One of my atheist friends told me about a unique encounter with a “holy” man that ignited her spiritual awakening. She met a Buddhist monk visiting the city she lived in, and her friend offered to tour him around for the day. They were amazed at the monk’s sense of wonder and childlike excitement, he never seemed to stop smiling. At one point she held his hand as they walked down a busy street and she was overwhelmed by a sense of inexplicable peace flowing through her. In that moment something shifted inside of her. The only word she could use to describe the experience was “sacred.”
She had been to church and had many Christian friends including a few pastors (like myself) but she had never experienced a sense of the sacred until then. Her afternoon of sightseeing with the Buddhist monk became a kind of “thin place” for her.
Her experience reminded me of another story. A Japanese CEO was talking with Christian author Os Guinness and commented, “Whenever I meet a Buddhist monk, I meet a holy man in touch with another world. Whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager at home only in this world like I am.”
I certainly don’t believe this generalization is true across the board, but it certainly echoes my friend’s experience. Many Christian leaders are good managers, team builders, counsellors, visionaries, evangelists, coordinators, teachers and preachers, but how many of us are “holy people in touch with another world”? Many of us actually shy away from being too other-worldly for fear of being perceived as delusional flakes who are “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.”
It’s interesting that my atheist friend routinely criticized the church for not being practical, modern and active enough in social justice issues. Yet it turned out what she was really looking for was a “thin place”—or “thin person”—that manifested the sacred in an inexplicable way.
A Samaritan woman asked Jesus an interesting question about thin places in John chapter 4. She asked Jesus if she needed to go to Mount Gerizim (the primary thin place for Samaritans) or the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (the primary thin place for Jews) to encounter God. Jesus’ response to her in verses 21-24 teaches me two things.
The primary place of Divine manifestation is in and through human beings, not mountains, religious sites or buildings.
We don’t need to travel to the right spot to encounter God; we have to tune in with the right spirit.
Jesus’ primary message was “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand,” which I think is best translated, “Change the way you think, go beyond the mind you have, and perceive the reigning Presence of God right here, right now.” Essentially Jesus teaches us that we develop “eyes to see and ears to hear” the sacred when our state of mind or inner consciousness becomes “thin.”
Jesus’ promise from the beginning of his ministry was Spirit baptism. This was fulfilled at Pentecost when his disciples became conduits of God’s Presence. Jesus’ mission was to create “thin people,” meaning people of all shapes and sizes who embody a presence that is divine—in every sense of the word. This is who and what Jesus was—the ultimate thin place—where God and humanity existed in the same time and place. To be Christ-like is to be “thin” in that we are mobile “places” where the Divine permeates physical reality.
I wonder how many of us Christians are “thin places” to the people around us?
I realize all this “thin” talk is probably wearing thin by now. However, I wrote this series in response to an increasing number of Christians and non-Christians alike seeking a sense of the sacred at thin places. This is a noteworthy shift. People used to seek out “holy” men and women or churches to encounter God, but the masses have lost trust in spiritual leaders and religious institutions. Perhaps thin places will acquire a more important role in the spiritual awakening of people in our time and culture.
As I was alone, prayerfully reflecting in the middle of an ancient stone circle in Scotland two years ago, I was reminded of another striking statement by Jesus. “If these humans don’t resonate with God’s presence, then the stones will” (my paraphrase of Luke 19:40).
Troy Watson is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford (firstname.lastname@example.org).