We walked deeper and deeper into the cave. The voice of the tour guide from the front of our pack gave me the confidence I needed to go farther into the tunnels. I shuddered at the thought of being lost. Without a guide. Without a flashlight. All alone.
We were at Wind Cave National Park, home of the densest cave in the world. Navigated trails surpassing 150 miles are a mere ten percent of the complex tunnel systems that exist beneath the surface. The tour guide told us stories about how the caves were discovered, along with other historical facts of interest. What captured my imagination was the story about the 18-year-old student leader who got lost during a caving expedition in 1989. Lost in the tunnels of Wind Cave for 36 hours, Rachel Cox had no light and no means of communication. I thought of her as we examined the intricate designs of boxwork formations on the walls and ceilings of the tunnel. When the tour guide shut off all the lights in the cave, and we turned off our flashlights as we were instructed, my heart started to race. I couldn’t even see my hand if I held it in front of my face. It was the longest minute I had ever experienced. How did Rachel survive 36 hours all alone in the pitch dark? What was she thinking? Did she lose hope? Did the experience change her? How did she feel when she was able to see the light of day again?
When I find myself in liminal spaces, using Rachel’s cave experience is helpful to express how I’m feeling. Liminality is that in-between stage of leaving a place of familiarity and arriving at a new normal. It is often an uncomfortable state of being, where everything is unknown and strange, thus overstimulating the senses. It is a place of confusion and disorientation, as I imagine Rachel felt in the cave—with no sight and the only sound being the beating of her heart. It’s impossible to know when and how I will get out of this liminal space, but one thing is for sure—when I emerge from the cave, I will be a different person.
I have experienced many seasons of liminality: getting married, having children, moving to a new country, battling cancer. These experiences have stretched me, broken me, transformed me, and ultimately have made me better and stronger. I’m in liminal space now, but it is nothing like any liminal space I have ever experienced. This is because the whole world is in liminal space with me. The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis that has affected almost every country in the world. The United States has been social distancing, and most of us have been following shelter-in-place directives for two months.
We have entered the cave together, albeit in different ways. Some of us have not been face-to-face with another person in weeks. Some of us have been homeschooling moody teenagers and hyperactive kids. Some of us have been dealing with nervous and demanding customers. Some of us have been on the front lines as hospital staff, working around the clock to keep people alive. And some of us have been in top leadership positions, carrying the weight of decision-making for the safety of a whole community.
Our experiences have been different, but one fact remains. This COVID-19 crisis has been a cataclysmic event that has thrown us all into liminality. We are in the dark, desperately waiting for things to go back to normal—trying to find our way out of the cave.
Our ability to release our controlling grip and hear from God is heightened when we are confronted by our own powerlessness.
But there is something very important to understand about liminal space. When we are existing in this stage of utter disorientation, when we are blindly groping our way around our dark caves, when all our comforting structures of safety and familiarity are pulled from under us, we have the greatest potential of becoming our authentic selves according to God’s design—and in effect, the greatest reflection of Christ’s bride, the church. Our ability to release our controlling grip and hear from God is heightened when we are confronted by our own powerlessness. In the darkness, we are given new vision to see God’s purposes with more clarity. But we need eyes to see and ears to hear.
In order to contemplate the sanctity of our liminal spaces, we must:
How often I have struggled to steer away from this stage of grieving, but each time I am reminded how vital it is to mourn what has passed. King David lost everything and escaped his enemies by hiding in a cave for months. He poured out his anguished heart by writing psalms to the Lord. We, as well, must invite God into our sorrows. Our prayers should not be prayers of rescue. Not yet. First, we need to invite God into the cave and acknowledge the despair in his presence. To allow him to reveal the things of this world that we need to grieve. The personal losses we need to mourn.
I did not give myself permission to lament during the earlier stages of the pandemic. I felt I didn’t have the right to lament when so many others had it much worse. When the weight of all that was happening finally broke me, I realized God wanted me to lament. He wanted me to share in the sufferings of others. He wanted me to consider the brokenness that was being exposed in myself, the world, and even the church. The tears that started to flow (and continue to flow) were not my tears alone. They were the tears of my fellow sisters and brothers all over the world. Suddenly, shedding tears felt holy—an offering before the Lord.
2. Be still and know.
It is tempting to move immediately into “doing” rather than spending time on “being” and “knowing.” Doing sometimes inhibits growth and revelation. During the pandemic, I saw people madly filling their storehouses with toilet paper and disinfectant wipes. I saw parents anxiously creating homeschooling schedules for their kids. I saw pastors frantically trying to figure out how to do church without a church building. I saw a rush of activity to ensure productivity, to construct safety measures, to protect cultural norms, and I will admit—I was in the thick of it.
However, God uses our cave experiences, more than any other circumstance, to forge his likeness in us. When we sit still in his presence and remember who God is, and who we are in light of that, the Holy Spirit stirs in our being, empowering us to rise above our human capacity to respond. We realize our instinct to be selfish hoarders hurts others. We recognize neglecting the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of our children is not responsible parenting. We remember that church is not a building but a people learning to love God and love others. We trust in God’s promises that he will always be with us and provide for our needs. We learn to be still and know that the great “I AM” is faithfully “being” in us and inviting us to “be” in him as well. How do we lean into the identity we have in Christ and allow that to shape our future?
3. Prune for the future.
The worst thing we can do is to wait for everything to go back to normal. God has been doing a work in and among us so that he can do a new work through us. Going back to the way things were wastes the opportunity we have to purge our wrong, unhealthy, ungodly, and ineffective ways that God has exposed to us in the cave. God rarely equips us for the sake of the cave experience alone. He is teaching us to cut loose all that has weighed us down for the sake of forging a new future. This involves an honest assessment of our idols. What are we holding on to that God wants us to release? And what does this mean for the church? What is God pruning in the body of Christ? How will we be different? How will we love differently? How will we partner with God in this new work? These are some of the questions church leaders need to discern as we emerge from the cave.
When Rachel was rescued from the tunnels of Wind Cave, she said that the experience changed her life. My prayer is that our liminal cave experience will change us as well. I pray that we will be able to point to the COVID-19 pandemic as the catalyst that changed the landscape of the church, making us more faithful and credible as witnesses of God’s love.