Clifton Ames was fast asleep. With each intake of breath, he sucked air past the open gate of his mouth in a fierce, wet-sounding snort. His exhale was far less dramatic. The air simply drained out of him.
Keeping with the rhythm of his breath, Clifton's chest rose and fell... rose and fell.
Clifton slept with his right arm outside the covers. This arm was bent at the elbow, and his right hand rested on his chest. The hand rode up and down on Clifton's inflating, deflating chest.
Near the hand, there was a rock. There was a rock -- iron gray in color and just slightly smaller than a fist. The rock was flat on one side, so it didn't roll away despite the constant motion of Clifton's chest. Like the hand, the rock rode up and down atop Clifton's chest like a quiet passenger on a steady ride.
Clifton slept on, apparently undisturbed by this weight upon his heart.
* * *
In fact, this rock had been Clifton's constant companion for nearly half his life. Before this rock, he had carried another. He carried a rock with him wherever he went.
In Clifton's village, this practice was the norm. In that place, everyone carried a rock. When people bathed themselves, they held a bar of soap in one hand and a rock in the other. When lovers embraced, it was with a rock in one hand. Nursing mothers held their tender babies in one hand and a merciless stone in the other. Everyone kept a rock nearby. Always.
The instant he awoke, Clifton Ames wrapped his fingers around the familiar weight of his own particular rock. It was smooth against his skin. It was warm from the heat of his own body. The familiar stone anchored Clifton to his own identity. Not to have felt the rock upon his chest would've been like waking up to feel a different set of teeth in his mouth.
* * *
Pushing the covers aside, Clifton rose out of bed. Soon, he was dressed and out the door. It was still very early in the morning and the streets were quiet. There was dew upon the ground. Most of the buildings were dark.
The village sat on the bend of a great river, and Clifton walked to the water's edge. A wooden pier extended out over the slow moving water. And on the pier were many of Clifton's friends. They were fishermen like himself -- a virtuous company of early risers.
Each of the anglers held a stone in one hand. It was an arrangement that made rowing impossible. And so, rather than sit in their boats, the fishermen would stand upright. Each of them carried a long pole that reached down through the water to river bottom. Holding the pole in their one free hand, the fishermen would propel themselves along by pushing against the riverbed.
It was a difficult skill to master. Poles were known to snap in two, or to slip from someone's grasp. Unexpected currents could grab a boat and send it spinning off in the wrong direction. And the fishermen who lost their balance were tossed into the water.
Although they spent their lives upon the water, almost none of these people knew how to swim. Once again, their efforts were hindered by the rock they clutched in one hand. People from the village would cling to those stones, even if the weight of it was dragging them down to their doom.
The fishermen tried to keep an eye on one another, but every year, two or three people would drown.
As Clifton climbed aboard his little boat, no one thought of drowning. The fish were biting and the weather was calm. Clifton freed his boat from the pier and pushed himself out into deeper waters.
* * *
Clifton pushed himself away from the crowded pier and looked for a good spot to drop anchor. All of the best spots nearby were taken, so Clifton pushed himself farther and farther toward the opposite shore.
Then, from the opposite shore, Clifton heard the most amazing music. It was like a bird singing. It was like the sound of wind blowing through the trees. It was the most enchanting sound Clifton had ever heard.
Clifton was just about to pull in his line and investigate this wonderful music, when he heard people shouting closer to the pier. He turned around and saw that someone thrashing in the water. This person was flailing his or her arms and legs. Where the river was disturbed, it churned angry and white. But it didn't release the hapless fisherman who struggled for his or her life.
Clifton saw that several of the other fishermen were already punting toward the person in need. Clifton hurried to join them. He grabbed his pole and pushed his own boat toward the point of crisis. He went as fast as he dared, and then he went a little faster.
As he raced across the broad river, Clifton saw that several other anglers had already arrived. Two of them were jabbing their long poles toward the submerged figure. If the person in danger could simply grab hold of one of these poles, he or she could be hauled to safety.
* * *
The third rescuer was lying across the deck of her boat, reaching her free hand down into the water as far as she could reach.
Clifton found himself in silent agreement with this more desperate strategy. "It's too late for poles," Clifton decided. "Grab them! Grab them!" The water was only seven or eight feet deep, but the struggling fisherman had kicked up clouds of sediment. The water was cloudy now, and everything it contained was lost from view.
As Clifton approached the scene, he threw himself across the deck of his boat. He plunged one arm into the water. With that hand, he groped for the missing fisherman. His other hand, of course, still held the rock. And because of that, he couldn't reach too deeply into the water for fear of losing his balance. He couldn't hold onto the boat with one hand in order to reach more deeply with the other. For the sake of his stone, he just couldn't do it.
Clifton heard the sound of splashing from an unexpected place. Looking back in the direction he had just come, Clifton saw someone churning the river with her arms and legs. Although she was flailing her arms, she was moving in a straight line across the surface of the river.
She was swimming. From the far shore, she came swimming toward the scene. She dove down into the murky water with her arms extended like antenna.
For a moment, the surface of the river was tranquil. Then the swimmer broke the surface once more. She had the missing fisherman in her arms. She pushed the fisherman toward the nearest boat, where the poor person was hauled onto the deck.
"She did it!" someone yelled. "The stranger saved his life! He's going to be alright."
A cheer of amazement and gratitude echoed across the surface of the water.
* * *
Then, the swimmer pulled herself onto the deck of Clifton's boat. She reached up, grabbed the edge of the boat with her two empty hands, and pulled herself on board.
Clifton stared in disbelief. "Where is your rock?" he asked.
She looked from her empty hands to the rock the Clifton clutched in one of his. "What do I need a rock for?" she asked.
"To defend yourself!" Clifton replied. His voice was shrill with alarm. "Everyone has a rock. They're everywhere." Clifton gestured all around him.
The swimmer looked around at the nearby fishermen. Sure enough, even the poor wretch who had been dredged up from the river still held a rock in one trembling hand. Everyone had a rock. "Do you throw them at each other?" the swimmer asked.
Clifton replied forcefully. "It's not our place to throw the first stone. But someday, someone else will. Someone will cast the first stone. And on that day, we will be ready to respond. As the Scripture says, "Let the one without sin cast the first stone. Let everyone else wait his or her turn."
"It doesn't say that!" she exclaimed. And of course she was right.
* * *
Jesus never told people to pick up a rock and wait patiently for the violence to begin! Jesus taught people to put aside the tools of violence.
If we don't put the tools of violence away -- if we carry them around with us as the possibility for violence -- then we impede our access to what is better. Even if we don't throw it, a stone that remains in our hands impedes our grasp of something better.
With a rock in our hands, we can't do the work God asks us to do.