I went out searching for barnacles on my 39th birthday. I woke just before sunrise that morning and watched the sun peek up over the ocean until the horizon turned all pink and orange. I sat down to write but the words didn’t flow like they usually do. The sun moved farther up into the sky as put my pen and paper away. I began to feel the beach beckoning, my Father calling me out to walk with Him.
I’d been thinking about painting these barnacle covered pilings, the ruins of an old pier, just a short distance down the beach. So I slung my camera over my shoulder and made my way toward the beach. I walked across the lawn and then made my way down the path through the dunes. It emptied me out onto the wide expanse of Jacksonville Beach where more memories lie than I can even begin to name.
The tide was out and the beach was covered with broken bits of shells that had washed ashore. The masses of shell bits turned the beach mostly orange. Small streams of water ran parallel to the ocean’s shore. Tide pools, we have always called them, but that morning, they looked more like streams in a desert of sand than pools. The water glistened in the streams as it ebbed and flowed in and out of them. The streams seemed to lead to the pilings where they turned more into a small pond than a stream. The beauty of it all almost took my breath away.
I could hear the shells crunching under my feet, the sound so familiar as I made my way toward the barnacle covered pilings, the ruins that mark the divide between Ponte Vedra Beach and Jacksonville Beach. They have been part of the landscape for as long as I can remember. As I stared at them in the distance, my mother’s voice began to echo in my mind. “I am walking to the pilings and back.” I could hear her say as I pictured her getting up out of her beach chair because she can only sit for so long without it causing strain on her body. Her body is really not very old, but she has felt much older than she is for many years now. The pilings for her is a sort of marker. She cannot take long walks on the beach anymore, not without the unlevel sand flaring up her spinal issues. She doesn’t cross the divide, just keeps going back and forth to the ruins and the barnacles because there is risk in crossing the divide.
And I know why she doesn’t risk it, because I have felt the frustration of physical pain and limitations, and sometimes it’s just smarter to avoid the risk. I know how it feels to have a body that feels much older than it is, and I know the longing to walk past the divide, to stroll on the beach as long as I want, without the frustration of limitations.
So on my 39th birthday, I set out to “walk to the pilings and back.” I was determined to get a picture of those barnacles, because they had been on my mind, and I had been studying how barnacles grow. And I had read about the ships at sea that get all weighed down by barnacles, the ships growing so heavy that the barnacles slow them down and cause them to use more fuel. And every couple of years, the captain of the ship has to dry dock it, so that the painstaking process of scraping off the barnacles can be done.
The day before my 39th birthday, I felt like one of those ships, all heavier than I had to be, and everything requiring more energy than necessary. I got all caught up in my perfectionist way of thinking, wondering if I was going to mess things up for God. He’d been telling me to paint what Christ had done in my life, but I got all caught up in the details and allowed the enemy to convince me that somehow I was going to mess it up, as if my sin or imperfection could thwart his plan.
And those prideful thoughts started to feel like barnacles weighing me down, and they seemed to attract other ones, because it’s not too often you just find one barnacle hanging out by itself. I don’t know if barnacles really do attract other barnacles or not, but I know these sinful thoughts tend to attract other ones, and before I know it I can start to feel like one of those ships using ten times more energy than is necessary to fight this battle against sin.
People typically don’t recognize barnacles for what they are until they have attached themselves to a structure. Until then, they just look like harmless little organisms floating around the sea until they take up residence somewhere and form a shell to live in. And I guess that’s sort of the nature of sin, because sometimes I don’t see it for what it is until it takes up residence in my life, until I feel the weight of it pulling me down.
Christ said that He crucified my sin on the cross, that I am dead to sin and alive in God through Christ Jesus. He scraped me completely clean, but sometimes I feel like I am still walking around with all these barnacle shells still attached, and the battle against sin seems to wage and wage. Because even after the animal dies, the shell of the barnacle remains firmly intact. Just like I am dead to sin, yet somehow it still feels attached to me.
On the day before my 39th birthday, in the midst of my anxious thinking, I pleaded with God to dry dock me, to scrape off all these barnacles that weigh me down and cover up God’s beauty that lies underneath.
Not long after that prayer, God hung a beautiful rainbow right over the ocean to carry me through the afternoon, to lift my eyes to him, to remind me of the promises He has spoken over and over.
And then on the morning of my birthday, He invited me for a walk on the beach. I prayed that He would speak to me that morning, and as I made my way toward the barnacles, a shiny orange conch in the midst of a sea of broken shells caught my eye. It wasn’t a large conch, just three or four inches long, and it wasn’t perfect. It had a small hole in the side of it, and the very tip of the point was missing. Nevertheless, it was whole in comparison to the shell fragments surrounding it.
Last summer, God spoke to me about those fragments of shells that turn this beach into an ocean of orange. My daughters and I searched for whole conchs and olive shells and the spirally whirling ones but all we came across were fragments, only pieces leaving us longing to see the whole shell. I was longing to be whole myself, longing for my spine to heal so that I could be free from all the lingering limitations. But as we collected all those fragments last summer, all those little glimpses of God’s glory, He whispered, Now you know in part, but then you shall know fully. Hold tightly to these fragments of my beauty and let the broken things cause you to long for the day that you will see my face, that you will know my purposes fully. Focus on the beauty in the fragments, He said, because I bring beauty out of broken things, and you can imagine, but you still can’t see the whole picture.
So over a year later, I knelt down to pick up his birthday gift, the orange conch he laid in the midst of these fragments just for me. Not a perfect conch, but a whole one to me. And I looked to the left of it, and there was another conch, only about an inch long but whole and perfect and beautiful. And then to the right, and there was another one, the whirling spinning pointy ones we searched for last year and the many years before. Everywhere I turned there was wholeness, whirling sea snails, miniature conchs, and shiny olive shells. We usually leave the beach having found three or four special ones in a week or so, but not this year. This year was different than any other year.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I continued to make my way toward the barnacles, gathering whole shells. I took my pictures of the barnacle covered pilings when I reached them, but that was just a small fragment of my morning. I spent almost two hours harvesting the wholeness that God had spilled out on the beach, filling my pockets with whole shells, not fragments. While I gathered, I began to picture all these broken things being made whole, seeing the “goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” (Psalm 27:13) not just when I see Jesus face to face. I especially thought of Momma walking past those pilings, just keeping on going as far as she wanted, not even having to stop to notice the barnacles or the ruins.
My three girls were all sitting at the counter eating cereal when I returned from the beach that morning to share my bounty. I walked in and said, “Look what God gave me for my birthday,” and began to lay the shells out one by one. They couldn’t believe their eyes as the shells kept pouring out of the metal colander in which I had washed them.
I allowed the girls to take turns taking the ones they wanted. The orange conch and a few smaller conchs were the only ones off limits. After each child had picked two or three shells, my oldest child, Mary Helen, said, “You keep these Mom, You found them. They are yours. Let’s go get our own.” And they ran to put on their swimsuits, grabbed some buckets and ran over the dunes to find their own harvest of shells.
I will never forget gathering shells with them that morning. Shells crunching under our feet and the sun warm on our backs, we leaned over every few seconds to gather another whole snail shell or miniature conch. I walked with my five-year-old Katie helping her spot them while the older girls gathered their own.
Virginia, her eyes locked into the shells on the ground so as not to miss a single one, could hardly contain her excitement. “I can’t believe this is happening,” she exclaimed through her missing front teeth. “I can’t believe this is really happening!” she exclaimed as the wholeness began to cover the bottom of her bucket. She knew this was no ordinary morning.
And I had felt the same way earlier that morning as God’s painted shells began to fill my pockets. I had gone out searching for barnacles on the morning of my 39th birthday, and instead of barnacles, God gave me beauty. He said, “Stop focusing on the sin that weighs you down, on the things you can’t fix about yourself and focus on my beauty. That’s what sheds the barnacles that feel so firmly attached, the ones that leave you feeling like that weighed down vessel, expending more energy than is necessary.
A few weeks later, I took my daughter to the Fernbank Museum in Atlanta to see their collection of shells. Through one of the exhibits, we learned that special paint was invented to keep barnacles off of ships. So I suppose ships don’t have to be weighed down anymore, and it’s simply because of paint. So the Father says, Paint, and I will take care of the barnacles. Paint, because there are people who are just longing to walk past the pilings, to cross the divide, to stop walking back and forth to the ancient ruins. And they are missing my beauty, so focused on their barnacles and ruins.
So the next time I go walking on the beach with God, I am not going out searching for barnacles. I’m going out searching for beauty. And I am going to put my feet in those streams that lead toward the pilings, and when I get to those ruins, I am just going to keep walking. I am going to cross the divide of the two beaches, because God has healed the greatest divide, the gaping chasm that once lay between He and I, all because Eve harvested an apple and ate it. And as I walk, I am going to be harvesting wholeness instead of searching for sin.
And I am going to remember the rainbow my Father painted over the ocean on the last day of my thirty-ninth year. He painted his promise across the sky to remind me of his goodness, and then spilled out this birthday conch the next morning.
So I pick up my brush, and paint the promise that he left for me on the beach that day. Because my fortieth year is going to be different than any other year. And I am not going to be filling my pockets with fragments. I’m going to be harvesting the whole…
Written in August of 2013.