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In the Thin of Things: Hanging on for Dear Life

by Mary Domb Mikkelson, member of United Church of Christ of La Mesa

      Buried within the bravado (“I’m not going to change my ways just to please you or appease you”) of the Dave Matthews Band’s “Seek Up” lies a tidy bit of cynicism, “If at all God’s gaze upon us falls, it’s with a mischievous grin…”

     While I’d replace “if at all” with “when,” the rest seems quite reasonable; a sense of humor could well be an essential prerequisite for Godhood.

     But what about the “change” bit?

     The French have a phrase for it, “plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose”- “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

     This handy aphorism came to mind recently when a Disciples of Christ minister challenged me to write this article, citing his conviction that “in the UCC context there is not enough emphasis on inner experience of connection to God.

     “If,” he said, “you have had a…‘scary’ deepening of your faith…your experience needs to be shared.”

     With that in mind, I started to “think thin.”  Not diet snack bars but colloquialisms…

     “Thin skin.”  “Skating on thin ice.”  “Pretty thin excuse.”

     Detect a trend?

     Criticism bruises the thin-skinned.  Danger stalks the “skater.”  And as for that weak excuse, you can see right through it.

     Thin…permeable…open to infiltration…subject to collapse.

     Free association (read “rambling thoughts”) brought yet another phrase to mind — “being in the thick of things.”  Is it, I wondered idly, possible to be “in the thin of things?”

     Bemused, I filed the thought for future contemplation, then forgot all about it until an envelope appeared in my church mailbox.  Slender, enfolding a short, handwritten response to a letter thanking a recent visitor for attending UCCLM, it contained both a pleasant surprise (his son was, long ago, one of my science fair students) and this stunning description of the extravagant welcome he had found at UCCLM, “Your church was flooded with God’s natural light.”

     “…flooded with God’s natural light.”   Kathleen Raine’s “…I have glimpsed the bright mountain behind the mountain,”1 bubbled to the surface of my mind, carrying with it all the wonderment of the Celtic concept of “thin places,” places where, according to theologian Marcus J. Borg, the distance between the divine and the secular is narrowed, and we are able to come closer to experiencing the divine.”

     More poetically, in the words of Sharlande Sledge, it is that place “…where the door between the world and the next is cracked open for a moment and the light is not all on the other side.”  My correspondent had experienced that light at UCCLM, as have I.

      “Thin places,” I mused, recalling other moments, other places, other times, when God, perceived though the thinnest of membranes, seemed close enough to touch.  I had, it seemed, stumbled upon the positive side of “thin.”

     Where had I glimpsed that bright mountain?   Lifted up my eyes unto it?  Known without question from whence cometh my help?  I recalled the wonder of sailing “up close and personal” amidst towering icebergs, some dazzling white, others brilliant cobalt blue – all alive with God’s natural light. 

     “Thin moments” exist, as well.  Some insist “thin places” and “thin moments” are separate entities, not to be confused one with the other.  I question that, remembering a day (“thin moment”) in church (for me a “thin place”) when, asked to center ourselves before worship, I felt intense warmth, a glow into which all else faded.  For that moment, in that place, I was alone with God, as I have been on occasion when thought became lost in music or, simply, in time or space.

     Alone with God…

     We sing about it (“I come to the garden alone…”), go into the solitary closets of our minds to pray, return time and again to the “holy” spots where we find God, are still in the silence and beauty that we may know God.

     And yet…and yet…

     Community was important to the early Celtic Christians, community with God, with the angels and saints and with each other.  Monastic communities grew into monastic cities, where clergy and laity worked and worshiped side by side.  Interestingly, hermits were responsible for forming many of those communities.  Leaving society in search of places to draw nearer to God, to be alone with God – “thin places,” these solitary worshipers soon attracted followings and new communities came into being.

     Out of solitude, community; out of thin, thick. 

     Back to those “thin places,” those mystical, lost in the mist “bridges to Brigadoon.”   What have they to offer liberal, progressive Christians?  For the Celts they were places to be sought out, places to “grow” one’s faith, to define oneself as a Christian.  Pilgrimage was the order of the day.

     We don’t often speak of – or contemplate making pilgrimage.  The concept is terribly medieval or Catholic or Islamic, after all.  Ours is, instead, a journey of faith (“No matter where you are on your journey…”).  A distinction without a difference.  Or is it?  Might not the measured deliberateness of “pilgrimage” serve us well on our journey?

     Whether we seek out “thin places” or stumble upon them, whether we are alone or with others, they open for us a portal through which, however briefly, we touch God, are in community with God.  And it little matters how we view God; for in that moment we experience God’s love reaching out to us, enveloping us, walking with us, sharing our pilgrimage.  We and all who journey with us know the wonder of being flooded with God’s natural light.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

     A couple of years have passed since I first slipped through a “thin place” at UCCLM.  I know now my “thin places” and “thin moments” aren’t aberrations.  They are, quite simply, facts of life.  And, yes, they can be scary, in the sense of “unsettling” rather than “terrifying.”   Intellectual faith was definitely easier – and, if you go along with my DOC friend, far more UCC.

     Be that as it may, that the “thinning of the veil between heaven and earth” often occurs for me at UCCLM, makes it, in my mind, wonderfully UCC.  It has happened during worship services (both traditional and contemporary and when meditating in the Columbarium Chapel and, for that matter, when writing for Joys & Concerns (UCCLM’s newsletter) and Connecting Voices.

     The thought of finding words to describe those moments—perhaps especially to progressive UCC folks, seemed rather daunting.  Until, that is, in addition to those of Marcus Borg, who describes “thin places” as “anywhere the heart is opened,” I encountered the testimonies of Barbara Brown Taylor, Kathleen Norris and a hospital chaplain whose blogs are signed only with “John.”  Taylor, worn down by 60 to 80 hour weeks serving a large Atlanta church, found her place of rest and reflection and closer connection with God along the Chatahoochee River in North Georgia, a spiritual journey she shares in her book, Leaving Church:  A Memoir of Faith.  Kathleen Norris, one of my favorite authors, writes in Acedia and Me of her practice of reading (and re-reading) psalms to connect with God (I learned of this book in a sermon, “The Power of Thin Places,” posted on the website of the Greensboro, VT United Church of Christ).  Chaplain John relates that the concept has its origin in a way of seeing God as the encompassing Spirit in which everything is” and in the conviction that “God is not somewhere else, but ‘right here.’”  A “thin place,” he adds, is “a means of grace.”  Another John wrote of a Samaritan woman who encountered Jesus at a well and (in that “thin moment” of awareness) was offered the “living water” of faith. (John 4:14, The Message)

     A quiet place along a river, the psalms, a place where hearts are opened, God – and God’s grace right here and now.  Real stories, powerful concepts, simple language. 

      Real enough, powerful enough and simple enough for me to “keep them (and my own experiences) to ponder in my heart” (as was written of another Mary in Luke 2:19).

     My early uncertainty about these “thin moments,” led me to seek Pastor Félix Villanueva’s counsel about the course of my spiritual journey.  We talked several times, conversations neatly encapsulated in his advice to “enjoy the ride and hang on for dear life.”  A little dramatic, I thought at the time.

     I was soon to change my mind.

     UCCLM’s new contemporary service brought with it fresh ventures through the veil, almost routinely when the beat of the music captures me.  Hands clap, bodies sway and, caught up in this once alien to me music of faith I am very aware of God’s presence “right here.”

     But, after all, it’s hardly surprising that one might encounter God in church.  What of elsewhere?  What of when I’m writing?   My best guess?  The receptiveness that reveals those “thin places” has also made me more aware of paths God opens before me, paths that are leading me in strange and wonderful new directions, especially in my writing.

     None of these, nor all of them together, prepared me for what happened next or the change it would bring.

     When a basket of pebbles, talismans to represent whatever we wished to lift up to God, were introduced into the contemporary service, I was, shall we say, underwhelmed.  I “went along for the ride” (that thought should have warned me!) to be polite, walking to the back of Friendship Hall, selecting whichever stone caught my eye, holding it and offering up a word or two of silent prayer.  Came the day the prayer, in response to something said during the service, was more heartfelt, a plea that an emotional struggle that had plagued me for the better part of a lifetime end.  It did, right then and there—and gone it has stayed.

     Change?  Nothing, at least outwardly, has changed.  I am still me.  Inwardly is another matter.   That’s where I’m “hanging on for dear life!”  And, by the way, I’m definitely enjoying the ride. 

________

1Kathleen Raine, Collected Poems (Dublin: Allen   and Unwin, 1981) 107.

2 Sharlande Sledge, “Thin Places.” Unpublished, as quoted by Sylvia Maddox in “Where   Can I Touch the Edge of Heaven?”

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