May 11, 2020

Jeremiah 29:11
11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and
not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

I fondly remember my summer trips to Sackets Harbor, NY with my family over the
years. Sackets Harbor is located way upstate, about 45 minutes from Canada and is on Lake Ontario. I enjoyed the escape from the oppressive heat in Florida, and we were so close to the water that we often had access to lots of water sports. One summer, we visited a friend of my mother-in-law who had a house on the lake. She had various floats that she gave to my boys, Thomas and Charlie, to play with. One of them was this old sailboard that no longer had a sail and no longer had a fin on the bottom. I challenged the boys to try to stand on it like a paddleboard. They refused, since they had no experience with paddleboards, and I decided to show them. I can remember myself saying, “this is how it’s done boys” in my most macho, fatherly tone. After I got to a standing position, I quickly realized my mistake in tying my manly credit to standing on that board. After 30 min or so, I think I managed to last maybe a minute standing upright on the board. I gave up, feeling very defeated.

Besides escaping the heat and being on the water, we would go to Sackets Harbor to
visit my first wife’s parents and her sister, Sarah, who lives in Syracuse. These trips
provided time for the cousins to grow up together as well. Sadly, my first wife, Jennifer, died December 13, 2014 after a 5-year battle with brain cancer. When Jennifer was diagnosed with brain cancer, my daily life quickly became like my battle with that sailboard. When she died, despite having so much time to get prepared for this event we knew was coming, my struggle went from trying to stay on top of the board to trying to keep from drowning. Keeping my boys afloat became my only reason to get out of bed and tread water every day. Each day was like Groundhog Day. I couldn’t believe she was gone, and the pain was unbearable. The grief was like a black hole that sucked the light out of everything.

This experience led me to question everything. Why go on? What did God have to do
with this situation? Who am I, and how did I get here? I found myself in a place Richard Rohr, a Franciscan theologian, calls liminal space. I will give you his description here. “Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We usually enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed.” He goes on to describe this space in ways I can’t begin to compare to. I found my entire persona blown apart into little pieces, and I was sitting in the middle facing a stifling wind I can only describe as purgatory. This is not the part where I cue the Rocky theme song and start doing one armed pushups. I did not come back stronger. I am not glad I had that experience. It took a long time for me to struggle back to a sense of normalcy, whatever that is. There were many, many days that I thought things would never get better.

What I will say is that I am changed, and I don’t expect I will ever reach what I would have thought to be “normal” again. I started reading a lot of philosophy, and I started actually reading the Bible. I struggled with the question of what I believe and why there is evil in the world. I reached the fork in the road where I could either blame God or ask God to help me through it. I was open to the Holy Spirit at that point. I had no more defenses. I had given up my preconceived notions. I was as raw as I could be. I am convinced that the Spirit changed the stifling wind to a breeze from the meadow. A calming ocean breeze that just brought the smell of the beach and older memories to me. The Spirit gave me hope and allowed me to forgive myself. It allowed me to start to look for the path out of the valley of shadow.

To this day, I am still rebuilding. I hope I never finish now. That is the promise of the
liminal space that Richard Rohr goes on to describe so masterfully. I believe we all have had a pause button on life. We have the opportunity to enter the liminal space and redirect our lives. In the middle of the pandemic, many of us find our lives without a sail or a guiding fin on the sailboard. The days all seem like Groundhog Day, and we wonder if we will ever find a way out. I can promise you that things will get better. I have remarried, and I have two young girls and Jenny’s family as part of my world now. I would not have thought that would ever be possible 5 ½ years ago. However, I hope we don’t just go back to normalcy where we don’t question and struggle with who we are. I hope you find the Spirit and allow it to help you on the path to a new “abnormal.” I hope we can see that Jesus gave his life to show us the path out of suffering and into a new life. Jesus taught that we can have heaven on Earth if we only take the time to look, listen, think, and follow the principles of love. Love yourself and love your neighbor.

Prayer: Loving God, Please help us accept that we are not in control of what happens around us and that we are blind compared to your all-seeing eyes. Please send the Holy Spirit to bring your lifeline to us. When life tears us apart, help us to rebuild in your image. We cannot begin to understand how the threads of the universe are woven and why one thread affects so many others. We can’t even see where our thread fits in. We are scared and feel alone in middle of the night. Find us and comfort us as we swim to the shore of heaven on Earth, however long that swim may be.

Written by Michael Brumback

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