The beauty and inspiration in this sermon is why I go to church generally, and why I attend All Souls Church UU in particular whenever I can.
A thin place is a Welsh phrase for a place that speaks to you from “beyond.” However your mind happens to define or perceive the beyond that surrounds us, a thin place stretches our ability for words to explain.
Indeed they require no explanation. Their power is felt, and through the experience, we – the listeners – are transformed.
Rev Susan says:
“You can look for thin places, but you won’t find them. They have to find you.”
She goes on to give examples from her life of people and places that carried thin spaces into her presence and transformed her: Feeling the presence of old souls in a Welsh countryside, walking through the portal of no return on Gore Island in Senegal, communing with civil rights leaders, asserting her way into an all-male ministry conference, which led to her becoming a minister in a church that denied women the opportunity to preach, and finally sitting alongside another in hospice, holding her hand, listening to the other woman promise to meet Susan again, even if it happens on the other side. “… now go have an amazing lunch,” the dying woman finished.
I too have felt myself in thin places. Once I was traveling on a road through an old forest, climbing up an Appalachian mountain, and I rounded the rend and felt an overwhelming need to stop the car.
I parked it on the shoulder and climbed down the ravine where I found a bubbling brook surrounded by tall pines holding up the mist above like pillars. No one spoke to me, but I simply felt the presence. It was a presence that said nothing, asked nothing, claimed nothing, and expected nothing. All it did was reassure me that God was here, and because it was here, in the now, God was fully real. And because I felt total confidence that God no longer had to be real because now he simply was real, my life needed to take some clear directions that could otherwise be postponed until death at an older age loomed larger.
I’m not saying I was transformed. I continued doing the same things I’d planned, but now if I happened to face obstacles I could confidently feel that this whole path for my life was not in vain.
Yesterday I wrote on Facebook that evolution – unlike people and governments – doesn’t require anyone to believe in it. Evolution will work on us whether or not we recognize it, define it, or use it to predict the interconnectedness among disease-causing bacteria to save lives. God – in my thin place – is the same. The kind of language I felt wasn’t asking me to believe in God or in anything; it was making itself known, and I was asking myself what that means for my life path. This thin place found me and forced me to stop the car in the middle of nowhere. And if you are a good listener on the level beyond words and reason, your thin place will find you too. What you ask yourself with your “reason hat” after you are there is up to you.
I suspect that many people find a thin place and dismiss what they feel. But when someone embraces this experience – and the possibilities that the “something” beyond this basic day-to-day life allow, they are transformed and the people around them feel this transformation, even if those people have failed to listen in their own thin place.
I’ve met a few people this year that inspire me in ways that must have meant they experienced their thin places. Fatuma – a 32 year old woman who runs HODI in the arid northern Kenyan town of Marsabit – strikes me as compelled to do what no earthly reason or circumstance could alone inspire. It’s not because she’s already changed the world that I feel her inspiration dripping off onto me when we meet; it’s that she has something inside her that comes through in how she works. She was the oldest woman in her town to get married, and she fights to help young girls grow up before they get married. Many girls marry at 12 and have kids before 16, just as told in the Girl Effect Video.
I don’t know what from Fatuma’s life inspired and compelled her to give girls the opportunity marry older, but she has “it” in her words and actions. I want to spend a whole week there filming whatever happens, and maybe I’ll document and inspire others through her.
There are others whom I’ve never met – like Uli (AKA “the heroine of flight 847), a stewardess who stopped hijackers from killing Jews on a plane for no reason other than “I just didn’t want to feel powerless.” And perhaps others still that I have met and haven’t just recognized in this way.
I do the work I do in East Africa because I believe this body of community stories might become a thin space for others: A large body of information that as people search and read, becomes wisdom and insight. I simply cannot believe that a body of stories about life this large could not eventually allow deeper meaning to emerge. I believe that the totality of all peoples’ stories worldwide would, when merged together, yield a useful picture each of us can use to answer the question, “what is the meaning of life?” It will not spit out a direct answer like 42, but it may manifest itself (with better visualization) as a sensory environment that allows each listener to ask himself the questions that will put him or her on the right life path – just as my thin space did for me.