Liminal spaces are places and times of insecurity and fear. They are also where God meets us, taking us to the other side and further… if we let Him.
BY JUSTIN BONE, MINISTERIAL SECRETARY
I remember the first time my family drove to Adelaide from our small hometown of Broken Hill. We wondered at the big city sights, at so many people, so many cars.
We went to a shopping mall, something we hadn’t done before, and did that long circling drive up the car park building searching for a car park. Finally, my father found a space and we got out of the car. I wasn’t sure where we were. I couldn’t see any shops, just parked cars everywhere! But my parents led my brother and I to a small concrete room with an exit sign. It opened onto a staircase and we trailed down this flight of stairs, our footsteps echoing around us, for what. felt. like. hours. At one point another family emerged from a door on a different level and started following us. It did not seem safe.
We eventually reached the bottom and emerged into the shopping centre and I breathed a sigh of relief. We had arrived.
That stairwell is an example of liminal space.
Liminal comes from a word meaning threshold. In other words, it’s the space you go through on your way from one place to another. These spaces don’t always feel safe.
People in Bible-times understood them: the wilderness places; deserts; high mountaintops; or deep waters. These were the in-between places, the not-quite-safe places of the ancient world. We see this reflected in scripture as it describes deserts as a place where impure spirits dwelt (Matthew 12:43) and deep waters as places where ghosts reside (Matthew 14:26).
In our modern world of GPS and global mapping, we don’t fear those physical places. Liminal spaces that we feel unsafe in are different. When we go through major life events, we transition from one time in our life to another. When we lose a loved one, change careers, or move house, everything changes: it is a time of transformation. An opportunity to change.
The exodus of God’s people from Egypt to the land of Canaan is one of the formative stories of both the Jewish and Christian people worldwide. It shows God calling His people out of one existence into a better one. He led them through a liminal space, in this case, a literal wilderness.
The journey, however, was not easy. There were enemies, a longing for the past (Egypt) and internal division and rebellion against Moses and against God Himself.
Why would God call His people to endure such a journey? If impure spirits dwell in the desert, why would He call His people there?
In Exodus 7:16 God instructed Pharaoh to “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” God wanted His people to be free of the influence of Egypt so they could be drawn closer to the One who loved them. God wanted to lead them through the wilderness so they could be reconsecrated as His people. But also, God knew the journey through the wilderness would lead to the Promised Land.
God often calls His people into the wilderness. We see David fleeing from Saul into the wilderness, and his time there was spent faithful following God. We see John the Baptist emerge from the wilderness, calling the people from the cities and countryside to repentance. They came to John, to the remote area where he was, to respond and be baptised. Paul was in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Damascus when Jesus spoke to him and transformed Paul’s life. Jesus Himself was called into the wilderness to be tested, proving His reliance on God alone, before His ministry commenced.
I’ve presented for a few churches lately on how I believe the time we are going through now is one of those wilderness journeys. This global pandemic has changed the world forever.
We are currently living in the liminal, in the in-between, having left the life we knew behind but not sure of what is immediately ahead. Changes have come about in 2020 that will be permanent, both in our culture and ourselves. We aren’t quite out the other side yet, either. Covid normal is coming, but we aren’t completely sure what that will look like. We are in the stairwell at the shopping centre hoping to emerge sooner, rather than later.
This liminal space has not been comfortable, the journey difficult. We have lost loved ones, restricted from saying a proper goodbye. We have been isolated for so long that the year has disappeared before we even knew it. Church events have been cancelled or moved online. We’ve lost touch with many. Many have been sick and we haven’t always known. We have missed out on the usual markers of the year. Birthdays with family, anniversary meals out, sports and social events have all been cancelled. Usual school events couldn’t happen and parents became home-schoolers. Some have lost employment and financial security. There is anger, frustration and anxiety to a greater degree. We certainly weren’t prepared for this.
The world as we know it is in the process of being forever changed and the future, uncertain. We are also in the process of being changed by the events happening around us.
Our church is changing as well.
Be reassured. It is not for nothing. It is times like this, times we are in a wilderness, that God uses to greatest advantage. When we are set adrift from the normal, when we are going through times of struggle, we find ourselves calling out to God, and being open to Him. To lead us, to change us, to transform us. To set our minds free from what was holding us back before and to remind us that with Him anything is possible.
It isn’t just a time to endure, it’s an opportunity to be seized.
I am privileged in my role at the Conference to hear about some of the new things that are happening around Victoria. There has been an explosion of creativity in worship and a resolute dedication to continuing the gospel work despite the difficulties. I hear about food banks that didn’t exist before Coronavirus came. ADRA and local churches are working together and communities being blessed by those pantries. People in need are coming to get food, and are being greeted and welcomed and are so grateful for help from loving people. I hear about churches, worshipping online now, welcoming back long-lost members of their congregation. Connections are being strengthened between those groups and evangelism at a local church is now world-wide! I hear about youth groups coming together in prayer and building up the local worship service. I hear about connections being made across the world; international speakers who never could have come otherwise are now speaking at our churches and some of our local online services are being watched by international groups who have found their service online. I hear about online churches coming together and long talks into the afternoon. I’ve felt incredible fellowship with people through a screen that I wouldn’t have been able to hear or meet with if not for technology.
These things are not happening despite the pandemic, they are happening in response to it, and are overcoming it.
Because God cannot be put into lockdown.
Because God is doing a new thing in our midst. Can’t you perceive it? “I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland,” (Isaiah 43:19). God has promised to lead us through the liminal spaces of our lives, and not only lead us through, but help us thrive through it.
Even when we think we are in the middle of the worst this pandemic might have to offer, God is near us. He speaks to us in His still small voice, telling us He is doing a new thing. Do we perceive it?
There’s no doubt the pandemic has presented serious challenges to our church, but what if we can become a church where people who are lost in their own wildernesses, in the liminal spaces of their lives, could come and find support and help to navigate through it? Find a connection to One who supplies living streams of water in the wastelands?
What if we could say to the searcher “Come with us, we know the way.” – Then I think it might be worth walking through the wilderness after all.