I carry two rocks in my pocket. Both remind me to trust in the things of God and not in the things of this world. This story is an example of the old adage, “When the student is ready the teacher arrives.” These rocks are in my pocket as the result of a series of events and a single sermon that changed my life.
Rocks In My Pocket
This story starts in the mid 1990s. I was working as a test engineer for a large company. My work travels took me to Arizona for one to three months at a time. On Sundays I was able to travel over a large part of north central Arizona and enjoy the beauty of nature and of the culture of Arizona.
During this time, my eldest daughter Kim was working for the Fire Service Institute at Iowa State University. That small group of very dedicated people worked to provide training to the firefighters in Iowa. I am a volunteer firefighter and it was with great pride that I watched her career grow and mature. Kim also developed an appreciation for the art of the Southwest. She had decorated her apartment with rugs, pottery, and other pieces of artwork that reflected the culture of the Southwest.
My youngest son Garrett was being married on June 17, 2000. After work on June 15, Kim was on her way to meet friends and family for a bachelorette party for Garrett’s bride Stephanie. My wife Maxine and I were at Stephanie’s parents enjoying an evening meal.
A short distance from the meeting point for the bachelorette party, a drunk driver ran a stop sign and hit Kim’s car directly in the driver’s door. Passers-by rendered aid and emergency crews arrived shortly. Kim was not responsive but emergency crews did reestablish a heart beat and she was air lifted to Methodist Hospital in Des Moines. The best efforts of the doctors and nurses could not save Kim. The head trauma was just too violent and she was pronounced dead.
Just as we were finishing supper, the call arrived and indicated that Kim had been in an accident and that we should come to the hospital as quickly as possible. Maxine and I had been EMT’s and firefighters for many years. We knew by the wording and the tone of the voice that it was likely Kim was dead. We had heard those same words many times when our ambulance had taken victims to the hospital.
Stephanie’s father drove us to the hospital. When we arrived at the hospital, it was confirmed that Kim was dead. Over the next few hours, our entire family was able to gather around Kim and share our overwhelming grief. I vowed not to let this tragedy fill us with anger and hatred.
We gathered all the faith and fortitude we could muster and carried on. Stephanie’s parents took in our entire family that night so we could be surrounded by love and support. Garrett and Stephanie’s wedding was held two days later. It was a beautiful and joyful occasion. After the gift opening the day after the wedding, we turned our attention to the funeral and burial of Kim. Garrett and Stephanie were unable to take their planned honeymoon.
Maxine and I had arranged to take some extra vacation in the time after the wedding. Kim was going to spend some vacation time with us for the first time in several years. Instead, we used that time to pull ourselves together and we returned to work just after the 4th of July, our lives changed forever. I wondered if I would ever be able to travel again and leave Maxine home by herself to work the 11-7 shift as a nurse.
In the fall of 2000, I was presented with an opportunity to travel for work. The travel would be guaranteed to last only a week vs. the 4 to 12 weeks I usually traveled. I would be in an advisory capacity that would require a minimal amount of mental and physical work. Maxine and I decided I would go and the trip would determine if either of us could handle separation after such a tragic event. I went on the trip and we decided that we would be able to handle separation and that I should work to remain in my current job.
In the early part of 2001, my job required that I work in Arizona for about a month. A month long trip would be one of the shorter trips I had made in recent years. The trip went well but I developed severe homesickness. I had never experienced home sickness. It was an awful feeling. During that trip I visited the Sedona area. Sedona is truly one of the beauty spots that God has placed on this earth. Sedona was a place I could relax and there was a chapel in the area that was always open and I could stop there to pray.
While in Sedona, I went to a small shop I had frequented on previous trips. In that shop I spotted some pocket rocks and decided I would purchase two rocks to carry with me as reminders of Kim. I chose a rock with a bear on it. The bear on the rock represented strength of heart. I also chose a small piece of black shiny taconite for its beauty. I also decided I wanted a piece of hand made Indian jewelry for my necklace. As a firefighter, I wore a necklace with my wedding ring on it to protect my ring finger from injury when doing firefighting and rescue work. I found a sterling silver bear with an arrow from the head to the heart. I placed the bear on my necklace and I wear that necklace every day.
Carrying rocks in my pocket brought chuckles from Maxine. Maxine was a rock hound even before I met her in high school. Her dad was also a rock hound and he polished rocks. Every time we went on a trip Maxine would collect rocks, especially agates. I would tease her about all the weight in her purse, coat pocket, or pants pocket. She had rocks stashed in almost every drawer in the house and I teased her about it. After teasing her all these years, now I was the one putting rocks in my pocket.
In late 2001, an opportunity for early retirement presented itself. After Kim was killed, I had written down two retirement dates. The incentives offered to me placed my retirement benefits within six months of my first date. I took the early retirement.
When word of my retirement got out, I was offered a chance to do mechanic work on farm tractors. The company had a project for my current employer and they needed help for 6 months. That six month job eventually turned into three and a half years.
Some time in early 2004, I lost both rocks that I carried in my pocket. I suspected I had accidentally left them in my work pants and they got lost in the industrial laundry. I doubted I would get back to Arizona to replace them. I had carried those rocks in my pocket everyday as a reminder of Kim. I felt lost without them. In June of 2004, Maxine and I went with friends to Alaska. A gift shop in Tok, Alaska, similar to the one in Arizona, had a display of pocket rocks. They had a taconite rock and a rock with a bear that was very similar to the rock I bought in Arizona. I bought the two rocks and placed them in my pocket to carry everyday.
In February of 2005, Maxine’s younger brother died of lung cancer. It was a blow to the family because he had always been such a strong and healthy person. In early March Maxine was having some shoulder pain and sought treatment. Occasionally she had shoulder pain from the heavy lifting she did as a nurse so there was no major concern. During some routine tests, lesions were discovered on her liver and more tests were ordered. We went to the outpatient center at the hospital for tests and biopsies several times. Each time we were becoming more concerned.
One afternoon Maxine called me at work to confirm the diagnosis was cancer. From all the tests, this was not totally unexpected but I was shocked. With tears running down my face, I picked up my tools. I reached in my pocket for my toolbox keys and pulled them out. I heard a rock hit the cement floor. It was nothing new; the rocks in my pocket sometimes fell out when I pulled my keys. I locked my tool box and turned around to get the rock. There it laid on the floor, my bear rock broken in half. My heart broke as I looked at the rock. A feeling swept over me that the broken rock was a sign from Kim that her heart was broken also, and the outcome was not going to be good. Since Kim’s death, I had often felt her presence near me and I knew she was around me. I was frustrated by the broken rock. A symbol of strength of heart was broken. What was I going to hang onto now?
In late March of 2005 Maxine started chemotherapy. The cancer was so advanced, the first chemo treatment was really considered an emergency treatment. I still missed my bear rock in my pocket. In times of stress, I would rub the bear rock to remind me of Kim and that she was with God. The prognosis for Maxine was not good and I really missed not having that rock in my pocket.
Maxine was working on the 50th Anniversary Committee for the celebration at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. On Sunday April 24, 2005, Pastor Victoria Shepherd was scheduled to speak. Pastor Victoria had been an intern pastor at St. Timothy in the 1990s and had been invited back as part of the celebration. Maxine, our youngest daughter Karmin, and I had all been involved in some aspect of Pastor Victoria’s internship. April 24th was also my birthday. Maxine’s strength had improved and she was feeling well enough to attend church so we went.
Pastor Victoria’s sermon was titled “Living Stones”. Just the title got my attention, and I had also noticed a bowl filled with water and rocks as we entered the sanctuary. In her sermon, Pastor Victoria told about coming to St. Timothy as an intern and how she had been nurtured by this congregation:
…dear ones of St. Timothy, it all began here. It began as you took me in as a “newborn” living stone among you and honed the rough edges into a smooth –not perfect–but smoother stone and sent me out to build God’s holy kingdom….Here among the “living stones” of St. Timothy, I was surrounded by you, taught by you, and loved by you. That, my friends, is what “living stones” do. Living stones are a joyous community, constantly and gratefully declaring the “wondrous works” of God who has called us out of the darkness of this present world into the life of love and truth and hope of the ever present, but not yet, kingdom of God.
I’m sure most of you have heard about or even read, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? by Rick Warren. The very first sentence in Chapter 1, it says, “It’s not about you.” No, it is not about me–the intern become pastor. It is not about you-St. Timothy Congregation now celebrating 50 years of ministry here. It is all about the Cornerstone, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The foundation of the Christian community and of the whole Christian church is a solid and living reality: Jesus Christ.
What are we here for? That’s easy! This is the part that’s all about us. We are here to present ourselves as living, building stones for the construction of a place on earth, vibrant with life, in which we’ll serve as holy priests offering Christ–approved lives up to God.
We are the baptized, “wet, living stones” cemented and fused together in the death and resurrection of the “Cornerstone.” We are God’s own people. Christ has built a temple of God’s own living persons he calls “living stones.” Living stones trust not a place, but a Presence. And like the temple in Jerusalem which no longer exists, the building that is St. Timothy may not remain in centuries to come, but the “spiritual house” of the risen and living Christ, the “house not built with hands” will always remain.
In fifty years not much has changed, but everything changes. There is excitement, humility, awe, joy, and hopeful expectation as you celebrate 50 years of ministry as a congregation. And there is within you that hopeful expectation for the next 50 years of ministry in this place as the presence of God’s spirit continues to build this house.
Beloved people of God, of St. Timothy, you are God’s own people, “living stones” called to build up the kingdom of God forever! AMEN.
When I heard Pastor Victoria’s words about being a “wet, living stone,” somehow those man made rocks I had been carrying in my pocket didn’t seem so strong and helpful anymore. My bear rock lay at home on the self, broken in half by news of Maxine’s cancer.
As the service closed, there came the news that brought great joy. Pastor Victoria announced that each of us should take a stone from the bowl of water as a reminder to be “wet, living stones.” I took my turn, taking a gray stone wet from the water. Its rough edges were smoothed, but it was not a perfect stone. The stone was like Maxine and I after almost 40 years of marriage and 30 years at St. Timothy. We had accumulated some years, our hair gray, our rough edges smoothed, but we were far from perfect. This was a stone from the earth, a stone forged in God’s creation. It was strong and enduring. It was not man made. It will not crack if dropped to the floor. I put that rock in my pocket where it remains today as a symbol of the strength of God verses the strength of man made things; a symbol of where our real strength comes from. A symbol of a “wet, living stone” that is called to build up the kingdom of God forever!
The cancer treatments had little effect and on June 4, 2005, my beloved Maxine went home to be with God and with our daughter Kim. That rock was in my pocket that day and it remains in my pocket today.
After Maxine’s death, a sequence of events occurred that can only be described as part of God’s plan. Pastor Victoria returned to St. Timothy to conduct Maxine’s funeral. That gray stone was in my pocket that day and remains in my pocket as a constant reminder of God’s strength, of God’s presence in our lives, and of the call to build up the kingdom of God forever.
It is God’s love and presence in our lives that places people, messages, and symbols in each others lives to help us on the journey of life. Sometimes we receive; sometimes we give; sometimes knowingly; sometimes unknowingly. In reflecting on life, especially the last five and half years, I am amazed how many people, messages, and symbols, God has placed in my life to help me continue on the journey of life. I have learned to accept these gifts as part of God’s plan, to give thanks to God for the gifts, and to not ask too many “why me” questions. Even though I don’t always understand it at the time, it is all part of God’s plan. THANKS BE TO GOD!!!