God Opened My Heart and Mind Part Two
By JIM NICHOLS
The Meals on Wheels client was complaining about the expense and size of the local newspaper. The price had gone up and the size had gone down, and she wondered whether it was still worth taking. “The only reason I take it anymore is for the comics and the obituaries,” she said.
I used to think people who read the obituaries were a bit odd. Obituaries are just a rather predictable account of people I do not usually know and generally do not contain information that is interesting or helpful to me. I have converted, however. Although there is still much detail that escapes me, collectively they have the effect on me of identifying movements, challenges, and accomplishments of unknown others and I find them enlightening, inspiring, and, frankly, even refreshing, sometimes. In most cases written by surviving family members, the obituary represents a description of someone who has passed the threshold of physical life to physical death. They have been somewhere I have not yet been. They have been to an edge of human life, the final one.
A fancy word for an edge is that it is a liminal space, a threshold. One might think of them in two categories: (1) physical or (2) (for purposes here) theological or spiritual. In both cases they are transition areas, like waiting areas between one point in time and space and the next.
Physical examples frequently identified are such places as stairwells or elevators in a building; their purpose is to allow you to move from one floor to another. Airport terminals or train stations fit the category also; they are transition areas from one place to another. If, perhaps, the transition area is empty except for me, there may be a feeling of apprehension. An empty hallway in a school during summer vacation just does not seem right somehow.
Spiritual liminal (edge) spaces include a similarly wide range of examples. These are times and places in which we find ourselves encountering thoughts, senses, sights, or situations for which we were unprepared and that seem to have a message for us; perhaps, the message is only hinted at. These encounters grab us by our hearts often and, though potentially unsettling or even frightening, lead us places that God wants us to go. They are part of the mysterious life of a person trying to follow God.
Richard Rohr suggests that we should perceive liminal spaces not as necessarily unsettling, but rather as introspective opportunities. Could it be that these are the times and places where the Holy Spirit inhabits and operates best? Could these be times when our usual coping and defensive mechanisms fail, and we are more dependent on spiritual inputs?
In a past article, I quoted the Silent Gang Member (the one seriously injured in the car wreck) as signing to me, “God opened my heart and mind.” Apparently, his prolonged physical recovery was accompanied by some spiritual insights and growth; he spent weeks in a liminal space (an “edge”) and learned deep things about himself and God that he probably could not have learned without the injuries. During the weeks he was grieving the loss of his physical capabilities, he was changing and healing spiritually. Perhaps this is an insight into a view of grief and grieving that would help each of us.
It is no surprise that life brings grief, often unexpectedly. There is no itinerary that we can adequately prepare that will enable us to navigate what may be ahead of us — perhaps even tomorrow or the next day. As best as possible, can we live life in such a way as to anticipate grief as a transition time to a better understanding of God and ourselves? Does this minimize the trauma of grief too much?
I am talking to myself here, clearly. If I live under God’s grace, nothing can separate me from his love. Nothing can separate those I love from his love. We do have a community role in assuring each other of that. We can validate the acceptance of mourning in one another. We can give one another permission to let love and loss play out together in that edge space we call grief.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain
This is too weird, Jim. My next article is on liminality, but I think it’s different enough from yours not to be redundant.