One of the often told stories I heard at a parish where I once served was the birth story of a set of twins. The parish was celebrating its annual fundraising gala – a party that welcomes hundreds of people and raises nearly $100,000. The event is one of the major social scenes of the Christmas season. People don their furs, sparkling dresses, and tuxedos, wait staff float around with hors d’oeuvres and drinks, jovial bidding wars happen in the silent auction, and laugher and music fill the halls. On this particular night, when the entire parish was wrapped up in merry making, one parishioner was being whisked away to the emergency room. She was pregnant with triplets and the babies were coming early. Something was wrong and the word began to slowly spread through the bubbling parish hall. Shocked into sobriety, many of the parishioner’s friends left the party and went up to the quiet chapel upstairs. They began a prayer vigil for the mother and the babies. That night was a night of contrasts: parishioners and guests oblivious to the crisis; parishioners who were worried, but agreed to keep the event going; and parishioners who could no longer be present in the face of crisis and who were brought to their knees as this mother and the doctors battled to save as many of the babies as they could. Eight years later when I met the twins, that story was told time and again as if the event had happened yesterday.
That night was what I would call one of those thin moments. Thin moments are those moments that are so spiritual, so sacred that you can actually feel God. One person explains that the feeling of thin moments is “undeniably life-affirming, breath-stopping, mind-tingling, goose bump-motivating, heart-melting, soul-quenching, and wonderful. And by wonderful I mean truly full of the wonder, the awe, the mystery, the otherness of God. Celts talk about two worlds that exist in one place – thin places. This world, the here, and the other world, the more, the one that’s just on the other side we mostly can’t see now because now see through a mirror dimly. Celts believe a veil exists between the two worlds. The veil is like a thick wool army blanket. But every once in a while the blanket gets worn down so you can see through it, like gossamer. Those are thin moments. Grace moments. When for just a second you glimpse something that’s greater than the present moment, something that connects you to everyone else.”[i] Of course, not everyone reacts to those thin moments in the same way. I think that is why that some people were drawn to the chapel on that awful, wonderful night while others needed to busy themselves at the party. When life, death, God, and wonder are all mixed in a moment, we all respond differently.
Today in our scripture lessons we have two such thin moments: Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind to God and Jesus being transfigured before the disciples. What I love about these stories are the widely different responses to the thin moments. In the Elijah story, we have all sorts of activity. Elisha, knowing that Elijah’s death is coming soon refuses to leave Elijah’s side. Three times, Elisha tells Elijah, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Elisha’s way of coping with that thin space between life, death, God, and wonder was to cling to Elijah for as long as he could. Meanwhile, there were a bunch of prophets around Elisha who wanted nothing better than to gossip about the pending death. Two different groups of prophets come to Elisha and say, “You know the LORD is taking your master away from you today.” You can almost hear the catty pleasure they take in knowing this information. In the face of a thin place, these prophets want to gossip and flaunt their knowledge. Elisha’s response to them is to insist on silence. As the prophets try to engage him, he cuts off their pandering by responding, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” Elisha prefers to quietly be present in the presence of the thin space. Other prophets seem to agree. The third group of prophets does not taunt Elisha. They too know death is coming, and they stand at a distance as Elisha and Elijah cross the Jordan. They keep watch, holding the pair in awe and in prayer.
Meanwhile, in Jesus’ story, we see additional reactions. In the face of Jesus’ transfiguration, Peter, James, and John have different reactions. James and John seem to be content with silent terror. They have no idea what to say and so they say nothing. Meanwhile, Peter also has no idea what to say, but words bubble out of his mouth anyway. He starts fussing around in the thin space, busily wondering if he should make dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. You can sense the nervous energy in his response, as silence is too discomforting for Peter in the thin space. That is the funny thing about thin spaces – some people run around nervously, while others gather around and gossip for comfort; some demand silence and proximity, while others stand at a quiet distance; some are terrified, while others eager to stay connected.[ii]
I have seen the same reaction in people when they travel on mission trips. Mission trips, especially in foreign countries really take people out of their comfort zones. Not only are you struggling through the basics like sleeping on floors, boiling water for fear of sickness, using facilities that are not exactly modern, you are also sometimes struggling with language barriers, hard labor, extreme poverty. Add on to all of that the sacred, thin moments that come when people meet one another and God in the ways that one only can in a rural Honduran or Dominican village and you have a recipe for all kinds of reactions. I have seen stoic men break down in tears. I have seen nervous women babble on for hours. I have seen normally talkative teens retreat in quiet discomfort. And I myself have had all of those reactions and many more.
What is key in all of these reactions to the sacred is that none of them are inherently wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with the groups of prophets who want to gossip with Elisha about Elijah’s pending death. There is nothing inherently wrong about getting tongue-tied, excited, or totally silent. We all react differently to those thin spaces because those thin spaces are the times when we come closest to the God who is beyond comprehension, beyond the earthly, beyond us. Our reactions have nothing to do with whether we are a good Christian or a bad Christian. Our reactions have more to do with the fact that we are humans, and God, especially God in those close, intimate, thin moments, is utterly non-human.
Although there is nothing wrong with our varied human reactions to the sacred, the important message for us today is that we pay attention to the thin moments and our reactions. I have often wondered what would have happened if Elisha had not been paying attention that day when Elijah told him he was heading to Bethel. Elisha would have missed a life-defining moment if he had busily said, “Okay, catch you later Elijah!” If those prophets had known something was happening to Elijah but had decided to focus on other work that day instead of keeping watch on the other side of the Jordan, imagine all that they would have missed. Or if Peter, James, or John had turned down Jesus’ offer to go up the mountain or even earlier had declined Jesus’ offer to follow him, they would have never had this terrifying, babble-making, yet wonderful moment with Jesus.
That is our invitation today: to pay attention. Pay attention to the thin spaces that are given to you in life. They do not just happen on mountaintops or near the River Jordan. They happen all the time in simple, everyday moments. God is constantly breaking in to this world, and revealing God’s self to us through those around us. We may not respond in the perceived “right” way, but that is the joy of our lessons today. The only “wrong” way to respond is to not pay attention at all and to miss the chance to respond, however messily. The prophets and disciples assure us that we will be in good company in whatever our responses are – our only job is to make sure we pay attention enough to have a response. God is waiting in thin moments for each of us. Amen.
[i] Cathleen Falsani, as quoted at http://esteevalendy.blogspot.com/2010/04/thin-moments.html found on February 13, 2015.
[ii] Wm. Loyd Allen, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 438.