Thin Places

Have you seen Jesus my Lord?
He’s here in plain view.
Take a look, open your eyes.
He’ll show it to you.

Have you ever looked at the sunset,
with the sky mellowing red,
and the clouds suspended like feathers,
then I say…
You’ve seen Jesus my Lord!

The song continues to describe the power of the ocean, the passion of the cross, and the face of Christ that we see in one another when we look upon one another in love.

I share this song with you because it reminds me of one of those thin places in my life. It wasn’t a thin place because my waist was abut 4 inches smaller. It wasn’t a thin place because I felt stretched by the pressures I was facing at the time.

No, it was a thin place because it was a time in my life when I had little to rely on but God, and because there were others in my life that helped me to see myself as one of God’s beloved children. Most importantly, it was a thin place because I was truly aware of the active presence of God in the midst of my ordinary, simple, and limited life.

The idea of a “thin place” actually comes from Celtic spirituality, and it describes a place or a time when the connection between the spiritual world and the physical world is virtually transparent. While this may sound like a pagan belief (because it is) it’s a fairly common way to describe the way that we have attempted to connect with the divine throughout human history.

Throughout scripture, especially in the Old Testament, we find people going up to high places and mountains to erect alters and poles and offer prayers. That’s essentially what we find in scripture today as well.

Moses went up, just as Abraham did, to seek an audience with God. Actually, in this part of the story Moses is being summoned in order for God to give him the “law and commandment”. Interestingly, Moses has already been given the law and commandment at this point, and the part that follows is essentially a God given blue print for the tabernacle. And the tabernacle is given to them so that they might know that God is with them – that the God of their ancestors is their God!

And so it is with Jesus and his closest disciples as they ascend to a high place, and the reality that Jesus represents is shown to them. Jesus doesn’t transform into some otherworldly being. He is shown to them in that moment for who he truly is. And then Moses and Elijah are there as well. As weird as that sounds, it’s important to keep in mind what this meant for those Jewish followers in the early church. Not only does this connect Jesus with their ancestral faith, but also Elijah’s return was a sign of the end of days. It meant that God was ushering in a new order and all that came before would come to an end.

It is no small wonder then, that Peter and the others wanted to establish some dwellings in that place. What else does the human creature do when faced with radical, fundamental change than try like mad to regain control? What else could they do but fall on their faces when that bright cloud overshadowed them (I really like that idea, overshadowed by brightness)? What else could they do but fall to their faces when the voice of the Lord claimed Jesus as beloved? And isn’t it amazing that the first thing Jesus did was to touch them?

Sometimes a touch can bring us into a thin place all on its own. For babies in a NICU, touch can make the difference between failure or succeeding to thrive. There comes a point – fairly quickly – when touch must also be welcomed, and in the end our ability to reach out in love will be defined by the words of Jesus when he said, “Get up. Do not be afraid.”

Our touch – if we are to reach out with the hands of Jesus – must be permission giving. It must remove fear. It must recognize the truth that we are all beloved by God.

Now, the part of the story that follows has always been confusing to me, because Jesus tells them to keep it all secret until after his resurrection. Reading that gives me the same feeling as when watching one of those TV shows where one character decides to keep a secret for the good of another, and then it just snow balls into a big mess. I just can’t stand it when they do that!

Yet Jesus knows that there is a time and a place for all things. He knows that telling the story of this metaphysical demonstration of his true self is not the way that God wants to be revealed in him. It is only through his death and resurrection that the depth of God’s love for us can be seen. Even though he has already told them that it is going to happen, it’s only through the experience of the thin place of the cross that the disciples will have a story to tell.

So it is with Peter who seems to be telling us, “Look, you just can’t make stuff like this up. I was there. I saw it. I heard God claim Jesus in words that echoed through every fiber of my being. Jesus is not some mythical story of a selfish and vengeful God on high. He is the thin place, the revelation of God, and the motivating force that moves us toward what God has in store for us.”

Then he gets into this thing about prophecy, which is not so much about fortune telling as it is about truth telling. Truth is not something we generate so much as something we discover. The truth that we can share is not something that we come up with. It is something that God places in our hearts and minds, and it gets refined when we share it faithfully.

I don’t know how else to describe this other than to tell you how I’ve seen this in one of the thin places in my life. Most of these thin places are easier to see when I look back on my life, and one in particular took place at my grandparent’s cabin in North Carolina. My parents had recently divorced, and we were having some much needed family time with cousins and grandparents. My mom’s cousin owned the cabin next door, and our families grew together during warm afternoons in the creek and cool evenings by a campfire. My grandfather had recently taught me to take out some anger by whittling a piece of wood down to nothing.

My mom’s cousin’s husband, Frank, noticed one day that I was trying to carve my initials in a particularly large stick, and he said, “Why don’t you put the date, and then in the year of our Lord on it”. I must have given him a look, because he quickly clarified that he just meant “A.D.”

Well, I thanked him and told him I was having enough trouble with just my initials, but something about it struck me. I knew Frank was a Christian, in fact we was an Episcopal Priest! Somewhere in my young mind I must have heard him saying, “Get up! Don’t be afraid.” Somewhere in my young mind I came to realize that even in the middle of my parent’s divorce there was a God who was active and present and longing to be revealed. Because, as Frank assured me, saying that it is the year of the Lord meant that all things were in God’s hands.

As I look back on that moment, it’s like snapshot of light breaking through the clouds. As I look back and think about the claim that this is the year of the Lord, I realize that this, too, is the year of the Lord. This, too, is a time and a place where a simple touch, a heartfelt prayer, and an encouraging word can open up a thin place where God enters in!

I think that is one of the reasons that we tell this story every year at this time. We are moving from the season of Epiphany, a time where we celebrate the new way that God was revealed through the work of Jesus. And we are about to begin the season of Lent, a time to consider deeply all that separates us from God.

And perhaps in this place more than most, with our parades and parties, it is important to remember that our true nature is also revealed in these thin places. And while we, in our truest selves, are made in the image of God, there is also that part of us that wants to build booths to contain what we cannot control.
Let us, then, let go of control and become reckless in our search for grace and mercy. Let us be willing to touch and heal. Let us speak truth that is filtered through love and refined by our expectation of God’s active presence, for surely God is in this place. And God is in the thin space that can be found in the public square, or the mountain top; the abandoned home or the coffee shop. God is in the boardroom and the concert hall. God is with the powerful and the powerless, and God is still moving us toward a greater end.

The beautiful thing is that we don’t have to wait to share this good news! We may yet fall on our faces trying to do the right thing, but the God of our ancestors – of Miriam and Moses, Abraham and Sarah – is still our God today. And this God is active and present, and with us thick or thin. To this one true God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, be all glory and power. Now and always, amen.

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