The week before Christmas, I visited my cousin Garner at her home at Kure Beach, North Carolina. I flew in on Sunday after church just in time to see her husband Butch play Santa Claus in the Kure Beach Christmas Show by the pier. I loved it! Butch was hilarious dancing and rapping with all the young people in the show. We had gorgeous weather on Monday and enjoyed sitting on the beach, getting in a run and riding bikes to see the Christmas lights around town. Getting to visit them in December is a definite perk of retirement!
But during my visit I was worried about my friend Abby, who I have known since she was a girl. Abby and her husband Ryan are the parents of two-year-old triplets, known as the Mighty Three. As I was enjoying my time at Kure Beach, all three toddlers were in Pediatric ICU at Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, struggling with RSV and other infections that I can’t pronounce. On top of that, Abby’s five-month-old nephew Major was in intensive care in a hospital in Charlotte with the same thing.
My heart was aching for this family, including the grandparents, Brad and Laurie Brown. I prayed for them as I walked the beach early Tuesday morning. A storm was brewing and out at sea were dark clouds. Despite the beauty of the ocean, my mood matched the darkening skies.
The tide was going out and it had left behind a wide swath of broken shells which stretched before me like a black river that crunched under my feet. Perhaps because of the storm during the night, many of the shells had been pounded into tiny fragments.
“The Brown family must be feeling like these shells this morning,” I thought, running the toe of my shoe around the pile of debris. “Knocked around by the waves and lying broken on the shore.”
I thought about others dealing with broken dreams, grief and illness. As I continued down the beach, the trail of shattered seashells symbolized the pain in myself and those I loved.
But ahead I saw a woman bent down, sifting through the shells with a long wire scoop. In the middle of the rubble, she was looking for treasures — tiny sharks’ teeth or a whelk or scallop that survived the surf. She was putting her finds into a small bag, so she must have found something worth keeping.
That’s when I heard God say to me, “If you trust Me, treasures can come out of bad circumstances.”
To my eye, the shell fragments thrown up on the shore during the night were worthless, merely broken leftovers of something that was once useful and pretty. But the woman digging with her scoop saw them with different eyes — she saw the possibility of finding valuable and worthy treasures.
I don’t understand why suffering happens, why children spend Christmas hooked up to oxygen or why people treat each other terribly. But I do know that if we open our hearts, God can use whatever we are going through.
Someone recently said to me that no suffering is ever wasted. Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 1:3-5 that God is there to comfort us in our hard times, so that we can then comfort others in the same way. The strand of love and comfort keeps going in this “pay it forward” way and God’s love keeps multiplying.
I don’t know what treasure will come from Abby and Mary Beth’s children being sick these last weeks. (Thankfully the triplets are home and Major is much better as I write this.) But ever since those first five months in the NICU, Abby has shared openly about her struggles. I know she has touched many young mothers with her honesty and reliance on God to get her through. You can follow her blog at Life’s A Trip.
God tells us that the treasure we are hoping to find is inside us. Sometimes I forget this and look for it on the outside, in the world. But when I go through a struggle, I find that the valuable part comes when I turn to God for understanding and strength. One of my favorite passages is 2 Corinthians 4:7-11:
We are like clay jars in which this treasure is stored. The real power comes from God and not from us. We often suffer, but we are never crushed. Even when we don’t know what to do, we never give up. In times of trouble, God is with us, and when we are knocked down, we get up again.
Those tiny shell fragments were washed away later that day when the tide came back in. They rolled around in the surf again until they crashed back up on the shore the next day. In a hundred or more years, they will have been through this process enough times to have broken down into grains of sand. On a bright sunny day, a child will run out to play and will build a sandcastle with them. Their journey will not have been wasted.