Thin Places

Art Fabian  —  May 6, 2012  —  North Riverdale Lutheran Church

Thin Places

God doesn’t speak to me!  I’ve felt cheated all my life. Many people throughout history have reported that God has spoken to them. Many times I’ve prayed for an actionable comment from him so I would know that God is really giving me a message. But he’s never said a single English word to me.

Yet there are many other people who would agree with me. The God of the Bible seems remote, and I don’t believe he actually intervenes in earthly events. Part of the problem is that, as J.B. Phillips wrote and Pastor Monte preached a few weeks ago, that God is too small. That Biblical God is based on their early concepts of cosmology … a three-layered world: the firmament — the earth where people lived, the land below the firmament, and the dome of the sky with holes for the stars and to let the rains through. Above the dome was heaven where God resided.

Well, today, most people … and the majority of you folks, according to the survey we did in January … don’t believe in that kind of God either.

Yet, almost every person who has ever embraced any type of faith is persuaded that God speaks to him or her in some way. But it didn’t seem to be true for me. Oh, I’ve enjoyed nature and special moments where I’ve felt extra-ordinarily positive in a situation…but God still wasn’t using the English language with me.

Often times I’ve heard and have even espoused the concept that God is everywhere, even inside us. However, having “God” inside of us is a concept I only understood in the abstract. Well, if God is “everywhere,” he must be inside of me. But God as a person, a father figure? Well, I might have used those terms many times, but I couldn’t quite shake the image of trying to fit another person inside of me. Childhood notions of God are hard to replace.

Then at Christmastime, our daughter, Laura, came home and she talked about how she experienced the “divine” inside her. And, bingo, that word resonated with me. I realized I could experience a divine presence in me. Divine is more a state of being than trying to see God with human characteristics. The divine is the spirit of God — what has been labeled “the Holy Spirit” in our creeds and theology.

So now, I didn’t have to imagine, even in a symbolic way, that a person called God from somewhere else is part of me. For one of the first times in my life I became excited about recognizing ways in which the divine has touched me, not in English words, but in encounters with the divine presence.

Do you remember in the book of Acts Paul’s reference to God as being the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being? Our very being is grounded in the divine. That phrase has became more real to me. It’s now one of my favorite descriptions of the Creator Spirit…’the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

Laura also taught me this: [Make sign and say Namaste … “na ma’ stay”] Does anyone know what this means? We probably have some yoga people here. The most common meaning of this greeting simply means: “I bow to you.” It’s a sign of respect. However, it can also mean, “the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you.” Wow, that’s acknowledging that the divine is in each of us.

God is not out there. God, the Divine, is right here. Think of both the joy and responsibility that engenders. When we say God is everywhere, we mean not just around us, but within us. Remember Jesus saying, “When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me?” He was saying each person is divine. When we take care of someone else, we are connecting with the Divine Spirit in that person.

Then just a few days after Laura left, I was reading a book by Marcus Borg, and came across the concept of “Thin Places.”

Let me explain. Within the first few hundred years after Jesus lived, Christianity had spread throughout much of Europe. By the fifth century, Celtic Christianity was predominant in Ireland, parts of Scotland, Wales, even across the channel into France.

[By the way, although I first heard the term “seltics’ — as in the Boston Celtics — I’ll use “Keltic” which has become more popular in the past 30 to 50 years. Both pronunciations are considered correct.]

The Celts had a worldview in which heaven and earth are, in general, separated by considerable distance. However, to the early Celts some places on earth seemed to be thin in the sense that the separation between heaven and earth is narrower. Some people thought it was as close as three feet. Thus, people could sense God’s presence more readily in so-called thin places.

One of the thinnest places was on the very remote Isle of Iona, off the coast of Scotland. The distance was much, much thinner. There, one could actually see through the barrier, maybe even touch the divine. And certainly, the divine could touch us.

A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God…a place where human beings could more directly and intensely experience God. It’s like being able to pull back the veil that separates us from God to vividly reveal the Divine Presence.

For the Celts, these were actual locations. For example, in Ireland where the veil between this world and the eternal world is “thin” include features such as stone circles, wayside shrines, monastic ruins, and other sacred sites. Most of these thin places were in isolated locations where the windswept setting and the silence contributed to the sense of experiencing something holy.

One of the purposes of pilgrimages is to go to thin places. Last year when Louise and I were in Wales we visited several churches that were destinations of Christian pilgrims. And I can attest that many of these churches were in very remote areas that made one feel as if a divine spirit was breathing in those spaces.

Cathedrals are designed to be thin places. Yet, on a smaller scale, many people who have attended here at North Riverdale have also called this structure a thin place. Oh, they may not have used that exact phrase, but they’ve said it’s both a warm personal place and a sacred space.

This concept of thin places has now been broadened to be a metaphor for a variety of situations where we experience God, the Divine, and are transformed by that encounter. A quick online search revealed that the emerging Christian message is again popularizing this term. I saw that at least one church’s newsletter is now called, “Thin Places.”

I suppose you could say that the first thin place was the Garden of Eden. The early Jews described it as a place where humans could even walk and talk with Yahweh.  Moses is said to have had an encounter with God in a burning bush. He recognized it as a sacred place where the distance between the divine and him became very thin.

Have you been to any “thin places?” Have you had experiences that transformed you in a way that maybe you can’t explain, that not only felt mystical at the time, but left you with a sense of awe and insight … as if a veil had been pulled back and you were right there in the presence of a divine spirit?

Reflecting on events or situations in my life that were thin places would certainly include our all-church retreats that started in the mid-seventies. A few of you were there, especially the first year, when, on that chilly night around the campfire in the woods, we broke bread and poured a little grape juice while saying a personal blessing for each other. Those were touching moments … thin places.

There are many kinds of thin places. Of course, nature, especially wilderness areas; but also music; poetry and literature; the visual arts, dance, … can all become thin places in which the boundary between one’s self and the world momentarily disappears.

For example, when Carol Wise has been out doing photography, sometimes she’s in the “zone” as images start to compose themselves before her eyes. She says, “It’s a magical time when I feel like I’m closer to God.”

Even times of serious illness, suffering, and grief can become thin places. They do not always, of course; but sometimes our hearts are not just broken, but broken open by such experiences.
People can become thin places to us. Jesus in particular must have been a remarkable thin place. Remember the people walking on the road to Emmaus after the Crucifixion? They were discussing Jesus and when the stranger with them broke bread, “suddenly they could see.” They experienced a thin place.

Simply gathering together for worship creates a thin place. Some of you have reported that it just feels good to be here together in this community of saints.

We often think of worship as directed to God. And it is. But in an important sense, it’s for us. For example, in Pentecostal worship… the participants are literally moved by a very real sense of the Spirit. At the other extreme, in Quaker meetings silence becomes a thin place — situations where the Spirit enters one’s heart.

The primary role of music within worship, whether performance or participatory, is to create a thin place. Louise really enjoys Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”…what we will sing today as “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” More Protestants report being moved by hymn singing than by any other element in the service.

I’m pretty certain that a number of you would consider the Christmas Cantata to be a thin place. Or maybe, the Christmas Eve candlelight service.

Did you ever have such a meaningful experience that it gave you goose bumps? That may be an indication of experiencing a thin place.

Participation in the sacraments of baptism and communion can become a thin place. Actually, that’s why they’re called “sacra…ments.” By definition, they’re sacred moments when we can interact with the Divine Spirit. That sacredness becomes a means of grace. On communion Sundays when each of you come forward for the elements, I personally feel a sense of community and a sacred connection to God probably more than at any other time in our congregation.

Sermons can become thin places, albeit for different reasons for different people. For example, several weeks ago, Pastor Monte demonstrated the sign for Jesus. [touch palms] Brian Walker has been studying American Sign Language and he was quite moved by that simple gesture.

The Bible can be a thin place, especially in a devotional setting, not because it’s the “word of God,” but because it shows us how to experience and understand the passion of God.
Prayer is especially a thin place. By definition, that’s its purpose — to create a thin place between you and God the Spirit. One of the central functions of prayer is not to get a favor from God, but for our hearts to be opened to possibilities that the Spirit has already created for us. And when our hearts are opened to God, that becomes a thin place, where we can enjoy the Spirit of the Creator acting through us.

Silence often is a thin place in which we sit in the presence of God. As the Psalmist says, “Be still and know I am God.” Stillness allows a space for an awareness of the Spirit to break in.
So now that you have an idea of what thin places are, what can they mean to you? For one thing, I hope you can recognize that God is a layer of reality all around us. We interact with the spirit in thin places. And how we experience God is more important than how we define God.

Philip Gulley doesn’t often use the term “thin places,” but his definition of prayer seems to define it when he says, “For what is prayer, but our attentiveness to the Divine Presence? Indeed, the root of prayer is attentiveness to the Creator and the created. And in speaking [the prayer], grace might flow and flower.” In today’s Prayer of the Church, we’ll practice that concept.

Thin places are locations, occasions, moments of increased transparency and transcendence. Because they open our hearts to the Divine Presence within us, we see more clearly, we love more deeply. It’s very important to notice that thin places change us…we are transformed…we take another step in our spiritual journey.

Many times thin places are rugged landscapes, or they can may occur as moments of hurt or sorrow, or a flash of amazing insight. We can’t control them, so when they happen they’re even more mysterious.

Well, if they’re so great, can you create thin places? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Gulley says: “While I believe God delights in the divine/human intersection, it seldom happens predictably.”

However, the more you open your heart to the possibility of encountering the divine presence in yourself and others, the more likely you are to experience the gratitude and awareness of being in a thin place.

What happens when you recognize a thin place and you open your heart and your mind to allow the divine to touch your inner self, your very soul? The answer is in today’s anthem. An open heart allows you
          To see thee more clearly,
          Love thee more dearly,
          Follow thee more nearly,
          Day by Day.

The Christian life is about the Spirit of God opening our hearts in thin places. We are portable thin places. What would happen if we began to think of ourselves in this way? What do you think would happen if you thought of yourself as a thin place when interacting with your colleagues at work; or having a leisurely dinner with your spouse or best friend; or talking with the clerk in the local convenience store; or seeking out and helping a person in need?

What difference might it make if North Riverdale Lutheran Church thought of itself as a thin place, a place where people interact in a spiritually profound way with God?

For me, I now believe that thin places come as close as anything to a proof that God exists. It’s not the God who is personified as a father and sits above the dome of the sky, but it’s the very real divine presence in every single person, in every creature and location, beautiful or not, right down to every sub-atomic particle of the universe.

In closing, I invite you to reflect on the thin places in your own life. Where is a place that refreshes your spirit and opens the door to the threshold of the sacred? When you remember that site, you, too, can return to that place in your imagination and once again experience God’s Presence and receive the peace of this Celtic blessing.

May you experience thin places. May you be a thin place to yourself and others. May your Divine Presence shine brightly as you enjoy this Christian life. Amen