Liminal Space

Although I did study Material Culture, which included a little bit of architecture — just enough to be dangerous — architecture isn’t my “thing.” Nevertheless, there is a term from that discipline that comes in handy these days: “Liminal.”

The word is rooted in Latin and it simply means “threshold.” It’s a space that isn’t quite This and yet not quite That. Think of transitions in rooms. Where does my dining room begin and where does my living room end? If I had walls, there would be a clear definition of spaces, but our house has an “open floor plan,” so there are various “threshold” or “liminal” spaces.

The idea extends beyond architecture into our lived experience of time. Right now, for example, we are living in a liminal space because of COVID-19. The former way of doing things no longer works, but at the same time, the new way of doing things is yet to emerge.

Liminal spaces are difficult spaces, especially for people like us who are addicted to certainty. Certainty means predictability and predictability means safety, security. Without those things, we may go into a kind of psychological and/or spiritual free fall, and that’s really uncomfortable.

The good news is that free fall is also an opportunity for incredible personal growth.

Here’s a quick example from my own life. If you know me, you’ve heard the story. I began working in museums on October 10, 1989, shortly after I had gotten out of the Army. I went into the Army in the first place because I had no post-high school plans. It was clear to me that I didn’t want to go to college, and my grades in high school sort of stood there as a back-up plan to make sure I didn’t even try to make that choice. But after my time and experience with the military, it was even clearer that I didn’t belong in THAT lifestyle AT ALL. Not even a little. When I discovered on day 3 of bootcamp that the thought of killing people wasn’t in line with my morality, I went into free fall. For 2 long years.

I didn’t come out of free fall until I emerged from the Army. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but at least I had clarity about what options weren’t on the table. I got back into school, and that was great. It turned out that I loved learning … when it was MY choice what to learn. Huh. Pig-headedness might be a good way to phrase that.

Anyway, school is not a career, but I needed to earn money. My fiancee and I, back before those Army free fall days, used to love to go to the Henry Ford Museum. We held an annual pass there, and would often go to the outdoor part (Greenfield Village) just to smell the smells, enjoy the weather, catch a bit of history. In the August after my release from active duty, I received a postcard sent to all Annual Pass holders that there would be a job fair on a certain date. Donning my tie, I went to the job fair and was hired to become an “Interpreter.” (That’s just the old museum-y term that kind of means “guide,” but there’s more to it than just memorizing and reciting scripts. Another post for another day, perhaps.)

I had taken that job as a place filler while I figured out what to do with my life. I kept working there through college … or at least volunteering on special events, because I loved the work so much.

Things happened. I moved to Germany for a girl. Well, for a girl and to get my Master’s degree. But there was no solid plan behind it. I just knew I wanted to live in Germany, and I wanted to be with this woman. After 6 months in Berlin with no job and with none of the classes I had signed up for (their system is quite different than ours), I came home to the States, defeated. Free fall. Did some odd jobs in the German Department at the University. That was OK, but not fulfilling.

Eventually there was an opportunity to go back to the museum. I did. After a short time, a better job opened up there, so I applied for that and was selected. In the meantime, I had been dumped by a still different woman after a long-term relationship. Free fall again.

But this time, I free fell into a decision: I LOVE museum work. I’m kind of good at it. People in that field recognize my dedication. I’ll get my MA in this field. I did that MA program (while dating Christy, who crazily married me shortly after graduation). Went to work for another museum with a fantastic reputation. Loved it. A lot. In a little over a year’s time, I went from Intern to Program Supervisor in a new section of the museum to Manager of a whole different section of the museum. It was great. Until it wasn’t.

The details aren’t important here (and I’ve recounted them elsewhere), but suddenly what HAD been the perfect job became a prison and a nightmare. I needed out, but by this time, I had been working on an off in museums for almost 20 years and my identity had become sewn up in it. MAJOR free fall.

But that was also the time I started going back to church. Not just going to church, but also attending a lay ministry school. A friend from church and I drove once a month for two years from Indianapolis up to Appleton, Wisconsin on a Friday in order to attend classes on Prayer, Old and New Testament, Liturgy, and a host of other topics, only to turn around and drive back to Indy on Saturday afternoon. In that time I heard the call to ordained ministry, and here I am today.

I’m skipping over a lot of important details, but the story is already way too long. The point: Major liminal times in my life – serious periods of complete free fall – all wound up leading to incredible personal growth. Was it painful to watch the old paradigms fall apart well before new ones began to emerge? God, yes! Painful and terrifying! But something within me knew to persevere and to have trust. I didn’t always know what or who I was trusting in, only that I needed to trust.

Since then, there have been about a bajillion other times of free fall, other liminal times of one degree or another. Sometimes several were happening at the same time. That’s what I’m experiencing right now, alongside the process we are going through as a congregation while we wait for the new paradigm to be born.

I guess what I’m saying in all of this is: 1) Yes, I know it’s hard. Can we say, “This royally sucks?” I think that’s fair. But 2) this is also a time of opportunity to – as we used to say in boot camp – “embrace The Suck,” because we know that there’s something potentially awesome on the other side of it.

In my next post, I’m going to offer some practical wisdom for “embracing The Suck.” Stay tuned.

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