I love the beach. The sun, the sand, the waves, the breeze and the wind the critters, the shells, in any season or kind of weather. I love walking along the water's edge (the land's edge) for hours, swimming and floating and wading, sitting on the edge of the water just looking, and of course searching for shells. I don't remember the first time I went to the beach - I grew up within three hours of the Outer Banks and we just always went to the beach every summer. There are all kinds of vacations and all kinds of trips, but beach time is something more than these for me.

I am an expert seashell seeker and finder. I can walk along the shoreline and spot good shells and reject broken ones without doing much stopping or even slowing down. After a couple of walks at a new beach, or in a new season, I figure out what the common shells are and which ones are the real finds, and adjust my search requirements and habits accordingly. I learned on a visit to Hatteras that the Scotch Bonnet, the official state shell of North Carolina, is best found in the very early morning before the professional shellers are out collecting. I know there are some places where the best shells must be found in the shallow water itself, and I have a pretty good eye for finding them, too.

And because I secretly believe that God lives at the beach, I use my beach walks as particular and extended opportunities for prayer, for conversation with, and listening for, God. For several years, on more than one occasion, as I would be walking along wrestling with something in the silence among the roar or the gentle lapping of the waves, depending on the tide, a beautiful, glistening shell would just wash up right in front of me, often when there were no other shells in sight. I saw that as confirmation that God was listening to me and sending me a gift. Often the shell would be a perfect specimen of what I had been looking for, or a particularly large version, or just something that said to me, "I hear you, beloved." A few of these are in my car now, where I can see them and instantly remember those shining occasions.

I've been through many phases of shell seeking. Like most little kids, I was happy at first with whatever I came across. So long as it was a big shell, no matter how common or whether or not it was broken or very worn down, it was a keeper. Then I grew into looking for the uncommon shells - the special ones that I could look up on the restaurant placemat or wall chart at the fishing pier or eventually in a field guide. That phase lasted a long time. And they had to be perfect, or very nearly so, to merit my attention and desire.

For a while I was into miniatures. Certain places (I particularly remember my first trip to St Croix) featured very tiny versions of whelks and periwinkles and augers. At other times, it was color or pattern that attracted me. I became enamored of the olive shell variety called the "lettered olive," so-named because it looks as if it has been polished and decorated with hieroglyphics. (The lettered olive is the state shell of South Carolina.) And of course there is the shell that represents a particular place. I have a pile of shells that all look exactly alike that came from this trip or that vacation. When I went to Cape Cod the first time, I actually came back with a bunch of rocks. If you've been to Cape Cod, you know what I am talking about.

At some point in the last couple of years, though, I have cared less about perfection. Maybe this is because I've collected so many shells for so many years. Maybe I have finally become able to appreciate something that isn't perfect or particularly unusual.

A few years ago, on a trip to Pawley's Island to rest and reflect after spending the summer as a hospital chaplain, I collected broken pieces of several types of shells (particularly whelks - broken whelks are pretty easy to find along the East coast) with an idea that I might make a collage out of them. All the pieces of a whole shell would be in a frame, but they wouldn't all be the same size or color and the breaks or seams would be clearly evident. So one could easily see and identify the shell for what it was supposed to be or had been or might be under other circumstances but wasn't actually that now. I never actually made one - I got busy and the pieces ended up in the garden or a pile somewhere - but I still like the idea of that project very much.

One can spend a lot of time looking for "special" things or people and seeking perfection. This has merit - it brings one pleasure to seek and find something special and beautiful. But I am learning to find the beauty in brokenness, too, to see that pieces and seams and things that don't quite fit have their own beauty and meaning. Probably God sent me many of the broken shell gifts too on my walks all my life, but I wasn't able to recognize them at the time.