I recently shared this devotional with the Springcreek staff and it includes powerful notes from a funeral service about the divinity of Downs Syndrome children. I would now like to share this with our church family as well.
The topic is what we often call “holy ground.” In other words, places or experiences of God that we are uniquely aware of feeling the real presence of God. For Christians, Jesus of Nazareth is the “place” where heaven and earth meet, where the holy is present, both uniquely and forever. In Jesus, God is so present that He is, in a completely mysterious way, both fully human and fully divine. To meet Jesus is to meet both a regular looking Jewish man, and The God of the Universe. The more you meditate on this, the more mysterious it becomes. The Irish (and Celtic Christianity) often use a different phrase or term to speak of holy ground. They call them, “thin places.”
Thin places are these places or experiences where the border between heaven and earth, between human and divine, seem especially porous. This is where the real felt presence of God is believed to “leak through” more easily in those places and experiences. We all have what we describe as our “regular” experience of the presence of God. The “thin places” that occur in our lives are more unique, special places that we do not visit often, but when we do, the felt presence of God can be almost overwhelming. I’m not describing being aware that God is with me up here in my head, I mean the felt presence of God in my heart.
My thin places are often out in nature, such as the Upper East Inlet hiking trail in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Or, visiting Marble Falls, a town in the Hill Country, where I grew up spending time each summer with my grandparents. Or, going to the cemetery in my home town of Snyder, where my dad and his parents are buried. In this devotional, I want to share a “thin place” experience that happened here at Springcreek during Billy Wilkinson's funeral.
Billy was 44 years old and had Downs Syndrome. He and his mother Cathy were faithful lovers and participants in the Jonathan Project ministry, which ministers to those with special needs and their families. His funeral was a testimony of the real presence and experience of God’s infinite goodness, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. That funeral was the first time I’ve ever told one of my favorite stories, that I so rarely get to tell. Please allow me to share.
Twenty-six years ago, I was a very young (and inexperienced) pastor planting a church in the Lewisville area. I was planting a church the same time Keith was starting Springcreek. We first met because we were both church planters. There was a delightful couple in my church who were just thrilled to be having their first baby. They had a boy, whose name was Ty. Ty had Downs Syndrome.
God, in His infinite mercy, had prepared me because I had read a book called Ruthless Trust, by Brennan Manning. Same author who wrote Ragamuffin Gospel and Abba’s Child. Brennan was a Roman Catholic Priest who lived and served God in New Orleans. In that book, he told this true story...
“I will never forget the example of an Episcopal priest, Fr. Tom Minifie, several years ago in St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington. One Sunday morning, Fr. Tom spotted a high-profile couple sitting in the last pew with their one-year old Down's Syndrome child. It was clear from the parents' demeanor that the little one embarrassed them. They were hiding in the rear of the church, planning a hasty exist once the worship service had concluded. But on their way out the door, Fr. Tom intercepted them and said, "Please come into my office." Once seated, Fr. Tom took the Down's baby in his arms and rocked him gently. Looking into the baby's face, he began to sob and weep. When he regained his composure, he asked, "Do you have any idea of the gift that God has given you in this child?" Sensing confusion in the parent’s faces, he told them his story:
"Two years ago, my three-year-old daughter, Sylvia, died with Down's syndrome. We have four other children, so we know the blessing that all kids can be. Yet the most precious gift we've ever received in our entire lives has been Sylvia. In her uninhibited expressions of affection, love, and just delighting in life, she revealed to us the face of God as no other human being ever has.
Fr. Tom continued, “Were you aware that many Native American tribes attribute divinity to Down's children because in their utter simplicity, they become a transparent window into the very Spirit of God? So, please treasure this child, for he will lead you into the very heart of God."
Needless to say, that experience and truth totally changed that couple’s lives.
I had the blessing of telling the young couple in my church this story and offering them a completely different perspective on the inherent and infinite value of every soul created by God. Their lives were also forever changed.
You do understand that we, the so-called normal people, fight a life-long struggle every day to not be mean, selfish, hateful, critical, judgmental, or demeaning to others. That’s because we’re missing a chromosome that God chose to give to Billy. That extra chromosome is the love chromosome. Billy may have struggled hard to be able to learn, but he never struggled with knowing how to give and receive love. So you tell me, which is better: to be slow to learn, or to be slow to love.
Billy’s mother, Cathy, told me that Billy loved balloons, and that he would enjoy them for a couple of days then go into the back yard and release them up to the heavens. He would stand there watching them continue to rise. And stand there. And stand there. Long after they were out of sight, he was still watching. Finally, she asked him why he kept looking up for so long. Billy said, “I see the angels. I’m sending the balloons to the angels.”
Billy did see the angels. Billy had the spiritual eyes to see into the heavenly realm which we just do not have. What a gift!! At that moment, our sanctuary was as holy a place as I’ve been on this planet. Everyone was having a “thin place” moment as the felt presence of God was overwhelming. One of the chaplains helping me at the service, told me she saw the angels everywhere in the room.
Precious Jesus, we believe. Help us in our unbelief. Please give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart that can intuit Your very real and loving presence. For you promised us, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”