It all started when Emrie picked up a gnarled, knobby stick (really more of a limb) held it up valiantly, and dubbed it "RidicStick." Em, Jaclyn, Phil and myself began sorting, clearing, and displacing foliage in a frenzy, uncovering more and more
noteworthy finds. There was ShortStick, LipStick, and FatStick, BentStick, BurntStick, and BatStick. We must have named in excess of 300 specimens, doubling over in laughter. How I wish we had photographed and cataloged our findings. On second thought, these things usually serve as better memories for regaling than actual factual accounts. It may have been a silly game to pass the workday, but it drew upon some seriously solid principles. There was something very Genesis 2 about the whole thing - humans organizing, ruling over, and naming things of the Earth, things that God designed for our pleasure. And doing so in community, as "it is not good for man to be alone."
Days continued to pass after StickDay, but the memory lingered. For one, our vernacular had changed. Ridicstick remains synonymous with any jubilant exclamation, suitable in describing any extraordinary thing or event. But, perhaps more than that, friendships that had begun on levels of life and change and faith and humor were taking deeper root and bearing fruit, as only sheer abandonment in a common and altogether ridiculous endeavor can produce.
Weeks later, Jaclyn, Emrie, and I were walking home from a coffee/study/banter session at Seagars. I don't remember the particulars, except that there was some frustration in the air. I think it had to do with me dilly dallying and everyone around being tired of always waiting for me to wrap up some frivolous engagement. At any rate, definitively gracious and cool Emrie had walked on ahead, rightfully irritated, and I remember momentarily searching for some gesture of apology and kinship greater than words for a moment such as this. I happened upon a small, gnarled but straightish stick, hardly more than a twig, with the striking appearance of a wand from any great work of mythic fiction. Without thought, I seized it and called out to Emrie. She stopped and turned as Jaclyn and I approached with the stick. We held a sidewalk ceremony, knighting Emrie for her exemplary patience, and we bequeathed the WillowStick unto her for safeguarding. Emrie's frustration dissolved in an easily forgiving grin and we continued our walk through the idyllic Oxford Autumn air.
Winter set in as our classes drew to completion, and we made preparations for our missional deployment to the far ends of the Earth. I grew to know and love everyone in our small school of 50 or so, but you can't help but make a particular connection with just a few in such a short time. By divine design or staff's judgement, several of us who had grown especially close were each split into different teams. Phil was Africa/Asia-bound, Jaclyn would lock down the African continent, Kristi was our South American correspondent, Emrie and Katy headed for Southeast Asia, Kenny and Dan were on the Far East Asia team, and I was going to the Middle East.
Days were busy finishing studies, cleaning, and gathering essentials into packs - 'skeeter net, bible, and two pair undies ought to do. Evenings were spent in the roasty den, dining on peanut butter-cinnamon-toast, fire blazing to fight the cold through the cellophane windows. We occupied several long evenings unpacking everything that God had done in our lives to get us where we were, taking inventory of the people we had discovered ourselves to be, and speculating where our roads might lead and intersect. Someone mentioned the crassness of a mere "goodbye," and Emrie sprang into action. Producing the WillowStick from her belongings, she hurriedly broke it into 6 pieces - a piece to travel with each team, each person, in each direction, and we selected a day several months into our journeys to stop what we were doing, find a high place in whatever town we were in, and bury the WillowStick. Together. Tearful goodbyes were said as one-by-one we departed into the unknown.
I went to sleep late last night with a silent, groaning prayer for God to evidence himself in my life. I know he's there, doing his thing, as he always is. I just needed that knowledge to breach my brain and penetrate my anxiety about where I am right now. And maybe provide some peace, and a little joy if it's not too much to ask. I woke up early this morning with Psalm 23 on my lips as all these memories came flooding back.
In Ezekial 37:16, God speaks to the prophet: "And you, son of man, take for yourself one stick and write on it, 'For Judah and for the sons of Israel, his companions'; then take another stick and write on it, 'For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and all the house of Israel, his companions.' Then join them for yourself one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand." God has always tended to use the natural to represent his goodness and to bind his followers together in seeking his face. In fact, that's the primary reason he created "the natural" in the first place.
1 Samuel 7 finds the Israelites on the brink of war with the Philistines, who had twice defeated Israel and seized the Ark of the Covenant. The Philistine army is encroaching, so Samuel seeks the Lord. As Sam sacrifices a burnt offering on the alter, the Philistine army is thrown into confusion by God's thunderous intervention. Verse 12: "Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, 'Thus far has the LORD helped us.'" This is where the hymn Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing derives the line "Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by thy help I'm come." Ebenezer is a name combining the Hebrew "Even Haazer," meaning literally "Stone of Help." It's a marker in history, one's personal history or the history of a people, where a monument is raised to remind that God has a proven track record of hooking us up. We have no reason to worry. It is the Lord that delivers, and blessing comes from his hand. It's just Homeboy doing what Homeboy does.
As it was on my lips this morning, Psalm 23:4 says "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me." If God has a recorded history of using sticks and stones to exemplify his presence and action, far be it from me to discount such elements' presence in my own story. If fellowship was born on StickDay, it was tested and cemented on WillowStickDay. And if kinship when we broke bread and divided the WillowStick, then we made covenant the day the WillowStick took root around the world. In our journeys, by some degree of intention, the WillowStick was planted. In modern-day Ephesus. Erdenet, Mongolia. Argentina. Lake Victoria, Uganda. Darjeeling. Thaiwan. We remain distanced by oceans, but connected by the love of a redeeming God who brought us together and called us to a higher purpose. During the dry times, I continue to look back on God's provenance and providence and our covenant as evidence of motion and deliverance in my life. It helps me find purpose in short nights and perspective in long days. It's all the manna I need to start fresh, and more than plenty reason to smile. And that, my friends, is ridicstick.