Proceed from a Place of Unknowing

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.

In Between
In between, liminal, that space where we wait.
Between moments; events, results, action, no action.
To stand on the threshold, waiting for something to end,
And something new to arrive, a pause in the rumble of time.
Awareness claims us, alert, a shadow of something different.
In between invitation and acceptance.
In between symptom and diagnosis.
In between send and receipt of inquiry and question.
In between love given and love received.
Liminality, a letting go, entering into confusion,
ambiguity and disorientation.
A ritual begun, pause… look back at what once was,
Look forward into what becomes.
Identity sheds a layer, reaches into something uncomfortable to wear.
In between lighting of the match and the kindling of oil.
In between choosing of text and the reading of words.
In between voices and notes carried through the air into ears to hear.
In between creation thrusts ever forward.
Social hierarchies may disassemble and structures may fall.
Communities may revolt or tempt trust.
Tradition may falter or creativity crashes forward.
Leaders may step down or take charge.
The people may choose or refuse.
In between, storm predicted, the horizon beacons.
In between, theology of process reminds us to step back.
In between, where minutia and galaxies intermingle with microbes and mysteries.
In between, liminal, that space where we wait: Look, listen, feel, breathe.

Rev. Kate Walker

Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.

Gilda Radner

I have heard a lot of people say they work too hard and are too tired at the end of a long week to go to church, or church is too boring to waste time going, there is still so much to do to be ready for the week ahead. Some come because they want the same thing Sunday after Sunday. Yet some say church requires too much. Others need this space, these people, to help fill the empty spaces in their lives.

Some who don’t stay long sometimes say church leaders ask too much. Give us your money, your time, your talent, your first born! Yet there are some who welcome being asked to do more, to be more. Some come looking for what they don’t yet have the words to describe, but know they need.

It seems to me that UUism is anything but boring; anything but same ol’, same ol’. It is as if we are part of a larger, liberal faith that asks that us to find ambiguity delicious, as Gilda Radner said. We are asked to find ambiguity and paradox thrilling. We are asked to seek and honor and dwell for a while in the in-between spaces. Only there can you find a fitting posture for bringing about what might be but is yet to be. In other words, this faith asks you to enter liminal space—the place between what has been and what will be.

As Kate Walker says, liminality is a letting go, an entering into confusion, ambiguity and disorientation.

I grew up going to church three times a week at least. We heard about sinners and believers. You were either one or the other. I longed for becoming more intimate with the grey spaces, where you were both or neither, or the choices where not laid out in such a stark either/or way. It wasn’t until late in my undergraduate religious studies, at a state university, when I would be introduced to the concept of liminal space, the place in between this and that, and understand being in that space necessary to being fully human. 

I am of the belief that the use of the phrase “liminal space” has come back into our vocabulary lately due to all the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic, by the necessary and very rapid changes in how we “do church” in the midst of a pandemic, by all the changes that may or may not be here to stay; all the “not knowing what comes next” that we have experienced, lately, and still are, and likely will be for some time.

We know (or I hope we know) we can’t go back to how it was, to the fantasy of what worked so well way back when. Yet, we aren’t quite sure how to go forward, what is next. No strategic plan has anticipated the last 2-3 years. We have stopped spending time with those, having entered liminal space.

We don’t know exactly what the future will bring. We are as a congregation, as a culture, as people, in liminal space; in the not-knowing. It can be uncomfortable. We may not think of it as delicious.

The dictionary tells us, “Liminal space is a space between spaces. A liminal space is a boundary between two points in time, space, or both. It’s the middle ground between two grounds, the mid-structure between two structures. When you’re in a liminal space, you’re neither here nor there, neither this nor that.”

It is, as my undergraduate religious studies professor said again and again, part of the space we live in as human beings, the “yet but not yet.” We humans can dream of the future, of what we sometimes call “the beloved community,” but we rarely get there by our pretense of knowing how to.  Some of us have dreams we call nightmares, apocalyptic visions of what the future might be. Crossing into and out of liminal space can offer hope that will arise even after the worst has happened. Until we cross into liminal space, we don’t really have hope.

Change is possible, but we don’t know how to proceed. Our knowing gets in the way. The space of not-knowing is enlightenment, leads to being “woke.” Let go of your pretenses and become intimate with your fears, emotions, lack of control.  

Unitarian Universalism is partially about learning to proceed into liminal space, to trust that space as necessary for breaking down and putting together again.  As Larry McGinty said in our opening words today, “If you are intense and constructed, I hope you find the encouragement to shed your pretenses here. If you are filled with despair and self-doubt, I hope you hear the affirmation to be and to become, to say yes and hear the yes to your true strong, beautiful self.” Our faith movement is familiar with the need for liminal space, the need for the delicious ambiguity of confusion and paradox. 

This space is temporary and can be intense. It can be exhausting and thrilling, letting go of knowing, proceeding and trusting the journey. 

A Buddhist teacher I know says this: “The key is that not-knowing isn’t clinging to a state of indecision or ignorance. It’s not a fixed position you take. Instead, it’s a way you engage the next moment: fresh, open, unbiased. You let go of clinging to fixed views, of your sense of knowing. It’s grounded in reality, because in reality, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You don’t know for sure what’s going to work.”

You don’t know the person standing in front of you—at least not completely, and maybe hardly at all. You don’t know who you are, as if you could sum yourself up in a sentence or paragraph.

And you must practice not-knowing in this very moment—not in the abstract.

That’s because not-knowing isn’t a position. If it becomes a position, then it’s not actually not-knowing anymore, it’s refusing to know or decide. Then it is a position you hold for your own convenience, comfort, or ego, and lacks compassion.

Using the “medicine” of not-knowing takes courage. The key is to become intimate with our fears, our sorrows, and our sense of being overwhelmed—exactly the feelings we try to keep at bay with our knowing.

And even “negative knowing” has this effect. For example, you may be convinced the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but in some ways it’s easier to be prepared for the devil you (think you) know, then to open up to the vast possibilities of reality.

Try the medicine of not knowing. For a time, let go of the stress of having to figure everything out, of maintaining our positions and opinions, of identifying everything we encounter as right or wrong. This will help our body-minds to settle, to become more relaxed, healthy, and clear.

How do we heal our country and our world? Lots of ideas may spring into our minds. But if we momentarily let them go and say quietly, humbly, compassionately, “I don’t know,” I can recognize that I feel sad, I grieve, I am deeply concerned. 

We may ask, how do we end racism? Let go of ideas, however good they might be. It’s not the time for ideas. It’s time for listening. Most anti-racism training will push you to liminal space, the in-between, where your “I don’t know” is your reality. There you can notice with much more clarity of emotion how the reality of the struggles of people of color comes close to your heart. The emotions you feel can silence your knowing enough to listen, rather than speak.

How do we radically redirect the entire human way of life on this planet away from limitless exploitation toward long-term sustainability? Let go of ideas. Stand still in the “I don’t know.” Let us see how this practice of “I don’t know” includes “I want to help. I love. I ache for suffering beings. I ache for myself. I’ll do my best.”

When we are ready, we engage our discriminating mind again, and know when we need to. But the open, intimate space of not-knowing gives us more effective ground on which to stand when we do take action.  Because on the other side of liminal space, we will act with compassion and connection.

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