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Building Sand Castles

Our six year old is furiously shoveling sand to create a barrier between his slender, strong body and the small waves rolling in from the Sea of Cortez. We are in Baja Mexico and he’s borrowed a shovel from a friend and has built a foot high wall of sand that he is now sitting behind, looking quite comfortable and relaxed, as he awaits the waves. My wife and I have been observing him for a good chunk of the morning, but on the beach, time is irrelevant to him. He simply is. The beach is. The ocean is. And in this moment, he is the master of his domain, fully in control, sand piled high against the ocean. His confident posture indicates that the wall will hold, that he will triumph against the approaching waves. And he does triumph for a while, but then a portion of the wall collapses, as waves begin to lap against it. He adds reinforcements, trying to rebuild his supreme structure, his flawless design, his edifice worthy of appreciation, but the tide is unrelenting, the ocean ready to reclaim what rightfully belongs to it. As the wall weakens further, and salty sea water washes through. For a brief moment, he was in in control, but then the ocean, wave after wave, whispers, “This is mine,” and levels the wall. Our son scrambles to higher ground, shovel at the ready, to try again.

Our son awaiting the waves

I don’t remember when I first read the poem, Ozymandias, but it lodged itself into my psyche, and watching our son, I was reminded about impermanence and a king whose name, accomplishments, and awesome power have all been forgotten under the swirling sands of time. The final lines of that poem read:

And on the pedestal, these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Nothing besides remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.

Whether a statue or a sandcastle, no masterpiece or creation lasts forever. Our lives, our jobs, our accomplishments, our titles, our businesses, they are all sand castles, beautiful but fragile and temporary. Our grand projects are soon forgotten. Under the weight of time, everything loses its significance. Given that the tide slowly grinds everything down; given that even statues weaken and collapse, bruised and battered by millenia worth of storms; given that death eventually comes to us all, how are we to live our days? Does anything outlast us? Can we leave any sort of permanent record?

As a minister, I’ve been witness to many deaths, young and old, tragic, timely, welcomed and fought with teeth clenched. Death invites the living to make meaning of the life of the deceased, and reassess the meaning of their own lives as well. Death can open up a sacred space, a place of truth telling, of reckoning, of seeing more clearly the fragility and preciousness of life. It’s curious to notice that while we are alive, we may wish for others to “look upon our works, and despair” (because our works are so grand), but that after we’ve died, the living rarely reflect on the successful business, or vast amount of wealth, or monuments build us. I’ve officiated at many memorial services, and what is lifted up and remembered in those sacred rites of passage, is the love that was shared and given away, not the wealth, or anything material that the deceased created (though those certainly can be a part of one’s legacy). What’s recalled are the moments and gestures of love and care, of shared experiences. What’s recalled, for example, is camping under the stars in the Rocky Mountains, or watching the sun rise from the Napali Coast, or feeling the unconditional love and support of a friend, parent, or sibling.

As finite beings, we long to touch and experience the infinite. We long for something permanent, something time won’t take away from us. Memorial services have taught me that love, attentiveness, and presence are gateways to the infite. Nothing can defeat death, or slow time’s unfolding, or hold back the boundless and bare sand that stretches in all directions, but love, attentiveness, and presence are holy passcodes that allow human beings access to moments of timelessness, to heaven on earth, to moments when our hearts are so full of love, so full of what is, it’s as if time has stopped.

Today is another day, and the tide is coming in. This time, our son has teamed up with half a dozen other kids, and they are furiously digging another hole and another wall, master of their sandy domain, seeming quite certain that this time the wall will hold, the ocean will be repelled, and all will marvel at their creation. Working together, they keep the ocean at bay for a few seconds longer; working together, they pile sand high. And then we join them in laughter, as water once again washes over the wall, and they retreat up the beach, smiling, the water at their heels. It’s a timeless, beautiful moment, filled with the pure joy of being alive, waves nipping at heels, sea breeze caressing bodies, toes digging into wet sand, and I take it all in as the wild and precious gift that it is.

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