Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Beach Stones and God’s People

There is something soothing about the sound of a beach, especially at night.

On a sand beach, the waves have a particular timbre, and the hiss of receding water develops a distinct rhythm. The same sounds that encourage us to unwind are also hard at work. We have a sand-glazed bottle that we found on a sand dune on Cape Cod. Seasons of washing in the tide and sandblasting by the wind removed all indication of what came in the bottle, and left a simple thing of beauty.

On the rocky beach where we go in Maine the waves boom against ledges, the boom followed by soft clattering as millions of tiny stones are rolled together up and down the shore. It’s a sound that induces almost immediate relaxation, but here again the strength of wind and wave are at work. Starting off as rough chunks of granite, quartz or perhaps jasper, the action of the waves tumbles the stones together, wearing off the rough edges, shaping them in infinite variety, and polishing them to a high degree of smoothness. The abrasion of stone upon stone turns chunks of rocks into objects of great beauty.

Some years ago someone pointed out to me that a stone beach in Maine can show us something important about Christian community. We come into the church, all of us, from different families and places, each of us bringing our own particularities. We look different. We work at different vocations. We have different tastes, different skills; we have different abilities and different disabilities. All this difference, with one thing in common: at some level each of us wants to find meaning, hope, and purpose in our lives. We want to know where we fit in the overall scheme of things.  In short, we want to know God. All these differences, and we find ourselves together on the same beach, which we call “church.”

This is not to deny that life in community can be challenging, and even that it can take an unhealthy turn.  In 42 years of pastoral ministry I’ve seen plenty of challenge, and experienced my share of conflict to boot.  Now it’s perfectly true that conflict within our churches can get out of hand, and people can get hurt.  Additionally, it makes a very poor witness to those standing outside, who far too often conclude that if the latest scrum at First Church by the Village Green is a sample of Christianity in action, then they want no part of either.  But it is also in the difficult times that God moves to transform us, and perhaps that’s what we need to continually recall.  Christian community is not about growing us into nicer people; it’s about changing us into new beings.

Just as the particular beauty of each rock on the beach is drawn forth by the washing and rubbing of the tide, so the give and take, push and pull, yes even the abrasion of being together as church can wear off our edges, bring out our colors and shape the form of our Christian witness.  Sometimes it’s a refreshing tumble as we roll in the surf. Sometimes there is pressure as the needs of the moment pile us together. Sometimes we experience the abrasion of rubbing against the ideas and priorities of others.  But if we stay engaged and connected to one another, our life as God’s people will change us from lonely, isolated chunks of rock into unique stones of great beauty.  This is possible if we keep our eyes on what we have in common: our faith, and our desire to live it.  We can be together, can be rolled about like the stones on the beach, and in the process be shaped and grown as new persons and as renewing congregations.

Howard MacMullen
© August, 2013

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