By Jennifer Bingham Hampton, Pastor, Sunrise United Methodist Church
Brilliantly colored leaves. Turkey. Dressing, Grandmother’s green beans. Home-made potato casserole. Pumpkin Pie. Pumpkin Crisp! Holiday Parades. Department Store Window decorations. Family. Friends. Fellowship.
The sights, sounds and smells of fall conjure up a plethora of exciting images of joyous excess and celebration. There is a comforting thickness in the air that surrounds the memories of good times and traditions, while the cool air slows the season and softens the transition from summer to winter. Fall may be my favorite season; for me, it is a thin place in the year.
I first read about “thin places” years ago in a National Geographic article on Native American religious practices. Sighting many of the natural geographic phenomena and features, now preserved by national parks, like the arches and Grand Canyon, thin places were locations where the distance between gods and earth were somehow not so far apart; places where spiritual and physical realities intersect in powerful and profound ways.
This concept transcends to other religious practices and has deep roots in the biblical narrative and historic Christianity. Genesis tells the story of Jacob, who wrestled with God all night by the side of the river. In the book of Exodus, Moses traveled to Sinai’s mountaintop to meet God. Likewise, the prophet Elijah crawled out of a cave to witness the Lord pass by. The traditional belief was carried on by Celtic Christians who held a similar view of the Trinitarian God being more present on the Island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland, while our faith history is full of pilgrims who make their way to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. I’m personally convinced that God lives at Camp Tekoa, a United Methodist Conference Camp in Hendersonville, where I spent summers as a camper and staff. All these, and more, are thin places.
I tend to agree with New Testament scholar and theologian Marcus Borg that thin places cannot be limited to physical places alone, like mountaintops, river banks and summer camps, but the nearness of God may also be mysteriously more present in certain times, memories and even people.
I was once visiting a friend in his final days of Hospice care. We gathered around the bedside while my friend rested quietly and unresponsively, until a visitor came bringing his newborn granddaughter with him. The feeling in the room immediately changed; my friend opened his eyes, locking gazes with the newborn. I could almost hear the unspoken conversation which passed between them: her brand-new eyes said, “I know where you’re headed. I just came from there!” and he responded, “I know where you’ve come from, and I’m on my way back.” There was an assurance of a life to come and in a moment, the hospice room became a thin place.
Despite the heaviness of life that often comes with the fall, it is for me a seasonal thin place: a season of witnessing the life of God at work restoring the world through the beauty of creation and reconciling of relationships; a season of deep gratitude for a life given and sustained by a good and gracious God, in whose Spirit we live and move and have our being; a season of preparation as we inch closer to the holiest of seasons and remember how God became flesh to live among us.
As people who live by faith, not by sight, we believe God is present all around. God is present in every person, place and moment where the light overcomes darkness, where hearts are filled with hope, and an abiding peace reigns. May the colors, smells, sights and sounds of this generous season grow us all more attentive to the eternal, unfathomable and life-altering love of God in Jesus Christ. May our faith grow deep in the thin places the Spirit reveals to us, and may the light of Christ keep us on the sunny side of life.