There is a lot of rock in the ground around here. By a lot of rock I mean it appeared to my eyes at least that for every cubic meter of ground excavated, a little more than half of it turned out to be rock meaning of course that a little less than half of it turned out to be dirt. When they did the grading and earthwork for the new preschool the mound of rock they created was substantial.
We tried to sell it. But who buys stone on a commercial basis? Individually, if you went out to Weheeler-Zamaroni you would have to pay for your rock, Debbie and I bought a perfect little step from our elevated yard down to the driveway and it was something in the neighborhood of sixty dollars. In fact, unless they are short on rock at any given moment, most of the commercial outfits want you to pay them to haul away your rock; it’s a line on your construction expense.
However, we discovered that while we have a plethora of stone here in the east side of the county, those in the west side, or at least parts of it, have a shortage of good, useable, attractive stone sitting there in the earth for them to use for landscaping projects and for filler. We placed an ad on Craig’s list and received a call about every fifteen minutes for the next three days, people wanted to just come and take the stone, to which we replied, “our address is . . .”
The small hill became a smaller hill, then a hillock then a mound, then nothing at all as homeowners and small landscapers came and laid claim to the easy-to-move stones and then even the much bigger stones, bringing their own heavy equipment to haul it away.
And then there were none, as they say.
The thing is, and this betrays somewhat my east-coast origins, my family is from Pennsylvania and so we spent a lot of time there growing up. But the thing is, the stone is all lumpy, it’s attractive, but it is what they call igneous rock, rock formed from the cooling of lava. It is either very large and undifferentiated, or it is broken and smaller but still, in whatever shape it ended up when the lava cooled.
The reason I brought up Pennsylvania is that the rock that they have there is different.
My dad bought a farm, not bought the farm, he’s still with us, but he bought a farm in northern Pennsylvania, bought a tractor and a plow and began organizing his life around the land.
To be fair, this was just the first of several moves in the northeast that he made after retiring from work in Alaska, apparently he roamed the earth for a while looking for a place where he fit. But initially, he bought a farm in northern Pennsylvania and quickly discovered what every other farmer in the history of that part of the world discovered. The ground was full of rocks.
Not the kind of rocks we have here, the kind of rocks that English farmers found and Greek farmers found and Incan farmers found in Peru. Instead of igneous rock they found metamorphic rock, the kind that is acted upon over millennia, getting pressed down, layer by layer as soil and sand are blown or washed over top, getting folded by igneous rock surging to the surface, becoming the stratified layer-upon-layer effect you can see in east coast highway cuts through the hills, rippling layers of ancient stone.
But that kind of stone breaks up into slabs and lumps and pieces that carry the marks of their origin. They are flatter, broken into geometric shapes by the motion of the earth and when you plow the land in much of the east coast, or anywhere this kind of stone is found, those pieces rise to the surface, the turning of the soil giving them room to break free and ding up your plow.
By the time my dad sold the property we had discovered a dozen mounds of the stuff, piles of stone that echoed the foundations of a hundred neighbor’s barn foundations, the Amish have a way with things like that and they will travel to build a barn.
But when he bought another farm, I told you he moved around a fair bit, he resolved to do something more interesting than just mound it up, he was going to go the traditional route and build walls.
Think of the ancient world, think of Greece and of the Incan ruins in Peru and of the English countryside and you will almost inevitably come to the walls, the dry-fitted stone walls, some centuries old. In Greece they had a certain esthetic that made them work the stone a little more, ensuring that the walls could last for more than centuries, but in England the walls were simply assembled from the stone that was found on the ground, that rose to the surface every time you put plow to earth.
Not haphazardly, there are walls from the seventeenth and even sixteenth centuries still standing, they are common enough to be called fences in England. They are assembled by establishing a wide row of foundation stones and then, painstakingly, carefully and with much trial and error, fitting one stone into the shape of the stone below and beside it, not working the stone, but working with the stone.
My dad found a guy who had quite a reputation as a stone wall builder. He had the thick arms and shoulders of someone who worked a lot with stone and his hands were rough and hard as the walls he built. When my dad told him of the ideas he had, for running sections of stone walls using the native rock from the farm, and after the builder looked over the available mounds of stone he posed the following question to dad, “Wet or dry?”
Wet stone walls are mortared together, they are sturdy and semi-permanent, needing to be knocked down. Dry stone walls are what they have all across the world in places where the stones boil to the surface, they are standing because of the care and precision with which they are fitted together. You cannot use mortar to fill in a short stone, you have to find another one, you cannot leave a void in the middle of the wall; you need to find a stone that fits there.
It is a great feat of memory. Seriously, after you lay one course and try and fit the stones into it to build the next course you start to get a sense of the stones you have already picked up and rejected, you get a sense of the contour of the wall, still unfinished so that when you pick up a stone and see its shape you will hearken back to a place somewhere on the wall where that stone might fit and when you place a stone onto the wall and see the new contour created there, you might get a memory flash of a stone you handled earlier that may well fit that new spot.
That’s the way the builder described it. A series of wet stone walls as described, he said, would take about a month or so to build.
Do it all in dry-fitted stone and it might take a little more than a year. The cost of the dry wall was only about twice as much as the other walls, because he wouldn’t be there every day; you have to let your mind rest from time to time, to find the right fit, to re-assemble the parts in your head.
Laying the foundation is easy, pick big stones and lay them straight and pretty soon the foundation is everything it needs to be. Then comes the real work.
Then comes the laborious endeavor of fitting each subsequent stone into the whole, making the whole stronger and giving each stone a purpose, a role to play, no stone is left out, there is always a gap to be filled.
It is a matter of encountering each stone, of sizing it up, of weighing it and measuring it but receiving it as it comes knowing that there is a place for it, you have to have an ocean of patience sometimes to find that place, but there is always a place. Sometimes you make a place, combining other stones to make a spot for the difficult one, sometimes things just work out and the stone slides into place effortlessly.
Patience is not a gift I think the world around us encourages us to develop but if we want to build the kingdom of God, finding a place for each and every person to fit, we cannot be in so much of a rush that what we build does not stand.
And that is our calling, to find a place for each person, to find the language we must speak for them to hear, to find the courage of our own convictions and know that our proclamation is for them even though we build churches and form denominations that sure do look like they are for us.
Lots of people are a bit lumpy, a little oddly shaped. They come to us without years of training in reading hymnals or in following bulletins or in, trust me I have heard this a hundred times, in doing both at the same time, switching back and forth. They like different music, they haven’t read Pride and Prejudice because they no longer require those things in school anymore, given the statistics that last time many of them went to a museum was on a fifth grade field trip.
The language they speak is not ours; even some of the younger people in our own lives have begun to speak more in text language and less in English. They receive more information in a day than many of us would feel comfortable receiving in a week and yet they don’t know how a card-catalog works so if the power is off, the library, assuming that they know where to find one, is useless to them because they can’t find a book without a computer.
It may seem as though I am saying that they are less somehow than we are, that they know less. It isn’t true. They know less of what I know, but they know far more about things of which you and I are unaware, of the speed at which as idea can travel, of how something appeals to an audience, about how to be alive in this time we live in now.
They are oddly shaped rocks and it would be all too easy to say that they will never fit in here that they will not fit into our wall because our wall has been here for so long it cannot change.
But we cannot, we simply cannot leave them out in the field. The strength of this community, with Christ as the chief cornerstone is that we are all together, we have history and a rich vein of love and concern for the whole of creation, we have two thousand years of theological inquiry and almost five hundred years of purely Lutheran thinking to free us from the bondage to sin and the false imperative to labor for our salvation. We have a tradition of freedom through faith and a tradition of love for the world through Christ.
And every new stone has changed us along the way. A hundred years ago my colleague Kelly Chatman could not have been a pastor in our denomination, there were simply no African American Lutheran pastors then and we have been mightily enriched by his addition and the kingdom of God has been better served with Kelly fitted into our fellowship.
Music has changed, the way the earth is changed by a glacier, but it has changed nonetheless. From hymnal to hymnal the worship patters has ebbed and flowed, in the old Service Book and Hymnal all the presider parts were written in bass clef because all pastors were men.
We have found ways to fit stones into our fellowship and make them our own and in so doing make ourselves stronger and it is only when we refuse, only when we think the task to hard, or too slow, that we weaken ourselves with haste, haphazardly throwing stones at the wall and hoping that they stick or focusing in on our selves, leaving the stones in the mission field to their own devices while we slowly crumble for want of new, fresh stones.
On the sure foundation we will build in Jesus name, singing hymns and speaking the words of the promise that all the world might know of the place prepared for them, just for them, fitted for them in the kingdom of God and in the life to come.