Gathering Stones Together
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’ (Luke 19:39-40)
This year’s Easter sermon may be the strangest I have ever written, but given the times we are in, that feels appropriate.
I try to hike each day on the five miles or so of trails in the forest behind our neighborhood. That space is a blessing, to be able to walk from our house into the woods and be surrounded by trees, streams, waterfalls, and rocks. Sometimes I make calls out there, other times I work on sermons. Mostly, though, I try to listen.
There are countless trees out there, but one near the old rock bluff caught my eye–and heart–early on. It is an old tree, sitting right by the trail. I would stop each time I passed by and feel the bark with my fingers. Something drew me to it.
One day I suddenly felt like I needed to do something to show that it had become sacred to me. The tree didn’t need this at all, I think. It must have stood there for over fifty years–or more. Rather, something in me needed to do this, to find a way to mark that space. To honor the connection.
To everything there is a season and a time under heaven, we hear in Ecclesiastes. There is a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together (Eccl. 3:1,5).
My heart told me that this was a time to gather stones together, so I found four stones and stacked them on top of one another on a little mound next to the tree. I formed a little cairn of stone, a little pyramid. It took a while to look around and find stones that I thought would work, and I felt alive while performing what was, to me, a ritual of devotion. Not to the tree, necessarily, but to the presence of God in the tree that stirred something in me. Life calls to life.
After I set up my little altar, I stood there and these words simply came to me: I give thanks for the presence of God in this tree, for the presence of God within me, and for the presence of God in all of creation. It is a prayer that I say every time I walk by the tree now.
For a couple more days, I walked to that place and said my prayer, sometimes sitting on the ground next to the stack of stones. Four or five days on, I noticed that someone else had placed a smaller stone on top. They had added their devotion to the little shrine.
The next day I walked out into the woods, and when I arrived at the tree, the smile quickly vanished from my face when I saw that someone had knocked down the stack of stones. It was gone.
In that instant, I felt something that I can only describe as a transmission. The Buddhists speak of receiving teachings or insights through direct transmission from a lama or teacher, when a person can give you a teaching and you suddenly realize a deeper truth and are changed. Christians have this as well, of course, with Saul being knocked off his horse as maybe an obvious example. Or the Annunciation itself, perhaps. Maybe Christians don’t think of it this way, and that’s unfortunate, I think. There are other examples of transmission as well, and I’m convinced that such teachers aren’t always even human–they can be situations as well.
I know such transmissions are real, because I received one in the instant after seeing that my little shrine was knocked down. What I heard in my heart–clear as a bell–was this: you can focus on anger in this instance and travel that path, or you can realize the opportunity you have to build the shrine again and direct your energy toward devotion.
At that moment, I smiled and began looking around the woods for the stones that had been thrown away–the stones that had been rejected, if you will. I found all but one, and I rebuilt the stack of stones, adding another small stone that I found nearby to the top.
When I finished building it, I stood again by the tree, ran my hand across the bark, and said my prayer: I give thanks for the presence of God in this tree, for the presence of God within me, and for the presence of God within all creation. The tree, of course, never acknowledged that anything had gone on, but my heart felt full of gratitude. There simply wasn’t space in there for anger, and I didn’t have time to travel that path anyway. It was clear to me that I needed to focus my attention on gathering stones together. My core practice had become devotion.
Since then, I think I have rebuilt the shrine three times, with help from others who add their stones to the stack. Sometimes I wonder who these fellow pilgrims are, and it makes me smile. Once, I couldn’t find any of the stones, not even down the hillside. Whoever knocked it down that time really did a number on it, and those stones are scattered God knows where. But I found other stones nearby, and I gathered those together, stood there looking at this great tree, and said my prayer: I give thanks for the presence of God in this tree, for the presence of God within me, and for the presence of God within all creation.
Later, of course, I thought about Jacob and his propensity to stack stones. When he has the powerful dream that reminds him of God’s presence in his life, he takes the stone he used as a pillow and pours oil on it, making an altar and naming the place Beth-el, House of God (Genesis 28).
Later, we find Jacob wrestling with the angel at the ford of the Jabbok and feeling the impulse to gather stones together there and mark that place as Peniel. Jacob struggles to discern how to approach an alienated brother, and his encounter with God leaves him with a limp–and a new name (Genesis 32). We’re kindred spirits now, I think.
I also thought back to what Jesus said that we can read in St. Matthew’s Gospel (21:42), as he gives a teaching: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Jesus himself was quoting Psalm 118 here, taking an image of Jewish wisdom and re-embodying it in his own life. Rejected stones take on new meaning in Jesus’ worldview.
What was it that compelled me to gather stones that day and mark that place as significant to me? This is how transmissions work, I think: ordinary moments and objects become carriers of insight and wisdom. In our Christian practice, we call such things sacraments, when outward, visible, tangible material carries or transmits, if you will, the assurance of God’s grace. It is both “super” and “natural.”
I have returned many times to the insight I received when I first found the stack of stones knocked down: you can focus on anger in this instance and travel that path, or you can realize the opportunity you have to build the shrine again and direct your energy toward devotion.
Here is what I see today: this insight is a deep way, a metaphor, to understand what Easter actually means for us. In our lives, there will always be moments when our stones are knocked down, if you will. Something we build will fall, crumble, even be destroyed. Perhaps we are rejected ourselves, to put it that way. There is pain, grief, fear, suffering. Our pilgrim way seems marked, at times, by the painful side of human existence.
Yet that is not all there is, is there? In that moment of insight, I realized that I could feel the frustration for what it was, but I didn’t dwell there. Something in me recognized the potential that existed for focusing on gathering stones again. My heart was drawn toward devotion. I had been given the chance to co-create another altar that affirmed God’s presence in my life. I had been given the gift of devotion in that moment, and, of course, the teaching of that moment meant that every moment is an opportunity for devotion and new life.
This is what resurrection means to me this year: that I acknowledge any frustration I feel, any grief or loss or pain, even anger–yes, maybe especially anger. It is all there, of course, in human life. But it is clear to me that my core practice is devotion, and the path of devotion is the path to contemplate God’s presence and to trust in the Spirit of Wisdom.
So, what about you? What has fallen in your life, or what has been knocked down? What thought are you giving to what path you are being invited to take? How are you making sense of these days–or, maybe to put it a truer way, how are these days making sense of you? How do you experience God’s presence breaking through? What insight is being given to you?
And perhaps a question to send us off with an invitation: what stone do you have in your hand, and what do you plan to do with it?