Living with a Shell {What I Learned from a Turtle}

I placed the little creature between my skinned-up knees.  I was catching crawdads, and didn’t want him to scurry away.  After I traversed the creek a few more times, I decided I’d had enough for the day.   I took my bare, muddy feet to the front porch and sat by my new friend.

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He didn’t move.  Not one inch.

He stayed inside his box-patterned shell, not even risking a peek at me.  Bummer. I had envisioned a conversation about our families and favorite fishing spots.  I shook him.  Still nothing.

I held his shell up to the porch light, trying to see inside.  Nothing.

Propping myself on the lawn chair, I decided to read a book and outlast him.  It worked.  Before long, the little box turtle dared a peek at my porch.  I froze, watching as he cautiously stuck his head out, one foot then another, and finally his neck.

A slow process as he tested to see what the outside held.

I wanted to run and grab him, but I knew…if I moved toward him or touched him, he’d retreat back into his shell.  He surveyed his surroundings and proceeded cautiously.  Wise.

I observed as he sauntered across the brown outdoor carpet; I wondered what he would do when he reached the edge, for he wasn’t heading toward the steps.

Going over the edge wasn’t an option.  I was poised to save him.

He didn’t need saved.  He stuck his neck out and realized the edge was near, so he skirted the porch perimeter, exploring.  I watched with held breath.  I wanted so badly to pick him up and say hi.  But, I knew he’d suck himself back in to his shell if I interfered.

I can’t remember what happened to that turtle – or the 20 or more I captured throughout my childhood.    I just remember that turtles have a shell to protect themselves, and if and when they venture outside their covering, it’s a slow, cautious process.

And so it is with us. 

We need and embrace the shell of our lives.  The safe places in which we know we are loved unconditionally.  We retreat to those “shell people” when we feel threatened. But, when we feel safe and can trust again?

We dare to depart the safe shell into the unruly unknown. 

I heard this analogy about life and turtles this weekend from a sweet friend who was speaking at the Walk to Emmaus.  It resonated, especially because I’d observed so many turtles over the years, always thinking…if I could just get the turtle to trust me and come out, he’d know that I was not a threat, but a friend.

Our shells are important. 

God, family, and friends.  The people that love and protect us from harm.  The people to whom we retreat when we feel threatened by the outside world.

And while purposed for protecting, our shells must also situate for sending. 

If the turtle stays in his protective covering, he won’t go anywhere unless someone carries him.  Being carried is often necessary when young in age or faith, but eventually the turtle needs to move on his own.

Eventually, we need to move forward on our own.

Moving requires poking our feet out of our shell and putting one in front of the other literally – it requires going.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Matthew 28:19

Going might be scary or feel unsafe, particularly at first, but we must dare to step forward and do the next right thing.

Yet, moving forward is impossible for the turtle that leaves his head inside the shell.  He must stick his head out, noting the landscape, learning the terrain.  But, he can’ t move forward until he sticks his neck out and looks around, truly investigating, pondering, and surveying all there is around him.

Those who form our shells must pray and love us into moving forward – into sticking our necks out and taking the next step.  Just like the turtle, we can only see what’s in front of us; we have no idea what’s “across the porch.”

I could see the little box turtle was headed nowhere and would need to turn; God can see us moving toward the wrong or right destination.  His view is bigger.  And sometimes He will stop us, knowing we are headed no where.  And other times, He will let us go, knowing we need to learn, knowing we will stop at the edge, knowing if he tries to pick us up we might be fearful or untrusting.

As I searched my heart this weekend at Emmaus, I knew this to be true in many ways.  I need encouragement from my “shell people” before I will step forward , putting my “neck out” to heal, love, and grow again.  I also often question the ways in which God is at work in the world.  I feel I am purposefully headed toward greatness only to reach the “edge”  – feeling like a failure.  I question why He didn’t stop or redirect, but know only He can see the whole porch – only He knows where the stairs are and when I should reach them.

As my study of Exodus comes to a close, I am reminded of Moses.  God and Aaron served as his shell.   When God called to Moses from the burning bush, Moses chose to “stick his neck out” knowing he had God on his side. Later as Joshua battled the Amalekites (Deueteronomy 25 and Exodus 17), Aaron and Hur held Moses arms as he raised his staff, making Israel’s victory over the Amalekites possible.

Moses had a strong shell; God was his place of refuge and strength.  But, he also had family and friends within the shell, encouraging and helping him.

We must embrace Christ as our shell – our refuge and strength  – God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. Psalm 46:1

Embrace our family and friends as part of our shells too.  If we fall down, our friends can pick us up.

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: 10 If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. 11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.  But how can one keep warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Ecclesiastes 4: 9-12

God will always be our protector; He will remain as the shell – our core – but his desire is for us to stick our necks out for Him and walk forward for His glory.


  1. Thank you friend – for sharing the impacting story we loved from Emmaus … for reminding us of the times we need to pull back within our shell to remember why and how to stick our neck back out. Thank you for becoming one of my shell people quickly. You’ve given my heart a safe place to process so much hurt. That’s a rare gift and I KNOW it. I pray God honors you for that in ways I am unable. Sure do love you!!

    • I love you much, Sweet Jen:) I count you as my chief shell person…and I KNOW you’re a gift too. I pray that keep emerging from the shell…God is using you and will use you in HUGE ways, friend!

  2. Colleen Folger says:

    You have such a gift to write what I have felt at times in my life, but didn’t seem to have the words to express. Thank you.

    • You’re so welcome, Colleen! You’re definitely one of my “shell people” – I always know exactly where I stand with you 🙂 YOu’re VERY appreciated in my life.

  3. Really like this! You ARE a gifted writer.

  4. Yet, moving forward is impossible for the turtle that leaves his head inside the shell. He must stick his head out, noting the landscape, learning the terrain. But, he can’ t move forward until he sticks his neck out and looks around, truly investigating, pondering, and surveying all there is around him.

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