Our Collective Liminal Moment – Musings on Holy Saturday and Liminality

Sometimes old words just won’t do.  I’ve tried to tell that to my much smarter wife when she is lovingly critical about words I use like “paradigm” or “liminal” in reference to describing an active and growing faith.  “No one talks like that!” she chides.  

But sometimes we need new words to describe what we face, collectively. And folks, if ever we were in a collective liminal moment, it is now.  

The other night, Beth described the feeling many of us have.  “It’s like we all need to throw up but we dread the discomfort.  It’s really painful and we’d rather put it off but at the same time, we just want to get it over with, so we can feel better afterward.” We are all stuck.  Waiting for what’s next.  Helpless to do much but keep our distance and hope it passes soon. 

The church mission team met the other night to formulate the beginnings of a plan to respond to the growing needs and how we might offer the community a hopeful word.  But there was so much we couldn’t predict. Our normal plans and actions just won’t do in this period of social distancing. And social distancing is the correct response right now.  In doing so, we show that our neighbor’s lives are as important as ours. We are all willing to sacrifice in order to slow the spread.  

But what will the world look like next month, in six months, or a year from now?  Are we just on a brief holding pattern, waiting for things to return to “the way it’s always been” or is this moment pregnant with new possibilities?  In times of crisis, it’s always easier to hunker down and wait for the trouble to pass and for things to get better. But, we can’t assume things will be the same.  And while that reality is potentially sad, it doesn’t have to be the last word.  

In the middle of all this disruption, I have been so tickled with how my church has responded to the need to distance ourselves.  Like most other churches, we didn’t close up shop just because we couldn’t meet together for worship like we had been doing. Instead, we allowed the moment of crisis to force us to re-vision what worship could be like from a distance.  We decided to go live with the acceptable skeleton crew of ten in our church building, using Facebook live as our primary platform for worship. We hoped we could reach as many families as possible this way while acknowledging we would be leaving out some of our members who do not have computer access.   We thought through the changes we needed to communicate and the skills we needed to learn in a hurry and then put together the best livestream broadcast given the means and know-how we had. A month in, we are still learning and improving.  

But we also found a large majority of our members were willing to shift their behaviors to be sure they stayed connected to their church during the pandemic.  Many signed up on Facebook for the first time. Our email news subscription saw newcomers who realized this was the best way to stay in the know. The worship service time changed since we were doing one service instead of two.  Traditional service attendees commented their appreciation of the contemporary service style during the first weeks we live streamed. When the calendar turned to Palm Sunday, we got the same positive reaction when the service went traditional, complete with organ.  But, so far, what has been best is seeing the interaction of our intergenerational congregation throughout the service, over the Facebook stream. Everyone appreciates being virtually together. There seems to be a new appreciation for worship now that we have been spread a part. It is a new energy that can get lost when meaningful experiences fall into habits and we begin to unknowingly take our weekly gathering for granted.  

Liminal space – a period in which someone leaves the comforts of what was but hasn’t yet reached the sure footing of what will be – is admittedly a scary time.  But it also offers the greatest potential in which impactful transformation can take place. Liminal time forces us out of our comfort zone and demands us to think creatively.  

Our whole world is in a moment of liminality.  The thought of that is stunning! What new responses to this jarring moment are we going to create?  What good ideas will come from our time of discomfort? In what ways will this pandemic allow us to create a better world? 

God knows something about liminality, too.  Surprising, right? One could argue that the whole of Jesus’ life was a liminal experience – giving up all claims of divinity in order to live fully as a human on earth.  But two events in the life of Jesus really stand out. Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, after his baptism and Jesus’ death and burial. The wilderness was lifeless and difficult. The wilderness prepared Jesus for all the times he would be tempted to step out of his humanity and display his God-like qualities in a self-serving manner.  The cross was a symbol of Roman superiority and the ultimate symbol of defeat. Jesus’ lifeless body hanging on the cross had to have felt like defeat to those closest to him. But it ended up being the farthest thing from defeat, which is where we find ourselves on Easter morning – basking in the joy and wonder of the risen savior.

Jesus’ resurrection is something we need to hold on to on this Holy Saturday, during this dark liminal moment in our present reality.  God did something utterly unthinkable but equally creative. God took what on the surface appeared to be the end of another revolutionary at the hands of the empire’s might and intimidation strategy and created another, far reaching outcome.  Like his wilderness temptations, Jesus could have avoided the cross. He could have said, “Do you know who I am?” and revealed his majesty and glory to a stunned crowd. And they would have crowned him king then and there. And his kingdom would have become the Roman Empire.  No better or worse. But instead, Jesus trusted his father and stepped directly into the ultimate liminal moment between life and death. What waited for Jesus on the other side of death wasn’t just his resurrection but the opportunity for new life for all of us who are walking in the valley of the shadow of death.

We are certainly in a liminal moment.  We can’t just wish away this hidden virus.  It certainly appears to be dictating how we live our lives.  But, if we look prayerfully with our heart rather than just our mind, we can also walk confidently into the future with God, leaving what was behind and embracing what appears like death but what just may be a new way of living.