Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Quiet Hope: Liminality

This is the second guest post in "A Quiet Hope," the first week of our season-long series called A Quiet Advent.

About the author: Christy McDougall describes herself as a 30-year-old female Pentecostal introvert from Montana. She has graduate degrees in theology and plans to teach continuing education to pastors and missionaries in Europe.

My memories of Advent from my childhood involve being given Advent calendars with chocolates behind each of the little doors by my Catholic relatives and being terribly excited about opening each day’s little door. That is the extent of my exposure to Advent for nearly thirty years. Though I was raised in a Christian home, we were Pentecostal and didn’t celebrate the Christian Year, except for the normal Christmas and Easter. As an adult, I simply didn’t think of it, because it wasn’t part of my culture.

Until two years ago, that is, when I read a short editorial about it in the Religion section of the Sunday paper, and suddenly Advent took on a great deal of significance. The very theological concept of it intrigued and excited me, because theological concepts do intrigue and excite me. My soul is enlivened when my mind is stimulated by some lovely theological idea, and the idea of Advent certainly did that. But it’s also become significant over the last two years because of the current situation I find myself in, a kind of perpetual Advent.

Advent is a state of waiting. It’s a short amount of time that symbolizes the whole history of the Jews waiting for their Messiah, the whole longing of creation for a Redeemer. This is the time where we sit back and wait as if we were old Anna and old Simeon, recognizing God’s promises that He is going to change everything for the better and yet not seeing how or when. The Jews waited for thousands of years, and we Christians join them during Advent in waiting for Christ, the Messiah, to be born and turn the world right-side-up again.

Advent is a state of liminality, and that is where I find myself these days. Liminality is a term used in anthropology to describe a state of in-between-ness, and I have in a way reframed it to my own context. To me it means the state of waiting between the promise and the fulfillment, the period of time that stretches out for seemingly eternity while you wait for something to happen. It’s Christmas Eve night when you were a child and couldn’t sleep all night for anticipation of the next day. It’s sitting in the hospital waiting to find out whether your loved one is going to make it or not. It’s the time of numbness between a death and the funeral, of waiting backstage for your cue to go on, so nervous you think you’ll throw up, of the hundreds of years between Isaiah prophesying that the virgin would conceive a son and name him God With Us and the time when Jesus was actually born. It’s Christians for the last two thousand years saying, “Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus” and not yet seeing it. It’s me, stuck between a call to missions and that undefined, tantalizing time in the future when I will be financially in the position to go do it.

Tantalizing, aggravating, frustrating…just waiting. Waiting and hoping. It’s a time for hope, this liminality, and for trust. Liminality gives us room to learn a quiet trust in our Father, who is not slow in keeping His promises. Isaiah, the prophet we quote most when it comes to Christmas, says, “You shall triumph by stillness and quiet; your victory shall come about through calm and confidence” (Isaiah 30:15, Jewish Publication Society version). We’ve been given promises by the God whose nature we trust; I’ve been given a call to missions by a God who has never broken faith with me. I think of this little piece of Hebrews, in between two verses: “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus…” (Hebrews 2:8c-9a). We see what God has already done, and that gives us room to grow in faith, hoping for a promised future we cannot yet see.

I am in a state of liminality, and Advent reminds me to hope that more is coming.