Thin Places

July 23, 2017

Based on

 

Genesis 28.10-19a 

 

I’d like for you to think of  a special place in your life. 

A place — a physical location — where you feel extremely connected to God. 

Maybe it was a long time ago, maybe that place is far away or long since changed. 

But I also hope you have a place you can go that is a bit like a sanctuary — a place where God speaks to you in some way. 

A place that never fails to be of comfort.

Do you have that place?

I have many of these. 

I have several, actually. Some very near, and some far, far away. 

One is on the banks of the Bouqet River in the northern Adirondack Mountains. 

Another is inside this obscure and tiny chapel on the Penn State University campus. 

And the other is off the wooden boardwalk in Millbrook Marsh.

These are places that I go where I always feel incredibly connected to God.

Places where God speaks to me. 

That last place, Millbrook Marsh, is where God urged me to begin my ministry. 

At the time, I was going through a lot of stuff in my life, and while I knew I would follow God’s call, I was worried I wasn’t ready. 

And as I was walking the marsh, God began speaking into my heart 17 directives about just how ready I was. 

As God spoke, I sort of froze. 

I realized that God was saying these things, and I wanted to remember them. 

God said, “Do not wait for me, I am already here. I only wait for you.” 

I didn’t have anything to write on, and I was a long way from my car still, so I tried to type them into my phone.

As I began typing, my phone went dead — my battery had died. 

So I began walking quickly to my car, trying to repeat all God had said, but they just kept coming. 

By the time I got to my car, they stopped. 

I quickly grabbed a pencil and a sheet of paper, and wrote them down. 

I was surprised I could remember them all. 

And I remembered them for a long time after that. 

That’s not typical for me — I can’t even remember my own phone number… 

Each time I walk the boardwalk at Millbrook Marsh, I remember that day, but I also can feel God’s presence in a profound way. 

This, for me, is a Thin Place.

 

Thin Places

The early Celtic monks of Iona, Scotland, in the Seventh Century would use that term, Thin Places, to describe sacred places where the distance between Heaven and Earth almost touched. 

The boundary was thin. 

This group of mystic Christians connected deeply with nature.

I’ve never been to the coast of Scotland, but from what I have seen in pictures and videos, it indeed is a Thin Place.  

I’d love to travel there someday. 

But although it’s easy to see the lush green Scottish coast, the deep blue sea and the bluffs and mountains surrounding Iona, Thin Places  have come to mean any places where the veil between Heaven and Earth seems thin and that there is an undeniable connection to the divine.

And every time you return to that place, you can feel God’s presence.

It is a sanctuary for you.  

 

Stairway to Heaven

 Jacob knew of a place like this, a Thin Place. 

We see in our reading today in Genesis 28.10-19, exactly where that veil between Heaven and Earth was especially thin. 

You see, Jacob is heading toward Haran from his home in Beersheeba, following his father’s orders to find a wife.

Jacob is the third generation of God’s covenant to Abraham.

God promises Abraham a new land in Canaan (which will become Israel) and generations of offspring too numerous to count. 

At 100 years old, Abraham and Sarah, who was barren and is 90 years old, give birth to Isaac, fulfilling one of God’s promises. 

Isaac gives birth to Jacob, who will soon be renamed Israel when God meets him in yet another Thin Place. 

But for now, Jacob’s following his father’s command to find a wife outside of Canaan, and on his journey out of the country, it’s getting late, so he stops for the night to sleep.

And, we learn beginning in Verse 11 that Jacob is encountered by God in a dream where he sees angels or messengers of God ascending a descending a stairway between Heaven and Earth.

God speaks to Jacob, passing onto him the covenant that God gave his grandfather Abraham through Isaac:

Verse 14: “…the land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring; and your offspring will be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of earth shall be blessed.”

When Jacob awoke, he placed a stone in the place, anointed it with oil, and named it Bethel, which means House of God. 

In the Hebrew language, Beth means House. 

El means God. Like Elohim

House of God. 

Like Bethlehem — House of Bread. 

Or Bethpage — House of Figs… And so on… 

It’s interesting too that God meets Jacob in this Thin Place on his way out of Canaan — the Promised Land — and then God meets Jacob again in another Thin Place as he returns to Cannan. 

It shows us that God is and was with Jacob through his whole journey. 

But it also shows us how sacred these portals are — these entry ways into places God calls us to. 

Do you see that? 

 

Spiritual directions

Often in our lives, God calls us to different places for a reason. 

When I was plying the boardwalks of Millbrook Marsh and God met me there, God was calling me out of one place — the life I had known — and into another place — my ministry as a pastor. 

Although I didn’t mark the spot with a stone and anoint it with oil, it has become — as I’ve said — a Thin Place for me.  

It’s sacred not only because God met me there — as if that weren't enough! — but also because it marked a spiritual change in the direction of my life. 

Perhaps the altar that I built was how I wrote down those 17 items that God spoke to me, added a photo of the boardwalk, framed it, and it hangs on my bedroom wall today — I don’t know. 

But that place has significance to me in a way other places don’t. 

Incidentally, the cover on your bulletins this morning is from another Thin Place — it is on Sayers Lake in Bald Eagle State Park, and the water was so calm that day, staring into it was like staring straight through the clouds. 

But enough of my Thin Places. 

Or even Jacob’s 

What are some of yours? 

See, I didn’t know that I was ready to begin a new journey when God called me to begin my ministry. 

I was discerning, and I was dragging my feet.

If you know the whole story of Jacob before he became Israel, he was avoiding some stuff too. 

He had to wrestle with God in order to understand God’s will. 

Paul talks in 2 Timothy 3.5 that people are often “…holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power…”

Jacob had spent a long part of his life running in opposite directions from where God was, even though he knew God was in his life. 

He knew and had witnessed the power of God. 

It’s at these Thin Places where are called to better understand God’s will in our lives. 

Just like me at Millbrook Marsh. 

Once I understood God’s will, the doors flew open for me and six months later, I was assigned my first church. 

My ministry was well underway. 

But what if I didn’t go to that Thin Place to hear God calling me?

What if I kept myself so distracted, I continued to just drag my feet?

I already knew what was happening to me. 

My marriage had failed, I was in a dead-end job, and I was in an emotional place in which I simply retreated.

I needed to meet with God for that to change. 

Thank God, I was able to. 

But what if we don’t?

What if we continue to just keep distracting ourselves with our jobs and our success in them; with the sports teams we follow like a religion; with our hobbies and interests; maybe it’s our addictions and habits; it can even be our families and spouses or church! 

We can continue to surround ourselves with the busyness of life and all the while be devoutly religious — coming to church, participating in activities, working for the good of the world…

In other words, we can hold onto a form of godliness but deny God’s power in our lives because we’re not really paying any heed to it!

We know the sanctuary of those Thin Places, but we turn away from them. 

Why? 

Well, sometimes it’s hard to follow God. 

Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. 

Might even be painful…

And we don’t like change. Change is hard sometimes. 

We can look at those statements and simply say we lack trust in God. 

We lack faith. 

This faith journey that we’re all on — whether we realize it or try to ignore it — is not any easy one. 

We ask God to soften our hearts and to open our eyes. 

Yet, we do things to harden our hearts and turn our eyes away. 

We ask God to help us help others, then we look at the Others as less than us. 

We ask God to be with us, yet we run away. 

 

Return to the Thin Places

Deep in our hearts, we know the power of God.

We know the places where God meets us. 

Maybe that’s why Jacob marked his Thin Place with that stone and anointed it.

So that he could return to it. 

And he did!

We don’t live in a vast wilderness in which everything looks the same, thus we have to mark it with a stone to find it again. 

No, our wilderness is cell phones, computers, mortgages, car payments, soccer practice, man caves and she sheds… 

So much distraction to get lost in, how would we ever find a Thin Place?

Our Thin Places may have become places of rest, of quiet, of prayer, of worship, or reflection and of peace. 

Spiritual director and facilitator Lacy Clark Ellman writes that “Thin Places (are) a Sacred moment spurred on by a spiritual practice or a deep conversation that pierces the soul.” 

I agree with that, but I’m also with the Celts that there are physical places— natural places — we can go where we can readily find God. 

They don’t always have to be Scottish coasts or Adirondack streams. They don’t need to be great basilicas or even tucked-away sanctuaries. 

But they are places that we have to consciously go — places where we expect to find God and trust God will speak to us there. 

So again, I ask you as I did at the beginning of this sermon, where are your Thin Places? 

If you can’t answer that question, I would offer these:

Ask yourself whether you are too distracted, to immersed in “life” to notice God calling you. If you don’t make room for God, you will never experience all that God has for you; and

How exciting it is to embark on this journey! 

Each of us has an amazing opportunity to connect with God in  profound ways. 

Jacob found this in a Thin Place.

Jesus is seen retreating to the wilderness and mountains to pray to God. Thin Places

And Moses climbed a lot of mountains too. Thin Places, for sure! 

Again, maybe we don’t have to climb mountains, but we do have to make space to witness God in our lives. 

We have to be quiet enough — to be still — so that we will hear God calling us in the middle of our wilderness. 

It’s time to go back to those Thin Places. 

 

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