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Liminality of Exile

For the next six weeks, I want to talk about the concept of exile. For all practical purposes we’ve been exiled from our “normal” lives since COVID-19 affects absolutely everything we do – or don’t do - these days. As a framework for our conversations about exile, I’m going to use the Exodus story of the Hebrews fleeing slavery in Egypt and living for 40 years in the desert before they reached the Promised Land.

Right now we pick up the story of Moses and the 600,000 Hebrew families as they reach the Red Sea pursued by Pharaoh’s army. The people are none too happy about this and we hear that:

They turned on Moses, asking, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you must lead us out to die in the desert? What have you done to us? Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Didn’t we tell you in Egypt ‘Leave us alone. Let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better to work for the Egyptians than to die here in the desert!”

But Moses told the people, “Don’t be afraid! Stand your ground and you will see the victory YHWH will win for you today.

Then Moses stretched his hand over the sea, and YHWH swept the sea with a strong east wind throughout the night and so turned it into dry land. When the water was thus divided, the Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land with the water walled up on their right and on their left.

The Egyptians followed in pursuit; all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and charioteers went after them into the midst of the sea. At dawn… YHWH told Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, and let the water flow back upon the Egyptians, over their chariots and their charioteers.”

I picture Moses and the Hebrews watching the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in awe, then celebrating the victory. We are told that Miriam, Moses’ sister led the women with her tambourine (interesting thing to bring along) in song and dance. Then the next day they turned their backs on the river, faced an unknown wilderness before them and wondered what next? Where were they going? How far was it? How would they survive? When would they get there?

The Hebrews had lived in Egypt for 430 years. They knew no other land. In a very real way they were now exiles from all they had called home.

This place of exile is a place of liminality. An in-between place where one is not here nor there. A place between what used to be and what is yet to come. It reminds me very much of the liminality of this pandemic time. I had no clue on March 3 that when I got on a plane to Mexico for vacation that it would be 6 months before I would be preaching to you again in-person. Life has changed dramatically in ways most of us couldn’t have imagined when we rang in the New Year. Now we find ourselves in this weird in-between place.

Richard Rohr once wrote, “We often enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed… During this graced time we are not certain or in control. This openness allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive – an erased tablet waiting for new words… Much of the work of authentic spirituality and human development is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough that they can learn something essential and new… “

There are many gifts to be found in liminal space. And that will be our calling and our challenge in the weeks to come. Rohr is right that we don’t like uncertainty, we don’t like change. And yet, as part of the spiritual journey we sometimes exile ourselves -  we go on retreats and pilgrimages and mission trips – to find liminal space that takes away all the comfort of the known and creates an opportunity for openness to something new, something born of the Spirit.

Parker Palmer, in his book, “Let Your Life Speak,” shares a story about a liminal space on a week-long Outward Bound program. “In the middle of the week, he faced the challenge he had feared most – rappelling down a 110 foot cliff. In the middle of his fearful climb down the cliff he froze, paralyzed with fear, when faced with a huge hole that he would somehow have to go around.

The instructor on the ground left him hanging there trembling, in silence for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, she shouted up these helpful words: “Parker, is anything wrong?”

In a high, squeaky voice, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Then,” said the instructor, “it’s time that you learned the Outward Bound motto.”

“Oh, keen,” he thought. “I’m about to die and she’s going to give me a motto!”

But then she shouted ten words he vowed to never forget: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it!”

The words were so compelling that they seemed to bypass his mind and move right to his legs. No one would come to rescue him, no helicopter would fly up and take him down, there was no parachute on his back. There was no way out of it except to get into it. His feet started to move and in a few minutes he was safely down.

Sometimes a liminal space is thrust upon us when there is a death, a job loss, a major change in your life, an illness, a pandemic. We can spend time lamenting like the Hebrews did to Moses, or we can allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear, but neither will get us anywhere. We’re not getting out of it. The only solution is to get into it.

Embrace this liminal space as a place of learning and growth. Consider this an at-home retreat and a pilgrimage into your soul. Be excited to explore what is within you. Or take up a new hobby, something you’ve always wanted to try.

The spiritual questions to ask ourselves are: What will we learn about ourselves during this time? Who do we want to be when it is over? What kind of friend will we be? What kind of parent or son or daughter or grandparent will we be? What will we have learned about ourselves?

I guarantee you that this liminal time is full of spiritual opportunities and possibilities just waiting to be found if you haven’t found them yet. Just get into it!

Love & Light!