Living in In-Between Time
May 21, 2020
When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
As stay-at-home orders remain in place while plans are being made for the gradual easing of restrictions, we find ourselves living in an in-between time.
Pandemic or not, in-between time takes many forms, whenever we’re wrestling with something that isn’t easily resolved. Answers to urgent questions rarely come easily or quickly, no matter how hard we seek them. So we must live with them for however long it takes for clarity to emerge.
Or we may find ourselves waiting because there is a task before us that requires skills or capacities we don’t yet have. “Leadership would be a safe undertaking,” Ronald Heiftz, observes, “if your organizations and communities only faced problems for which they already knew the solutions… But there are a whole host of problems beyond their capacity to solve. Thus they are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments in numerous places.” (1)
In the Christian calendar, today is the Feast of the Ascension, which always falls on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday. The Ascension marks the end of a poignant period during which Jesus presented himself alive to his disciples, after his suffering and death. But as mysteriously as the appearances began, they end with Jesus ascending into heaven as his perplexed disciples watch. As he departs, Jesus says. “Wait until you are given the power you need. Don’t do anything now; just wait.” We know that their waiting would be rewarded with the coming of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. But they didn’t know that, any more than we know what’s on the other side of our waiting.
Waiting is hard. It’s like living in suspended space--what William Bridges describes as “the neutral zone.” How we wait is key, for “it is in that interim spaciousness that all possibilities, creativity, and innovative ideas can come to life.” (2) Yet as the weeks drag on, fatigue takes its toll, and we’re prone to all manner of temptations. Or, speaking for myself, I should say that I am. Perhaps you are, too?
One temptation of an in-between time is to settle into a pattern of complaint. I don’t mean to minimize grief or gloss over the reality of exhaustion. But the problem with complaining is that it’s so easy. To be negative requires absolutely no energy or creativity, while to remain hopeful, committed and engaged takes sustained effort. But ask yourself this: with whom would you rather spend time with when things are hard--with those who complain and blame, or with those who roll up their sleeves and offer to help? What helps in an in-between is the practice of hopefulness and resisting the temptation to whine.
Another temptation of an in-between time is to assume that there are only two choices before us: either to move full steam ahead, even when we’re not ready and don’t know where we’re going, or to do nothing at all. The dangers of either extreme are clear enough. Most decisions made in the heat of urgency we come to regret. Yet passivity is simply the other side of compulsion, when we give up in the face of challenge.
In contrast, consider the posture of poised readiness. Animals in the wild give us the compelling image of being completely still, yet poised to move when the time is right. Or athletes preparing for a competition that is months away. They can’t rush ahead in their training without risk of injury, but if they do nothing, they won’t be prepared when the time comes. They train methodically and slowly, building up their capacity over time in order to compete at full strength when the time comes. In a similar way, the question for us in the time of waiting is, “What can we do now, to use the time well? What skills can we hone; what knowledge can we master; what relationships can we forge to ready ourselves when the time comes to act?”
A third temptation in an in-between time is to imagine that our real lives will begin when the waiting is over. But what if where we are right now, waiting in between what is ending and what is yet to be, is our life? If so, then there’s no reason not to persevere in prayer, love, and kindness, no matter how inadequate we feel.
In-between time can be awkward, stressful, and is rarely a time that we choose. But if it’s the time that we’re in, then it’s the only time we have. No doubt we have something to learn in this in-between time. What might that be, so that we might be ready for whatever it is that lies beyond it?
(1) Ronald Heiftz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 2002)
(2) William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (William Bridges & Associates, Revised Edition, 2019)