Classes start tomorrow at Wheaton College, and I am mourning the passing of another summer. Don’t misunderstand me: I love to teach. I especially love teaching at Wheaton, where I am surrounded by wonderful colleagues, amazing students, and the daily opportunity to pursue the life of the mind within a framework of faith. But part of what I love about my job is that it also allows me to be a student again for three months out of every year, and I can’t help feeling wistful as these fleeting days come to a close.
My original plan had been to spend much of the summer in Washington, D. C., conducting research at the National Archives for two book projects I would love to get going. Man proposes but God disposes, as the saying goes, and unexpected family needs dictated that I postpone the trip for another summer. I was disappointed at first, but never deeply, for the result is that I’ve had even more time for one of the things I enjoy most in the world, which is (drum roll, please) . . . reading outdoors.
Not very exciting, I know, but I can’t tell you how much these times feed my soul. I love to learn, and I love to teach, and my summertime reading is vital to both. (Almost all of it pertains to classes that I will teach in the coming year.) But the physical setting is also important. I have enjoyed being outdoors in the summertime since I was a kid, but moving to the upper Midwest has multiplied my appreciation more than I could have imagined possible. Reading a good book outdoors on a warm sunny day combines two pleasures that I’ve learned not to take for granted, and somehow that more than doubles them.
Following C. S. Lewis, my wife and I call such moments “pleasant inns.” (I have expanded on this metaphor at length here.) The expression comes from Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain, in which he writes,
The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
This summer I’ve spent countless hours at Lake Ellyn Park, at Cantigny Gardens, and at my new Favorite Spot, nearby St. James Farm, a 600-acre former dairy and horse farm that was converted into a public forest preserve a few years ago. I’ve read a couple of dozen books there this summer, and most of the writing I’ve been able to do, such as it is, I’ve done at a picnic table near the old brick stables. I hate to say goodbye.
In recent years the Lord has made it fairly easy for me not to “rest [my] heart in this world.” Chronic family illness and the resulting financial strains have become the new normal. And yet God has liberally sprinkled our path with “pleasant inns,” moments of refreshment that are foretastes of heaven. May God grant you many such inns along your journey as well.