I’d like to stack some stones on the skywalk between the Women and Children’s Center and the NICU at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. If I did, passersby might ask me, “What happened here?”
Boy, do I have a story for them. It’s a story about God’s gift of “thin places.”
Skywalk Between Heaven and Earth
Our first child was born at St. Vincent’s Hospital. After my wife’s dangerous and heroic labor, our son entered this world through an emergency C-section. All was well until it wasn’t. An hour later, my son’s lab results were irregular. I followed a nurse who whisked him away across that skywalk to the NICU.
Soon after, I was called back to the women’s center. Under a cloud of worry, I treaded back across the skywalk. My wife, Mandy, had postpartum complications. Back in her room, the doctor asked me to step into the hallway and told me the situation was “very serious.”
For three days I went back and forth across the skywalk. When Mandy slept, I walked to the NICU to hold our son. When Mandy awoke, I went back to sit by her side. I slept very little.
I felt less in control than ever before. I asked questions about God’s love and providence that had only been abstract before. I felt alone, but I wasn’t.
Particular, Personal, Real
On one of my skywalk crossings, I sat on a bench. The Lord—the particular, personal, and real God “who made the world and everything in it”—met me there. Between the St. Vincent’s women’s center and the NICU, I encountered the quiet presence of his Spirit. He brought to my mind, and then to my heart, his great and precious promises.
Between the St. Vincent’s women’s center and the NICU, I encountered the quiet presence of his Spirit. He brought to my mind, and then to my heart, his great and precious promises.
I didn’t hear his audible voice. It was louder than that. He didn’t promise ease, and that’s important to say. There were no assurances all would be fine with Mandy or our son. Instead, I received a gentle impression deep in my bones: the Maker of heaven and earth loved me, and he would keep me. He was for me and with me. Further, those promises were just as true for Mandy and Henry. They’d be kept by the same Lord.
In that place, the wet cement of a doctrinal truth cured into a solid foundation for my soul. A weight fell off my back. God made clear I wasn’t in control of my life and didn’t have to be. He would watch not only the movement of the stars but also the heartbeats of my wife and son and the tumult of my soul. Tangible peace was mine. That night, I’d be able to sleep on a hospital couch because I knew God wouldn’t slumber.
Where the Veil Is Uniquely Thin
You’d be surprised at what I felt on that skywalk. The experience was truer than I can explain.
That place is what the ancient Celtic Christians called a “thin place.” Timothy George writes that these places are special “not because the air is rarefied or the land is narrow but because the distance between heaven and earth shrinks, and time and eternity embrace.” The Celtic believers thought of thin places as physical, geographic locations where the barrier between heaven and earth is porous because the Lord, in his kindness, met a person there.
These places are peppered throughout the Bible’s narrative. From Eden to a burning bush, from the banks of the Nile to the summit of Mount Carmel, from stables in Bethlehem to Mars Hill—major moments in salvation history occurred in thin places. These places offer three gifts.
1. Thin Places help us move our faith from abstract to concrete.
To rework a phrase from Wendell Berry, “God’s providence is an idea. That skywalk is not.” As embodied beings, we must remember our faith is not abstraction. We serve a God who engages his work in the most down-to-earth manner.
Take Exodus for example. The Lord moved in time and space to fulfill all his promises. God’s faithfulness came alive on a mountain, in a wilderness, and in a burning bush. At the Red Sea, the promises made to Moses became concrete when seawater split apart and a trail of freedom formed. And, of course, on a little hill outside Jerusalem, the place of all thin places, the veil between earth and heaven was not just thin but completely torn. God acted to redeem sinners fully and finally on the concrete cross of Jesus Christ. The Lord didn’t save in the abstract but through a real death in a real place.
2. Thin Places serve as a portal for our memory.
Memory and worship are connected in the Bible. When the people of God remember rightly, they worship.
When the people of God remember rightly, they worship.
So we need ways to remember. We need prompts and conversation pieces. Joshua commanded the people to take stones and make a memorial because he knew it would prompt questions from children. When asked, the older generation would recall and recount God’s faithfulness. An object and location would help the nation to remember and proclaim what God had done.
3. Thin Places whet our appetite for the day when every place will be thin.
One day, the whole created order will be transformed. Every place will be overwhelmingly thin. The knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth like water covers the sea. As renewed, but still embodied, creatures, we’ll know and experience the renewed, but still tangible, new heavens and earth. But for now, thin places prepare us for the presence of God.
I need to drive on the Red Mountain expressway, look to my left, and see that skywalk often. As I move about my life from pastoral duties to buying groceries to sports practices, I might forget God’s concrete providence. But if I see that hospital and glance at that skywalk, it comes back again, a fresh reminder that will one day be fully realized.