Monday, 15 August 2011 16:47

August 14, 2011 Sermon

“A Thin Place”
John 1:1-4
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 14, 2011
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

The opening words of John’s gospel remind us that God is everywhere, in everything.  “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the Word was God.”  All things came into being because of the light of God.  This implies that everywhere is a reflection of God.  Everything is holy.

Stillwater-based singer-songwriter Peter Mayer sings a song with these lyrics:

“When I was a boy each week, Sunday we would go to church,
pay attention to the priest, and he would read the Holy word.  
Consecrate the Holy bread.  Everyone would kneel and bow.  
Today the only difference is, everything is holy now.  
Everything, everything is holy now.”

We get that in an intellectual sense, but what happens when we don’t see God?  What happens when we are so distracted by all of the hatred and injustice and warfare and economic disparity and just reality of trying to make ends meet or trying to stay safe that we don’t feel God anymore, let alone see or experience God.

When this happens, we seek out those thin places where we might find God.  Some of us find it in church, in a particularly moving piece of music, a new insight on the Scripture, or perhaps sitting next to the person in whom you have seen God shine through.  This building is about ninety years old.  Every year, we get visits from people who have walked these aisles, sat in these pews.  Some were students, some married here, some taking a walk down memory lane.  They come by, sheepishly knock on the door and we walk around, reminisce and talk about the differences between then and now.  This September, a family will come here to renew their vows in the same sanctuary in which they were married sixty years ago.  This sanctuary is a place of holy memory for them.

Some of us find our connection with God in those places of solitude, like up on the Boundary Waters or paddling around Madeline Island or hiking on Isle Royal or in our favorite chair, or at the cabin that has been with the family forever.  The point is, that we all need to find God, if for no other reason than to recognize that our difficulties are manageable, if we trust in a power greater than ourselves—be it the community, be it the remembrance of being connected with a larger narrative, or be it with a connection to God.  Where do you go to find God?

There’s a Celtic saying that earth and heaven are only three feet apart.  In some places the distance is even closer.  These are called thin places.  Do you know of a thin place?

I like what Mindie Burgoyne wrote:

“Thin Places are ports in the storm of life, where the pilgrims can move closer to the God they seek, where one leaves that which is familiar and journeys into the Divine Presence.  They are stopping places where men and women are given pause to wonder about what lies beyond the mundane rituals, the grief, trials and boredom of our day-to-day life.  They probe to the core of the human heart and open the pathway that leads to satisfying the familiar hungers and yearnings common to all people on earth, the hunger to be connected, to be a part of something greater, to be loved, to find peace.” Mindie Burgoyne
Copyright, 2001, 2007 by Trinity Publications

The island of Iona in Scotland is called by many a thin place.  George McLeod, founder of the modern-day Iona Community called it tissue-paper thin.  What makes Iona so special?  This could be in part because of the monastery built there by St. Columba in the 6th Century CE, destroyed by the Vikings and rebuilt by the Benedictines, abandoned and restored in the last century.  It could be because of the constant work and prayer and pilgrimages that people take to that island spanning hundreds of years.  Kings and nobles were buried there, their grave markers like paving stones from the Abbey to the shore.  Pilgrims went to Iona looking for that connection with God.  Many thousands found it there.  Was it because of the location, or was it because so many others were also looking for God there?

When I first got there, I have to admit that I was impressed by the island, the Abbey and the worship services.  But it didn’t seem any more special than many of the places I had seen in Ireland the previous two weeks of my trip.  What was so special about this place?

I heard people talking about how much they loved it.  The church groups I met, most had been there before.  It’s an annual pilgrimage for many of them.  Groups from Scotland, England, Holland and even a group from Minneapolis.  Small world much?

At Iona, there are worship services in the Abbey three times a day.  The leadership is traded off by the young resident staff.  They follow a formal liturgy with new hymns being written all the time.  The Abbey has a long narrow sanctuary where people sit facing each other in English style.  It’s hard to find a place to see or a focal point.  Much of the worship is foreign to me.  Lots of psalms and written prayers, hymnals (they call them hymnary) with only the melody listed.  One can find easy ways to get distracted.  Sometimes, worship doesn’t work well.  Something is off, like the music is just too unfamiliar and unsingable, or the leader’s brief reflection doesn’t do it for you.  But the beauty of it is that if one worship service doesn’t work for you, come back and the next one will probably be better.  There’s a rhythm to that, unlike a shopping mall or a Google search.  If you keep coming back, chances are you will be surprised, or notice something you didn’t see before.

The fact that people have worshipped in this sanctuary for centuries, at the apex of a spiritual pilgrimage, you could almost feel the anticipation of something happening.  Something, but what and when?  When would we see that it was a thin place?

After the first couple of days, I found myself wondering, is a thin place a location or is it a state of mind and heart?  Is it a holy place or is it an instance in which we are open to the holy?  In that sense, everyplace can be a thin place.

I told this to my new friends from the Netherlands.  We hung out together, because we were among the youngest there, aside from the staff.  They patiently said, “I see your point, but we do need an anchor place—a place that we can go to find insight and renewal.  A place that connects us with the Divine, or the best part of ourselves, or the holy place of our origin.  That place is the thin place, where you discover who you really are, who you were meant to be.”  I think the Donley farm was that for me.  That’s why it was so hard to let it go.

My brother and I went to visit the site of our family farm outside of Cleveland, Ohio this past May.  We talked about memory and fact being strange things.  People can remember facts differently.  They can look at the same event(s) and add to that our own narrative.  The intersection of all of that gives meaning to the event and it therefore becomes the truth.

In my teenage years, my cousin and I lived on the farm for weeks each summer, repairing cabins, tending the gardens, hearing the stories of our family from our grandparents and great-grandparents.  I remember the farm as a place of family and apple trees. Great grandma asked us over and over again if we had seen the spring house.  Yes, we had.  She asked us the same question ten minutes before.  She would repeat it ten minutes later.  She told about the three-foot stone tub into which the water flowed.  She used it a s a natural refrigeration unit.  As Mike and I walked around we found the springhouse, water still flowing, tub still full.  The water was probably filled with lead, but those Donleys often lived into their late 90’s drinking that water.

We saw broken down chimneys amidst the open lots.  Speculators who bought the farm after our grandfather died, thought the property would be gobbled up in no time to make mcmansions on the old orchard fields.  Electricity and fire hydrants and city water was piped in about nine years ago when the farm was sold.  Most of the lots still sit empty.  One sign even shows a foreclosure.  Another set of dreams unfulfilled.  A story of a housing boom and bust mingled in with the story of a family farm bought to help a child survive tuberculosis.  Ninety years of family memories, including strife and love are watched over by ancient black walnut trees, a pond, a springhouse and a few old chimneys.  The four mansions already built look out of place, at least to me.  They’ll look even odder if the lots right next to them spoil the tranquility of the place that still resembles the farm of my childhood.  I imagine to myself, all I need to do is win the lottery, then I’ll replant the orchard, raise the dead, and hang a swing from a huge hickory.  It’ll still get poison ivy, bathe my kids in fells naptha and go to sleep with a child’s lamp made up of a jar filled with lightening bugs.

As we crunched our feet under the tall grass, I swear I could hear the sound of my Uncle Willis on the tractor, the laughter of my cousins as we lost yet another kite in a tree, the wobbly songs of my great grandfather as he bounced us kids on his knee and the train whistle in the distance announcing to us how close we were to the passage of time and memory.

Iona had been used as a place of spiritual focus for centuries. In fact, just a few hundred yards from the Abbey stands the ruins of a 13th century Augustinian nunnery.  While the Abbey has been rebuilt (where the brothers had lived), the nunnery stands in ruins. Walls with no roof, the outlines of a cloister with a garden in the center, a juxtaposition and still a holy place of pilgrimage for people, especially women. At the nunnery, pilgrims remember the women in their lives.  They remember the forgotten ones of history.  The Biblical women whose names are not even mentioned.  They are only known as the Syrophonician woman, the woman at the well, the widow of Zarapheth.

But at the nunnery, people pause to remember the women who have gone before.  They remember mothers and daughters, sisters.  And you often see people weeping and even laughing on the benches overlooking the garden inside the roofless cloister.  

I spent many an hour at the nunnery, remembering all of you, remembering my family, the three women of my family waiting to come join me the following week.  And it was there that I buried a portion of the ashes of Jan Bienhoff, at her mother’s specific instruction.  I found a fuscia tree and pulled aside some day lily bulbs and buried it where she might mingle with the ground that would bring beauty, joy and serenity to those who visited. Serenity was something she desperately desired and sometimes achieved.  I prayed for her and her family and all those who struggle in this life.

Later on that evening, we had the weekly healing service in the Abbey.  Each week names are read for people who need healing and direction.  There’s a small side chapel in the Abbey and a stack of cards.  Each week people fill out the cards until there are hundreds of names, each with a specific concern, knowing that the intentional community will lift up their names in that thin place and pray for their healing, direction, or comfort.  During the service on Tuesday evening, I listened for the names I put down amongst the hundreds of names prayed for generally and specifically.  As the names were read, hot tears ran down my face, something that doesn’t happen for me in worship very often.  Maybe it was thin place after all.  It happened when I was leading Adele’s Memorial service just before I left.  It happened again on a hillside in Ireland a week before when I was buoyed up by the spray of the ocean and wondering what the ancient Donleys might have been thinking when they left Ireland for America in the 1840’s.

Each time I was in a thin place.  I experienced a connection with God there and then.  I saw the wonder and majesty of nature, the beauty and holiness of memory, the fragrance of candles and surf, the hotness of salty tears and deep longing.  And I experienced the evidence that we are not alone.  We are surrounded by more love and beauty and blessing than we can know.

“In the Beginning was the Word.  The Word was with God and the Word was God.  All things came into being through the Word.  In the Word was life and that life is the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

What are your holy places?  Where is the veil between heaven and earth especially thin?  Do you need to go 6000 miles away to find it?

We all have those places.  Maybe we can’t visit them in person, but through prayer, meditation and intention, we can go there, recognize that God is there, and await the healing tears that might just come along with insight.

I know many of us face tough decisions—sometimes on a daily basis.  Take some time to talk with God about that.  Find some thin places.   Along the Mississippi, along Lake Superior, in the woods, in your home, your garden, even in this very sanctuary.  The point is that God is here, right next to you.  Inviting you to enter into the holy halo of support and power.  When we encounter a thin place, we often come away with a vision for who we are and who we are to be.  And we are seldom the same again.  As this summer wanes visit a thin place.  You may be surprised by what you find.

Let me close with an Iona Reflection from the book, “Around a Thin Place: An Iona Pilgrimage Guide” (pp, 98 & 99)


When I ascend to the mountaintop
and gaze with joy on the other side,
or when I must travel to places of death;
cherish my delight, and contain my horror,
for you have been there, and there, before me,
O Jesus of the Way.

And when my journey takes me far across the world
and I must encounter new tongues, new ideas, new ways,
hold my heart and mind open,
for you are there too, waiting to welcome me,
O Jesus of the Way.

And when my path is black and unlit,
and I can see nothing in front but dark and fearful shapes,
still my panic enough to know
that one of them is your shape,
O Jesus of the Way.

For where shall I go from your spirit,
and how could I be away from your presence?

If I climb up to the heavens, you are there,
and if I make my bed in hell, still you are there.

If I fly cast with the rising sun,
or sail to the uttermost west, you are there.

If darkness covers me, and night closes in on me,
you are there too;
for night is not dark for you, but luminous as the day,
and the two are one to you.

For where shall I go from your spirit?
Your presence is there, and there, and there.

Kathy Galloway