I hate to exercise. Truly, that’s not an exaggeration. I hate it. Strange, because my husband, three boys, and daughter-in-law all love it. They find it exhilarating – even stress relieving; I don’t. I find it tedious, taxing and boring beyond belief. Alas, I have reached the age and size that makes exercise a required course, no longer an optional one. So, I begin to examine my choices. Our apartment complex has an onsite gym with cable TV, so I’m hopeful I can exercise and be entertained at the same time. However, shortly after I begin my “Olympic training,” I separate a rib from my sternum. The pain is horrible. I’m worried I’m having a heart attack, so I make an appointment with my doctor. No, the doctor assures me, just too much exercise.
Thank goodness for that. I quit that ill-fated nonsense immediately!
Walking becomes the safest choice for me, so I commit myself to walking…in Oregon…where it rains more days than the sun shines. I buy a pedometer, a heart rate monitor, a new pair of shoes, and even turbo expensive socks that have designated right and left markings on them. Steven gives me his old IPod, so now I have to buy an armband to carry it all. Getting everything strapped on my body takes long enough to reconsider and find something more interesting to do, like play one more game of Spider Solitaire on my computer – anything to avoid the inevitable. When all the excuses run out and I’m hooked up and ready to go, I set out for my morning walk.
They don’t belong together – beauty and mud, but there they are. Every morning as I walk the three-mile loop through my neighborhood, I pass by a seashell stuck in the sidewalk. The first one I see is a couple of blocks away. I dismiss it as a fluke. Days later I see another one down by the park, and then another one by the deli. Suddenly, seashells pop out of sidewalks all along my designated route.
Those beautiful, fragile shells have been displaced from their natural seaside homes. They were, no doubt, dug from the ground by some gargantuan metal claw and transported hundreds of miles from home. Once unearthed and pounded by the continual torture of other rocks and debris, the shells were reset into an ugly, resistant, dirt-filled context. Rain and snow pound on them, winds whip dirt into them, and people walk all over them, yet the shells remain. They miraculously stay whole and intact despite the daily abuse.
Why are there seashells in the sidewalk?
It doesn’t take long before my early morning walks become scouting trips in search of more shells. The downgrade on the backside of “Butt-Buster Hill” can be seriously jarring, so I walk slowly and carefully down the hill as to not wrench a knee. On my way down the hill one morning, I see something poking out of the concrete. Hoping it’s another shell; I approach anxiously. There, trapped in the sidewalk is a completely whole, upside down, double seashell suspended in the concrete.
An obsession is born. I ask my friends why there are seashells in the sidewalk, but they don’t know. I Google it, but no luck. I pose the question on my Facebook page and no one has a clue. I ask my sons, and they just shrug at me. I ask Steven’s friend, Nick, who is majoring in construction engineering at Oregon State University, and he wants to see it for himself. We go on a field trip and I drive Nick to each shell on my route to show him my treasures. He says he’ll get back to me. I’m still waiting. I ask everyone else I talk to for the next two weeks, but they just stare at me.
“Dunno,” is all I hear.
I’ve followed the Lord long enough now to know that whenever I fixate on something, He wants to show me something new. So, after two weeks of asking others what they know about seashells in the sidewalk, I decide to ask the Lord. I can’t wait. The next morning I quickly hook up all my walking paraphernalia and go directly to the double seashell on the hill. I barely even feel the burn in my legs as I dash up Butt Buster Hill toward my sunken treasure.
I stand quietly for several minutes looking down at the double seashell. I wait. I linger. I listen.
“God, what’s with these shells?” I finally ask.
“That’d be you,” he says.
“But it doesn’t belong,” I protest.
“It belongs because that’s where I want it.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Maybe you’ll get it when you go to the beach and see where they came from,” God entices. Now he has lured me into a quick trip to the coast for a supernatural encounter with himself.
Steven, the baby of my babies, wants a ride back to civilization this weekend, so I will make the two-hour drive from Portland to the coast to pick him up. Since God wants in on the action, I’ll go early. Actually, I’m always early; I’m military. Whenever I need to drive to the coast, I’m especially early because I love it! Ebb, flow, push, pull, rise, fall; the rhythm of the ocean rocks me to peace every moment I’m near. Add the sea breeze blowing through my hair, an unexpected afternoon squall, and a circle of squawking sea gulls, and I connect instantly to the respite the ocean offers.
I joyfully pass the time waiting for Steven by window-shopping for nothing I need. Sunlight catches the italicized facets of glass sculptures strategically placed in the storefront window of a local tourist trap. Works on me; I’m inside in a heartbeat. There is precious little glass in my world, but I’ve maintained a secret love affair with it for decades. I love to look at it, look through it, and marvel at it, but am careful to keep it safely at a distance. Having raised three boys, several of their friends, and an assortment of dogs, I haven’t wanted to exert the energy necessary to protect glass from the testosterone mayhem in my world. Other than the lead glass doors of my china hutch, which I guard with my life, our place is completely decorated with wood and pewter.
Wandering mindlessly through the wonder-filled store in this left coast tourist town, I invest these stolen minutes alone feeding my spirit with the beauty only glass offers. The clerk notices my enchantment.
“Here,” she offers, as she holds up a shiny brass kaleidoscope that sells for more than $300.00. I didn’t know they even made such a thing.
The last kaleidoscope I looked through was in Sevilla. My parents bought me one in the BX when I was seven. It helped me pass the long hours of travel from Sevilla to Madrid for the six or seven ear surgeries I endured. My kaleidoscope was just a toy, made of cardboard tubing and plastic shards. This, this thing is a work of art. I am instantly conflicted by such extravagant beauty spent on a toy and I’m afraid to touch it.
“Go ahead,” the eager clerk coaxes. “It’s really cool.”
I tentatively hold the kaleidoscope up to my eye. She’s right. Totally cool.
“Here, here’s another one,” she blurts as she hands me a $400.00 scope from the display case.
“Donna, forget the price tag and enjoy the splendor,” I silently lecture myself.
I don’t have to buy this thing. I can just stay in this (free) moment I’ve been given and enjoy it. God wants to show me something. I hold the new scope up for a look. Turn, turn, turn.
“What do you see?” asks the pretty clerk who is eager for me to love it as she does.
“Unbelievable.” I think I gasp. “This one’s even better!”
White sabers pierce the black background creating stained-glass patterns of fragmented beauty. I am instantly transported back to Sevilla, to cathedral sentinels, marbled statues, and mosaic porticos. Like a new millennium time machine, the kaleidoscope magically spins me back to my innocent faith, to “Jesus loves me this I know,” and back to when God was big, majestic, and other than anything or anybody else.
Most of my life hasn’t made sense to me. It’s like looking at a Picasso painting. I can see bits and pieces of my reality strewn here and there, but much of it is disconnected. Some of it is, well, bizarre and distorted. I often want to roll up my sleeves and repaint the canvas of my life bringing peace and harmony to the picture I see emerging, but God is having none of that. He is creating his own work of art, even though sometimes I think it’s kind of creepy and I don’t always see what he sees.
“Picasso? Really God? You want my life to look like a Picasso?”
“Not Picasso, Donna. Think stained glass windows,” he tantalizes.
I keep spinning the kaleidoscope.
“Do you see anything?” he asks.
Turn, turn, turn. He spins his divine kaleidoscope for a new perspective. The proportions seem wrong. Refocus. Do I see anything? I see bits and pieces of shattered fragments tumbling over and over. Vertigo. Suddenly, I feel like I’m falling.
“Only fragments, Lord. I see pieces of…pieces of broken.”
Turn, turn, turn.
The shapes shift. The inner mirrors of the kaleidoscope capture reflected fragments, multiplying the splendor of the shattered chaos within. I see beauty from brokenness, disordered order, a boundary, an edge, and a spontaneous masterpiece within the confines of reflected image. Lead frames fragment, shattered produces picture, broken begets beauty, and fragile beauty set in unforgiving ugly can captivate even the hardest of hearts.
Metaphor. God is speaking to me in metaphor from the kaleidoscope. He’s telling me that he can use every broken and shattered piece of my life. He’s affirming that I have been perfectly broken and am now his very own Masterpiece.
After the detour to the coast for more input, I’m anxious to go back to my seashells in the sidewalk to see what else God has to say about them. We live in an ugly world. As Christians, the context in which we live is one of inflexible, unrelenting evil. There is no sliding scale for evil. Anything that opposes God’s kindness, goodness and love is evil, and this world is full of it. Since the first hiss of the Snake in the Garden of Eden, evil has captured the hearts of mankind and led them away from God’s love and intention for their lives.
Yet God’s promise of hope shouts from the pages of the New Testament. 2 Corinthians 5:17 declares that we are “new creatures in Christ.” Old things have passed away, and new things have come. The “new” which has come is the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Once invited in, he resets the default setting of our hearts. Instead of defaulting to sin like we did before we trusted Christ, we now are free to default to his righteousness. We never have to obey the darkness again. The context of living in a hate-filled world, however, has not changed. Until Jesus returns, we still will be fragile beauty set in unrelenting ugly.
What if our life context was painful, agonizing, or even abusive, how do we live with that?
I don’t know what your life’s context has been, but each of us can be whole even if ours was one of neglect, abuse, horror, or abandonment. We can be beautiful despite poor decisions in our teens, or self-absorbed decisions as adults. In fact, the uglier our surroundings, the more stunning our “seashell” becomes. Despite the spiritual sifting and grinding that goes on in our world, the Believer can come through it all whole and healthy. In fact, it is God’s intention to see us through to wholeness. He can piece us back together, heal us, and redeem all of our pain – every bit of it. He is the God of restoration, not to mention resurrection.
Another thought occurs to me while standing over this beautiful, fragile seashell trapped in its slate of mud; the shell is upside down. Every shell I have seen has been so. Always. Every time. Every, single, time. They are upside down – just as Christians are while we journey through life. To the world that stares at us, we appear upside down. We never fit in with what’s happening around us, and we are constantly out of step with the culture.
We are odd. We are different. Scripture uses the word, “foolish.”
“But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.” (1 Corinthians 1:27)
I love that. No matter what horrible, hideous, despicable context my life began in or has been formed in, God will use it to make me beautiful. Instead of defining myself by an old context, he has set me into a new one. I now live in contradiction to the old context and define myself by what God says about me. I am a new creature. Period. I am loved, beautiful, free and whole. Period. The old things have passed away, behold all things have become new!
Just before I turn to leave this moment with Jesus, he leans in to whisper one more thing.
“You want to better understand your context?”
“I’ve allowed your life’s context so you better understand me,” Jesus says quietly. “I know what it’s like to suffer and be in pain. I know what it’s like to be misunderstood, misrepresented, and even betrayed, but there is power in that pain. It’s the same power that brought my resurrection.”
“That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” Philippians 3:10
“It’s beautiful, Lord. My crazy, fragmented, Picasso life is beautiful. I’m so very grateful.”
“Go in the strength you have…Am I not sending you?”
“Yes, Lord you have sent me, and I will go – broken pieces and all!”
With that, I sign off. I’m off to find more shells, more mud, more questions, and more adventures with Jesus.
© Copyright, 2012 by Donna Tallman.