The Gift of Liminality by Leann Williams

I Kings 19:9b -12

In the forward to Kitchen Table Wisdom, a collection of stories written by Rachel Remen, M.D. from decades of practicing medicine, I found these words by Dean Ornish, M. D. “As a scientist, I live in a world of data, numbers, randomized controlled clinical trials. Scientists believe what can be measured – blood pressure, cholesterol, blood flow – even though, as doctor Dennis Burkit once said, ‘Not everything that counts can be counted.’ Anecdotal evidence, in other words, stories, – is viewed with suspicion by scientists. But there is no meaning in facts. As a physician, and as a human being, I live in a world of stories. Stories are not replicable because our lives are unique. Our uniqueness is what gives us value and meaning. Yet in the telling of stories we also learn what makes us similar, what connects us all, what helps us transcended the isolation that separates us from each other and from ourselves. Stories are the language of community. “ One of my favorite memories from Spokane Friends is the adult education hour series in which we shared our life stories.

Joseph Campbell, a famous mythologist, studied traditions and sacred writings, stories, from around the world reaching back to the Stone Age. He identified the stages of what he called “the hero’s journey”: departure from home, then liminality, a crisis, transformation and, at last, the hero’s victorious return.

It is the stage of liminality that I would like to call our attention to today. The word comes from the Latin word limen meaning threshold. Liminal can refer to sensory perception as in subliminal, below the level of sensory perception, or to refer to a stage or condition of  betwixt and between. Liminality is the state of being in transition. Life events, birth, death, marriage, divorce, moving, job changes, aging, and others bring us to a state of liminality. We know who we have been and how we have operated in this world. That has come to an end in some way and we are facing something new and unknown. Liminality is often brought about by our own decisions, but not always.


Artwork by Bernadette Jiyong Frank

Sometimes events beyond our control bring us into this space of leaving behind the familiar and facing an unknown future. Liminality can be exciting, depressing, confusing, but rarely is it comfortable. In an article entitled “The Wisdom of Uncerainty” Kurt Spellmeyer, a Buddhist scholar, noted, “Of course, liminality goes against the grain. The more uncertain our lives become in response to events beyond our control, the more we want to plant our feet solidly in one place.”

We find ourselves individually, communally, and globally in a liminal space brought to us by the coronavirus. As Quakers we have long held practices and understandings that serve us well in these times. As followers of Christ, we have stories from communities far distant in time and place and not so distant ones that can instruct us in how to respond right here and now to this opportunity of liminality.

Liminal events take us out of the known and familiar into new territory, foreign lands, the unknown. The Bible is full of stories replete with liminal spaces. I think of individuals such as Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers and landing in Eqypt, imprisoned under false accusations and eventually emerging with an entirely different life and purpose. Moses, born under an edict to destroy him, rescued and raised as Egyptian royalty, fled to the desert where he married into a foreign culture, tended sheep, experienced a call from God to return to his homeland to lead his people of origin to freedom. The Jews themselves enter their own desert wilderness experience for a forty year long liminal opportunity. The people who become the Israelites communally experience times of captivity and deportation that shape and transform them as a gathered people. Liminality is the ideal environment for transformation. Jesus followers left the familiar territory of home and answered Jesus’ call to “follow me.” Expecting Jesus to lead them to freedom from Roman oppression, they watched him be crucified by Roman soldiers and die. Through their disappointment and destruction of their hopes and dreams, the loss of their leader and loved one, came a liminal space that caused some to run and others to cling together and wait. In those liminal spaces Jesus appeared, transformation occurred. My favorite transformation story is that of Peter. Once cowering in fear and denying he ever knew Jesus, he stands preaching with confidence and power on the day of Pentecost and becomes the rock Jesus had predicted.

Our almost global quarantine has hit the pause button allowing us to stop and reflect. As Quakers we understand the value of stillness, silence, and solitude. We know the divine presence; our inner guide is found in just such spaces. William Penn stated, ” Look not out, but within… Remember it is a still voice that speaks to us in this day, and that it is not to be heard in the noises and hurries of the mind; but it is distinctly understood in a retired frame.”

Old Testament writers gave similar reflections:

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

“For God alone my soul in silence waits.” Psalm 62:1

“But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” Habakkuk 2:20

“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Isaiah 30:15

Elijah’s story in 1 Kings 19 reminds us that the voice of God is not found in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but in a still small voice or a gentle whisper.


This message was given by Leann Williams to Spokane Friends (Virtual) Meeting for Worship via Zoom on May 3, 2020.

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