I was 20, away from home for the first time, and I was struggling. It was summer, and I was living along the rocky coast of Maine, participating in a summer outreach ministry to all the other college students who flocked to the area for summer jobs. I’d planned for months to be there, despite my parents’ misgivings, and I wanted so much to prove that it wasn’t a mistake. Instead, I often found myself curled up in the pit of a rock along the Marginal Way path, gazing out over the Atlantic Ocean looking desperately for a sign from God.
The previous summer, the one between my freshman and sophomore year, I’d worked as a housekeeper at a hotel located next to the interstate exit near my home. Every time I drove under the I-70 overpass on the way to work, I wanted instead to yank the car hard to the left or the right and follow the ramp up onto the highway headed for better things. I’d been bored and lonely that summer, too, eager for something more. I was ready to do big things for God, to see Him work in powerful and mighty ways, so I vowed that the next summer … and all the summers after that … I’d do something great.
That God would do something amazing in Maine seemed questionable almost from the beginning. The large team of college students I expected to join turned out to be just three of us, and the only other woman in the group ended up being sent home halfway through the summer for not following the rules. We were all supposed to get jobs for the summer to help support the ministry and allow us to save money for school, but I couldn’t find one that fit the bill. So I ended up working two part-time jobs that together paid less than what I needed. And the church hosting us was small, made up almost entirely of senior citizens, many of whom lived in Ogunquit only during the summer. But what they lacked in volume or vigor they made up for in sincerity and purpose. They had a heart to reach the young people flocking to their town; they just didn’t know how to do it.
And neither did we, not really. The plan was to create exciting programs with bells and whistles to divert the attention of pot smoking, beach bumming Gen Xers, who spent their summers as nannies, valets, and waiters. They purportedly were there to earn money for college, but since most of them spent the majority of their earnings on weed and beer, I figured they probably just didn’t want to go home and spend the summer with their parents. With just three of us on the team, and then just two of us, what did we really have to offer? We met a few college students who came to our nightly dinners, which we cooked and served for free to anyone who’d come. On my lunch breaks, I walked around the shops near where I worked and got to know an 18-year-old retail clerk who was living on her own and attending AA meetings in the evenings. And on weekends when we didn’t have other activities planned, I walked along the beach, trying to meet people for the Lord. That’s where I met David, a 47-year-old unemployed man who was facing homelessness. He came to our dinners and even brought a friend.
I prayed and prayed for God to do something miraculous that summer, for Him to change the lives of the people we met, to bring a revival to the small beach town where we served. Instead, our rag-tag little group barely survived til August. My homesickness was so severe my Mom flew out and stayed a few days to try to help me get through. And when I marked the last day off my calendar and packed my red Chevette for home, I wondered whether I’d somehow stumbled outside of God’s plan.
As I look back now, though, it’s all so clear. While I was begging God for signs and miracles, he was desperate for me to see His wonder all around me. The simple grace of a shared meal, God’s strength being perfected in the weakness of our team, the church welcoming strangers. I wanted cymbals crashing and Jesus brought us quiet conversations. I wanted crowds playing rowdy games and Jesus brought us lonely individuals who needed a friend. I wanted to do big things for the kingdom and Jesus asked us to be faithful in little things.
I think of the crowds who followed Jesus around during his three years of ministry, calling out for signs and wonders. While Jesus often seemed delighted to heal the sick and restore the lame, there were times when the requests seemed to weary him. Not because he didn’t want the people to be well, but because they were focused on the wrong things. In one case early in his ministry, a nobleman asked Jesus to heal his son, a request many others would make for years after that. But Jesus didn’t let the request go without comment: “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” I don’t know if it was a rebuke or not, because after he said it, Jesus did actually heal the man’s son. But I do know that it was a message Jesus wanted the crowds and us to hear loud and clear: I’m doing more than you know, even now.
But for many of us, we’ve lost the ability to see God’s invisible hand in our lives and in our faith. Like my summer experience in Maine, we want God to show up, but we look for him only on the well-lit stage of our own making, a traveling circus of the fantastical and amazing. And ironically, we do this not because we feel God’s presence with us, but because we’ve been disappointed by his absence so often that we feel compelled to give him a hand.
In his book, Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World, Mike Cosper calls this “chasing religious spectacles.” He says this is the natural pursuit of the disenchanted, or those who “have embraced ways of living—habits, practices, and stories that we’re often unaware of—that prime us for disbelief and doubt.” But why, if we doubt, would we chase the next big God thing? “If we’ve primed ourselves to live in a world where God doesn’t show up,” Cosper writes, “then we have to figure out how to make something happen on our own.”
But what I learned that summer in Maine and keep learning over and over again since is this: God rarely comes to us on the center stage pulsing with strobe lights. He doesn’t make himself known in the cyclone or the earthquake or the fire, as Elijah learned. And when we do find him on the mountaintop, it’s not what we expected and rarely what we needed. At least not for long. Instead, we have to distinguish between what “we’ve become habituated to expect—mountaintop experiences of varying kinds—and what he promises—the quiet comfort of his real presence.”
I think there was a part of me that knew God was up to something much different than I expected during that lonely summer. It’s why I walked often on that seaside path and found myself tucked into the cleft of the rock. I needed awe of a different kind; I needed the miraculous every day wonder of waves and wind, of tides and trails, of seagulls and sandpipers and snipes. I need the assurance of God’s with-ness more than the spectacle of God’s other-ness. Cosper says “the real wonder” is that this closeness with God is what we’ve all wanted all along. “The mountaintop experiences don’t satisfy, but the presence of Jesus does, and he’s promised that he won’t forsake us.”
Over and over again I’ve found myself in circumstances that seemed to warrant God’s big attention, like that summer in Maine. Major health concerns, personal financial crises, the long-term care of a loved one, and now a global pandemic. Over and over again I’ve had to retrain my attention, to look for God in the ways he’s promised, not in ways I concoct for him. Sure, a dramatic healing or a sudden windfall might help me sense God for a moment, but more often I find him in the “sound of a gentle blowing” that runs through the crevasses of my life. A shared meal, an earnest prayer, a daily habit of Bible reading, a hand extended in friendship, good work done well, a walk in the woods: these are the wonders we seek and are satisfied in, whether we know it or not. And finding God there, in the simple, the quiet, the ordinary, this is truly a life filled with awe.