Rev. Michelle Bogue-Trost, Guest Preacher
Living in the Thin Places: Changes
Sunday, February 4, 2007
Jeremiah 1: 4-10
You’ve been talking about
thin places lately here at Foundry – that wisdom from the ancient Celts of
For the Celtic Christians, there was significance to natural places of boundary and change. They were fascinated by shorelines where the sea met the land, by fjords and rivers, even by doorways – the meeting places of the outside and the inside. These places speak of junctions, of transitions from one state into another. In a similar way, the Celts celebrated those places on their calendar where one season met another. Their festival days were times when the seen and the unseen world seemed to be in close, almost indistinguishable, proximity.
So, thin places are transitional places. They exist where change is erupting, where routine is disturbed, where opposing forces come together in conflict and confluence. They are not always comfortable places, but they are places where we can meet God and experience the divine.[i]
How many of you have had some change in your life? …nobody gets through life without change. How many of you have experienced a major life change in the past year? The past five years? The truth is, no matter how hard we work, no matter how hard we try to order our lives, change happens.
You’ll find something in your worship folder this week – a life change assessment. This is a tool used to quantify life stress based on change. The premise is that every change – be it good or bad – brings some stress to our systems, whether it’s to our own physical or emotional life, or our families or any other system with which we are involved. If you haven’t looked at it yet, just give it a glance. You’ll see there’s a scale at the end which tells you the levels of stress correlated to the amount of change you’ve had in a given year.
Now, I will tell you, I’m an expert on major life change and the stress that results from it. I added up my numbers; in the last seven years (seven years ago is when major change became a constant in my life and things really started spinning out of my control), I’ve only had two years where my units added up to fewer than 150, and just barely. Five years of major change, high stress, life disruption. I’m probably a stroke waiting to happen.
For so many people, me included, disruptions in life can lead to problems besides stress. We can hit faithquakes (to borrow a word from Len Sweet) – feeling like the very foundations of who we are and what we believe are being shaken to the breaking point. We can lose sight of ourselves, and even scarier, we can lose sight of God, and not have any clue about how to make things right again.
Some huge change happens, with or without our consent, and suddenly we’re stressing out, losing sleep, kicking the dog, and we don’t know what to do about it. We look back longingly to before the shift, back to a time when everything was in place and we had our ways set, and we wonder why we are disoriented. Many people enter firmly into denial at this point. Others plant their feet, draw the line, and concentrate their energy on trying to turn time and events back. Others simply give up, get stuck, and become paralyzed and powerless. Many times, this is accompanied by the feeling that God has abandoned us, whether it’s because we believe God either did this to us in the first place or doesn’t care what happens to us, or that God simply can’t or won’t deal with anyone who’s such a mess as we are.
Fortunately, there’s more to the story than that. There are thin places in change, places where even in chaos, even in transition, we can meet God.
Take our story of Jeremiah’s call to serve God. He lived in a time when his nation had passed in turbulence and revolt from Assyrian control to the power of the Babylonians, and his people had lost their focus on God. A mess. The very young Jeremiah is called by God in a moment of promise and prophecy, to enter into a new life of speaking God’s hope in a hopeless world.
Like any of God’s good prophets (and you can search the Hebrew scriptures and find that it’s true) Jeremiah’s answer was, “Who, me?...No!”
God comes to Jeremiah and says not only, “Yes, you,” but also, “you will speak my word of hope to people who believe they can bear no more change. I will be with you, as I always have been, every moment of your life; I will give you everything you need to do this.”
One of the commentators on this book writes:
Nothing could be done to turn back the clock or to prevent from happening what had so painfully and tragically taken place. In preserving the record of Jeremiah’s prophecies, the unknown scribes and compilers have done so with a view to assisting men and women overtaken by these tragedies to face them, to respond courageously to them, and to look in hope beyond them.[ii]
That’s what we find when we seek the thin places in the midst of change in our lives; when we stop and ask honestly and with open eyes and open hearts, “Where is God in this?”
When we open ourselves to God touching us, reaching into our lives in the midst of turmoil, we open ourselves to an encounter with a living power and presence that awakens us to a new reality. We find that, even in the midst of chaos, we are known, beloved, and provided for – and that is the beginning of hope.
This means that when my marriage is breaking up and my husband is packing to leave, my 6 year old daughter can appear at my side with a picture and a scripture verse that tells me in the words of Job: There is hope for a tree – if it’s cut down, it sprouts again, and grows tender new branches (Job 14.7); and I can see God in my child’s face and in the words of life on the page.
It means that when the job is lost and the bills are mounting up, someone can find God’s grace and strength in a job he never thought he’d take, that gives him less money, but more time and less stress.
It means that when the family has disowned, and ultimatums have been made, someone can find the hope and comfort of God in the touch of a partner, and in a life of commitment and love.
It means that when the diagnosis has been made, and treatment options discussed and exhausted, someone can find God’s healing and patience in the hand of a nurse, the kiss of a relative, a meal cooked by a neighbor.
True stories all – people I have known.
Hope lies in the unchangeable truth that when the carefully-laid plans have disintegrated, optimism has fled, the skies are grey, the earth is shaking, and it feels like life will never be the same, God is present, waiting and willing to redeem the situation and make us whole.
Every change, turmoil, or upset brings with it a thin place, a place where God can find us and we can find God, if we pay attention. It does mean we have to shift our focus from the change at hand and the ways we’re stuck in it, held captive by it, and look for God instead.
We make a mistake when we think God can only find us when everything is going right, when we’re doing everything right. Guess what – God doesn’t just wait for the perfect times to meet us, the uneventful moments, the still spaces. God is there, too, but never only there. God is with us in our turmoil, our times of life change, faithquakes, hopelessness. The thin places we speak of and hope for are not always serene, mystically meaningful moments reserved for the saints or for the particularly holy. We’re not always ready for them, and we can’t control them. The good news is that God finds us in the times and places we need God most, if we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the hearts to accept the encounter.
Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem captures the kind of thin place experience I’m talking about:
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
That’s how the light gets in.[iii]
Our task is to undertake the asking: Where is God in this? How will God redeem even this change in my life? How will the light get in? The answer for us is God’s answer to Jeremiah: I will give you everything you need. I’ll be right there, looking after you. Always.
We have to be willing to meet God in that promise. The good news is: God will be there. This is the thin place.
A prayer The Northumbria Community attributes to St. Brendan (486-575) in a wonderful book called Celtic Daily Prayer:
Lord I will trust you,
help me to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways and break fresh ground with you.
Christ of the mysteries, can I trust you to be stronger than each storm in me?
Do I still yearn for your glory to lighten on me?
I will show others the care you’ve given me.
I determine amidst all uncertainty always to trust.
I choose to live beyond regret and let you recreate my life.
I believe you will make a way for me and provide for me, if only I trust you and obey.
I will trust in the darkness and know that my times are still in your hand.
I will believe you for my future, chapter by chapter, until all the story is written.
Focus my mind and my heart upon you, my attention always on you without alteration.
Strengthen me with your blessing and appoint to me the task.
Teach me to live with eternity in view.
Tune my spirit to the music of heaven.
Feed me, and, somehow, make my obedience count for you.[iv]
[i] Adapted from a sermon by Donel McClellan, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Bellingham, Washington
[ii] RE Clements, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching--Jeremiah.
[iii] Anthem, c 1993 Leonard Cohen & Sony Music Entertainment
[iv] Celtic Daily Prayer, c 2002 The Northumbria Community Trust Ltd