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Liminal Spaces

I keep running into "liminal spaces." I thought I first encountered them in Fierce Love by Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, but as I skim the pages, I can't find that phrase.

Was it in Brene' Brown's Atlas of the Heart? Maybe, but I can't find it there, either.

Where did I read it?!? I know I did, because as I was reading Austen Hartke's powerful book, Transforming the other night, I recognized what he was talking about as liminal space, although that was not how he referred to it. I even got out my Kindle dictionary and looked up "liminal" to be sure.

Well, anyway. I keep bumping up against liminal spaces, and when you keep bumping into something, you need to pay attention.

What is a liminal space? Liminal means "1. relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process; and 2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold." That is from the definition I found when I searched on Bing. So, for example, I am in a liminal space because I have started this blog post but haven't yet finished it. Also, for example, the space between my back door threshold and the barn is a liminal space. I expect to finish at least a draft of this post today, so that liminal space isn't very big. The liminal space between our house and our barn is big enough to build a porch in (which we hope to do).

My old friends Merriam and Webster have a different definition:

1: of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold : barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response. Ex: liminal visual stimuli

2: of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition : IN-BETWEEN, TRANSITIONAL. Ex: in the liminal state between life and death.

I'm going to add one of my own: A liminal space is what is between what is seen and unseen. Ex: reading between the lines.

The Winter Olympics are going on now - I actually like the winter Olympics better than the summer ones because I like to watch the skiing, figure skating, and snowboarding. I like to pretend that I could actually ever do any of those things. I haven't watched much, and am not likely to, because of all the politics with China and abuses of the Uyghur people, and the corruption of the IOC. Anyway, any time the Olympics are on someone is shattering a world record in something. It amazes me, and I wonder, at what point can the human body just not go any higher, or faster, or get any stronger? The human body cannot go from point A to point B in zero seconds - it just can't. Can it? That is a liminal space - how fast athletes can go now and how fast they can go someday.

Press your thumb and finger together as hard as you can. There is no way anything is getting between them, but there is liminal space there - space between atoms and molecules, and little pockets of air, and cell walls and stuff.

I am an introvert. I can usually make small talk in a social situation, and sometimes I can get really, really engrossed in a conversation. But often, when I am in the company of a "talker" (you know who you are!) I can't quite figure out how they come up with all these words. I spent a weekend with a colleague at a conference once, and by the time I got home I knew WAY more than I wanted to about her son's diarrhea. Why did she think I was interested? Once I expressed concern about her son's health and hoped he would get better quickly, I was done. She wasn't but I was. Sometimes it is fascinating to me just to listen to people and wonder how they come up with this stuff to talk about - not that it isn't appropriate, or interesting, or informative - I just can't come up with topics and that much to say about them.

When you talk with me, or read my writings, there is LOTS of liminal space. For example, I suspect you have guessed which political party I belong to, although I have by design never said. Have I told you I am happily married? If not, I'm guessing you already know. That is reading between the lines, and that is a liminal space.

The Bible is full of liminal spaces.

In Transforming, Austen Hartke points out that the creation stories in Genesis are liminal spaces. In Genesis 1:3, God said let there be light, and there was light. And in Genesis 1:4 God separated the light from the darkness. But we know that there is more to it - there is dawn and dusk, and on cloudy days there is less light, and on full moon nights there is more light.

Genesis 1:9 - God separates the land from the water. Nothing about mud, bogs, marshes, rivers, lakes, streams. Dry land and water.

God creates vegetation to grow upon the earth. What about algae, and kelp and plants that grow in the water? Nowhere in the Bible can I find a reference to a crabapple tree or a dogwood. Not redwoods or Sequoyahs either.

Then in Genesis 1:16 and 17 God makes two great lights, to rule over the day and over the night. Doesn't say anything about moon phases and how the night light is missing on new moon nights.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. That is Genesis 1:20-21. Sea monsters presumably include sperm whales, blue whales, and orcas (I know there are other kinds of whales - these are just the big ones I can think of right now). Other living creatures that move of every kind with which the waters swarm would include fish, clams, sea slugs, plankton. Winged birds include seagulls, robins, wrens, crows, chickens, and ostriches. None of these are spelled out, but we know they exist.

These are examples of liminal spaces. We KNOW that there is much more to creation than is spelled out in the Bible, because we know how long it would be if every species and subspecies and category of species was listed. It would be impossible, and besides - things are still being discovered. It just occurred to me that dinosaurs inhabited a liminal space.

There are plenty of other liminal spaces in the Bible. There are liminal spaces in everything we read, and children need to be taught how to navigate them. Here are some reading skills that kids are taught these days:

  1. Decode words. I can tell that d-o-g spells dog. If I stop there, I know nothing.

  2. Use background knowledge. I have a d-o-g dog at home, so I know that dogs are furry, have four legs, drool, bark and wag their tales a lot. Oh! I know what a dog is!

  3. Consider the author's purpose. Is this author trying to teach me about dogs? Why is this dog red and bigger than the little girl? Oh! This story is about a dog named Clifford, and the author isn't trying to teach me about dogs, but about something else.

  4. Ask questions. Why is the dog red? How did he get so big? What do dogs eat? What kind of dog is he?

  5. Distinguish between fact and fiction. Dogs never get that big and aren't that red, so this is not a book of facts. I used background knowledge to know that because I know something about dogs. Little kids are good at differentiating between facts and "lies." Try teaching a six-year-old about fiction sometime!

  6. As kids get older and gain more experience, they can understand that an author may be writing to educate or to entertain. Older still and we can add persuade to that list. Kids learn to differentiate between fact and opinion. Opinion writers in the newspapers often use facts to persuade people or to justify their opinions. Readers have hopefully learned how to do this by the time they are in middle school.

  7. Kids learn to find facts and details. They learn to summarize. They learn to recognize compare and contrast. They learn to make connections (Austen Hartke is talking about liminal spaces! Where DID I read that?)

  8. There are several other strategies, and the last one I want to talk about is kids learn to infer. Inferring is when by looking at facts, details, summarizing the text, figuring out what is fact and what is opinion, asking questions, making connections, considering the author's purpose, and using background knowledge, readers infer what the author is trying to get across even if he or she doesn't say it.

I think the Bible, with so much liminal space, is asking us to use each of these skills - and all the others, too - to understand what God is trying to tell us.

Let's give it a try. In the King James Version of Genesis, chapter 1, we read, And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. I can decode all of these words, but some aren't familiar to me - for example, "firmament." I can ask what firmament means and go to the dictionary and look it up, or I can use my background knowledge (this is the creation story and in other versions God separates the water from the dry land) to figure out that firmament means land.

I can also ask questions. How does anyone know this to be true? Who was there? Who wrote this down? But wait - I've made a mistake. The verse says there were waters UNDER the firmament. Water under the dry land? I'd better reread it.

Ah - God doesn't create the dry land until a few verses later. In the very next verse, God calls the firmament Heaven.

I made a mistake, and I corrected my mistake. I asked questions and went back to clarify because it didn't make sense.

Now I'm going to consider the author's purpose. I still have my questions about who wrote it down and how does that person know? This question has taken quite a while to answer, and I had to become an adult before I even wondered about it. The answer, I think, is that the author is writing a creation story to declare that there is one God, who is the creator of all. Ultimately, this story begins the story of the Jewish people, and begins to tie them together with the one God, and each other. Well, if that is the author's purpose, then it stands to reason that this story may not be factual. If it isn't factual, then is it lies? No - the author(s) had a purpose in telling this story. It is fiction, not lies. It is important but shouldn't be taken at face value.

Now I have enough information, skill and maturity to begin to infer what it is that I need to know from the first chapter of Genesis. God is the creator - whether by creation or evolution, I don't know (I think a little of both - I don't think one is necessarily exclusive of the other). God differentiates between the heavens and the earth. God created all living and non-living things and provides what is necessary to sustain life. God created a good world.

Why do I think this is important? Because as we get into the Mosaical laws, the prophets, the gospels, and the letters of Paul, we need to exercise all of these skills, and if we do, I think we will find that God is in the liminal spaces.

Unfortunately, far too many people don't use these skills. "The Bible says it, God ordained it, I believe it." But did God really say it?

The prophets, apostles, and disciples were human, living in a time and place with customs, world understandings, and stresses that we might or might not be able to understand. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is part of God, and so many things that we attribute to God were never said by Jesus. Instead of an eye for an eye, Jesus said, "Turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:38-40). Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. The Mosaical law includes all kinds of prohibitions about what to eat and not eat, but in a vision, God told Peter, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." (Acts 10:13-15). The law as laid out in the Old Testament isn't what we follow today.

Jesus said he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. What does that mean?

These are other liminal spaces - the time between God giving the law through Moses, and Jesus coming to fulfill it, and now. It is my understanding when Jesus said he had come to fulfill the law, he meant that people are no longer condemned when they break it. Jesus came so that people could know the love of God, the mercy of God, and could now focus on God, not the law. (Please note that I differentiate between the laws of God and the laws of man - we are still expected to drive the speed limit, wear seatbelts, pay taxes - and follow the 10 commandments, which teach us how to live in relationship with God and with each other.) The Mosaical law was given to the people so that the people knew how to please God. They had specific things they needed to do, or not do. By pleasing God, they were developing a relationship with God. Jesus came and essentially said - "God loves you. You don't need to worry about all the rules anymore. All you have to do now is love God and love your neighbor."

Anyway, God wants us now to focus on God, not the law. We aren't very good at that - we want rules, and we want to accuse and punish anyone who breaks one of the rules. In this we aren't any more mature than kindergartners.

Focusing on God is not always easy. God doesn't grab a cup of coffee and sit down at my kitchen table or show up for dinner. I don't hear God's footsteps when I am outside. But I think if we become more comfortable with those liminal spaces, and give God time to answer in God's way, we will hear God.

This past week I was struggling with a question. I had been asked to do something, which is not a bad thing to do, and I support the premise. I just wasn't sure it was mine to do. I prayed and asked God for guidance. Two different people shared stories - unrelated to my dilemma, and not in answer to any questions I asked other than, "How's your week been?" One friend shared that she's been asked to serve on a committee, and her role is to ensure that God is front and center in the discernment of the group. Julia shared a conversation with her spiritual director about something in her week, and the director asked who Julia was putting at the center of the story. The answer was, "Julia." When asked who SHOULD be at the center of the story, the answer is, "God." Julia now knows what she needs to do. The sharing of these stories, though unrelated, helped me to clarify the answer to my dilemma. While the "thing" I was asked about is a good "thing" to do, I'm not sure God is at the center of it. My potential participation in it was ego-driven: I was flattered to be asked to be there because someone else thinks I have something to offer. I declined, and I feel like that is the right answer, for me.

The point is, I sat in the liminal space of should I or shouldn't I, listened for God, and received my answer in ways very unexpected.

When we approach God and the Word of God, whether the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or other sacred scriptures and stay open in heart and mind to what God might have to say, we can glean new insights, new admonishments, and deepen our relationship with God. When we come at it with pre-ordained ideas, thinking that we KNOW what it says and we are RIGHT in our KNOWING, and everyone else is WRONG, then we aren't open to God telling us something new, or something different.

We need to read between the lines and listen.

This is one of my favorite verses, from 1 Kings 19:11-13: 11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (NRSV)

God is not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in the sheer silence. God is in the liminal space between the storm and what comes next. God is now and not yet. God's kingdom is come, and is not here yet.

Spend some time in the liminal spaces you encounter. What will you find between now and not yet? Between what is and what if? Between why and why not? What does God have for you in those spaces? You'll be surprised.

On a side note, Transforming by Austen Hartke is an excellent book. On the back cover there is a review by Rachel Held Evans:

Clear, compelling, and profoundly moving, this book should be on the shelf of every pastor, every parent, and every Christian of good conscience who wants to engage the conversation around gender and sexuality with integrity. I'll be recommending this book to friends and readers for years to come.

Sadly, Rachel passed away before the "years to come," so I will do my part on her behalf: get it, read it, put it on your shelf, and refer back to it often. Whether you are gender fluid, love someone who is gender fluid, are an ally, pastor, or church member who believe we are all made in the image of God, this book will help you understand and give you words to stand up and say, "Beloved!"

Brown, Brene'. Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Random House, 2021.

Hartke, Austen. Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians. Westminster John Knox Press. 2018.

Jowitt, Deborah. "Liminal." Liminal Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster. Accessed February 6, 2022.

Lewis, Rev. Dr. Jacqui. Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World. Random House: 2021

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