Painting of Baker Park by S. Coulter

Painting of Baker Park by S. Coulter

Finding God in the park (and other thin places)

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

This week, I remembered reading a beautiful little story about Abe and Timmy. Abe was an 85–year–old man who was recovering from a stroke. Although his son insisted that Abe move in with him so he could protect his father, Abe remained fiercely independent. One of the things Abe missed most was going to the park near his old apartment. One Saturday, Abe set out to find the park.

But as often happens after a stroke, Abe became disoriented. He asked a young boy named Timmy where the park was. Timmy said he’d like to take him there, but he didn’t have time because he was looking for God. He needed to talk to God about why his parents were getting a divorce.

“Maybe God’s in the park,” said Abe. “I’d like to talk to God, too, about why he made me useless.” So they set off together to find God.

At the park, Timmy began to cry about the divorce. Abe lovingly held his face in both hands and looked him straight in the eyes. “Timmy, I don’t know why bad things happen, but I know it wasn’t because of you. I know you’re a good boy and your parents love you and you’ll be okay.”

Timmy gave Abe a big hug and said, “I’m so glad I met you. Thanks. I think I can go now.”

Across the street, Timmy’s mother watched them hug. Worried, she came up to her son and asked, “Who was that old man?”

“I think he’s God,” Timmy said.

“Did he say that?”

“No, but when he touched me and told me I’m going to be okay, I felt really better. Only God can do that.”

When Abe finally got home, his son asked him in a scolding voice, “Where were you?”

“I was in the park with God.”

“Really? What makes you think you were with God?”

“Because God sent me a boy who needed me, and when the boy hugged me, I felt God telling me I wasn’t useless anymore.”

Whenever I hear a story like this, it reminds me that God comes to us in many disguises. In 1972, Robert McAfee Brown wrote a book called “The Pseudonyms of God”. His point was that God comes among us in many different ways — through human culture and natural events, through interior mystical experiences, and through very public experiences.

He wrote, “I need more than the resources of Bible, theological tradition, and my own commitments if I am to understand my faith and the world in which it is set; I also need the ethical insights of my secular colleagues, the political and psychological analyses of my friends and foes, and the prophetic jab of [unchurched people] whose degree of commitment so often puts my own to shame.”

I believe that we catch glimpses of divine reality in many different ways. Archbishop Desmond Tutu loved to call it “the divine nudge” which points us to look where we otherwise might not. Our part in this is to listen, to see more deeply into the heart of reality, to be open to catching those glimpses of God and feeling that divine nudge.

This story of Abe and Timmy helps us to see that people encounter God in so many different ways. I know people who are closest to God when they’re riding a bike, or climbing a mountain, or listening to a piece of music, or finding themselves lost in a work of art.

Celtic spirituality calls such experiences “thin places.” It is a moment, or a place, or an experience where the veil between this world and the next becomes diaphanous. You feel like you can almost reach out and touch a reality which gives us the gift of healing and hope. Eric Weiner writes that thin places are “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.”

I have experienced several thin places in my life: a piece of music; the mountains; a particular memory; an encounter with another person.

As I reflect on them, I note that none of them are traditional religious places. That’s the thing about God. God just keeps on showing up at times when we don’t expect an encounter. This kind of experience always comes as a surprise, just as it did for Abe and Timmy.

I met God this past week. I wasn’t expecting it. I encountered God through my computer screen and the screen of my smartphone, and in unexpected calls from friends. I received an avalanche of support and love in response to last week’s column, and in all your compassion and grace and love, I felt God’s arms encircling me, holding me, cradling my broken heart and fragile spirit.

Many people might just say it was a natural outpouring of love for me in my moment of pain and grief and loss. I suppose it could be that.

But for me, it was more than that. In the virtual hugs and words of grace I felt God hugging me. I knew the holiness of God surrounding me. I experienced grace and healing.

I met God in the park.

And here’s the thing about thin places. You can’t hold on to them. You find a thin place, and then they release you into the world so that you might become the presence of God for another person.

The thing is to remain open to the experience of God, whenever and wherever it might happen.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook

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