While it’s not unusual to go through a period of personal uncertainty, we don’t normally traverse the unknown all at the same time. The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted life for every one of us. Children are home from school. College classes have moved online. Sporting events, theater productions, concerts, even graduations are cancelled. Many are working from home. Church gatherings are prohibited. Store shelves are empty. Restaurants are closed. Visitors to elderly care homes are banned. Travel is strongly discouraged.
Each of us is trying to figure out how to get through this—one eye glued to our newsfeed and the other trying to carry on in whatever ways we can.
The Old Testament is surprisingly relevant to our current crisis. To see how, let me first teach you a new word: liminality. It’s from the Latin word limen, which means “threshold.” Imagine yourself standing in the entryway to a building, neither inside nor outside. That’s liminal space. Not to bring up a sore subject, but an airport is a liminal space. Nobody lives there. We’re all passing through on our way to somewhere else. (Well, very few of us are now, but you get the point.)
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The first people to start talking about liminality were anthropologists. They used it to describe a stage in rituals that change someone’s status or identity. Sociologically speaking, a liminal space is a transitional space where a person undergoes a change in status. Every human ritual around the world includes an element of liminality, from coming-of-age rituals to funerals. A young man is sent into the wilderness to fend for himself for a set period of time, or to complete a quest. He leaves as a child and returns as a man. During his time away he occupies liminal space. The concept of liminality has proved useful beyond sociology to psychology, politics, popular culture, and religion. In a moment, we’ll explore Israel’s experience of liminality in the wilderness. But first I want us to think about the ways we experience liminality, because all of us do! (Especially now.)
When a woman becomes pregnant, she enters liminality. She is officially on the threshold of motherhood, and yet she has not yet experienced most of its aspects—nighttime feedings, diapering, discipline, pushing a stroller, singing the ABCs. She is in between. Liminality is usually temporary, but it can be prolonged. My first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Part of my grief was because I found myself in the strange position of having been pregnant, but lacking a child to hold. Mother’s Day that year was especially awkward and painful. Was I a mother? Or wasn’t I? I didn’t really belong in either category. My status and role were suspended.
Few people actually enjoy liminality. We have an inborn desire to seek order and belonging and predictability. Just a few months after that awkward Mother’s Day I became pregnant again and happily left that liminal state behind. My grief largely dissolved when the ambiguity of my status was resolved. Others are not so fortunate. Infertility is an especially painful form of liminality. It would be easier for couples to move on if they knew they would never bear children, but the sense of being in limbo often stretches over years.
Immigrants and refugees sometimes spend long years in a liminal state—lacking papers to legally work or even stay in their host country, always feeling like an outsider, and never knowing if they should put down roots or start packing.
Right now, just about all of us are experiencing liminality. Our schedules are in limbo. Our roles have shifted. Our routines disrupted. We’re not sure what’s next. Nobody planned for this. And nobody knows for sure when it will end. That’s the hardest part of all—the not knowing.
For Israel, the wilderness journey from Egypt to Canaan is liminal space. Far more than just a place to pass through, it is the workshop of Israel’s becoming. The wilderness is their temporary destination that makes them who they are. Liminal places always do this. They change us.
The Israelites have been liberated from slavery in Egypt, but they have not yet arrived at their final destination. Everything they know about who they are, how to survive, and what is expected of them is stripped away on that fateful night when they make their escape, leaving them vulnerable and uncertain. Sure, their escape is good news. The problem is that they don’t know how to live under these new arrangements. No doubt they long imagined life in freedom, but life-on-the-way-to-freedom is something else altogether. Wilderness survival skills do not come naturally to them. Food and water are scarce. But God is not in a hurry to lead them out of liminal space and into the land he promised to give them. They’re not ready yet.
Into their situation of acute need, Yahweh speaks. He answers the basic questions of human existence in surprising new ways, offering himself as the solution to their needs for leadership, guidance, protection, and provision, and revealing his name as the key to their identity and vocation as his people. Yahweh invites them to begin walking in a new direction by trusting him.
Sinai is part of their liminal experience. In the wilderness of Sinai they are free from the mind-numbing distractions of Egypt and Canaan. In their isolation, they can hear the voice of God. Having lost their old identity, they are ready to become what they are meant to be.
COVID-19 is an inconvenience and a tragedy, and quite frankly, it’s unprecedented. A pandemic may seem only to bring death. But there is a gift for each of us in it. Isolation opens up new opportunities for us to hear the voice of God—at least it can if we pause Netflix long enough to listen. As our schedules and activities grind to a halt or take on new forms, our vulnerability positions us to experience God in new ways. COVID-19 can transform us, if we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. Entering an unwelcome season for which we have not planned exposes ways that we have misplaced our priorities and anchored our identity to shifting sand. Stripped of our routines, we can rediscover the precious truth that God is with us. No quarantine deprives us of his presence. We’re reminded in very mundane ways how we need his grace.
Each of us will experience this liminal season in different ways. Some will relish time alone. Others will grieve the loss of face-to-face relationships. Some will discover new sources of anxiety. (Will I run out of toilet paper or sanitary products? Will my loved one be strong enough to beat this if they get exposed?) Others will find joy in discovering that the world keeps turning, even without our frenetic pace of life. Some families with children home from school will re-connect and make memories. Other families will find themselves stretched to the breaking point.
This isolation will not last forever. By the grace of God, on the other side of all this we will not be the same people we were when the pandemic broke loose.
My prayer is that as believers in Jesus we will rediscover the power of embodied community. When we no longer have to limit human contact, I pray we will cherish the gift of being together again. Christianity is not (and never was) an individual sport. We need the family of faith.
May we rediscover our deepest identity as people who belong to God and to each other. As we learn to live in limbo, may we truly learn to live.