Building Sandcastles in a Mud-Pie World

holiday at the sea (fin)A young boy sat in his front yard on the edge of a sandbox—
pouring water out of a small cup, into a variety of molds
filled with sand and dirt.

It was a confusing picture.
Yes, he hummed a certain contentment.
It was a song, though, punctuated by sniffles.

I asked him how he was doing.

“I’m okay.  I’m fine… Now,” he said,
wiping his runny nose with his sleeve.
Red, swollen eyes betrayed some prior trauma.

“But, it looks like you’ve been crying.”

“My daddy scared me this morning,” he said with a slight scowl.
“He wanted to take us to a place called South Padre Island.
I told him I didn’t want to go.
I told him that there was no school today and I wanted to play.
I wanted to make mud pies.”

“Have you ever been to South Padre?
Have you ever been to a beach?,” I asked.
“Why they have lots of sand… and plenty else to do!”

“Yeah, that’s what my daddy says.
But, I don’t care.  I’m happy here.”
As he continued, his face tightened,
his brow furrowed and his lip curled:
“I told Daddy that.  I told him I didn’t care…
I threw myself down and told him that I didn’t want to go,
that he couldn’t make me go, that I wasn’t going to go!”

There was a sniffle or two as he wiped his runny nose again.

“Mommy and Daddy are inside, unpacking now…
Don’t know why they are so sad.
Don’t know why they are so mad,” he concluded.
“I couldn’t be happier!”

No, this did not really happen.
It’s a fiction, a parable I created –
inspired by words of C.S. Lewis.

But, while the story may not be real, it is true –
for the ways and signals something that is,
too often, happening around us (and within us).

In my own life, I find myself admitting and praying:

Dear God,

Forbid that I—that we—
should be satisfied with our mud pies in our slums
when a holiday at the beach is your plan and promise!

Forgive us for our lesser contentments. 

Equip us, equip me
for the joyful journey
of your higher Glory
and our true selves!

It’s a prayer and a metaphor which strike
at the heart of our mission and hopes here at Zoe-Life Explorations:
* helping folks hear an invitation to an alternative [richer] life, and
* helping them navigate the path to that life
     (including the inner resistances and inclinations
     that stand in the way on the journey)

Spiritual Formation Lessons from My Houseplants…

“Let your roots grow down into him,
and let your lives be built on him.
Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught,
and you will overflow with thankfulness.”  (Colossians 2:7)

On a recent Monday morning, I wrote this in my journal…

This morning I felt compelled to do two things before I sat down for this time.  For days, I’ve been intending to water three houseplants.  Done.  And I really had no idea what my calendar had on it for the week.  Done…

 I watered the bromeliad from the tray it sits in. In other words, I took care of the plant from the roots up.  That’s what this morning time is about – from my roots up…  The deep part of me needs this refreshing time. 

 The other activity was to help me know what to expect.  I’ve been immersed with house guests.  I hadn’t looked ahead.  And the morning time with God is, in part, looking head. 

 This morning time is both these things –
deep root watering and
preparing myself for what’s ahead.

 To soak a little more in that metaphor of being watered—from the bottom up…

  •  Watering from the bottom is the better way to tend to potted plants.  Rain tends to plants from the top down, but in an artificial environment it’s best not to do so.  Watering that way compacts the soil and restricts air the roots need.  A gentler way to water is allowing the plant to soak water up from its tray.

I need to take care of myself from my roots up. 

  • Watering from the bottom benefits the root system because the roots will grow directly toward the moisture.  If the moisture remains in the top of the pot, the roots don’t benefit from spreading out in their nutrient-packed soil.

I am better off when I’ve been stretched a bit. 

  • Bottom watering plants will keep the roots uniformly moist but it doesn’t wash out the salt and minerals that will eventually accumulate at the top.  Every so often, watering from the top is necessary to wash these away.

Every now and then, I do well with a good rinsing.

And then, after all this, I’m better prepared for what’s ahead…



Wake Up!

A week or so ago, I spoke of our need to “demystify mysticism”—taking time to claim and embrace contemplation as an ordinary gift, available to each and all of us. (cf, Keeping Your Ear to the Ground [of Your Being])

While available to all (and an inevitable part of the spiritual journey), though, it’s not that easy.  What Chesterton said about Christianity, also applies to the contemplation (at the heart of mysticism): “it has not been tried and found lacking de mellow, awarenessas much as it has been found difficult and hardly tried.”

It demands, for example, that we “wake up,” as Anthony de Mello put it – acknowledging that we’ve been “sleep walking” in life.  Here, a quote and a story from de Mello are helpful beginnings:

Spirituality means waking up.  Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep.  They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. (Awareness, p. 5)

          A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them. All his life the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did, thinking he was a barnyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air.
          Years passed, and the eagle grew very old
          One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat on his strong golden wings. The old eagle looked up in awe.
          “Who’s that?” he asked.
          “That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” said his neighbor. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth – we’re chickens.”
          So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was. (Song of the Bird, p. 96)

“Repent,” Jesus said, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17)  Among other things, it was and is an invitation for each and all of us to wake up… and claim our true identity!

Keeping Your Ear to the Ground [of Your Being]

It was a tidbit thrown out as an aside in a discussion–a “scrap” which has had a much fuller and deeper life for me than a lot of other things I heard that day.  Facilitating a retreat on “Effective Living” (what, 20-25 years ago?), Sister Elizabeth said in passing, “You know that we are made of the stuff of the earth… So that, when we pray ‘Thy will be done on earth as in Heaven,’ we are including the earth that we are.  ‘Thy will be done in this earth that I am as well as the earth all around!’”

It stear to grounduck with me.  So much so that it gave extra life to some words I was reading from Fr. Albert Haase.  Somewhere in the course of his most recent book, Becoming an Ordinary Mystic; Spirituality for the Rest of Us (IVP, 2019), he threw out the old line of “keeping our ear to the ground.”

Sister Elizabeth ringing in my heart and soul, I saw another metaphor for the spiritual formation journey–conveying its essence and nature: keeping our ear to the ground (the earth that we are)… and keeping our ear to the ground of our being.

It’s not easy, I will grant you.  Keeping your ear to the ground—listening to what’s going on inside… and all around—demands stillness and some solitude and some humility and a lot of [healthy] self-awareness.  There are hard questions to ask and sit with – as, e.g., “why, O Lord, do I react such and such a way when ‘that’ happens?”  It demands that we, like Adam (we might call him “Clay” or “Dusty”), come out of hiding—being willing to answer God’s primal question, “where are you?”

In a flyer for one of his programs, Fr. Albert quotes Karl Rahner: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.”  Frankly, my only argument with such words would be with the word, “future.”  Hasn’t this been a call of Christianity and God from the beginning?  But, that’s a post for another day – when we’ve got time to unpack and de-mystify mysticism.  When we do get to that post, though, I think it will be clear: “keeping our ear to the ground” is or should be a sacred vocation for us all!

When It Comes to Contemplating Jesus, Make Sure You’re Standing on the Right Porch!

Thomas Merton offers a helpful perspective on the relationship between informational and formational approaches to scripture. An adequate grasp of the biblical text, he says, “requires two levels of understanding: first, a preliminary unraveling of the meaning of the texts themselves… which is mainly a matter of knowledge acquired by study; then a deeper level, a living insight which grows out of personal involvement and relatedness.… Only on this second level is the Bible really grasped.”  For Merton, the task of acquiring information is simply the “front porch” of spiritual reading.

–Thompson, Marjorie, J.
Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life
Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (2014), p. 21

The further I progress on my spiritual journey, the more I see the truth of Merton’s notion of two levels of understanding—grounded first in a head encounter of the Scriptures… and, then, a deeper, heart appropriation of those Scriptures.  (I recall a line from Tennessee William’s Glass Menagerie—something along the lines that “the longest journey is that from the head to the heart.”)

However, while contemplation (or “heart engagement”) may be crucial to our coming home to Jesus in the Gospels and the Scriptures, there can be no belittling the essential place of [mindful] study as the “entry way.”

A failure, I believe, to encounter the real Jesus on the “front porch” can lead to all sorts of dislocation further in.  Here, it’s crucial to understand that Jesus was a Jew—operating in a collective society in which issues of honor and shame prevailed.  This is to say that Jesus was not a 21st Century westerner.  I’ve shared elsewhere about how Jesus observed the Last Supper—in defiance of our western notions epitomized by DaVinci’s rendering.  (In that same post, I commended an article on what the real Jesus looked like—a startling contrast for many to the standard “Hollywood Jesus” we imagine.)  To not have some command of these realities (and so many others) is to arrive at a wrong address… and encounter an imposter Jesus, an imitation Gospel.

All the more reason for my excitement about a 10-week, self-paced online course which I will be facilitating via (the web presence of the Richard and Julia Wilke Institute of Discipleship).  Gleaning especially from my studies and work with Biblical Archaeologist and scholar and mentor, Jim Fleming, my hope is to give you a glimpse of the Holy Land… and a fuller portrait of Jesus in his 1st Century, Jewish context.  Fleming calls it the “fifth gospel”—explorations in the ways that considerations of geography and cultural manners/ customs of Jesus day inform our engagement of the Gospels proper.

“A Survey of the Life of Jesus” launches on Monday, September 16 (and continues through Friday, November 22).  For more information or to register, go to:  (No books to buy, by the way—though I will be conveying suggested, further readings… and providing a host of downloadable resources each week.)

jesus picsReviewing what I’ve written, I want to address a certain cockiness which I detect.  Do I think I am in possession of the “real” Jesus as a I lead this study?  Of course not!

Here, I am mindful of what I tell folks after we’ve compared a picture of “Hollywood Jesus” with the rendering created by Forensics anthropologist, Richard Neaves.  (see photos, right…  see also, article about Neaves reconstruction and the scholarly basis for it by clicking here)

“Is this what Jesus looked like?” I ask folks, pointing to the rendering by Neaves.

“Of course not!” I continue.  “But, I will tell you that I am convinced that Jesus looked a whole lot more like this than he did our typical Hollywood renderings!”

Ever and always, you see, there’s the need to rescue Jesus and the Gospels from what Ken Bailey has called “the obscurity of the familiar”—the ways Jesus can be missed amidst our preferred ways of engaging him.  Such is my hope in this course: engaging a more real Jesus on the front porch—as an entry into deeper, fuller contemplations in our hearts.