The Space Between
Scripture: Acts 1:6-11
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Last Friday, I turned in the thirty-day notice to vacate our rental property. My husband and I are moving from the big house we share with our adult children and grandson to an apartment and they are going their separate ways. That’s life. The unnerving thing about turning in our notice is that we don’t know where we are moving. As we look for a new place to live we are discovering that to get what you want you need to wait until two weeks before you are ready to move to find a place. Just so you know we are hoping to live close to my husband’s church in Belmont Shore or downtown Long Beach. I’m sure we’ll be fine and find a place. It is just hard to end one thing before you know what is next.
Like trapeze artists, sometimes you have to let go of one thing to grab hold of the next, which means there is moment when you are not hanging on to anything. There is a space between the old thing and the new thing. Some people use the word “limbo” to describe it. To be stuck in “limbo” is no fun at all. Catholic theologian, Richard Rohr, describes this space as “betwixt and between [where] the old world is left behind, but we’re not sure of the new one yet. He goes on to call this space liminal space. He argues that liminal space is most often where we experience transformation.
The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word limens, which means, “threshold.” To experience liminality is to stand on the threshold of something new and not yet known. For people who need every detail worked out, liminality is anxiety producing.
Richard Rohr goes on to say, “[Liminal space] is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run. You will do anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”
Maybe that is why the Hebrew people wanted to go back to Egypt when they got to the wilderness. At least there they knew what to expect. It is easy to let anxiety get the best of you when you are in this liminal space. I can remember a song that Keith Green wrote that said, “So you want to go back to Egypt where it’s safe and secure. Are you sorry you bought that one way ticket when you thought you were sure?”
The Bible is full of stories where people had to experience liminality. Abraham leaves his home with his family and sets off to a place yet to be determined. The Hebrew people journey through the wilderness to the promised land, wherever that is. The Israelites experience exile and are removed from all that is familiar not sure if or when they will ever return home.
Some experiences of liminality are chosen and decided upon. Others are foisted upon us like being laid off, suffering a loss, experiencing a trauma, or getting a diagnosis. It is not a matter of IF you will ever experience this, but WHEN you will experience this. My guess is that most of you already have – more than once.
The reason I am thinking about this today is because of their weird space between Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost. According to the writer of Acts, Jesus was alive and well for forty days and then floated off into heaven – telling the disciples to wait for the promise of God. If you Google images of Jesus ascension – and don’t we all – you’ll see all kinds of bizarre paintings of Jesus in his white robe, arms out-stretched, suspended in mid-air. If you add the word “feet” to your search – and who wouldn’t – you find all kinds of bizarre paintings of Jesus feet hanging down from the top of the painting. Such images stretch the imaginations of Progressive Christians such as ourselves.
I wonder if the writer of Acts struggled with liminality. He had to find a way to advance the story and fill the space between Jesus’ death and the emergence of the church. The gospel writer of John doesn’t even include this space. While Jesus is alive he breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples – but not so in Acts. In Acts, we have drama and flare. Jesus floats into heaven and the Holy Spirit comes down like wind and fire. Jesus lives. Jesus dies. The body of Christ, the church, comes to life.
It doesn’t matter if you believe this story is literally true or good story-telling. Either way it invites us into this strange space between death and new life – and it offers us wisdom for when we find ourselves in that awful in-between.
The disciples are told to stay together and wait. They head back to Jerusalem to wait and to pray. We learn that there are about 120 followers of Jesus as this point. Peter takes initiative and leads a process for selecting a disciple to replace Judas. “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus said, “to the ends of the earth.”
As they look up to see the bottom of Jesus’ feet – the disciples are no longer followers. They are now leaders. But of what? Jesus didn’t leave a playbook. What he left was his example – and the Sermon on the mount – and his amazing parables. What he left was a legacy love and a message of non-violent resistance to the powers of evil and darkness. What he left was a vision of a kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, where everyone is beloved, everyone is equal, everyone has enough. What he left was his willingness to suffer the consequences of standing up to injustice and corruption. That’s what they had to go on.
Just before Jesus floats away they have a question about timing. It’s a question that makes you wonder if they still didn’t understand what Jesus was about. They ask, “Lord, it this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words, “Jesus, is this when we get our country back – like it was when David was king?” Jesus’ reply was ambiguous, “It’s not for you to know.”
“Are we almost there?” “When is this going to end?” “What are we supposed to do now?”
The fact that disciples do what he says implies they trusted him. The fact that they prayed implied they trust God. The fact that they waited implies they know that new thing is coming. The fact that they did it together implies they knew they needed each other to get through this liminal space.
When that new day arrived, they were ready. We don’t know of any stragglers that tried to grab Jesus feet or wept at the spot where he left them. They didn’t look back – they trusted God’s promise.
There are those who say that church as we know it facing extinction. Some of the reasons why are our own fault. We built buildings and created institutions that keep us stuck in patterns that betray the power of God’s living spirit. We forgot that our work is out there – not in here. We got lazy and made it about what we believe instead of how we live. We turned Jesus’ message and vision of the kingdom of God on earth into getting into heaven when you die. In some churches Jesus has been replaced with messages of hate and intolerance. There is a reason John Spong wrote his book to the church titled, “Change or Die.”
The last few years I’ve muttered to myself and others that ministry has changed. The church I went to seminary to serve does not exist anymore. I have talked with colleagues about feeling ill-equipped and out of sorts as a leader. Now I realize that I am in liminal space in more ways than one. I don’t know where I am going to live AND I don’t know what God’s church is going to become.
But here is what I do know. We are called to gather and wait – and not the sit on your duff play with your phone kind of waiting – but the kind that anticipates something new. We can learn while we wait. We can become more theologically sophisticated and articulate while we wait. We can encourage one another. We learn everything we can about Jesus, learn his stories, listen to his teaching, and walk in his footsteps. We can feed the hungry. We can welcome the stranger. We can be a place of compassion with a passion for justice. The church is changing but the mission has not.
And we can pray. And we can encourage one another when we get anxious. Together we can trust the future God has promised and lean into it – rather than trying to go back to an idealized version of what has been.
Liminal space is where we are transformed – it is where we become. Whether we are talking about the church or personal experience – liminal space is holy space – where, if we are willing to bear the discomfort and trust God, we emerge into new life.
Call it what you want; wilderness, exile, limbo, liminality – it is where we trust God for the future. It’s not such a bad place to be. I’m glad I get to be there with you.
 Ann Franks and John Meteyard, “Liminality: The Transforming Grace of In-Between Places, The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Fall 2007, Vol. 61. No. 3, http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ptstulsa.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=8&sid=e9cb6441-ae7b-480b-a0d7-f97dd781b0d6%40sessionmgr120&hid=101.