The Gift of the River Stones

“The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is ‘look under foot.’ You are always nearer the divine and true source of your power than you think.”

– John Burroughs

What do you do when the sun is clear and bright and your thoughts are not? Me, I like to seek out one of my quiet places. All my life, no matter where I’ve lived, I’ve kept these quiet places; places of peace and beauty where I can retreat, release, and recharge. The best ones require effort on my part to reach them. When I’m thinking with my large muscle groups it helps my mind to be still. All my quiet places have also been wonderful surprises, spots that I stumbled across when I wasn’t really looking for them. I mentally note these places so that I can seek them out later in my times of need.

Down the road and across the field from my office is a path that leads through the woods to the river’s edge. I discovered this particular quiet spot when I was jogging cross country for exercise, but that’s another story. The Licking River makes an s-turn on its journey east here, and there’s a wide gravel bank on its northern shore. The water flows serenely for most of the length of the bank before it passes into some murmuring shallows and makes a sharp turn to the south. Forest trees frame both banks of the river, but they stand well back from the water’s edge; the annual spring time floods keep the gravel bank clear of all vegetation save a few stubborn tufts of cow grass.

It was early autumn; the humidity of summer had broken, but the leaves hadn’t started to change color yet. I was wrestling with the frustrations of my work day and debating what I should do for my afternoon workout when I decided to run down to the riverbank. Actually, it’s more correct to say that I felt the riverbank call to me. I needed to go there, for what I didn’t know. But the feeling of destiny grew stronger as I ran along the path through the woods. I arrived at the river with a sense of anticipation, hope building inside my heart. Something wonderful is going to happen.

The shallows hummed happily, a light breeze cooled the sweat on my face. Now what? Everything looked as it always does. There’s nothing out of the ordinary here. Was my feeling wrong?

Not knowing what else to do, I did what I usually do here: skipping stones. There are good stones for skipping by the water’s edge, but the river is wide enough here that only my best throws will reach the far shore, so I have to find stones with just the right shape and weight. I found several good candidates only to be disappointed by the results of my throws. None of the stones skipped more than a few times, most tending to arc left after the first skip and plunging sideways into the water. My frustration grew with each unsuccessful throw.

“One more throw. Just one good one and I’ll be satisfied,” I said as I searched for another skipping stone. I had exhausted the supply of good skipping stones at the water’s edge. My search took me back further from the mud of the shore onto the gravel bank. My eyes cast about on the rocks, searching for the right one that would break my streak of bad throws.

Something unexpected caught my eye: a stone with a hole in it. How did it form that way? It almost looks like someone drilled that hole…

I paused in my search to pick it up and admire it. The hole is natural, the width of a large earthworm, with edges smoothed by the water over time. I never would have imagined a stone to look like that. Come to think of it, I’ve never really taken much notice of the stones on this gravel bank before. I always assumed them to be just a heap of monotonous, grey rocks, dull and uninteresting. These stones don’t match the picture that I’ve always held in my mind.

I set the hole-stone back in its place on the bank and resumed my search for a skipping stone. Spotting a good stone with smooth edges, I returned to the edge of the river. As I set my feet and pulled back my hand, I knew that this would be a good throw. The stone skipped magnificently across the water twelve – thirteen – fourteen times, each skip quicker and quicker, until it leaped up one last time out of sight into the reeds that lined the opposite side of the river. I had been trying too hard. In my attempts to reach the far shore I had been throwing too hard and not giving the stones enough spin. The harder I tried, the worst my results. When I relaxed and stopped trying so hard, it happened easily, naturally.


Maybe one more throw…

My eyes started to search again. But no, I was here for another reason. Reluctantly, I tore my eyes from their search. Now what? The feeling of anticipation was still there, perhaps even stronger than before. Lord, what do You want me to do? I cast all about the riverbank for the mystery that I was supposed to discover. I am not nuts. I’m not wrong. I am feeling this way for a reason. Why?

I admit that I seriously considered wading across the river. My shoes and legs were mud splattered from the run on the path here; that would clean them off. How deep can the water be? Three feet, four… Um, probably closer to five. Perhaps there are stones I can step across? The minutes dragged past as I searched further up the bank.

Nothing. There’s nothing here. I must have been wrong about this feeling.

Disappointment rushed into my heart, followed by resignation. It had been too good to hope for; I hadn’t even allowed myself to think it, but now in my new found clarity I could confess it: I thought that God had called me to this quiet spot to speak to me. I had dared to hope that He had something, some small, wonderful secret to show me. No great parting of the heavens or words spoken from a burning bush, mind you. I wasn’t expecting a major miracle, but I had really hoped that He had left a clue to His purpose for me to discover.

And now that I was being completely honest with myself about my feelings, I had to laugh at myself. Really Doug, who do you think you are? Don’t you think that God has more important things to do than play hide and seek with you here on the riverbank?

Sorry Lord. Your ways are so much higher than mine. Please forgive my conceit.

I was still feeling disappointed, I admit, so I skipped a few more stones. Each one reached the far shore with skips to spare. That’s something anyway. I turned from the river to head for the path home, my eyes still searching the stones on the bank out of habit.


My gaze locked on a stone with beautiful, parallel lines stretching across its flat face and around its smooth, round edges. This must be a piece of sedimentary stone, broken perpendicular to its sediment layers then polished by the river. The lines stood slightly proud of the layers that they separated, giving the impression of the growth rings in the stump of a tree. Gorgeous. I bent to pick up the lined stone and admired the way that it felt in my hand. This is a keeper, I decided. I’ll carry it home and put it on the windowsill in front of my writing desk. It can inspire me when I’m writing in my prayer journal each morning.

Standing again to continue my journey back, a flash of color caught my eye. A piece of granite, dusty rose in color, with black-grey specks and a thin, white vein shaped like a crooked “Y”, about the shape and size of a baby’s closed hand. This is a keeper too.

As I picked it up, I spotted a piece of river glass nearby. A remnant of a broken bottle, copper green in color, its shiny surface and sharp edges long ago abraded away by its tumbling in the river. I wanted it too.

Next to it, a smooth, perfectly white pebble that glowed around its edges with the light of the warm afternoon sun. Nearby, the pebble’s opposite: a small, black stone with coarser edges that caught the sun’s rays in tiny, dancing sparkles.

Here’s a stone with the fossil of a curling shell like a snails’. Look at the course texture of this stone – smooth on all edges yet pitted in a coarse, brush-stroke pattern. This stone is purple, this one deep brown, and this one rust with tiny white specks. Here’s one that looks like a new potato, another which looks like a speckled bird’s egg, another in the shape of an ear.

I couldn’t hold them all in my hands, and my shorts didn’t have pockets. I was holding the front of my tee shirt up with my left hand and stacking the river stones into this make-shift sack with my right hand. It’s not more than two miles back, I reasoned. I can carry these stones if I’m careful.

In my heart I knew that this wasn’t realistic. The path to the riverbank was created by ATV enthusiasts; it took a tortured route through the trees and over the small gullies and creek beds of the forest. It was slippery with mud, full of ruts, roots, and low hanging branches, twisting and snaking up and down over rock and small ravine. It took all of my concentration as I ran to avoid a fall or a nasty sprain. Carrying the rocks back wasn’t really an option.

Perhaps I can arrange them in a small display to admire each time I return. I placed the stones with all the care and creativity I could muster, but my effort was a total failure. All of the individual rocks that I had admired and collected in my shirt didn’t look right when placed next to each other. The river stones belonged exactly where they were, each one placed perfectly. To move them diminished them.

At that moment, the river stones became real to me.

Time out while I explain that last sentence. I didn’t think, “Wow! These river stones are real,” at the time. In fact, this is the first time that I’ve even applied the word “real” to this experience. Frankly, I don’t like the label. The word real is a bit cliché. It’s used in any fairytale worth its salt – Pinocchio wants to be a real boy, the velveteen rabbit becomes a real rabbit, the ugly duckling is really a beautiful swan. In the world of fairytales, to be real is the ideal. All that is true and good and powerful about you is wrapped in that word; it’s pregnant with meaning.

And Madison Avenue has capitalized on this, using the word real to sell everything from cheese to cars. We’re constantly barraged with advertisements that promise real food, real pleasure, real satisfaction. Really, do I need to go on? We have morphed a previously good and worthy word into something that is questionable at best, and downright sleazy in some cases.

But be that as it may, the real reason that I hesitate to use the word “real” (in the fairytale, not the Madison Avenue, sense) is because it fails as an adequate description of what happened on that day. It falls short; real isn’t a big enough word. The river stones suddenly had a presence – an essence. They came alive for me, yet they were exactly as they had been. They hadn’t changed, the change was in me. They now had a weight, a substance about them; they took on a stature. For the first time in my life, I could truly (really) see them.

Human words fail to describe the wave of feelings that washed over me in that fraction of a second there on the gravel bank when I first became aware of the river stones. We don’t have the vocabulary to describe the rich and profound interplay of emotions weaving together like a beautiful tapestry, sounding together like a divine symphony. It’s humbling as a writer to realize that your words are just thin and hollow imitations of the real thing. And so we’ve come full circle, but I pray you have a better feeling for what I mean when I say:

At that moment, the river stones became real to me.

How beautiful they are. They have a character that can’t be matched by a flashy diamond or a shiny gem. Each stone is unique, a one of a kind creation of God, crafted by His loving hand like a snowflake or a finger print.

Time expanded on that riverbank and I fell into the infinity between the seconds, my mind working at an incredible pace, yet with an ease and wonder that I could only marvel at. A question rose in my mind, “How are these river stones like us?” And the answers tumbled one over the other, as if the stones were speaking directly to me:

“We have not always been as you see us today. We have travelled a long time over great distances to meet you here. Our journey has been difficult at times. We have passed through seasons of turmoil.”

“This has changed us. No longer do we have the sharp edges that used to define us. Something has been lost, but much more has been gained. We have been smoothed and polished and perfected. Each of us is exactly as God intends us to be at this moment in time; we are the best that we can be.”

“We are a community. Our true beauty can only be appreciated in contrast to the beauty of others. Our differences are our strength. We don’t envy the blessings that have been given to others; we’re grateful for the gifts that make each of us special. Together, we are more than the sum of our individual parts.”

“Look closer, what do you see? Such attention to detail, such marvelous workmanship, each of us has something special to share, a gift to give to others. God has used all of us collectively to form each of us individually.”

“We will not always be as you see us today. We continue to be formed by the wind and the rain, the sun and the snow. From the mud of the river we came, and one day soon we will be called back to the river again. In this world, change is never ending. Our journey is eternal – our Maker wastes nothing.”

“Do you think it mere coincidence that we meet here today? We have been brought here at the good pleasure of our Maker to fulfill His greater purpose.”

“We are doing so now.”

“His purposes are beyond our understanding, as limitless and infinite as the stars above, but know this: we have been brought here by Him so that you may meet us here today. He has moved mountains, pushed back oceans, tirelessly labored over untold years so that you could marvel at our beauty on this sunny day. You have been pursuing a relationship with God these past few years, but He has been pursuing you since the beginning of time.”

“Do you doubt us? Search your heart and you’ll discover the truth: He loves you, and He goes to extraordinary lengths to show you His love. He has lavished such care and attention to detail on each of us. Such creativity, no two exactly the same, why would God go to such lengths? He has blessed each one of us by making us unique, different, special. Yet we have also been made so that we may be trampled under foot. If He has done all this for us, how much more has He blessed you?”

“We are a part of the grand dance of life. We find our meaning and our peace by following the steps that our Maker has created for us. How wonderful it is to be His river stones! But here at last we differ, for you have been given free will. He continues His dance of life. Yours is a choice: will you join Him? You know His dance, you’ve moved in harmony with Him before. He has a special part in His dance that only you can fill, right here, today. He needs all of you, all your best parts, to make his dance complete. There is no other who can take your place. He has made this part especially for you…”

Music swelled in my mind, but not the grand, classical music that you might expect. No, it was a song with a heavy bass drum beat from the disco music era of my adolescence. I was left with a memory of a high school dance that I attended, standing with my back against the pads on the gymnasium wall, unwilling to join the dancers out on the polished wooden floor.

The river stones had shared their gift. The magic was ended.

And I knew that I had a choice to make: dare to push off from that wall that I’ve been using for support all my life or live a “safe” life without passion or purpose. I knew without thinking that the decision to dance isn’t one that you make just once for all of time henceforth. I would have to choose to dance, to really live, each day – each minute of each day.

I can’t do that, at least not on my own. “I’ll need Your help, Lord,” I said aloud.

I took some comfort in the knowledge that change is never ending in this world, but that we can influence that change with our choices. That same boy who was too afraid to dance with his peers in high school went on to dance with abandon in his college years.

It was a happier tune that ran through my mind as I ran the path home that day.


One Response

  1. I am working on a project that will help the ersion of the beaches and it goes all the way back to the mountain stream that is thought of by some native to have come from God. I f these mountain streams stop we are being giving a message.
    As you watch the patern of storms, the destruction that is done could be related to the destruction that we are doing in other countries.
    Some people are innocent bystanders and some of those that get hurt or killed in other countries.
    Peace. md

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