In the fall of 1997 and into the early spring of 1998, I drove around the country in a white Volkswagen I had naively dubbed Hope. My senior project in Literature at Whitworth College was on American travel literature and my goal was to experience America and write down my thoughts and observations to publish my own book. (Though I did publish my book titled Breaking Free, it was at a local Kinkos and only made 3 copies).
In studying English at Whitworth, one of the most profound writers I came across was Henry David Thoreau, who was one of the American writers of the mid-nineteenth century called the Transcendentalists. Thoreau was a loner, an optimist, a writer, and also someone who loved God. Thoreau had some amazing quotes like “Glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Or this one, “How vain is it to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live?” Do you love that? When his aunt Louisa asked him in his last weeks if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded: “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” Aware he was dying, Thoreau’s last words were “Now comes good sailing.”
Thoreau was so passionate about carving out a different path from the pursuits he saw around him, he moved to Walden Pond and built a small cabin and lived in the woods for several years (later writing Walden to tell the story). He was a rugged, American individual in the very best sense. The transcendentalists were pioneers in American society for their rich spirituality and call of the individual to seek out a higher calling. (In later stages the transcendentalists veered off course and became so focused on “self” and “spirituality” that they eventually became obsolete) It is true that American individualism has been much maligned as of recently and I recognize the failures of thinking of myself alone all the time, but it is important to remember the context for when the transcendentalists wrote: during the Industrial Revolution. The transcendentalists were whispering the encouragement of following God and taking time for self in the midst of a HURRICANE of industrial and economic growth that, as the country expanded, seemed to grow at the expense of whatever individuals stood in its way.
When I stopped along my journey at Walden Pond, near Concord Massachusetts, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I assumed there would be a literary museum and probably a gift shop selling all sorts of “Walden Wear” and “Thoreau Tidbits”. But I was wrong. There was just the pond, which is now a Massachusetts State Park. I entered the park and followed the well-worn path around Walden near dusk as all others were leaving. It was a beautiful evening with a crescent moon hanging low over the blue-green sky that illuminated the pond below. I found Thoreau’s former cabin site at the far end of the pond and looked around for more. There really wasn’t much there other than a small sign and the foundations for where the cabin lie. On the sign it mentioned a pile of rocks that had been started upon Thoreau’s death, when his good friends the Alcotts carried stones from their garden out to Walden Pond and left them near Thoreau’s cabin as a marker to his life. He had impacted them greatly, so instead of lavish signs or fancy speeches, they simply left a stone each to say, “Your life mattered.” His impact shaped them, and the rock was to tell that story.
Back at Walden Pond, the sign said that people from around the world have been coming back to Walden since Thoreau’s death to mark the impact of his life by bringing their own stones. In the near darkness of a fall evening, I searched for the pile of tribute rocks. Then I saw it, the absolute mini-mountain of stones left as a tribute for this man. As I looked at the stones I realized some had messages and signatures left on them with permanent marker from around the world. Each stone marked a life, and each life had been altered from this man.
When Jesus was preparing to leave the earth, after He had come alive again, His encouragement to His followers in the book of Matthew was “all authority has been given to me. And therefore GO and make disciples.” Jesus’ point is that from His resurrection and His power we are charged to make a difference in the world. He doesn’t mince words: we are called to GO and DO SOMETHING to impact the world. And what do we do? We tell others about Jesus; we share the story of God’s better life for us. And the beauty is that we do not go alone. Jesus was quick to promise, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus promised us His presence so that we’ll always know we are not alone. Living for Jesus is a lot like building rock piles.
Often this “Go and make disciples” lifestyle isn’t quick and sure isn’t easy. There are long days and confusing times and the journey through life can be difficult to say the least. But like Thoreau’s legacy at Walden, we are not called to build temples to our self while on this earth or accumulate massive piles of stuff. No we are building rock piles, stone by stone. We are meant to impact others by the power of life that we are living here on earth. Because at the end of the day, at the end of our lives, it is our impact on others that really matters. Thoreau died over 150 years ago but his impact profoundly shaped Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi and helped many Americans realize slavery was bad and continues to shape the world even today.
What is your rock pile? What is the impact you are making on the world? What are the stories you tell that those behind you will be shaped by? The call of the gospel is full of this kind of promise: “Follow Me,” says Jesus, “and I will make your life extraordinary.” Our lives are imbued with purpose as we follow the Maker of the Universe who is calling us to continue to tell His stories. Stone by stone, our lives should be shaping the world.