Liminal Space: Grace Where Things Fall Apart

by | Jun 25, 2019 | 2 Those Who Mourn, Sermons

Elijah in liminal space

Liminal Space: “Elijah in the Desert,” Washington Allston, 1818.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).

A Sermon Preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rome, Georgia, on June 23, 2019.


Old Testament:
1 Kings 19:1-16

New Testament:
Luke 8:26-39

Born eight pounds three ounces, you move through childhood with the usual boo-boos, sniffles, and sick days, but overall, you have a lot of fun. You make good grades and please the teachers who consider you special, destined for success someday.

You date, graduate, break up and get someone better while you study harder and get an advanced degree. So you get married and move into a professional career that makes a difference and a fine salary. You and your beloved have children, more beloveds in your life now with their sniffles and giggles and ball games and good grades — it all goes so fast. So many nice pics on Facebook, good memories.

You grow wise, retire, and do volunteer work. You and your beloved take good care of each other until one of you dies, then the other. And the children honor you and carry on.

If that narrative sums up your life, let me offer my sincere condolences for your having lived such a dull existence. Nevertheless, we offer that narrative to others and hope they buy it. Any other story line embarrasses us, makes us feel like we don’t belong, maybe even like a failure. And deep down we know that our lives do not really live up to that narrative at all, and we shudder to think what would happen if people knew it was different.

If we tell our stories more candidly, we must admit to dog days and stretches of time when we felt locked in routines of study, work, or domestic maintenance. Such times leave our lives dry, occasionally watered, but usually either heavy with inertia or frenetic with our to-do lists. Either way, we feel either loathe to raise the questions or torturously obsessed with them: Is this all there is? Am I missing my calling?

Where is God? What does God think of my life if God thinks of me at all? We feel alone. So we forget God, resign ourselves to our mundane circumstances, roll up our sleeves, and manage as best we can. When folks at church ask how we are, we say just fine.

You may ask the same questions at very different times, crises that punctuate those long stretches of tedious normalcy. The phone rings. Someone is terribly ill or injured or dead, someone who was your rock or for whom you tried to be a rock yourself. Or executives and accountants in a boardroom or backroom with spreadsheets of numbers and names scattered before them decide the time is nigh to downsize, and that means getting rid of you. Or someone to whom you gave your heart seems to have misplaced it, and the easy understandings of yesterday elude you now. Nothing gets done, and nobody gets loved.

In those times too we ask, Where is God? But a question deeper still underlies that one: Where am I? What happened to me? What happened to my story? How can I ever get it back to the story I want everyone to believe, the story of doing well, being well, faring well. Am I living a lie?

If we think of our long seasons of ordinariness between crises, the extraordinary life of the prophet Elijah seems so unlike ours, he of resuscitating a dead boy and bringing on both drought and rains, he whose prayer for fire from heaven God answered with a lightning bolt after 450 prophets of Baal could not summon so much as a spark. He for whom God sent a chariot to bring him on up, bypassing death. Such is not a life like yours or mine, it seems, but look more closely to see our common humanity with Elijah.

For he, too, had an inherited narrative, that of a prophet, grander than yours and mine, granted, but not qualitatively different, really. God invites us, too, to pray, to listen even amid the routines and discern and live our stories, or at least the next page or chapter that God seems to have in mind. And like us, Elijah faced a crisis when his best efforts did not secure his story. Rather, he found himself on the lam from the vengeful Queen Jezebel’s troops, and on the hot road, the story seemed all a farce. So he collapsed in the shade of a broom tree and prayed for the end of it all, for the escape of death.
The story seemed lost, the calling a lie, and he no longer knew who he was or who God was. He thought he answered God’s call with his life, but since it all collapsed and scattered like a house of cards, he knew neither himself nor his LORD. But in Elijah’s story as in ours, the crisis brings an opportunity because our understanding of our stories cannot encompass God. We tend to relegate God to a character in our stories when, in fact, we are characters in God’s. So it often takes the collapse of our stories, the failures or losses or tragic turns of our lives to clear our view of God, to receive grace.

Elijah fell asleep, perhaps cried himself to sleep, under that tree. God sent an angel to feed him, to minister to him, to gently lead him back on the road to a meeting with God. The real story emerged, not so much about a prophet being a prophet as about God being God, God being Love. And then on the mountain where the angel led him, God spoke to him again, not in extraordinary spectacles this time, not in hurricane force winds, earthquakes, and fire passing through, but in the silence that followed, a silence through which God spoke as if in a still, small voice.

God asked, “What are you doing here?” And Elijah repeated his despair. God answered with a call, a promise, to continue his life of prophecy and to find his successor, Elishah, who would carry on. It was not the same story. It was a better story.

Carl Jung called places like Elijah’s broom tree and mountaintop, “liminal space.” We find ourselves in liminal space at times like those mentioned earlier, when someone we love dies, we lose our job, a marriage falls apart, or our sense of purpose dissipates. Life in liminal space seems godforsaken, but usually in retrospect, we find it a sacred passage after all.

For in liminal space, we transition from one being to another like the the caterpillar in the liminal coccoon becoming a butterfly. Such space has no floor plans or maps. Walking through it disorients the traveler. Faith walks through liminal space stubbornly insistent on waiting for God despite the cacophony of voices within and without urging us to forget God and take things into our own hands or even to curse God and die. Faith insists that God will send an angel in God’s time, an angel with a face or name we did not choose in a story we did not write.

God loves us and meets us everywhere, not just in liminal space. Yet, in liminal space we stand most ready to recognize miracles because preconceived props and plot lines do not obstruct our view any longer. Moreover, nobody gets so hopelessly lost that they land beyond God’s reach.

The Gospel of Luke tells of a man so far out and locked in liminal space that only a cosmic Houdini act could free him. A Gentile in the “country of the Gerasenes,” across the water from Galilee, this man lived like an animal, naked and unclean. He roamed where the people in town wanted him, far out in the graveyard. In those days, being alive meant being in community, and being dead meant being cut off. So he was a dead man among the dead.

Jesus left his familiar Jewish environment and crossed the water after the madman’s scent, going to great lengths to do the opposite of what the rest of the world did. Like Elijah’s angel, Jesus rushed into liminal space with the madman like a fool rushing in where angels fear to tred. He reached out to him, and in doing so, he brought him back to life, back to community, even though Jesus himself did not belong in the neighborhood.

Demons possessed this man, and it will not do to demythologize that point and say he had a severe mental illness because demons are real. You may not have paranoid schizophrenia or bipolar one disorder, but insidious voices whisper in your ear from time to time or all the time. They tell you that your love has been in vain and your life irrelevant or, at best, merely quaint to God. So you might as well take your life into your own hands without wasting time on God, without getting caught up in notions of God loving you. If you know those voices or voices like them, any voice leading you away from loving communion with God, you know demons too.

Rest assured Jesus rushes to your shore, to your liminal space, and when he arrives the demons in you may recognize him before you do. You will feel it in the rise of their noisy clamor. Faith welcomes Jesus anyway and lets him call the demons out. The Gerasene demoniac ended up dressed and in his right mind, while the demons fled into the herd of pigs who committed the suicide they barely missed making the Gerasene commit.

And as with Elijah, the question of calling came up with the Gerasene. He wanted to follow Jesus back across the water, away from the liminal space where he journeyed through madness. But unlike Elijah whom God called back to the road to finish the story of prophecy, Jesus told the Gerasene to stay home. He commanded him to tell his story of healing and hope to the people who just yesterday took comfort in leaving him among the dead. This call to stay was as hard or harder than Elijah’s call to hit the road, a calling to bear witness among suspicious neighbors.

Perhaps liminal space is a memory for you, perhaps something yet to come. Perhaps you dwell there right now. There your story breaks down and you realize that previously you saw only in a glass dimly. But when the Son finds you there, you see face to face. Then Christ beckons in a still, small voice as if to say, “Follow me, whether that means hitting the road or staying put, follow me, and bear witness to me with your life. Do not worry about your story. Listen for my telling of it. But for God’s sake, welcome me,” he seems to say, ”For love of God, welcome me, and never let me go.”

To listen to the sermon above, click here.

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  1. Michael Parnell

    A very nice sermon. I loved this line: “We tend to relegate God to a character in our stories when, in fact, we are characters in God’s.”


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