Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month
Faith in a Sand Dollar
One of my favorite activities as a child was hunting for seashells on the beach. Although I didn’t live near a beach, it is one of the places that truly sought me out. I recall going to my godparents’ beach house in Honduras many times and enjoying the simple things the beach had to offer – fine sand, turquoise-blue water, coconut palm trees, and unspoiled splendor. My days at the beach were full of adventures that are memories today. Now I must confess that as a child I was afraid of the ocean because of its vast power –strong and bold , aggressive waves that crashed to their destiny on the shore, leaving behind a treasure as they receded.
Fast-track to adulthood, and that tendency to roam the beaches is still a part of who I am. For me, as for many of you, going to the beach is a way of relaxing and having fun. But through the years, the beach has become more than just sand and water to me – the more I visit it, the more likely it is that I will find something unexpected. There is an instinctive longing to be amazed.
Someone once said that “our memories of the ocean will remain long after our footprints in the sand are gone,” and this has proven to be true for me. Six or seven years ago, I had a change of faith encounter. Like many of you and many people we hear about in the Bible, I have questioned God many times. During that period of my life, I was too committed to my personal and professional responsibilities – until I found myself at a crossroads. A few years prior to that, I had been active in several parish committees, leading Sunday School, and spending just about seven days a week at the church. But like many of us, there comes a moment in life when we start to question our purpose. So I contacted a clergy mentor who could help me discern just what I was being called to do.
Discernment is a process
In our Christian faith, spiritual discernment is “a decision-making process in which a person makes a discovery than can lead to future action.” And according to Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest from the Netherlands and author of over 40 books on spirituality, “Discernment is a discipline and a practice that invites us to cultivate trust, love, faith, hope and courage.”I had a lot of things going on internally and had no idea what it was all about.
One afternoon, I met with my mentor to discuss some of the books he had given me to read. This lunch meeting was to become the first ripple in the sand for my change of faith encounter. A question came up that had to do with discernment: Would I be interested in working for the church? Just as I had been taught, I said, “Let me discern in a spirit of prayer whether this is what I am being called to do.”
Seeking a sign on the beach
That summer, following our tradition, my family and I vacationed in Corolla, North Carolina, to disconnect from our everyday routines. The serenity this beach provided was more than I could have asked for. The house where we were lodged had a splendid collection of seashells, gathered during the low season when cars and people couldn’t disturb or destroy the treasures the ocean left behind. Beachcomber that I am, I coveted one special seashell – a sand dollar. If you’re a beachcomber, you know there’s nothing quite like the excitement of finding one of those elusive sand dollars. Avid seashell collectors will tell you how difficult it is to find a shell as beautiful and rich as a sand dollar, due to its fragility and the impact of the waves on the shore, and how difficult it is even to know whether it is still alive.
Facing a decision, I did what others have done. I had a conversation with God while walking along the shore on the first day of our vacation. I said, “Lord, if you want me to work for your church, please help me find a sand dollar that is perfectly intact, and I will go work for you.” Sound familiar? How many times have you asked God for a sign? I know that I’ve done this many times, but this was different. There was something in my request that was out of the ordinary. I was challenging God to answer me as part of my journey of faith.
The following days, I saw the sun rise and set as I walked along the seashore in prayer, waiting to see whether God had answered my request. I became impatient as days went by and there was nothing – no whole sand dollars, just fragments. I began to think that maybe working for the church was not what I was being called to do, maybe God had other plans for me, maybe I shouldn’t have asked for a sign. I was actively waiting and praying to see what would show up as I spent my days enjoying the beach with my children, reading books, gazing at the power of the waves and the ripples in the sand.
Gratitude and an open heart change everything
As the final day of my vacation drew closer, I had a different conversation with God. I began to express my gratitude for the time with my family and the creation. I humbled myself and apologized for testing or questioning God. I said that it didn’t matter, whether he gave me a sand dollar or not. I would find a way to work for his church – that was a promise.
Faith and discernment have to do with taking risks, and with listening and trusting in God. The gospels have many examples in which God doesn’t provide a direct answer to a question, and it may be that we are asking the wrong questions. Once I eliminated the need to get that coveted sand dollar and made my true intentions known, God responded.
As the afternoon was drawing to a close, my youngest son and I were riding our bikes along the beach. I saw a sand dollar washed up on the shore and had to stop and see if it was real. I quickly jumped off the bike and, to my utter surprise, it was a sand dollar – totally intact. I picked it up and thanked God. It was perfect, no chips , no fragments, just absolute beauty. My son and I rejoiced. We went back to our bikes and headed home. As we neared the house, there was another sand dollar waiting for me. This one was somewhat different – splintered along the edge.
That summer, God gave me not only one sand dollar, but two – one totally intact and one splintered, as a reminder that we are not perfect but we all have splinters and broken fragments. I keep those sand dollars close at hand, because they are a reminder of my conversation with God and my promise to serve his church no matter what, and because I give thanks to God, the One who knows everything and is everywhere – as Psalm 139 says, “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me!” The footprints in the sand from that encounter are imprinted forever in my very being, because God was and continues to be completely present with me, in spite of my impatient and doubtful self – it is God’s Spirit that lives within me.
Mildred J. Briones Reyes, TSSF, is the Missioner for Latino/Hispanic Ministries and Diocesan Initiatives in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. She has a passion for and commitment to strengthening Hispanic and multicultural congregations. In addition, she oversees the various diocesan grants and supports key diocesan programs and initiatives to advance the diocesan strategic plan. She finds her calling among the spirituality of joy, love, presence, forgiveness, humility and justice, as a professed member of the Third Order Society of St. Francis (TSSF). As a lay person, Mildred has served in various leadership capacities at the parish, diocesan, and wider-church levels. Born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Mildred came to the United States in November 1984 and grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with a focus in Marketing from Marymount University in Arlington, VA and a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and Organizational Development from the University of Maryland University College. Mildred makes her home in Maryland, where she is a proud momma to her sons Christian and Nicholas, and her four-legged boys, Rocco and Kota. She enjoys hiking, spending time in nature, reading poetry, dancing and singing freely, and learning about different cultures and foods.
- Transformational Light by Linda Buskirik, ECF Vital Practices blog, December 11, 2020
- Braving the Wilderness: Lanterns to Light Our Way, an ECF webinar presented by Callie Swanlund, June 22, 2020
- “What is God Calling Us to Do?” by Erin Weber-Johnson, ECF Vital Practices blog, March 18, 2015
- What Do You Need To Let Go Of? by Alan Bentrup, ECF Vital Practices blog, January 4, 2017
1 Kunz, Sandra (2011). "Respecting the Boundaries of Knowledge: Teaching Christian Discernment with Humility and Dignity, a Response to Paul O. Ingram". Buddhist-Christian Studies: 177.
2 Nouwen, Henri J.M. (2014). Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life