The 1983 blockbuster movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation” portrayed the adventures of a unique American family, and their summer road trip vacation. In the film, this Midwestern, suburban family led by Frank Griswold, (played by Chevy Chase) made a cross-country journey to “Wally World,” a fictional theme park that seemed a lot like a Disney World vacation spot.
As the family prepared for the trip, tensions were on the rise, tempers were short, and anticipation of the long journey ahead, overshadowed any dream of a joy-filled, relaxing, and fun vacation for which, they hoped to experience. Throughout the film, the family faced a lot of challenges: lost credit cards, terrible hotel accommodations, a major car breakdown, and a brief visit with some strange cousins. When they finally arrived at Wally World, things were not as they expected and as a result, the leisurely family vacation transformed into an escapade of criminal proportions.
This is one of those classic movies that many folks watch no matter how many times they have seen it before. Maybe it sparks a connection to a family vacation we remember. Maybe we connect with a silly story of a journey and its related pandemonium. Maybe we identify with our own life journeys. Maybe we understand what can happen when a group of folks on a journey to reach a particular destination, find themselves reluctant to change, unable to seek assistance from someone else, and powerless to choose a different route, an alternative path, or another mode of transport.
It makes me wonder what would have happened to the Griswolds, if they had just stopped their journey when they lost their credit cards, the car broke down, or they lost their luggage, and just called a friend for help. What if they had stopped at the local airport, bought tickets on the next flight to Wally World, and left the chaos behind. I wonder, would they have still made it to their final destination? Maybe the movie would have ended differently, maybe the chaos and uncertainty would have diminished, and quite possibly the vacation they dreamed of, would have come to fruition.
Long journeys are not always fun, because we are so focused on the destination, that we often ignore the reality of what is going on around us. Long journeys can be frustrating, because we are not in the comfortable space of where we were, and we are not yet where we would really rather be; we are somewhere in-between. Those in-betweens are the “liminal” places of life.
The desert journey of the people of Israel was one of those liminal places of life. Moses led the Israelites out of their bondage of slavery, and into a newfound freedom, and a new way of being. The liminal place, the long desert journey, as uncomfortable and often life-threatening as it appeared, was absolutely necessary, in order for them to be ready for what was to come later on. In the desert, the people had to wrestle with their identity as a community, they had to grapple with what they really needed to change in themselves, in order to become a new nation. Finally, they had to struggle with what they themselves had to do, not merely wait for God to intervene, but what they had to accomplish, in order for God’s will for them to be realized.
The story of the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert was not only about God’s demonstration of God’s benevolent power in action, it was a story of how a community of people had to take responsibility for the circumstances around them, and take action, so that God’s will for them would become a reality. In the Exodus story, God was moving an entire nation from slavery to the Promised Land, and it included a long journey that was difficult, awkward, and unsettling. It is in these liminal places of difficulty and unsettling reality that we grow, change, transform, and become better able to move forward; that is, if we accept reality, and partner with God in the changes, which God is making manifest in our midst.
God’s creation is not a static system that we can enter into and not expect change. Consider all the cycles in the universe; seasons come and seasons go. Science confirms that organic things evolve and adapt, weather systems are fluid and dynamic. The basic concept of the cosmos is that things move from one state, through a period of transition, and then into a new state. Change happens in this life, and the test of our faithfulness to God’s working in our lives is found in how we respond to those changes. Imagine when we find ourselves in these liminal situations and circumstances of life, what it would be like if we actually responded with a renewed commitment to pray for patience, encouragement, and the strength to seek a new way, which comes with the “in-between” places.
There was a small, rural town in Kentucky a few years ago that hired a city manager, fresh out of graduate school. The young woman came to her new position with lots of new ideas, endless energy, and sometimes imposing excitement. Like most of us doing something new for the first time, she made a few mistakes her first year. The new city manager, after several attempts to make changes, soon realized that there was going to be many difficult problems with which, she and the city council would be have to wrestle.
Homes were being sold left and right because families, frustrated with the lack of city identity and sense of mission, were moving further out into the suburbs and thus, revenues were declining. The spirit of service to the local residents beyond the urban area, which had been a core value of the city for years, had all but disappeared. The city, rather than shining as a lighthouse of possibilities and hope, became an island focused only on self-sufficiency, resulting in further isolation and decline. In the midst of all this change, the city council members were spiraling into hopelessness, putting their heads in the sand to the problems all around, and just waiting for a sign that God would intervene soon.
For this community, it was a time of uncertainty, doubt, stress, and yes, there were tensions. The young city manager at one of the council meetings decided it was time to cast a new vision, a new spirit of hope that would affect the community for years to come. She said, “We find ourselves in a desert place, where our city seems isolated, stuck in our own circumstances, and we have abandoned the people around us to whom we are called to serve.” She continued, “We can continue on this journey, self-absorbed, and without hope, or we can take action, seek outside assistance, reconnect with our suburban diaspora, and redefine our mission as a city.” An epiphany happened on that day, and the council realized that they had to do something, and take an active part in developing the future of the community. They realized that this change required the community to literally, prayerfully, and faithfully work toward a new way of being.
In a few years, the small town began to experience renewed life, simply because they agreed that God was doing a new thing there and they had to partner with God and respond. Others in the town began to catch the spirit of new ideas, energy and excitement and the earlier discomfort, doubt, stress, and tension became peace, hope, joy, and a sense of renewed cooperation. Together that little town has a new reality of revitalized life and peace and harmony and growth they had not seen in years.
Every day, we all live in the midst of the changes going on around us, and as fearful, uncertain, and tense as they may be, we must be reminded that the in-between times are a call for renewed energy, generous grace, expectant hope, and renewed celebration. Today, many of our churches find themselves in a state of liminality where communities endure feelings of powerlessness, fear, doubt, stress, and tension.
For many of us as individuals, and for all of us as communities of faith in times of transition, we must find a greater tolerance for discomfort, a renewed desire to explore fresh possibilities, a willingness to seek help from folks beyond our community, and a commitment to serve those folks outside our four walls. We can only do these things by remaining faithful to God and to each other. We must pray for patience, forbearance and grace as we live into this new thing the Spirit is doing right here and right now. There is a modified prayer found in our prayer book that is comforting and encouraging as we traverse these liminal places of life:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the pride and impatience that infects our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggles so we may accomplish your purposes on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP p. 815)
When we consider the desert sojourn of the Israelites, I wonder what would have happened if they merely decided to sit in the desert and wait for God to move them. They did not do that did they? They got up and walked, they moved, they traversed. The Israelites, under their own foot power, moved into the land promised by God. We can be assured that as we embark on these long arduous, challenging, and yes frightening journeys as communities of faith, we will face overwhelming obstacles. Through prayerful discernment, through visionary and prophetic planning, and through apostolic action with God, we can move from the desert places, the liminial places, the in-between places, and grow into the communities that God is calling us to become.
The local church, these wonderful faith communities serving the local community in which they are planted, are incarnational partnerships with God through which, we respond to the Spirit’s nudges to pray, hope, and yes, to act through word and deed, bringing about the Kingdom of God, right in the midst of the place we have been planted to serve.