Liminal Lent: Jesus
Our worship theme this year is Liminal Lent. I’m guessing liminal isn’t a word you use very often. I don’t either. But as some of you know, I’m part of our District Leadership Team, a group that works with our District Superintendent Mike Weeden to help resource local congregations to live out their mission in their communities. Mike regularly has us reading books together, part of our learning process so that we in turn can be better teachers and leaders. And the next book we’re discussing together is How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going by Susan Beaumont. Great title, isn’t it? I feel like a lot of ministry is leading when we don’t know where we’re going! The subtitle of the book is: Leading in a Liminal Season.
Liminal means “threshold.” Think about the doorway into a room. As you step over the threshold, you are in an in-between space, not fully in the room you’re leaving, and not fully in the room you are entering. You’re in both places at once, and not in either place fully. That’s liminal space. The in-between. Not either this or that. Not black or white, but the blurry border. Think of the feeling of being at the top of the ferris wheel, or that moment on a roller coaster after the first steep incline but before you plunge down. You aren’t climbing up anymore, or yet heading back toward the ground. There’s the moment, that hesitation. It’s a liminal space.
Think about airports or train stations. They’re liminal places. Other than for employees, these places are mostly liminal places. They’re full of people, but they’re not the destination for anyone. Everyone is going to and from, but they’re not staying at the airport, at the train station. It’s a liminal space. (6) Think about the weirdness of the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. A week between Christmas celebrations and the start of a new year. Lots of people are on vacation. Anything productive people want to do usually gets pushed off until after the first of the year. Kids don’t have school. The rhythm of the world is just a little different for that week. It’s liminal time, threshold time, in-between time. Or think of something as simple as twilight. It’s not quite daytime, and not yet dark enough to be night. It’s the blurry threshold between day and night, a liminal time. Or think about the long season of life called adolescence. Young people are no longer children, and yet we can’t say they are adults either. They can’t be totally independent, and yet they no longer should be entirely dependent on adults around them. Young people are in liminal space, on the threshold, for years. And so it is a season where there is such vulnerability, such pain and intense emotion, such possibility, such challenge, because they’re in a prolonged state of liminal space.
Our focus this Lent is about finding God when we’re in these in-between places. We don’t always like being in liminal space. It’s uncomfortable, not knowing whether we’re here or there, ending or beginning. Hanging out in a time of transition is hard. But it is also a time, liminal time, when it might be easier for us to hear what God’s trying to tell us. And so, this Lent, we’re focusing on being in this liminal space.
In her book Beaumont writes: “All significant transitional experiences … follow a predictable three-part process. Something comes to an end. There is an in-between season marked by disorientation, disidentification, and disengagement. Finally, and often after a very long and painful struggle, something new emerges.” (2) A liminal period, she says, is “a disorienting period of non-structure or anti-structure that opens new possibilities no longer based on old status or power hierarchies. New identities are explored and new possibilities are considered.” (3)
We don’t always like being in liminal space. It can be very stressful. Beaumont says, “The natural human response is to resist liminality and to strive backward to the old familiar territory or forward to the unknown identity. The ambiguity and disorientation are at times so heightened that the very work required to move forward becomes impossible to engage.” (3) Still, Richard Rohr writes, “All transformation takes place here [in liminal space]. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of ‘business as usual’ and remain patiently on the ‘threshold’ ... where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.” (As quoted by Beaumont, 4-5, emphasis mine.)
We’re in a liminal space in the life of our church, aren’t we? We’re in a season of pastoral transition. I’m still here, but we know that my time is limited! I’m in a liminal season - I know where I’m going, but I’m not there yet! We’re in a liminal season as a denomination, as we await another General Conference and the possibility of new denominational configurations. Even the church universal is in a liminal season as culture changes rapidly and the church seeks to find its place. And Lent itself is a liminal season - this is a time of preparation, of repentance, of growth as we long for and anticipate the joy of Easter. We’re always Easter people, and yet it also isn’t Easter yet.
Fortunately, we know where we can turn for guidance, because the scriptures are full of stories of people who are in liminal seasons, and see what we can learn from them as we journey with Jesus to the cross. This Lent, we’ll be hearing about the liminal seasons of Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph, and Ruth and Naomi. But before we hear their stories, we hear Jesus’ story.
In our reading from Matthew, Jesus finds himself in a liminal space. He’s on the threshold, just about to start his public ministry. For 30 years, he lived in relative obscurity. We know almost nothing about the time between Jesus’ birth and the time he arrives at the river Jordan to be baptized by John. His baptism marks his intent to start preaching and teaching. But he doesn’t start doing that immediately. First, the Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness where he’s tempted by the devil. The wilderness in the Bible almost always represents a liminal space, an in-between space for the people who find themselves there. Interestingly, what Jesus is tempted with? The devil tries to get Jesus to make certain what seems blurry. Jesus is hungry, fasting, and the devil wants Jesus to claim the certainty of food. Jesus knows he is God’s beloved Son, but the devil wants him to make certain, by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, to test that God’s angels will protect Jesus if he needs it. Jesus knows that his power will come by making himself vulnerable, weak, humble, but the devil wants Jesus to be certain of his power, promising him everything if he aligns himself with the devil. Jesus, though, is ok with being where he is and who he is. He’s in the wilderness, on the brink of something new but not yet starting. He’s God’s child. And he can stay right where he is, on the brink, until the Spirit who has led him to liminal time sends him forth to serve.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Today, we have an opportunity to intentionally claim this liminal season. In Lent, we have the opportunity to experience a different rhythm of life than the same old same old. We engage in spiritual disciplines, special practices during Lent to remind us we’re in sacred, liminal time. Resist the urge to turn back to the life as usual, and resist the urge to skip this journey with Jesus in favor of the joy of Easter. Rest in Lent for a while, on the threshold. Today, we are marked with ashes, signs that as Christians, our whole identity is in liminal space. We say that God’s reign has already arrived, and yet it’s also near, not yet fully unfolded on earth. Liminal. In Lent, instead of resisting the uncertainty, embrace this season of transition. God will meet you here, on the threshold. Amen.