Genesis 3:1-13, 22-24
Liminal Lent: Adam & Eve
Our worship theme this year is Liminal Lent. I got to talk with folks who attended Ash Wednesday worship about what this theme means, and then last week we had the joy of welcoming Woven & Spun to our worship service, and so some of you haven’t yet had a chance to dig in to understanding what this theme is all about. So, I’m going to share with you a bit of what I shared with folks on Ash Wednesday, so you know why we’re talking about this liminal thing this season. At the recommendation of our District Superintendent Mike Weeden, I recently read a book called, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going by Susan Beaumont. 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. On your bulletins is a liminal image - a trapeze artist. They’ve let go of the first trapeze bar, and are headed for the next one, but they’re not at either place yet. They’re in-between, in midair, neither here nor there. It takes a lot of courage to be in the middle space, but they can’t get to the next bar unless they let go of the first completely. They have to be in liminal space. Adolescence is liminal space - a time between childhood and adulthood. Not yet able to be independent entirely, but too old to be dependent entirely. Young people are in liminal space, a season where there is such vulnerability, such intensity, such possibility and 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) We’re in a liminal season here at the church. We’re in that strange time when we know that my time as your pastor is coming to an end, but not yet. Some might call it “lame duck” season, but I think liminal time is a much better descriptor! And as a denomination, and as the church universal, there are ways in which we are in a liminal season. Transition time. And so this Lent, we are looking at stories from the Bible where people are in liminal seasons, in transition times like we are. And as we study their stories, we’ll be looking for guidance for ourselves about living as liminal people.
Today, we start with Adam and Eve. Some of you might remember that we just read this passage together back in December when we were working our way through major themes in the Bible. We spent a week talking about creation, and we heard Adam and Eve’s story then. But this week, our focus is a bit different. We’re looking for how Adam and Eve experience liminal space, and what that means for their relationship with God. I have to admit, when I first thought about Eve and Adam and liminal space, I was thinking particularly of their time after they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. What do you know about what the Bible says happens to them after they leave Eden? We don’t know much at all, actually, except that Genesis tells us they have children, they live out the rest of their days, and they eventually die. I was thinking of their time outside of Eden as a liminal season, at least at first, in their lives. But midweek, I had a change in perspective.
This week at our Lenten Bible Study, our weekly gathering for soup, communion, and study, (you’re invited: 6pm in the Fellowship Hall - come join us!) I introduced a spiritual practice for reading scripture called Lectio (or Lex-ee-oo) Divina. Lectio Divina means “Sacred” or “Holy Reading,” and it’s a practice of studying scripture that dates to the early medieval era. The practice was developed by a monk in the 12th century named Guigo II (Gwee-Go). He based the practice on Jacob’s Ladder, with four steps of reflecting on scripture meant to draw us closer to God - reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. At each step, we’re meant to feel God more deeply in our hearts and imagination. In Lectio Divina, you read or listen to a scripture text multiple times in a row. Rather than a traditional Bible Study where you might research the context and try to answer questions about the text, Lectio focuses on letting the text speak to you. You listen for a word or phrase that stands out to you, for what God might be saying through that word or phrase, and then for how God might be calling you to respond to what God has said.
So, this week, we tried using Lectio Divina as we read the text from Genesis 3. When I’m busy imparting information about a text in Bible Study I don’t always get a chance to reflect on the text on my own. I’m too busy trying to guide the conversation. But I found, through this process, that I was able to participate more fully. I was drawn to the phrase, “Their eyes were opened.” That’s what the text tells us happens when Eve and Adam eat the fruit at the serpent’s prodding. At the second reading, when I was listening for what God was saying through this word or phrase, I started thinking about whether there was a difference between actively opening our eyes, or the more passive “their eyes were opened.” I think we often view the phrase “open eyes” as a good thing. Is it ever better to have our eyes closed? We often use that phrase to suggest willful ignorance about something. Why would we want to have our eyes closed, to be ignorant, when we could choose knowledge? Is there a reason why having our eyes closed is better?
At the third reading, I tried to listen for what God was calling me to do in response to my wondering. This Lent, as I’ve shared with some of you, my discipline has been a fast from unnecessary spending. I’ve been limiting my spending as much as possible to gas, groceries, and giving. (Oh yeah - paying my bills too!) I think it is so easy to be a careless consumer. It takes about 2 seconds to order anything I want on Amazon. And I want to store up treasure with God, instead of treasures on earth. As part of my discipline, I’ve been trying to notice whenever I wish I was spending money on something during Lent, and I’m writing it down. I’m trying to pay attention to what triggers my desire to spend money on things I don’t really need. And what I’ve noticed mostly is that social media - Facebook and Instagram - those are big triggers for my desire to spend and buy and accumulate. I see pretty pictures of things on Facebook, and I want. When it comes to staying faithful to my Lenten discipline, then, perhaps “eyes opened” isn’t what’s best. Perhaps closing my eyes to what’s distracting me from my desire to draw close to God in Lent is better. I’ve found myself being more mindful of how I spend my time on social media.
Another thing that came to mind was my own prayer practice. Sometimes, when I’m praying, I like to cover my eyes with my hands. It can be hard, I think, to drown out all the competing voices for our attention to enter fully into a place of prayer, of conversation with God, of listening quietly for God’s voice. And so when I can, I put my hands right over my eyes when I pray. Something about that gesture keep me focused on what I’m doing, and less distracted by what’s happening around me, or the million thoughts running through my mind. I like to think I’m an excellent multitasker, who can do two things at once and boost my efficiency. Our culture encourages us to try to do this - watch TV and browse the internet and carry on a conversation and check emails and answer texts all at once. But most studies show that everything we’re doing suffers a little bit when we multitask, because nothing is getting our full attention, and many things, important things, actually need our full attention. And sometimes, I think, I try to make nurturing my faith, my relationship with God, one more thing I can multitask. I can’t. So I heard God telling me that sometimes closing my eyes is a way to tune out the noise and focus on what is most important. Reminding myself that I don’t have to give space to everything in my life that asks for attention. My relationship with God needs my first, best attention.
I thought, too, about my desire to know the answers. I’ve talked with you before about how that’s been a growing point - and sometimes a point of struggle in my faith. I like to know the answers. Sometimes, I find uncertainty and ambiguity to be quite stressful! I have to tell you - while I was waiting to find out whether I was accepted to school this fall or not, I was pretty stressed. I found a website for graduate students, with a whole online forum full of students waiting to hear about whether or not they’d gotten into school. There was even a chat thread specifically for students applying to religion programs. Definitely liminal space - in-between space - for all of us. At first, finding this online community helped me. I knew more about when I might expect to hear news about my acceptance - or not - to school. But eventually, I wondered if it was helping or hurting. Because I started checking the forum kind of obsessively, to see, again, if anyone had posted news, if anyone knew anything else. I couldn’t wait for the not-knowing to be over, even, I felt, if the news was going to be bad news. I just wanted to know.
For Adam and Eve, I finally started to see that Eden itself is their liminal space. The Garden of Eden is the place where Adam and Eve are asked to just be, to just live. It’s this space that’s between the act of creation, and the rest of existence as we know it. This paradise is liminal space. But in this space, Adam and Eve don’t know everything. And eventually, their not-knowing causes them to act in ways that hurt them, even while bringing them knowledge.
In her book, Susan Beaumont writes that our natural impulse when we are in liminal space is to either go back to the solid ground we used to know - we see this in Exodus when the Israelites want to go back to Egypt, even though they were slaves there, because at least they knew how things would go there - or the impulse is to leap ahead too quickly to the future, where questions might be answered. (3) The leaping forward seems like a good idea, but it often means skipping over spiritual growth that only happens when we stay in the liminal space. Listen to what else Beaumont says: During seasons of liminality, “an organization is remarkably susceptible to false leaders and prophets … Tricksters are attracted to the chaos in liminal seasons … People look for someone to follow … Enter the trickster.” (17) Experiencing the discomfort of not knowing everything, Eve and Adam listen to the trickster in their midst. They get the knowledge that sounds so appealing. Their eyes are opened. But what their eyes are opened to see and their minds are opened to know are also the very things that end up putting distance between them and God. God still walks with them, but they never live with God in quite the same way while on earth.
When we’re in liminal space, we might be tempted to jump ahead, trying to get back in the know because of the discomfort of the space in-between. I think, for example, of how we’ve all wondered about who will be the next pastor here. I’ve been asked about that a lot, and I have a whole list of things to talk about with the new pastor, and I, in turn, have asked our District Superintendent more than once about the timeline - when will we know? But truthfully, we have plenty of work to do right now in this place, this season, even in the midst of unknowing. Beaumont says that one of “the most difficult aspects of liminality is that people … tend to think of it as undesirable … People often frame the liminal experience as organizational failure.” (12) When we’re anxious to simply move forward, rush into the future, we sometimes “wrestle our way toward a new beginning.” That approach, she says, “may provide a false sense of propulsion” but it doesn’t truly impact liminal space. It just masks it, even prolongs it. (21) “A new beginning happens,” she says, “when the people are spiritually and emotionally ready to move out of liminality and into a new chapter of life.” (18) And that will happen, as all things do, in God’s right time.
This Lent, as uncomfortable as it sometimes is, let’s stay right here in this liminal space. There’s plenty that God has tasked us with in this season. We won’t want for work to do, and we won’t be without God’s presence - God is here too. There is much about the future we don’t know. But we know what we need to: our task, as always, is to love God and neighbor. And maybe in a season when it feels like our eyes are closed, we can better focus on those tasks, tuning out everything else, and giving God our first, best attention. Amen.