Thin places

Feb 2015    

There are other places with similar spiritual significance. The ancient Celtic Christians called such places “thin places”.

Some places are rich with spiritual memory and meaning, and they seem to be conducive for reflection and prayer. For instance, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (marking sites where the Lord Jesus was crucified and raised from death) and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem have connections with the original events in the life of Jesus, and have a continuous history of worship and remembering.

There are other places with similar spiritual significance. The ancient Celtic Christians called such places “thin places” – “thin” because they believed that in these places the distance between heaven and earth is reduced, and one can sense God more easily.

One can argue that such places are depicted in the Bible. The burning bush that Moses saw seemed to bristle with divine energy (Exod 3). It was in the vicinity of the “mountain of God” where God spoke to Moses and gave His people the Law (Exod 19). Moses seemed to have a good knowledge of such ‘thin places’ where he could commune with God – on the mountain and in the Tent of Meeting (Exod 33:7-11).

Later God instructed His people to build a temple for Him, only in the place He chose, where His holy Name could reside (Deut 12:5). Jerusalem became the holy city where the temple of the living God was situated. It was a thin place.

But lest we get carried away with the idea of thin places and end up with superstitious spiritualism, the Bible carries a narrative that evolutionises the concept of thin places. Israel had become presumptuous about the temple in Jerusalem (Jer 7:1-11). A thin place does not operate automatically. Where there was sinful disobedience and unfaithful presumptuousness, God moved away from the temple (Ezek 10:18-19). The people had a misplaced faith in the temple – which was finally allowed by God to be destroyed.

Eventually, Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is within us (Lk 17:21) – our hearts must become the new thin places. An old thin place is of no use if our hearts remain uncircumcised and thick.

Paul takes up this idea and refers to the relocation of the temple into the hearts of believers. We are the temple of God, both individually (1 Cor 6:19) and corporately (1 Cor 3:16).

The individual believer’s heart and the church, which is a gathering of believers, are the new thin places. There the distance between heaven and earth is narrowed and God communicates in a special way.

Sadly, this is often not realised, for the believer’s heart can grow thick with unbelief and modern idolatries. In the Parable
of the Sower and the Soils (Mt 13:1-23), Jesus referred to the superficial heart where growth is stunted and faith withers. He also referred to the heart crowded with the thorns of worldly wealth and worries that make the heart impervious to divine whispers and warnings.

The church can also lose its ‘thinness’ – when it loses its focus and turns its attention to wealth, power, influence, comfort, and entertainment. In such places, spiritual deafness and blindness predominate.

Moses probably passed by the burning bush countless times before, but one day he saw something that others failed to see. Elizabeth Browning’s poem depicts this aptly:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God;
but only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
the rest sit around it and pluck blackberries

It is possible to be near the things of God and yet fail to recognise God. Jesus continues to ask us: “Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” (Mk 8:17-18)

Whether a place functions as a thin place depends on the faith and faithfulness of the believer and the community of believers. One day, the distance between heaven and earth will disappear when the new heaven and earth will be united in Christ (Rev 21). This thinnest place will be everywhere. Meanwhile, as we wait for that day, may our hearts and churches be thin places, where God communicates freely with His people and His people respond readily to Him.

Picture by paul prescott/Bigstock.com

Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon was Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000 to 2012. Currently retired, he now keeps busy with an active itinerant ministry speaking and teaching in Singapore and overseas.


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