Living in Liminal Space

What a week! Since last Friday, we have seen two pivotal razor-close Senate elections in Georgia, the certification of the electoral college vote for President, and the specter of violent rioters descending on the U.S. Capitol. In the past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on living in liminal space and that reflection has illuminated the past week for me.

What is liminal space? Susan Beaumont, in How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, describes liminal space as the space between the old and the new, when the old has disintegrated and the new has not yet come. Our human will has a bias toward returning to the old or rushing to the new, profoundly uncomfortable in the liminal space. Yet the liminal space provides the holding environment for gestation. Waiting in the liminal space provides room for discernment and deepening. I had been thinking of 2020 in terms of liminal spaces when the headlines thrust the disintegrating old and the emerging new into the forefront. We have yet to discover or invent where we go from these circumstances, but we can draw lessons from the past year.

The year 2020 served up a lot of liminal space for me and for Shalem. For example, when COVID-19 hit, we had no roadmap. Our strategic planning process had not, in our wildest imaginings, anticipated this scenario. Part of me felt tempted to devise a plan, any plan, to chart a course through this storm. Yet another part of me knew I needed to wait. Our old way of doing things wouldn’t work anymore. The old was falling apart before our eyes. The new had not yet emerged. Prematurely rushing to devise a plan, I sensed, would prove counterproductive.

And I knew I needed to listen. Personally, I needed to listen for what was being invited. Corporately, we at Shalem needed to listen. I needed to help hold the space for our staff team to listen. I needed to help hold the space for our board to listen. Just because we couldn’t offer programs in our old tried-and-true ways didn’t mean the Holy Spirit had stopped working. How could we listen for what the Spirit was up to now?

How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going helped me recognize the normalcy of what we were experiencing. It helped me stay in the uncomfortable liminal space and invite others into it as well. Others had traveled this road before. While COVID-19 was new, the experience of living in liminal space was not. The degree to which we could stay in the liminal space with open, listening minds, hearts, and wills would determine the degree to which we could respond to the emerging future waiting to be born through us.

Similarly, in a year of many protests and political upheaval in DC and in the U.S., I have had to practice living in liminal space. Part of me wants a plan, any plan, to confront white supremacy and to help bring racial justice to our nation. Yet part of me knows that discerning what is mine to do as an individual and discerning what is ours to do at Shalem requires listening for the Spirit’s guidance and getting grounded in God so that we can act from deep strength. This week we focused our Wednesday prayer for the world on praying for Congress and for the protesters. We are planning a prayer vigil in conjunction with the inauguration on January 20. We will continue to listen and discern what is ours to do in the long-term work of dismantling white supremacy and defending democracy.

Yes, we still lack a roadmap. Yes, I’m still tempted at times to rush toward a new strategic plan. Yes, it’s often uncomfortable and difficult. Yet exercising our trust muscles for the past ten months has taught us that living in liminal space can bring gifts of listening, open-heartedness, and growth. And living in liminal space can help us discern a way forward to help work for justice in a very unjust world.

While I don’t yet know what 2021 has to offer, I want to commit myself to living in this ongoing liminal space with an open mind, open heart, and open will. May we all experience God’s presence in the midst of liminal space in 2021, even amidst its challenges.

January 01, 2021 by Margaret Benefiel 5 Comments
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Jessica McArdle
3 years ago

Margaret, a much-needed reflection and guide for these times. Bless you and many thanks for your words.

Jessica McArdle
3 years ago

An urgently needed reflection and guide – given what has transpired particularly these past days. Bless you, for these words. I will continue to hold them today and in the ones to come.

Tracy Haidar
Tracy Haidar
3 years ago

Thank you so much Margaret. I really needed to read this today! –Tracy from Gunpowder Friends Meeting


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