We used to have a chalkboard in our kitchen. From time to time I’d scrawl a phone number or date on it, but usually I wrote things like Happy Birthday Jesus (a message that remained from Christmas until almost Easter) or Esse Quam Videri, because I love that phrase. Esse Quam Videri means, “to be rather than seem to be” which makes it a ridiculous thing to broadcast on a chalkboard. Sadly, over time, our board got harder and harder to erase, so that Happy Easter was barely visible, written as it was on top of every smudged message since Thanksgiving.
Not long after cave walls became obsolete as memo boards and well before the invention of the chalkboard, early mankind scratched rebus-like messages on cured animal skin. Then they scraped them off and wrote over the first message, over and over. The scraping was about as effective as the common felt eraser, so that, like our messy chalkboard, the earlier messages bled through. This is called a palimpsest. Archaeologists bless their lucky stars for the flawed reusability of a palimpsest.
Marriage can be a palimpsest, with the specters of the past stubbornly refusing to fade.
It exposes what we’d rather erase. Between the two of us, Bill and I have had our share of ugly smudges, however faint, that bleed through to the surface to haunt us. I reacted. He neglected. I spouted off. He withdrew. I overwhelmed. He withheld. Sometimes the hieroglyphics are so predictable and deeply stained we can’t help but look for them. There are definitely those times when I curse the layers. They are not safe.
What lingers to show through can be an unbidden curse from the past. A smear that whispers in its insidious ghost language: “Remember when…? It’s just like last time. Don’t forget what happened. Don’t forgive.”
There are a few—relatively very few—episodes in our history together that Bill and I know will never, ever go away. They are like scar tissue. The wound is completely healed, but it still aches. Touch it just so, and a stab of pain brings it all back.
So what’s a vulnerable palimpsest to do?
I’ll tell you what we do by default: we do our best to become hard and unerasable and impenetrable. We hide our true selves so thoroughly that no one can see through. Chalkboards are made of slate, after all. (Basic geology lesson: slate is a rock.)
I remember one night near the end of our first year of marriage when Bill and I each came face to face with a major weakness in the other. Simultaneously. He was this way. I was that. I might not change. He wouldn’t ever, I was sure of it. We were looking at years of co-existence. It was bleak. For a few hours I rolled the poisonous word “never” around in the bitter taste in my mouth. I was never going to risk hurt by being myself again. Never. I was going to withhold my true self from the man I loved. Never is a hard, hard rock of a word.
I look back on the decision I almost made and cringe. It is one of the scariest what-might-have-beens in our marriage. It would have begun the calcification process with light speed.
Humans have always protected themselves this way, with voluntary fossilization.
It is the essence of the sin nature Adam and Eve bequeathed to us. And it never works. Yes, rocks are permanent and unerasable and secure. Yes, they are strong and impenetrable. But that doesn’t describe us, it describes God. Only God.
Over one hundred times the Bible refers to God either directly or indirectly as a Rock. And God associated with rocks too. When he wanted to write something down, he used a rock. If something is written in stone it is most likely going to stay there. He could have etched the Ten Commandments on something less durable than stone. But he didn’t. He chose an enduring material that jealously displays one message only. Rock.
But we were never meant to be rocks.
In fact, when we are described this way it is never good. Scripture seems to say that for a human to be rock-like is a real problem. We were meant to be soft and pliable and, yes, erasable. Part of God’s redemptive plan is: Number One, to replace our self-protective hardness and, Number Two, to be—himself—our only Rock. Long before Jesus showed up, God promised “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19, NIV). No one gets to be a Rock but God.
Which leaves us weak and defenseless, doesn’t it? The Psalmist refers to us as a blade of grass, a puff of smoke, a wisp, and God is over and over called a Rock. We’re flimsy, He’s substantial. We are the sum total of breakable slate and chalk dust and He is the Rock of Ages. This is the truth. When we mess with this reality and try to turn our hearts to the safety of stone, God is after us to take that heart away and replace it with something soft. Something He can write upon: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33, NIV).
I know this: A marriage between two soft, sensitive hearts who choose to hide themselves in the safety of the Rock is far better than a marriage between two strong, stony hearts. I could tell stories. Just look at the layers that have bled through to the surface in Bill’s life and mine, and you’ll see ample proof that we desperately need a safe place to hide.
Our mistakes are visible. Stare at either of us long enough and you will see them. They are so noticeable that I am often tempted to harden my surface in a vain effort at self-protection. But then I remember the Rock. I can run to Him. I can hide in Him. I can build my unsubstantial life on the substantial foundation of His truth.
One day I was reading the last book in the Bible and I discovered that, while I can never be a rock, I can own one.
God promises to give me, physically, a small piece of who He is, a Rock. Revelation 2:17 says, “To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.” I don’t know a lot of Greek, but I expected the word for stone here to be the word petra. Petra is the word used to describe the firm foundation in the parable comparing sand and rock. It is used when Jesus is described as the Chief Cornerstone. In Revelation it references our propensity for going to any other rock but the Rock:
“And the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:15-16, NIV).
But the stone God promises to give us is not a petra, it’s a psephos, which means a tiny, worn pebble. In ancient courts of justice white pebbles were given to signify acquittal. Black stones were symbols of judgment. The word psephos is so tied to this idea of judgment or acquittal, it can also mean “to vote.” This white pebble engraved with my secret name is a reminder to me of the most discerning of erasures, where the sins on the surface of my life have been completely eradicated by blood. All the ones beneath too, whether they seep through for others to see or not. Yes, I am a flimsy palimpsest, but I am holding onto the Rock.
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