Summer Sermon Series called: The Souls Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Spiritual Practices for Seeking the Sacred, by Christine Valters Paintner

This summer during worship, we are invited to cross over a threshold into paying attention to our spiritual lives –  to what Christine Valters Paintner calls in her book “The Soul’s Slow Ripening”.  She offers 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred in our lives.

My hope is that we engage in some of these ancient Celtic Christian practices. Most people want to understand God’s call in their lives. Christine offers practices of discernment that focus on intuition and embodiment in traveling the ancient path of Celtic spirituality. So this summer, perhaps we will pay attention to the  “slow ripening” of our soul’s faith journey, in allowing our own seasonal rhythms to become more aligned with creativity & wholeness.

CVP: “Discernment is a way of listening to our lives and the world around us and responding to the invitations that call us into deeper alignment with our soul’s deep desires and the desires God has for us. Understanding how our souls move in a holy direction.

So let us enter the journey of “The Soul’s Slow Ripening” by singing –“Come, Come whoever you are.” It reminds me of the words in Come thou Fount:

Prone to Wander, Lord I feel it,  Prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above

Some of you are Cat owners who let your cats go outside – have you ever counted how many times a day they want to be let out, only to meow to come right back in? They can’t make up their minds. Life can sometimes be like that. When you’re on this side of the door, you want to be on the other side, and vice versa, only to find to discover “the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side”.  But what – is “on the other side”?

As a pastor, I sometimes say things I never intended to say. One such experience – saying a prayer with a parishioner at the hospital before she went into surgery.  At the end of the visit, I stood at the door, at the threshold, and spoke these words: “I’ll see you on the other side.”  What I really meant to say was, I will see after surgery, you’ll come out just fine.

Two years ago, I stood in front of my bishop and 250 UM clergy colleagues, giving my CR report on the changes of status of clergy which included those who retired that year. I offered a prayer of blessing as they ventured off into the “Great Beyond”. As laughter filled the room, I was mortified as I realized that most people think of the Great Beyond as the place you go “After You Die”.  I meant it as a Crossing Over into a new season or chapter of the “Great Unknown”!

Upon reflection, what I was referring to has a technical name. It’s spiritual term called liminality. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word limnus, which means doorway/threshold. Doorways are liminal places…marking a clear passage divides two spaces one to another.  This understanding was developed by two anthropologists 50 years apart: first Arnold Van Gennep when he wrote “Rites of Passage” in the early 1900’s.  Victor Turner expanded on this research in the 1960’s.

Thresholds were important to the ancient Celts. Thresholds are the space between, moving from one time to another – dawn to day, day to dusk, dusk to dark; or one space to another, inner or outer journeying or pilgrimage; one awareness to another – when old structures start to fall away and we begin to build something new. The Celts describe thresholds as thin times or places where heaven and earth are closer together and the veil between worlds is thin – “thin space”.  The Celts believed there were thin spaces – certain places on earth where the veil separating this world from the next was especially thin: Thresholds such as shorelines, sunrise & sunset, hilltops, wells, graveyards, doors & gates were all revered by the Celts. The tradition of making a wish as you throw a coin in a fountain is thought to have come from the Celtic belief that wells were thin places – portals to a world beyond.

Christine writes that St. Brigid of Kildare is the symbolic saint of thresholds. One of three patron saints of Ireland, alongside St. Patrick and St. Columba, St. Brigid is said to have been birthed as her mother straddled a doorway. Midwives sometimes call upon the presence of Brigid at the time of birth, a threshold moment. She is the saint of healing, kinship with animals, hospitality and generosity, concern for the oppressed. Brigid is also believed to bring the first sign of life after a long dark night of winter, another threshold moment, a door to a new season.

When we were on Pilgrimage in France, there were so many beautiful doors. Behind one such door in Lyon, our tour guide led us through a “secret” passageway behind a nondescript door in an alley that allowed access to people’s homes. It was like a labyrinth passage eventually leading to another alley or street. During WWII, people who knew their way through these doors and passages smuggled Jews across one threshold, up to the rooftop, down to another passageway, where they helped them escape.

When traveling the underground in London you hear announcements as the train approaches: ‘Mind the gap’. It’s a threshold moment of crossing over. It encourages attention, to make sure you watch your step so as not to trip or catch your foot in the gap. Understanding of the ‘gap’ is a threshold.

The UMC is in a significant threshold moment of minding the gap – where old structures are starting to fall away. At our PNW Conference last weekend and at AC’s throughout the US, delegates are responding to and resisting in profound ways the current crisis of Methodism, as they denounce the actions taken at the special session of GC2019 earlier this year of becoming even more restrictive and punitive towards the LGBTQIA community. Half of the petitions passed this year were resisting the discrimination created by the passage of the “Traditionalist Plan” at GC 2019. The body passed 14 petitions to provide guide rails for how the PNWAC will respond if the restrictive and punitive new rules become unavoidable, including the possibility of creating a whole new entity. The PNWAC:

  • Reaffirmed and continued its commitment to Non-Compliance with United Methodist and governmental actions that hinder full participation for members of LGBTQIA+ communities.

Bishop Elaine Stanovsky started her Episcopal address by saying “Old wineskins are giving way. There may even emerge new ways that require us to stretch and reform the content of Christian Teaching & The Book of Discipline. It’s hard to see a way to stay together. There is division between people who see faith as following the rules and those who see faith as relationship. It’s becoming an issue of conscience. There doesn’t seem to be a way forward that can hold the church together. Which means that every AC or local congregation will have to make a decision whether or not to disaffiliate from the UMC. This is a world of hurt.  You can’t undo our history by passing exclusionary measures. You can’t undo the mark of faithful lives who bear fruit of the spirit in their lives: love, joy, peace, faithfulness, generosity. The Book of Discipline also says: Every generation, the people must cultivate the wisdom of the past in order to think afresh about God.  This is our theological task.”

Nancy Davis wrote a reflection this week: “Our doors are not only opened, we have removed them, and the hinges as well. It is an empty slogan no more. The PNWAC has taken the bold steps I had hoped, and voted overwhelmingly to not follow the decision of GC 2019, and openly welcome, support, and fully accept LGBTQIA+ as members, Clergy and Bishops; to provide no funding for church trials; to potentially sever from the UMC and create our own definition of Methodism that accepts all people as children of God. We are now about the business of defining a new Methodism that encourages partnership of clergy and laity to live into God’s Call. People talked of taking a wait and see stance. Perhaps GC 2020 will give us more insight. I listened, struggled, and came to the conclusion that “wait and see” is a luxury of the privileged. While it might provide greater insight, it also lengthens the time when full inclusion can happen. My other awareness is that if we allow it, if we remain silent, this would only be the beginning. Once we ban LGBTQIA+ persons, who will be next? Will we change our mind on women clergy, sharing our faith with people of color? Perhaps we’ll turn out the poor that are unable to tithe, or the homeless who are not worthy of Gods love. It is time to stop and loudly pronounce “NO”. If we really believe that ALL are children of God, then how can we rewrite God’s plan and limit the church to “only people like us”. I accept and understand that people feel differently, and as strongly as I do. Yes, this is deeply painful, and it is time to part ways. We have different paths to follow. I cannot abide yours and you cannot abide mine. I am at peace with that.”

Jeremiah 6:16 Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your soul.

It is a significant and momentous threshold moment for the life of the UMC and we will pray and wait and participate in the movement of what God is doing there.  And there are significant thresholds and thin places taking place in our lives on a daily basis if we pay attention.

Yesterday as Angie and I drove by Titlow park and as we sat out on our balcony, we saw huge tents with balloons, and heard sounds of celebrations as large family and friend groups gathered – we both thought – Graduation, end of school, Father’s Day.  Threshold moments, liminal space, Thin places.

Barbara Brown Taylor: I’ve known thin places throughout my life, but I always had the experience before I had words or language for it.  An opening between this world and another, but that makes it sound like one world has to end before the next one can begin. A thin place doesn’t really work like that.  It works to pull aside the veil for a moment, so you can see through.  Some of the most reliable places are near water, or a soulful gaze into an animal’s eyes. Hospital rooms can be thin places.  A thin place is any place that drops you down to where you know you’re in the presence of the Really Real.  Time seems to vanish.  There’s a sanctity to the rhythms of life that defy time, so that when you cross over it’s easy to lose track of time.  Artists talk about “flow”; athletes talk about “being in the zone.”  Being in a thin place has a similar quality of timelessness.

Celts used Threshold stones at the entrance to a sacred site – one on either side of the portal or passageway.  Markers and reminders that the soul was crossing over into a sanctified space.  Threshold moments when life shifts – sometimes by choice, many by life’s circumstances.  If you are in a place of discernment, a season of pondering next steps – you are on a threshold – moments when the past season has come to a close, but a profound unknowing of what is next. Graduation, retirement, loss of friends or family members, changes in relationships, moving.

I remember a threshold moment of someone of this congregation moving. Often during Communion, my eyes will glisten with tears as I behold and witness people receiving the sacrament of grace.  Two years ago in June was one of the last times Wes & Ellen Davis worshiped with us at UCUP before moving to VA.  Ellen walked up the aisle, with uncharacteristic tears streaming openly down her face.  If you knew Ellen, you know that she rarely cried. Of course my eyes welled up with tears, I recognized a threshold moment, liminal space, thin space – in her life, in my life, and the life of this church as she and Wes were crossing over to a new chapter in their lives.  Wes joked after the service, “You were supposed to wait until our last Sunday to bring on the waterworks.”

Threshold moments demand that we step into the in-between place of letting go of what has been while awaiting what is still to come. AND Releasing the outcome. To release that which we cling to: our need to be right, feel secure, our need to be in control. None of those is the way according to Celtic monks. These can be rich places of transformation that invite the soul’s slow ripening.

Rumi calls to you –  A voice comes to your soul saying, Lift your foot. Cross over. Move into emptiness of question and answer and question. 

John O’Donohue writes: At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? What is preventing me from crossing my next threshold? What would enable me to do it?

Welcome this tender, wondering part of yourself, Allow your inner wanderer, adventurer & risk-taker to dwell alongside. May thin places and threshold moments surround you.