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The Rev. Dr. Agnes Norfleet The Rev. Dr. Agnes Norfleet

The Rev. Dr. Agnes Norfleet is pastor of Shandon Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Shandon Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC


A Psalm of Thin Places

Psalm 27

16th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20)

September 19, 2004

The early Celtic people who lived in the British Isles believed that you could go to certain places to be closer to God. These places have long been called "thin places." Thin places are geographical locations scattered throughout Ireland and Scotland where a person experiences only a very thin divide between the past, present, and future.

This Celtic sense of place designated significant natural locations as "holy trees, holy mountains, holy wells." They were fascinated by shorelines where water met the land, by fjords and rivers, by wells where water bubbled up from deep below, by doorways which were the meeting places from the outside and inside. These places spoke of meeting,of transitions from one state to another, "where the veil between this world and the next is so sheer you can almost step through."

When Christianity spread into the British Isles, the Celtic Christians preserved aspects of this ancient folklore for revering thin places. They broadened the understanding to encompass not only geographical places, but also moments when the holy became visible to the eyes of the human spirit. Thin places, then, took on Christian meaning, where a person is somehow able to encounter a more ancient and eternal reality within the present time.

Perhaps you have a particular place that is holy to you in a similar way: the beach you've walked countless times where water rolls onto the sand in a familiar way, a place of reunion where God seems always close by and all's right with the world, a mountain vista that has taken you close to the stars and seemingly closer to God, a home church or family cemetery, or even your own yard and garden. Do you have a place where you can go and feel especially close to God? Or perhaps you can recall a place in time which you can remember and re-visit as a source of spiritual awakening, where you felt particularly connected to God.

"What is significant about sacred places turns out not to be the places themselves," someone has written. "Their power lies within their role in marshaling our inner resources and binding us to our beliefs." While places can bind us to our beliefs, so can memory, a piece of music, a special story, a word spoken at just the right time - my guess is, if we think about it, most of us have experienced a "thin place" in which we can remember God seeming very close and very real.

There are certain passages of scripture that are especially helpful in transporting us to a special place with God in our time. The words and images of Psalm 27 lead us to such a place - a kind of thin place where human and divine meet in a beautiful closeness.

"The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life,
of whom shall I be afraid?
Come, my heart says, 'seek God's face.'
Your face O Lord do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living."

This psalm is a meeting place for a very close relationship! Psalm 27 is composed of two rather distinct units, each of which has a special character. The first part of the psalm is a statement of confidence and trust in God, a God who inspired this confidence by acts of faithfulness in the past, and therefore may be depended upon to relate to us in a similar manner in the future. This sense of dependence is boldly declared at the beginning where the metaphor of God is "my light," which is seconded by that of God as "my salvation." Nowhere else in the Old Testament is God referred to as "my light." The effect of the language here is to convey a relationship with God that is intimately familiar. This psalm brings God very near indeed.

Let me be clear to point out, though, that Psalm 27 is not merely an other-worldly picture of a divine close encounter. Along with the affirmation of God's intimate closeness is a gritty realism that questions God's presence. The Psalmist writes:

"Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence."

With a willingness to call upon God as "light" and "salvation," the psalmist also admits a very human need for help in times of despair and anxiety. One biblical scholar has noted that the "book of Psalms is one of the most important books in the Hebrew Bible because of its exquisite ability to seize human experience like a harp and strum on every one of its strings." (3)

This psalm is a thin place for meeting God where - as in our everyday lives - the strings of our experience strum both the soft notes of gratitude and trust and the shrill ones of anguish and despair. With low notes and high notes, this psalm invokes an intimate relationship with God.

Dorothy Bass is a historian of American religion who tries to bring the life of faith close to home in practical ways. She notes how often we ask one another "How was your day?" I imagine all parents of school-aged children have greeted their child with that question - "How was your day?" or one very much like it. It is a kind of question that usually comes from someone who really cares, but is often met with a vague response like, "Not bad."

"Most days," Dorothy Bass remarks, "we probably forget to notice." Then, she tells the story of a mother she knows who has quite a different way of asking that question. As she tucks her children into bed each night, their teeth brushed and their hair still damp from the bathtub, she asks them this question: "Where did you meet God today?" And they tell her, one by one: a teacher helped me, there was a homeless person in the park, I saw a tree with lots of flowers in it. She tells them where she met God, too. Before the children drop off to sleep, the stuff of their day has become the substance of prayer. They enter a thin place and the presence of God is very near.

What this story reminds us, as I am sure the writer of Psalm 27 knew very well, is that to seek and find thin places where we feel close to God - requires practice. It requires a disciplined rhythm to discover that places to encounter the very presence of God are all around us. They wait to be discovered. You will find them down the corridors of schools and hospitals,
in places at work and the familiarity of home, places where it becomes clear that God is very near.

An eloquent reflection upon the thin places comes in the form of a Celtic prayer which invites our consideration of where we can go to be close to God. The prayer begins by asking:

"Where is my home?
Is it the house where I live,
The garden where I sit in summer,
The country where I roam,
Or the church where I worship?
The place I call home
Is where my heart is at rest.
And my heart is most at rest
When it turns to God in prayer.
So wherever I pray is home."

Today's psalm invites us to pray -- to meditate on its metaphors and meaning -- that we may come very close to God and discover: "The Lord is our light and our salvation; whom shall we fear? The Lord is the stronghold of our life, of whom shall we be afraid? We shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." This is a thin place, to be sure, and a word we can trust.

Let us pray.

God of thin places, we are grateful that you invite us to come very near. We give you thanks for your choosing to come close to us in the whispering wind of the Holy Spirit, who passes gently through our days and emboldens us for courageous faith, and in the person of Jesus Christ in whom we catch a vision of your faith. We see you as creator of all that surrounds us and praise you for the beauty of special places, where we find our hearts at rest in you. We are grateful that you welcome us into your love and desire that we be your children seeking compassion and mercy for those in special need. When we fail, you pick us up and hold us close and teach us to walk again. Teach us to walk through these dangerous days as ambassadors of your peace in our communities and in this world. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.


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