“I’m drawn to places,” writes Eric Weiner, “that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.”[i] He is speaking of what we’ve come to know as thin places.
Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. The ancient Celts used the term to describe places like the wind-swept isle of Iona where Julie Kae will have an opportunity to spend some time this summer as a part of her sabbatical.
Here’s a picture of Barb and Maggie walking on Iona when I was on sabbatical and Maggie and her kids were kind enough to act as our tour guides for a portion of it some years ago.
And another of Megan and Molly and Claire, perched on an ancient cairn on this island whose rocks have been smoothed and tamed for two billion years.[ii]
And another of the Iona abbey where John Bell and other artists and musicians create some of the music that often graces our worship, as it does the lives of people of faith around the world, and ever-so-gently pulls us into the wonder of what is sacred and holy all around us that we are together a part of.
There is something about these places. You feel it when you’re there. And they are everywhere. Like up near Lake Tipsoo on the edge of Rainier National Park.
They are a common reality in the Pacific Northwest—a draw to many who would rather spend their weekends heading for the hills and the mountains and the oceans and the streams than spend them in low-slung church buildings.
It does make sense, of course. There’s something here that gets to our spirits, that opens up our imagination, that not only makes us dance,
but simultaneously draws us to the edge, that wells up within us an awe and wonder that we just don’t find many other places.
It’s the beauty of it, but its more, isn’t it, that brings heaven and earth even closer? So much that draws us out is a draw to our limits, to a tree-top or to a precipice where we fight vertigo in order to peek over the edge, an encounter with a power that is bigger than our own, a grandeur that can swallow us up. A thin place.
It sends us to the mountain, or it sends us down into the valley.
I’m headed to the desert in a few weeks for precisely this reason—because there’s something at the edge of this wilderness experience that is more than just a little thirst or a little beauty.
There’s something sublime—the experience of that which is beyond your control and mine. That which will open you up, lift your spirits, jolt you from sleep to attention, and find you trying to make sense of it all. It will make you walk and trudge and thirst and sing. It will make you stronger, if it doesn’t kill you first.
What is that thing that you’ve done? What were those moments, those destinations, those experiences that created discomfort, that put you on the edge of danger, that terrified you, that you just had to follow through on for reasons you might never be able to explain fully? What was going on there? What does it mean?
I understand that before there was Christmas, before there was even Easter, there was Transfiguration in the early church. If this is true, if the celebration of this story which we find all over the scriptures—paralleled in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and referenced in 2 Peter—predates the institution of those more dominant stories[iii], then there was and perhaps there is something to pay attention to here—a thin place in this reading where who we are and who we are to be is called into question, where the limitless and the limited confer, where a cloud of mystery and a voice from the heavens just might reveal something important about our everydayness.
I suspect there’s something here that’s not just about our wonderlust. I suspect these stories, and this recurrent theme of the encounter of God in the far-off, desolate and dangerous places—on the edges—by those who are looking for a life that makes a difference, that matters at its center, has everything to do with the learning to trust God in our most profane moments—waking from slumber, living with purpose and intentionality.
In a sense, this is precisely the work of Lent, and why these stories and this Sunday have been placed at the beginning of it. During this season the stories and texts and poetry we encounter invite us to ask about our true home.
You are being invited into this season with the invitation to pay attention, to think about the nature of home—what happens there, what it provides, what a true home creates in us. We’ve identified a word for each of the coming Sundays that we hope will act for you something like a mantra, a one word meditation that might invite you to understand in a new way.
You can see the words here and they are listed in your worship aid. We’ll send out a reminder early in each week. I want you to also notice that most of the words can function both as a noun and a verb. So shelter, for example, the word we hope you will live with this next week, is something that we both experience, and that we can create. The same is true for most, if not all, of the others.
And we hope you will not only live with these words, but you will put them to image; we hope you will use those great cameras on your phones, and you’ll capture an image that captures something within you, and then share it with us.
I, for example, am thinking about an image, because I was tagged by Lainey Sickinger this week in a Facebook conversation about, of all things, shelter, and the need so many of our neighbors in this time still have for it when we so many of us have so much. Here’s what a church in Eugene built for some of their neighbors who were without shelter. I don’t know what this means, but I do know it is important to pay attention.
And I know this: The community known as Tent City 3 has found a home in the parking lot of our brothers and sisters at Lakeridge Lutheran Church. The pastor of Lakeridge, Scott Kramer, was meeting recently with representatives from the community and their preschool leaders. It is a regular occurrence they’ve found helpful in building trust and cooperation.
Pastor Scott had been gone for a while. He’s been back and forth to Iowa where his dad was failing. At a recent meeting, one of the Tent City folks asked Scott whether the rumors were true about his dad dying. Indeed, he had. Scott was blown away at the awareness and empathy of someone who has so much to worry about.
Then a little later, Scott noticed that a few tents were missing from the encampment. It turns out they collapsed under the weight of the recent snows and were destroyed. He remembered what we all remember from time to time—that our ability to pay attention in the thin places has, for whatever reason, much to do with our own struggle and even suffering. There is something about being in the thick of it that opens us to the one who looked down to his own departure in his death. And this experience seems to have fueled him for the long journey he makes alongside those who need him to Jerusalem. You see, God isn’t just up on the mountain, but in the valley, and in the wilderness wanderings. God is in the thick of it.
As this table teaches us, God is in the everyday stuff. Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but sometimes that distance is even shorter.
[i] Eric Weiner. “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer” in the New York Times, March 9, 2012. Retrieved March 2, 2019 from https://nyti.ms/2jE0b5N.
[ii] This on the West side of the island. On the east side, they are only half as old! See “The Isle of Iona: An island of contrasting rock, colour and light” retrieved on March 2, 2019 from https://www.scottishgeology.com/best-places/isle-of-iona/.
[iii] Cf. Matthew 17.1—8; Mark 9.2—8; 2 Peter 1.16—18.
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