Words From Tom 6-3-15
I have often been intrigued by “liminality.” To be in transition is to be in an in-between place – neither here nor there. Anthropologists and theologians call this ‘liminal’ space.
Since announcing that this is my last year as conference minister, I have entered that liminal space, the transition from this work and set of relationships to another that is not yet defined. While I am in conversation with a couple of possibilities, at this moment I do not know where I will be or exactly what I will be doing next.
Virtually all of us have experienced transitions and liminality at various times in our lives. Moving out of our family home, graduating from formal schooling, getting married, moving to a new community, all of these are liminal experiences.
Persons who study this transitional time suggest that it is easy to feel marginalized during these times. Already there are conversations that take place in Leadership Team meetings for which it is no longer appropriate for me to participate. I remember the month before I assumed my second pastorate. I had quit my former pastoral role, we had moved to a new community, but I was not yet gainfully employed in the new location. What do I do with my time? Who am I?
The Bible has many stories of people who made transitions, who experienced liminal situations. Abraham left Ur, with all its wealth, security and power, to embrace a new life as a pilgrim. Jacob spent many marginal years in Paddan-Aram with his relatives before returning to his family in Canaan. Moses lived as a ger, a sojourner on the margins of Midianite society. His in-between state came from being situated in the boundaries of the Midianite, Hebrew and Egyptian cultures. And there was Israel in Egypt, living a marginal existence under Pharaoh, without its own land, not yet a nation.
But these stories of marginality have a dynamism that does not keep them in a liminal state. Instead, difficult periods became just a phase in a transitional period that led to their transformation. In these biblical stories, changes in location often involved and were accompanied by a separation from a past life and an embracing of a new identity. Abraham received a new name and, through the rite of circumcision, received a new identity. Jacob struggled with a mysterious person in the middle of the night and also received a new name, which marked a change in his identity. Israel as a people went through a death-like experience in the Red Sea, but emerged as a new nation.
Since transformation is such an important aspect of our faith (cf. Romans 12, 2 Corinthians 5), becoming a new creation cannot happen without change. We need these liminal experiences to move from who we have been to who God has created us to be.
I find this to be an exciting time in my life. I also sense that the church is poised in one of those liminal times as well. What has worked effectively in the past may no longer do so. That is not a commentary on the quality of past efforts or times as much as it is on the dynamism of our world. New expressions, new wineskins are needed to contain the new wine. Liminal times are not merely to be endured, they are to be valued, perhaps even savored, as times of deep learning and growing. May it be so!