Three Days of Thomas Merton – Day 1

Day 1: An Introduction

“In the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for ‘finding himself’.  If he persists in shifting his responsibility to somebody else, he fails to find out the meaning of his own existence.” – Thomas Merton

There are few historical people that I admire more than Thomas Merton. The catholic priest, Trappist monk, social activist, mystic, and scholar is interesting for our purposes here at Whølehearted not only for his body of work on faith, but also for the story of his life.  Merton is unique in that it was his story, his autobiography, that catapulted him into the spotlight to become what he would call with a bit of annoyance, “the famous Thomas Merton”. At 31 he wrote an autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, that put him on the radar.  Hugely successful he would then continue to write 60+ additional books and hundreds of poems and articles before his death 50 years ago today at the age of 53 (December, 10, 1968).  

It’s unusual that a autobiography would proceed a brilliant career instead of conclude it.  So what was it about his beliefs that made him one of the most influential modern spiritual thinker; one of four “great Americans” that Pope Francis singled out in a message to Congress in 2015?  And what was it about his story that made him famous BEFORE anyone knew all that much about his beliefs? This week I’d like 3 days to share a bit about Thomas Merton. Today, this simple introduction.  Tomorrow, his story. The last day, a few of his “seeds of complempation”.


The Logic of Sin

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Sin doesn’t win by presenting itself as a problem.  It wins by presenting itself as a solution.  It claims it’s victory by outwitting us at our own game.  It baits us into a game of logic, and because we tend to think of ourselves as well meaning and rational people, we assume a rational-logical dialogue is a good place for us to go to conquer our sin.  But our adversary isn’t new to these little games of logic we so willingly use – he has been using them against us for millennia to trick us into doing the very thing we don’t want to do by framing our sin in a way we hadn’t expected.

Here are four areas of rational logic sin uses against us (I will give an explanation of each below):

  1. Sin offers itself as a solution to a more vexing problem.
  2. Sin offers an extreme first so that you think you have won when you accept a more watered-down version of it
  3. Sin convinces you that your efforts are hopeless – so why try
  4. Sin convinces us it’s okay to wait until life slows down, is less demanding and not so complicated

Sin offers itself as a solution to a more vexing problem

A high school student hasn’t studied for a math exam he is taking later in the day.  He is already on the fringe of failing the class and he can’t afford another poor mark.  If he fails the class he fears he might not get into a good college and if he doesn’t get into a good college he fears he might not get a good job.  And it would be irresponsible to not get a good job because the student hopes to have a family one day and he has been told it’s difficult to raise a family without a good job.  As he ponders his situation at lunch one of his friend sits down and whispers that he has secured an answer key to the pending test.  The high school student knows that cheating is wrong but the logic of the sin is already at work.

The adversary whispers, “You aren’t a cheater.  It’s not like you are going to make this a habit.  There are tremendous consequences if you don’t pass this exam.  You’re entire future is on the line – what’s the harm in using the answer key to pass the test just this one time?  Wouldn’t it not be more irresponsible to allow yourself to fail and let down your parents and possibly not get into college.  What’s more immoral and irresponsible anyways?  Cheating on one exam in high school or not being able to provide for your future family.”

In this case cheating (the sin) is not the problem to be dealt with, it’s presented as the solution to much more consequential concerns.

Sin offers an extreme first so that you think you have won when you accept a more watered-down version of the sin

Karl, a married man goes to the gym several times a week for a small group fitness class.  The fitness instructor of the class is an attractive woman, named Liz and she is just a few years younger than Karl.  Although there has never been anything but a professional relationship between them, Karl has found himself thinking about Liz during the day while he is working or eating lunch.

On his way to gym one afternoon, the adversary leans in and say, “Karl, you should sleep with Liz.”  Karl, is taken aback.  Where did that thought come from, he wonders.  He is a committed husband and had never considered cheating on his wife.  He pushes the thought away, but the opening thought was just a rouse for the logic game that can now ensue.

The adversary responds, “you’re probably right, you wouldn’t cheat on your wife. That’s not in your character Karl.  But what about maybe finding a way to get close to her physically.  Maybe you could ask her to spot you on an exercise and use it as an opportunity to rub against her body or maybe you could give her a lingering hug when you see her next.”  Again, Karl pushes back the thought, but the Adversary is still just setting the trap.  He is slowly watering down the sin until he can get Karl to think he has won because he settled for such a trivial violation.

The adversary’s moves in again, “Why not ask the entire class (including Liz) out for drinks next Friday.  It would be fun and there is no harm in having drinks with a group of people.”  Karl, agrees and besides it would be fun to socialize with Liz outside the gym.  Then the adversary offers his next idea, “perfect, you know you could flirt with her just a little.  It wouldn’t hurt to kid around with her and give her a lingering smile when nobody else is looking. You don’t have to do anything over the top Karl, just enough to let her know that you notice her that you are attracted but that you are married so that is as far as you could go.”

Of course, once the adversary get’s the small give-in he works his logic in reverse – “well if you already flirted with her what’s the harm in giving her a little kiss when she leaves?”

Sin convinces you that your efforts are hopeless – so why try so hard

Sue has struggled off and on with alcohol most of her adult life.  Though she has gone weeks, months and even seasons without a drink, she keeps finding herself back in the same place.  Sue desperately wants to get free and has gone several weeks without drinking, but things at work are really stressful and the desire for a drink this week is particularly strong.

The adversary’s logic to for Sue is straightforward, “Sue, this is really hard stuff.  You have been thinking about a drink all day.  How many times do we have to do this?  You might be able to resist today or even tomorrow or even the next day, but you will ultimately fail.  You always do.  You can’t beat this so why don’t you give yourself a break and have a Gin and Tonic – or just a Gin.  Stop delaying the inevitable.”

Sin convinces us it’s okay to wait until life slows down, is less demanding and not so complicated.  

Jim has started abusing prescription medicine.  It started when he noticed it gave him an edge at work – allowed him to work longer hours and remain focused.  Now the side-effects are getting to him and his health is taking a toll.  He barely sleeps at night, which makes him even more dependent on the meds to keep him going during the day. By the time he get’s home at night he is irritable and short with his wife and children.

Jim knows he needs to address the problem and vows to make a change – until the adversary leans in and offers this rationale to Jim:

“Jim, you can’t slow down right now.  You are leading an important project at work and you have worked so hard.  If you quit now, you’ll never keep up and you will let everyone down.  It’s not like you have to keep taking the meds forever, just a few more weeks until the project is done.  Worry about this once life slows down some and you have a little more time and margin.”

Of course, the Adversary knows the longer he can entangle us the harder it will be to unwrap the cords later.




This is Water?

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There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

This is the opening story given by author David Foster Wallace in a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005.  It’s one of the best commencement addresses you will hear.  Here is a link if you want to give it a listen.

The point of this story is that often the most obvious and important realities are often the hardest to see.  I have been thinking about this idea a lot lately.  For example, what kind of assumptions am I bringing to my daily living because of what I have learned from the culture around me my entire life?  What kind of social and cultural constructs have I unknowingly adopted as my own by some strange form of social osmosis.  Why do I never ask WHY?  Am I swimming around my life like the fish in the story, completely unaware of the context of my environment.   Sadly, I think most of the time the answer is yes.

I know this is kind of intangible and sounds like the type of discussion two stoners would have while passing around a joint.   But bear with me and let me try some tangible examples of what I mean:

  1. Why do we retire at the age of 65 and who came up with the idea of retirement anyways?
  2. Why do I feel like such a slave to the time on a clock?
  3. Will any of the things I own or want to own bring me more Happiness?  Wait . . . I know the answer but I WANT them anyways, why?
  4. Why do I stress about my kids Standardized test scores?  Is there any real correlation to those scores and anything else of importance later in their life?
  5. Why do I feel compelled to try to maintain a pace of life that is completely overwhelming most of the time?

I could go on for pages with this line of questioning.  My point is that there are so many things going on outside of our awareness that frame how we experience our life, and I think it would be helpful to every now and again ponder why we believe certain things or are compelled to act a certain way.   Until we have enough awareness to even ask why we don’t have any other choice but to buy into whatever the culture, our family, our church or our peers tell us.

But here is the secret . . .

What our culture teaches is us is often not as well thought out as we would hope to believe.  What we accept is conventional wisdom is very often just the result of a confluence of random historical events and agendas.  If those cultural conventions stick around long enough we forget to notice them, much less challenge or question them.  We swim around until one day someone makes an observation like “How’s the Water?” and one of two things happen: 1) We ignore the question and continue on our way or 2) We begin to notice and wonder and not just assume that everything our culture values and venerates is worth valuing and venerating. And some of the things it doesn’t even notice, maybe are worth talking about.


Richard, Mark and a But

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“I am the one thing in life I can control”
lyric from “Wait for It” from the Hamilton soundtrack


I recently read a story of two brothers: Richard and Mark.  To summarize, Richard was the older of the two and got by doing what was necessary to get by.  Mark, the younger, was honest, loyal and hardworking. Friends as kids, as the brothers grew older they grew apart.  Mark appeared to the outside world to be the more privileged. His accomplishments always seemed to trump his older brother which fueled competition between the two.   Despite the efforts of their parents who desired for their sons to be supportive of one another their relationship deteriorated over time until it came to a breaking point.  Richard had enough and one day he killed his younger brother in a fit of rage in an empty field. Instantly, full of grief, he left his parents and his home to start his life over again alone.  And that is the end of this story.

We hear this story and it is shocking and tragic.  It is also a timeless story we have all heard before.  Heard before but maybe haven’t connected with. It is the story of the first two siblings: Cain and Abel.  I did read this story recently, and I read it in a new light. Read it as an actual story of two actual brothers.  Brothers that could be real people living now, like say….. Richard and Mark. Bible stories, whether we grow up in or outside of the church come with a stigma.  And some of the most well known stories have become so familiar that we can discount them as not having useful knowledge still for us as adults because we learned their lessons when we were kids.  Sometimes I have to read these stories ‘a-new ‘ to see if there are lessons buried inside that I haven’t tapped into yet, and when I recently reread this story I found a few ah-has thinking about Cain and Abel as Richard and Mark.

It is so interesting to think that this is the FIRST family in the bible and this is the story told of them.  The one story told. Fascinating. The first human family and things were not easy and effortless. Quite the opposite, the first human sibling relationship ended with murder and death.  Why, I don’t remember that being a focus in Sunday school? So what is the take away? Well, as I see it this story teaches that 1- sibling rivalry is real and always been “a thing”, 2- families are complicated, and 3- conflict has and always will exist in relationships – both sibling and beyond.

As grown ups the vast majority of us have not physically killed our siblings but it does seem that many adult sibling relationships are strained.  But thinking beyond siblings, I wonder if maybe this story is less about the sibling dynamic and more about the human relationship dynamics whatever it may be: husband/wife, parent/child, friends, neighbors, co-workers.  What led Cain to kill Abel was unresolved conflict between the two and conflict appears in all relationships, not just that of siblings. And no conflict doesn’t often lead to physical death, but maybe conflict, fueled by comparison and rivalry, IS the killer of relationships.

Whether in a relationship, whatever type of relationship it may be, we identify more as the Cain/Richard or as the Abel/Mark when conflict arises we nearly ALL identify as the victim with the other as the one to blame. Basically we are all like Cain in this way in that we assume the conflict is the fault of the other. And what is even crazier is often we are totally unaware of this. Think about it. Think about an issue that has you in a tizzy with someone currently.  Is it your fault? Are you to blame? OR does the blame fall in the other person’s corner. If they weren’t so difficult or irresponsible or judgmental or passive or assertive or busy or available or whatever then things would be okay and the conflict would be resolved.  Basically, if the other person was just way more the way we need them to be in the relationship then we could live happily ever after.

Of course, we all do realize that we have our own flaws and faults BUT we breeze over this in our assessment of the situation and camp out on the faults of the other as the real source of the relationship problem. Basically in conflict the real root of the problem lies not in our hands but in the other persons. Two friends fighting over hurtful things said and done, one might think, “I know I haven’t always treated her as well as maybe I could, BUT what she did was downright unacceptable.  And then we camp out on everything that lies after the BUT. We tell our friends, our spouse, anyone that will listen to all the juicy details that fall after the BUT and don’t give all that much thought to what becomes before the BUT.

What if for a period of time, a month or two, we were committed to focusing 100% of our attention on what comes before the BUT.  What if we were willing to see and own our part and leave it at that. “I know I haven’t always treated her well”. And that’s where I am going to camp out for awhile.  No BUT. Oh but it it so much juicer to focus on someone else’s falls from perfections than our own. But as I can see it there is really no other way. No other way to mature beyond “Cain level”  and we’ve learned that Cain is the historical relationship killer.

For. . . . .

1- I am the only person I can control

2- I try and do my best to love others well but

3- I am imperfect- I will always be imperfect

4- I will screw up

5- When I screw up I hope I have people in my life that will see beyond the messes I make and forgive me and love me in spite of myself

6- So maybe I should aim to see beyond the messes others make and and be more forgiving and loving

7- To those around me that screw up

8- And fall short of perfection and will always fall short of perfection

9- But do genuinely try to do their best to love others well

10- That are not the only person I can control

This all seems to make logical sense to me but logical sense can be incredible hard to implement in the real world.  Best of luck to us all on this!

See Genesis 4




The Most Devastating App

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 I recently updated my iPhone operating software and apparently as part of that update Apple has included a new app called “Screen Time.”  It’s a brilliantly devastating app because it reveals exactly how much time I spend each day on every app on my phone. It also tells me how many times a day I pick my phone up to look at it and how many times I receive a notification.  I say it’s a devastating app because I don’t want to be controlled by this little device I carry around, but I was stunned the first time I looked at the weekly activity report.  I really had no idea really how invasive the phone had become.  I receive almost 200 push notifications a day.  Think about that for a second; my phone is trying to interrupt me every 4 to 5 minutes every single hour 24 hours a day!  How is it even remotely possible to focus on a task or just be present with this constant appeal for my attention.


I am embarrassed to even share how much time I was spending each day on my phone.   I decided to do an experiment and delete one of the apps on my phone I felt was taking up too much of my attention relative to it’s importance. I started with my twitter app. I reasoned that I would remove the app for a month and see if what I missed (the news information and little bumps of dopamine social media gives us) by not having it exceeded what I gained in focus and time by removing it as a distraction.  I figured I could always reinstall it.  It’s been about three weeks since I made that change and I don’t think the twitter app is going back on for me.  In fact, I am now considering a few more apps to wipe from my home screen.


Yesterday my family went for a hike up a trail called Yonah Mountain about an hour or so from our house. It was a perfect day for a hike – sunny yet cool with the vibrant colors of Fall-time foliage serving as the backdrop.  About halfway up the mountain we passed three high school girls who had stopped and were sitting together on top of a large boulder.  They weren’t talking or taking in the scenery around them.  They were all lost to the world.  You could probably guess what they were doing . . . staring at their phones.


“Technology break?,” I asked them as we walked past.   Two of them didn’t even hear me.  The third looked up and said, “Oh we are live-streaming from Instagram – for our fans.”


This problem is well documented and their are plenty of memes like the ones below about how addicted we all our to our phones.  What’s interesting is how I seem to notice when others, like the teenagers who have stopped to live-stream during a hike, seem to be missing life because of their phones but then justify it when I do the same thing – like when I check out by opening up my ESPN app at the end of the night instead of going to bed on time. Or when I get distracted by an email in the middle of a conversation with my wife.  I thought I was the one in control of my phone, but then I got the data from Screen Time. It was a pretty devastating realization that maybe I wasn’t as in control as I thought.


Anybody else have plans to stare at their phones somewhere exciting this weekend?

One Star Reviews

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I recently published my first book and after a couple weeks of solid reviews I received my first 1 Star review on Amazon.  Gasp . . .  My immediate response was to get defensive. In my mind I started forming my counter-arguments to this hideous blemish on my book review record.   Clearly this reviewer had missed the point and this injustice needed to be rectified. Did the reviewer really need to attack me personally.  I briefly wondered if I should appeal Amazon to have the review removed and the reviewer permanently banned from the site.
After a few moments of reflection on why this made me angry, another revelation came to me; I shouldn’t fear the one star review.  It didn’t have to irk me at all.  In fact, I might take encouragement from the 1 star review because it just as well might be a sign of something positive about the work.   If we stand for something or write something or say something and everyone agrees with us – what does that say about the things we stand for, write about and say?  It probably means we have contributed something safe, politically correct and uninspiring.
I am not bragging that my particular book is bold, honest or inspiring.  What I am saying is that a 1 star review is not a signal that it isn’t any of those things either.  In fact, a one star review (or multiple one star reviews) may be a much better sign than only positive reviews that a person has taken a stance and shared something risky.  You don’t make a difference by sharing something everyone already knows and agrees with.   You don’t do work you can be really proud of by making sure it doesn’t offend anyone or is so uncontroversial that nobody even notices it.
The next time you get a 1 star review, or the equivalent in your domain of work, don’t take it too harshly.  Smile to yourself knowing this might be the best sign that you are headed in the right direction.

What do you believe?

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“The outer conditions of a person’s life will ALWAYS be found to reflect their inner beliefs.”  James Allen

Are there more powerful words when genuinely delivered than, “I believe in you”?  Saying these words has an impact, but it is our actions that really communicate them.  What are we really communicating by way we speak, act, and react to those closest to us: I believe in you or I don’t really believe/trust in you?

This is something worth thinking about.

But before that, what about the way we speak, act, or react to ourselves?  Are we communicating, “I believe in you”, to ourselves? It is also worth spending some time thinking about this.  And thinking about this not the guilt way than makes us feel bad that we are not nicer and more supportive of ourselves.  But instead through simple honest curiosity. Because the truth is that none of us always believe in ourselves or treat ourselves the way we deserve to be treated.  Feeling guilty about beating ourselves up may inspire us to be kinder in the short run, but this quickly becomes another item on the to-do list that we don’t get around to and then feel more guilty about.

But considering this way we speak to ourselves void of guilt or judgement, or the feeling that this is a foolish exercise and a waste of time. . . . We may ask: Do I believe in me?  Why? Why Not? Do I really believe in me? And who do I really believe in? Why?

Simple questions to think about if one is willing to take the time to sit with and dive into it.  Pretty profound insight can come when we just make time for it to. Profound sometimes yes, or tiny subtle insight.  But that is not to be discounted either…… tiny seeds can produce quite a harvest.

Matthew 13: 31-32

The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed, which man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.  

Call to Adventure

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The following is a short excerpt from The Truest Story Ever Told. It comes from the Chapter labeled Call to Adventure in reference to that phase of the Hero’s Journey.

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to describe coincidental events that on the surface have no explainable connection but seem to relate to some deeper reality. The following are some examples. You go to a bookstore and for no reason pick up a book, flip randomly to a page and see an answer to a question that you had been asking yourself when you walked into the store. You experience financial difficulty, but somehow money for basic living expenses shows up at just the right time and the bills get paid. You think about calling a particular person to ask for advice on something important, and in the midst of your thought, the person calls you. Almost all of us have had similar experiences. They are ones when we say, “What a coincidence!”

Jung believed coincidental “acausal” events, like the ones just described, couldn’t be explained by statistics. The probabilities didn’t add up. Jung concluded that many of the experiences perceived as coincidences reflected a deeper governing dynamic at work in the world, which he labeled “the collective unconscious.” “Synchronicity” was his term for explaining that the world and our personality manifest clues that direct our attention and actions. Most of the time, we dismiss these events as mere coincidence (a statistical anomaly), but according to Jung, this can’t always result from chance. Jung thought we should give credence to connected coincidental events because they might be clues that the universe and our own subconscious were working together to get our attention and to move us in a new direction.

In an interview shortly before his death, Joseph Campbell spoke about a similar concept by summarizing an essay by famed philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, called the “Apparent Intention of Fate of an Individual.” Campbell, speaking in the interview, said:

(Schopenhauer) points out that when you reach an advanced age and look back over your lifetime, it can seem to have had a consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that when they occurred had seemed accidental and of little moment turn out to have been indispensable factors in the composition of a consistent plot. . . . The whole thing gears together like one big symphony, with everything unconsciously structuring everything else. Schopenhauer concluded that it is as though our lives were the features of the one great dream of a single dreamer in which all the dream characters dream, too; so that everything links to everything else, moved by the one will to life which is the universal will in nature. 1

What Schopenhauer labeled “fate,” what Jung labeled “synchronicity” and what Campbell labeled “consciousness,” I label “God’s activity in his creation,” which he initiates through the work of his Holy Spirit. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: “The spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Rom 8:26 NIV) Even when we don’t know what we want or what is best for us, when we don’t even know what we should be praying for, “The Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”(Rom 8:27 NIV)

Even skeptics like Schopenhauer and Jung noticed that sometimes there seems to be an intention for what is happening in our lives. Events that seem random and unconnected may, in fact, be important and formative turning points. The Call to Adventure is constantly revealing itself, begging us to cooperate with the “single dreamer.” Some calls are hard to miss; others emerge through a trail of coincidental events and chance meetings. Some come as a manifestation of a deep desire, and some come out of disappointment. But the Hero has a choice—to heed the call to Adventure or not. God is always moving in the world, and his eyes “range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” (2 Chron 16:9 NIV) Everyone gets the call but not everyone answers.

A Great Story

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“Some people long for a life that is simple and planned – tied with a ribbon. Some people won’t sail the sea ‘cause they’re safer on land – to follow what is written. But I’d follow you to the great unknown…..” Lyrics from: Tightrope, The Greatest Showman

A Great Story

The heartbeat of whølehearted is great stories. And to be more specific, connecting people to great stories. We all love connecting to a great story through reading a book or watching a movie, but what about thinking of our own life as a great story? Do we like that story? I would venture to guess many of us accept our story, while fewer like or love it and even fewer see it as epic or timeless. Why is this? Life happens. It is complicated. We settle, we drift, we survive, we get distracted, we get taken out and years pass and we begin to accept our story as less than maybe we dreamed it could be.

I believe hardwired in all humans is the desire to be a part of a great story, one that is larger than us. It is also my belief that there is one major roadblock that collectively stands in our way. We all want to tell an epic story with our life. Yes. BUT. . . We all want to do so comfortably and safely. We want that epic outcome with an easy path if possible. Yet I’m not sure epic and easy go hand in hand. I have trouble recalling a great books or movies where the main character’s easy and safe life choices lead to a predictable and comfortable outcomes. Yet that is the life many of us fall into. That is where the current of life often leads.

To tell a great story, which makes life come alive and makes our struggles meaningful and worthwhile requires a few things. Most of all great stories require great risks. Risk requires strength. Strength comes after one has a firm footing and a firm footing requires growth. Growth, personal growth, is the step that people unanimously do not enjoy. It is the core of the process, but it is the hidden step. The risk gets attention, the strength gets admired, the firm footing gets applauded, but it is the growth that makes it all possible.

Sometimes for some people a huge unexpected life event propels them into a story greater than themselves in which they must draw from courage and strength in the face of great hardship. The movies are filled with these stories, but what about the real world?  More often real life’s great stories begin with persistent personal growth.  It can be mundane, raw and not glamorous like it is in Hollywood screenplays.  It requires a certain dedication to grow into the person that we want to become but feel like we are currently inadequate to be.

I have found in my life that this has come from “seeds” maybe more than anything else. “Seeds”: little bits of knowledge or encouragement or words of wisdom here and there that make tiny shifts in the way I see the world and the way I see myself. These tiniest shifts, that are often not even noticeable until after the fact, have turned into bigger seeds and bigger shifts that have made my life more meaningful and fulfilling, and above all else, more enjoyable to live.

Seeds: that is entirely our goal with this blog- tiny seeds. Little bits of thought that could perhaps make the tiniest shift in a person’s life story so that a person can in some tiny degree believe he or she is an epic movie worthy character in their own story. One seed at a time.

Matthew 13: 31-32 The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed, which man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.