One of my favorite recent traditions is a vacation in the Florida panhandle. It is everything I mean when I say the word “vacation”—just enough to do to keep me occupied but no pressure to do more than I want. There aren’t places to visit, and there’s nothing that you “have to see.” I love a good trip—the kind where there’s things to see and places to explore, but I love those slow days in Florida that remind me how it feels to really rest.
That being said, for the past three summers I’ve become nearly obsessed with seeing dolphins. I’ve made a sport of it. Have set it up as the thing that would make my dream-vacation complete.
In 2016, I drove us an additional two hours along the shoreline, extending what is already a long road-trip, hoping to catch a glimpse of them in a bay where I’d heard dolphins are often seen. Often, maybe, but not this time.
In 2017, I made my two roommates spend 3 hours on a jet-ski tour searching for dolphins alongside 25 other people on jet-skis. I’m pretty sure the dolphin evacuated the area every time they heard us coming (wouldn’t you?!), but supposedly that was only the guide’s second time that he saw…wait for it…ZERO dolphins.
In 2018, I set my sights on the horizon, hoping to catch the perfect silhouette of the sea mammals. Apparently (according to Google), this is not all that uncommon. So I kept my eyes peeled with faithful certainty and just a little bit of stubborn determination. At sunrise. At sunset. A few times throughout the afternoon when it seemed to me like it ought to have been feeding hour for my elusive friends. But…nothing.
The morning we were leaving, my two friends and I took one last walk on the beach. It was early, which felt promising. And it was God’s last chance to show off—at least that’s what I kept reminding Him as we biked to the shoreline, slipped off our sandals, and curled our toes against the spongy sand. “It would be so cool,” I thought to Him. “I wouldn’t miss You in it,” I assured Him—as though my assurance is what He’d been waiting for. “I’ll know You’re here,” I said to Him as though I wasn’t already convinced of the presence of the One to whom I was whisper-pleading. And then I kept my eyes fixed at the distance I was sure they’d be.
I know what you’re hoping. You’re hoping this ends with the cliched photo of dolphins frolicking against a cloudless sky. Or maybe that’s not what you’re hoping. Maybe you’re thinking it’s going to be annoying if that is how this ends. Honestly, as a reader, I could go either way. But as the walker on that June morning, I was really hoping it would end with dolphins.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t end with dolphins.
And as we turned to head back and pack up our car for the return-trip home, I felt that eye-stinging kind of disappointment that I knew had to have been about more than just the dolphins. I blinked back the tears in the presence of friends not because they wouldn’t have understood but because I didn’t want to explain.
I didn’t want to explain how tired I was of the lingering concern that God might indeed be good but that He didn’t seem particularly interested in reassuring me of it.
It might not have actually been in that moment (in my memory it was) but at some point before we turned, we looked down and saw this:
It’s easy to miss and we nearly did. But right there, just feet from our feet, was a stingray. Listen, I don’t want to swim with these things (nor with dolphins for that matter). I like for nature to stay where it belongs, and I enjoy staying where I belong, but when everyone is where they’re supposed to be, I love to spot them!
And here is what God showed me in that moment when He didn’t show me any dolphins:
He could not show me what was not there. He couldn’t show me dolphins because there weren’t any dolphins to see that day. But He could show me what was there. He could catch my eye with the subtle skim of a ray. He could silently stun me with that paper-thin form sliding along the water-blurred gulf floor. I could be grateful for what was, but I’d have to stop struggling for what was not. I had to stop straining my eyes toward the horizon in order to see what was nearly underfoot.
I haven’t forgotten that over this last half of 2018. I still catch myself staring off toward what I hope will be (and I think that that’s okay too—to tell Him what we want and to hope that it will come), but I’ve also tried to remind myself to look down at my feet every once in while, to marvel at what is right beneath them, to acknowledge that it is very, very good without fearing that that admission might mean He’ll leave me here forever. The truth is that we can’t stay here forever even if we tried.
We’ll keep walking and the rays will keep swimming, and we’ll miss what’s here if we’re always terrified of missing what’s not. And He won’t withhold the dolphins just because we stop to thank Him for the rays.
I’ve been on my fair share of failed dolphin tours—both literally and metaphorically. But I’ve seen my share of rays as well. Somehow we’ve got to learn to walk in the tension of the longing and the enjoying without the fear that we’re settling.
I hope 2019 holds some dolphins. Sometimes I’m afraid to say that because I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t. But I’m not afraid to say it right now because I do hope that. But even more, this is what I hope for in 2019: I hope that I see every single thing that God has to show me. If it’s dolphins, then I hope I revel in the celebration of them. And if it’s the subtler rays, then I hope I still see God’s goodness in them. And if it’s just the steady drone of wave after wave upon the shoreline, then I hope I hear the footfalls of a Father faithful through it all.