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Thinking Out Loud

Thin Places: The World Has a Heart

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 02, 2015

A Spirituality Notebook


Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “spirituality notebook.” E-mail us!

Thin Places 3cThe world has a heart, and on a summer night you can hear it beating to the rhythm of cicadas in a southern forest. I was driving home along the two-lane road connecting Lufkin and Trinity, Texas, circa 1971. The night and the forest and the sound of the world's heart poured in through every open window of my car.

Seventeen years old and preaching my first revival series. I was licensed as a preacher the previous Sunday in an evening service in Lufkin, where I preached my first sermon, memorably and, at least for my family, regrettably titled, "Possum Stew." Calvary Baptist Church, my home church, did the licensing.

A church that splits from a "First" Baptist Church in most every southern town seems to be a “Calvary” because they want to be closer to the cross, it is said. There were a few hundred people in attendance that night, and the service was broadcast over the local AM radio station. My family was all there. So were most of my friends. I was too young and too dumb to be scared.

A week later I was preaching my first full-week revival service. As Kinky Friedman said of his gubernatorial bid, "Why not?" Well, Kinky said it with more gusto, but you get the idea.

Going home from the first night's service, late Sunday evening, there's not another car for miles. The ventilation system of my 1966 Volkswagen bug gulps down every scent as I drive through the Neches River bottom. Sweet, heavy woodland aromas mix with the sweet, rotting smell of roadkill. Possums and raccoons are thick as thieves in an East Texas river bottom, and the blacktop holding the day's warmth is a temptation to which many succumb to their demise.

Deep East Texas is more like Louisiana or Mississippi than it is the other parts of Texas, typified by Dallas, San Antonio or Austin - a fact that bewilders outsiders. Everyone who isn't from within twelve miles of where you're born in East Texas is an outsider. Driving east, once you cross that north/south line running from Houston to Dallas along Interstate 45, you enter East Texas, and you enter the South. The Southwest is in your rearview mirror. The accents twist and turn, draw out and torture every vowel until they yell “UNCLE,” and the forest hides the horizon. This is not "Big Sky Country" but "Big Pine Country."

I sing as I drive through the night, indiscriminately skipping from hymns by Fanny Crosby and Thomas Dorsey to the music of Buddy Holly, B.B. King, Lennon and McCartney. I'm slightly intoxicated by post-homiletical adrenaline. That's all the intoxication I'm allowed. Exhilaration runs through my veins and something else too, something beyond exhilaration.

Surely God is in this place. I can smell God's breath, hot and sweet and heavy. The breath of a deity unashamed to be a creature, unafraid to be born, willing to die, willing to rot alongside the smallest creatures, despite what I later learned of Arius or the Gnostics or the nervous Nellies of Neo-Platonism who always seem to want God to be more spiritual than God seems willing to be.

A few years after that night - post-college, post-seminary - going through the battery of psychological tests required for ordination in the eminently sane Presbyterian Church, a psychiatrist in Dallas asked me to draw a picture representing my childhood. In pencil I drew a forest. A deep and shadowed wood. Great dark roots gripped dark earth, branches spreading upward into a dark canopy.

The psychiatrist assumed I must have experienced an unhappy childhood, but "no," I said. Not unhappy at all, except for the loss of my sainted grandfather who died when I was a boy of twelve. Not unhappy. Just deep and dark, rich in smells and senses, like piney woods and hickory smoke and the juice from sassafras roots. Happy, but maybe a little dangerous too. Like the woods. Beautiful, with an occasional cottonmouth snake lurking somewhere in the moist pine straw in the path ahead.

To this day, when I think of my childhood home this is what I think of first, before faces and before childhood friends. I think of a dark forest. Sacred dark. Numinous dark. Rudolf Otto dark. Holy Jesus dark.

There's no way for me to tell this story truly, the story of what thin places mean and how we experience God, without starting in a deep wood along a narrow southern road.

Unlike Dante, whom I would study for the first time in a college classroom a few years later, who found himself in a dark wood midway through his life's journey, I started in the woods and was only later midway through life's journey enchanted by the distant horizons, the trackless plains and later the boundless Atlantic Ocean. And through the disenchantment of disbelief that lay before me, I returned like a child, an older child, to God and that first primal darkness. I was slow in recognizing God in the places I found myself, more like Jacob who confesses, "Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it." (Genesis 28:16)

I used to joke that I was raised on U.S. Highway 59, on a farm geographically between Lufkin and Nacogdoches, but spiritually between Billy Graham and Tennessee Williams. It was no joke. Elvis drove down that East Texas highway in a pink Cadillac convertible, right past our house, to visit a girl in Zavalla. So said my mother. Maybe Elvis drove by our house at night when I was thrilling to his blue suede shoes. Bob Wills, Muddy Waters, Hank WilliamsBooker T and the MGs filled the dark, wet, sweet air the attic fan brought into the house and across my bed at night. We'd sleep in the summers, our heads across the foot of the bed to catch the breeze in those days before air conditioner made the South more bearable. I'd wake up halfway cool and wholly sticky with nighttime humidity clinging to my skin and the sheets, my radio still going from the night before, the static still buzzing, the dial still tuned to the station that carried Wolfman Jack's late night program.

Surely God was in these places, all of them, my first thin places, before I ever knew the phrase or its ice-thin ironies, or the human inevitability and the theological problem of tying God to places. Before I ever knew anything except the thin awareness, knife-sharp, that the line separating us from God, separating life from death, is so thin you can't see it at all, but you can't see through it either. All you can see, all I really knew, was the surge of life or the vestiges of death, my first childish tastes of life's longings and death's cold leftovers. All I could figure out from what evidence (if you can call it that) I ever saw was that the line between the sacred and the profane passed through the places where we lived and lit up the ordinary with what I took to be the presence of God.

But knowing that much, just knowing that much and not knowing so much more, was enough to set me on the road to the Dorcas Wills Memorial Baptist Church in Trinity, Texas, to tell the good people there good news in sermons so bad that God has mercifully erased my memory of them. I pray to Whomever May Be Listening that the good folks who heard those sermons have long since forgotten them too.

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