My family loves the ocean. The vastness of the sea calls to my father in particular, and so yearly pilgrimages to the shoreline were standard for much of my childhood. We visited Florida, California, Alabama, and the Bahamas each in an attempt to view and appreciate the watery scenes. Of these trips, the most memorable was our trip to Captiva, Florida. What makes Captiva special, besides having a small island vibe and good restaurants (I enjoyed a slice of cake the size of my head), is that the topography of the ocean floor surrounding the island allowed for a massive influx of seashells. Walking along the beach could even be painful near the water due to the excessive amount of shells that would wash up on shore.
During our stay in Captiva, we would visit the beach perhaps twice a day, each time scouring the sand for pretty shells. It wasn’t just the quantity of shells that allowed for such a great shelling culture, but rather the diversity. There were an incredible number of different shells that could be found along the beaches, each stunning in its own way. There was one shell, however, that stood out among the rest for both its unique beauty as well as its rarity. This shell was the “Lettered Olive.” On the journey to our rented condo, my father had explained to my sisters and I the importance of the shells, emphasizing the grandeur of the famed “Lettered Olive.” Looking back, I’m certain that were I to inquire an expert as to their market value, the seashells I held in such awe would amount to no more than a few dozen cents; however, my young mind wrapped itself around finding these seashells with fervor comparable to a pirate seeking out buried treasure.
On our last trip to the beach, we waded out into the surf with the same intentions of swimming and looking for shells that we had all week. While I had found several nice conches and olives throughout our stay, I wanted sorely to cap off the vacation with a spectacular day of seashell hunting. I quickly realized that my good luck in finding the elusive olives had dissipated. I spent what felt like ages rummaging around on the bottom of the shallows without a single find. At the time, my relationship with God was somewhat primitive as all children’s are. This being the case, I decided that praying for luck was my best option, and a perfectly reasonable and relevant request to bring before the master of the universe. I began to pray selfishly. No later had I begun my folly than I realized that I wasn’t the only one frustrated with the day’s poor yield. I saw my father several yards away intently scooping up sand and sifting through it--to no avail. I remembered the importance of the ocean and seashells to him, and my young heart filled with something less akin to selfishness. While I was still missing the point of prayer, I did get a little closer to it that day. Instead of praying for my own success, I prayed for my father’s. Not long after I concluded Dad pulled up multiple beautiful shells. I was equally excited that he had found them and surprised that my prayer had worked--sort of.
We concluded our stay in Captiva by going to a local church on Sunday. The service was nice, though unmemorable. But, as we walked out, there was a basket of trinkets for the children to take from as they left. When it came my turn to reach in, I found myself in possession of one last lettered olive. While I’m uncertain that it was a direct answer to my prayer, it certainly became a reference to the orchestrations of the almighty in my youngest years.
There are several lessons that I have taken away from this experience as I have pondered it over time. The first is that, in any prayer, an essential quality is selflessness. While prayer is often mistaken for a wish list, it must become a time of losing ourselves and coming closer to God and others if it is to truly have an impact on our worldview. I can’t focus on myself AND God--he’s too big for that. Another interesting way of looking at my experience is that, sometimes coming closer to God means giving up things of value. God’s love is the ultimate treasure. All else pales in comparison: money, cars, power, and especially seashells. Similarly, the last thing I learned was that giving up thing that hold dear can open up doors for God to bless us. I gave up my chance to find something special, only to find something equally special at church.
-Eli Ten Eyck