“Life in Liminal Seasons”

We moved into a new house last week. My mom scrubbed everything –the insides of cupboards, the fridge and the stove, the sinks and the showers. Jen’s mom (the handiest person I know) crafted all kinds of improvements—new shelves and a set of drawers, hooks and spice racks, and undercounter lights. The dads mowed and trimmed and hauled over our tools and compost piles. Our friends brought nourishing meals to feed the work crew. Now, the kitchen is fully functional. Books are on shelves, beds are made, storage bins are stowed away. I’ve hooked up the hose and begun to transplant perennials. We’ve hung our pictures on the walls. The school, the playground, and a beautiful schoolyard garden is right across the street. We’re settling in and feeling at home.

And yet, because we still own the old place, we’re living in a liminal season, lingering in the space and time between one thing and another. Almost every day I go over there to rescue forgotten things, to water some new sod, to gather rocks, or weed the empty gardens, to connect with the handyperson who is helping us prepare the house for sale. Most days, I run into our beloved nextdoor neighbors. Over and over again, we reminisce, and say our goodbyes. When I venture inside the house, feelings of grief and gratitude overwhelm me. The rooms, in their empty, echoey state, feel both familiar and foreign. As the walls get repainted, a utilitarian gray replaces our bright touches of mango and sky blue. All the pesky, accumulated broken stuff is being repaired, all the scuffs of wear removed. Our years there, it seems, are slowly being erased. And yet, we’ll always be present, too, a part of the house. We have added to the joys and sorrows that season the old woodwork, to the memories and stories that linger in the corners, that give the place character, or even a soul.

The Ascension of Jesus is not a major holiday for us in the United Church of Christ. In the last decade, I see I’ve only preached about it once! In some ways, it’s a problematic story. I think it’s hard for us to relate to this scene of Jesus being dramatically swept up into heaven. Scientifically speaking, we know that heaven is not located in the sky. And, as we seek to de-colonize a faith that has reinforced harmful hierarchies and dualities, it’s vital to rethink the idea that God, even metaphorically, is “up there.” In my mind, the divine is interwoven with all of reality; the holy is a dimension of the world here and now.

Despite these challenges with the text, I find myself intrigued by this story, because of the way it honors our liminal seasons. The disciples were away from home, in Jerusalem. They had come to the city to celebrate the Passover with Jesus. During that time, Jesus was arrested and crucified, then resurrected. He appeared to the women at the tomb, and to some disciples walking to a nearby village, and finally among his followers gathered in Jerusalem. They knew him by his wounds and his peace. They recognized him when he blessed, broke and shared the bread. He gave them new knowledge, a fresh perspective, to interpret scripture and to understand what God was doing among them. And after all this coming and going, leaving and returning, now he was departing from them once again. What a whirlwind of emotions! What a confusing time!

Jesus told the disciples, right before his departure, that they should stay in the city until they were “clothed with power from on high.” On the church calendar, the space between one thing and the next is clear and exact; it is ten days. The Ascension happens on the fortieth day after Easter, and Pentecost, which brings the Spirit’s power to the new-born church, happens on the fiftieth day. However, the disciples themselves had no idea how long they would need to stay in Jerusalem, stay in this liminal season, stay in this time and space between Jesus’ departure and the coming of the power he had promised them. And they really had no idea what it was they were even waiting for. What would this power feel like? What would it allow them to do? How would they know when it had come?

Truth be told, liminality is pretty much a constant state in human life. We find ourselves in liminal seasons as we grieve our losses, as we navigate changes of all kinds, really, whenever experiences of beauty or pain jolt us out of habitual patterns of thinking and feeling. Collectively, at the moment, we’re in the midst of overlapping liminal seasons—as we name them in our congregational theme statement—the pandemics of COVID-19, racial injustice, and climate change. Uncertainty is a key characteristic of liminality. Should we mask or not mask? Sing or not sing? Eat together or refrain from doing so? Will enough people get vaccinated to enable us to reach herd immunity? When will our littlest ones be eligible for the vaccine? What does true public safety or a new fossil free economy look like? What next steps will move us toward these radical transformations?

There’s a second liminal season implied in the story of Jesus’ ascension in Luke. Jesus has left the earth. When is he coming back? Is he coming back? What happens if he doesn’t return? Biblical scholar Osvaldo Vena, observes: “Luke seems to be making narrative and theological space for the birth of the church.”[1] In other words, the liminal season of Jesus’ bodily absence allows the community to take on his mission. Though he is physically absent, the gift of Pentecost is that the same Spirit, the same power, that animated Jesus now fills his followers.

It’s only human to want to certainty, to desire a quick resolution to our liminal seasons. However, Jesus’ word to us is “stay.” “Stay here in Jerusalem,” he told those first followers, “until the power comes upon you.” Jerusalem was where it all began, when the infant Jesus was blessed by the elders, Simeon and Anna in the temple. Jerusalem was where it all came to a bitter end. And Jerusalem was also where Jesus’ followers learned that life, love and hope, though at times radically challenged and changed, are never truly dead and gone. Staying in Jerusalem meant staying with all those experiences and emotions. Jerusalem, I think, was a bit like our old house, with all that has happened there, the good and the bad, the funny and the weird, the daily, the ordinary and the utterly boring.

Luke says the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” In other words, we need not become paralyzed by the liminal seasons of our lives. Amid all the uncertainty and all the big feelings, we can live fully and deeply. We need not wait to receive blessing and experience joy. I love John O’Donohue’s description of the privilege it is to be in the liminal space and time of a death bed. Even when we have no idea what is coming next, we can be like that wild bandito, knocking a great embrace and squeeze and hug out of our lives.

Jesus tells us to stay in our liminal seasons, to linger in the time and space that is somewhere between grief and gratitude, presence and absence, death and resurrection. We are to stay there, because that is where we will receive the power of God’s Spirit. That is how we become Christ’s body, how we move with his strength and love with his heart. In our liminal seasons, Christ blesses us that we might be a blessing. Christ heals us so that we might offer healing to others. Christ frees us and raises us, so that we, too, might join his liberating work. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ascension-of-our-lord/commentary-on-luke-2444-53-6