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Dry Stone Church

December 9, 2001

Philippians 1:3-11


Tony Grant

Dry Stone Wall

A dry stone wall is a wall built without mortar or cement. "Cement," asserts dry-stone waller Steven Allen, "is a sin." To understand what Allen means, we need to look at the dynamics of dry-stone construction. Steven Allen is the Dry-Stone Walling Association national champion, and record-setting winner of five Grand Prix walling contests in the past decade. He is a superstar among stone wallers. He works full-time as a dry-stone waller. He walls nine hours a day, six days a week, every week of the year. On Sundays, instead of resting, he often returns to the family farm and walls there, too. Allen can safely be described as the best dry-stone waller in Great Britain. By extension, he may well be the best wall builder in the world, so he can teach us a few things about dry-stone construction.

When Allen builds a wall, all the stones tilt slightly downward, like roof tiles, so that water can drain out of the wall. The pebbles and rock chips placed in the wall's center are packed tightly, giving the structure critical strength. He studies stones carefully, chips them sharply with a hammer and then clicks them into place - wedging them between their neighbors as tightly and neatly as if he were building with Lego toys.

This is much better than constructing with cement. A well-built dry-stone wall can stand intact, without needing repair, for 200 years or more - several times the life span of a cemented wall. Dry-stone walls shift and bend in order to conform to the natural movements of the land. In the winter, frozen earth rises upward. In the rainy season, the earth settles. A dry stone wall is distorted by this movement of the earth, but it does not fall apart. Cement walls, on the other hand, do not move. They crack, and then they fall. That is why cement, Allen says, is a sin.

Walls that are constructed without cement or mortar are held together solely by their own weight. Such walls were being built well before the birth of Christ, and many are still standing. The construction methods used for building those ancient walls are still in use today.

Hold Me/You in the Heart

Perhaps the church can learn something from a dry-stone wall, i.e., a pile of rocks. In this day in which the Christian community is sliding, shifting, splintering and splitting, we ought to take a look at the technique that can give us strength and stability. We ought to be a Dry-stone Church.

In Philippians, the Apostle Paul is writing a letter to a dry-stone church. Paul is particularly fond of this community of the faithful. The mutual affection of Paul and the community is shown by the ambiguity of verse 7. The NRSV translates the Greek "because you hold me in your heart" - however, it is likewise proper to translate the Greek "because I hold you in my heart." Either translation will do.

The first reminds the Philippians of their affection for Paul.

The second translation reminds the Philippians of Paul's affection for them. Paul founded the community and experienced a powerful display of the Holy Spirit while he and Timothy were there (see Acts 16:12-40).

Paul has learned of the Philippians' struggles and seeks to strengthen them.

First, by reminding them of their particular relationship with him.

And second, by urging them to remain steadfast until the end.

The mood of this passage is one of thanksgiving, joy and confidence, even though Paul is in prison and is awaiting trial before Roman magistrates for what he says in v7 is a defense of the gospel. Paul was always in trouble for the gospel. His preaching aroused oppositon, and sometimes caused turmoil. Such disruptions drew the attention of the Roman establishment. To the Roman magistrates, Paul was in prison for "disturbing of the peace." To Paul, his impending court date was an opportunity to witness for Christ.

Paul's sunny mood, even while in prison, may have been an expression of his own optimistic disposition at this time in his ministry. Christians should always be optimists, no matter what the circumstances, because are following the Lord of all, and we know how things are going to come out.

The church at Philippi however was somewhat down and depressed. From Paul's letter, we can surmise what their problems were.

1. They were encountering opposition from unbelievers.

2. The initial spirit-filled enthusiasm of the new Christian in Philippi was, in some cases, beginning to wane. Practical day-to-day issues of congregational life were taking their toll.

3. There was division within the community, hence Paul encourages them to be (2:2) "in full accord and of one mind."

4. Apparently Jewish-Christian evangelists who preached circumcision as a requirement of salvation were following Paul's itinerary and drawing some of the believers away (3:2ff).

5. Some of the faithful in the Philippian church were becoming confused by their perceived responsibilities to the secular state. Hence, Paul reminded them of their primary citizenship in heaven (3:20).

Having learned of these issues that were challenging the faith of the believers, Paul writes to help the Christians in Philippi remain steadfast.


Paul's imprisonment serves as an appropriate object lesson. Paul assures the Philippian believers that confrontation and hardship are not evidences of failure of faith; rather, they are proof of the success of faith. Furthermore, although it is not explicit, Paul's imprisonment serves as an implicit reminder of one of Paul's main doctrines--that of the body of Christ. Believers, because they are connected by the bonds of faith and mutual affection, share fully in the triumphs and tragedies of all believers. As Christians we are a connected people.

One of the most connected people, I have heard about was a lady named Audrey. Audrey never saw anyone or any living thing as truly separate from herself. She could not stand in a line at a theater for more than five minutes without getting to know the people both in front and in back of her, and sometimes others along the line as well. Her activities were so extensive that her friendships were global, and at any time, she could receive a telephone call from any of hundreds of people with whom she kept in touch.

Another of Audrey's great talents and joys was cooking. One Thanksgiving, she was supervising family and friends in an elaborate preparation of dinner when the phone rang, and Audrey picked it up. From her side of the conversation, the family could tell that whoever it was, was in a different time zone, had two children, had an Afghan hound that wouldn't stay in the yard, and was planning a vacation to Naples in May. With the phone cradled between her shoulder and chin, Audrey continued stirring and tasting and directing the family in mime fashion as the conversation went on.

The family members began putting together hints and guessing who the caller might be - "It's got to be that woman who had the Afghan and moved to Cleveland," one guessed.

"No. It's that Italian family she met last year. They were going to Naples," another offered.

"No, it's just Aunt Doris. They were thinking about getting a new dog," someone else ventured.

An hour later, when the conversation wound down and ended with Audrey's giving her address, her family was still puzzled.

"So who was it?" they chorused when she hung up, all wondering who'd made the right guess. "Someone we know?"

"Oh, that?" Audrey said, surprised by the question. "Oh, that was just a wrong number."

[Jonathan Kramer, Ph.D. and Diane Dunaway Kramer. (Losing the Weight of the World New York: Berkley Books, 1997), 248.]

In Philippians v 5, Paul writes that the faithful share "in the gospel from the first day until now." He adds in v 7 that they share in his imprisonment and defense, and concludes that they will also share in the "confirmation of the gospel." This connection, this sharing, transcends all bounds of space and time. We are connected to the apostle paul, to his suffering, and to his joy, and we are connected to each other.

Spiritual Reality

Given that Paul is about to go to trial, it is no surprise that he maintains the courtroom vocabulary and calls upon the witness of God to confirm how much he misses the Philippian community. He then expresses his confidence that the faithful in Philippi will maintain their good work and "bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ" (v. 6).

Instead of focusing upon the outcome of his hearing, or highlighting his own tribulations, Paul the prisoner assumes the role of a lawyer preparing for a trial, and urges his "clients," namely the Philippian Christians, to press on in love and not allow the pressures of opposition to sway them. Paul reminds them that almighty God will be their witness too. Of course, by naming God as a witness, Paul also not-so-subtly reminds his readers of whom the ultimate judge will be. In V10, he urges them to be sincere and harmless "until the day of Christ." He pleads for them not to be distracted by the relatively minor inconveniences of day to day living in this world of turmoil and chaos, but to prepare instead for that final day of judgment, Yes, Paul regards being in prison as a minor inconvenience. For Paul, this worldly reality is always shaped by spiritual reality. Whatever is occurring in historical time is an unfolding of God's ultimate design. What God started (as Paul puts it in v. 5 "from the first day until now"), God will also bring to completion he says in v10 on the day of Christ.

This passage calls upon the reader to hold fast and await the coming of that day. During the season of Advent, the promise of the coming of that day has special meaning. In Advent, we prepare for the day that came--for the birth of the baby Jesus at Bethlehem. Even as that day came, as Jesus was born among us, so the day will come when Jesus establishes a new heaven and a new earth. As believers, we understand then that all the excitement and big news and latest things of this life are but signs of the passing of the ages. These things are not what we are about. Our priority is to produce, as v11 says, "the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."

Compassionate Cement

Paul sees the Philippian church being built by God, living stone by living stone, and predicts that they will stand strong until the end of time and the return of Christ. But how is God fitting these stones together? By dry-stone walling. Cement does not work when we are building for eternity. We might be tempted to think that "love" is the mortar that holds the Philippians together, since Paul prays that their love will overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help them determine what is best (vv. 9-10). But the church is stronger without cement or glue. When we can "settle in" together under the direction of the Master builder, we are more likely to last until the end of time, more likely to endure than if we try to patch up our cracks, and cement over our sins.

Since the church--like a wall--has to deal with sinkings, settlings, and unexpected movements of the world around us, we had better not rely on mortar to keep us together. Since the Christian community is called to stay strong until the day of Jesus Christ, we had better be built to shift and bend, not to crack and fall. If we are going to be a Dry-stone Church, our shaping by God is clearly more important in the long run than any cementing that we might do.

In a way, cement is the sin of cowardice. We cover up our mistakes with cement. We plaster over cracks in the wall. Applying this to our spiritual lives, we refuse to face the truth. We may call it love, or soft-heartedness. More often, it is soft-headedness. Under the guise of love, we do not make waves; we do not rock the boat, we do not speak our mind. We do not challenge people who are living sinful and self-destructive lifestyles, because we do not want to hurt their feelings. We go along to get along. And we do more damage by going along and keeping quiet that we would if we just dealt honestly with each other.

We slap on layer after layer of compassionate cement on the walls of our relationships, and then changes come, and the community cracks and falls. We become so paralyzed by our interpersonal patches that we cannot shift and survive when the world changes and offers different opportunities for ministry.

Dry Stone Church

Fortunately, God offers another construction model: The dry-stone approach. With this building technique, all we have is the support of the stones around us--stones that have been shaped by a Master Waller. That is it. We stay in good spiritual shape; we rely on each other; we shift as needed - and ironically, we stand closer to our fellow stones than if we had a crusty line of cement between us.

The focus in a Dry-stone Church is on living the faith, not just on getting along. But strangely enough, when we live the faith, then harmony is experienced. Paul says that the Philippians cannot know a truly overflowing love in their community, if this love is divorced from a life of faithfulness--because real Christian love is tied to the knowledge and full insight that can help the Philippians, and us, to determine what is best in an ever-changing world, so that we may be "pure and blameless" in the day of Jesus Christ (vv. 9-10).

Our challenge is to trust God. God studies us, shapes us, and snaps us together. God is the Master Builder who brings us together as living stones, stones placed in such a way that the church can shift and bend in changing circumstances, and stand strong, no matter what.

I have here some building blocks of different shapes and sizes. I can put these together to make a good block wall. Notice two things about this, or any wall.

1. The blocks have to be close to one another.

2. The blocks have to be put together with a particular plan in mind.

The blocks do not have to be identical. They do not all have to stand in the same way. A wall does not have to have one, boring pattern. Blocks can make a wall that is creative and beautiful as long as the blocks support one another and follow the same plan. The church is like a wall, and we are the blocks. God is the wall-builder, doing a "good work" among us (1:6)--a work that will be completed when Jesus returns at the end of time. If we work together, and stay close to each other and to follow God's plan for our lives, we can be a creative, beautiful, strong, dry-wall church community. Amen.



Finkel, Michael. "Someone There Is Who Loves a Wall." The Atlantic Monthly, May 2000, 112ff.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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