A few years ago Ian and I were on our honeymoon in Nicaragua. We headed to the seaside town of San Juan Del Sur to stay in one of its nicest hotels (after all, it was our honeymoon). As we rolled up into town on public transportation – a dilapidated decommissioned school bus decked out in a bizarre mixture of Looney Tunes decals and Catholic icons—I was surprised to find that our hotel was at the very top of a big hill. To my mind, “nice hotel” in a seaside town meant that the hotel had waterfront property and beach access.
To be sure, the hotel was lovely and the views were stunning. But swimming in the infinity pool looking out over the crescent shape beach and inviting waters, I still thought it was odd that the hotel was so far from the water.
That evening we walked down the hill to find a waterfront restaurant for dinner. And it was then that I realized why the nicest hotel is on a hilltop. The beaches that looked so gorgeous and inviting from the infinity pool were now revealed for what they were – replete with old tires and trash, stained with oil, pervaded by the smell of dead fish.
I continued to enjoy the beauty of the distant beach from the hilltop infinity pool.
Indulge me in an analogy. If my heart is the beach of San Juan Del Sur, too often I like to look at it—my actions, thoughts, motivations, desires—from the comfortable distance of the hilltop pool. And from there, really, it looks pretty good. I mean, I have no criminal record, go to church, help people with some regularity, am usually kind to my husband. I can even invite friends to the infinity pool. Compared to a lot of people’s beaches, this one looks sparkling and inviting—from a distance.
But when I do take the time to walk down to the beach, I see my inner life for what it really is. Full of pride and accompanying insecurity, self-centered, striving for success and approval, addicted to comfort and averse to self-denial. At the water’s edge, it is clear that even my most sparkling actions are accompanied by oily motivations.
Maybe this is why I don’t make the space or time to visit the beach all that often.
It’s easier to be too busy.
We like to look at our lives from the infinity pool. We like our friends to look at us from the infinity pool. But God is always on the beach. He knows the complex motivations of every action, he sees each thought. This sounds scary, depressing, defeating. Why won’t God just stay on the hilltop pool deck?
We might be a little worried to walk down to the beach, thinking God would be there to meet us for a good scolding. But, to our surprise, he seems glad that we’ve finally shown up on our own close-up shore. He hands us a big trash bag and one of those pointy sticks, maybe some gloves. Turns out God is inviting us to do some beach cleanup, and will stay with us and empower us to do it. If we’re overwhelmed or not sure where to start, he’ll point out a pile of trash here, an oil spill there. After all, it’s his transformative, restorative, new-life work anyway.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the kick-off to the Lenten season. Lent is a focused time of repentance and renewal. Basically, Lent is a time to stay on the beach—or at least spend some time there every day—to face the trash and the smell, and do some serious beach cleanup. Yes, it can get ugly. But surprisingly, it comes with a lot of joy as well. God longs for us to share in his full, irrepressible life. The more we stay in his presence, attentive to the state of the beach, the more of his life and joy and power we’ll come to know.
Not sure where to start? This prayer is a good place to begin. Happy cleaning!
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.