Living in Liminality

By NANCY PATRICK

Sunday, October 10, 2021, Dr. Bob Ellis filled the pulpit at First Baptist Church, Abilene. He treated our congregation to an excellent sermon while our search committee seeks a new senior pastor after our long-time pastor, Dr. Phil Christopher, retired.

Dr. Ellis, a true intellectual, has the talent of imparting difficult concepts to average people. He chose a topic that I knew nothing about, but as always, I came away with many new thoughts on the topic he presented. His subject, “liminality,” relates to boundaries or turning points. For example, a toddler lives in the liminal state between infancy and childhood whereas a teenager’s liminality rests between childhood and adulthood.

This timely topic describes our current world. The liminal state between our pre-COVID world and what we anticipate in the post-COVID world presents many frustrations. These times have happened in my family after graduations, weddings, health crises, job transitions, and deaths. Liminality can be very uncomfortable—even frightening.

Dr. Ellis stressed the importance of using our liminal phases to learn and grow rather than marking off the days until the next threshold. This advice presents great challenges. Some of these liminal (waiting) times seem overwhelming, and we become discouraged and depressed. For many of us, myself included, my life seemed to morph into liminality at my retirement. 

I know many people who eagerly enter retirement because they have a bucket list they can now afford to accomplish. They travel, go on mission trips, volunteer at nonprofits, mentor younger people, and seem indefatigable. 

I must confess, though, that I retired with the idea of freedom to sleep late, loiter in Starbucks, browse the library, pick up a little volunteer work when I wanted it, and generally remain uncommitted to a job.

During COVID’s isolation period, I found myself becoming too comfortable with doing nothing. I read books, watched reruns of my favorite television shows, lolled in my recliner entirely too much, and generally became lethargic.

Dr. Ellis’ sermon reminded me that every period of life offers opportunities to grow and accomplish meaningful goals. I thought of Corrie ten Boom, who spent years in a German concentration camp during WW II. She entered the camp in her early fifties. That seems like a rather late start to do the most important thing you have ever done. But for Corrie ten Boom, her horrendous years in the camps revealed all the values of her life and brought them together to make her one of the most revered of Christian women.

As I thought of the congregants listening to Dr. Ellis’ sermon, I reflected on the different places in life we all represented. Our church membership includes babies through very senior adults. When we have baby dedications, we view precious photos of this new child with an entire life ahead of him or her. We recognize the parents, the siblings, and the grandparents—all in different phases of their lives.

As a senior adult, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about my liminality. I remember the promise of youth, the goals of adulthood, the dreams of parents, and the ties of relationships. Life rarely follows the outlines we made for ourselves in our youth. So many things happen that change the courses of our lives—some wonderful but others tragic. How we face these events largely determines our acceptance of our own liminalities.

When my son graduated from high school, one of my friends gave him a Dr. Seuss book entitled Oh, the Places You’ll Go (https://donstuff.wordpress.com/tag/oh-the-places-youll-go-full-text/). Although children enjoy the book’s content and illustrations, it also teaches many important truths about life in general.

Many young parents, so enthralled and mesmerized by their children, have difficulty viewing the children as real people. In an attempt to build healthy self-esteem, parents can go overboard in praise and expectations. They can create such high standards that their children may feel distraught and frustrated when they cannot measure up.

Dr. Seuss’ book shows the healthy way to view life and all the liminal times we must face. Importantly, he lists many wonderful, happy, euphoric events in the progression of a life. At one point he says, “You’ll be on your way up! You’ll be seeing great sights! You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights. You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.”

What a loving endorsement of a child’s intelligence and potential! We should absolutely employ this technique as we encourage our kids to set goals and work hard to achieve them. However, Dr. Seuss elaborates, “Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.” Although some parents want to shield their children from disappointments, they should not shield them from life’s realities. In spite of some of life’s difficulties, we need to prepare ourselves for these unforeseen events that await us. 

As our church waits for a new senior pastor, we face many questions, apprehensions, fears, and hopes. We cannot control the course of God’s direction as He speaks to the hearts of many people who diligently work and pray for His guidance. We live in liminality, a time of introspection, repentance, and growth if we view it as an opportunity rather than a burden. 

Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing

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