October 28, 2012

Thin Time-Samhain

We’re looking at Thin Places and Times-places where heaven and earth are very near. This is a spirituality found in Celtic Christianity and in the Hebrew scriptures, and other religions, too. This week there will be “Trick-or-Treaters” in costume celebrating Halloween. Did you know that this tradition comes from the Celtic belief that November 1, the Celtic new year, was an extraordinary time. The veil between the Otherworld and Earth was open and the dead could visit earth (and vice versa, in some Celtic myth).
The Celtic year was broken into seasons that roughly followed the sun’s equinoxes and solstices. Samhain (November 1) marked the start of the cycle because, like the Jewish day, all creation begins in darkness. The Winter solstice (Dec. 21) and then Imbolc (Feb. 1) which was dedicated to Brigid and fertility, esp. of flocks and fields. Then came the Spring Equinox (March 21) and Beltaine on May 1 (a time of engagements). The Summer Solstice (June 21) led to Lughsdaugh on August 1 when the first harvest/first fruits were gathered. The Autumn Equinox (September 21) completed the cycle with the shortening of days.

All fires were extinguished at Samhain and new fire was kindled for the new year. Offerings symbolizing the wishes and thanksgivings of the people were thrown into the fire so everyone could start afresh. The year past was thus purged of the bad and made ‘hallow’ (holy) while the new year was blessed.

Samhain was a time fraught with magic and fairies, elves, and other supernatural beings were abroad. The new fire was a way to keep these, not always friendly, spirits at bay. Bonfires were lit on Halloween even as late at the first World War in parts of Ireland and Scotland. More and more, though, the big fires became the Jack ‘o Lanterns carved with faces and other images.

Samhain, the thin place and start of the new cycle, became ‘Christianized’ into Hallow Mass or All Saints’ Day. The evening before All Hallow’s Day is All Hallows Eve and eventually that contracted into Halloween.

Hallow is a word not used much any more, but it means to make holy or sacred and to venerate. Abraham Lincoln used hallowed in the Gettysburg address when talking about the lives lost in that battle:But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” We may blithely recite “Hallowed be Thy name” in the Lord’s Prayer, but do we stop and consider that we are saying “Holy is your Name” to God?

On All Saints Day and All Souls Day (November 2) we remember all the faithful departed. On All Hallows Eve (Halloween) this year, let us say a prayer that our lives may be Hallowed to the Lord, just as those who have gone before us have been hallowed and made holy in the presence of our Lord. Perhaps this prayer said at the kindling of the daily fire (when people had to kindle their fire for heat and cooling) will give you an idea:

I will kindle my fire this morning
In the presence of the holy angels of heaven,
In the presence of Ariel of the loveliest form
In the presence of Uriel of the myriad charms,

Without malice, without jealousy, without envy,
Without fear, without terror of any one under the sun,
But the Holy Son of God to shield me.

God, kindle Thou in my heart within
A flame of love to my neighbor,
To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all,
To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall,

O Son of the loveliest Mary,
From the lowliest thing that liveth,
To the Name that is highest of all.
See you next time as we look at Hallowed Ground or Holy Ground. Perhaps it's just under your feet.

October 21, 2012

Thin Places-In Nature

Last time we saw how God can meet us in the ‘thin places’ of our dreams. The Oct. 7 post included Rich Mullin’s song With the Wonder, that has the chorus line, “And while we live in the world that You have made, we hear it whisper of a world that is to come.” God can break through in the thin places found in nature, too, as Elijah discovered.
The story of Elijah is in I Kings. He lived about 100 years (give or take) after Solomon’s reign when Ahab was king of Israel (and Jehoshaphat was king in Judah). We first meet him in I Kings 17 when he tells King Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” God then tells Elijah to “hide yourself by the brook Cherith, that is east of the Jordan.” (It’s a little north of Jabbok where Jacob wrestled with God.) Ravens bring Elijah bread and meat in the morning and evening, until the brook dried up. (Then he goes to Zaraphath where a widow provides for him.) It was the first time, but not the last time, that Elijah met God in the things of nature-or did God meet Elijah?
After 3 years, God tells Elijah to inform Ahab that the drought will end and confront all the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18:20-38). Elijah challenges the other prophets to a contest to see which god is God. The worshippers of Baal get no response from their god and Elijah mocks them, “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” When Elijah builds his altar he orders water poured over the offering three times and “the water ran round about the altar and filled the trench also with water.” Then Elijah prays and “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” A pretty dramatic exhibition of God!
You would think that Elijah would be able to rest on his laurels then, but Queen Jezebel threatens him so he runs and hides in the wilderness. The angel of God sends him on to Mt. Horeb where God dramatically confronts his prophet. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The man replies that “I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life…” God then passes by in wind, fire, and earthquake, but the Lord was not in these events. At the end Elijah hears a “still small voice…[and] he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” There God speaks and sends him to anoint a new prophet and new kings in Syria and Israel. (I Kings 19:9-18).
Elijah’s experiences with God manifest in the ravens, the lightening, the rain, the earthquake, wind, and fire are echoed in the well known hymn Ode to Joy:

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!

All Thy works with joy surround Thee, earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea,
Singing bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee.

Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed,
Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.

Mortals, join the happy chorus, which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning o’er us, brother love binds man to man
Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us Sunward in the triumph song of life.

Elijah felt God’s providence in the ravens and saw God’s power in the drought and rain. Despite the dramatic signs in nature, Elijah knows that God is present in the calm after the storm, as well as in the fire from heaven that consumed his offering on Mt. Horeb. Have you ever experienced God’s presence in nature or in the still small voice after the storm?

Next time we’ll look at some of the origins of All Hallow’s Day.

October 14, 2012

Thin Places-in Dreams

Thin places and times, as we saw last week are instances where the Holy-where God-is intimately present. While God is, of course, present always, there are time and places that are more obviously filled with holiness. This is probably because the person encountered by God is open to the manifestation of God. Sometimes this is because the person is in the midst of a life change or challenge. (Don’t we all look for God when we feel troubled or stressed?)
Jacob, in the Bible, is one such person. You wouldn’t think that he’d be very pious. After all when we meet him in Genesis, he’s rather a mama’s boy who isn’t averse to tricking his older twin out of the birthright (the inheritance of the eldest son, including tribal leadership). (Genesis 25:29-34) This youthful ploy may have been on his mind later when Rebekah encourages Jacob to trick his aging father, Isaac, into giving him the first born’s blessing (even though he was born second).
Esau is livid when he learns what has happened. “When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, ‘Bless me, me also, father!’ But he said, ‘Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.’ Esau said, ‘Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.’…And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.” (Genesis 27:34-38)
The thought of Jacob’s treachery rankles with Esau and he begins to plot murder after Jacob dies. Rebekah convinces Jacob to send their son to her family in Haran to find a wife. It is on the way that Jacob first encounters God at a ‘thin place’.
On his way to Haran, “He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”(Genesis 28:11-12) This 1900 lithograph shows Jacob at Bethel with the angels in the background. God speaks to Jacob and promises land and descendents and blessing. God tells him, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28: 15).
This must have been both terrifying and reassuring to Jacob. He is essentially in exile from his family/tribe because of his brother’s rage. In an culture where family is the core value, this is not a comfortable place. Yet, here God assures him that he will return and all his dreams will come true. Jacob consecrates the spot by taking “the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.” (Beth-El means House of God.)
Years later, Jacob has another close encounter with God. As he is returning to Canaan with his wives and many children he learns that Esau is coming to meet him with an army. Faced with this frightening prospect, he sends his family across the Jabbok River. Then, “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’” (Genesis 32:24-28)
When we find ourselves in challenging situations, we often turn to God as a last resort. In that moment of turning we discover that God has been standing nearby all along, like a watchful parent, just waiting for us to say ‘help’. Like Jacob we sometimes wrestle with God about what we are being called to do. He knew he had wronged his brother and that Esau had every right to desire revenge. However, Jacob was now a family man with responsibilities and perhaps felt God urging him to offer reconciliation.
Even with the assurance of God’s promise at Bethel, Jacob is afraid that his brother will kill him and all will be lost. So he wrestles with God-figuratively or physically about what to do. God again blesses Jacob and gives him a new name. Rather than being Jacob the ‘supplanter or liar’ he will be Isra-el (Ruled by God). Jacob went on to reconcile with his brother and did indeed become a powerful tribal leader.
Jacob’s first encounter with God came as a dream. Dreams are a common way God comes close to people in the Bible. (Think of Joseph of Nazareth, Samuel, and others.) Have you ever had a dream that helped clarify something for you? Or have you felt God pushing you to do something you really don’t want to do?
Next time we’ll look at a Bible person who encountered God in a different kind of ‘thin place.’

October 7, 2012

Thin Times-Thin Places

Welcome to the new series of blog meditations. The time between Pentecost and Advent has been called “Ordinary Time” because there aren’t any big feasts. It’s a time of learning to live the Gospel in day-to-day fashion instead of hopping from mountaintop to mountaintop with great church feasts like Christmas-Epiphany-Lent-Easter-Pentecost which occupy the first quarter to third of every calendar year.
One reason festivals were held during the cooler months was that for our earliest ancestors, the time between spring planting and fall harvest was busy. Farmers and warriors could devote time to worship during the 'down time' of fall and winter. Another reason is found in the nature of the worship.Many or most ancient religions followed the cycles of the sun and moon more closely than we do now. The shortening days of fall meant it was possible that the sun would some day never rise and so extra worship needed to be done to appease the sun god and keep away the ‘dark lord’ in whatever form that was perceived.
The ancient Celts believed that the time between the Autumnal equinox (Alban Elued) and Samhain (Nov. 1) was especially holy and a ‘Thin Time’. That is, it was a time when heaven and earth came very close. Indeed, on Samhain, the souls of the dead could actually return to earth. (More on that later in the month.)
When Christianity came to the British Isles, (some say as early as the 1st century, others the 3rd century), the missionaries incorporated and Christianized many Celtic beliefs including the idea that there are Thin Places and Thin Times.The image of heaven coming near isn't just a Celtic idea, though. In fact, as you read the Bible, you will notice that there are many times where the veil between earth and the Holy has drawn aside. Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at some of these events.
Consider Noah and the ark, Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven, Abraham’s 3 visitors and Sarah’s laughter, the ram in the thicket at Isaac’s sacrifice, Moses at the burning bush, Elijah in his cave, Balaam and his donkey meeting an angel, Mary greeted by an angel, Joseph’s visit from the same angel, Jesus transfigured, Jesus walking on the water, Peter’s vision on the roof in Caesarea, Paul on the road to Damascus, John on Patmos. The Bible is peppered with times when God stepped near and a glimpse of heaven was seen.
To Celtic Christianity, the Holy One is not just present in dramatic occasions, though. Every bit of life is imbued with holiness. Holiness is present in everything, from the smallest microbe (and even to the tiniest sub-atomic particle) to the furthest reaches of space. God is in nature red of ‘tooth and claw’ or soft and cuddly and in our daily routines.
Rich Mullins song With the Wonder (adopted from Psalm 19:1-4) gives a sense of what it means to see God present in all creation:
Down at Johnson's Creek
The trees grow tall
Like a man who feeds his soul on Your word
And I can look in the water
I can see the stars fall
Hear the fires crackle
And the crickets chirp
And there are bluffs
On the banks of the cumberland
Where I can see the sun rise
From a world away
And I can see the marvelous things
That You have done
In the beautiful world
That You have made

And in the winter it's white
In the summer it's green
And in the fall it's orange and red and gold
Then it comes alive
In the rites of spring when the rivers thaw
And the flowers unfold
And there are beads of dew on a spider's web
And there are motes of dust
In these beams of light
We who are bone and spittle and muscle and sweat
We live together in a world where
It's good to be alive
'Cause it flutters and floats
It falls and it climbs
It spins and sputters and spurts
And You filled this world
With wonders 'round every turn

And it buzzes and beeps
It shimmeys and shines
It rattles and patters and purrs
And You filled this world with wonders
And I'm filled with the wonder of Your world
If there's a better world
And a brighter day
Even brighter than the one we're in
We'd all be fools to think
That it could be made
By the wills and the hands of foolish men
So Lord to You we give our deepest praise
And to You we sing our loudest songs
And while we live in the world that You have made
We hear it whisper of a world
Of the world that is to come

Celtic Christianity also invites God into all parts of living-from getting up in the morning to going to sleep at night. Prayers when getting dressed and when starting the fire and when milking the cow are all part of finding God and inviting God into life. Jewish prayers also keep God in the center of all things by reciting “Blessed art Thou, Lord God, Ruler of the Universe, who gives this bread (or this day, or this gift, or whatever)" in the morning and evening and many times between.

In this “Thin Time” of the calendar, I offer a Journey Prayer for your use:
Bless to me, O God, the earth beneath my foot.
Bless to me, O God, the path whereon I go.
Bless to me, O God the thing of my desire;
Thou Evermore of evermore,
Bless Thou to me my rest.
Bless to me the thing whereon is set my mind,
Bless to me the thing, whereon is set my love;
Bless to me the thing, whereon is set my hope;
O Thou King of kings, Bless Thou to me mine eye!

Next time we'll start to look at some of the Thin Times and Places in the Bible and what they might teach about God being present in all times and all places and all things.