Finding God Amid the Goodness of Summer: Keeping the Borders of Eden
~ by Jesse Hake ~
My son Tobin, who just finished fourth grade, tries to get in a wisecrack about every sixty seconds. Too often, the only response I give is to tell him not to interrupt or to get back to work. This response is not necessarily wrong, but it’s often incomplete. Most importantly, I’ve usually also forgotten to offer thanks to God in my own heart for the wonderful gift of Tobin’s wit.
God hides Himself everywhere. Everything, being made by God, expresses something to us about our Creator’s infinite love and beauty. However, we see this love and beauty only dimly. There are many reasons for this, including our own needs and weaknesses. Often, we fail to see God because He is very close to our deepest hurts or lacks, where we do not tend to look for Him: on the cross amid brokenness, loss, and suffering.
Summer brings its own particular challenges when it comes to finding God. In the warmth and abundance typical of summer, we lose sight of Him behind all of His good gifts. This leaves us impoverished amid a wealth of blessings that we have turned into distractions. In his Institutes, John Calvin says it pointedly: “Man’s nature . . . is a perpetual factory of idols.” Between our failure to hear God’s countless communications to us and our own tendencies to make idols out of His good gifts, how can we better receive His love in tangible ways this summer?
During times of dangerous abundance, we need to recognize the borders of the good land that God has given us, and then work to protect them. These borders are both internal and external: the inner garden of our hearts and the outer land beneath our feet. These are interdependent and mutually reinforcing realities. We are designed by God to be a contact point between two realms: His presence within our hearts and His presence within the particular places of His creation in which He has planted each of us. When we cultivate a private place with God in our hearts, we end up showing forth God’s glory and love to everyone and everything within our particular places. Inversely, when we focus ourselves with grateful hearts upon our own particular time and place, we most effectively protect the private garden within our hearts where God longs to dwell with us. God shows up in the details of our days, and we learn to commune with Him best when we stay narrowly present within the moment-by-moment gifts that He provides inside of each time and place to which He brings us.
Ken Myers, host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, has written of our first parents that “man was limited and needy in his created state, and his continued fellowship with God required the recognition of boundaries.” In times of plenty, we have never been content to stay in Eden. We want to know good and evil—discovering what is true with God as well as chasing what is false apart from God. However, God only walks with us every evening within the garden. What can feel like arbitrary boundaries or painful limits to us is simply God’s arrival and presence within His creation. God is everywhere, but He gives Himself to us within particular places and times. This is because God made us to be the focal points, caretakers, and chief conductors in the display of His image throughout and across different aspects of His creation. What we fail to see is that these glorious aspects of our human formation and calling mean that we have to be present within a specific time and place in order to be with God. We need to seek the promised land and settle within its borders.
We can wander away in either time or space. Our minds spend most of their time in the past or future, lost in nostalgia, preening, regret, worry, or impatience. However, God is always waiting for us in the present moment, away from the mental distractions of the past and the future. Wandering away in terms of space, our bellies (as C.S. Lewis calls our appetites in The Abolition of Man) spend most of their time longing for new pastures in which to graze.
Summertime’s good fruits give us so many ways in which to chase the next delight instead of giving thanks to God for the gift that is with us here and now. If we are not impatient for the next thing, we are bored because the last thing was so wonderful. To harvest the goodness of summer as a gift from God, we need to keep boundaries for ourselves and our children. Our churches and our neighbors are our greatest helps in this. Commitments are a powerful kind of limit. Talk as a family, both formally and informally, about some commitments that you have made and what it was like to keep or fail those commitments. Contemplate what new commitments you want to make this summer.
We can also limit entertainment within certain spaces. Find places that are not tremendously exciting, and then commit to being in these places together for specific amounts of time. Stay close to home. Set aside specific times to read aloud together. Spend time outside in contemplation and in-depth study of God’s creation. For instance, you might track down some tools and helpful field guides and then closely observe one square foot of earth together every day through multiple seasons. Try to identify every plant, animal, and fungus as fully as possible, then describe and sketch whatever you can see of their growth and life cycles. Or perhaps use a magnifying glass or microscope to track changes in microbial life within the soil or on plant surfaces. What about the earth itself: Can you identify any of the organic and chemical ingredients and properties of the soil? Take a look together at Samuel Scudder’s classic essay “In the Laboratory with Agassiz” (published anonymously in 1874 and often republished under other titles, such as “Look at Your Fish”). How does spending time together in contemplation change your perspective and focus your hearts within the boundaries of the places where God has brought you?
G.K. Chesterton wrote in his autobiography: “All my life I have loved edges; and the boundary-line that brings one thing sharply against another. All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window.” My parents once spent the entire day of a beach vacation leading our whole family in a project of sorting grains of sand into different piles by color and texture, covering the surface of a large white sheet. There was a water park nearby, but sorting those sand grains has stayed with me more profoundly than any of my delightful experiences at water parks. My delight in the sailing, snorkeling, and rock climbing that we also did during this family vacation was enhanced by slowing down and being grounded through this one period of limited, focused attention on each other and on the beauty and variations of individual grains of sand.
God loves to be intimately with us, in such small and tangible ways that we may fail to see Him. This is clear in His incarnation as a helpless baby and His ascension from among a group of His closest followers to be hidden by the clouds of heaven. Amid the abundance of summer, our intimate and hidden God asks us to quiet our hearts so that we can see His love and beauty rather than the false idols that we so easily make out of His many good gifts. May we be quiet enough within His borders to hear His knocking on the door of our hearts this summer.