Living in Liminal Times

Rev. Tina Cansler Clark – July 8, 2012

Opening Words

From Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

“Who are you?” said the caterpillar…

“I –I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” Alice responded rather shyly, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”



Since my last sermon was about coping with difficult, painful change in our lives—and was almost
immediately followed by the life changing event of a house fire, I thought I would talk today about
winning the lottery—hitting the BIG jackpot—just to see if that might happen to me next week!

Last time I was in this pulpit was April 29. My sermon title was “The Times, They Are A’
Changing,” and I talked about the opportunities that we are offered in the chaos of change. That
was Sunday.

A mere 56 hours later—on Tuesday—after buying a sleeper sofa and having dinner with my
mom, I went home, walked in my front door and discovered a heavy, hazy fog hanging in my
living room. It was so strange looking, that haze. At first, I had no idea what it was—then I
smelled it! It was smoke and I realized there was a terrible fire somewhere in my house.

My first thought was “It’s the laundry room! The dryer must be on fire!” I started toward the
laundry room and then remembered our dogs in Nikki’s room, and knew I needed to get them out
first. I went to Nik’s door, yelled for the dogs and tried to open the door. I couldn’t even open it
enough to get my fingers in the door. I knew it had to be the body of my beautiful 10-year-old
Golden Retriever blocking the door. I frantically called 911, told them I had a house fire and that
my dogs were inside. The firemen were there in less than 4 minutes, but our sweet Marley and
Simon were already dead.

Two hours later, the fire was completely extinguished and most of the firemen were gone. I
looked at one of the firemen and said, “What do I do tomorrow morning? I don’t even know what
to do now.” His answer to me was “When you wake up in the morning, call your insurance
agent—they will tell you what to do.” When we finally got to my mom’s house about 11:30 that
night, Nik looked at me and said, “Mom, I don’t even have any underwear!” She’d been
swimming with friends and came home in her swimsuit. Everything she owned was gone.

On Tuesday, May 1 at 7:31 pm—I know because I pulled up in the driveway and looked at the
clock in my car and realized I was 30 minutes late for feeding the dogs their dinner—56 hours
after delivering a sermon on the chaos of change– I found myself trying to hold on as the tornadic
winds of change about which I spoke on that Sunday blew my way.

The fire not only killed our dogs, but totally destroyed Nikki’s room and all of her possessions. We
also had to replace all of our upholstered furniture, mattresses and pillows and the entire interior
of the house had to be washed down, painted with a coat of Kilz, repainted and floors redone due
to smoke and soot damage. Nikki’s room had to be stripped down to the studs and completely
rebuilt. We were out of the house for almost 2 months.

I’m happy to tell you that we just moved back home 3 days ago. We aren’t yet settled, but we are
in. I am looking very forward to having Beth come and offer a Blessing on our repaired home and
Nikki and I are so happy to be home.

It was this experience that compelled me to write an epilogue to the April 29th sermon. I wanted to share some of my feelings, thoughts and experiences related to the fire, but I also wanted to
weave my experience of huge change and transition into the changes facing our own High Street
community. Even though the fire brought chaos, loss and disorientation to our lives, it also
brought many gifts of insight and opportunities for growth—gifts that can only be received in times
of transition and liminatlity.

In April, I talked about Liminal Time. The concept of liminal time was developed by a Scottish
anthropologist named Victor Turner in the mid to late 20th century. His work explored the
importance of rituals in the social processes of different cultures and he spent a great deal of time
with the Ndembu people of what is today Zambia. . His original thinking about ritual grew out of
his interaction with the Ndembu, although he later expanded his ideas of ritual process to other
indigenous cultures, modern and ancient, and to western industrialized culture as well.

Turner said that liminal time is that time “betwixt and between”—a time that is fraught with
danger, but also rich with opportunities. Let me share with you some of how I spent my recent
liminal time.

First, I was impatient. I wanted to skip right over the time-consuming reconstruction process and
get back to my wonderful home. I struggled with what felt like a snail’s pace of the reconstruction.

I went to the house every day and would despair on the days when there were no workers there.

I wanted to completely forget that we ever had a fire—just plow right through and move on. I
resisted being where I was called to be. I didn’t want to deal with the grief after the fire—which is
a funny thing because in my work as a hospice chaplain, I spend LOTS of time telling people to
with their losses—to be patient with their grief.

On days when I would feel particularly impatient, I would work in my newly planted flower garden,
nurturing my plants and watching them grow and flourish. I spent time taking care of my beehives
and harvesting lots of honey. And I realized that I was able to do all that because I had the gift of
time—I wasn’t spending time having to clean a house, or buy groceries or any of the other daily
tasks of home life. I didn’t have to hurry through my gardening or beekeeping—I could dawdle
and linger on the tasks I loved without neglecting others.

Another of the gifts of my liminal time was the gift of LOVE, LOVE, LOVE. The kindness,
concern, and generosity of my neighbors, coworkers and High Street friends was overwhelming
and humbling. I had friends sit with me during the fire, my neighbors held a cookout on our behalf,
so many cards and letters came with gifts for Nikki and me, beloved friends brought gifts. I don’t
think I have ever so deeply appreciated the words, “We’re holding you in the Light,” or “I’m
praying for you,” or “I’m so sorry that this happened,” or “I have some clothes that Nikki can
wear.” We were surrounded by loving arms that held us and loved us. I developed a much
deeper sense of connectedness with my neighbors, my friends here at High Street and my
coworkers. The experience of being so very loved was a transcendent one—it centered me and
brought me back to my Center and into a sense of the presence of Holiness.

During the weeks following the fire, I had a couple of very interesting dreams. Let me tell you
about one of them. The first week or so after the fire, I was unable to sleep at all. I would close
my eyes and my brain would start thinking about everything that had to be done. I was
completely overwhelmed. How do I do such massive shopping at once? How do I buy new
furniture, new bedding, new clothes, new kitchen supplies all at once? The enormity of the entire
project made me feel small and inadequate. Then– I had this dream. I was standing outside in a
roaring storm—there was thunder, lightening and heavy rain—and I was holding a bucket. For
some strange reason, I’d been tasked with the job of catching all the raindrops in my bucket and
as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t do it. As I stood with my bucket, despairing, in the torrential rain, I
began to see shadowy forms through the heavy veil of rain. As I looked harder, I began to see
that the shadowy forms were all the people in my life, standing in the storm with me, holding
buckets of their own, helping me with the overwhelming task of catching the raindrops. When I
woke up the next morning and remembered the dream, I KNEW that I would find a way to get
through everything that needed to be done because of the love and support of all those who love
me, helping me hold this struggle that seemed so overwhelming when I thought I had to hold it
alone. That dream was a gift in the midst of liminal time. It said to me, “The Divine thread of Love
surrounds you and holds you and connects to all of Life.”

As I mentioned earlier, I share these stories of the weeks after the fire because I believe that they
correlate with the transition facing us here at High Street. Our liminal time may not have been
preceded by a tragedy like a fire, but we are facing a seismic change here in our church—we are
entering a liminal time that will offer challenges and struggles, but also brings gifts and
opportunities for growth if we do the work we need to do.

In April, I mentioned a fella named William Bridges who has spent his life helping people and
organizations through transitions. He is a world-renowned speaker and consultant and past
president of the Association of Humanistic Psychology. His work dovetails nicely with that of
Victor Turner’s idea of liminality.

Bridges says, “It isn’t the change that will do you in, it’s the transitions. Change is not the same as
transition. Change is situational—a new site, new boss, new policy. [And in our case, new
minister.] Transition is the psychological [and I would add ‘spiritual] process people go through to
come to terms with the new situation. Change is external. Transition is internal.”
We here at High Street have already had an external change—last Sunday was Rhett’s final
Sunday in the pulpit as our settled minister. The change has happened. NOW it’s time for us to
begin the internal process of transition. It’s time for us to do the work required of us in this time of

Bridges says that the process of transition requires 3 tasks—that a person maneuvers each of
these three areas:

  1. Endings
  2. The Neutral Zone
  3. New Beginning, which we will only look toward today.

First, let’s start at the END.

TS Elliot said, “What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a
beginning. The end is where we start from.”

It’s seems strange that most of us do endings so badly, especially since we deal with them all of
our lives. We tend to either see them as something final, to be dreaded or as something to be
pushed aside as we plow toward a new beginning—or we hold onto to something that begs to be
let go.

In one of his books, Bridges shares this story:

“Once there were two monks who were traveling through the countryside during the rainy season.
Rounding a bend in the path, they found a muddy stream blocking their way. Beside it stood a
lovely woman dressed in flowing robes. ‘Here,’ said one of the monks, ‘let me carry you across
the water. And he picked her up and carried her across. Setting her down on the further bank, he
went on along in silence with his fellow monk to the abbey on the hill. Later that evening, the
other monk said suddenly, ‘I think you made an error, picking up that woman on our journey
today. You know we are not supposed to have anything to do with women and you held one close
to you! You should not have done that!’ ‘How strange,’ remarked the other monk, ‘I carried her
only across the water. You are carrying her still.’”

This story teaches us that endings must be dealt with if we are to move on to whatever comes
next in our lives—personally and congregationally here at High Street as well. Endings are a
clearing process that allow for new growth to begin. Bridges says endings cry out to be ritualized
and savored and reflected upon in order to bring positive meaning to them. Instead, they often
become simply events that we tend to move beyond as quickly as possible, always trying to grab
the new beginning.

We need to honor and recognize our ending here at High Street. Yes, we said goodbye to Rhett
and honored him in a very fitting way. But that was HIS ending. Now, Rhett is gone and we are
here, in this liminal space on the first Sunday without Rhett as our minister. How we deal with our
ending and this transition will determine the direction and growth potential of our community.

When we first began to discuss Rhett’s retirement, there were several different opinions on
whether we should have an Interim Minister or move straight to looking for a settled minister. I
believe we made a wise choice in moving to bring in an interim minister—and not just for one
year, but for two. Rhett was with us for 8 years—we have to deal with the ending of his time with
us before we can look to a new beginning with a new minister. And that is the job of the interim
minister—to help us look at ourselves honestly and to determine who we are, who we want to be
and how we will get there.

Bridges tells us that endings have several steps: disengagement, disenchantment,
disidentification, and disorientation.

In ancient stories, the theme of disengagement is found frequently: Jesus made a 40 day journey
into the desert; Theseus leaves the familiar world and journeys to Athens; Jonah flees his
vocation and heads to the sea; Oedipus leaves home to avoid a fate that he ends up meeting
along his way; and Siddhartha leaves his life of luxury to sit under a Bodhi tree.

As difficult as it may seem, we here at High Street are being called to disengage ourselves from
the way we have operated in the past and to realize that endings may be symbolic events—
signals that a time of transition is beginning.

Disenchantment –the second step of ending—requires us to look at things as they really are—to
remove the way we viewed things in the past. Life is a series of disenchantments—we discover
there is no Santa Claus, someone hurts us or is unfaithful, friends let us down— ministers retire.

Bridges says, “A disenchanted person recognizes the old view of how things were done as being
sufficient in its time, but insufficient for now.”

Is is that what has worked for us here at High Street that may no longer be sufficient for us? That
is the question that is begged of us as we maneuver this ending.

Disidentification is the third step in the process of ending, according to Bridges. In this step, we
break our old connections with the world around us and we lose our way of identifying ourselves.

We are no longer High Street UU Church with a settled minister who was known and respected
all over town. We are High Street UU Church who has lost our minister due to his well-deserved
retirement and who is awaiting the arrival of our interim—the name of whom is not even known by
alot of us yet. Our letterhead has to be changed, our website has to be changed, our order of
service cover will have to be changed—we will be required to disidentify ourselves from who we
have been for almost a decade. It’s important during this time of ending that we work on
loosening the bonds of who we think we are so that we can go through a transition toward a new
way of being—a new identity.

Disorientation is the final part of the Ending process. Look around this sanctuary—the beautiful
stained glass is the same as it was last Sunday; the order of service is in the same format; we
sing from the same hymnal; Elise’s art still adorns our walls—all things seem to appear to be the
same. Yet this is a very different place than it was last Sunday. Last Sunday, we still had a settled
minister. We KNEW who we were last Sunday. We knew what to expect. Yes, things look the
same, but are indeed very different.

The strongest experience of disorientation I’ve ever known was in the days and weeks following
the death of my husband. Everything looked the same—my house was the same, my children
looked the same, I still bought groceries at the same Kroger in Newnan—yet I had a very real
feeling that someone had picked me up and put me on a planet that looked exactly like the one I
used to live on, but it wasn’t the same at all. Everything seemed strange and new and frightening
and unfriendly.

Disorientation is not an enjoyable process—or one that invites embrace. Yet we must face it
because THIS IS THE WAY through transition. We must have faith in the death and rebirth
process. We may feel a vacuum here at High Street as we cope with areas that were traditionally
those dealt with by Rhett. We may miss knowing that we have a pastor on the ready who knows
us and our families and our stories—knows how to care for us in our vulnerabilities and struggles
and our griefs and our joys. We may feel abandoned. Our job will be to remind ourselves to BE
WHERE WE ARE and to FEEL WHAT WE FEEL. It’s part of the process.

Bridges tells us that after we move through the disengagement, disenchantment, disidentification,
and disorientation of endings, we move next into the Neutral Zone. He describes this as a time of
emptiness between the old and the new—what Victor Turner describes as liminal time—“between
and betwixt time.” It’s this neutral zone that brings chaos to us. “Chaos is not a mess, but rather it
is the primal state of pure energy to which we return for every true new beginning.” It’s only from
the perspective of the old that the chaos is frightening—if we haven’t dealt with our endings, we
will be fearful of the chaos of the neutral zone.

In his book, Rites of Passage, French folklorist Arnold van Gennep says: “Although a body can
move though space in a circle at constant speed, the same is not true of biological or social
activities. Their energy becomes exhausted, and they have to be regenerated at more or less
close intervals. The rites of passage ultimately correspond to this fundamental necessity.”

High Street is in the midst of a rite of passage—we are moving from what we have known and
what Is familiar to a new identity—one that is yet to be developed—we are in liminal time.
Victor Turner tells us that “Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and
between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.” Yes,
we are in liminal time, but we are here together.

Turner emphasizes the transformational capacity of the liminal space. In the process of coming
into contact with sacred and arcane understandings our inmost natures are deeply changed.

Following the initiating practices in the liminal space, the initiate returns back to the everyday
world, but changed by the experience and living in the everyday world in a different way.

Arising out of liminal space is the phenomenon of “communitas,” a key concept developed early
on in his classic work The Ritual Process. According to Turner, communitas refers to a collective
experience that becomes possible when a whole group of people cross a threshold and together
enter liminal time and space, an in-between time that is neither past nor present, and a space that
is neither here nor there. In this threshold space, they experience a bond, and it is not like any
bond they may experience in their ordinary structured lives. Victor Turner describes, what is
sought in communitas:

“It is not effortless companionship that can arise between friends, coworkers, or professional
coworkers any day. What they seek is a transformative experience that goes to the root of each
person’s being and finds in that root something profoundly communal and shared” (Turner, 1969,
p. 138).

Communitas is not the same as community. Communitas is a process where no one is
marginalized, because everyone is on the margin. It is a transitory period of transformation, which
enables group members to return to their way of living in dramatically new ways. So communitas
is not simply social interaction, it is not simply belonging to a group. Implied in communitas is a
social and a soulful connection.”

That’s what we are seeking here at High Street as we enter this liminal period together—
communitas—a social and soulful connection. And I very much agree with Turner that this sense
of communitas cannot fully develop without ritual—ritual that is shared and understood by the
entire group. Meaningful ritual that is connected to their social construct and that brings us
through our time of endings, into the neutral zone—and gives us hope that we will come through
all of this into a healthy new beginning.

Yes, we are in liminal time here at High Street—but again—we are in it together. To honor our
period of transition, I would like to offer a ritual of passage. Liminality is derived from the Latin
word La-men, which means “threshold.” We are standing at the threshold of something new
here at High Street, but we must first deal honestly with our endings and then be willing to enter
the neutral zone before we embrace our beginning with strong emotional and spiritual strength.

So here’s what I’m going to ask us to do to ritualize this threshold at which we find ourselves. I
am going to lay a threshold down here on the platform and then I will lead us in a reading of our
High Street Vision Statement. (I’ll read a line and then you repeat it back responsively.) Following
the reading of the Vision Statement, I’d like to invite everyone to line up, come to the platform,
step across this threshold and return to your seat.

Here’s our vision statement—I will read a line and you repeat after me in unison:

We at High Street Church commit ourselves to…..

  • Welcoming all people who share our values into our community of faith and hope.
  • Offering persons of all ages opportunities to learn and to grow.
  • Embracing diversity, believing that everyone deserves a place where they feel safe, honored and
  • Living our faith through works that positively transform ourselves, our community and our world.
  • Giving a home and a voice to religious liberalism in Middle Georgia.
  • Celebrating passages and milestones of our individual lives and our common work.

This is the working vision of our faith community. To this we pledge our best efforts and gifts.

As you wait to cross the threshold, I encourage you to meditate upon who we are and to think
about the work we must do together as we move through our endings into the neutral zone of
transition. How do we let go of who we were to become who we will be? What are the endings we
must face? How will we deal with the creative energy of the chaos of liminal time?

Crossing of the threshold.

So here we are—we have crossed over the threshold together into a time of liminality.

Now, I want to invite you to repeat our Vision Statement once more, knowing that, even though
you are still in the same place you were a few moments ago—with everything appearing to be the
same it has been for many years—knowing now that it is indeed a new and different place than it
was last week—and even than it was just a few moments ago when we were yet to cross the
threshold of transition. The creative chaos of transition is now whirling around us. Let us repeat
our Vision Statement with the strength and conviction of one who has crossed the threshold to a
journey that will end in the creation of a new beginning:

We at High Street Church commit ourselves to…..

  • Welcoming all people who share our values into our community of faith and hope.
  • Offering persons of all ages opportunities to learn and to grow.
  • Embracing diversity, believing that everyone deserves a place where they feel safe, honored and
  • Living our faith through works that positively transform ourselves, our community and our world.
  • Giving a home and a voice to religious liberalism in Middle Georgia.
  • Celebrating passages and milestones of our individual lives and our common work.

This is the working vision of our faith community. To this we pledge our best efforts and gifts.
Yes, we are in liminal time. But the people sitting next to you, in front of and behind you have
crossed that threshold with you. Let us draw on that soul connection—our communitas—to bring
us through our ending and the chaos of our transition into something new and strong and Light

May it be so. Amen.

Sources cited:

Bridges, William. Making Sense of Life’s Transitions (1980)
Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (1991)
Turner, Victor. Internet research.