When I was little, I’d play a game with my brothers. We didn’t have a name for it, but if we played it today, we’d probably call it What If? It went like this. What if you had to lose one of your five senses, which one would it be? Sight, smell, hearing, taste, or touch? Did you ever play that game? I don’t think we invented it. I would always pick taste, because it seemed less objectionable. You needed smell to know if your house was on fire, and touch was important in case you touched something hot and needed to pull away from it before hurting yourself. Of course, if you couldn’t see or hear, that would present all kinds of problems. But sometimes I would say blind and my brothers would cover my eyes with a blindfold so I couldn’t see, tie my hands behind my back so I couldn’t take my blindfold off, then spin me in circles and laugh when I bumped into things. It’s amazing, when you think about it, how inexpensively we entertained ourselves.
Sometimes I would pretend I had gone away to war and came home blind, and the town held a parade for me, and the entire town showed up, which of course I couldn’t see, but I could hear their cheers and it made me wish it were all true, and that just as I was getting tired of being blind, a doctor operated on me and I could see again. These were the things I thought about as a child. Nowadays, of course, children had video games, but back when I was a kid we had to make do with our imaginations.
I remember when I was pretend blind, feeling my way around the house using familiar objects, or orientation points, like the staircase, the dining room table, or the couch. These were objects that let me get my bearings when I couldn’t otherwise find my way. I once had a friend whose brother was blind. When he and his brother would fight, my friend would rearrange the furniture so his blind brother would get all turned around. If all our familiar touchstones are moved or removed, we know how difficult it can be to navigate life, to find our way.
I was listening to the impeachment proceedings this week, and all the expert witnesses, in this case law professors, no matter whether they supported impeachment or not, kept returning to the Constitution, parsing out its meaning. Because when you are a nation of laws, appealing to the Constitution is our touchstone. It’s how we find our way.
I recently heard from a woman who told me she would no longer buy my books since I supported marriage equality. What was that all about? Well, I had moved a touchstone. I had rearranged her Christian furniture, and she told me I couldn’t do that. She wrote, “As a pastor, you, above all, should recognize how God feels about homosexuality.” I responded that since God created so many gay people, She must not have a problem with them. I haven’t heard back from her. I think my referring to God as “She” overturned another one of her touchstones.
When you think about it, we all have touchstones. Sometimes we call them traditions, or sacraments, or rituals, or customs. Their purpose is always the same—to help us navigate life and find our way. They’re the familiar pieces of furniture we use to feel our way through life, and become especially valuable to us when life is difficult or confusing. It’s the reason we have funerals when someone we love dies. It’s the reason we have constitutions and covenants and bylaws and Bibles. They help us find our way. Sometimes, it might occur to us that we aren’t well-served by those things, so we will examine them anew, and perhaps even change them. We’ve done that 27 times with the Constitution. We even do that with the Bible. I don’t know one person today who believes wearing a garment of blended fabrics is an abomination to the Lord. That’s no longer a useful touchstone.
We honored a touchstone of our meeting this morning when we decorated our Christmas tree. It serves to remind us of two truths as we enter this season. The first is this—there is beauty in restraint. We use handmade snowflakes made years ago by people in this meeting. They remind us of the elegance in simplicity.
A man named William Strunk taught English and composition at Cornell University in the first decades of the 1900s. One of his students was E.B. White, who would later compile Strunk’s rules of writing in a book called The Elements of Style.
In that book, Strunk wrote. “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” There is beauty in restraint. We needn’t overdo it. In this season of haste and indulgence, let us tend only to that which is necessary. There are beauty and meaning in restraint.
The second truth is this—everyone has a part. We do not hire this done. Everyone does what they can. Those who are short, decorate the bottom. Those who are average in height, adorn the middle. Those who are tall, trim the top. Everyone has a part. Everyone is needed. Everyone has a part, a task, a role. Not in spite of who they are, but because of who they are. Everyone is needed.
All the years we’ve been doing this, I’d say, “I just love Snowflake Sunday.” People would ask me why, and I’d say, “I’m not sure. There’s just something about it.” It took me doing it 21 years to figure out it was a touchstone, something we do to help us navigate life. I was talking with a man this week who said he felt the same way about communion, that tasting the bread and wine helped him find his way.
Thus, today we are grateful for touchstones, signposts, and points of reference, all of them things of beauty that show us the way.