It’s waiting time in The United Methodist Church. Only one more week until General Conference 2019. I sense the tension, the increasing anxiety, the wondering. What will happen to The United Methodist Church? What will happen to my local church? How will God show up? Will the Holy Spirit move among us?
Sometimes I think we spend most of our life waiting. Waiting for our child to take his/her first steps. Waiting for school to start again after the summer. Waiting as a kid for our birthday to come. Waiting for our first appointment as a local church pastor. Waiting for medical test results. Waiting in airport security lines.
Waiting is a natural part of life. Whenever I think of waiting, I remember the times that I was pregnant. I had already settled into the waiting time when one of my pregnancies ended in a miscarriage. The other three pregnancies went full-term, and I still remember what the last month was like. I was huge, extremely uncomfortable, and felt like I was waddling rather than walking. I never knew whether I was going to have a girl or a boy, but I was always keenly aware that I was about to give birth to something new and that it would change my life forever.
Waiting is also a pattern in the Bible. Adam waits for Eve (Genesis 2). Noah waits for the flood to recede. Abraham waits for a son. Jacob waits to marry Rachel. Hannah waits for Samuel. The Israelites wait for deliverance. God’s people wait for a Messiah.
“But when the fulfillment of the time came, God sent his Son.” (Galatians 4:4) Jesus waits to begin his public ministry. We know that Good Friday leads to the Holy Saturday of waiting, which leads to the fullness of resurrection. The disciples wait for the Holy Spirit to be unleashed in Jerusalem.
The waiting time is often called liminal time. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin root, limen, which means “threshold.” The liminal space is that “crossing over” space, the “in between” time when we leave behind something old and anticipate something new. It’s a time of transition, when we’re on the move but not quite there yet.
I have always experienced liminal space as a rich time of anticipation and expectation as well as hesitation and ambiguity. When we wait, we often imagine our greatest hopes but at the same time admit our greatest fears. Liminal time can also be a space where we begin to let go so that something new can emerge. I remember when I was finishing my sixth year as a district superintendent and entered into the limbo of waiting for a new appointment. I knew in my mind that I had to leave the old behind and sit patiently in the waiting space, but my heart was often unsettled. During the months that I spent in liminal time, I learned that completely surrendering my life and ministry to God was the only way to be healthy and whole.
According to Franciscan Friar and popular Christian writer, Richard Rohr, “Some native peoples call liminal space ‘crazy time.’ I believe that the unique and necessary function of religion is to lead us into this crazy, liminal time. Instead, religion has largely become a confirmation of the status quo and business as usual. Religion should lead us into sacred space where deconstruction of the old ‘normal’ can occur.”
I suspect that many of us can look back at our lives and identify the crazy, liminal times when we felt as if we were walking in the dark, without a clue where our lives were headed. We are in such a waiting time right now. A week from now the special called General Conference will be in session in St. Louis. (February 23-26)
In a figurative sense, The United Methodist Church has been pregnant for the past several years and is now in labor. The Commission on a Way Forward was proposed by the Council of Bishops and approved by the 2016 General Conference to “do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.” Several plans will be among those in front of the delegates. General Conference will begin with a Day of Prayer on Saturday, February 23. This liminal space will bridge the waiting time and the three days of General Conference. Through prayer, you and I give ourselves completely to God, emptying our hearts of our own wants and desires to a God who makes all things new.
We also wrestle with who we are as the body of Christ, pregnant with hope and expectation. To what will The United Methodist Church give birth at General Conference? Over these past several years, how has God been leading us, with all of our strengths, passions, hurts, hope, dreams, and disappointments? How has this liminal time forced us to slow down, listen to one another, imagine what could be, and use our own brokenness to release grace and hope into our world?
As delegates discern in community which plan best expresses our Wesleyan passion for sharing Christ’s love and forming disciples of Jesus who go out into the world and make a difference, how will God speak to us in this liminal space? Just as a caterpillar emerges from the chrysalis, what will emerge from the “crazy time” of waiting? Can we focus intently on seeking God’s will at the same time as we acknowledge that love of God and neighbor lie at the heart of United Methodism?
I leave with you John O’Donohue’s poem For the Interim Time. (from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, 2008)
When near the end of day, life has drained
Out of light, and it is too soon
For the mind of night to have darkened things,
No place looks like itself, loss of outline
Makes everything look strangely in-between,
Unsure of what has been, or what might come.
In this wan light, even trees seem groundless.
In a while it will be night, but nothing
Here seems to believe the relief of darkness.
You are in this time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.
The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.
“The old is not old enough to have died away;
The new is still too young to be born.”
You cannot lay claim to anything;
In this place of dusk,
Your eyes are blurred;
And there is no mirror.
Everyone else has lost sight of your heart
And you can see nowhere to put your trust;
You know you have to make your own way through.
As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow confusion to squander
This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground,
That you might come free
From all you have outgrown.
What is being transfigured here is your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn.