A Thin Place
“Thin Place” – Sounds like a gym that has tapped into a culture obsessed with thinness, or a restaurant that has no future. But in the spiritual culture of the British Isles a “thin place” is something else: a place where two worlds meet, this world and the world that lies beyond. The veil that lies between earth and heaven grows thin. Some call the ruins of old abbeys at Iona or Lindisfarne or Glastonbury thin places, where time has swept across, but left a lasting connection to the timelessness of life and faith.
Thin places are stops, but not destinations, where the sacred and secular meet, where we are given the space we need to step out of the everyday, in order to re-engage. “They probe to the core of the human heart and open the pathway that leads to satisfying the familiar hungers and yearnings common to all people on earth… to be connected, to be part of something greater, to be loved, to find peace.”
When Jesus takes Peter and James and John up the mountain, he takes them to a think place. It’s six days after he shared with them his most difficult teaching, the truth that their life will be found in picking up their cross. It’s the kind of truth that if you try to follow it, will leave you hungry to be connected, to know you are part of something greater. You cannot pick up your cross without being shaken, without some sort of connection that assures you that what you are doing on earth resonates with what happens in heaven. [If you don’t need that, chances are it’s not your cross that you’re picking up.]
On the mountain, Peter, James and John recognize that Jesus himself is a thin place, that what they see in him transcends what they see everyday. Something in Jesus probes them to the core, as they go through the difficult work of trying to follow him, to be part of the healing of the world that he is about, but it also satisfies their hungers and yearnings. While a mountain helps to put it all together, thin places happen wherever Jesus shows up.
Thin places can be difficult to describe without sounding like you live in a complete fantasy. But at the same time we all yearn for thin places, to see where the difficulties of living, particularly living faithfully, connect with what is larger and transcendent. We think we want to escape, to get away… but what we really need, and what our hearts most truly desire, are thin places in the world we live in.
At our best, church should be that kind of thin place, but that’s not always the reputation we have, even among those of us who go to church. I was with a group a few years ago of mostly church folks, committed to social justice, looking for a thin place. We were Presbyterians, Quakers, Catholics, some returned from a mission field, some searching for a faith community. One woman involved in peace witness in Colombia, described how she was involved and committed, but not touched at a deeper level. A recent college graduate shared how rarely at his church people let down their guard for a deeper experience of God or each other. A middle aged director of a local non-profit focused on peace work described himself as a “cultural Christian”: he was a regular at church, he appreciated the rhythms of worship, but rarely was he touched deeply or challenged to connect his own work to following Jesus.
As a pastor, I was heartbroken. I wanted to say, “You should come to my church,” but I wondered how many in the congregation I served might say the same thing if they were honest.
As a church, though, we aren’t just called to have moving experiences, we are called to be a thin place, to invite people from all kinds of paths to come together to experience God in their midst, to be fed for the sake of something larger, not to stay here, give their lives here, but so that we might be empowered to return, to discover that the world is truly a thin place, that our whole lives are thin because God is found everywhere.
Jesus didn’t want his disciples to stay on the mountain – it wasn’t about the mountain. He told the disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen; he wanted them to discover that same thinness off the mountain, too: to keep picking up their crosses as they lived together, as they discovered together new ways of living, of giving, of bearing witness to the short distance between God and humanity everywhere on earth.
Lent is the time in our church year set apart from what is ordinary time, partly for the sake of working on thinness, in the physical sense if that is what you need, but I’m thinking more about the faithful sense. It’s no accident that “Fat Tuesday” comes first!
Faithful thinness happens when we try picking up our cross, or connect with others who are trying, and discover God’s presence in the process. We grow thin in the faith sense when we get out of the cliché of our comfort zone for the sake of following Jesus, of “heeding God’s call” and discover God’s presence, something sacred, some moment where our work on earth connects with God’s heavenly will.
Thin places happen when we as a church take risks based on trying to follow Jesus, when we listen together for God’s call to do something new and different – today, hearing from Lisa Delity about working to end gun violence – another day, connecting with those who are incarcerated through reading their poetry.
Thin places are all around us, but they take work to see. They rarely happen without someone else describing them, without someone else demonstrating what they look like. This Lent, open yourself to discovering thin places among us, as we hear from Lisa about her work, about the journey of those concerned about gun violence, to heed God’s call.