The Thin Place of Writing

Luke 23: 33 – 43 & Philippians 2: 5 – 11(NRSV)

 

I remember when I came to Montana in 1970. I quickly became a crazy fly fisherman, driving thirty, forty, fifty miles to creeks around Missoula two or three times a week, and I found myself on a number of occasions experiencing a thin place, though I didn’t call it thin place then.  One such occasion was on Fish Creek, as I approached a narrow canyon late one afternoon. I can still see today, in my mind’s eye, in my heart, my line arcing in the sunlight as I raised my rod to cast.  I can still see the surface of the water aflutter with mayflies. It was a moment of pure being.  I had entered, I knew, a special time and place, a holy moment.

 

It is from the Celts that we get the idea of a thin place, where the separation between earth and heaven, between the familiar and what must be otherworldly and of God, is very thin. To such a place, to a small island of great tranquility and beauty in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland, the monk who became St. Columba came in 563 C.E. and with twelve companions founded a monastery.  From Iona, as the island came to be known, the monks went forth and evangelized Scotland and much of northern England.  The island became famous as a place of learning and missionary work, and people from all over Europe came to it as a pilgrimage site–a thin place where the presence of God was palpable. 

 

In Luke 23: 33 – 43, Jesus is led to a place called the Skull, or Calvary, to be crucified.  For many Christians, Calvary is a thin place and a place of pilgrimage.  But I like what Marcus Borg says about thin places in The Heart of Christianity. He extends the definition of thin place beyond traditional pilgrimage sites like Iona or Canterbury or Rome or Jerusalem.  He says, “A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened.” Thin places are accessible in everyday life.  He suggests that we can encounter thin places in nature, on the ocean or in wilderness areas.  We can experience thin places in pursuit of music, poetry, literature, the visual arts, and dance. We can even experience thin places in church!

 

But I would like to amend Borg’s definition of thin place to read, “A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened and we are led to make a choice about the spiritual direction of our lives.” A thin place is a place of choice, as it was for the people watching Jesus’ crucifixion.  A thin place experience required them to make a choice, to name who Jesus was and to choose to follow him.

 

At the place called the Skull, Jesus hangs naked on a cross between two criminals, “one on his left and one on his right.”  Every effort has been made to shame and dishonor him, to label his teachings as subversive, to demonize him and destroy his character. No amount of degradation is enough.  Lots are cast to divide his clothes.  The leaders scoff at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”  Indeed, Jesus has saved others; but now in obedience to the Father, he humbles himself and takes upon himself shame upon shame, calling on the Father to forgive his enemies “for they do not know what they are doing.”  The soldiers mock him, offer him sour wine, and say, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”  They inscribe over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”  

 

Jesus is at the obedient center. One of the criminals even begins deriding him, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” On the other side of Jesus, the other criminal speaks, rebuking the one who derides, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  At the obedient center Jesus holds the opposites in tension, on the one side the criminal who continues to deride him and on the other side the criminal who begins to repent, to turn toward him. The one who repents makes a choice for Jesus, affirming who Jesus really is, God’s chosen one, and says, “…reember me, when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus responds, “…today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Today, even before you die, you have been redeemed as a child of God.

 

The people watching this drama, and we who overhear this exchange from the cross, are at a thin place and are called to make a choice this very day, to live the kingdom life in the here and now: to do as the deriding criminal does or to do as the criminal affirming Jesus’ identity as the Christ. We must choose.

 

As the apostle Paul says in Philippians 2: 5 – 11:

 

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

“who, though he was in the form of God,

“did not regard equality with God

“as something to be exploited,

“but emptied himself,

“taking the form of a slave,

“being born in human likeness.

“And being found in human form,

“he humbled himself

“and became obedient to the point of death–

“even death on a cross.

 

“Therefore God also highly exalted him

“and gave him the name

“that is above every name,

“so that at the name of Jesus

“every knee should bend,

“in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

“and every tongue should confess

“that Jesus Christ is Lord,

“to the glory of God the Father.” 

 

Fly fishing has provided me with a number of thin-place experiences for which I am thankful.  They opened my heart, kept me in touch with the holy, but did not lead me to make a definitive choice for Christ.  I remember those places, in wonderful detail–a secluded reservoir east of the town of Clinton, Montana, a number of log jams and pools on Rock Creek and even washes along the Clark Fork River.  Though I may never return to these places, and they are never really unchanged by the passage of years, I remember my times there and know that those places have been for me thin. I treasure those times and places, in my mind’s eye, in my heart.

 

Perhaps a more important thin place for me was the basement of the old St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Helena, Montana. The church was not too long ago torn down to make room for a parking lot for the beautiful new St. Paul’s edifice. The basement of the old church was a thin place for me because that’s where, before I went to seminary, one of the church pastors and I, as chair of the Council on Ministries, held our meetings and where I worked so hard to get each church committee its own budget to spend as it saw fit.  More importantly, the basement was where my wife Joan and I went at 6 a.m. in the morning to do yoga with the lead pastor, and where I learned to stand on one leg like a stork and to keep my balance by imagining the whole universe in birth pangs around me.  It was where I began to compose what I call my yoga poems and to make my decision to go to seminary, and though now that basement is gone and I don’t practice yoga anymore, both the basement and the yoga exercises I did with Joan and the lead pastor remain a crucial thin-place experience of choice for me.

 

The important thing that I learned as I wrote my yoga poems is that writing saves, just as Jesus saves, because writing is a thin place activity that leads to choice. There is something of the crucifixion in writing that demands that I die to my old self–that I move beyond my own small ego and its prejudices and unexamined history. The discipline of writing poems and stories force s me to empty myself, hold opposites in tension, the good, the bad and the indifferent, and allow all that lay claim to my heart’s imagination the freedom to live out their own lives in the story I am seeking to relate to God.

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