What do Abraham, Ruth, and Jesus have in common? They lived through a time of in-between.
Ruth gave up her identity as a Moabite, leaving her family and joining Naomi in a new culture. After a period of living in a new culture wondering what her future would bring, she meets and marries Boaz only to become the great grandmother of King David.
Abraham left his home as directed by God moving into an unknown future and by so doing became the father of a great nation.
Jesus, after his baptism, entered a time in the wilderness where his new identity was tested. When he returned from the wilderness, he began a new life as a teacher, healer, and our savior.
The Bible is full of stories about people who experienced God interrupting their everyday existence, moving them to a time of uncertainty, a time of discernment, a time of not knowing what God had in store for them.
This presentation is about that time of uncertainty, that time of discernment waiting to know what God has in store. That time in-between. This time in-between is called liminality.
Let’s look at one definition of liminality on our handout. Please read the other when you have time.
Liminality: During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established. (Wikipedia)
I would venture to say that we, the Riverside Presbytery and our churches, we are in a time of liminality. Many of us are disoriented, our traditions are no longer with us, we can’t gather in person as a church or a Presbytery or with our extended families. We’re not sure what the future may bring.
Today, I would like for each of us to consider that we are in a time of in-between. The old is indeed gone and we can’t see the future just quite yet. We are like Ruth and Abraham and Jesus – and many others from the Bible who lived through an in-between time.
We may not like being in this in-between time, but that’s where we are. Perhaps a better understanding of this time will help us through it and help us to come out stronger on the other side.
Probably one of the most common in-between times many of you have experienced is the time when a pastor leaves and the new pastor arrives. That time can be disorienting. But if you’ve lived through such a time several times you know that it will end. The self-study will be completed, the new pastor will be selected, and the ministry of the church will begin a new phase.
There is a three-part structure of this time. Separation, liminal period, or the time in-between and reassimilation. In the case of the church changing pastors. The pastor who is leaving separates from the church. This can be a very painful time especially when the pastor was dearly loved. Then comes the time in-between, the liminal time. During that time, the church assesses its mission and ministries, elects a nominating committee who then begins the process of looking for a new pastor. The new pastor is hired and arrives, and the church begins the process of reassimilation, the time when the new ideas for mission and ministry from the self-study and the new pastor and the congregation all come together. And that integration begins a new thing, a new way of doing ministry that is different from the old. A new way to serve our God and our Savior Jesus Christ with guidance from the Holy Spirit.
What are our churches and this Presbytery to do in a season of liminality? What are the opportunities and threats this season presents? What do we need to take advantage of during this time? What does each of us need to be aware of, careful of, prepare for that might negatively affect us during this time?
Let’s look first at the opportunities that we have before us in the season we are now in, in this in-between time before the new arises.
Let me give you one example of how to think about this opportunity in a liminal season. Many of you have been in a tour group here in the US or when traveling internationally. When you met with the tour group for the first time, did you know everyone in the group? Most likely you did not know the folks in the group. There were probably people in the group from all social-economic levels and ages and political persuasions. What happened as the tour progressed? You introduced yourself to each other, where you are from, where you’ve lived, perhaps something about your interests. In short, you got to know the folks. What happened then? The group took on an identity of its own most likely. The social constructs that were evident in your life at home played no role in the new group that formed. Free of such encumbrances, the group developed new relationships and was the better for it.
Now I admit that I’ve met people who didn’t speak highly of the tour group they were in. But those folks were few. Mostly, I’ve talked with people who tell engaging stories about their tour group’s adventure. A new community formed. And for some people that new community is still a community in their life today.
In the churches in the Riverside Presbytery, I see new communities forming as church worship changes. Now that worship is on the web, people are only limited by their computer wi-fi capabilities as to where they will worship and with whom they will worship. Many of the pastors in the Presbytery have mentioned that people from all over the USA are joining their weekly worship. One church in the desert worships with music provided on occasion by a couple who live in Bellingham, WA. Another church has people from the East Coast join them for worship each week. No longer are folks limited geographically to where they worship. New worshipping communities are forming all over the USA – and perhaps all over the world. Most likely, when in-person worship resumes, each church will have two congregations or communities: the virtual one and the in-person one. Yes, liminal seasons provide an opportunity for new communities to form. Indeed, as Christ-followers, we now have new opportunities to spread the Gospel in new ways to new communities.
I just said spread the Gospel in new ways to new communities. In new ways. In liminal seasons innovation is an opportunity. What innovation has happened at your church since March? Online Bible study and fellowship using Zoom or Facebook. I’ve mentioned worship via the internet. Out-of-door worship. Those are some of the innovations that have happened so far. How will we take advantage of this opportunity to look at new ways of being a church or rather being a Christ-follower?
This week I was in a meeting with Presbytery leaders from all across the USA. One afternoon we discussed the future of the church and how to follow Jesus in this new world. I particularly liked one comment that was shared by one of the participants. “We’re moving from a physical church with a digital presence to a digital church with a physical presence.”
How will the Presbytery and its churches use this liminal season to explore new opportunities?
What is it that matters most to you? Has that changed since March? Does what matters most to you personally move the church forward to spread God’s love and make disciples?
It’s easy to say that our job is to make disciples, but do our actions and our programs support that statement? Each church has to discover what matters most for them by taking into consideration their identity, their values, and the context in which they live and work.
Each church has to decide what matters most.
Another opportunity I want to mention is discovering wisdom. Liminal times allow us to question what we assume as fact. All of us make assumptions based on our life experiences. During this presidential election year, many of you may be uncomfortable right now because you may have a relative or friend who supports a candidate that you can’t support. And you can’t understand why that person supports that candidate. Each person, you and your friend, is living out of his or her life experiences.
Now I’m not saying that living out of life experiences is not good – though I’m sure some of you wish your friends would make political decisions based on a life experience like yours! We make decisions based on our past life experiences and our expected future life experiences. If we didn’t operate in that way, we’d never get anything done. We’d always be questioning our decisions. But it’s wise to know why you operate the way you do and be willing to share your life assumptions with others. That leads to the next topic.
During this in-between time, it is good to question some of our assumptions. If you don’t know them, you can’t question them. Often new wisdom may come out of that questioning. A church just may find out there’s a better way to serve their community than the way ‘we’ve always done it.’ During the in-between time, folks may just be more open to questioning. Or at least I hope they will be. That new wisdom can come forward when questioning can take place in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
What are the threats in this liminal time?
It’s no secret that anxiety has increased in many people since March. There are many questions in people’s minds. Will I get the virus? How can I keep my family safe? Will I have enough money to pay the bills this month? Will I lose my job? Yes, anxiety increases in a liminal season.
Denial is the second threat. Let’s look at denial from the perspective of worship. Some folks believe that when the pandemic is over, the church will go back the way it was before. They don’t see the changes that have taken place since March as permanent. The actions taken to accommodate worship will all be rolled back. They don’t see and they don’t want to explore the possibilities, the opportunities that are presented to the church in this liminal time, this in-between time. They are in denial that the world has changed and want to return to the way it was before.
Leaders: Who were the leaders before the pandemic in your church? Are they still the leaders today? I don’t mean the pastor, but those lay people who have stepped up to make internet worship work (thank God for them) or who have started calling members weekly to check-in or who have set up volunteers to deliver food and necessities to those with health concerns who need to stay home for their protection. Were they the leaders in your church last December? During this in-between time, often the types of leadership skills needed bring new leaders to the forefront. Please welcome them and don’t view this change as a threat.
The rise of false saviors may not play out in the church the same way we see it in our society. False saviors seem to have all the answers, though those answers may be self-serving – and they lack a deep commitment to the welfare of the organization. As we said in management. People want easy answers. There are no easy answers. So, beware of false saviors who provide easy answers – even though you like what they say.
Leadership rejection. In times of anxiety, people can often turn on their leaders. People may say their leaders are not doing enough or they can’t lead in this crisis. When in reality the leader does have the ability, it’s just that the general anxiety causes people to be uncomfortable with the current leader. Often, folks are looking for that savior when they need to do the work of innovation, focus on what matters, and discover the wisdom in the group.
Today, I wanted to give you a framework, a lens, to view our current situation. We are living in an in-between time. The old has passed, the new has not arrived. Yes, things are tough right now, but there’s hope for the future. Hope that we can work together. Paul encourages us in Romans 12: 3-8. Each of us has our God-given talents to use for the Body. Let’s use them now.
One final thought for you.
Moses saw the burning bush. He could have passed it and gone on. But he came over and looked. He engaged. And God spoke to him.
Some of us may view our present situation as terrible, as a burning bush – a fire that doesn’t go out. Will we approach the burning bush? Will we hear God speaking? Will we engage the opportunities being offered to us in our church’s life and our personal lives? I hope so. Your life and your church’s life may just be led in a new direction.
That’s what happened to Moses – and the Hebrew people benefited. Will it work for the people of the Riverside Presbytery and our churches? That all depends on if you are willing to walk over to the burning bush and encounter the Holy.