On the coast of St. Simons Island in the Golden Isles of southern Georgia, you’ll find Spanish moss dangling off the branches of the old oak trees, dolphins and manatees gliding about in the waters as the sun rises, and a rich history tied to John and Charles Wesley, two brothers who both spent time on the island at nearby Fort Frederica. There they camped and worked as ministers before their involvement with the Methodism movement really took off, and that’s where I got to spend my week “camping” with a national gathering of camp and retreat leaders as part of the United Methodist Church.
I can’t say enough for how beautiful the island is and probably always has been; the way the sunrise peaked through the Spanish moss and graced a nearby chapel was captivating indeed. And a few days were warm enough outside for a picnic or a nice stroll by the water. To waltz around on the island was a reminder to me of how much I crave knowing a place. Like my grandfather’s farm or my little house in the olive orchard of Morocco – I savor what a place is from its history to how I experience and come to love it. I fear a day where there are no longer places we can do this, sacred places apart where we can step out and still see our natural world. So, when I do get a chance to grasp hold of something removed from our fast-paced, technology-driven, world of false connections, I find that important. And there by the waters of St. Simons, a few deep breaths went a long way to rejuvenate me and make me feel, well, human again.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good grassy field or a mountain here or there, but at the end of the day, I think I’m drawn mostly to water. It’s rhythmic, eternal, powerful. One of the speakers at the conference asked us whether we wanted to be a swamp or a river: dead still or moving forward, and I spent much of my week thinking about that metaphor – about the different kinds of waters I’ve swam in or swallowed up or sat and stared at for hours. An island is a good place to be if you’re thinking at all about the power water can have to transform a place or a person. There’s a reason John the Baptist washed cleaned repentant people in the Jordan. It’s a little like that Carnival Commercial that was played during the Super Bowl where JFK speaks about the calling of water and the way we’re called to the sea; after all, we are made up of the same concentration of salt water:
But maybe what struck me the most was what can come from that mighty force with its current and creatures swimming about just feet below the choppy surface. A great sea can leave many gifts in its wake. When I was a kid, I spent nearly every summer with Mom and Dad walking the beaches of Fort Walton hunting for seashells. Then, we’d collect several of them, bring them home, wash them up, and put them in a jar like the spoils of a great treasure hunt. I was reminded of that at St. Simons this week when I saw cases of conch shells, sand dollars, and starfish – all sizes, shapes, and colors. Why is it, it seems then, that the greatest shells were found a generation or two ago? I don’t remember the last time I was able to find a sand dollar; I feel like the largest conch shells I’ve ever seen – the ones where you can hear the ocean if you hold it up to your ear – seem to be missing from the many trips I’ve taken since I was a kid. My grandmother left a whole case of them behind fragile glass as if to peer in and wonder what universe they’d come from while the shells I’ve found scouring the beaches since then were mere remnants of another time, just a few broken pieces away from being sand.
I think we sometimes do the wrong thing with the little gifts that wash our way. We ooo and aaah over them and then encase them behind glass, as the world is depleted of its natural treasure. We store them away like they belong in a museum. I’m half-tempted, though, to grab a jar of shells and dump them back into the ocean where they belong. I’m not sure if that metaphor really makes sense or if I even want to explain it rather than just letting it be whatever it is, but I’ll say this much: in my own life with the many gifts I know I’ve been graced, I’m not sure I’ve always used those gifts in the right ways or in the right place. I think I’ve sometimes oooed and aahed at them or wanted to put them behind glass to admire them without actually letting them be what they were really meant for. And that leaves the beach barren, cold, full of remnants. At St. Simons this past week, I think I finally got a sense of what I might need to do with all those seashells. I think I heard my calling back to the sea. And that’s something I would hope we were all able to find.