Experiencing God – Holly Walton

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I wonder how many of you used slide film for special holidays and occasions. And how many of you remember that feeling of dread when you heard the invitation “come over and see the slides of our trip to….” Well the other day, in a moment of nostalgia, I decided to look at our slides of a trip to the UK.

After a mammoth search, I found the packing box containing the slide trays. Of course, labelling the slides was never a priority so I had to work through the trays taking out slides at random and holding them up to the light. Finally, armed with what I hoped was the right tray of slides, I retrieved the projector from its dusty corner under the stairs. Of course, it was then that I discovered that it had a great big South African plug. I was beginning to feel a little less enthusiastic. But I located an adaptor plug and with a twinge of excitement I set everything up. I seemed to remember that the projector took a little while to warm up…but after 10 minutes I had to accept that the light never was going to come on…the bulb must have been broken somewhere on the high seas between Cape Town and Auckland. I fought off the urge to damage the projector further and settled instead for a google image search.

The reason for wanting to look at my slides was a Celtic saying that I had read:
Heaven and earth, the saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.

That idea of a thin places captured my attention and I spent time thinking about any places that I have visited that felt like thin places. Coventry Cathedral came to mind.
In 1940, Coventry and its Cathedral endured a relentless bombing campaign. Overnight, much of central Coventry was destroyed and the once beautiful cathedral was left in ruins. Only the outer walls and the tower remained standing.
58 years later, with my 6-month-old daughter on my back, I sat in those ruins overwhelmed with wordless emotion and a swelling worship in my chest. There was a reverence, a holiness and a presence of God in that place that was almost tangible. It felt like I could meet with God easily in that place.

Thin place…that phrase captured my experience at Coventry Cathedral so well. A place where “the veil separating heaven and earth is so thin, you can lift that veil momentarily and see the face of God” as author Macrina Wiederkehr describes it.

Although “thin place” is not a Biblical term, there are many accounts in the Bible of places that could be considered thin places.

I think of Moses and the burning bush and God calling to him “Moses, Moses do not come near, take off your shoes for this is holy ground”. Or Mt Sinai where God gave his commandments.
As I began to look more deeply into Biblical “thin places”, it struck me that the story of how and where people meet with and experience God has a long and complex history.
Right at the very beginning in Genesis we have the story of the Garden of Eden. The way in which God walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden account paints a beautiful picture of how God intended our experience with him to be – a lived a thin place if you like between all of creation and God. But humankind’s rebellion resulted in banishment from the garden and ended that ongoing, free connection and communion with God.
In the Old Testament books of Exodus and Leviticus we read in great detail about how worship was organised into a complex system of priests and sacrifices and symbolic acts and rituals. It was believed that God resided in the tabernacle and then later in the temple, once it was built.
More specifically, God resided in the most sacred place – the holy of holies, which was a part of the tabernacle or temple separated from the holy place by a thick curtain. Only the high priest was allowed to enter this place and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement.

Access to God was now restricted – people could approach God only through sacrifice and ritual and through the priest. The freedom of that lived “thin place” found in Eden was gone.
This system remained in place for hundreds of years, until the words prophesied by Isaiah came to pass:
“The virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel,” which means “God is with us.”
Immanuel… God with us. A thin place…
Jesus showed us what a life in reconnected communion with God could be like.
His entire life was a thin place – Immanuel, God with us.

The accounts of his time spent in the temple as a boy, his baptism, his miracles, his times of talking frankly to God, his death, his resurrection – all proclaim a life infused with connection to God the father.
The woman with the issue of blood merely had to touch his cloak to be healed, the winds and waves obeyed him, his very words brought life, healing and hope. There was just something about him, a feeling that couldn’t be put into words that caused people to be drawn to him, and even cling to him, like Mary after his resurrection.

In his lifetime Jesus was the living embodiment of a thin place – God with us. But it was through his death, that humankind’s experience of relating to God changed forever.
In the book of Matthew the moment of this change is captured:
50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and gave up His spirit 51 And [at once] the veil [of the Holy of Holies] of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom…
Suddenly that separation and exclusivity that had existed in gaining an audience with God behind that curtain was torn open. Hebrews describes it this way:
Therefore… since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his
body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
Jesus became our high priest, the ultimate day of atonement sacrifice. Through Jesus’ death, access to the thin place where God resided was no longer restricted to a select few.
The story did not end there, however.

50 days after the Passover week Sabbath there was Pentecost. With the coming of the Holy Spirit a remarkable thing happened…all of humanity had the potential to become the temple of the Holy Spirit.

16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? It says in 1 Corinthians.
We, as the body of Christ together, are the temple, the place where God resides, the holy of holies. We become thin places!
Poetically the story comes full circle to a beautiful ending in Revelation where we read:
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
A final restoration back to that union with God that was enjoyed so freely in the Garden of Eden.
What a powerful, image rich story…… But what does that mean for you and me today?
For most of us, our daily lives are a lived banishment from communion with God. There may be glimpses of thin places where we meet with God. But they are few and far between. It is all too easy for us to rely on the priest to meet with God on our behalf. And attending church can be a ritual that we follow. Or we simply don’t consider that freely meeting with God is an option.
If we do not stop and take notice, if we do not pause to reflect we will miss the burning bushes all around us… We will miss the burning bush inside each of us. God with us…God calling to us …take off your shoes for this is holy ground. This earth is Holy Ground. Wow.

So right now I would like to invite you to pause and think of the first time you met God…
I remember my first meeting…I was attending a Maundy Thursday service at my childhood church. It was beautiful. With the first quiet notes of the organ the hymn began. The sad words somehow wove themselves deep into my heart and suddenly I realised that God is. Strange emotions overcame me. I wanted to laugh and jump up and down. I wanted to cry. I wanted to lift my arms and touch the darkness. But in reality I stood still, feeling like I would explode with all the conflicting emotions inside. I stood still and sang the words that were somehow suddenly filled with meaning…
“There is a green hill far away, outside a city wall, where our dear Lord was crucified who died to save us all… We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear, but we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there…”

My being was exposed to something indescribable. The proverbial scales had been shifted on my eyes, and I had tentatively reached out to touch the invisibly tangible face of God. Even now I wonder how it is possible.
How it is that the creator of all things, would unveil himself to one small and unbelieving child? Immanuel, God with me. A thin place.
What is the story of your first meeting?
And just as significantly – what is the story of your most recent meeting with God? Isn’t it profound that our meetings with God don’t only have to be on the high days and holidays of life?
I started with that Celtic saying : Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.
Perhaps it should read: Heaven and earth are as far apart as the head to the heart – the thin place is within…It is our head that decides the distance.
Yes, it is often in the births and deaths, illnesses and crises that we turn to God. But if we understand our hearts to be the holy of holies in which our God dwells, then all of life has the potential to draw forth praise, worship, communion with God.

It is up to us to choose whether or not we respond.
I am going to end with a prayer written by Eddie Askew:
Lord you come into my life
So quietly.
No banners, big parades
Or high street demonstrations.
At times, I hardly know you’re there,
You hover on the wind of my attention,
Your patience infinite,
Ready to dip a wing and glide,
Slide into my consciousness
Without a sound.
You wait
Until I find a moment in my oh-so-busy life
To turn to you.
And then you swoop
And, featherlight,
I feel the warm enfolding of your love.
There’s no reproach –
I sometimes think
I’d rather be rebuked
At my unfaithfulness
Than welcomed unconditionally
The way you do –
But that’s your nature
And I’m reassured
That though you’re often
Out of sight and earshot
You’re always present in my life.
You know my needs
And when I look to you
Your love can make me whole.