Many years ago I served on an ecumenical board with a rich devotional practice at the first session of each board meeting: One board member would present a well-developed devotional reflection to which other board members often would respond before sharing their own joys and concerns for prayer.
It was amazing how many times the opening reflection provided the framework and language for the rest of us to share from our own lives. We often experienced this remarkable confluence of faith and vision before we’d even begun the official business of the agenda.
The most memorable of those experiences for me was led by John (his real name!) who first explained to us the concept of liminal space. John shared with us his decision to leave his well-established professional position even though he was not quite sure of the next chapter of his career. He explained that liminal space is the space in between an old world we know and a new world we do not know, a space often marked by ambiguity, uncertainty, confusion, and even a crisis of identity and faith.
What made John’s reflection so profound was that every other board member could identify with his experience and shared some dimension of liminality in their lives, including the accompanying feelings of anxiety and doubt.
On this New Years Eve it feels to me like we stand at the precipice of momentous liminality. I feel acutely aware of the uncertainties of 2024. The US presidential election for 2024 feels fraught with possibilities for an unknown future for our nation. I am a member of a Christian Reformed Church congregation (Neland Avenue in Grand Rapids, Michigan) that is in the crosshairs of its denominational synod and could very well be severed from the CRC in 2024. Within my own immediate family 2024 feels like a big year for decisions children and grandchildren may make. Add to these specific uncertainties other broader concerns like climate change, global geopolitics (war), and the fragility of the world economy. Yes, if anxiety and confusion is what you’re into, 2024 could be one doozy of a year.
However, I left out one feature of liminal space. People who have developed this concept of liminal space hasten to point out that inherent in the uncertainty is also the reality of new and often exciting things we cannot know about ahead of time. It turns out that Paul’s hope for “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” is not just limited to answered prayers.
Inherent in the uncertainty of liminal space is unbounded possibilities for “a new thing.” As Christians say, there has to be a death before there can be a resurrection. To quote Jesus, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
I often watch “60 Minutes” on Sunday night. Sometimes their extended news stories are downright frightening for the future. But almost as often, their stories give stunning hope for the future. Just last week they had a story about emerging climate technologies that are mind boggling in their potential to change our planet for the better.
I love my local church and find it hard to imagine no longer being Christian Reformed. But who knows? We may look back in ten years and be amazed at what new thing God has done on the corner of Neland and Watkins.
All of which begs for giving this concept of liminal space (as well as 2024) some positive theological framing: God rules! Psalm 46! “Though the earth be moved, and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea (talk about liminal space!) . . . God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.” God rules.
This morning I listened to a fascinating podcast featuring Tim Alberta, writer for The Atlantic and author of a recent block buster book, The Kingdom, The Power, and The Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism. Alberta himself is an evangelical Christian. He documented many serious if not apocalyptic concerns with the ways North American evangelicalism’s love affair with nationalism threatens both our nation and historic Christianity.
The host of the podcast was getting more freaked out by the minute. Finally Alberta stopped and counseled the host, “You’re getting way too worked up, Charlie. It’s time for me to share one of my dad’s most profound theological insights into God and history.” Alberta’s dad, a lifelong evangelical pastor who himself was often troubled by everything going on around him, nevertheless had his own peculiar way of theologically grounding himself and his congregation: He often deadpanned from the pulpit, “God doesn’t bite his fingernails.”
Psalm 46 concludes, “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth. . . The Lord almighty is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge.”
Now that we’ve got the coming liminal space properly framed, I’m going to drive to my New Year’s Eve party tonight, ring out the old year with gratitude and ring in the new year with joy. If the God who doesn’t bite his fingernails is for us, who can be against us?
Happy New Year!