lenten journal: a simple grain of sand


    Last night at youth fellowship we played board games.

    We keep a big box in the closet with Boggle, Risk, Uno, Word Up, Scrabble, Mankala, and several others I can’t remember right now. From time to time I pull them out and we spend our evening playing games and talking together. I was in the group that decided to play Boggle, which is a game where you try to make words out of the letters in the cube. You credit for the words only you alone identify. We had a good time.

    Inside the Boggle box is a small hourglass (minuteglass?) to time how long we look for words. I am fascinated by them: their shape, their purpose, their functionality, and their symbolism. Here’s how time passes, one moment after another.

    When I checked email this morning, I had a message from a dear friend that his father had had a heart attack and is in critical condition. We have been friends for almost twenty-five years, sharing all kinds of experiences together. We have not walked this road before. As I thought about him, an evening emerged from the sands of my memory of he and I at a David Wilcox concert at the Cactus Cafe in Austin. The opening act was a guy named LJ Booth. It was the only time I’ve ever heard him. What came back to me this morning is the song he sang: “Big Hourglass.”

    I remember back in college
    It was sometime in the fall
    I was walking by a Maple tree
    Flaming red and tall

    And as I passed beneath it
    One leaf out of that flame
    Fell right into my breast pocket
    And I haven’t been the same

    It was like the whole world
    Was a big hourglass
    Top is like the future, bottom like the past
    And at that narrow middle part
    Where only one grain can pass
    Is the ever-living moment
    And I want to understand
    That simple grain of sand

    It was somewhere in Nebraska
    We’d been driving quite awhile
    When I glanced over at my daughter
    She had this very special smile

    It had this extra little wrinkle
    Like my grandma’s used to do
    And for a moment it was real hard
    To tell the difference ‘tween the two

    It was like my family
    Was a big hourglass
    My daughter, like the future
    Grandma, like the past
    And at that little moment
    Where only one smile can pass
    The two were joined together
    And I want to understand
    This simple grain of sand

    Spring is coming on here
    There’s moisture in the breeze
    The river is running higher
    Buds are popping in the trees

    So I picked up my guitar today
    I didn’t really have a plan
    And this song just kind of jumped right out
    Buds were popping in my hands

    And it’s like the whole world
    Is a big hourglass
    Top is like the future, bottom like the past
    And at that narrow middle part
    Where only one grain can pass
    Is the ever-living moment
    And I want to understand
    That simple grain of sand

    Like my daughters’s smile
    Like that Maple leaf
    I will give to you this moment
    Because it’s my belief
    That the middle of the hourglass
    Is this place where I now stand
    So I’ll do my best to sing
    And try to understand
    This simple grain of sand

    How we articulate time is a continuing quest for me. Deeply moved by Alan Lightman’s novel, Einstein’s Dreams, and Madeleine L’Engle’s musing on time, I wrote a short story called “Waiting Room” about a guy who, knowing something was severely wrong, was waiting for test results from his doctor. I described his thinking this way:

    Time stands on its head like a circus clown. We do not move forward, only up and down. We are every age we have ever been or will be in any and every moment, as if the moments of our lives happen simultaneously, though we experience them one by one.

    I am fourteen at my brother’s military funeral;
    I am seven putting a tooth under my pillow;
    I am twenty-eight and my son has survived the surgery;
    I am sixteen pulling out of the driveway for the first time;
    I am fifty-four holding my first grandchild;
    I am thirty stretching to touch a name on the Wall;
    I am nine going to the principal’s office for cutting off Sally Jeffrey’s pigtail;
    I am twenty-five laying down next to my wife for the first night in our first home;
    I am seventy-two being pushed down a colorless hall to a semiprivate room;
    I am eighteen registering for the draft;
    I am forty-five coming home with my Christmas bonus;
    I am sixty-one at my wife’s funeral;
    I am thirty-seven waiting to hear the results of my brain scan.

    The mystery of a friendship is in how two people find a way to stand in the waist of each other’s hourglass. Somehow love makes it possible to ride that simple grain of sand together. It doesn’t happen in every moment. He and I have been pulled very different directions over the past couple of years. We have stayed in touch, but we have not been able to keep up on the details as we once did. That sand has already passed by. Today I’m working to be in his moment, to be by his side, even though I’m a couple thousand miles away. My friend’s father may be dying. What is more important than that right now?

    I feel the full force of our friendship as it stacks up on today. Years ago I wrote a song that said:

    when the snow falls on your roof and my world gets colder
    when you know without any proof that you have my shoulder
    when the fear of pain come to break us
    it’s the years of strain that will make us
    friends at last – friends at last

    “We have friends,” says Martin Marty, “or we are friends, in order that we do not get killed.” One day, the last grain of sand will pass through the middle of my friend’s hourglass or mine, and we will no longer be able to stand in the moment together. For today we will stand together and try to understand this simple grain of sand.



    1. Prayers with your friend. I loved the image of the hour glass. I know this was somewhat of a somber post but the hour glass reminds me a lot of my wife’s favorite soap.

    2. Holding your friend in light and love.

      LJ Booth came to a tiny festival near my house when I was in high school and I fell in love; not with him, not a crush, but with his honesty, his lyrics, his ability to capture entire moments of sensation in a song. I wrote him a letter saying so; he wrote back. Occasionally we still correspond, and I have all three of his albums. I am grateful for people like him in this world.

    3. Another thanks for putting emotion and intellect together in beautiful ways. I turned 35 last year and hit a strange spot in life … something like a mid-life crisis. Who am I? Who do I want to be? What imprint do I want to leave behind? Those kinds of things. It’s led me to long for creativity and a more contemplative lifestyle. Which is quite new for me. Your posts have encouraged this journey that God has started in me. I’m going hunting tonight for some of the books you’ve mentioned lately. I guess I feel a little like you are unwittingly mentoring me in some uncharted territory. So thank you.

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