Simeon and Anna wait with the expectations that thin places are yet possible. They have prayed the same prayers over and over and over again. They live in the dark days of Caesar Augustus, under the rule of the empire, and yet they have the courage and imagination to hope that God’s Spirit will yet do a new thing in their midst.
It is my New Year’s Resolution to be, if not more like Simeon and Anna, to at least be among those that Anna runs to tell about the Christ child. Mary and Joseph bring Jesus into the temple and both Anna and Simeon are awake enough and expectant enough that they recognize God’s presence among themselves. Anna, unlike the shepherds on Christmas Day, runs and tells only “Those who were waiting.” Prodechomai, in the Greek. Those who are longing, waiting, looking. Both Simeon and Anna are waiting expectantly, and I want to be more like them.
In November, Trygve Johnson came and preached at Grace Chicago. He used the language of thin places, which was introduced to Christianity by Celtic groups. Thin places, Trygve said, are places where heaven and earth meet. That phrase, “thin places” has been rattling around in my head. Thin places are those moments when Christ is present and you are awake enough to notice. They are places that Simeon and Anna are prepared to see. A few weeks ago, we hosted our first annual Beer and Carols night. We sang Christmas carols together. I think that was a thin moment:
The snow was falling straight down. It was the first real snow. We crunched our way down the sidewalk from the Western Brown Line stop to Gideon Welles, the bar where we were hosting our first annual Beer and Carols night. I was afraid the snow would keep folks from coming out, but when we arrived, the half of the bar reserved for our group was nearly full.
On the opposite side of our gathering is the actual bar where a handful of locals were already a few drinks in, watching football. Davin set up his keyboard in the corner. Dan brought a guitar and a handdrum. I took my seat behind the hand drum and after a few minutes of ordering and chatting, Davin started the singing.
Silent night was requested early on in our hymn-sing. I put my drum to the side and listened as our voices swelled with the familiar tune. I walked to the back of our group to greet some folk and then over to the bar area to check the score of the Packers-Seahawks game. Almost over. The Silent Night from our group was spilling over, filling the entire bar, especially on the chorus lines…Sleep in heavenly peace…
As the next verse started up, a man at the bar joined in. He had a red Blackhawks t-shirt tucked into blue jeans. A couple empty bottles of Bud Light sat on the bar in front of him and there were 2 fingers of what looked like Jack Daniels in a whisky glass in his left hand. He tried to sing along, “Silent night…” his words trailed off. He elbowed his buddy next to him. They laughed.
As Silent Night finished, I headed back toward the front of our group and took my post behind the drum again.
We sang for a while and then Davin had our group break for 15 minutes so he could eat his sandwich, and everyone else could order another round. I wandered over to Dave Miller. We were both shocked by the turnout on this cold December Sunday night. “What was the goal of Beer and Carols?” he asked, “Like, when you schedule it, what do you think of it as? Is it outreach?”
“I’m not totally sure,” I told him. “It’s the event on the calendar that you can invite your friends to. We always want one event each month that is super easy to invite people to. But, about 90% of what is happening here,” I said pointing to the folks mingling, “is just building community. It’s mainly that we like singing and drinking together.”
Davin gave me a thumbs up. I headed back to my drum. We sang another 45 minutes’ worth of hymns. People sang louder and laughed more during this second set of songs. I even saw a couple in the bar section of the restaurant dancing to Go Tell It On The Mountain. They had been watching the football game, but now they were swaying back and forth to the upbeat tempo of Go Tell It. It was beautiful, really.
After we sang through most of the hymnal, Davin motioned to the musicians to stop playing, and he began Silent Night, one more time. Just the voices. The snow was still falling and a few groups of people had their arms around each other. Everyone sang the familiar tune with their eyes closed or fixed on the snow falling outside. I closed my eyes and listened. I got goosebumps listening to the warm sound of the church singing in this bar on the north side of Chicago. It was a thin space, I think. As the third verse came to a close, I opened my eyes, Christ the Savior is Lo-ord….
And there he was. Red Blackhawks t-shirt tucked into blue jeans. He was standing in the very center of our group, eyes wide, as if he had just remembered something. He sang along, Christ the Savior is Lord. The familiar words of the old Christmas Carols that he knew deep in his bones had sobered him up and drawn him to the center of our group. Now he stood in the middle of the church and sang that Christ the Savior was Lord.
“That,” I thought to myself, “is why we do Beer and Carols.”
This year I want to be a part of a church that creates thin places. I want to be a part of a community that invites people, people who laugh at the idea of singing with the church, to invite those people to worship in our midst. I want to jog people’s memories so that they stand with their eyes wide open remembering a forgotten God that has never forgotten them. I want to wait expectantly with my eyes open so that I can watch God make the down and out become the up and coming. I want to be part of a church that every week tastes and touches grace and every week invites someone new to stand in the great cloud of witnesses and sing to their own surprise, Christ the Savior is Lord. I want to be a part of a church who sees the thin places, who hears the angels singing in a world that has stopped believing in them, a church that uses art and word and sound and kindness and food and drink to proclaim a gospel that is new every morning, whose truth never gets old, and whose hope pierces the darkness no matter how thick the fog gets.
I want to be awake this year, waiting, looking, expecting, because if we are, then as sure as the sun will rise, we will see Christ.
May we be a people who invite by our very community those who have forgotten and those have been forgotten. Let us be that church that takes up the anthem of the angels, “Hark, do not be afraid, good news and great joy for all people.”
Prayers of the People
God with us, we thank you for the gift of the new year.
We ask for wisdom, for your strength and power to be constantly present with us. We pray you would make us strong and courageous for the road ahead. Give us ability beyond what we feel able, let your gifts flow freely through us, so that you would be honored by our lives, and others would be drawn to you.
We pray that you would keep us far from the snares and traps of temptations. That you would whisper in our ear when we need to run, and whisper in our heart when we need to stand our ground.
We pray for your protection over our families and friends. We ask for your hand to cover us and keep us distanced from the evil intent of the enemy; that you would be a barrier to surround us, that we would be safe in your hands. We pray that you would give us discernment and insight beyond our years, to understand your will, hear your voice, and know your ways.
Help us to be known as great givers, help us to be generous and kind, help us to look to the needs of others and not be consumed by only our own.
May we be lovers of truth, may the fruits of your spirit be evident in our lives - your love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Shine your light in us, through us, over us. May we make a difference in this world, for your glory and purposes. Set your way before us. May all your plans succeed. We may reflect your peace and hope to a world that so desperately needs your presence and healing.
Lord in your mercy....Hear our prayer