Living in Limbo: Life in the Midst of Uncertainty
by Donald Capps and Nathan Carlin
Cascade Books, Eugene, Ore. 127 pages.
In a 2007 document, the Roman Catholic Church officially rejected Limbo as a place in the afterlife, intending to reassure parents they would be able to see their deceased, unbaptized newborns in Heaven. No longer restricted to church teaching on the afterlife, Capps and Carlin intend to repurpose the idea of limbo and use it to describe life’s moments when we are forced to wait.
According to the authors, “Limbo is a sort of chronic condition from which we are never completely free.” Without a doubt, much of our time in life is spent waiting. While some of the waiting is mundane, like standing in line at the grocery store, there are moments when we are subjected to “acute experiences of being in limbo.” The primary focus for Capps and Carlin is to illustrate life’s more intense periods of waiting.
The book is divided into five chapters, each focusing on a unique part of life open to limbo situations: childhood and adolescence, relationships, work, illness, and dislocation and doubt. The authors fill each chapter with illustrations and stories of people’s experiences living in limbo. The stories are a strength of the book and could be used as case-studies for discussion in small-group settings. I also appreciate the vulnerability of the authors who include illustrations from their own lives, giving the book an autobiographical feel at times.
Interspersed between anecdotes and first-person accounts are theological reflections, which will be appreciated by readers who are charged with the responsibility of providing pastoral care to people living in limbo. For example, building upon a discussion of Jesus’ healing of Lazarus, they write my favorite line in the book: “However alone and forgotten we may feel when we are in an acute limbo situation, we have the assurance that we are not neglected, for we have every reason to believe that Jesus will descend to our limbo place and rescue us.” At another point, the authors reference numerous biblical stories about limbo situations, from the forty-year wandering in the wilderness to Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish.
The authors also offer the helpful insight that limbo situations include both liabilities and benefits. Limbo situations are often difficult and painful, but they provide opportunities for physical, spiritual and emotional growth. For example, in one story a man struggles with his long-held love towards a woman who doesn’t reciprocate the same feelings. While painful at the time, in retrospect, the man learns that he can take risks, fail and still survive. In another example, a woman’s horrible childhood influences her professional success in working with children.
The book, given its brevity and accessible language, will be helpful reading for individuals who are going through difficult limbo situations: unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant, looking for a job in a struggling economy, waiting while a loved one dies or doubting long-held religious beliefs. A word of warning: the authors offer no simplistic, quick-fix solutions for escaping limbo situations. This is not a self-help guide, and readers expecting easy solutions to their situations will be greatly disappointed. What the authors offer is hope and the knowledge that, through story-telling, we are never alone in limbo.
Adam J. Rodgers is the pastor of Stoneboro Presbyterian Church in Stoneboro, Pa.