Sandpipers and Seagulls

Sandpipers and Seagulls

Ellie Manly

The past two years, my family has taken a trip in February to Destin in Florida to visit my grandparents. Where we stay, we are a walking distance away from the beach and surrounded by the stunning beauty of the ocean. The water is a gradient with hues of emerald green and deep blue. When the sun is out, it reflects off the constantly moving and vast water creating an effect that makes the waves sparkle. There are also wonderful birds by the ocean front. Last year for our first trip, I vividly remember these adorable sand pipers there. They always made me laugh because they would skitter their tiny legs as the waves pulled back and run towards the sand to look for food. Then as soon as a wave would come back towards them, they would skitter away at the last possible second. Their legs moved so fast it looked like they were just levitating across the sand. They were delightful and God’s playful humor was on display in their busy existence. God and I shared an intimate moment of laughter as I felt his joy in these delightful creatures.

A year earlier. I was sitting on this same beach. Again, I was there for some solitude and had come to have some quiet intimacy with God. But, on that occasion, I found myself struggling to connect with him. It was frustrating because I felt like in a beautiful place like this, looking at the waves, I should be feeling close to God. Instead, my mind felt disconnected and distracted. I continued in this mental paralysis while the waves crashed over and over again. Then, just out of the corner of my eye, I saw those sand pipers run by. I could sense Jesus’ smile over me because he knew my sense of humor. I felt so seen and known in that moment because Jesus knew exactly what I needed. It reminded me that when I feel uptight about my spiritual life, Jesus is always close, knows me, loves me, and has joy for me.

This year was our second trip and I was so excited to see the sand pipers again. However, this time they weren’t so easily found. They would come around here and there, but it was very different from a year earlier. Instead, I mainly saw seagulls. Now, I usually don’t have a very positive view of seagulls. They are loud, obnoxious, and always want your food! But these seagulls were some of the calmest seagulls I have seen. They would stand at the edge of the shore, just enough that their feet would dip in the water, and stay put. They would stand there and look around but, when a wave came, they didn’t move. They were extremely peaceful and I couldn’t help but notice the beauty in their calm resilience.

My last day there, I had just a few minutes to sit by the beach and soak it all in before we left. As I was taking it all in one last time, Jesus prompted me to look at the seagulls again. He invited me to put words to what I was seeing and to notice how those birds might be illustrating something spiritually significant. This year, I was learning what a true spiritual life with Jesus looked like. It had been a challenging year as, for some time, I had been feeling hammered with a lot of heavy emotions. I found myself regularly facing doubt, anxiety, and in many cases, desolation. In years before, I had come to depend on spiritual highs with God so I really struggled to trust God when I didn’t feel close to him. So, when I wasn’t feeling right, I would panic. My spiritual well-being was dictated by the ebb and flow of my feelings.

But this year, God has been helping me learn the key to a steadfast spiritual life. First, I had to get rid of the expectation that my feelings are a reflection of my performance as a servant of God. I am human and my emotions are normal and beautiful. Just because I feel off one day, does not mean I need to be ashamed.

Next, I had to learn a foundation of truth that I could hold onto apart from emotion. On days that the goodness of God felt distant and untouchable I would feel frustration, sadness, and doubt. In those moments, I am learning to respond by claiming the truth and saying aloud the God is good, he is present, and that I'm deeply spite of the feelings otherwise. I don't do this to dismiss my emotions or to try and change them but to keep myself from making agreements with lies. It would be easy to believe that God is not good on days like that but I also know that it simply isn't true. So, I am learning to trust in what is true and to continually remind myself of that truth. I may still feel sad, doubtful, and frustrated. Still, I am learning that I will be okay.

Last, I am learning emotional vulnerability with God. I no longer give in to the messages of shame about my so-called “bad” emotions. Instead, I am more and more able to fully sit in them with God as I recognize his open invitation to bring all of it to him unashamed. I tell him how I feel and I allow myself to feel everything in a safe space with him even if he doesn’t feel close. I am learning to invite him into the internal mess anyway. Through it all, something amazing has been happening. As I look back over what has felt like a prolonged season of lows, I have grown closer to Jesus...a resilient oneness with him that grew simply by learning to trust in his goodness and love regardless of what I might be feeling in the moment. God is as much in the lows as He is in the highs, and I am now learning to rejoice in all of it.

So, what does this have to do with birds? The sand pipers didn’t like the waves. They would run towards the ocean as they receded but when a new wave came, they would run away in fear. Unlike the seagull, they would not stand unfazed by the coming and going of these waves. Their days were spent in an exhausting back and forth sprint, anxiously coming and going by the dictates of the sea. The seagulls, however, embraced the waves. They let them sweep over their feet, standing their ground unmoved and resilient. Those waves came and went and peace remained.

More and more, I am learning the way of the seagulls. I am learning, and want to continue to learn, to let the waves of my emotional life come even when it is painful. Through the highs and lows, God remains dearly close, present, and loving. Unlike my ever changing and sometimes unpredictable emotional life, there is no ebb and flow to his love. The more I trust that, the more I am learning to stand in the waves like the seagull...calm, resilient, and at peace.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭139:7-12‬ ‭NIV‬‬