Liminal Space: Where Unseen Things are Seen
Based on Mark 9:2-9 and II Corinthians 4:3-7
A Message Offered by Toby Jones to the People of ChxUCC – 2/14/21
I had a couple of amazing grandmothers, women of deep faith, profound intelligence, and abundant love for their grandchildren. My mother’s mom – Doris Bailey Baker – was a totally amazing woman. She lived to be 99 years young and was of sound mind and body right up until the stroke that killed her.
On her last Christmas, she accompanied me to both Christmas Eve services I was leading that year at the Presbyterian Church in Harbor Springs. The later one wasn’t over until almost midnight, and she came home with me to spend the night. I assumed she’d want to get straight to bed, but instead we stayed up, had some tea, and talked till almost 2 in the morning. At one point, she asked me what I thought happened when we die, which was first clue that she knew her days on earth were numbered. This is what I said…
“A lot of people think of death as falling asleep, but I think of it as more like waking up. I think when we pass on from this world, our eyes are finally, fully opened, and suddenly we are able to see everything…everything that has always been there. I think death – and the waking up it leads to – is going to be pretty overwhelming and a little sad. The sad part will be coming to terms with all that we missed seeing throughout our entire lives – beautiful, amazing things that were right there in front of us all along. But we missed them because of the blinders we all wear without even realizing it.”
Grandma Doris died about 11 days later, so she now knows whether I was right or not. But today’s passages are two of the ones that have led me to my belief about what death is like, this waking up, this seeing what has been there all along. In the Mark passage, we have the account of the transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus goes up to a mountain top with Peter, James, and John, and on that mountain, the four of them are joined by two other Old Testament figures who have been dead for centuries – Moses and Elijah. Now on the one hand, this occurrence strikes the modern reader as a sort of miracle. I think that is how Peter, James, and John must have experienced it. Peter, in particular, is so struck by it that he wants to commemorate it somehow, memorialize it by building three structures. After all, it’s not every day that you get to see biblical greats like Moses and Elijah from a bygone era, right?
But what if it wasn’t a miracle but more of a glimpse, a preview of coming attractions? What if in this one, mountain top moment, Peter, James, and John were simply seeing what Jesus sees all the time – the past, the present, and the future all at once, the on-going and eternal lives of those we think of as “passed on.” What if all that really happened on that mountain of transfiguration was that the blinders that Peter, James, and John were going through life with were momentarily removed, stripped away?
My hunch is that many of us right here in this room have had moments when those who have passed on appeared to us in some fashion, whether in physical form, in a dream, in the sound of a voice, or just in a vague sense of their presence. We can’t explain such moments; we may not even want to talk about them, for fear that we’ll sound a little whacko. But make no mistake: such moments do exist.
Many spiritual and mystical writers talk about such experiences as taking place in “liminal space.” “Liminal” comes from a Latin word meaning “threshold” or “in between.” A liminal space is the time between what was and what is about to happen next. It’s a place of transition. According to one of my favorite theologians and spiritual practitioners Richard Rohr, “Liminal space is where all transformation takes place…where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone (in liminal space) our old world is left behind, while we are not yet sure of what our new existence will look like…Liminal space,” Rohr concludes, “is sacred space, where the old world is able to fall apart and a bigger world is revealed.”
So this is how I understand what took place on the mountain of transfiguration. I think those 3 disciples, who were privileged to go up there with Jesus, got a glimpse of what was there for them to be seeing all the time. Or we might say that they actually got to see – if only for a moment – what Jesus sees on a regular basis, because Jesus isn’t wearing the blinders that the rest of us wear.
Other spiritual writers, particularly from the Gaelic tradition, have spoken of liminal space as “thin places,” places where the divisions or barriers between life and death or between earth and heaven are particularly thin. One Gaelic spiritual website describes thin places as “places of energy, where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin, where one can walk simultaneously in two worlds – the worlds are fused together, knitted loosely…”
I was with my father when his long battle with lung cancer finally came to an end. I was by his side, holding his hand as he took his last breath. That place and that moment felt very thin to me. We were in liminal space to be sure, and we all felt like dad’s soul was taken up right before our eyes.
I guess what I’m trying to say this morning is that it might be a good idea for us to work on our vision, our way of seeing. What if we’re supposed to see and notice a lot more as we go through life than we are actually seeing? What if we’re missing moments of transcendence and transfiguration on a regular basis? Our second passage for the morning from II Corinthians 4 suggests that we are, saying, “our gospel is veiled; it’s veiled to those who are perishing,” for “the god of this age” – not God with a capital G but the god (little g) of this age – “has blinded the minds of people so that they cannot see the light of the gospel and the glory of Christ.”
Have you ever noticed just how much the New Testament talks about blindness? It’s all over the place! Jesus is constantly referring to the religious leaders of his day as “blind guides,” and he refers to people like us as those “who have eyes and yet do not see.” When Jesus said, “I came to open the eyes of the blind,” he wasn’t just talking about people who were literally blind. He was talking about us – ALL people – with “functioning” eyes who still manage to miss so much of what is right in front of us.
I mentioned earlier that I’m not sure that what happened on that mount of transfiguration was any sort of miracle. I don’t think Jesus experienced it as in any way miraculous, because I think he sees so clearly, so fully without blinders all the time. After all, Moses and Elijah are just people in his Father’s kingdom, right? If they’re living eternally why shouldn’t we “see” them? But Peter saw and experienced the Moses and Elijah thing as a miracle – as totally unprecedented and supernatural – because he is so blind. Peter, like most of us goes through his entire life seeing a tiny fraction of what is fully there to be seen. So what was his response to this mountain top experience? He wants to build permanent structures. He wants to memorialize the miracle. Peter doesn’t think he’s ever going to see anything like this again. But Jesus tells him not to build the structures precisely because Jesus knows that if Peter learns to see, to live his life without blinders on, he’ll see even more amazing stuff down the road.
The world Jesus lives in – and the world he wants Peter and ALL of us to live in – is filled with “thin places.” The world Jesus lives in and wants all of us to live in does not have fixed and firm boundaries and walls between life and death, heaven and earth, or even the past, the present, and the future. That’s why when Jesus taught about the kingdom of God, he emphasized that it’s right here…It’s among us. It’s not up there in some astral plane, that’s somehow unavailable to us until we die.
In Paul’s famous discourse on love in I Corinthians 13, he says that “now we see as in a mirror dimly.” Some translations say, “now we see as through a foggy glass,” but “one day,” Paul says, “we’ll see face to face…with total clarity.” Why wait until you die to get that kind of vision? Jesus didn’t. Jesus saw with that face-to-face clarity his entire life, and he came here so that we could too! We need to work on our vision, folks. We need to get better at seeing – not just what we’re used to seeing, not just what we want to see, not just the way we’ve always seen things. We need the wide-open eyes of Jesus, so that we might see through the thin places of our lives and of this world, so that we might see the transcendent and transfiguring moments happening every day. The kingdom of God is all around you…It’s here…It’s now…It’s all the time. You don’t have to die to see it. You have to live to see it. Amen.