[Y]ou yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. [Y]ou are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
Recently, as I was walking back to my car after having run on the West Warwick High School track, I took a few moments to admire the old stone wall (located directly across the street) that runs the length of a few of the fairways of the well-known Valley Country Club. New England is known for many things that make it a quintessential part of the unique American landscape – both culturally and in physical geography. It was here that the Pilgrims landed in 1620 at Plymouth Rock. It was here in Rhode Island and Providence Plantations that, in 1636, Roger Williams struck the blow (for the first time in human history) for unencumbered religious freedom and “liberty of conscience.’ It was here in 1775 at Bunker Hill that the American Revolutionary War began. And it is here on Mount Washington, at a mere 6,288.2 feet above sea level, that the most severe weather in North America regularly occurs.
But, perhaps, the most specific characteristic for which New England is notable are its amazing stone walls. Thousands of miles of them. I find it fascinating that tourists and site-seers by the thousands come from all over the world to just see them.
Being a rural born and raised Rhode Island boy, I know from my countless hours of experience spent in the Exeter woods that stone walls are (absolutely) everywhere — past adventures which remind me that what was once cleared land at the height of the Industrial Revolution has long since returned to being forest. It is not uncommon in the backwoods of South County to discover literally hundreds upon hundreds of long forgotten old walls, many decades past actual usefulness, that once marked the boundaries of an open field or a garden; a pile of rubble that to the modern eye resembles hardly more than an almost random heap held together by age and gravity.
These old walls, while bearing certain similarities and characteristics, are always unique. Without using any other material to hold it together, every wall was built (to my amazement) by the strong backs and hands of New England men stone by stone; every builder finding the rocks that fit just right into every space, as to make it hold together. Each of these walls were constructed by seventeenth through nineteenth century farmers from ancient glacier residue stones and boulders that for some 11,000 years had covered the ground of their now newly timbered potential fields. Thus, many (if not most) of the walls were built not just as land boundaries, but simply as a practical method of removing them and putting these literally millions upon millions of New England rocks to some good use, as they were with great effort manually drudged out of the way.
More than Just Walls
Walls, whatever their material, have a strength and force that endures. While this can be something to be admired, walls are often formed to create barriers. They can be built to keep people out or to keep people in.
Hadrian’s Wall is a former defensive fortification of the Roman province of Britannia, begun in 122 A.D. in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138). It was twenty feet high and ten feet thick and was constructed of some twenty-five million cut stone blocks and ran from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea. It was the northern limit of the Roman Empire, immediately north of which were the lands of the northern Ancient Britons, including the Picts. A significant portion of the wall still stands and can be followed on foot along the adjoining Hadrian’s Wall Path. The largest Roman archaeological feature in Britain, it runs a total of seventy-three miles in North England.
The Great Wall of China is the collective name of a series of fortification systems generally built across the historical northern borders of China to protect and consolidate territories of Chinese states and empires against various nomadic groups. Several walls were being built from as early as the seventh-century BC by ancient Chinese states; selective stretches were later joined together in the first decade of the third-century BC by Qin Shi Huang (220–206 BC), the first emperor of China. Little of the Qin wall remains. Later, many successive dynasties built and maintained multiple stretches of border walls. The most well-known sections of the wall were built by the Ming dynasty between 1368–1644 AD.
Apart from defense, other purposes of the Great Wall have included border controls, allowing the imposition of taxes on goods transported along the Silk Road, regulation or encouragement of trade and the control of both immigration and emigration.
A comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced technologies, has concluded that the walls built by the Ming dynasty measures 5,500 miles in length. Another archaeological survey found that the entire wall, including each of its branches, measures out to be 13,171 miles in total. Today, the defensive system of the Great Wall is generally recognized as one of the most impressive architectural feats in human history.
Yet, walls can be (and are) much more than what Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China were built to accomplish. Walls of a lesser scale, for instance, can be for load bearing, holding up our homes, garages, and barns. Walls are built to create openings, and passageways, that allow for greater human access. Retaining walls create space, defining boundaries or creating opportunities for structures that otherwise would not exist. Walls can today even be transparent, allowing people to see inside as well as outside, becoming thus not a barrier but an invitation. On the other hand, the walls of church buildings create holy space, allowing the gathering of Believers in community to experience both the transcendent and the intimate real presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament.
What I love so much about New England’s stone walls is the way they were created. Stone upon stone upon stone. Nothing holds them together except for their shape, their weight, and the skill of the builders who placed them where they lay. They arose one stone at a time. Building them required immense effort, time, and (above all) patience — because the builders had to find the stone of the exact right size to fit in the available space. Building New England’s walls required a long-term perspective, the ability to imagine each of the stones fitted together; understanding which ones to use for the foundational base, which for the middle section, and which to save for the crest. Because they were made this way, these walls were never high enough to be true barriers. They did not obscure the view or keep anyone out. Mainly (out of practical need) they existed to define a utilitarian boundary and create a useful space.
In the second chapter of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (2:19-22) he writes this:
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.Ephesians 2:19-22
Brothers and sisters, those of who weekly gather to worship the Triune God on the Sabbath Day, we have, over the years, in our various ecclesiastical experiences, often talked about growing and renewing the Church Universal here in Rhode Island as if we are the builders — and we certainly do have a mightily significant role to play in strengthening our fellow Believers, in elevating ourselves up as a faithful people. But these verses from the previously mentioned Letter to the Ephesians remind us that there is another way to understand the stones (if you will) that are present whenever “two or three are gathered” (Matthew 18:20) in the name of Christ.
Both Stone and Builder
We ARE, paradoxically, always (no matter where in Church history or in our personal and/or collective Christian journeys we may find ourselves) both the builders AND the materials. Before anything else we ARE the stones placed together to create the “holy temple” in which the Triune God – and we and all who seek Christ – find a “dwelling place.” As with New England’s famous walls, this structure is made with unique stones that are stacked together in just such a way that it stands firm; yet it is not held together so permanently that it cannot be changed or (more importantly) be rearranged and, thus, have more needed stones added to it as God in Christ wills.
A stone wall (if it is to stand the test of time) is (in all reality) an organic structure and is, therefore, never quite complete. There is ALWAYS another rock laying in the field that should be being added to the wall. The Church Universal, as we have all learned time and again in our ecclesiastical lives together through many years, is therefore, in that sense, an unfinished wall, because we (and all those folks by God’s providence who will one day in the future come into fellowship with us) are THE stones, each of us unique and every one of us possessing our divinely mandated place in the wall.
We ARE the raw materials with which the Almighty is continually building His Church – against which (Jesus promises us) “the gates of hell shall not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). We are mere layers (if you will) upon the efforts put in place by those courageous saints from countless past generations – our faithful predecessors who have trod before us on what the Psalmist calls the pilgrim’s way: “Happy are the people whose strength is in you [O LORD]! whose hearts are set on the pilgrim’s way” (Psalm 84:4). Sisters and brothers, is it not right to think of ourselves as stones in a retaining wall, the essential structure that shall renew and recreate God’s people for Gospel mission in a post Covid-19 world?
In the First Epistle of Peter, the chief of the Apostles tells us that we are “living stones [that] are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). Beloved, what do we hope God will be doing in and through us as “living stones” in 2021 and 2022 and beyond?
It seems to me (at least from the perspective of my twenty-six years as an ordained priest of the Church Universal) that we might be wise to focus on the following: Firstly, if we are going to play a significant part in (re)engaging greater Rhode Island with the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the post Covid-19 reality, then, we must continue to envision our collective ministry in new and shared ways. Indeed, we cannot follow practices that are based on now outdated paradigms, models dependent on the socio-religious conditions in greater Rhode Island that most all of us grew up in, but which no longer exist. These methods were right for their time – and remain the foundational base stones upon which we should continue to build our layer of the wall.
But the world which was already racing (at a meteoric pace beyond my imagining) into a secular/post-Christian ideology has only been accelerated by the Covid-19 experience. In the face of this massively changed demographic reality, we must, as God’s faithful People, act upon new ways in which Our Lord is calling us to be agents of transformation – to shine the light of Christ upon those who are lost – so that renewal in the Kingdom is, by God’s grace, made real.
A New Generation
To this end, the skill set of a new generation of Presbyters and Deacons is being called out for duty by Christ Jesus – and we more “seasoned” veterans must earnestly pray for and support them and let them lead as they are led by the Lord and the great Tradition of the Church. This new generation will be the catalysis to reaching young families and young adults, for creating, strengthening, and integrating a ministry of evangelism; for connecting with people around us who will be seeking Jesus Christ but who have never once thought about just haphazardly walking into a church. This new generation, first and foremost, will be committed evangelists, (re)calling each of us to a ministry of passion for the Great Commission (Matthew 18:18-20) and (re)equipping us to take responsibility in helping them disciple the generations to come of “living stones” that will add to the wall of the never-ending Christian story.
As our Rector (The Rev. Nathan Stomberg) and his talented brother (Adam Stomberg) have already shown us over these past eighteen months, this new generation will be technologically savvy and well acquainted with social media; visionaries for their time who must be embraced and supported by the resources and energies of a personally secure, mature “royal priesthood” of Believers (1 Peter 2:9). This is the generation that is going to lead us in breaking new ground and creating new models, not for the preservation of an institution, but, through the finest strands of the venerable Anglican pastoral, theological and liturgical tradition, to seek a lost culture that we are called by divine command to evangelize into a new life in Christ.
This article I have penned here cannot be the end of the communication about all of this; it must be but a beginning. It is, in a sense, a revelation of a new pile of stones that we are to harvest from holy ground to add to this New England wall that is the sweet fellowship most of us have known together in Christ for more than twenty years. Each of us is ALREADY one of those stones. It is not a question of whether we should be in the wall but – regardless of age — HOW we shall willingly fit in it. For if this wall is to continue to rise, every stone is needed. God will use each of us and will provide the necessary new stones that we have not yet seen nor met, new “living stones,” that will (if we seek them out, invite them in and embrace them) arrive with vital talents and passions to be used for the transforming power of the Gospel in “the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12) God in Christ continues to call us to do.
The Sacrament of Holy Baptism unites us to one another in a single living panorama of wonder, love, and praise. This perspective is complete only when every stone is in place and contributing to the whole wall, playing the part only it can play; joyfully operating, as Saint Paul states to the Ephesians, the “grace [that] was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Ephesians 4:7). Christian living is never a matter of God and me, but always of God and us. We each have a vital and necessary place in this stone wall.
Beloved, I can speak hopefully about what lies ahead. But ultimately, our future as a local Body of Christ, is dependent on the genuine conviction of each one of us; on our willingness to be all in, to gladly be a mere “living stone” in the wall; and rejoice when others come, called by the Almighty, to take their divinely appointed place in it.
As the Christian Church in America continues to slide into precipitous decline: It is no longer about your way or my way. It is about the LORD God Almighty’s way: God’s “living stones,” interlocked, with love – God’s love of us, our love of God, and our love of one another – binding us together with cords that cannot be broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12). In the remainder of the years to come may it be said of us, that in our hour of calling, they busied themselves building, transforming, creating, renewing, growing together in Christ, stone by living stone.
[Y]ou yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. [Y]ou are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.1 Peter 2:5, 9