“Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives.”
~Clarence Odbody, It’s a Wonderful Life
Barbara Kingsolver begins her novel, Flight Behavior, about a young woman, wife, and mother who is climbing up a Tennessee hill on a way to meet a young man in a secret tryst. Not a promising start for the woman who is the protagonist of the story. However, on her way to her rendezvous, she encounters something that she didn’t expect to experience and which transforms her life. She reaches the top of the hill where she has a view of the valley beyond. What she sees, but doesn’t initially comprehend, is a valley filled with orange butterflies.
A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame…The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze…No words came to her that seemed sane. Trees turned to fire, a burning bush. Moses came to mind, and Ezekiel, words from Scripture that occupied a certain space in her brain but no longer carried honest weight, if they ever had. Burning coals of fire went up and down among the living creatures. 1
Even though the novel mentions that Dellarobia and Jesus aren’t “that close”, Dellarobia likens her experience to that of Moses with the burning bush. It is something wondrous, mysterious, and almost terrifying. The Celts, both before and after their conversion to Christianity, had a beautiful phrase for such an experience of the numinous: thin places. They are places where the boundary between heaven and earth dissolves and the two seem to meet.
Often, as in Dellarobia’s case, such experiences can be had with nature. I’ve had such moments myself from riding through the moonlit alien landscape of Cappadocia to mountaintop experiences in the Alps. But I’ve also found that thin places can be had in the midst of people. In high school, my family and I were evacuated from Turkey. On our way back to the U.S. we had a layover at Rhein Main Air Base, Germany. Rhein Main AB was where my family and I were at before we moved to Turkey. So there I was, surrounded by people I knew from two different countries. It was a surreal experience that made me consider the way in which our lives intersect. Moments like that I consider “thin places” because it reminds me that God, in His greatness and providence, can cause our lives to meet with seemingly little regard for the boundaries of space and time. As we are reminded by the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, “Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” 2
I believe Scripture affirms the idea of thin places. Mary, the mother of Jesus, seems to have at least two such experiences in her life. Both occurrences I have in mind are in the Gospel of Luke. In the first instance, after Jesus has been born and the shepherds find Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, “they reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:17-18). Then, we are told that “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, just as they had been told” (v. 20). In between those two statements we are told that “Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them” (v. 19). While the shepherds rejoice, Mary sits quietly, meditating on the significance of what has happened. Her response of quiet reverence and awe, the result of meditating on not just what the shepherds described but also on what the angel Gabriel had told her about her son Jesus, leads me to believe she is in a thin place.
The second instance occurs later when Jesus, Joseph, and Mary travel in a group to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. As Joseph and Mary, along with the rest of the traveling party, head back to Nazareth they realize that Jesus (who is 12 at this time) is not accompanying everyone else. When Joseph and Mary go back to Jerusalem they search everywhere until they find him in the temple. When Mary quite understandably asks, “Son, why have You treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for You”(Luke 2:48), His response in the following verse is “Why were you searching for Me?…Didn’t you know that I had to be in My Father’s house?”
After that, there is a similar pattern as before: “Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them. His mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with people” (vv. 51-52). We see again that Mary “kept these things in her heart”. We are told in verse 51 that Joseph and Mary did not understand Jesus’ response of needing to be in His Father’s house. Perhaps, without fully realizing, she catches some glimpse of who Jesus is and what He is to become and accomplish.
Sadly, there is a common denominator between Mary, Dellarobia, and ourselves. Even as we experience such thin places, moments which ought to be transforming, so often they are not. We see later in the life of Jesus where Mary and Jesus’ brothers attempt to curtail His ministry and claim He is “out of His mind” (Mark 3:21). 3 Dellarobia, despite her experience and the opportunities she has as a result, continues to deny God’s presence in her life and fails to really change in the ways that matter by the end of the book. And as for us, so often we also revert to our previous ways. I may marvel at God’s ability to link my life with someone else’s after several years and thousands of miles, but often I trample over the importance of relationships in my bulldozing quest to accomplish, consume, or experience more.
If this is often the case, the question then becomes why do thin places fail to transform? Is it any wonder that after being asked for miracles Jesus refused to give signs (see Matthew 12:38-41)? I suspect that Jesus, and Paul after Him, gives the answer indirectly in His encounter with the woman at the well. After a roundabout theological discussion with a Samaritan woman, she refers to Him as a prophet (clearly she doesn’t understand fully either) and states, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, yet you [Jews] say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20). Jesus replies, “Believe Me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jersalem…But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21,23 emphasis mine)
The above passage on spirit and truth has always puzzled me until I came across the following passage in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church: “Therefore the person who speaks in [another] language should pray that he can interpret. For if I pray in [another] language, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with my understanding.” (I Corinthians 14:13-15a) So, from Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well and from Paul’s letter I infer that it is possible to worship God (in a sense that includes thin place moments) with both an openness of one’s spirit and with a clear understanding of the truth of what such worship is about. It is also possible to worship God in only one of those stances but not both, thus failing to engage in genuine and transforming worship.
I suspect that many encounters of thin places are engaged in with one’s heart and spirit, but not with one’s head and understanding. We become so caught up in the beauty and numinousness of the moment that we fail to dialogue with God about what He is trying to say to us in that moment. Sometimes, God may simply be blessing us and we should receive that moment with gratitude, treasuring it in our hearts. At other moments, God may be seeking to expand our understanding of Him or to gain a new perspective on the world. Still other times, the Holy Spirit may be gently seeking to move us toward some response. In my case, He may have been calling me to renew an old relationship or to interact with others more freely and willingly, something which is difficult for me to do given my strong tendency toward introversion.
Only by communicating with God in that moment and afterwards, can we discover His Word for us in the present. Even after we ask Him for clarification, He may not respond immediately, but we can be certain that He will. How do I know this? After Jesus informs the Samaritan woman at the well that a new time is coming and has, on some level, already occurred, the woman (still not knowing who He is…remember, she earlier called Him a prophet) states, “‘I know that Messiah is coming’…’When He comes, He will explain everything to us'” (John 4:25). To this Jesus responds, “‘I am [He]’…’the One speaking to you'” (John 4:26).
As I close this post, I’d like to point out that we are in the period of Advent once again where we are reminded of, and celebrate, the ultimate thin place moment: the very incarnation and life of Christ on earth. The boundary between heaven and earth can’t be eroded any more than it is in Him, the One who is fully God and fully man. This confirms my belief that the one whose very life incarnates thin place moments will always communicate to us in such moments, for Jesus Christ is the very Word of God made flesh. So the next time you find yourself in a thin place, rejoice in spirit and in truth, and know that the One who explains everything is, at that very moment, speaking to you.
1 Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior (New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 2013), EPUB e-book, 17.
2 I am grateful to Robert Tracy McKenzie for providing me with this insight. Since I have not actually seen the movie, I believe it to be divine providence that enabled me to come across this quote in his book, The First Thanksgiving, as I was putting the finishing touches on this post.
3 Technically, this verse only refers to His “family”, but given that verse 31 mentions “His mother and His brothers” it is reasonable to assume that Mary is party to, or at least condones, the family’s attempts to “restrain Him” (v. 21).