Paxtonvic’s Blog

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A ” thin place”

Last Saturday morning I put together  sermon for Sunday June 13th based on the  Celtic spirituality notion of    ” thin places”. I didnt know when I wrote it that my old mum would pass away that night after a long, long illness in her nursing home. Though tired and probably drawing on some reserves I didnt know I had, I preached it on Sunday morning – realising that one of the most powerful of thin places has got to be that moment when someone leaves this life.

Homily for June 13th 2010

Thin places

These last few weeks I have spent more time than usual in church. I don’t mean just our three churches, but the churches of our Deanery and on Thursday evening, Ely Cathedral.

One of the jobs of the rural dean is to carry out church inspections on behalf of the archdeacon every five years, and as these inspections were in some cases well overdue I decided, along with our lay chair of Deanery Synod  to carry out all the inspections in the space of a week. We started with Buckden Church and finished at Everton which is grouped with Gamlingay and Hatley.  Generally I would say that despite the perennial worries over money – whether for the annual share or building work and the wish that more people would get involved in church life, the church communities in our Deanery at least are in good heart and play a very important role in the day to day life of their communities. Several either just have finished or are seriously considering developing their builds for more flexible use – just as we are here at Little Paxton.

Wednesday night I was in another church – Brampton – for the Archdeaon’s visitation. Every year church wardens have to be sworn into office and there area choice of venues to go to. All clergy are encouraged to join them. Hugh McCurdy is our archdeacon of Huntingdon and he preached what is called his “charge” to the wardens.  One line struck home to me and has been playing around in my mind ever since.

Rather than seeing our buildings as burdens which we have to struggle with to maintain he urged us to see them as “ Thin Places” . I love that phrase. Thin Places.

What does that mean? In what sense are the thousands of churches in this country – let alone across the world thin places?

In the Celtic tradition  of spirituality such places that give us an opening into the magnificence and wonder of  God’s presence are called “Thin Places.” There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God. A contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description.

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
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.
God shaped space. Holy.

Often thin places are associated with wild landscapes. A thin place requires us to step from one world to another and that often means traveling to a place where we have less control and where the unpredictable becomes the means of discovery.

The Island of Iona off the NW coast of Scotland is such a place which has been described as a thin place. George McCleod who was instrumental in getting the ancient abbey on Iona rebuilt wrote.

“ God is present everywhere, and can be sought and encountered even, and perhaps vividly, in places of greatest need. But there are also some places which in their clarity and peace render people particularly open to experience God, where the veil that separates the earth and the Kingdom seems tissue-thin. Iona has been such a place for countless generations of pilgrims “

In September 2004 I travelled to Iona with a friend – a long journey from Leicestershire – which took on the form of a pilgrimage.  One of our walks took us to Columba’s Beach on a wind swept day. I do experience agrophobia sometimes when I’m away from civilization, but I was determined to do this walk. The beach was glorious, we made a cross pattern from stones lying by the sea shore and the presence of eternal rocks seemed to offer me shelter and guidance. As I stood on the beach the waves of the ocean seemed to whisper Jesus’ words “ Peace be with you”.

These words can be read from a bible –  in a thin place there is an immediacy of experience where words of faith become words of life.

I remember feeling those years ago In that hallowed space and time that heaven and earth for a moment are one.

I wonder if there have been places you have visited that you would say you have come back from refreshed and renewed spiritually?

For me having seen glimpses of glory in a place like Iona –I can begin to see glimpses of glory all around us.

I’ve been enjoying birdsong lately – early morning birdsong may not please  everyone – but I love lying awake and listening to it.  The birds outside our window sing of the mystery we might easily passed over in our busyness. We live surrounded by some lovely countryside and many of you may have special places which to you especially speak of Gods presence.

A  Welsh minister Thomas Jones  once wrote:

Our Lord is great, and great His praise
From just this one small part of earth,
Then what of the image of His greatness
Which comes from the whole of His fine work?
…What of the greatness and pure loveliness,
Of God Himself?

The prayerfulness of just “one small part of earth” encourages us to seek out thin places from time to time on our spiritual journey. One of the beautiful gifts of our understanding of eternal time and space is that when we cannot physically go to these places, we can return to them in our memory and in our imagination. When I have felt dryness in my prayers I turn to my memories of Iona and   imagine that I am walking over St Columba’s beach  and being recharged spiritually.

But remember what I said earlier when the archdeacon was speaking on Wednesday night. How about if our churches are thin places – places  where God’s presence is  felt keenly. What about if instead of cursing these ancient buildings for being an expensive headache, we allow them to be experienced as thin places?

Last Sunday during the 40 minutes service a woman came along to church with her son who is autistic. I heard noises in the porch and one of our congregation went out to them and asked them in – but they didn’t come inside. I went out and stayed out with them – talking quietly. Tom  it turned out has a fascination for churches but has a great problem getting through the door of a church. It wasn’t until the service finished that with some encouragement he came in. His mother said she would love to bring him to church more but because he make a lot of verbal sounds some might find that disturbing.

My hunch is that Tom  has a lot to teach us. His condition might make it extra hard for him to enter through a door – but there are many people even living in this village who find it hard to come through the door of this church – not least because most of the time it is locked. Even if it isn’t, there is an apprehension about how they might be received.

Places where Gods presence can be keenly felt – like Iona and may other beautiful paces in the country and beyond are always accessible. Paxton Pits is always available for walking – many churches are not always accessible – though doing my inspections it was heartening to see how many are now left open without stewards during the day.

The walls of our parish churches have soaked up the prayers of generations and have been places, they are sacred spaces where God has been keenly felt by thousands of people whether in corporate worship or in time of quietness. For many they are thin places where God’s presence is most keenly felt.  What a privilege and a challenge to us as custodians of this building to do all we can to make this church accessible – to make it a thin place where Gods love and presence can be encountered every day.

The woman in the gospel story really shouldn’t have encountered Jesus in the way she did. There were thick walls of rules and regulations stipulating how men and women should behave in Jesus’ time – and Jesus should not have allowed her near to him. But in one simple movement she broke down those barriers and bathed his feet with her tears. She created a thin place  where her devotion to Jesus defied the conventions of the day and she was made whole in this encounter with the living God.

I realized going round the churches of our Deanery  – and actually enjoying it – that is I had to sum up the aim of my ministry over the years, it would be to enable people to encounter God in a real and enduring way  in Jesus Christ that makes a real difference to the way they live their lives. Whether I sought it out or not, developing projects which  makes an ancient building more of an accessible thin place where God is met seems to be something I have been called to do over the years.

We need not wait until our project is finished to look at how we can make this church more accessible. I wish it could be open more – and it’ something our PCC will look at further in future. But when we are here together we all have a part to play in making sure the love of God reaches out to those who be unsure of coming through the door.

I invite you to reflect these days on the places in your own life that refresh your spirit and opens the door to the threshold of the sacred?

You can return to these in your imagination and once again experience God’s Presence and receive the peace of this Celtic blessing.

Deep peace of the running wave
Deep peace of the flowing air
Deep peace of the quiet earth
Deep peace of the shining stars
Deep peace of the Son of Peace.

Sunset on Lindisfarne 2003

June 14, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Rest eternal grant unto her O Lord, and light perpetual shine upon her- I’m sorry and relieved to hear of your Mum’s death and sending lots of love and prayers

    Comment by Cheryl Collins | June 15, 2010 | Reply

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