Sunday, December 15, 2013

Thin Places --- Advent 3

Micah 5:2-5a   (NRSV)
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
    when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
    to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
    to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

The early Celtic people believed that there were certain places where you could go to be closer to God.
          These places have long been called "thin places."
Thin places are geographical locations where a person experiences only a very thin divide between the past, present, and future.

Celtic Christians sought after what they called “thin places,” spots where the “membrane between mere physical reality and the reality of God’s presence thins out to where it can seen, touched, tasted, or sensed in some unmistakable way.” 

The Celts often found these “thin places” at shorelines, fjords, rivers, and wells. 

Later, (after their conversion to Christianity by St Patrick) they experienced them in cathedrals, prayer gardens, sacred groves and plots of ground –
places where “the veil was so sheer, one could almost step through it” into the presence of God.
Someone once said:
“There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. 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.”

When Christianity spread into the British Isles, the Celtic Christians preserved aspects of this ancient folklore for revering thin places.

They broadened the understanding to encompass not only geographical places, but also moments when the holy became visible to the eyes of the human spirit.

Thin places, then, took on Christian meaning, where a person is somehow able to encounter a more ancient and eternal reality within the present time.

Thomas Merton once wrote that thin places are even more prevalent than the ancient Celts believed, but we just don't see them.
"Life is simple," he wrote. "We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time ... if we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes ... the only thing is that we don't (let ourselves) see it."

It is unfortunate that we often miss those glimpses of the kingdom of God, breaking in on the earth.

But, perhaps you have a particular place that is holy to you:
·         the beach you've walked countless times where water rolls onto the sand in a familiar way,
·         a place of reunion where God seems always close by and all's right with the world,
·         a mountain vista that has taken you close to the stars and seemingly closer to God,
·         a church
·         or family cemetery,
·         or even your own yard and garden.

Do you have a place where you can go and feel especially close to God?

"What is significant about sacred places turns out not to be the places themselves," someone has written.
"Their power lies within their role in marshaling our inner resources and binding us to our beliefs."

While places can bind us to our beliefs,
          so can memory,
          a piece of music,
          a special story,
          a word spoken at just the right time -
my guess is, if we think about it, most of us have experienced a "thin place" in which we can remember God seeming very close and very real.

Perhaps one of the most significant thin places and thin spaces we miss on a regular basis is the celebration of Christmas.

In the midst of all the last-minute preparations for Christmas, we can be caught up in thinking that this is just another Christmas season with the same traditions and myriad obligations (most of them self-imposed) that require all of our attention.

We can miss the fact that Christmas really calls us to consider the thinnest place the world has ever seen
·         not an island, but a manger
·         and not a feeling, but a person in whom heaven and Earth both fully dwell.

In our scripture this morning, the Prophet Micah is calling out to the people of Judah to focus on finding a thin place.

To understand the context of Micah's comments you must understand that the Assyrian army was closing in on Judah.

They would avoid destruction at the hands of the Assyrians ---- but they would not escape the Babylonians.

Yet, even in the midst of all this impending doom, God offers a word of hope through the prophet with a promise to create a new thin place for his people -- a remote, out of the way place.

In Bethlehem, in a place few expected, God was going to bring the life of heaven to Earth in a very personal way.

Bethlehem was, of course, King David's hometown

Despite all that was about to happen to the remnants of David's kingdom in Micah's day, the prophet assures the people that God was not going to abandon the promise that a king was coming from David's hometown to rule Israel, one
          "whose origin is from of old, from ancient days" (Micah 5:2).
This king, in other words, would represent God himself.

Interestingly, most people in Micah's day thought that the ultimate thin place in the world was the temple in Jerusalem, which was the place where it was thought that God dwelled with his people.
They believed that Jerusalem --- and maybe the Temple specifically --- was God's belly button

But the Temple was not to be Israel's salvation

Just 40 years after Jesus --- the Temple was utterly destroyed.

Micah was telling us that security isn't found in the Temple --- It is found in this future king.
          God's true King

Listen how Micah puts it (The Message)
He will stand tall in his shepherd-rule by God’s strength,
    centered in the majesty of God-Revealed.
And the people will have a good and safe home,
    for the whole world will hold him in respect—
    Peacemaker of the world!

Think about this for a moment: 
Instead of a temple, the place where heaven and earth came together --- the place where God would dwell with his people, was going to be the feeding trough in a back alley of the tiniest and most insignificant of places.

But, I will be honest with you: If you visit Bethlehem today, you'll find that it doesn't have the same kind of pastoral, quiet and mystical aura of a thin place.

Today getting into this little town is difficult because of the security wall that surrounds it.

And once you succeed in getting to the Church of the Nativity it is often anything but pastoral.
·         There are monks calling out for people to be quiet
·         Security officers with large weapons across their backs
·         People like me --- looking for the perfect picture
·         There's jostling with a long line of pilgrims waiting to touch the star in the cave below that church that marks the traditional site of Jesus' birth.
Quite simply it's more hectic than holy in there on any given day, which makes it hard to fathom that whole idea of a "Silent Night."

Yet at the same time --- if one allows God to speak --- it can become a very thin spot even to this day
But that is the key --- we have to learn to listen with expectant hearts and ears.
One of my most profound experiences of God was in the cave of the nativity --- as we sang Silent Night and another group sang it in Portuguese

Dorothy Bass is a historian of American religion who tries to bring the life of faith close to home in practical ways.

She notes how often we ask one another "How was your day?"

I imagine all parents of school-aged children have greeted their child with that question - "How was your day?" or one very much like it.

It is a kind of question that usually comes from someone who really cares, but is often met with a vague response like, "Not bad."

"Most days," Dorothy Bass remarks, "we probably forget to notice."

Then, she tells the story of a mother she knows who has quite a different way of asking that question.

As she tucks her children into bed each night, their teeth brushed and their hair still damp from the bathtub, she asks them this question: "Where did you meet God today?"

And they tell her, one by one:
·         a teacher helped me,
·         there was a homeless person in the park,
·         I saw a tree with lots of flowers in it.
Then she tells them where she met God, too.

Before the children drop off to sleep, the stuff of their day has become the substance of prayer.
          They enter a thin place and they realize the presence of God is very near.

What this story reminds us, is that to seek and find thin places --- places where we feel close to God --- requires practice.

It requires a disciplined rhythm to discover that places to encounter the very presence of God are all around us.

They wait to be discovered.

You will find them down the corridors of schools and hospitals, in places at work and the familiarity of home, places where it becomes clear that God is very near.

In these last few weeks before Christmas, it's not the Bethlehem of modern-day Israel that we need to pilgrimage to in order to experience the thin place of Jesus' birth.

We can do that right where we are by simply focusing ourselves on the humble, obscure and yet powerful way in which God chooses to bridge the gap between heaven and Earth.

He doesn't come with chariots rolling or guns blazing, but in the soft skin and helpless posture of a baby, born to a family who number themselves among the poorest of the poor.

Life was thin for Mary and Joseph, but the life Mary brought forth in the manger was full of more than God's people and, indeed, the whole world could have ever imagined.

In Jesus, God broke through the barriers between himself and humanity by becoming one of us.

We don't worship a God who is distant, cloaked in clouds, and oblivious to our world.

Instead, we worship a God who has humble himself

Remember what Paul wrote in Philippians 2, (The Message)
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

So, as you prepare for Christmas, perhaps the best preparation is to take some time to go to a quiet place and consider that God is not far away, that the king is quite near and his kingdom is at hand.

Allow yourself to live in the reality of who God is and what God has done in Jesus.

Take a pilgrimage into the heart of the biblical story of Christmas and read it as if you're seeing it for the first time.

Serve someone who needs to experience the reality that God has come to give them real hope.

May your Christmas be thin!


Fred H. Conger said...

I agree, wherever we go God is already there. as Jacob said,"Surely God was in this place and I knew it not. The whole world is the temple of God.

C CONGER said...

Beautiful: "Where did you meet God today?"

Thanks for reminding us to find God on a daily basis. The wonderful thing here is that there is no set prescription. Everybody can "find God" and discover their own "thin places" in their own way based on their own idea of what that means.