Recently I came across an uncommon word in my reading that I had never seen or heard before—“liminal.” After looking it up, I discovered it is a great definition of a common condition we all experience but usually can’t find the right word to describe.
Bishop Mark J. Chironna says, “Liminal space is a concept in theology and psychology. It is the intermediate, in-between, transitional state where you cannot go back to where you were because a threshold has been crossed, and you have yet to arrive where you are going because it is not yet available to you.” Essentially, it is the hallway between the past and the future. I can tell you quite candidly: It’s a nightmare in the hallway.
Most of us live in these foggy, unclear spaces more often than we realize. Jon DeWaal says, “These thresholds of waiting and not knowing our ‘next’ are everywhere in life and they are inevitable.” Each ushers in a new chapter of life, and each holds varying degrees of disruption, anticipation and stress.
Whether it is graduation, a new job, new lead pastor, new position on the organizational chart, overwhelmed by debt, new home, new city, marriage, divorce, sickness, life stages (i.e. having kids, empty nest or retirement), changing friendships, unexpected disruption in your or your church’s family—all will disorient us for a while, regardless of our awareness during the transition.
Living in the hallway is a nightmare because sitting in the ambiguity and “not-knowingness” presses all of us to the edges of our faith and hope. In the best sense, liminal space brings us to that place because the edge of our faith and hope is where a deeper experience of God can be. Our faith becomes less about outcomes and answers and more about relationship and God’s presence through any and every circumstance.
Just as Philippians 2:12 says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling;” the hallway is an act of God’s grace to be sure, but it also requires work on our part. It can be the place of the deepest shifting, spiritual stretching, and emotional growth. It can also be a place of darkness and uncertainty.
“Now what” questions rarely have one simple answer. Some of us, especially people like me, want clear structure in every corner of our lives—but the danger in this is that we might miss the potential of the “in between” places. DeWall also acknowledges that “to be honest, most of us really know nothing about how to navigate it.” It’s more about finding patterns and behaviors that gradually start to point to a formation of a possible future.
Discovering new truths, seeing new possibilities, experiencing new adventures and allowing God to formulate a new guide is the only really satisfying answer. Oh, and by the way … There is no way around the hallway, no trap door to secret passages to the room beyond. You must go through this hallway and it is often dark enough that the next step requires what only faith can ultimately give you. Confidence in the promises of God is the only thing to grasp in this “going through” process to a new, clearer and challenging door and the end of the hallway into the “next” thing.
Remember, God said, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you” … even in the hallway (Deut. 31:6).