catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 14 :: 2007.07.13 — 2007.07.27


Sand sculpture and the body of Christ

View a slide show of this year's sand sculpture.


Every time I hear someone read I Corinthians 12—you know, the chapter about how all the different parts of the body of Christ fit together—I think two contradictory thoughts.  First I think about how cool it is that, through twenty years of competing in sand sculpture contests, I know exactly what that chapter is talking about in a way that few other people on the planet do.  Second, I think about how, after 20 years of competing in sand sculpture contests, I understand how really, I have no idea what that verse is about. 

Let me explain.  Two days ago was the Grand Haven, Michigan Sand Sculpture Contest.  My two best friends and I (and now our families) have been competing in this contest since the early 80s.  The contest starts at ten in the morning on the City Beach.  As the early riser in the group, I usually get there early, often an hour and a half before we start (and now I drag my wife and two daughters with me).  I reserve a spot and register our team.  John and his family arrive next, usually bearing doughnuts.  Rick comes after that, with more five-gallon pails than you can imagine.  We talk and laugh, and then start working out what we should sculpt.  That process might sound like an argument to untrained ears, but we manage to select from five or six pun-laden ideas the one we like best.  Then other family members, friends, and friends-of-friends arrive.  Once we are all clear about the layout of the sculpture, we wait for the whistle that signals the start of the contest, and the beginning of two amazing hours.

See, the thing is, we can’t sculpt.  Not really.  Not out of an artist’s understanding of that word anyway.  Not alone.  Amy and I are teachers.  John and his Amy are engineers.  Rick and Rhonda are lawyers.  Not an artist in the bunch.

So we haul bucket after bucket of water and we wet down the sand.  After the beach is soaked, we take shovels in hand and begin building large piles.  With an hour to go, we begin to shape the sand into something recognizable.  The division of labor actually isn’t.  We don’t really each take an area.  Instead, everybody sort of jumps from here to there so that, in the end, the sculpture that emerges is the product of all of ours.  Psychologists and sociologist variously call this distributed cognition, gestalt work, group consciousness, but the bottom line is that we work together.     

And what makes me think I understand the body of Christ in all this is the way that, although the chapter in Corinthians talks about different body parts, the point is that the body is a whole—that the toe can’t be separate, the eye can’t leave on a vacation—it all works together.  When we build a sculpture, sometimes with people I don’t even know, I feel a part of something larger, a bigger organism.

But that is only half the story.  Although there are moments when I think I have glimpsed the way we will live together in heaven, there are also moments when I know we fall far short—or at least I do. 

Sometimes my idea doesn’t get picked.  The notion I had, and all the mental sketches I had get flushed away.  And sometimes I bear that resentment for much of the time I am working.

Sometimes the waterers with the five-gallon buckets douse the developing mound with so much water that it starts to erode.  John tells the waterers to cut it out.  I tell them to keep going.  We try to laugh, but it can get a little intense.

Sometimes not everyone has something to do.  Sometimes we don’t have enough people to do all that needs to be done.  Sometimes somebody makes something that somebody else has an idea about how to do better.

Sometimes the beach is so crowded that I get freaked out when I can’t see my children, or I just wish our audience would all go home and let me breathe. 

And, I get tired.  I am forty years old.  I can’t carry as many buckets as I used to be able to.  I run out of breath. 

Finally, there are cave-ins.  With fifteen minutes to go, something gives, and a fourth of the sculpture cascades down.  We don’t even have time to mourn.  We all work to fix it, but the repair rarely matches the way it looked before.

So I guess heaven won’t be quite like sand sculpture.  Not really.

Then we wait for the judges.  Often we win (we did this year).  Sometimes we lose (three years ago we didn’t even place).  At my best moments though, regardless of the outcome, I recognize that the real reward of the whole thing was the moments it clicked, and we worked together as a single body, through the grace of Christ.    

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