Praise God for Liminal Times!

Throwback Thursday … another way for me not to lose some older writing I did and to share what’s still relevant.  This post was first published in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Connections, a publication of the Presbytery of New Covenant.

I attended a workshop on Spirituality at the Congregational Transformation Conference in Fort Worth the middle of October.  Picturing the group sitting in a circle on jewel colored tassel pillows and meditating all week, I was reluctant to sign up for that workshop.  Yet, when Suzanne, the workshop leader, gave her preliminary talk to the conference as a “teaser” of what was to come, I felt that nudge of the Spirit – take that one. 

I’ve known for a long time that transformation of a congregation begins with and is primarily focused on the spiritual growth of each member; transformation is most likely to occur when we’re not focused on attendance or budgets or refurbishing the building.  In this workshop, though, my eyes were opened to the depth of spiritual potency of the state of the Church today.

Suzanne began by talking about the state of “liminality”.  Some of you may remember that we heard Stan Ott talk about these being “liminal” times during the Acts 16:5 workshops.  Liminality is, literally, the “threshold” or the “edge.”  I like to call it the space between places or the time between times.  Years ago, the timing belt of my Ford Escort broke along Interstate 71 as Dwayne and I were moving from seminary in Louisville, KY, to my internship in Canton, OH.   When the tow truck driver asked me for my home address and phone number, I could tell him where I had come from and where I was going, but I had no place that was “home” at that moment. That was liminality.  It’s an uncomfortable place to be.   It’s often full of emotions … being excited about what’s happening, fearful and/or curious of what’s to come, and, at the same time, grieving what is past.

As a church and as a culture, this is where we are.  The traditional ways of being church as well as the previous (some would say, “modern”) assumptions about truth, news, and social contexts are giving way to new (“postmodern”) ways of living, thinking, and understanding.  Right now, we are in the crux of it.  Most social scientists (historians, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers) would agree we’ve been in this state of liminality for quite a few decades already.  But it will take a few more decades before we’re fully “moved” to the new “home”.  This is a time full of angst, of grieving the past, of wondering about the future.  And, unlike my voluntary move to Ohio, many church members didn’t agree to this cultural and ecclesiastical shift – instead, it’s been thrust upon us.

Liminality, Suzanne explained, is something we intentionally seek out in spiritual disciplines.  It’s the “outside of our comfort zone” state that we seek when we participate in silent retreats, fasting, meditation, etc.  In those practices, we give up the chatter, the busy-ness, the satiation we find comfort in and seek the liminal state, because, she says, “that’s when God can do the most with us.”

For me, that was a freeing thought.  I’m an unusual human being in that I am usually “charged up” by change.  I get bored with stability and am continually looking for the next challenge.  But, even for me, it was a freeing thought to think of the turmoil and transition our nation, world, and Church is going through as a spiritual discipline … a time to allow God to “do the most with us.”

Suzanne said one more thing that made me “suck air” that week in Fort Worth.  She said that when it comes to God working in us, despite how much we want to know what God’s up to, it’s really none of our business.  It’s enough to know that God is doing something.

Thinking of transition as a potentially deeply spiritual time, then, means we need to trust that God is in control even when we’re not.  What’s the future of the church?  I have some ideas, but they’re just my ideas.  What’s more meaningful is that we know God is in charge of the future of the church, and of our nation, and of our world.  This time of liminality is a time when God is working miracles and revelations in and through us.  Praise be to God!

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