Thin Places

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A couple of years ago I was introduced to the Celtic idea of “thin places.”   According to this tradition, a “thin place” is a place where the membrane between heaven and earth is so thin that when you are in these places you can feel the power and spirit of God entering the world.   As I think about Jesus, I think many people felt this when they encountered Jesus. The grace of God was somehow entering the world in a more powerful way through his actions and presence.

One characteristic of a “thin place” is safety.  When I’m in a conversation with someone that loves me and wants what’s best for me, I can bring all of who I am to that conversation--both my strengths and my weaknesses without fear. I know in my heart that holy other won’t twist what I say to their advantage, or use one of my weaknesses against me later.

Developing safe places takes work, and constant diligence.  One of the great gifts we, as a church, can offer the world, is sanctuary…a safe place…a “thin place” …where all who enter will be held as sacred and where people will work with you so that what’s best for you can begin to happen.  

When I was a young associate pastor serving the Mitchell First United Methodist church, one of the “thin places” I encountered was Rev. Richard Fisher.   Dick worked as the Dakotas Conference chair of the Council on Ministries and he went to my church.   I remember being intimidated by his presence when I preached.  I mean he was a big shot.   People all over the conference looked to him for advice.  He met with my boss, the bishop, weekly!  And so, every week I preached in Mitchell, I took special notice of how Dick and his wife, Donna, reacted to my sermons.   If Dick would yawn during one of my sermons, I would be in a funk for weeks.   But if he or Donna laughed or wiped a tear...I was on cloud nine.   

Imagine how I felt when one day he called me up and asked me if I’d have lunch with him?   I was nervous.   I went home and put on a crisper shirt and my best shoes.   I took off my glasses and made sure I didn’t have any spots on them.  I trimmed my beard.  I called Cyndy on my way to his office to go over my strategies for this important encounter.  I felt like I was interviewing for a job!

But when I entered his office, all that anxiety went away with the first hug and smile. Dick invited me to sit down and chat a bit before we headed out to lunch.   He recalled several of my sermons and shared with my how he loved my preaching style.   He shared with me his recollection of being a young pastor and assured me that he was looking out for my welfare.   He laughed at my jokes.  After lunch, which he paid for, he shared with me that if I ever needed to talk I could always stop by his office.  His door was always open.  In other words, he embodied sanctuary for me.

From that day forward Dick Fisher’s office became a “thin place” for me.   When I needed to talk through a vision or strategy, he was there.   When I needed to admit a fault or spiritual struggle, he listened.  When I needed someone to chat with at 10 pm after a tough meeting, he was right there…buying me a beer and assuring me that “this too would pass.”   In a thick and judgmental world, being around Dick Fisher became a “thin” and forgiving place of grace that provided me space to be, to fall, to be picked up, and to transform. One of my favorite scripture passages is Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  Dick Fisher’s office became a sanctuary for me because Dick embodied this scripture passage for me.

As I develop a theology of what it means to be a church, I think Dick Fisher will always be the embodiment of what the spirit of a church should be.   We are a sanctuary.   A thin place.   A safe place we can come and be embraced by the welfare and love of a God who truly cares about our future and who helps us work out that future with hope, grace, and forgiveness.   But, like Jesus, we are also a place on the move.  Where ever we go… to work, to the gym, to the ball field, to our neighborhoods, to our schools…we bring that “thin place” with us.  Whenever people encounter us, we do everything we can to embody that same grace, hope, and love that we have received from God.

Today, I give thanks for Rev. Richard Fisher.  His “thin place” gave me hope.

Your pastor and friend, working to be a “thinner” me, Brook

Tim Schaaf