Deep Places, Thin Places
Fourth after Pentecost - Year B
Sunday, July 2, 2006
Fourth after Pentecost - Year B
Sunday, July 2, 2006
Let us pray: O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you and may they be to your glory. Amen.
One of the resources I use to plan for worship each week is the worship leader package that is part of our church school curriculum. The introduction to the background reflections for the passages assigned to this week began this way: Faith gives voice to the deep places of our lives.
The commentary, of course, was pointing out the element of grief that is part of the readings we heard this morning. Psalm 130 which we read together, begins this way: Out of the depths I cry to you O God, and in the passage from 2 Samuel David laments for Jonathan and Saul, both casualties on the battlefield. The story we heard from the gospel of Mark tells about Jesus’ intervention in the apparent death of Jairus’ daughter.
When grief and loss interrupts the day to day course of our lives, we are summoned, as the psalmist put it, to the deep places. A deep place has an ironic nature to it - it is both a place where we question the existence of God and yet can also be the place where we most intimately encounter God’s presence.
How many times have you heard, especially in the face of tragic death, the questioning of God - how could God let this happen, an all-caring and loving God would not have taken the life of my loved one away are the kinds of statements you might hear in such a situation. Yet, so often, in the midst of this pain and despair, you will also hear amazing insights from those who mourn and from those who comfort the mourners - insights which indicate that God is meeting people in their greatest need - in their moments of deepest sorrow.
Why we call them deep places I don’t really know, except to say that it seems a very fitting description. The Hebrew people had a culture of strong connection between their spiritual and physical selves. You can read in the bible about emotions being felt in the various organs of their body - and certainly the idea of the heart as the emotional centre of each person is a very strong concept in the scriptural record. It leads to an earthy, integrated understanding of the whole person - body, mind and spirit tied together inseparably . Indeed, grief does seem to take us deep within ourselves - I’m sure you’ve experienced and read stories of how an event that effects us spiritually and emotionally can also have very clear physical consequences. Shocking or surprising news creates real physical reactions. If asked to describe these physical effects, people might well speak about a feeling deep inside. That ties in the clearly with the idea that our spirit or soul is contained within our beings. As much as we are finite individuals there seems to be a never ending well of feeling and emotion contained within these limited and contained bodies we are given.
If we were to interpolate this understanding of our spiritual selves - as an infinite well within us - into our understanding of God - we might well say that God is there - perhaps most closely at the deepest regions of that soulful place within us. As we dig down, especially in the difficult times of our lives, it is there where we are eventually to find the presence that gives us hope and courage. Perhaps the presence is buried very deeply - giving rise to the feelings of despair and doubt that can come about in the midst of pain and sorrow. It takes much uncovering of the layers before God’s presence can be discovered. Sometimes that presence is just too deep. I say that not as a criticism, for we can all encounter situations in this world which cry out for answers to the question why. There are some places, no matter how deeply we go within ourselves, where answers do
not arrive. In places like this, like the psalmist, we cry: Out of the depths we cry to you, O God.
That, however, in my understanding describes only one characteristic of God’s presence. That describes the immanence of God - the divine presence within us. It’s a strong and sometimes overlooked theological understanding. An understanding of God cannot be complete - even though we can never completely understand God - an understanding of God cannot be complete without reference to the transcendence of God - the part of God which exists beyond ourselves. I like to picture this concept in relation to the infinite depth I’ve described within us - by imagining the infinite presence of God outside of us - extending into the universe beyond our seeing - in fact like the universe - visible and yet invisible, describable and indescribable. So, God is infinitely and deeply a part of us - as far as we can go inside and further and infinitely outside of us - as far as we can see with eye and radio telescope and beyond.
Just as the physical and spiritual are intrinsically tied together in the Hebrew concept, I believe that there is a spiritual aspect of this transcendent characteristic of God. Some of my spiritual ancestors were Celtic Christians. They described so called “thin places” - physical locations where the spirit world and the physical world were so close and so delicate that one could almost touch the spiritual presence. Others have extended this idea of “thin places” to include moments of time - occasions when the spirit has filtered through the separation between physical and spiritual to create a holy moment. While you may not have heard them described them as “thin places” I’m sure you can all think of places or periods that fit that description. Certainly the story of the woman touching the hem of Jesus’ garment, in my mind, describes such an event. The woman felt in her body that she was healed of her disease and Jesus was immediately aware that power had gone forth from him. That sounds like a thin place to me.
So, we meet God in the deep places our lives and the thin places of this world, and yet we believe that God is everywhere - within us and around us. How can we put these two together - belief in an ever present God and yet also describe times of closer connection? If God is always around us and within us, why do we need to talk about special times? In my mind, the answer lies in the way we experience any kind of relationship. We all know that when we start to take things for granted in a relationship, problems can develop. Part of the difficulty in seeking God in the midst of turmoil and trouble, sadness and grief is that if layers of indifference or inattention have been built up over the normal course of living - the depth to which we need to delve can be overwhelming. Yes, there will always be times when even the person who devotes much time and attention to nurturing their spiritual selves is overwhelmed, but for the person who has spent little or no time in that direction, the occasions will be much more frequent if not debilitating. If we do not spend regular time nurturing our spirits, the deep places will be deeper and our ability to draw strength and insight will be diminished. If we spend time seeing the wonder of God’s presence in all that surrounds us, we will begin to see and experience many more thin places - and we will live more fully in the visible presence of the spirit.
While we could wish not to have to meet God in the deep places - for that would mean lives without sorrow, grief or despair, we know that this is part of life and part of who we are - it is important for us to nurture our faith in God so that when these times come our faith is not left voiceless. In the same fashion, while we might want to experience many “thin places”, there are things we can do to cultivate our faith so that these “thin places” become commonplace, times and places of holy moment. Amen.