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. 

Transforming Grace

The old Peanuts cartoon has Snoopy on top of his doghouse, anxiously waxing philosophical, asking:

“Where am I going?  What am I doing? What is the meaning of life?”


Deep questions, certainly.  Trouble is, do we find ourselves asking that question enough?  What is the point of our life – of any life? What am I doing about it?  Does the direction I go make a difference?

For Paul, these were the big questions.  They were the questions he gave the rest of his life to understand and to give an answer for on behalf of everyone he encountered.  His own life was his biggest and best answer. He had been living the life of the upward and respected. He knew “what was what” and he worked hard to maintain his place in Jewish and Roman life.  But, one day, on the road to put those pesky Christians in their place, he met Jesus. And life as he knew it changed. What was up became down. And he understood love, mercy and grace for the first time.  For the first time, Paul didn’t and couldn’t earn his way. It was freely given. Which made him want to do a whole lot.  Not for himself but for everyone else. Because he now possessed a grateful heart.  Everything now was gift and the gift needed to be shared, not hoarded.

This is what led Paul to write all those letters, as difficult as they are to understand, sometimes.  Like Christ was transformed on the other side of the resurrection, so too was Paul on the other side of Damascus and so too are each of us every time the Spirit shows us just how out of control we really are, left on our own, yet how very blessed we have become to be called children of God.

So transformation is the heart of the matter of the lesson for this Sunday as it is also at the heart of the letter to the Ephesians.  God’s grace has transformed us to understand our whole existence, our direction, our whole purpose in a different light. We are fundamentally different creatures with a different purpose after our baptism.  The tension that remains is we live in a hostile world that either is looking in the dark while asking the same questions as snoopy or has completely ordered their lives around a purpose that amounts to little more than “me.”

For those of us who are new creations in Christ, Paul wants us to remember where, like himself, we have all come from.  And for those who haven’t yet discovered their potential newness, the household of God is to be a clear signpost for the hope they can have in a new life and purpose in Christ, and a firm direction for getting there.

The best I can do to help you guide your class in encountering Paul’s message is offer my own visual summation of Paul’s message in Ephesians 2 and to offer two perspectives from theologians much better versed in communicating just what transformation is.

First, I offer you Eugene Peterson’s overview of Ephesians.  To understand Paul’s overarching goals in his letter is to better understand his reasoning in chapter two.

What we know about God and what we do for God have a way of getting broken apart in our lives.  The moment the organic unity of belief and behavior is damaged in any way, we are incapable of living out the full humanity for which we were created.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians joins together what has been torn apart in our sin-wrecked world.  He begins with an exuberant exploration of what Christians believe about God, and then, like a surgeon skillfully setting a compound fracture, “sets” this belief in God into our behavior before God so that the bones – belief and behavior – knit together and heal.

Once our attention is called to it, we notice these fractures all over the place.  There is hardly a bone in our bodies that has escaped injury, hardly a relationship in city or job, school or church, family or country, that isn’t out of joint or limping in pain.  There is much work to be done.

And so Paul goes to work.  He ranges widely, from heaven to earth and back again, showing how Jesus, the Messiah, is eternally and tirelessly bringing everything and everyone together.  He also shows us that in addition to having this work done in and for us, we are participants in this most urgent work. Now that we know what is going on, that the energy of reconciliation is the dynamo at the heart of the universe, it is imperative that we join in vigorously and perserveringly, convinced that every detail in our lives contributes (or not) to what Paul describes as God’s plan worked out by Christ, “a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.  -Eugene Peterson’s introduction to Ephesians, The Message.

Our goal as teachers is much the same as Paul’s. To help Christ-followers understand that to celebrate the gift of God’s grace without any sign of real transformation is to miss the point entirely.  To be a new creation in Christ is just that – we are changed people; transformed, with a new way of seeing, understanding and relating to the world around us.  We have the answers Snoopy is looking for. Yet transformation most of the time isn’t the flash of blinding light Paul experienced. Rather, it is a gradual change that requires the prayers and the practice of a people, together.  It takes work. The church encourages this change in one another, but not for the sake of the church or ourselves. Instead, this transformation, though meaningful and deep, is for the sake of the world.

To better compare and contrast what Paul is describing in Ephesians 2, I’ve drawn a little diagram: image002

Lastly, one of the most creative storytellers and theologians in our recent history is Frederick Buechner.  Follow this link to read a moving description of Paul’s transformation and the different and purposeful work that came out of Paul’s conversion.  It is worth the read and paints a beautiful picture of the transformation found in embracing God’s grace. Good work doesn’t earn us a place in God’s good grace but God’s good grace motivates us to work to reflect a good and loving God.


  • How do you know when someone has changed (transformed)?
  • Is all change good?
  • What makes for good change?
  • Is change easy?
  • In a system that elevates the individual above a community, what will be the sacred cows that stand in the way of transformation to Christ-likeness?