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Draw near: Praying from a liminal space

Lynne Baab • Wednesday February 1 2023

Draw near: Praying from a liminal space

I first met the word “liminal” in 2009 in readings for a new course I was planning to teach on the missional church. I had arrived in New Zealand in 2007 to teach pastoral theology, and I found that many church leaders there were talking about the idea that Christians need to be missional. They seemed to be contrasting “missional” with traditional church missions. I didn’t understand the concept and wanted to learn more. What better way to learn than to design a course around a new topic?

To summarize briefly, “missional” focuses on the idea that we are sent in to the world as Jesus was sent (John 17:18 and 20:21), which of course refers to missionaries sent to distant lands as well as people like you and me who are sent into our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, cities, and countries to bring the aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:15). If you’d like to read more about what “missional church” means, I wrote an article about it.

For this blog post, I want to focus on a word often used in the missional church literature: liminal. The word comes from the Latin limen, which means doorway or threshold. A liminal space is an in-between space, which can happen for individuals, groups like congregations, or even cities or countries. Missional church writers began arguing 15 to 20 years ago that the church is in a liminal space as the wider society becomes more secular and as children raised in the church do not attend as adults.

Liminal times are profoundly uncomfortable, and they also offer significant gifts along with the challenges. Paul Tournier, Swiss physician and author, describes the risk and opportunity. “It is like the time when a trapeze artist lets go of the bar and hangs in midair ready to catch another support: it is a time of danger, of expectation, of uncertainty, of excitement, of extraordinary aliveness.” [1]

We might use the term “liminal space” to describe starting a new job, retiring, getting ready to move, settling into a new place, getting married (or getting divorced), gaining a new in-law or child or grandchild, starting a new volunteer role, or dealing with a new medical issue or surgery. Even those moments before and after a vacation can feel liminal because of the unknown of what’s going to happen on vacation, and the unsettled feelings of returning to real life.

Fuller seminary professor Vince L. Bantu provides a description of liminal spaces that can help us pray in those times when we feel that we are between one trapeze and another: “While it can be disorienting to be placed in the space in between, it can also be a helpful reminder to love that which is the Lord’s rather than the world (1 John 2:15-17).” [2]

Liminal spaces invite us into a continual turning to the God who loves us. “I need your help in these feelings of disorientation,” we might pray. Or, “Please send your Holy Spirit to give me stability when everything feels so unstable.” Or, "Help me to be honest about how challenging this liminal space is and turn to you, over and over, in it." Dr. Bantu would encourage us to pray, “Use the challenge of this in-between space to turn my heart (or my congregation's heart) toward you and what you love.”

Paul Tournier argues that a liminal space is “a time of danger, of expectation, of uncertainty, of excitement, of extraordinary aliveness.” Each of his descriptors can be turned into a prayer:

  • “Please, mighty God, keep me safe in my feelings of danger.”
  • “Jesus, you walk with us every day. Help us to expect to see you at work.”
  • “Help us to trust you in our uncertainty.”
  • “This exciting transitional time makes me feel fresh and alive. Help me to perceive that aliveness as a gift from you. Help me to serve you with this energy I'm feeling.”

I found the quotation by Paul Tournier in an article in a Fuller Seminary Magazine entitled “Liminality as an Incubator for Growth.” [3] That title alone is a good fuel for prayer. “God who transforms and shapes us, use my in-between places as a source of growth and transformation into the image of your beloved son, Jesus.” We might pray for our congregation, city, or country to experience growth because of liminal spaces.

Many of our congregations are in liminal spaces. Many of us are personally in liminal spaces. I encourage you to think about the areas of your life, the lives of your friends and family members, your congregation, your city or country, that feel like in-between places, perhaps with the high risk of a trapeze artist who has just let go. I encourage you to use some of the prayers in this post, or create your own, to help you draw near to God and trust in God’s goodness, and pray for yourself, those you love, and those who lead.

(Next week: praying to recognize the good. Illustration by Dave Baab: Lake Washington, Bellevue, the Cascade Mountains, and the Interstate 90 floating bridge from Mount Baker Park, Seattle. Notice how rough the lake is on the right side of the bridge. The wind is coming from the right, the south. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below.)

For further reading

[1] Paul Tournier, A Place for you: Psychology and Religion (New York: Harper Collins, 1968). Quoted in “Liminality as an Incubator for Growth” by Jose Abraham, Fuller Seminary Magazine, Issue #20, page 64.
[2] A Home In Between by Vince L. Bantu, Fuller Seminary Magazine, Issue #20, page 40.
[3] “Liminality as an Incubator for Growth” by Jose Abraham.

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