There are some places where the distance between heaven and earth seems to narrow. They’re often called thin places.
I first heard that term several years ago as I was approaching Iona, a remote island off the west coast of Scotland. To reach Iona, you have to take two ferries and cross the desolate Isle of Mull. I had struck up a conversation with a man who, like me, was headed for the restored medieval abbey where we would be spending a week on a spiritual retreat. He looked out over the barren windswept fields with the sea glistening in the background and said to me, “This really is a thin place.” As the week went by, I discovered what he meant. Living in that abbey, which was established by the Irish monks who brought Christianity to Scotland, where Christians had been martyred by marauding Vikings, which had been renovated during the 1930s by unemployed masons from the slums of Glasgow, and which resonated with prayers of the faithful who came from all over the world, it really did feel like the distance between heaven and earth had shrunk. It was easier to pray, easier to feel God’s presence. That’s what my companion meant by calling it a thin place.
Maybe you’ve been to a thin place. Perhaps this sanctuary is one for you. Maybe the prayers and the songs that have echoed off these walls have brought heaven closer. Maybe one of your thin places is church camp where you first felt the warm glow of God’s Spirit inside you, or maybe it’s a lakeshore or a mountaintop where you feel closer to God.
Surely that hilltop outside Jerusalem where Jesus left his disciples was a thin place. As Jesus was speaking to his disciples, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. They stood there looking up after him, transfixed in that place where heaven and earth intersected. Then two men clothed in white came beside them and asked why they were standing there looking up into heaven. Jesus had told them to go from there to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth to tell what they had seen over the past three years. That thin place wasn’t a stopping place.
One of the assurances we have when we leave the places where we feel close to heaven is that Jesus goes with us when we leave those places. According to the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus left his disciples he told them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” How is it that Jesus, who was taken away, can still be right with us? How can Jesus, who has ascended into heaven, be part of your life and mine, our host at the communion table, our comforter and our guide in the daily grind of this earthly life? How can he be all of those things for us if he’s ascended to the right hand of God?
That mystery that God is both present with us and absent from us is often depicted in the Bible with a cloud. God led the Israelites through the wilderness by guiding them with a cloud. They would camp someplace for days or weeks to rest and regroup, then when it was time to move on, the cloud would appear to lead them on their way. God summoned Moses to the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments by covering the mountain with clouds and speaking to him from the clouds. The Old Testament prophets depict God coming to earth on clouds, and in New Testament prophecies, it is promised that Jesus will come again on clouds. You can see a cloud. It’s obvious to the sight. But clouds also hide. You can’t see through them. That’s why they’re so often a symbol of one of the great mysteries of our faith.
Any time we talk about heaven, we’re talking about a mystery. A mystery, in the biblical sense, is something we can’t completely understand. The reason we don’t understand it isn’t that we don’t know enough. The reason we don’t understand is because it is something that we are incapable of understanding. I might say that it’s a mystery to me how a neurosurgeon can do brain surgery, but it’s not truly a mystery. The facts on how to do brain surgery are available to me and to anyone who wants to learn them. In theory at least, I could understand brain surgery if I had the aptitude and applied myself to learning about it. A mystery, on the other hand, is something that we don’t know because we aren’t capable of comprehending it. Other people, even those to whom we’re the closest, will always be something of a mystery. Even if we know our loved ones’ thoughts and habits and desires, we can never know what it is to be another person.
Heaven is a mystery because we are incapable of grasping it fully. We know it is there, but it’s like it is covered by a cloud. One reason we want so badly to understand it is because we want to know what is like for those who have died. The night my mother called me to tell me my father had died, the first thing she said when I answered the phone was, “Dad’s in heaven.”
I really believe that, but what does it mean? Does going to heaven mean that we’re transported to another world where we keep on living as we do now but in another dimension? Jesus told the thief from the cross, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” That’s what Colton Burpo claimed happened to him in the book Heaven Is for Real. He told his parents that he went to heaven and met his great grandfather, his sister who had died in the womb, and they welcomed him to another life.
Or does going to heaven mean that we enter into a kind of suspended animation outside of the dimension of time where we wait until we are raised at the last day and are given new, heavenly bodies? That is what Paul implies in 1 Corinthians 15. He says that dying is like planting a seed that rests until the time it puts on its new, heavenly body. Death is something like sleep. “Listen,” he writes, “I will tell you a mystery! We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”
But just because something is a mystery doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about it. It doesn’t mean that a mystery can’t have a profound effect on our lives. Jesus told his followers to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. A witness is someone who tells what she or he has seen and heard. A witness bears testimony to what they know. The disciples knew Jesus. They had seen him perform signs and miracles that showed what God’s heavenly reign is like. It’s a place where there is no pain or suffering. Jesus showed that when he healed people. It’s a place where there is no hunger or want. Jesus showed that when he fed the hungry. It’s a place where there is no prejudice or discrimination or exclusion. Jesus showed that when he touched the lepers and welcomed the outcasts. It’s a place where there is no death. Jesus showed that when he was raised the dead.
What we know from our past affects the way we receive the future, even if we know that the future won’t be exactly the same. I look forward to vacations at the beach when the whole family gets together. I look forward to it because I remember how wonderful it has been in the past – the dinners with all our loved ones around the table, the warm afternoons reading a novel, morning walks along the shore, the fun of building sandcastles with the children. But I know the next time we get together it won’t be exactly the same. There won’t be anyone there from my parents’ generation. The children will have new interests. Things that fascinated them in the past they’ll find boring. I know enough from experience to look forward to what is ahead, but I can’t tell you exactly what it is going to be like.
That’s kind of how it is with heaven. Jesus has shown us what it is like. But it’s not just something that we wait for in the future. For all its mystery, heaven is still accessible to us in an imperfect way. 1 Corinthians 13 says that now we see as in a mirror dimly. C.S. Lewis appealed to our imaginations in his Narnia Chronicles when he depicted that parallel universe where Aslan reigned and was accessible to children through the door of an old wardrobe. Whatever heaven is like, Jesus is there, preparing a place for us, and all the while abiding with us in this life of flesh and blood, of schedules and deadlines, of weariness and frustrations.
Prayer is how we stay connected with that mystery. When the disciples left that hilltop where they saw Jesus taken off in a cloud, they returned to Jerusalem where they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. Prayer is how we acclimatize ourselves to that other realm. It’s how we learn the language of the holy, stay in touch with the reality of heaven so we’re not limited to the reality of earth.
If you’ve ever tried to learn another language, you know that it’s not enough to study about it. It’s not enough to learn the grammar and memorize the vocabulary. You have to immerse yourself in it if you’re really going to understand it and be fluent in it. Ever since my daughter announced her engagement to a Spaniard, I’ve been studying Spanish. For twelve years I’ve been taking classes, watching Spanish movies. Every day I spend ½ hour reading Spanish out loud or writing in Spanish. But every time I visit my son-in-law’s family in Madrid I can keep up with what they’re saying for about two minutes then I’m lost. Once I attended a first communion party for a niece. 50 people were there, few of whom spoke English. In typical Spanish fashion, lunch wasn’t served until 4 p.m. When I first arrived in the restaurant, I could hardly understand a word anyone was saying. But the more I heard them talk, the more I tried to talk with them, the more I understood what they were saying. By the end of the party, I could understand about 30% of what was going on, but if I’d stayed there and immersed myself in the language for a few months, I’d get better and better. To understand the language and the culture, I’d have to live in it and immerse myself in it.
That’s what the disciples were doing in that upper room as they waited for the Holy Spirit to send them out into the world. They were immersing themselves in the language of heaven. They were living in that mystery so they could go out and tell the world that there is another realm, another existence. There is another dimension that’s different from the one we’re used to.
We aren’t in heaven yet, but because we know Jesus, because we belong to him who lives in heaven, we aren’t bound by the fears that keep us from living like heaven is our true home. Jesus promises that in heaven there is no fear, so why should we be afraid of anything? Sure, we still live in this world so we have to take precautions. We still have to strap our children into their car seats, get our regular medical exams, provide for our families and our retirement. But we don’t have to be afraid of living in a way that bears witness to Jesus. We don’t have to be afraid to tell the truth when telling a lie looks like the safest thing to do. We don’t have to be afraid of standing up for the poor or the oppressed when doing that puts us at odds with the powers that be or costs us some of our wealth. We don’t have to be afraid of losing our lives because we know that when we lose our lives to Christ, that’s when we find ourselves. Congregations can try new things, new ways of reaching out and doing ministry. Even our most cherished ways of doing things, those things that have brought us close to God through the years, are passing away and are just a glimpse of what Jesus has in store for us in the heavenly realms.
Any place that we encounter Jesus can be a thin place, a place where heaven and earth come close together. It can be a hospital bedside, the soup kitchen, the very spot where you’re sitting now. Any place that you encounter the love and mercy and justice of Jesus is a place where heaven and earth are a little closer, a thin place where Jesus meets us coming and going.