On Faith and Glacial Erratics

Though a glacier never reached our street, we do have some left-behind rocks.

The granite boulders, as small as microwave ovens and larger than dishwashers, are a common part of local landscaping. Like many of our neighbors, we have several in our front yard. One of them, with its sturdy, sloped top, allows me to safely gain height while trimming our ever-growing bougainvillea.

Even the smallest of these boulders will defeat an individual from relocating them. With the grunt labor of several people possessing the strength of NFL linebackers, a few could be budged. But most of the stones that decorate the yards or create borders were usually positioned by heavy equipment doing, well, heavy lifting.

In the pancake flat Central Valley, these landscaping additions are a salute to the glacial erratics dotting the high country to the east. The Sierra Nevada, as with other alpine ranges, was shaped by a variety of subtle to severe forces. There was the inexorable rising of the plates of the earth thrusting upward over endless eons. Mountains are not made in a day, but in millions and millions of days. Near the Sierra’s southern end are the Alabama Hills, worn-out and worn-down “mountains” that are ancient, but distinctive, rock sisters.

Looking west to the Sierra from the Alabama Hills

The Hills are the same age as the Sierra. But they are different. One range scrapes the sky; the other hugs the ground.

Weather shapes mountains. Earthquakes rearrange them. Wind, gentle as a baby’s breath or hurricane furious, blasts the peaks. Snow piles high and in the geological blink-of-an-eye glaciers are bred and born.

Glaciers are slow, but relentless. They grind. They groan. Glaciers can appear to be doing nothing even as they are doing everything. On their icy, gravity-assisted routes, they polish the mountain sides, create abrupt precipices, and carve stunning valleys.

Glaciers also pick-up hitchhikers.

Hunks of granite the size of swimming pools and loaves of bread come along for the ride. As the glacier heaves and lumbers, some of the stoned hitchhikers will be ground into pebbles and sand. Scoop up “sand” in the high country and perhaps you will grasp what once was a mighty rock.

But some stone, smoothed and beveled, splintered and divided, by good fortune or happenstance, remain intact enough to avoid a granular fate.

And then, an eon or two later, the glacier retreats. Melts. Calls it a day.

Randomly, capriciously, sublimely, the abandoned rocks remain: glacial erratics.

I’ve hiked by rocks in unexpected spots. Boulders the size of an elephant squat in a copse of ponderosa pine. The forest, all things considered, is young. The rock has likely been there “forever.” While approaching meadows chock-full of rocks, I first thought that sheep were grazing, lost in the high country. You can’t hike a trail in Yosemite, even the easy ones with rutted asphalt and faded Park signs that warn of danger or highlight a highlight, without meeting a glacial erratic. There they sit, seemingly out of place and content to remain for eternity.

Will you walk by them?

Aren’t they a mere and minor part of the scenery, overshadowed by other mountain glories?

And yet remember, these erratics have been on a journey. Indeed, they remain sojourners . . . like you and me! The earth keeps spinning, hurtling through space, tethered to the sun, swept by solar winds and the whims of the Milky Way.

I stop sometimes, gazing at a boulder the size of a studio apartment. Where did you come from? What part of the mountain? What size were you when you first joined that glacial express? How many times have you split? How smooth are you because of this journey? How rough have you remained because of geologic stubbornness? What have you witnessed?

Rocks, of course, don’t think or remember. They don’t sing or dance or wish to return home.

Or do they? Maybe they are the strong, silent types. Shy by nature?

In the high mountains, in my younger days, I sat on granite “benches,” pondering their history and mystery. And yet I am more theological than geological, the inheritor of other rocky memories. Moses, striking stone to release water for the always-complaining Hebrews. David, slick round pebbles cupped in a slingshot, challenging Goliath. Peter, ever faithful, ever faithless, dubbed the “Rock.” The stone rolled across a tomb, but it couldn’t resist the Holy hope of life over death. Rocks are the spiritual erratics of my tradition, strewn about scripture, in stories that split our pride and splinter our illusion of control.

Glacial erratics tell stories. They, and we, are rocks out of place found in the right place.

What journey have you taken?

What has shaped you?

Who has smoothed you out?

Who or what has cracked you open? Rumi, the 13th century Muslim poet and Sufi supposedly claimed, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”

Every glacial erratic, even the ones in my suburban landscaping, are rocks with wounds. They are scarred and scratched, split and smoothed over the millennia and in the next moment . . .

Just like you.

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  1. When I read the title of your sermon, I hoped that you would also talk about erratic faith, faith that is inconsistent. As I become more of an atheist, I wish I could regain my faith. If I do, I know it will be a different faith.

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