Last weekend I, along with several leaders and youth from St. Albans road tripped out to the Diocesan Youth Conference. It was a gathering of youth and leaders from around our Diocese; about 75 in total. And I want to share some stories from DYC with you.
The theme for our gathering was called ONE. We explored Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he expresses that in Christ we, though many, are one body and each member belongs to all others. It’s something we often lose sight of or even forget as we so deeply involve ourselves in the communities we reside in. Over the weekend we spent time getting to know each other, we played games, participated in different workshops, and worshiped together with the help of a few of my Pentecostal friends.
And what became immediately apparent to me as youth and leaders began to arrive for the weekend was that this notion of “Oneness” was something that we needed more of in our communities. “Oneness” is a core value of our faith, but is often an afterthought. As we become so preoccupied with our own (small C) community we often forget that we belong to a (big C) community called the Church.
At DYC we had teens who were all associated with an Anglican church in some way. But, even though we were “Anglicans” we all had different ideas about what that meant. On a broader level, we were all Christians, sort of. Or perhaps a better way to phrase would be to say that we were all faithful or faith curious. We all had some notion that there is something more than what we see. Though some may not call it God. We were all at DYC for a reason.
One of the coolest parts of the weekend was that we had multiple faiths represented in our leadership. A Muslim Imam, and a Jewish Rabbi along with our Anglican Chaplain all present for the entire weekend to dialogue, discuss, and just hang out. The pinnacle of this gathering of faith leaders took place in a session we called the “Faith Leader’s Hot Seat” This was an opportunity for youth to ask the faith leaders questions, respectfully uncensored. It was an evening of exploration, discovery, and enlightenment, all centred on this notion of “Oneness”
I think what we often forget about our youth, generation Z, is that they are deeply intrigued and awestruck by spiritual things. Though many would not profess to have a faith of any particular kind, they have questions and are very willing to seek out answers. It’s so easy to believe the lie that teenagers can’t or simply will not engage in spiritual things. It’s not true.
At DYC we sought to call out these questions and entertain this curiosity. Whether it was asking questions about other faiths and spirituality during our Faith Leader’s Hot Seat or participating in workshops ranging from slam poetry and photography, to sexuality and your faith community, the teens seized the opportunity. As I visited each workshop throughout the day, I was struck by who was in each workshop. Youth I never would have thought of as artistic were in the photography and slam poetry workshops. Youth who I would have bet money wouldn’t be caught dead in a workshop on sexuality or gender identity, especially being taught by the church, were there and they were engaged.
One of our teens put it this way, “You know, I often feel I’m treated like I don’t know much about anything in church. But, the workshops here treat me like an equal. They accepted what I already knew, but they also challenge me.” It’s so easy to believe the lie that teenagers can’t comprehend or simply won’t engage in spiritual things. But, I am telling you that it is not true.
On Saturday night, after a long day of workshops and playing hard we gathered for an extended time of worship. I had been asked to speak that evening and the band was going to lead some music. And as the band began to play and everyone began to rock out, jump around and sing, an atmosphere fell on the room. It was a little overwhelming, at least for me.
In Celtic Spirituality, there’s a saying for this atmosphere that I felt in the room. They call it a “thin place” These were places where the Celts described God’s presence as being more accessible than anywhere else. Where the line between Holy and Human seemed to meet. There didn’t have to be anything special about this place. It didn’t have to be a church or holy site, it could be in your home, it could be on the top of a mountain with a beautiful view, it could even be in the basement of an old building at a summer camp. God just seemed to show up.
In the Bible, there’s a story of a guy named Abraham. And Abraham was called blessed by God. But, that’s not to say that he didn’t struggle in his faith. Among other events, Abraham saw many of his family and friends killed. He witnessed God wipe out an entire city, and wrestled with how a loving God could do such a thing. God continually challenged Abraham. Yet, through it all He remained faithful. He continued to seek after God, even when it hurt.
It’s said that wherever Abraham encountered God, he built an altar to mark it as a place where God showed up, so that others would know it was a thin place; a place where Heaven seemed to be just a bit closer to earth.
That night in the basement of an old camp building as we gathered in worship. I would describe that as a thin place. Though many may not call it that, there was an atmosphere of worship in that room. Though many wouldn’t call it that, the air seemed to thicken as we sang songs of truth about God’s promises. Though many may not communicate it this way, Heaven seemed just a bit closer. There was a Spirit in the air. And as I began to speak to the group, I challenged them to not let the opportunity pass by, to respond to the guest who had entered the room, I saw things that moved me deeply. Youth began worshipping, not just singing, but worshiping, though many wouldn’t call it that. Youth began praying for each other. Leaders began praying for youth, and as the band continued to play, the Spirit continued to move. I saw teens who would probably still identify as Atheists embracing the opportunity to experience something deeply spiritual.
Now please set aside all your preconceived notions on what these sort of events look like. Because this experience will not live up to that. This worship and response was as much an internal movement as an outward expression. For some, worship was raising their hands and singing loudly. For others, it was sitting at the back of the room, quietly contemplating. Sometimes we place more value on the response we can see, rather than the one that is more subtle. Both are real, both are authentic, and both are meaningful.
And as the band began to wrap up and close the night, the air began to thin and as quickly as it came the space became as it was before. This is one of the few moments of my life where I have had the privilege to bear witness to the Holy Spirit.
One teen came up to me after the gathering. One of the teens who would probably still themselves and Atheist, and they said, “I have never had so much fun.” Now he could have been referring to the songs to which the entire room became a giant mosh pit. But, I detected an earnesty in their voice. A tone I hadn’t often heard from them. I think there was more behind his statement than just “fun”. Though communicating it may have been difficult. Something happened, I don’t know what. But, it was good and I want more. Something happens when we gather together as a body.
This Spirit is a gift. It was the gift that descended upon the disciples at Pentecost. It is the gift that echoes from these walls each time we gather here. It’s the gift that will continue to encourage, challenge, and sustain us until Heaven and Earth become one.
These thin places, as the Celts called them, are places where the Holy Spirit dwells; where God’s Kingdom comes and His will is done as it is in Heaven. It is these places that we strive to create each and every time we gather to worship. We want to engage and connect with Holy things. Though many wouldn’t say it this way. We seek that which we cannot find elsewhere.
A thin place is as much an internal movement as an external experience. As we read in James: “Drawn near to God, and He will draw near to you” This moving of our hearts, this opening of ourselves, are the conditions in which thin places manifest themselves. This why we experience spiritual and holy things, though many wouldn’t call them that, in places other than Mosques, Synagogues, Temples, and Church.
We see this as the disciples gathered for Pentecost. They find themselves in a room, ready and open to what’s about to happen. There is a knock at the door, and a guest wishes to enter.
My encouragement to you is to become a creator of thin places, and in so doing become a thin place yourself. A place where Heaven seems to be just a bit closer to earth. A place where the line between Holy and human becomes blurred.