Thin places are my New Year’s resolution.
When Trygve Johnson, the Dean of the Chapel at Hope College, came to preach at Grace Chicago Church, he painted a picture of thick fog covering mountains in the Pacific Northwest. Thin places, he said, are those rare moments when the sun pushes back the fog to reveal mountain peaks. Pointing to the communion table, Trygve continued: These moments are where “heaven and earth meet.”
A few weeks ago, our church hosted its first Beer and Carols night at a bar on the north side of Chicago. It was a thin place.
The snowflakes were falling down in vertical lines, the first real snow of the season. My wife and I crunched our way down the sidewalk from the Western Brown Line stop to Gideon Welles, the bar where our church was hosting its first annual Beer and Carols night. I was afraid the snow would keep folks from coming out for a Christmas hymn-sing, but when we arrived, the half of the bar reserved for our group was nearly full.
On the opposite side of our gathering was 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 hand drum. 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 the hymn-sing. During the song, 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 folks that I missed on the way in and then over to the bar area to check the score of the Packers-Seahawks game. The “Silent Night” of 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 wore a red Blackhawks t-shirt tucked into blue jeans, and a couple empty bottles of Bud Light sat on the bar in front of him. I noticed two fingers of what looked like Jack Daniels in a whisky glass in his left hand. He tried to sing along—“Silent night…”—but his words quickly trailed off. He elbowed his buddy next to him. They laughed.
We sang through a half-dozen more carols, and then Davin had our group break for 15 minutes. I wandered over to a friend who was 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 an 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, so I headed back to my drum. We sang another 45 minutes 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 swayed back and forth to the upbeat tempo of our music. 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 their gazes on the snow falling outside. I closed my eyes and listened, getting goosebumps listening to the sound of the church singing in this bar on the north side of Chicago. As the third verse came to a close, I opened my eyes: Christ the Savior is Lo-ord…
Then I saw him. 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 was singing 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 circle. He stood in the middle of us and sang that Christ the Savior was Lord.
And I thought to myself, “That is why we do Beer and Carols.”
So then, thin places have become my resolution this year. I want to see them. I want to be a part of them. I want to be expecting them like Simeon and Anna sitting on the temple steps, never giving up hope that the incarnation of God’s Spirit would yet come. I want to jog people’s memories so that they stand with their eyes open in the midst of the church, remembering a forgotten God who has never forgotten them.