The Heart of Christianity: Opening the Heart

November 6, 2016


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Nov. 6, 2016

“The Heart of Christianity – Opening the Heart”
Eph. 3:16-17

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.” For them, thin places were geographical locations scattered throughout Ireland and Scotland where a person experienced 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, and 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,
• 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.
The Rev. Dr. Agnes Norfleet

Along with these places, a memory, a piece of music, a special story, or a word spoken at just the right time, can all be considered thin places. I would guess that most of us have experienced a “thin place” in which we can remember God seeming very close and very real.

As we consider Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity, we have been talking about how we can be passionate believers today. We’ve spoken about the heart of justice and how the deepest part of our selves is the spiritual core. Today’s topic is how to open our hearts to find that most holy intersection of self and God.

The word heart appears more than a thousand times in the Bible. In the Bible, heart has a deeper meaning – it is a metaphor for the inner self as a whole. Here are a few references to show what I mean:

1. “Serve the Lord your God with all your heart.” Deut. 10:12
2. “The Lord looks on the heart” I Sam. 16:7
3. “In God my heart trusts.” Ps. 28:7
4. “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Ps. 90:12
5. “My child, give me your heart.” Prov. 23:26
6. “May you be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, that Christ may dwell in your hearts.” Eph. 3:16-17
The heart is an image for the self at a deep level, deeper than our perception, intellect, emotion, and volition. As the spiritual center of the total self, it affects all of these: our sight, thoughts, feelings, and will. So, the thin places I’ve been describing are anywhere or anytime our hearts are open and the boundary between our self and the world disappears.

Thomas Merton had an experience in Louisville, Kentucky. It happened in the middle of an ordinary day, when Merton was running errands for the monastery. And when you visit that spot today, it still seems like an ordinary sort of place, until you know the story of what happened there.

This is what Merton wrote about the experience: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

In that thin place, Merton experienced the glorious destiny that comes simply from being a human person and from being united with, not separated from, the rest of the human race. Today, there is a bronze marker in downtown Louisville to remind people of Merton’s experience in that place. www.spiritualtravels

I want to talk a bit about where you are likely to experience these thin places. While it is true that a thin place can happen anytime and anyplace, it is also true that some times and places lend themselves more to the experience. It is also true that your heart must come with an openness and willingness to have the experience. If you rush and scurry around and have a frantic spirit, you are less likely to come to a place and have a moment where the world stops and you are totally present to the thin place.

Thin places can literally be geographical places – in Louisville, KY; in Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca, or a church, synagogue, or mosque. Many of you know that I regularly experience thin places when I am in the mountains of Colorado, or the seaside in Maine. Your thin place can be at your grandma’s table or your dad’s garage.

Thin places can also be found in the secular – in nature, music, poetry, literature, visual arts, or dance. This is why many worship traditions include the arts – banners, stained glass, liturgical dance, incense, chimes, videos, and special lighting.

People can become thin places. Many of us have known at least one or two people through whom we have experienced the presence of the Holy. I think it is likely that the historical man Jesus was a thin place kind of person and that’s why people enjoyed being with him.

Worship can become a thin place. What we experienced here on World Communion Sunday or this morning, or during the All Saints time today have been thin places for many. The reason for this is that worship draws us out of ourselves and directs us to something beyond.

The primary purpose of music is to provide a thin place. It is not a performance, but an offering of self, so that hearts are opened and enlivened to the Spirit of God. That is why we ask our musicians to avoid the actions of other performances – bows or acknowledgment of other musicians. The music in worship is for another purpose – for enlivening the soul, reviving the spirit, ministering to the grieving, celebrating the joys, and so on.

The sacraments of baptism and communion are thin places. In fact, that is their official function. It is through the table and the water that we experience holy moments. They are powerful symbols of grace and love.

Great festivals of the church year – Pentecost, Easter, Advent, and Epiphany – are thin places. It is why people who do not regularly attend worship make certain to attend on those special days. They come expecting to be moved. And because of nostalgia and memory, it is easier to get to that thin place on a holiday. As Borg writes, “The symbolism is remarkable and remarkably powerful. Both (Easter and Christmas) begin in darkness and proclaim new life. In the midst of our winter darkness the evening service on Christmas Eve celebrates Jesus, the light in our darkness and the light of the world who shines in our heart. The Easter Vigil service begins in the darkness of the tomb and climaxes in a flood of light as the congregation sings, ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today,’ with its soaring ‘alleluias’ rising like Jesus from the dead.”

In general, the spoken word is the least effective way of opening the heart. The spoken word, unless it is poetry or story, tends to address the head, and we have to pay attention with our minds. This doesn’t mean that sermons and reading are less important, but they function best when surrounded by other ways of worship designed to become a thin place.

Personal prayer can be a thin place. Specifically, meditative prayer, where silence is incorporated to still the soul. This is a practice that many progressive Christians throw out and it is a shame. For a time, Eric and I had a spoken and unspoken time of prayer when we went to bed. We prayed aloud for the shared concerns we had; we prayed for one another and our children. It was one of the most powerful and spiritual experiences I have had. To hear my partner pray for me made my heart open in a way that is beautiful and rare.

Secretary General of the United Nations in the middle of the 20th century, Dag Hammarskjold, wrote these words:
“Give us pure hearts, that we may see you;
Humble hearts, that we may hear you;
Hearts of love, that we may serve you;
Hearts of faith, that we may abide in you.”

The Christian life is about a new heart, an open heart, a heart of compassion and justice. The Christian life is about experiencing relationship with God and others in thin places.

Note: This sermon is based on Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity, chapter 8. Many of the ideas and words originated with him.