There is nothing like the crash of waves and the ocean’s expanse to settle my soul. Once sand is underfoot and the horizon is spreading out before me, I can almost feel an internal anchor coming to rest on solid ground.

Last week, at the urging of a friend, I treated myself to a day away at a local beach for a long overdue retreat of silence and contemplation. Settled before the soothing expanse, I let my soul unfurl.

As one accustomed to striving and lauding productivity, I struggle to slow down and do the harder work of listening and waiting.

For most of my life, I’ve filled the gaps with activities to keep myself engaged. I like to stay busy. These past few months, however, I have had a nagging feeling that something is off. It’s not the first time I have had this impression, and it usually precedes a major shift, a surrender.

When I start feeling this way, I know at some point my motives will be probed, fears exposed, and expectations examined.

Caught up in my thoughts, it took me awhile to realize my eyes had fixed on a small, black and white tern hovering over the waters and periodically diving to capture fish. As the mind does on occasion, this image took me back to another instance when I was at a beach in Portugal observing a similar scene.

Seated at a quaint café on a cobblestone seawall, I noticed a lone seabird gracefully hovering over the water, patiently waiting for just the right time to fold its wings, plunge into the Atlantic and seize a fresh meal. Like a beautiful dance, it would alternate between floating effortlessly on the air current and flapping its wings strategically to stabilize its body as it focused on its prey.

I’m not sure how long I watched this scene before I was jolted out of my peaceful reverie by the sound of a colony of squawking Herring Gulls. A fishing vessel was approaching, and surrounding it were at least 50 seagulls screeching, swooping and competing for scraps of dead fish being tossed overboard by the fisherman.

Unlike terns and other seafowl which are delicate, graceful and discerning about what they consume, gulls patrol shorelines and the open ocean, plucking scraps off the surface. Convening around refuse dumps or fishing boats, they are boisterous and competitive scavengers, happy to snatch another bird’s meal. Not only that, I learned in a documentary that they also feed off each others offspring. NOT cool.

I sat engrossed, observing the seagulls fighting each other and annoying the fishermen. Then it struck me that this was a reflection of what my internal life often looked like. I was ashamed to realize that my outward compulsion for busyness often camouflaged a primal urge to be noticed by others and to feel important. By seeking the approval of others, I had become double-minded and conflicted. My pride was competing for morsels that would lead to death not life; scraps that were contaminating love for God and others.

Shifting my gaze back to the tern, I sensed a voice in my soul nudging me to pay attention. In sublime contrast to the exhausting pursuit of selfish ambition, God was asking me rest in His mystery and purify my thoughts. Rather than trying to please others, He was challenging me to humbly enter the fullness of His love and embrace my intrinsic value and uniqueness. He was calling me to renounce double-mindedness and pursue singlehearted devotion to Him; to let go of the burden of hypervigilance and learn from Him. In so doing, He would release my burden and free me to feast on what could truly satisfy.

I was humbled to be confronted with my duplicity, yet grateful for the grace that gave me words for it. While I’m not foolish enough to think I am now immune to this temptation, I know something broke free that day. There is more peace in my heart, now, and a contentedness.

Funny thing is, ternura means tenderness in Portuguese. Every time I see a tern gliding on the breeze or diving for fresh fish, I remember the tenderness of God toward me. And I remember that only single-hearted devotion to Him will bring true fulfillment.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
–Matthew 11:28-30


Tamara Carpenter is part of Newsong’s Board. You can read more of her writing on her blog: tamaracarpenter.com