While I was on vacation I got to see Kylemore Abbey, a beautiful estate built by Mitchell Henry in 1867 that was eventually purchased and is run to this day by a group of Benedictine nuns who were refugees from Ypres during WWI.
The estate has beautiful gardens, and a notable landscaping feature: a high hedge, thick with wildflowers, runs through the garden and separates the “functional garden” (the food-producing plants) from the decorative non-functional part. The reason for this, a sign informed us, was that in the time the estate was built, it was considered bad form for the family of the home to be able to see the work being done on their estate. To put it bluntly, families of high social class valued invisible work: they wanted everything to be done for them, but found it uncomfortable and distasteful to see the work being done.
Hedges. Barriers. Boundaries. And that wasn’t the only place I encountered them.
Spend any time driving in the west of Ireland and you’ll encounter enormous roadside hedges that really dwarf anything I’ve ever seen in the States. They’re both a blessing and a curse: at times, they’re so high and thick you can’t see anything beyond them, and at others, they provide needed roadside cushion when two cars are navigating space on one of the country’s winding one-lane roads.
Hedges narrow our confines and define our spaces. They keep good things in. They keep bad things out. They can also obscure our view and blind us. Like the Victorians, we can use them as a way to keep ourselves removed from anything we consider too unsavory or uncomfortable to deal with.
Complicated things, hedges.
I’ve been thinking lately of a prayer I have often heard over the years from many different believers: Lord, build a hedge of protection around me and those I love. The prayer has roots, I believe, in Job 1:10. And it’s certainly not a bad prayer to pray. It’s good to pray for God’s protection and blessing for you and for all those you care about (and really, we ought to for those we don’t care about).
And yet I think we can misinterpret the idea of “hedges.” Sometimes we can become consumed with praying them into our lives, believing that in doing so we’ll be somehow exempt from pain, from suffering, from struggle. I’m not really sure how people forget that immediately after Job 1:10, God permits that hedge of protection to be removed from Job. For Christians, there are times when suffering, discomfort, and pain are inevitable. Times when we must see and confront the messiness of life. That’s not to say, of course, that we’re ever out of God’s protection: Psalm 91 is a paean to how God will shelter those He loves. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be spared from hardship or hurt…or even, necessarily, that we should want to be.
Something that has struck me recently is that our modern church isn’t very keen on a theology of suffering – at least, not in the same way that the ancient church was. New Testament Christians, dealing with the very real struggles of persecution, torture, and death, embraced it: they considered it their small way of participating in the suffering of Christ. In taking up the cross to follow Him. Hurt and pain were not necessarily things to be avoided or hedged away, but trials to be embraced in the joy of a greater glory.
Obviously that doesn’t mean we should all start wearing hair shirts or self-flagellating for the glory of God. But it’s wise, sometimes, to consider the ambiguity of hedges. At their best, they protect us and create a safe space in which we can enjoy our lives. At their worst, they can cut us away from the world, from the fullness of experience, from things that we need and ought to experience as believers.
So definitely pray for those hedges of protection. I know that I do, and will continue to do so. But don’t make those hedges an idol in and of themselves. Don’t value your protection from pain more than you value God Himself. If and when the walls come down, embrace what waits beyond with open arms. It, too, is all under His power.