Humans have always tried to organize time into categories in order to better understand their experience. There is the Ancient period, the Middle Ages, and the Modern era. We sort information in order to manage an overwhelming topic—the history of the humankind.
Categorization happens on a personal level, as well. My husband and I divide our marriage into three eras as well: Pre-kids, active parenting, and empty nest. The number of years in each category is uneven and we haven’t even experienced one of them yet. And still, these divisions allow us to manage an overwhelming topic—the history of us.
There is also the question of the in-between times. Where does the comma between pre-kids and active parenting go? When our first child was born? When we were trying to get pregnant? What about the miscarriage before the pregnancy with our firstborn? What category does that fall into? This is liminal space. The minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years in between what we knew before and the new reality is fully realized.
Our world is in liminal space right now.
The world we knew before Covid-19 is gone. The way the world will be after Covid-19 isn’t here yet. We are in the in-between.
God’s people have always known a bit about the in-between phases of life. Abraham had the promise of an heir for a decade before Isaac was born. Moses hid in the desert for 40 years before he walked into his purpose in life. Israel wondered in the desert for 40 years before they entered the promised land. Jonah sat in the belly of a whale for 3 days. Naomi and Ruth walked back from Moab to Israel. David was on the run from Saul, anointed king being hunted by current king, for years. The prophets warned and corrected the people of Israel for generations before exile. Esther fasted and prayed for 3 days before going before King Xerxes. The specific revelation of the Word of the Lord went silent for 400 years between return from exile and Jesus. Our story has a lot to teach us about liminal space.
My favorite story of the in-between times is Mary. She receives a startling visit from an angel, accepts God’s call, and then goes to Elizabeth. She stays with Elizabeth for 3 months. I wonder what they did in that time. Did Mary ask questions about pregnancy? Did the marvel together at how their boys seemed to already know each other? Elizabeth, an old woman we are told, was in her sixth month when Mary came. I imagine that she was on ancient equivalents of bed rest. This pregnancy was high risk and until Mary came, Elizabeth didn’t have anyone to talk with; her husband’s voice was taken by the angel. I imagine moments of deep connection and silly laughter at the absurdity of their lives. I imagine their shared liminal space nurtured both of their souls for the road ahead.
Church as we knew it before Covid-19 is gone. The new way hasn’t yet been made clear. The timing of the new is certainly unknown.
The Church is in liminal space right now.
Liminal space is a chance to dream, to nurture, to rest. We don’t rest from the work of being the church; people need hope and food in equal measures these days. Mary certainly didn’t rest from growing the baby in her womb. But we do rest from our need to produce activity in order to prove spirituality. We do rest from attempts to control the future. Mary literally ran away from her life for 3 months in order to metabolize this new role God had called her to. We do nurture our experience of God so that relationship is at the foundation of action. Mary and Elizabeth had to shift an entire world view together of a God who would speak directly to a woman while silencing a priest. We do dream about how the church might be the arms of Jesus in new world. Elizabeth and Mary dreamed in just that way together as recorded in the Magnificat (see Luke 1:46-55).