I’m a sucker for training montages in movies. The clip from Rocky hits me in the heart every time. How are you not inspired by watching it? He runs the streets of Philly, spars with slabs of meat, does one armed pushups, and climbs the iconic stairs at the end of the scene. Watching it leaves you on a high. Wait—Rocky is a little too old school for you? Pitch Perfect is another great example. The Bellas come together to train for glee club glory. They run the auditorium stairs (or run horizontally, if you’re Amy), hone their pitch and tone, learn how to walk in heels, and swear off dating – all in the pursuit of perfection. A competition is upcoming for both Rocky and the Bellas. A new status and a new glory is within reach, but is not guaranteed. The question lingers over their training, “Will they become champions and legends, or will they settle into something less”?
We are in the middle of a massive cultural shift. COVID-19 has created a lot of questions for us. The world is changing. It’s not what it was. And it is not yet what it will be. This chaos gives us a sense of disorder and unease. Our lives before the pandemic have been completely disrupted, and it’s still hard to imagine what they will look like beyond this season of upheaval.
Anthropologists have given a name to these transitional moments of our lives: liminal space. It originates from the latin word limina which means threshold, and is used to describe the in-between times that extend between two identities. This title was first attributed to coming of age rituals such as a bar/bat mitzvah, where one is not a boy and also not yet a man; not a girl and not yet a woman. These young people are on the threshold of a new identity but are not yet there.
Liminal seasons are common in a person’s life and are often caused by moments of hardship: the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or the rapid spread of a pandemic. These disasters make it impossible for us to continue living normally. For example, COVID-19 dissolved many of the boundaries that once helped to define our daily routine. Working or learning from home blurs the lines between work life and home life, responsibility and freedom. Our time and habits demand to be rethought. The lack of structure brings into question how we see ourselves and how we should live. We find ourselves not who we were, and not yet who we will be. This is liminality, the wavering or lingering between two set identities.
God used liminal space throughout the story of scripture to shape the people he loves. Take the Israelites in the desert for example. They were freed from slavery but wandered without a new identity. They were no longer slaves, but not yet family. This fluid in-between time provided God the opportunity to establish a new way of life for them. At Sinai, he inaugurated his law and his rule in their community. The Israelites restructured their shared routines around God’s practices/presence, which brought them into a new standing, as the nation and family of God.
COVID-19 is a tragedy. Many lives have been lost and the disruptions facing individuals, families, communities, and institutions are real. But it’s also an invitation, and the Christian tradition has always viewed adversity this way. Each of us finds ourselves in a liminal season and— as was the case for the Israelites in Exodus —it was brought on by crisis. We can learn how to handle this time well from our movie montage heroes, Rocky and Beca (the lead Bella). Hardship brought them into liminality; Rocky was broke and Beca was helplessly alone. They treated these crises as opportunities to train for a new position. In a similar way, the liminal space in which we find ourselves today gives God an unprecedented chance to reshape our patterns, and to mold us into something new.
Here are three steps we can take to establish new rhythms, and a new identity, in liminal space:
1. Resist anxiety and embrace silence: The pace of our lives have slowed to a standstill. Throughout the years we have used business to mask our fears and anxieties. Let your feelings rise to the surface and give them to God in prayer (Yes! That means turning off the tv and putting down your phone). Allow God to speak direct words, affirmations, and new identity over you. Let a fresh vision for the future arise out of stillness.
2. Make a list of your values: God may speak to you about the person he is calling you to be. What are the traits needed to become that person? If God is urging you to get your finances in order, then write that down as a value. If he is asking you to become a leader in your family, then take note of that. The important thing is to recognize God’s direction, and to translate that into concrete values which you can prioritize.
3. Set your schedule around your values: The flexibility of quarantine gives you the chance to build your schedule around your convictions. Take the list of values, and on Sunday night, schedule your whole week around them. This transforms a haphazard time of life into a kairos moment.
Liminal space is an invitation to establish your habits around your convictions. Social distancing, if handed over to God, may set your life trajectory in a new divine direction.