It is almost low tide, and I am riding my bike down the beach to the secret spot where I have often found starfish and sand dollars in the past. The clouds are menacing, and the wind swirls, but I am prepared, my windbreaker in the basket and my cell phone tucked away in a zip lock bag.
I am a beachcomber. I grew up vacationing at the New Jersey shore every summer, where my parents gave me a love for wandering the beach and searching for treasures. Even today, it’s not unusual for me to retreat to the ocean in order to regain perspective on my life and ministry. I am especially fascinated with the beach at low tide. As the water ebbs and flows in cycles as regular as any on this earth, the ocean reveals its secrets.
It starts to rain, but scavengers are not deterred by the force of nature. I stop to pick up 2 starfish, slip them in a plastic bag and fleetingly consider turning back, but I am not yet at the spot. Riding quickly down the beach, I am suddenly greeted by an army of starfish! Dozens of sea stars, as they are more properly called, litter the beach. As the heavens open, I gently arrange as many sea stars as I can in my bag and gingerly begin the 5 mile ride back to my room in the pouring rain.
It’s been a long time since I have been that soaked, but I am exhilarated! All I can think was, “This is incredible! There is no other place I’d rather be. I feel fully alive. Thank you, Jesus.”
My sea star experience is the highlight of the retreat I took last week in South Carolina. I liken going on retreat to swimming in open water during a triathlon. Lake swimming is a lot different from swimming in a pool, where everyone stays in their own lane, and you can keep your head in the water by mindlessly following the black line painted on the bottom. In a lake, the only way to get your bearings is to pop your head out of the water at regular intervals. That way you can adjust your direction and also stay clear of the flailing arms and legs of other swimmers. Eventually, I adopted a practice of picking out a landmark on the shore to focus on when I lifted my head every 6-8 strokes.
My life is a lot like swimming in a lake. If I don’t regularly raise my head, assess where I am, where I am heading and where God is calling me, I get off track and lose direction. The best way for me to keep connected with God and stay in touch with my heart is to take consistent solitary time away for spiritual retreat.
My intention for this week away is to listen to the gentle voice of Jesus, beckoning me to open the door to my inner life and saying, “Come away for a while. Spend time with me.” My hope is quite simple: to renew myself spiritually by paying attention to everything around me and listening to God’s voice. The scripture I am using as a mantra for the week is John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” I want to fall in love with my life again.
Walking the beach every day, I discover that God has been waiting for me to acknowledge that who I am is void of its power unless I care for and nurture my true self. There is so much that we cannot see in the ocean unless we wait patiently for low tide, then examine closely the gifts and lessons that the water offers. In the same way, there is a richness to our inner life that often lies dormant when the demands of work, ministry and simply living take precedence.
In his novel, The Highest Tide, Jim Lynch writes “If you don’t feel any connection to the ocean, then ask yourself why your tears, blood and saliva contain about the same percentage of salt.” I try to follow the advice of Miles, the main character, who recommends that when low tide comes, we spend 10 minutes listening, 10 minutes looking and 10 minutes touching.
As the ocean pulls back, revealing seaweed, sticks, horseshoe crab skeletons, shells, bones, seagull feathers, clams and even plastic, so the debris of my own life is now exposed. I can no longer avoid facing my doubts, failures, uncertainties, missteps, obsessions and disappointment, so I hold them in the light of God’s grace.
- I see a crab inside a huge whelk, laboring along the water’s edge, and I think about the burdens I determinedly carry without releasing them to God.
- Hundreds of jellyfish dot the beach, left behind with the tide. Having felt the sting of jellyfish myself, I am reminded how my words can sting and hurt when thoughtlessly directed at others.
- Along a seawall, barnacles secrete a glue that permanently attaches them to wherever they land as babies, so no one is going to toss them around! Sometimes I’d like to be that tough.
- I see mussels, oysters and snails stuck to each other, the smaller shells riding on top of larger ones. That’s my life, with one responsibility piled on top of another until I lose my balance.
- Many of the sea stars I pick up are in various states of regeneration. Some are re-growing lost legs, and I even see a leg that is re-growing a new mouth and body. So God can take my brokenness and bring healing and renewal.
- I find a dozen sand dollars and remember its Christian symbolism: the 5 holes represent the 4 nail holes in Jesus’ body and a 5th hole made by a Roman spear.
- Dolphins gracefully move in groups and follow me within 10 yards of shore. “Sure goodness and mercy shall follow me …” Could I ever live that graciously?
- One morning I find millions of multi-colored tiny coquinas: two hinged shells forming a bivalve. That’s me and Jesus: I yearn for that intimate connection.
- A seagull swoops down to grab a crab, who outruns him and plunges back into the ocean. A fish caught in the tide is not so lucky, as a pelican plucks him up in the air. I am aware of all the temptations which grab at me, tempting me to be less than God has created me to be.
I am a beachcomber. The debris as well as the beauty of my life speak deeply to me, so I would be content to walk the beach forever. After all, a beachcomber can also be defined as a wanderer who has no established residence. Like Jesus, I know what it feels like to wander, with no place to put my head, but my spiritual growth has also taught me that my true home is in the heart of God.
So I leave the beach, vowing to pay attention, keep the door of my heart open to Jesus and live every day as my authentic self. By lifting my head regularly to set direction for my life and ministry, I hope to spend less time talking and more time listening to the cries of the needy and hurting, looking for hope in the least expected places and touching others with healing, encouragement and power.
Early in the morning of my departure, I take a last walk along the beach at low tide. I see many starfish, sand dollars and beautiful whelks that I cannot take with me, so I gather them all up and give them to a little girl who is looking for shells with her grandmother. Her eyes light up, and her grandmother says, “You just made her vacation.” Another beachcomber is born.