Souls in God’s Sling
Souls in God’s Sling
This last weekend we heard the horrible news about the shooting that took place in a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh. One of the rituals that the community there has been doing to honor the dead is to lay stones near markers that serve as a memorial. I was not familiar with this custom so I did some quick research which revealed several reasons for this ritual action.
One tradition says that by placing a rock or a pebble on top of the tombstone, the deceased are honored by letting people know that the gravesite has recently been visited. When others notice the rocks, they will see that this is a grave visitors frequent, and they too will take an interest in who is buried there, and perhaps will visit the gravesite themselves.
Stones, however, can be seen as more than just a marker of one’s visit; they are the means by which the living help the dead to “stay put.” In a sense, the stones on the grave are there to ensure that souls remain where they belong. In addition, stones have a sense of solidity. Flowers are a good metaphor for life. Life withers; it fades like a flower. As Isaiah says, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty like the flower of the field; grass withers and flowers fade” (Isaiah 40:6-7). For that reason, flowers are an apt symbol of passing. But the memory is supposed to be lasting. While flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of life, stones seem better suited to the permanence of memory. Stones do not die.
My favorite story that I found to explain why the Jewish tradition has the ritual of placing stones on a grave marker has to do with shepherds. In ancient times, shepherds needed a system to keep track of their flocks. On some days, they would go out to pasture with a flock of 30; on others, a flock of 10. Memory was an unreliable way of keeping tabs on the number of the flock. As a result, the shepherd would carry a sling over his shoulder, and in it he would keep the number of pebbles that corresponded to the number in his flock. That way he could at all times have an accurate daily count. When we place stones on the grave and inscribe the motto above on the stone, we are asking God to keep the departed’s soul in God’s sling.
This coming Sunday is All Saints Day in our Christian tradition. While we will not be placing stones on the altar we will be ringing a bell as we read through the names of those who have died this last year who have had some connection to our congregation at Holy Trinity. There will also be a time for people to say other names that may not be on our list. By remembering these names we remember that God keeps all their souls in God’s “sling.” We are reminded that God is watching over and keeping track of all these saints. We hope you can join us as we honor the departed through our prayers this Sunday.
-Pastor Erik Goehner