In the early 1800s, American adventurers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, a parcel of land which extended US sovereignty and nearly doubled the size of the country as it was at the time.
The hope had been to find a waterway that went right across the country to the Pacific Ocean, and it had been commonly accepted by experts for about 300 years that this would likely be an extension of the mighty Missouri River. There was little doubt that the waterway was there – it just had to be found.
There were years of preparation before the expedition set off. Then, after 15 months of extremely difficult travel and a lot of canoeing, Lewis and Clark and their team arrived at a promising hill. Lewis’s journal makes it clear that as he contemplated the hill in front of him, he fully expected that the next morning when they walked to the top they would strap their canoes to their backs, take a half-day hike and find a navigable river that would take them all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Crest the hill, find the water and canoe to the finish line. What Lewis and Clark saw when they crested the hill was what we now know as the Rocky Mountains – more than 4,800 kilometres of mountain ranges! What lay ahead of them was nothing like they had expected, prepared for and planned to navigate. They had canoed upriver to this point and had expected to canoe on into the new world. But how do you canoe over mountains? Well, you don’t, do you? As Lewis and Clark looked at the Rocky Mountains so unexpectedly laid out in front of them, it seemed that their adventure was done. They would make their report to the President and he would no doubt send another expedition team better equipped for mountain ranges to find a way to the Pacific Ocean. This is not what Lewis and Clark did. Lewis notes in his journal that they “proceeded on”. I read the story of Lewis and Clark in Canoeing the Mountains – Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger, who uses it as a rather brilliant metaphor for some of the current challenges facing the Christian church. In many ways, churches in the western world are standing at the top of a hill looking at a seemingly endless set of rugged mountain ranges which we really didn’t expect to see.
Standing there, our canoes can feel rather heavy and even foolish! Without a doubt we are living in a world that is changing rapidly and this can be an unsettling place to be. As Mark McCrindle and Ashley Fell write in Generation Alpha – Understanding Our Children and Helping Them Thrive, “Change is not unique to this era, but the speed, size and scope of the change that defines our current times is truly unprecedented (we know because, according to our research, ‘change’ was one of the most overused words in 2020)!” Some of us thrive on change but for many of us it can be overwhelming, exhausting and disconcerting. For most of us it is very uncomfortable to live in the neither here nor there places; to live in what are called ‘liminal spaces.’ In her book, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Susan Beaumont explains that the Latin origins of the word ‘liminal’ come from the word ‘limen’, which means the stone at the threshold of a door you must physically step on to cross from one space into another. Beaumont also reminds us that human beings naturally respond in one of two ways to threshold places. We either bind up our anxiety by throwing all our energy into going back to what is familiar, or we rush forward to a future still undefined and unknown. The old story of the exodus of the Israelite people is a great example. They were either waxing lyrical about how wonderful Egypt was and wishing they could go back, or they were on at Moses demanding he get them to the new place quickly! Like Lewis and Clark and the Israelites, we all stand at thresholds many times in our lives – starting school, adolescence, finishing school, new jobs, new homes, new friends, changing health, parenting, death, relational breakdown, empty nesting and more. In fact, Christian faith itself is a threshold experience, isn’t it? Susan Beaumont writes, “The Christian story is, by design, an invitation into liminality. The hoped-for reign of God is already inaugurated in the figure of Jesus Christ, but not yet complete … We are already redeemed, but the fulfilment of that
redemption will not be complete until the end times when Christ returns. Our theology frames an identity for us of a semi-permanent liminality.” As local churches we stand at a threshold. This is true both generally in terms of God’s story and specifically in terms of the cultural changes sweeping through our country and much of the world. So how do we steady ourselves so that we can live well and wisely in this in-between space? Not rushing back to the comfort of what is familiar nor hastily forward to what is yet unknown? Perhaps by remembering again what it is that shapes and directs all of human history – God and His story. God designed us in His image to be together (one) in good relationship with Him, with each other and with all of the created world. We were designed for a ‘oneness’ that became otherness when we turned against God and each other, to borrow from Scot McKnight in The Blue Parakeet. Thankfully this oneness has been and is being restored in Jesus. And in the threshold space of Jesus’ first and second coming, God is working out this restoring of oneness (redemption) through His people – first Israel and now the church. Lewis and Clark steadied themselves by remembering they were first of all adventurers and explorers for their country – an unexpected twist in their expedition didn’t discount that. Their canoes were suddenly out of place, but their mission hadn’t changed! We can steady ourselves in this threshold space by remembering that God’s story is still the story that holds human history, by remembering that the church is still God’s people and that the mission of God’s people is to love God and love others. I am brought back again and again to these words of Jesus: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-40] Which brings us to well walls … in the threshold place, both in terms of God’s story and the particular cultural changes of our time, Jesus has shown us a way to live.
Just as He did with the woman at the well in Samaria, Jesus invites us to sit with each other and with people in our wider communities. He invites us to live in the threshold place by leaning in and listening. Listening as an act of love. Listening to each other across differences, so that we can start to understand what life is like for the other. In the love, grace and kindness of that sacred space we will find, just as Jesus did, a place to tell our own stories and how they are part of God’s story. If we can sit patiently in this threshold time of ours, if we intentionally look for well walls to sit on and choose to lean in to listen across differences as an act of love, then I think our community will see again that God and His people can be trusted and have something life-giving to bring to the table.
Author – Karen Siggins
Karen Siggins is the Interim Director of Ministries at Baptist Churches Western Australia. Previously she was the Lead Pastor at Lesmurdie Baptist Church, and was in pastoral ministry at the church for over 16 years.