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  • Writer's pictureMaddy Woodman

Thin Places: Seeing God in the Face of Strangers

Have you ever had an encounter in which you felt close to God? Or a time where you felt an emotion well up with a feeling of connection that made you think of something more something sacred? In Celtic Christianity, locations where the line between the heavenly and earthly becomes blurred are called thin places. I believe our souls are hungry for experiences like these, that we thirst for places and experiences that make us aware of God’s active presence. People can seek God’s presence on retreats, at beautiful natural locations, through emotional music, and in the work of master painters. In the busy lives and overwhelmed minds of college students, sometimes these experiences seem few and far between. Luckily for us, however, thin places exist all around us, waiting to be noticed in our everyday lives. I have noticed thin places and their visible sacredness in my encounters with strangers.Humans are all created in the image of God, so our encounters with others reflect His presence and grace working in and through us. Our bodies are temples for the presence of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 16:19), knitted together in our mother’s wombs by our Creator (Psalm 139:13) with souls bought with the blood of Christ (Galatians 3:13). Everything that we do and all that we are is only possible through God. Thus, every time we interact with someone we have the opportunity to experience a thin place if we open our hearts and minds to invite in the light of God through these tangible encounters.

My experiences interning at a church in Philadelphia last summer opened my eyes to this joy of acknowledging God’s presence in my everyday life. Overall, my summer did not go how I expected. When I arrived, I stayed for a night at a hostel only to switch to a different place for a few days and another one after that. On one hot July day, as I dripped sweat while lugging my suitcase and overstuffed backpack around downtown Philadelphia (again), I realized that my living situation was going to remain unstable. During stressful moments such as this, I found peace by looking back on the many interactions where I had seen God in the face of the people around me, interactions made possible by the chaos and instability. This acknowledgement allowed me to persevere and praise the Lord amidst feelings of uncertainty. Whenever I remember this summer, I see scenes replaying in my mind: thin places where the actions of another made me question my assumptions about God’s presence. Here I will share these moments with you through vignettes which try to capture the indescribably awesome Spirit of God through descriptions of these encounters.

Entertaining Angels by the Schuylkill River

I had reached the end of the bike trail and was leaning on the railing overlooking the sun soaked waters of the Schuylkill River and the skyscrapers beyond. I was pondering how to spend the rest of my day and feeling lonely. I heard approaching footsteps and looked over to see that a man had detached from his group to greet me. He appeared to be middle aged and walked with a light step and a broad, friendly smile beaming from under his ball cap. I brushed off my shyness, smiled in return, and we began to talk. I shared about my summer job and he shared how finding God had turned his life around. Then he paused and told me something that I’ll never forget. Leaning back from the railing, he looked me straight in the eyes, tapped the center of his palm, and said “Maddy, don’t worry about where you are or where you’re going. God already has you in the palm of his hand.” To this day, whenever I get that lonely, aimless feeling again, I see the man’s hand tapping his palm. I hear his voice smooth over the flowing river, and I know that I am going to be okay because I am in God’s hand.

My encounter with this man brings to mind Hebrews 13:2, “do not neglect to show hospitality for strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” The small act of openly engaging a stranger in conversation and sharing a small part of myself resulted in a beautiful exchange that reminded me of the presence of God which shines in and through His people. We both left the encounter richer than we entered it, with a reminder of God’s love and a memory of spontaneous Christian fellowship.

Jesus also engaged with the strangers around him, offering a pearl of wisdom and light to the Samaritan woman who visited the well he was sitting by (John 4). Though he appeared as a stranger to her and their interaction crossed perceived social boundaries, Jesus turned the encounter into something which transformed the woman and her town. Thus I ask, is it surprising to see that the Holy Spirit is still speaking through the interactions of strangers today?

Hostel Guests: The Salt of the Earth

Valerie: My second day in Philadelphia was free for sightseeing, but I was feeling lost and alone, unsure about what to do. As I nervously paced through the rows of bunk beds in my hostel room, one of my roommates introduced herself. If her sturdy sandals and neatly organized backpack didn’t give her away as an expert traveler, then her curious gaze and spontaneous attitude did. Valerie was a world traveler who had quit her job to spend a year abroad and only recently returned to the US. Her inquisitive, friendly energy made me feel at home, adrift as I was, and I was overjoyed when she invited me on her trip to the art museum. Thus began a memorable day in which we got lost during our trek through the woods, analyzed art together, and shared our stories. I heard about Valerie’s travels: the joyful moments and the hard ones. When we sat exhausted on the museum bench after our long day, I looked over at Valerie, her bushy brown hair tucked behind her ears and a soft smile on her face, and I knew that I had made a friend. To this day, I am still amazed by how much she made me feel at home in a place that was new to both of us.

Peter: A couple of weeks later I was eating breakfast by myself in the bright green hostel kitchen, wondering again about what to do with another unexpected day off. A man across the room waved and we struck up a conversation. Peter was a traveling businessman who likewise had the day off with no one to spend it with. Something about the oversized touristy camera which hung around his neck and the wrinkles around his eyes which deepened when he smiled made me feel like I could trust him. After debating what we should each do with our days, we decided to set out together to explore. Coming from Indonesia, Peter was an expert on Asian cuisine and excitedly led me to Philadelphia’s Chinatown where he took my picture in front of the elaborate entrance, pointed out the street vendors, and explained the dishes which were advertised in restaurant windows. After we walked the streets, he brought me back to one of the restaurants where he brought me lunch and helped me choose a delicious dish. In the end it wasn’t about the price of the meal, but rather the enthusiasm and generosity that he showed for me, a stranger, which touched my heart.

From the beginning, God establishes that “it is not good for the man to be alone” when he creates a companion for Adam. Adam is only complete when given a partner. In fact, Adam and Eve first experience strife when they disobey God’s commandments and isolate themselves from their deepest relationship: communion with God. After Adam and Eve, Scripture only continues to support the importance of a life lived together and show how humans thrive in relationship with others. Valerie and Peter were two friendly people who utterly transformed my experience through their presence, generosity, and willingness to share themselves with me. Though these encounters were not expressly religious, the ready, personal love they shared reminded me of Christ’s vision for the Church and the giving, welcoming humanity which he praises in teachings such as in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

They also helped me to understand why Jesus describes Christians as “the salt of the earth” despite how sinful we can be. When we see God in the face of another, we see the love of God’s beauty of humanity as he intended us to be. Therefore, Christians have the power to transform the lives of others merely through faithful presence. When we learn to abide in Jesus, Jesus comes to abide in us (John 15:5). This two way exchange transforms ourselves and our actions so that our encounters with others start to reveal with more clarity the kingdom of God and the extent of his love. As we begin to give more of our lives to Christ, he comes to live in us more and more so that our transformative power increases (Galatians 2:20).

The Love of a Child

Charlotte. It was July 5th and I was finally moving out of the hostels into a church member’s house. As soon as she saw me sneaking down the creaky staircase, Charlotte ran over, gave me a big four-year-old hug, and decided that I was part of the family. She expected me to play catch, draw with her, and, of course, to accompany her on a family trip to the zoo. Her grandmother, my current host, laughed at us and told me not to feel obliged to play with Charlotte, but I continued to blow endless streams of bubbles for her because the freely given love of a four year old is something truly beautiful.

Jesus clearly valued the unique attitude of children and the lessons that they can teach us. Stories of him welcoming and praising children appear throughout the gospel. In Matthew 18, Jesus calls us both to become children and to welcome children in his name. Thus, it’s easy to see how caring interactions with children can fulfill God’s call for us to love others and inspire us in ways that transform our understanding of God’s character and His kingdom. Charlotte embodied the love of Christ for me, when she unhesitantly welcomed me as a family member just as God welcomes his children. The way she freely and joyously extended love humbled me and made me feel young again as if I could receive the kingdom of God like a little child (Mark 10:15).

Home Again: Continuing the Search for Thin Places

In Philadelphia, it was easy for me to see my need for Christ. Though I feel more comfortable at my home in Minnesota, my soul still longs for thin places whether I chose to acknowledge it or not. It often seems easier to walk past someone or to casually mumble a greeting without actually taking the time to be present—to open myself to give and receive. My busy schedule and my shy midwestern sensibilities urge me to gloss over the encounter. However, if we do this, we are missing out on chances to see the glory and love of God which are constantly at play in our interactions. God gives value to all of humanity as his workmanship and image bearers for all of creation. He called us to “abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thesselonians 3:12) and be hospitable as we “love the sojourner” (Deuteronomy 10:19). When we are distracted, closed off, and distant, we miss chances to show love to the strangers around us. We do them and ourselves a disservice, and we fail to trust and revel in the full beauty of God’s creation and view for human relationships.

In Luke 24, the disciples encounter a stranger on the road. They had just experienced great loss as they witnessed Jesus’s crucifixion and even greater confusion as they heard Mary’s story of the empty tomb. It might not seem like the best time to include a stranger in their conversation, but they boldly and generously share their story with him. As they go along, the stranger reveals the meanings of the Scriptures and causes their “hearts to burn within them,” but it is not until the disciples offer the hospitality of the meal when Jesus reveals his identity through the breaking of the bread. This story reveals the glory of God in the stranger and the power of simple hospitality to create thin places among us. Therefore I challenge us to be intentional about making these spaces in our everyday lives. How can we show genuine care and presence in our conversations with strangers and acquaintances? What would it look like to humble ourselves to ask for and give help even if it feels inconvenient? How can we transform the culture of our homes, classrooms, and colleges one interaction at a time so as to uncover God’s sustaining love and presence? The stories that I read in the gospel and the memories that I carried back from Philadelphia have convinced me that we have the opportunity, with the help of the Spirit, to reveal God in the most everyday of encounters. An enthusiastic world traveler, a curious child, a businessman with a day to spare: they all reflected and magnified the Lord and his vision of salvation.

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