My after-school ritual at all of 11 years old was a kilometer walk up to the petrol station at the junction of Spring Valley Road and Peponi Road in Nairobi where I lived.
Peponi means “heaven, paradise; up in the air” in Swahili, the national language of my birth country of Kenya. It was a kind of paradise, a place and an era when a boy could roam, explore, test himself against the elements and make mistakes.
In an era before branded convenience stores, the small shop or “duka” owned by an Indian merchant and his family was my go-to place for gum, chocolate, soda and scones – of the soft, yellow, sweet variety that were baked together in a sheet and sold individually or in bunches still stuck together.
Today it was gum. My entire week’s allowance on gum. Orbit gum. Each packet was four chicklets and came in two flavors – spearmint and some kind of fruity flavor.
The packets were sold individually or in a square box of 25. It was a whole box for me, and I’d usually put at least four packs in my mouth at once!
Walking back down the hill toward home, I reached our drive and paused. The thought came into my head, “You’ve got all this gum, why not share some?” Looking around, I saw no one to share it with so I decided to “tithe” some gum to God.
I dug a small hole by the side of the driveway, placed three packets of orbit inside and covered it up, tamping it down with my foot and placing a rock over the spot. If God wanted the gum, God would have to get it.
A few days later, I remembered my “offering” and decided to check on its status. Knowing in my heart it would still be there, I was dumbfounded to find it gone. The rock was undisturbed as far as I could tell, and there were no others I might have mistaken for the rock. Gone.
Whether God had personally come down and taken it or had sent an emissary in the form of a hedgehog to sniff it out and retrieve it instead, I understood God to have accepted my offering. A relationship was born.
It’s hard to tell exactly what shifted in my universe in that moment. I was no stranger to the concept of God or the idea of some kind of relationship with the Divine. These had been very much a part of my “missionary kid” upbringing.
A year or so back, while our family was on furlough in North Carolina, I had “walked the isle” of Enon Baptist Church, professing my faith in Jesus (and joining the pastor’s daughter up front!).
I was in a 10-year-old “hellion” stage, having been ripped away from my home in Kenya and transplanted briefly to a farm in the country in a strange land away from all my friends and my familiar life. I took to cussing, smoking cigars and shooting anything that moved with my double-barreled BB gun.
I’m not sure what all “professing my faith in Jesus” meant the day I came forward, but it was most certainly motivated by a feeling that something was wrong.
A year later, on the “day of the gum and God,” I was struck not by guilt but by possibility. Really? There is a God and that God accepted my offering?
I stood on the threshold between what had been and what could be, gazing out at a whole new world. I had been nudged by God, taken a step and here we were. Liminal space.
Liminality in the study of anthropology derives from rites of passage and the characteristic state of limbo created during the initiation process. In this liminal state, the initiate is faced with the prospect of having to let go of the old way of being in the world and grapple with the new, not yet fully realized, reality.
Physician and author Paul Tournier described it this way. It is like the time when a trapeze artist lets go of the bars and hangs in midair, ready to catch another support: It is a time of danger, of expectation, of uncertainty, of excitement, or extraordinary aliveness.”
I was first introduced to liminal space as a concept through the writings of Fr. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan author, theologian and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. (If a Baptist can have a guru, Rohr is mine!)
“We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of ‘business as usual’ and remain patiently on the ‘threshold’ (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown,” Rohr said. “There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible.”
“Getting there” can be serendipitous or through mindfulness. For example, something might happen like a death, a disaster or falling in love. Alternatively, through an act of consciousness or paying attention, one is led to notice the profound possibility inherent in an act, event or situation.
Standing on a threshold implies a door having been opened or a portal having been breached. However, what we choose to do with or at the precipice of liminal space is another matter.
Liminal space provides for us the context of possibility. Possibilities that may involve risk, danger and suffering as well as profound fulfillment and joy.
What we choose at the threshold, what we leave behind and what we take up, is largely up to us. Be assured, however, unseeing what has been seen is unrealistic.
Editor’s note: Harrell will be exploring the concept of liminal space further in future columns and through a storytelling episode that will be part of the Good Faith Stories podcast series launching this week.
Associate Coordinator for Global Missions with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. A long-time advocate of environmental stewardship, Harrell leads “Kutana Kenya,” an immersion experience for graduate and seminary students that CBF hosts in partnership with Africa Exchange, a non profit founded by the Harrells and operating in Kenya.