Liminal Space

February 2011

St Mary's Upton Magazine Article by Graeme


Don't Waste a Crisis"

As I have mentioned earlier, I read many different articles and books on my study leave last Autumn. I found something written by the well known author John Ortberg and continued his train of thought. I'd like to share it with you.

John Ortberg
"Don't Waste a Crisis"

He starts "I once was part of a survey on spiritual formation. Thousands of people were asked when they grew most spiritually, and what contributed to their growth. The response was humbling - at least for someone who works at a church." The number one contributor to spiritual growth was not

  • transformational teaching,
  • being in a small group,
  • reading deep books,
  • energetic worship experiences,
  • finding meaningful ways to serve,
  • ...it was suffering.


"People said they grew more during seasons of loss, pain, and crisis than they did at any other time. I immediately realized that, as a church, we had not even put anybody in charge of pain distribution! ...However, pain does not automatically produce spiritual growth...Crisis can lead to soul strength, but not if the soul is starved of other nutrients, and not apart from certain responses."

Of course that is when books, transformational teaching, small groups and worship come in. Ortberg then links the crisis situations to how we as a church and individuals can walk with a person in pain.

He continues, "When someone is in crisis, don't start by teaching or explaining. Just be with. We do not need answers or formulas to minister in crisis. Nicholas Wolterstorff is a brilliant Yale philosopher whose 25-year-old son died in a mountain-climbing accident. His book 'Lament for a Son' is as searingly painful and beautiful as any book on suffering I know. He points out that what we need - even more than we need answers - is Presence. Wolterstorff writes that what has moved him deeply is the Presence of the Crucified One who chooses to suffer with suffering people."

When I read this in Ortberg's article, I was immediately hooked as Wolterstorff's book has been a huge inspiration to Philippa and myself. We have read it several times.

It has become increasingly clear to me that crisis points in our lives are, or can be, moments of growth, even if numbingly painful at the same time. Leaving home, losing a job, becoming a parent, retiring... are 'liminal moments' too.

Liminal come from the Latin word 'limen' (meaning threshold) and has been defined as "in-between situations and conditions that are characterized by the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty regarding the continuity of tradition and future outcomes"... or in plain English, moments of vulnerability when you are not certain what will happen next.

Depending on who we are and what we have learnt, we will all react and respond differently. Often we go one of two ways making us either 'bitter or better'. The choice is ours, neither is easy.

I have also been reading a Franciscan author and activist called Richard Rohr (who often speaks at Greenbelt). He writes, "Liminal space is the ultimate teachable moment. In liminal space we choose the chaos of the unconscious over the control of explanations and answers".

I guess for me it is often as I look back on the threshold moments, rather than when I am in the midst of them, that I can begin to 'feel' the acceptance to some of my unanswerable questions like, "Why did God allow this to happen?" "Were my prayers not effective?" I use the words 'feel and acceptance' over 'think and answers' deliberately.

As I reflect on liminal moments in my life, I find that I have not been alone, that God has been there too, and that God understands and feels with me, and that God doesn't fill my mind with words to 'make it all right'. God's reassuring presence can be enough, although I have still continue to question. In this, I learn and I grow.