It was my 40th birthday weekend, a dark, almost-Winter night nestled near the sound of waves on the Gulf Coast. The stars were brilliant pinpricks in the endless, black canopy above me. I had done a decidedly un-40-year-oldish thing: hauling myself out of the passenger side window of our mini-van, the thin ledge digging into my jeans-clad rear, neck craned backward, sucking in cool air by the lungful, eyes roving about, greedy for familiar forms -- Cassiopeia, the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, Orion -- a favorite song blaring from the auto's interior.
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.
And hot tears streaming down my cold cheeks.
It was the end of my thirties and the beginning of my ... what? I didn't know. I only felt like I should have accomplished so much more before reaching that pivotal moment. And in those few seconds of raw beauty and bewildered yearning, I was experiencing a strange and uneventful heartbreak.
Healing has never come easily for me. I am what could aptly be termed "of melancholic persuasion". I think too openly, feel too keenly, ponder too intensely on All The Things. Like Jacob wrestling with God, I am as aware of engulfing darkness as I am of God's light intertwined with my own. His guiding, His influence, His presence in a life tinged with sweet and bitter, one experience leading to the next, the highs and lows of each new day touching on days long gone, grinding away, chipping pieces, mingling together -- like a seashell caught in the tide.
Renewal. Becoming "a new creature". Rebirth. These are words which name a concept deeply rooted in my Christian faith, but less so to my seeking, searching flesh nature, aware as I am of our collective fallen stature. Most days I feel more broken than whole.
The following morning, I slipped on a pair of flip-flops to make the short trek from our rented cottage to the beach. The ocean was rough and restless beneath a clear, blue sky. The sun was warm on my skin as I made my way to the water's edge. I sucked in breath as the chilly foam licked my toes, proving it was indeed December, despite my shorts and sweat.
"Father," I whispered under my breath, lost to the sound of the sea. "It's my birthday. My fortieth birthday," I reminded Him, as if He hadn't just knit me together Himself some 14,700 days prior. "I would very much appreciate a little birthday gift. Just a simple thing."
And then, I hesitated. How could I dare ask Him for anything more, standing as I was on a strip of His exquisite creation with my lively (and healthy, wanting for nothing) family mere yards away?
"I'm going to look for a seashell today, on this beach. Lord, if you could send me shell, just one perfect, good-sized shell, that would be lovely. A symbol of this new year on which I am embarking. A new decade. Make this moment, this passage, New. Please."
I felt that wasn't too much to ask. But as I began to troll the sand and gently surging water, I could find no perfect seashells. I found tiny shells, barely the size of a thimble, that remained intact, but every shell larger was little more than a shard. Each time I would come upon what appeared to be a big, beautiful shell poking out of the sand, my heart would flicker in hope. I would reach, pull it free ... and find only a chunk or jagged piece in my fingers.
My heart sank.
Broken shells all about me. Just broken pieces littered here, there, and everywhere -- heck, the very sand atop which I stood was nothing more than minuscule bits of shell having been worn and weathered by years and years of being tossed about until all that was left was a grainy dust to be trod upon by man and beast.
I was walking in a sea of brokenness.
And that was when I heard it. Above the noise of crashing waves, piercing me to the very pulsating center, a deeper whisper.
Broken yes ... and behold how beautiful.
Broken. And beautiful.
Not "but" beautiful. Not "still" beautiful.
Brokenness was not a detraction from their beauty. It was in addition to.
As my heart began to widen in understanding He whispered to me again.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in brokenness.”
I cast my eyes about and there were shells everywhere, each of them only bits and pieces of their former, whole selves. I had asked God for a gift of perfection and He provided exactly what I needed: perfect beauty in imperfection.
And hot tears streamed down my cold cheeks.
We seek perfection and are so quick to accept as perfect anything that is unblemished and whole -- in other words, new things. But it is vital that we understand just exactly what "new" means.
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland." -- Isaiah 43:18-19
Like seashells, we are miraculously created as a whole thing; we house the flesh of life for a time, and then we are tossed about by the waves before beginning to break. But --
Brokenness is New.
Our missing pieces, the shards that have broken away in the endless tossing about, simply give way to a new form. In God's eyes, "new" isn't defined as "becoming like I once was". New isn't "being fixed" or "put back together again", nor does "restoration" mean becoming once more the thing we used to be ...
It is new. Never before discovered. Completely and uniquely unknown and fresh and perfect.
I began to gather the pieces of shells, honoring their existence as I understood God honoring mine. Each piece was grasped in my fingers, wiped clean of debris, rinsed in the nearby eddying water, and tenderly secured into the pocket of my shorts. Walking along the beach, I took in as many as I could find, determined to keep each piece of this gift from God Himself, to take them home and be reminded -- and to share them with others who likewise need reminding.
"Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my brokenness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." -- 2 Corinthians 9b-10
When I am broken, then I am made whole.