To be in transition is to be in an in-between place – neither here nor there. Anthropologists and theologians call this ‘liminal’ space. For many of us, this can be a difficult time because we feel unsettled, uncertain, and insecure. Old rules no longer apply, but we may not be quite sure what the new rules are.
This happens in migration. As a temporary migrant pursuing my Ph.D. in the USA some years ago, I often felt like an outsider because my perspectives and ways (and accent!) did not match the expected norms of my host country. But in coming back to my home country after an extended time overseas, there was also a feeling that I did not fully belong to my native culture and community because the migration experience had changed me.
Nearly all of us experience transition and liminality at various points in our lives: being a student, the time after graduation, starting a new ministry, being in between jobs, having a new relationship, living in a new community, retirement. Whatever transitions we are going through, there are always challenges and difficulties.
Pushed to the Margins: It is easy to feel marginalized in these times of transition. Jung Young Lee (Marginality 1995) describes marginal people as poised ambivalently between two worlds. To be marginal is to be in the peripheries, where your voice is not heard and you are not often noticed. There is this feeling of being invisible, of nobody really knowing who you really are. That’s why transition can be a very humbling experience.
The Bible shows instances of marginality in the lives of individuals and the history of Israel. Most of these involved geographical movements and dislocations. Thus, we read of Abraham leaving Ur, with all its wealth, security and power, to embrace a new life as a pilgrim. Jacob spent many marginal years in Paddan-Aram with his relatives before returning to his family in Canaan. Moses lived as a ger, a sojourner in the margins of Midianite society. His in-between state came from being situated in the boundaries of the Midianite, Hebrew and Egyptian cultures. And there was Israel in Egypt, living a marginal existence under Pharaoh, without its own land, not yet a nation.
The wonderful thing about these stories of marginality is that the characters did not remain marginal. Instead, difficult periods became just a phase in a transitional period that led to their transformation. In these biblical stories, changes in location often involved and were accompanied by a separation from a past life and an embracing of a new identity. Abraham received a new name and, through the rite of symbolic death and circumcision, received a new identity. Jacob struggled with a mysterious person in the middle of the night and also received a new name, which marked a change in his identity. Israel the people went through a death-like experience in the Red Sea, but emerged as a new nation.
Making the Transition: Victor Turner (Ritual Process 1969) says that for transitions to be successfully negotiated, one must go through a rite of passage, which marks a significant point in the movement of an individual through life, such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death. Transitions can accompany any change of social place, status, maturity, socio-economic position, physical location, mental or emotional condition, health, etc.
A rite of passage is marked by three stages: first is separation, in which one says goodbye to the past life; second is the liminal stage, the period of transition; and the last is incorporation, in which one receives a new identity and status.
The hardest part is the liminal stage because it is here that one feels that life is going nowhere, one is invisible, everything is ambiguous, and one goes through a death-like experience as one says goodbye to past identity and status.
Listening in the In-Between: In Midian, Moses was neither here nor there, no longer a part of the structure of Egyptian court life or of the intimate relations of an Israelite clan or family. In the wilderness, among the sheep, he became a lowly shepherd of a flock that belonged to someone else. He was marginal. Moses, however, was not liminal in the sense that he was transitioning from one structure to another. Moses was content to dwell in Midian with his father-in-law, Jethro, and his wife and children. He was not going anywhere.
Moses was in this lowly, anonymous state when God appeared to him and communicated the mystery of His name. Without the encounter at the burning bush, Midian could have been the end point of Moses’ life. It was the call of God that made Midian into a liminal period and Moses into a liminal person. With the return to Egypt beckoning as a possibility, the marginal life in Midian became imbued with a transitional character, an in-between state between the Egypt of Moses’ upbringing and the Egypt of his prophetic calling. It was in this liminal space that Moses was transformed, receiving a new identity that enabled him to fulfill his role as God’s spokesperson to the Israelites.
Moses’ transformation became complete only after his mysterious encounter with the divine who threatened his life. Through this encounter, Moses had to die to his past life and embrace his Hebrew identity through the act of circumcision. Transitional periods can involve such painful choices and death-like experiences – when we say goodbye to what we were before and say yes to the possibilities of the future.
Returning home from my Ph.D. studies overseas, I had to go through such a liminal experience. Return migration requires a form of dying to some aspect of one’s old self, whether this was the self that existed prior to migration, or the self that has been formed by migration. “You can definitely go home again,” says Eula Grant, an African American who returned to the South after migrating to the North for many years. “You can go home. But you can’t start from where you left. To fit in, you have to create another place in that place you left behind” (quote from Carol Stack, Call to Home 1996).
The challenge for us is not to be stuck with being marginal. In our transition times, let us move from marginality to liminality. This means that we see this transition period as a place of potentiality, waiting patiently as God transforms us and leads us into new possibilities.