A phrase we’ve been throwing around a lot lately — particularly in relation to our weekend gatherings — is ‘thin places’. This metaphor isn’t a new concept, it’s roots our found in Celtic Christianity. Originally the phrase was a way of describing those places and moments where it feels like heaven and earth meet, that the space between them is so thin, that you can actually catch glimpses of God.
I’m not sure how removed our use of the term is from the original idea, but for me it feels like it’s born out of a particular way of thinking about God. I’ve mentioned it before, but I grew up with the concept of God being ‘up there’. Not quite sitting on a fluffy cloud playing a harp, but certainly a sense of up and distant and that he would descend from time to time. That you would find God in some places but not others. For example, he’d be present when I’m on my knees praying, but not when I’m sitting on the toilet. He’d be present at a church meeting, but not at the local mosque. He’d be present in the parts of my life that I felt were good, but he wasn’t present in the more sinful areas of my life.
One of the issues with this way of viewing God, particularly in the setting of a church gathering, is that there would be a sense of pressure on the team or individuals leading it to create the perfect environment to usher God’s presence down from heaven into the meeting. If the right songs were chosen, if the the right words were used, if we were hungry enough, then God would show up.
Over the last 10 years my perspective or way of viewing God has changed. To steal another metaphor, I now see God as the water and we are the fish. I can never swim away from God, I’m always in him, he sustains my every breathe. He’s so close in fact, that a lot of the time I’m not even aware that water even exists? Maybe this is what Paul was hinting at when he mentioned ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ Or in Romans when he said:
“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It’s easy though to see why it feels like God shows up in particular moments. I’d imagine many of us could tell stories of when it felt like God was suddenly present. My belief now though is not that God has descended, but something has happened to me which helps me notice God. Marcus Borg, would say that this is the ‘opening of our hearts’.
For me then, ‘thin places’ then are a mixture of things that help open up our hearts, that help us notice God all around us.
These could be actual geographical places or buildings. Our surroundings can open us up. Standing by a stormy ocean, or witnessing a breath taking view can be thin places. Visiting the aquarium and being exposed to the beauty of creation.
I don’t think it’s limited to specific places though. There are lots of practices and things that help open our eyes to notice God. Some examples for me in a gathering context could be: singing songs together, someone being venerable about their life, hearing a piece of scripture that speaks to me, being listened to, noticing joy in the kids playing, laughter, being challenged by a different perspective, art, silence… the list could go on.
With so many things available to open up my heart you might think I’d be noticing God all the time. The challenge for me though, is that there a million other things in life trying to close my heart — the biggest one being my own ego which thinks that I don’t actually need God, that I can crack on in life without him.
This is why for me, attending a weekend gathering is a helpful spiritual discipline (along side a bunch of other ones). I’m very forgetful, and it takes real practice to notice God all around us, so having a space every week which is full of practices and opportunities to have my heart opened is a helpful reminded.