Sometime you might hear the mystics talk about the thin places. Thin places are where the boundary between the spiritual realm and the physical realm is so thin, it practically disintegrates. Thin places remind me of the marshy edge that runs along the shoreline between the beach and the sea. I’m sure the geologists know whether that part of the earth is officially land or officially water, but walking along it, I couldn’t tell you. In the thin places, earth spills into heaven, and heaven spills into earth.
In our own lives, the thin places make us tremble with their beauty. But watch out! These are the very regions that harbor the precariousness between between life and death, so there’s nothing safe about them. It’s no wonder they make us tremble!
In the scripture Mariah read, what happened was the LORD sent the prophet Elijah to a region where the people predominantly worshiped the god Baal. Now Baal was supposed to be the god of fertility who poured down rain in the wet season and who succumbed to the god of death during the dry season. So God dispatched Elijah to tell the king that the LORD, the God of Israel, is really the one who controls the rain. To prove it, God will impose a drought.
Now go into the heart of Baal country, said the LORD to Elijah. But don’t worry. The wadi will give you water, and the birds will give you meat. And it started out that way. Then the water dried up, and the birds disappeared, and Elijah got hungry, and Elijah became frightened.
But don’t worry, said the LORD. Go to Zarephath. A widow will help you. (Yeah seriously, she better! Here Elijah is a stranger in a strange land where a drought is beginning to settle in. Already he’s hungry, and all he brought with him was the word of the God the people here don’t believe in.)
But sure enough, when he got to the boundary of the town, Elijah saw a widow gathering sticks. Hey! he yelled. Bring me some water! And she did. Next he demanded that she bring him some bread. And if you’re wondering, who does he think he is that he can just order her around, you’re right. Elijah was kind of being a jerk. And Elijah was frightened, and famished, and entirely unprepared for what she has to say:
As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug; I’m here gathering sticks so I may go home and prepare the food for my son and myself, that we may have something to eat and then die.
I don’t know exactly what she means when she says her plan is to go home, have a snack, and then die. I don’t know exactly what she means, but I have a guess. And if she had said that to me, you can believe I would have to ask her a few more questions. I don’t know exactly what she means, but I know she said this with a tremble in her voice because the next thing Elijah said to her is: Do not be afraid.
Somehow Elijah and this unnamed woman have managed to meet up with each other in the thin place. Death is spilling into life, and life is spilling into death, and it is frightening. Elijah is starving; he needs her to hurry up and give him some food, or he’ll die! She needs him to leave them alone, so they can die. All the action is hurtling headlong toward death, when up from the despair speaks the word of the LORD.
Don’t worry. The food will not run out.
God finds them in the trembling thin place, and God turns the story. Now it’s not going to be starvation. Not suicide. Not sickness. If you keep reading you’ll learn the woman’s son gets sick and dies! Then he doesn’t stay dead. God goes and gets herself into the story, and God turns death into life.
And the thing is, God keeps doing this.
If you’ve ever been close to someone who is grieving… If you’ve ever found yourself back on the beach when they were wading along the shoreline, it might be surprising to discover just how brazenly death intrudes on our lives. In our twenty-first century American culture, we tend to think of death and life as opposites where you’re either a hundred percent one or a hundred percent the other. We go to great lengths to avoid seeing, or touching, or smelling death.
But if you’ve ever known someone who’s grieving, then you know. There’s no way to keep death in its place. It seeps into our lives with mountains of paperwork, and so much stuff to sort through —who knew she had so many shoes— and so many decisions, upon decisions, upon decisions.
Sometimes death plays this cruel trick where it sneaks up and knocks us down. For a brief moment, you forget that he’s really dead. You think, “Tonight I’ve got to tell him…” then it hits you.
If it’s you who’s deep in grief… If you have found yourself wading out into the sea like that’s just a normal thing you do now, then you know. You know what it is to camp out in the thin place; you’re like a houseguest who accepts a meal in a stranger’s home. Stay there long enough and you’ll see…
The surprising part of grief is not how it’s scary. The surprising part is not how death has the nerve to come and get into our life. It’s how life gets into death.
Oh the thoughts still sneak up and take you by surprise, but now when they do, it’s no longer the violence of remembering the person you love is dead. Now it’s the moment of remembering this person who’s dead loves you. Their love still finds you and claims you. They can still make you laugh!
If that’s not as much a miracle as a jug of oil that never runs out, or a dead child who gets brought back to life by a prophet, I don’t know what is! For ages, you can’t think about the person you love without weeping, until the day comes, the day really comes, when a memory rises into your consciousness—unsummoned— and this person you love makes you laugh.
This is the work of God. God keeps getting into our stories and our sorrow, but the Holy Spirit who prevails in life and in death has an agenda. As much as earth spills into heaven, and heaven spills into earth, and life spills into death, and death spills into life, turns out, God is not neutral on the matter. Go tell the grieving ones, God is calling us to get up from the dead.
God is turning the story toward life and more life, and it’s scary! It brings us to trembling, I know! But maybe that’s really not because it’s so frightening.
Maybe we’re trembling because it’s so beautiful.