I love paradoxes. I want to work with you on one right now. I’m going to contrast a beloved and historic concept invested by Celtic monks called “Thin Places.” Those places where the heavenly and the earthly nearly touch and we see God. Those Holy Moments that remove our doubt and rejuvenate our faith. Those moments where doubt and certainty are irrelevant and the only thing that matters is that God is alive.
Those moments where all of my worries, fears, and insecurities can be put aside because the Jesus is so big and so obvious. I certainly long for those moments—where the Lord even appears “transfigured.” Here are the some of my favorite thin places—Great Smokys, Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Lake Crescent, and of course the ever-impressive and disappointing Philadelphia Phillies.
Those Mt. Tabor experiences (the mountain where Jesus is believed to have been transfigured—like Joshua mentioned a few weeks ago), the Mt. Sinai experiences (where Moses received the Ten Commandments). In a world of a lot of uncertainty and distractions, it’s wonderful when the Lord appears so vividly through them and we can see him clearly.
Of course, the contrast and paradox is the idea that Life in Christ is all a thing place. Those moments where God is obvious are usually based on our own limitations and understandings. That God is never “more” or “less” clear in his Presence, and that every place is as Thin as another. It’s about our vision more than it is God’s appearance. It’s a matter developing an ability to see God.
Certainly, those beautiful places I experienced the Lord’s presence in, may not have always been those places to me. In fact, they may continue to become greater and greater as I spiritually develop further. Likewise, as we continue to grow and deepen, the Lord will become more obvious to us. And many more places, experiences, and relationships will become Thinner, if you will.
Just a few months ago, in a place that I often thought of as Thick, the Schuylkill Expressway, I saw God. Thick with traffic and horns and terror before the hope and redemption that we all know as the Conshohocken curve—when at out of nowhere, the bumper-to-bumper traffic that has pained us and plagued us turns into the sweet, sweet joy of the open road and our lead foots. So, maybe you don’t experience it the same way. The Conshohocken curve is a thin place, but so is Pennsylvania and its forests between the middle of October and the end of the month. A cornucopia of color and beauty. God making things new again in death. We need to train ourselves to see God is many different moments.
These poor disciples, only one of whom is identified in the passage, Cleopas, are in a lot of pain, mourning the loss of Jesus. They are blinded by their own loss. They can’t seem to see the One who they are mourning. Ironic, that they think they are experiencing an intense pain because of their love of Jesus—and when He shows up, they can’t see behind their pain and embrace their Lord. How many times does our own plight over the “good” or “right” things—community, “church”, relationships, conflict, fellowship, social justice, our careers, our families—keep us from seeing the Lord?
Often, seeing Jesus, is more important than anything else. It’s hard to stomach with so many noble causes and so many distractions, but I think that’s really the message that Jesus wants us to understand. I think he makes himself obvious and clear to those willing to see him. And in the moments where we don’t realize that He is among us, or walking next to us, or present; it’s not because he isn’t “revealing himself”—the Lord is with us—but rather, it’s because we can’t see him. Or we don’t want to see him.
Of course, he’ll play along most of the time, as he patiently waits for us to realize who He is. I don’t think Jesus is ever pushy. I don’t think he’s intentionally deceptive—he simply asked the disciples “what’s going on?” He wanted to know what they were talking about. He then gives them a small, but impressive speech, about Old Testament prophecies being fulfilled—which might be a dead giveaway—since he’s spends the whole time talking about himself in his wholeness. They still don’t get it. So he acts like he’s leaving, and they invited him into their home. They knew exactly who he was when he broke bread and did something familiar. And interestingly enough, right when they saw him, he disappeared.
I don’t believe that Jesus wanted to be rarely seen, but indeed he was, particularly by the religious elite and those in power. It makes sense to me that those in power, those who are completely self-involved and megalomaniacal, if you will, are blind the Lord’s presence.
Jesus didn’t hide from them as much as he knew they might be blind to him and to his message. His message was to the lowly, to the weak, to the poor, to the oppressed. To those who weren’t self-obsessed, the ones who were too down-trodden to look to themselves, but only had the option of seeing a Savior. Those of us, the rich young rulers among us, who can’t seem to see beyond ourselves, will have difficulty seeing Jesus.
So, the question before is how do we see Jesus more clearly in moments where it seems like he’s not there or in moments where He appears distant? How do we make many places and experiences Thinner? How do we see God in everything?
For me, the long and the short answer has to be inclusion into our mission. Inclusion in discipleship. An invitation to belong, be accepted, for who are you—but not just a commitment to inclusion, but an understanding that inclusion, by itself, causes transformation. When we partake in the radical inclusion of Jesus, things change.
When Jesus radically includes someone in his life and mission, in communion, in his resurrection, that person can change.
The church needs to welcome people and include people, and it is through this inclusion that we can see God more clearly. Everyone’s included. The church is for more than Christians. It’s for everyone. That’s hard for many of us to get—we want the church to exist just for us and our own spiritual growth.
And that’s not surprising. In modern capitalist societies, if something is for everyone is gets less cool, less valuable, and less popular. And so in a time where our experiences determine what reality is, it’s not surprising that many of us live in a very exclusive, very high context environment. This generation may be the “inside joke” generation—perhaps because we”vealways felt excluded by the anti-teenager generation, they may feel like it’s now our time to be exclusive.
Christians find comfort in the subculture. We elevate ourselves—on a national level—higher and higher, we’re not any different than the corporate executive who likes to be above others. We actually may elevate ourselves when we scoff those of another generation who do the same. Maybe it is all about our reacting against our parents.
Culture is cool, and sometimes it feels really good to be in when you haven’t commonly felt that way. But Jesus loves you, so there’s no need to elevate yourself—you’re worth something regardless of how cool you are. And perhaps we ought tell your parents that they’re worth something regardless of how “perfect” or “above reproach” they are. People who raise the context, were raised by those who do the same.
So when we speak about a subculture that’s isolating, it’s born out of one that was just as isolating. If no one but people like us feel welcome and included, we’re acting the same way as Catholic schools do and those mainline churches do. A “you have to get it” world is being created. You have to know the scripture passages, the weird Biblical references, the theological terms. The context is raised. And you create a subculture that has its own comedians, and all of a sudden Jesus’ world redemption project is reduced to an inside joke or worse a holier-than-thou fraternity.
And then we wonder why we can’t see Jesus? Why everything seems Thick, so it speak.
I have to approach a lot of these situations like I’m talking to my sweet mother. She’s from Egypt and doesn’t work really hard, or at least as hard as my dad does, at assimilating. She’s perfectly content being as Egyptian as she can be. Cocktailed English, at best, which is like speaking in Arabic, but then throwing in English words that help with the translation or the flow. She might confuse clichés and other cultural references (just like I do all the time) She’ll watch a sitcom, and lucky for her, she doesn’t get many of the jokes. She’ll watch Seinfeld with me, and she just likes to call it “George,” and aside from Kramer’s slapstick humor and George’s mishaps, in general, she really doesn’t get why I watch these irritable characters. I blame it on cultural and generational difference (although, you might just think she has a point). Nevertheless, when I’m talking to her about baseball and politics and so on, I have to really explain myself. Sometimes I have to speak in a different language. Not only is she from a different generation, she’s from a different culture. But I’m better off for it and more inclusive because of it.
As we surround ourselves and intentionally and spend time with people different than us, we lower our contexts and learn how to communicate and relate better. It’s enriches our lives and puts less expectations on others. So as we become more inclusive, as we lower our contexts, as we explain things better and try to understand differences more, we’ll be in a thinner place. Not only one will people of many cultural differences be included, perhaps in the process we will feel like we are “including” Jesus, too, and His presence will become more obvious to us.