I found a flat spot on the uneven ground and carefully lowered my stiffening body onto it. Taking a deep breath of thin air, I gazed for miles across the northern Arizona landscape. Strokes of blue and brown seeped together at the horizon of the high desert. I had just climbed Mount Humphreys, scrambling on my hands up the last few yards of rusty black volcanic rock to the 12, 633 foot summit. A calmness settled over me as I gazed at the expanse, inhaling air distilled to God’s presence.
A piece of volcanic rock about two inches long and vaguely resembling a heart caught my eye. Picking it up, I cradled it in my hand evaluating its size and weight. Would it be worth taking back as a memento to commemorate the experience?
I always want a keepsake.
A wooden bowl of stones sits on my coffee table. It’s a random collection of white, gray, or pink nuggets. I have no idea where any of them came from. One could be from a labyrinth on Whidbey Island. Another might have been excavated at the Baltic Sea. Yet another might have traveled with me from Phewa Lake in Nepal. I do know that at the time I carefully chose each of them to commemorate an experience, believing that the stone and moment were so significant I would remember their connection forever.
Is this what the sage meant when he said, “A time to gather stones together?” Find the best rock to represent the moment? Somehow, I think not.
The IVP Bible Background Commentary’s tiny entry on this verse sheds some light, “Stones were cleared away from a field so that the famer could use it for agricultural purposes.”
It’s about preparation. Getting rid of the unwanted and unnecessary, clearing the way to make the land useful.
Anyone who has done a DYI house project knows how important preparation is. Spray paint illuminates rather than hides imperfections. An old end table in need of sprucing up can look worse without the right preparation. Carefully sanding then wiping away all dust before painting will result in a smoother surface.
Yet preparation is often tedious and boring – the unglamorous hard work. It’s the hours no one sees spent planning that make a conference run well. It’s the carefully measuring and cutting that makes sewing a quilt with perfectly matching seams more likely.
It’s the clearing away of bad habits and pet sins that shapes us into beings who reflect God’s image.
I’ve heard that the soil in Ireland continually forms rocks. Each season farmers need to clear new obstacles before they can plant crops. Perhaps the ancient biblical soil was the same – each season new stones appeared creating a continual cycle of clearing before planting.
Just like these stones, bad habits and pet sins come back season after season.
Instead of throwing unwanted stones on the same mounting and useless pile, Irish farmers (and perhaps ancient farmers) found new and inventive ways of using them. Stone fences kept sheep safe, a stone path led to a sold stone house.
Surely God must repurpose and reallocate the stones in our lives as well.
A stubborn spirit becomes endurance in faith.
A fiery temperament transforms into a passionate love of all God’s children.
A prideful thought shifts to giving God the glory.
The perpetual excavating and reallocating of stones in the field or heart is an ongoing and arduous task. Yet an experienced worker knows the process and plans for it, perhaps even enjoys it. Removing old varnish to reveal a solid oak table is the joy of discovery. Shopping for snacks to go in conference goodie bags is the pleasure of providing for needs. Cutting fabric to highlight flowers and birds for a nature loving friend’s quilt is expressing love.
As ancient farmers prepared the land by clearing away stones, maybe they scouted for ones that could be useful. An especially flat rock might be set aside for grinding wheat. A large boulder that required help to move might become the cornerstone of a new building.
I wonder if the farmer remembered the moment these stones were chosen as the years went by. Perhaps running a hand over the large boulder called to mind a cherished friend no longer living. The grinding stone, now smooth from use and accompanying a daughter to her new home, conjures images of a past youth.
I suspect that the memories of most stones faded like the memories of my own pretty collection.
God, the eternal farmer, can recall all moments and all stones. He enjoys the process of helping us clear away unwanted obstacles in our lives then repurposing and transforming them into something meaningful and beautiful. The transition is often so slow that we ourselves don’t notice it. They become another pretty rock in the bowl.
Yet some stones do represent such a momentous event that we’ll always remember them and the moment we chose them – like my small volcanic rock that sits in a place of honor on my bookshelf.
Tracy Haney is an English teacher and writer. In her blog, Naïve Pilgrim, she explores the intersection of faith and life’s small moments. She is also writing a spiritual memoir about the nine months she volunteered in Nepal. Tracy is an avid traveler, currently living near Chattanooga, TN.