took him for the gardener!

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Truly celebrating Easter means that we must acknowledge that what we have known in this life will one day die away but trust that we will become something new. It’s not about being who we have been again; it’s about being new.

I always like The Message’s image of this: Some skeptic is sure to ask, “Show me how resurrection works. Give me a diagram; draw me a picture. What does this ‘resurrection body’ look like?” If you look at this question closely, you realize how absurd it is. There are no diagrams for this kind of thing.

We do have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a “dead” seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body that we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different. (1 Corinthians 15:35-38)

Navigating the liminal times in this life is difficult; the children of Israel had a tough time navigating the liminal time in the wilderness. They made some serious mistakes but learned to trust God even for food and water. They were shaped by the wilderness experience into the children of God; without it they would have remained enslaved to what had been. But I don’t think they particularly liked living in the wilderness or in the liminal time. It’s hard because we don’t always know what to do. It’s what has been called the “terrible cloud of unknowing” (mystic Evelyn Underhill).

I like to know what I’m doing and where I’m going and how to navigate, don’t you? But a liminal time means that we have to acknowledge that we’re not in control, that we don’t know what we don’t know, and we must let go and trust in God who will lead us through.

Can you see that the Church is in a liminal time! That it’s changing—yes, dying and disappearing in many ways and places—but that we don’t yet see what it will become? “It does not yet appear what we shall be,” as it says in 1 John 3:2. But we are not without direction as to how to live in this liminal time.

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb “while it was yet dark” . . . there’s a liminal image! She couldn’t imagine what she would find there but because of her faithfulness, service, and love, she put herself in the position to be in the presence of the risen Christ.

We’re called to faithfully do what God has called us to do: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But we’re also called to trust in the mystery which is the liminal gospel of Easter: walking by faith and not by sight, letting the light shine through where it exists in the darkness, and navigating uncharted territory! (Anybody recognizes some liminal annual conference themes?) Celebrate Easter in the spirit of Mary Magdalene—under the cloud of unknowing but trusting that God is yet revealing what we shall be!

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