Monday, December 24, 2007

Thin Places

The Gospel of Luke provides us with the best account of what happened on this night. Luke writes in the second chapter,

"In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing to you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.'"

I imagine this scene as a thin place - as a place in life where heaven seems to come down to earth, leaving a very thin place separating the two.

I can only imagine how privileged the shepherds were that night - how privileged the people were who received the message from the angels and then traveled to the borrowed barn in Bethlehem where their Savior was born. It was like heaven - but on earth. It was hard to tell the difference between the two.

I have been thinking a lot about thin spaces lately. It seems as though many times in the last week heaven has descended to earth, angels have appeared, and I have felt myself surely in the presence of the Lord.

This time of year fills my mail box with dozens of cards from across the country. There are some cards that arrive, bringing news from individuals with whom I only communicate at Christmas. It seems as though many of these cards come from Hendersonville, North Carolina - the community in which I was first appointed as a pastor. Each card comes with a blessing - each card seemingly reminds me of the holy ground on which I walked with these individuals for one transformational year. Some of the cards tell me what a difference I made in one's spiritual life. Other cards tell me that I am still missed. Still others remind me of the sacredness of being pastor - of the privilege I have of journeying through life with people. Many of the cards have brought tears to my eyes. They have taken me to a thin place - a place where I know God is lurking - almost close and tangible enough to touch God.

I experienced another thin place on Friday. My friend, Louie has been sick for nearly three months, two of which were spent in a hospital and the last few weeks in a nursing center. Prior to his sickness, Louis was the one member of Mount Vernon Place who made me laugh more than any other. He brought so many smiles to my face with his wonderful, spunky personality. He and his wife of 59 years demonstrated to me often how to love life - how to seize life and make the most of it - the ups and the downs.

Louie also gave his heart to the church. He spent hours trying to find the right contractor for our stained class window restoration. He poured over our insurance policies, making sure we were getting the best coverage for the church. He knew about the boiler - when to turn it on and when to turn it off. He seemed to know every nook and cranny of the church, and I am not sure we'll ever find a more faithful member of the Trustees than Louie.

I had lunch with Louie and his wife not long before he got sick. I am not sure I'll ever forget this lunch. I am so glad I accepted the invitation. It was one of the last extended conversations we shared as he has not been able to talk since he got sick.

I saw Louie last Wednesday. I held his hand for a long time. I wiped his mouth. I told him I loved him. I prayed for him. And, I laughed with him. But I had no idea it would be the last time I could tell him of God's love for him and how much I appreciated him.

On Friday afternoon, I was shepherded into a small conference room with Louie's wife and one of the interns at Mount Vernon Place. We were asked to sit down and wait for the doctor - a person who arrived a few minutes later to share news that no one likes to hear - news of Louie's death. We then entered a room where Louie had breathed his last breath.

It was a thin place.

It was a place where I knew God had been present and was present. I believe with all of my heart that God was right there - that God was with the doctors who administered CPR a final time and then removed the tubes for the last time. I believe God was there, ready to receive into his tender arms of mercy one of God's precious children. And, I believe God was there as we entered that room broken hearted in order to say a final goodbye.

On this night, heaven came down to earth. On Christmas, God came down to us. God came to us in the form of Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus came, born in the most humble of ways, teaching people how to live by loving God and loving neighbors. Jesus reached out to the least, the last and the lost, telling us to do the same. Jesus then suffered and died upon a cross, but on the third day he rose again, giving us strength for today and hope for tomorrow. His life, death and resurrection assure us that no matter what happens on this earth - no matter how dark it might appear - that the darkness has never overcome the light.

Thank you, God, for the thin places of life. Thank you for Louie. Thank you for the privilege of being a pastor. Thank you for the gift of Christmas - for the gift of your Son.

Glory to God in the highest!

Merry Christmas.

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