Nov 09 2012
Like poets, most ministers love symbols and metaphors, because like poets, we are trying to express the inexpressible, to mine something that is so big and deep and true, so suffused in life that it is hard to tease it out in words. Maybe one bright image, one sensory-rich object, one vivid story can, for a moment, embody a hard-won truth.
This month our community focuses explicitly on Faith. How can we tease out its meaning in words? “What does it mean to have faith?” one congregant asks. “If I can’t quite articulate it, does it mean I really don’t have faith?”
Let me tell you a story:
At the district’s fall retreat for Unitarian Universalist ministers, we have a beloved ritual. We give a small stone to each minister new to the area and to each one moving into a new job or new epoch in their ministry. The stones symbolize the touchstone of our collegiality: “Here, take this home with you, dear colleague; place it where you can see and touch it so that you may know how this community supports you always.” It’s a symbol, and we ministers love symbols.
We lay the stones out on a low table transformed into an altar in the center of the big living room where we gather. The givers of stones eye the collection, mentally picking out the one that will be perfect for the minister we’re called to honor. This fall, my eye goes immediately to a small stone that looks like a tiny scoop. There is nothing else like it on the table. Really, each stone is unique; it’s just that this particular stone catches my eye and heart. Then I step out of the room to get one more cup of coffee before our meeting begins.
When I return, “my” stone is gone! “Oh, well,” I think, “my minister-friend deserves something bigger, anyway—something that will represent the sheer size and weight of his new calling. I’ll pick out something else.”
The ritual flows sweetly forward. Everyone likes being recognized and honored; everyone likes receiving a present, even if it is just a rock. Everyone senses what this symbol means, and we all feel a bit more grounded in our faith in each other and in our community.
When the ritual concludes, a new minister-friend whispers in my ear, “Nancy, would you come here for a minute?”
She takes me aside and hands me … my rock! That little scoop-shaped triangular piece of dark stone. I am not new to the district, nor is my calling changing, but Sarah has overheard me say that I’ve never taken part in this ritual—and now she has given me the very thing I wanted.
Some of you are no doubt thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You give each other ‘pet rocks’?” Conceived in Los Gatos in the 1970s by advertising executive Gary Dahl, Pet Rocks are actually resurfacing this fall. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pet_Rock for a brief summary.)
Really, no. These are not pet rocks.
My rock is about two inches long, one and a half inches wide, and three-quarters of an inch tall. Its rounded underside has a burnished coppery tone, as though it has been placed in countless fires. When I rub my thumb across the scooped upper surface, mahogany colored and slightly nicked, it becomes a “worry stone,” the sensations soothing and kind. When I place the stone in the palm of one hand and bear down on it with the other thumb, I can imagine some long-ago human grinding herbs or precious stones into a fine dust to use in medicines or cooking.
How in the world has this small object become a symbol for my faith? And how can something so small represent the “rock on which I stand,” as the truths of one’s faith are sometimes called?
Without my being able to articulate it until now, it speaks to me of my faith in the interdependent web of all existence. It connects me viscerally to earth, to weather, to the humans and other creatures who have touched this rock before, to evolution, and to the rock’s own inevitable changes.
This touchstone puts me in touch with these truths on which I stand:
- That we are all connected. We abide in an “inescapable network of mutuality,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called it. We must be, then, touchstones of love, courage, hope, and help for each other.
- That everything evolves, including our truths, our very faith. To be alive is to learn to embrace change and to move with it into the deeper truths it can reveal.
- That we, individually and collectively, have the power to shape many of these changes for good or for ill. We Unitarian Universalists are called, then, to be agents of change in the direction of more goodness, more love, more justice for all.
Dear ones, you too have built—and you are building—your life on certain truths that you hold dear, often unspoken truths that guide you in times of trouble and of ease. What touchstones remind you of these truths? On what rocks do you stand?
When we put these truths into words, we can examine them once more, doubting, questioning, wondering whether our experience still bears them out or whether they are ready for a change. This is our questioning faith. This is our way. I hope you will join us.
With my love,
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