REFLECTIONS

Welcome to Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church's blog. We invite you to read through the reflections, written by Rev. Kevin Campbell. Click the title to expand and read. 

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  • Thin Places

    Rev. Kevin M. Campbell

    August 30, 2022


    Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”

        (Genesis 28:10-12)


    As some of you are aware, I spent last week at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery, in Moncks Corner, SC, studying the life of the sixteenth century Christian mystic St. Teresa of Avila. It was a delightful and restful time of retreat, silence, and study.


    Before I left for my week of continuing education, however, a number of people reached out to me to inquire as to why I wanted to spend a week at a Trappist monastery learning about St. Teresa of Avila. And then, interestingly, after returning to the office this week, a handful of people have expressed curiosity and interest in hearing about what I experienced and learned last week. 


    In response to all of the interest and questions, I thought it would be fun to share with you why I chose to spend last week at Mepkin Abbey in retreat, silence, and study. Candidly, there are two primal reasons:


    First, I wanted to be with the One who loves me deeply, who is Breath of my breath, and who is the Lover of my soul. I wanted to spend the week with Christ. I desired to be re-centered in Christ’s life, presence, and Spirit. I longed to spend the week in contemplative prayer and silence, listening for “the still small voice of God” (2 Kings 19:12). In her book, The Life, St. Teresa of Avila offers a simple definition of contemplative prayer that nicely summarizes why I spent a week at Mepkin Abbey. She writes, “Contemplative prayer is simply, and nothing more than, a sharing among friends.”*  Simply put, I spent last week at Mepkin Abbey because I wanted to be with my friend. I craved Christ’s company.


    Second, I wanted to be at a place where the threshold between heaven and earth is thin. Mepkin Abbey is what is called or known as a “Thin Place.” Perhaps you are familiar with the concept of “Thin Places.” It is an elusive and evocative expression that comes from the wisdom of the Celtic Christian tradition. And yet, it is not an exclusively Celtic idea or phenomena.


    A “Thin Place” is a sacred spot. It is a space where the mysteries of heaven and the concreteness of earth converge. According to Christian mystic and writer Carl McColman, it is “where the veil that separates our world from the otherworld, the world of eternity and silence, is especially thin.” It is a liminal space where we sense the eternal. In the words of the Psalmist, a “Thin Place” is the spot where “steadfast love and faithfulness meet,” where “righteousness and peace kiss each other,” and where “faithfulness springs up from the ground and righteousness looks down from the sky” (Psalm 85:10-11). 


    Last week, I experienced Mepkin Abbey as a “Thin Place.” During my time at the monastery in contemplative prayer, silence, and study, I felt and saw God’s Spirit touching down concretely and setting both the world and my life aglow in beauty, holiness, love, and wonder.


    As I think about Mepkin Abbey being a “Thin Place,” it occurs to me that the Bible is littered with stories about “Thin Places.” It is full of narratives about spaces and locations where the curtain between heaven and earth is pulled back, and the holiness of God touches down concretely setting life aglow. For instance, mountains seem to be particularly “Thin Places” in the Bible. Mount Sinai is the locale where Moses stood in the cleft of the rock and as God walked by Moses was permitted to see the backside of God (Exodus 33:17-23). It is on an unnamed mountain where Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured and talking with Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36).  It is on the mountain island of Patmos where John had a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1).


    The temple is another arena where the gate between heaven and earth is especially thin. It is during a moment of national grief and lament that the prophet Isaiah sees “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his throne filling the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). It is in the temple where Jesus in a fit of anger turns over the moneychangers table and declares, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). 


    Lastly, the wilderness also appears to be an extremely “Thin Place” in the Bible. The wilderness is where Israel lived and wandered for forty years as God led them in pillar of cloud and fire. It is in the wilderness that the prophet Ezekiel witnessed a valley of dry bones brought back to life (Ezekiel 37:1-4). The wilderness is the place where Jesus went for forty days to gather his energies for his ministry and vocation. It was in the wilderness that Jesus faced temptation, but also where he was ministered to by the messengers of heaven (Matthew 4:1-11). And most certainly, the patriarch Jacob discovered the wilderness to be a “thin place.” While camping at a “certain place” (an in-between place, a liminal space) between Beer-sheba and Haran, Jacob envisions a ladder connecting heaven and earth with the angels of God ascending and descending the ladder. Jacob is so moved and transformed by his vision and experience that he marks the spot with a pillar of stones and names the place Bethel.


    Of Course, Mount Siani, the temple, the wilderness, and Mepkin Abbey are not the only “Thin Places” in the world. There are many other locales where the goodness of heaven touches down concretely on the earth. I am sure that you can identify a few “Thin Places” yourself. 


    Nevertheless, you may be asking yourself, “Why is this important? Why does this matter” It matters because “Thin Places” are real. They point to something bigger than themselves. They point to something that is true and universal. They point to something that is deeply human and at one with the radiance of heaven. They remind us that what happens on earth matters in heaven. They help us to recall that our faith is a faith of beauty, grace, love, mercy, and redemption. They assure us that we are never separated from God and God’s deep and broad love for us. 


    Well, I hope that gives you some sense of my “why” for going to Mepkin Abbey, for taking a week of continuing education to study the life of St. Teresa of Avila, for spending five days in silence and contemplative prayer, for spending time with the One who deeply loves me (and you), and for standing in a “thin place” that is a threshold between heaven and earth.


    Prayer


    Holy God:

         In Jesus Christ, your Son and our Savior,

              heaven and earth meet;

                   righteousness and peace kiss.

    Touch down concretely

              And set our lives aglow for your holy purposes.

    In His name, we pray. Amen.


    *St. Teresa of Avila, The Life, (Chapter 8, paragraph 5).

  • Hard-Hearts/Tender-Hearts

    Rev. Kevin M. Campbell

    August 8, 2022


              O that today you would listen to his voice!

              Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,

              As on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

              When your ancestors tested me,

              And put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

                                                                                              (Psalm 95:7b-9)


    The book of Psalms is my favorite book of the Bible. I read at least one psalm every day. It is my favorite book because it is so brutally honest. In the psalter, no human secret is hidden from God. Every human emotion, feeling, and thought is expressed without pretense to God. The psalms give voice to the breadth and depth of human spirituality. Without a doubt, it is the most genuinely human book in the Bible.


    During my times of daily prayer over the past week, I have been reading and pondering Psalm 95. It is a brief two-stanza psalm. It is only eleven verses in length. In spite of its brevity, it is a rich hymn of joy and praise that is full of pregnant images and metaphors for God and our relationship with God, such as:


    • Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! (v. 1b)
    • For the Lord is…a great King above all gods. (v. 3b)
    •  …Let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! (v. 6b)
    •  …We are the people of his pasture, the sheep of his hand. (v. 7)

    While no one knows who penned Psalm 95, it is a robust hymn that celebrates God as the creator who maintains and governs all parts of the cosmos. I imagine Psalm 95 being a liturgical fragment, a worship element, leftover from the Jerusalem Temple. I suspect that the psalm was a communal hymn that may have been sung each time a new King was enthroned to govern Israel.


    Nonetheless, the image that has caught my eye and captured my attention is found in the second stanza of the psalm. At the mid-point of v. 7, which begins the second stanza, there is an abrupt and sudden change in the psalm’s tone and voice. In the first part of the psalm, it is the psalmist who is the speaker of the psalm. But, in the second stanza, it is Godwho speaks. Out of the blue, almost out of nowhere, God’s voice interrupts the psalmist’s

    summons to make a joyful noise to issue a stringent and prophetic urging:


              Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,

              as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

              when your ancestors tested me,

              and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

                                                                                (Psalm 95:8-9)


    Interesting phrase and reference, “Do not harden your hearts.” On the one hand, the phrase introduces a summons to an act of remembrance. The worshiping community is encouraged to recall the time when their ancestors were in the wilderness, not long out of Egypt, and complained against God and Moses because they had limited resources—no food and no water. In their complaint, the wilderness community did not trust God to

    provide what was materially needed for abundant daily life. Therefore, the imperative, “do not harden your hearts,” is an invitation to not be like their ancestors in the wilderness. It is an urging to trust that the Lord will provide what is needed.


    On the other hand, the imperative, “do not harden your hearts,” is a pregnant biblical and spiritual metaphor. It aptly describes the gradual process that takes place in our relationships with God and others when we stop listening, become distracted, turn away, cease trusting, and grow self-absorbed. Becoming “hard hearted” may happen in our relationships with God and others as it did with Pharoah in his unwillingness to listen to God and let the Israelites go free (Exodus 8:15); as it did with the Israelites complaining in hunger and thirst against God in the wilderness (Exodus 17:1-7); as it did with disciples and their lack of understanding after Jesus’ miracles of feeding the five thousand and walking on the water (Mark 6:52).


    Has your heart grown hard toward God? Have you stopped listening to God? Have you become so distracted by the demands and pressures of family, work, and life that your heart has become hard toward God? Have you ceased trusting God? Have you grown cold and self-absorbed, forgetting about God as the ground of your being?


    The Quakers, use the “tender” to describe the opposite spiritual process of becoming more sensitive to God’s voice. How do you keep your heart tender before God? How do you keep your heart from becoming hard to God?


    For me, it is the practices of daily prayer, contemplative meditation, and silence that keep me open to God’s presence and voice. But daily prayer, contemplative meditation, and silence are not the only ways to stay tender to God. Practices such as fasting, labyrinth walking, sabbath keeping, journaling, hospitality to strangers, self examination, and service to others are some other ways that help keep our hearts open and receptive—tender—to

    God’s voice.


    As I said in the conclusion to August 7th's sermon, the great challenge facing the Church is learning again what it means to live by faith. The primal way that we live by faith is by being tender-hearted—being open, receptive, and trusting of God. Our spirituality begins with God, depends on God, and ends with God. In her book, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, Marjorie J. Thompson provides a wonderful definition of tender-hearted spirituality when she writes, “We owe our capacity to be spiritual to the grace of One who creates us free to share love with our living source.” *


    And so, my dear sisters and brothers, in the urging of the psalm, “do not harden your hearts.” Instead, be open, tender-hearted, and alive to the voice and presence of God both in your life and in the life of the world.


    Prayer


    Loving God:

           Soften our hard hearts.

           Make them tender and warm.

           Fill them with love,

                  so that we may be open

                  to your commanding voice and transformational presence

                         that makes all things new, even us.

    In His name, we pray. Amen.


    * Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John

    Knox Press, 2014), p. 8.

  • Called to Freedom


    Happy Fourth of July!


    Today is the most quintessential of American holidays because it acknowledges and celebrates

    the birth of the nation. Today is all about family, hamburgers and hot dogs (yuck), baked beans,

    potato salad, corn on the cob, fireworks, patriotism, and freedom.


    Personally, I have always found the Fourth of July to be an odd holiday. I struggle with the

    myths and stories that we tell about the birth of our country and the cost and meaning of our

    freedom.


    Over the past several days, I have spent some time reflecting on freedom. I have wrestled with

    questions like:  What is the source of our freedom? Are we truly free? Is there any such thing as

    freedom? Is freedom an illusion and myth that we tell ourselves? What are we set free to do? Is

    freedom about rights or is it about responsibility?


    As I pondered those questions, I was reminded of the apostle Paul’s lengthy discussion about

    freedom in his letter to his church friends in Galatia. It is a troubled and divided congregation. It

    is a fellowship that has split into “us” and “them” factions over the practical and theological

    issue of circumcision. While the question of circumcision may seem far removed and silly to us,

    let me invite you to think about ordinary, everyday church folk dividing up into “us” and “them”

    groups arguing over such weighty matters as abortion, race, gender identity, sexuality, the color

    of the church’s carpet, and whether or not it is better to attend worship in-person or via live

    stream in a post Covid world. Can you imagine church people splitting up into factions and

    arguing over those theological and practical matters? I certainly can.


    Paul cuts underneath the dispute about circumcision to remind these day-to-day Christians in

    Galatia that Christ’s spirit has touched down concretely in their lives and set them free. Late in

    his discussion, Paul writes:


    For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the

    yolk of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).


    The point is so obvious that it is easily forgotten. The church keeps its life and lives its life in

    Christ alone. Christ is the source of not only our life together, but our freedom too.  As I

    consider the source of our freedom in Christ, I am reminded of some of the cultural myths that

    we tell about the source of our freedom. Culturally, politically, and socially, we believe that the

    source of our freedom comes from such things as the Declaration of Independence, the

    Constitution of the United States of America, a strong national military presence, the right to

    carry a concealed weapon, the story of Manifest Destiny, etc.


    But the truth is, the source of our freedom is not really found in any of those things. It is, rather,

    found in Christ. And it is in the stories about the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of

    Christ that we discover the source of our freedom. It is the reason why we tell our Jesus stories.

    In the stories of Jesus, we see who God calls us to be and how we are summoned to live our

    lives in the world as the people of Jesus. Christ is the decisive point of our lives and our life

    together.  


    As Paul continues to write to these day-to-day Christians about the freedom that they and we

    have in Christ, he says something else that is important about freedom. Paul writes:


    For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an

    opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the

    whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as

    yourself” (Galatians 5:13-14).


    It occurs to me that much our talk about freedom in our contemporary U. S. cultural context is

    about self-indulgence. Much our rhetoric about freedom is self-centered talk about personal,

    individual rights: the right to carry a concealed handgun, the right to an abortion, the right to

    same sex marriage, the right to use the bathroom of the gender with which I identify, and so

    on. Many of our macro-conversations around freedom are about indulging our personal

    desires.


    Mostly in our culture, however, we associate freedom with consumer desire. We are shaped

    deeply—whether we know it or not—by desiring new items that we can buy. We associate

    freedom with the ability to buy and consume things: the freedom to buy the newest cell phone

    or computer, the freedom to buy the most expensive home we can afford, the freedom to go

    on an expensive and luxurious vacation, or the freedom to buy name brand and designer

    clothes. We have this sense that freedom is, “If I get this thing, I’ll be okay. I’ll be pretty. I’ll be

    smart. I’ll have it made. I’ll be free.”


    But Paul tells his church friends and us that freedom is neither about individual, personal rights

    nor is it about possessing unlimited consumer goods. Rather, it is about responsibility. We are

    set free not for self-indulgence, but for responsibility to one another and to our neighbors. Paul

    urges, 


    “…But through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a

    single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”


    We have been set free to live in the ethic, meaning, and way of love, which, of course, is the

    way of Christ. His life was an unending giving away of his life in freedom for the sake of the

    other. He opened the eyes of the blind, unstopped the ears of the deaf, cleansed the skin of the

    leper, forgave the sinners, welcomed strangers, ate with tax collectors and prostitutes,

    proclaimed good news to the poor, set prisoners free, announced the God’s jubilee, and even

    raised the dead. Christ was completely free, and he lived his freedom in love for the other.


    As those who travel in his wake, we are summoned to live our lives—to live in freedom—as

    Christ lives his life, always for the sake of the other. And so, my dear sisters and brothers, as

    you eat your hamburgers and hot dogs and watch your fireworks, let me summon you to

    ponder your freedom. Consider the true source of your freedom. And then, think about why

    you have been set free.


    “For freedom, Christ has set us free.”


    Happy Fourth of July!


    Rev. Kevin M. Campbell

  • A Prayer for the Abingdon Town Council

    Rev. Kevin M. Campbell


    (The occasion of this prayer was the Abingdon Town Council meeting (June 12, 2022) where the Town

    Council acknowledged by proclamation Sinking Spring’s 250th anniversary.)


    Creator of all that was...of all that is...of all that ever will be,

              we give thanks for this day of your sure making.


    We give thanks for the tasks and work that

              you have given us to accomplish.

    We give thanks for tourists and visitors

              who have traversed our sidewalks

                        and have been blessed by the hospitality

                                  and vitality of our community.

    We give thanks for those who serve our community

              in devotion and love and at great risk

                        so that we may live safely.

    We give thanks for the play of our children this day

              as they enjoy their summer break.


    For all that has given energy and life

              to this day and to our community,

                        we give thanks to you, God of life,

              because all that borrows life from you

                        is ever in your care.


    We pray, then, as the day grows short

              that you will closely watch and listen intently

                        as these servants of the people of Abingdon

                                  come together as one body to serve the people

                                            with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.


    Give these men and women courage

              to do good, to seek peace, and to pursue it.


    Use these men and women to do your transformative work

              that dares to execute justice for the oppressed,

              that gives food to the needy,

              that sets the prisoner free,

              that welcomes the stranger,

              that lifts up those bent low by poverty,

              that upholds the most vulnerable among us—

                        orphans, widows, the unsheltered, the elderly,

                                  and all who do not have an advocate--

    and that imagines that even the dead can be raised.


    Empower these men and women to enter into

              the hard places of conflict and difference of opinion

                        with grace, listening ears, and understanding.


    Give these men and women strength and conviction

              to resist the temptation to reduce complex issues into

                        simple pat answers and easy solutions.


    Help these men and women to avoid

              the seduction of inflammatory, dehumanizing speech

                        so that the dignity of all may be cherished and respected.


    Assist these men and women in not making snap decisions,

              but assist them in being deliberative, discerning, curious, and open.


    Let these servants of the people continue

              to nurture the good and commonweal

                        that flows naturally in our community.


    Politics...governance...life together is not easy.

    And so, when the work of this Council is complete this evening,

              grant these men and women satisfaction

              in fidelity, hope, charity, and service.


    Give us assurance that you have heard our prayer,

              because we pray in the Spirit of the One

                        who we believe has helped our Town in ages past,

                                  is our help in years to come,

                                            and is with us even now.

                                                                                                 Amen.