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Finding God at the beach

As a pastor, much of my time is spent trying to get in touch with God. I think often of the concept of “thin places” — the idea that some places are more conducive than others to experiencing God. It’s almost as if heaven is right in front of you in these places: just push aside the veil and there God will be, plain as day.

I often wish my study at the church was thinner than it is. I do get to spend a good amount of time in prayer, meditation, worship and (of course) study while I’m there, but often I need to get out of those four walls to better connect with God. I’m glad it’s summer right now because it’s a lot easier to get out and do something when the sidewalks aren’t covered in ice.

And so, I find myself from time to time searching for thin places. I could find my thin place on a hike in the woods, or sitting in a park, or being wherever there happens to be a lazy cat in a sunbeam, or just walking along the sidewalks right outside the church. Perhaps the easiest way for me to find a thin place, though, is to go to the beach.

I know that the beach isn’t a thin place for everybody, but I think that’s because of how thin places function, at least in my understanding. God is present everywhere, but thin places change our context for experiencing God’s presence. If you’re angry and hard-hearted, you probably won’t experience God even in a thin place. But if you allow yourself to be open, at least a little, simply arriving in a thin place can alter your mood, thought processes and even stress levels so that your mind and body no longer close off your soul. So, while some people go to the beach and are stressed out or put off by the crowds, noise, sunburn and exorbitant prices for ice cream and french fries, I instead find myself able to relax.

At the beach, I’m confronted with God’s creation on a grander scale. I look out across the ocean and realize that there’s another continent on the other side of this body of water, that underneath the waves are billions of life forms that we’ve only begun to understand and document, and that all of this is part of God’s creation. At the beach, I don’t feel overwhelmed by responsibilities; I feel overwhelmed by the beauty of creation. I feel free to read, stare at the waves and even nap! (I almost never nap, but the beach reminds me how wonderful that can be!) The beach is a thin place for me because it changes my attitude so that I am more open, at peace and better able to experience God.

Maybe that helps explain why I’m willing to drive three hours through Philadelphia and New Jersey so that I can set up a camp chair and read a book. It’s less about the activities that I’m doing and more about the state of mind I’m able to achieve. Most of what I do on the beach is possible for me to do anywhere. I am free, most days, to get my camp chair out, open a book and take a nap … I mean read. I can get ice cream and french fries without leaving town, and naps are theoretically possible too. So what’s stopping me, when I have a free day, from doing exactly this?

Perhaps it’s only my attitude, but I suspect there are other factors. Thin places remind us that it’s actually possible to communicate more easily with God, but thin places also remove barriers. It’s harder for me to remember the vastness and beauty of God’s creation when I’m surrounded by buildings and traffic. I can’t relax quite as easily when I hear the noise of the city all around me. But being able to be outside in the summer does, for me, make it easier to find ways to experience that same “thin” quality without having to actually go on vacation.

When I go to the beach, I hope to bring back a piece of the experience with me. I hope to remember that I experience God more fully when I can appreciate the scale of creation. I hope to be more aware of my stress level and to take advantage of opportunities to reduce that stress level. Sometimes, it’s OK to do nothing and stare at the sky, even if I could be answering more emails. And maybe, when there is loud construction outside the office, I need to be creative about how to change my acoustic environment. This is why I have a sound file on my computer desktop that I loop on days when the noise is getting to me! I turn on the waves, close my eyes and I can remember, at least for a minute, what it’s like to be at that thin place.

I hope you are also able to find a thin place or two this summer — or at least, I hope you’re able to remember how you were changed the last time you visited a place like that. How was God made known to you? How did your soul become more open to experience the divine? And I hope you’ll be able to acknowledge that, despite our fickle human attitudes and emotions, God is present in every place, in both the thick and the thin.

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.