Surprised by Grit

As a kid, my brother Eric had a rock tumbler. In my opinion, a rock tumbler was a very cool machine to have, especially in the ‘70’s when smooth, tumbled stones were super popular for jewelry – hippies loved this stuff. He tumbled rocks and made necklaces for our mother and, needless to say, we were feelin’ groovy. Growing up, we camped as a family, and my brother found rocks everywhere we went, stones from the Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains and the Buffalo River in Arkansas, collecting and hauling rocks home to see what would happen to them in the tumbler.   Remember Lucille Ball in that movie “The Long Long Trailer” where she collects rocks everywhere she stops on her honeymoon camping trip and the camper nearly tumbles over the side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains? That was us, my father pulling our Shasta trailer up and down the mountain ranges of Tennessee and Arkansas, once all the way to Carlsbad Caverns, Eric picking up rocks to toss into the tumbler back home.

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The reason anyone would tumble rocks in the first place is simple: an ordinary stone is placed into the tumbler for a period of time, and when the polishing process is finished, the stone is completely different. The dirt gets washed off, the rough edges are worn and broken away, and ultimately it is smooth and clean, a better version of itself. Not a metamorphosis, not a changing of its essence, just better than it was.

Not even stronger, this process is not about strength, but about beauty. A polished stone is just simply more fascinating, more magnificent than it was before its polishing.

Occasionally a stone comes out of the tumbler and it is extraordinary, other-worldly.

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The process of rock tumbling is also simple, though not quick. There are two main kinds of rock tumblers – rotary and vibratory. I am told most people who do rock tumbling use a rotary tumbler. One simply places his rocks into the rubber barrel of the tumbler, adds tumbling grit and water, and then lets it rip. Turn on the machine and then get out of the way and let it do its work. There is actually a four-step tumbling process if one wants to achieve optimum shine – coarse grind, medium grind, fine grind, and then polish. Each of these steps takes about a week, so the whole process is upwards of a month long. I read that people who want superbly shaped stones will run their rocks in the coarse grit for up to four weeks.

Anne Lamott says that Christianity is about water. May I add grit to the equation? Water removes the dirt and smut of living a real life and brings the hope that I can be clean again. I will probably get dirty tomorrow, maybe even more so, but there’s plenty of water in Christianity. Plenty of mercy and grace, daily washing and forgive your brother seventy times seven; add confess your sins one to another to the equation and you will be healed. Hope for a cleaner tomorrow.

But life adds the grit, the irritants, the unavoidable dirt that comes from stepping outside of your own door every day and knowing that either someone will make your life harder and dirtier or you will simply do it to yourself. This sovereign God of ours allows the course grit, even adds it Himself to the tumbler and sometimes lets us tumble for a long time.

I guess He is interested in superbly shaped stones.

But the truth is, we often don’t trust Him with our lives as tumbling stones, at least I don’t, with His adding of the grit for extended periods of time, washing, refining.

I guess it’s the tumbling itself I hate. The feeling of existential dread, that sense of falling, the wondering when I will find my balance again. Will I survive this and if so, is there actually a hope that I’ll come out shining?

Dread, existential or otherwise, is just like tumbling down a deep well, bumping, bumping hard against all sides. You grab at things, footholds and crevices in the stone, to keep from falling harder, falling faster, but all of those things are just a tease, it seems. They will hold you up for a moment or two, but eventually they break and you start falling again, like you were already pretty sure would happen in the first place.

You just simply know one thing and only one – it’s not over yet.

More grit. More water. More tumbling.  There are not enough things to hold onto. I need a person to hold onto.  A Person.

This gritty tumbling is a bit like being chased, I think. I watched this video of an English bloke getting chased up a tree by a fierce and bellowing stag, huge rack of horns on his head. The man is on a walk and encounters the stag and simply gets too close. It happens sometimes, getting too close to danger. The stag grows increasingly agitated and starts charging the man, chasing him until there is simply nothing left to do but to climb up the tree and wait it out. The woman narrating the video says she will call the police, but we never get to see the rescue.

That’s how dread feels, like being chased up a tree and being stuck there for a while, until either the stag gets bored and leaves or someone comes to help you. Which can often take a very long time.

Sometimes we have to sit in the tree for a long time and ride the storm out, winds blowing and tossing us about. Sometimes the strong winds blow us down from our perches, then a stag shows up again, and we have to scramble back up to the top branches, no help in sight.

Why? Why must there be so much falling and tumbling and chasing and grit? Is this the necessary process? Is this really what it takes to be superbly shaped?

I think it is.

An ordinary stone is a good and fine thing. A little muddy, a little rough around the edges, somewhat brown. Ordinary.

But, when an ordinary stone has been tumbled, rolled and rolled for an extended period of time, with more and more grit added intentionally by the craftsman – when this stone is finished tumbling, the end result is extraordinary.  Better.  More beautiful, more smooth, magnificent.

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Water, to cleanse. Grit, to smooth.  Tumbling, to work out the imperfections.  When the polishing process is complete, the stone is completely different than it was before.  This is the work of God in our lives.

Of this I am sure.

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