by Becca Ehrlich
When I was an intern at a congregation, I took part in an annual tradition called Confirmation Camp. For one week in the summer, the local Lutheran conference would take over half of a Christian camp in the Adirondack Mountains. The students prepared for confirmation by learning, growing spiritually, and spending time outdoors. I went as a teacher and chaperone, one of the adults in a sea of young teenagers.
During that week, we went hiking up Panther Mountain. Though the hike was short (less than a mile), it was steep. New to the whole hiking thing, I was unprepared for an intense mountain hike. While most teenagers around me hopped up the hill with no problem, I was winded and needed to stop frequently.
At first, the senior pastor from the congregation where I was an intern stayed with me, even as I rested. But then he got impatient with my frequent stops and went on ahead. The deacon from our congregation skipped the hike and was instead eating a turkey sandwich at a local restaurant. I was left on my own to struggle through the hike.
When I stopped for a rest during that hike, those moments were some of the hardest in my life. Almost always alone, gasping for breath, I watched as everyone else hiked up ahead of me. I looked back and saw where I had been, but the path ahead felt very long, and the mountain peak felt light-years away.
Eventually, slowly, I made it to the top of that mountain. But I never forgot those in-between times when I was struggling.
These in-between times are a real part of our lives. Scholars have named this in-between time liminal space: a place of transition, waiting, and uncertainty.
Occupying liminal space can be unpleasant, marked by confusion and struggle. We recognize that we aren’t where we were before, but we also aren’t where we are going. It’s the tension of being in the in-between, an ambiguous and unclear existence.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because we are living in a liminal space right now. The whole world is experiencing the in-between time as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic.
We are living in the liminal space between what life was like before the pandemic and what life will be like afterward. We have no idea what the future will look like once this pandemic is over, both in our own lives and in our local and global communities. It is an uncomfortable and painful place to be.
We know from stories in the Bible that living in liminal space is nothing new. It’s been happening to humans for millennia. The story of Joseph in Genesis (Genesis 37-50) shows us some intense liminal space. Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, serves at an officer’s house for a short while before he is thrown in prison on false charges.
Genesis doesn’t tell us how long Joseph was in prison. But based on the story’s timeline, many scholars deduce that Joseph was in prison for about 10 years. Talk about liminal space—Joseph spent almost a decade in prison for something he didn’t do. And he was never sure he would get out.
The biblical account of Joseph’s story does not gloss over his time in prison. Throughout two chapters (Genesis 40-41), we hear about Joseph’s imprisonment. During this time, he offers accurate God-given dream interpretations to some of his fellow inmates and to Pharaoh himself. Though Joseph was in liminal space, he was not standing still.
To an extent, our whole existence as Jesus’ followers is liminal space. We can see glimpses of God’s kingdom on earth, but Jesus has not returned to earth yet. We live in a world where God’s kingdom is here but not yet realized. We live every day in the tension of “already, but not yet.”
But even though we are living in liminal space, we are not standing still. Like Joseph, we can listen for God’s guidance and serve God and others despite the future’s uncertainty. This in-between time is not a time for inaction. God invites us to continue doing God’s work in a world that desperately needs God’s unconditional love and an awareness of God’s presence.
God calls us to love God and love others through the struggles of liminal space. This is our shared humanity, our calling. We are each other’s guiding light during the chaos of liminal space.
1. What emotions come to mind when you think of liminal space?
2. Describe a time when you were experiencing liminal space. What was it like? How could God have been guiding you during that time?
3. How is God calling you to serve during this liminal space of a global pandemic?
Loving God, we know that you are with us even when we live in uncertain times. We do not know what our future will look like; we are fearful and struggling. Guide us as we live in the in-between so that we can share your unconditional love with the world. In Jesus’ name, we pray, amen.
Becca Ehrlich is an ELCA pastor serving as interim director for Evangelical Mission/assistant to the bishop in Allegheny and Upstate N.Y. Synods, ELCA. She blogs about minimalism from a Christian perspective at www.christianminimalism.com. Her book, Christian Minimalism: Simple Steps for Abundant Living, comes out May 17.