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Living Stones
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img 0640 640x427One of the things you notice when you are walking through the various cathedrals and abbeys in Europe is that there are a lot of people buried under the floors–thousands, in fact. Westminster Abbey in London, for example, is essentially an indoor graveyard with the remains of dozens of famous and infamous people tucked under the stones or in the niches of that ancient edifice. In Bath Cathedral it’s estimated that some 6,000 people are buried under the floors–so many that it has caused a void that threatens the stability of the church building. While there is certainly a “great cloud of witnesses” present in the nave when people worship in these places, there’s also a great number of moldy saints under the flagstones!


The Abbey on the Isle of Iona is no exception, though the method is much more understated. Yes, there are a couple of stone sarcophagi near the altar that are monuments to a couple of the abbots who are buried there, but to see the other burials you have to look closer. In the nave there are several spots where there is a small circle in the floor filled with pebbles cemented in place. Some of the circles have more pebbles than others and there are no names attached to these little silent monuments, but they are grave markers nonetheless. They are the graves of the many monks who once served Iona Abbey.


During our visit there, one of the members of the Iona Community told us that these grave markers were unique in that the pebbles came from the beaches of the island–the same beaches where their predecessors from St. Columba’s first community had landed. The differing numbers of pebbles, she said, indicates how many years each of these nameless monks served in that particular Abbey and monastery–one pebble for each year of service. These little circles of pebbles thus stand as a silent witness to lives lived for Christ in a faraway place.


I found these little monuments to be far more compelling than any of the elaborate gravestones I have seen in any other place. Each of those little pebbles represents a year in the life of a monk–years of tragedy and triumph, years of wrestling with God’s call, years of praying seven times a day, years of endless chanting of psalms, and years meeting the needs of others who came to the Abbey for respite and hospitality. Even before they became grave markers, these little pebbles had spent thousands of years being rolled and shaped by the sea–an echo all the way back to the time of creation. They are monuments to a short period of time in the midst of the long story of God.


I arrived at my office at TLUMC yesterday for my first day back at work after my renewal leave and one of the things I brought back with me was a bag of rocks. I picked those up on the beach at Iona and carried them all over England and France before returning home because I was so compelled by those monuments in the floor. Those pebbles now sit in a bowl on my desk–24 of them to represent each year I have been ordained. On July 1 each year, I will add another one, Lord willing. Instead of Iona granite and limestone, they will be stones from Colorado. Hopefully there will be a lot more of them added to the bowl, and hopefully many of them will be taken from right out in front of TLUMC.


I look at those stones as I write this and I’m grateful for every one–for the years of great joy and even those years that were harder than the stones they represent. They are the building blocks of a life of ministry. I am profoundly grateful that I have come this far and begin a new season of ministry excited for the stones that will soon be added–stones that represent what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.”


But I am even more grateful for the “living stones” with whom I serve here at Tri-Lakes. As Peter wrote to the church in his day, “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). My prayer is that we will continue to build a spiritual house together, built of the stones of years spent serving others and helping them to become more like the “living stone” of Christ Jesus.


Like those monks, I hope to one day have the stones in that bowl be part of my own gravestone when my work is ultimately done (though it won’t be in the floor of the church, I promise!). I pray that they will inspire someone else to keep building, to keep adding to their own collection of stones–of years spent serving Christ.


It’s good to be back at work. Let’s keep building!

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