As Ler La told us his story of freedom and faith in broken English, we all felt the presence of God come near.
Ler La’s family lived in a refugee camp in Thailand. They were part of the thousands of Karen people who had fled persecution in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Ler La’s father had placed a small amount of money in his seven-year-old son’s hand and sent Ler La into enemy territory to go to school. A captain in the Karen resistance, his father saw leadership potential in Ler La and intended his son to learn Burmese. Ler La could then communicate with the opposition forces when he took his place in the Karen army.
But over the years, the course of events instead took Ler La to Elizabethtown, Pa., as a refugee. Through the witness of his sponsor, a Christian, Ler La felt God’s call to follow Jesus’ way of peace and salvation.
Today, Ler La does use his early training for subversive purposes: he teaches Burmese to MCC workers preparing to go to Myanmar (Burma) – in Jesus’ name.
What was intended for war is now being used for peace.
When Ler La had finished his testimony, a hush fell over our Anabaptist Communicators banquet. His story startled in us into humility, evoking deep gratitude for the lives we live. It gave us new respect for the courage and faith of Christian brothers and sisters around the world.
Then Ler La’s daughter joined him and began to sing in her native tongue – a sweet and hopeful tune that seemed to bring heaven a little closer in that room.
Some people would have said it was a “God moment.” Others would have said they felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in a powerful way.
God comes near
In North America, with the endless noise and rush of life, it’s often difficult to find places where we can steal a glimpse of heaven like that. But I think we all long for places where the veil of eternity becomes slightly more transparent, awareness of God’s presence is heightened and intimacy with Jesus grows.
Think of Exodus 3:5 where Moses encounters the burning bush, and God says to him, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Or the manger in Bethlehem, where the shepherds kneel in worship before the Christ child. Or on the road to Emmaus, where two disciples encounter the risen Lord.
The ancient Celts called these “thin places.”
Whether thin places are actual geographical locations, or simply moments when we allow ourselves to be more aware of Jesus’ presence in our lives, they’re essential to our spiritual well-being.
New York Times writer Eric Weiner says thin places make us feel disoriented – in a good way. “They confuse. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world.”
“Thin places” at Christmas
The Christmas season offers ample opportunities for us to discover “thin places” in our world. They allow us to become disoriented for just a moment. They open the door for God to show us new ways of seeing things – to renew our hope and faith, and to reorient our spiritual compass.
Perhaps it’s a stirring performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” reminding us again of the majesty and grandeur of our Saviour. Perhaps it’s a quiet evening spent by the fire reading God’s Word, seeking his direction for the new year. Perhaps it’s a smile and an embrace from an old friend in the form of a Christmas card, allowing the joy of community to warmly enfold us.
Or perhaps it’s an unexpected faith conversation with a stranger on the subway after a hectic day of Christmas shopping, jarring us out of the ordinary and reminding us of what’s really important.
Wherever the thin places are for you this Christmas season, I wish you many moments discovering the nearness of God in this world.
After all, more than creating a thin space, Jesus’ birth on earth tore the veil in two. On the first Christmas, he emptied himself to dwell with his people, so we might truly see God face-to-face.