The Unity of Raked Leaves
& A Marching Platoon
When I was a young pastor, fresh out of seminary and merrily engaged in the care of my first flock, I ran smack into a problem which eventually brought me to the flock I am now beginning to shepherd 25 years later. After a 25-year long false start, I’m starting over again.
The reason is very simple, and I think I can expound it in the next 26 paragraphs. That it should take a quarter century for me to write these few hundred words is telling – you decide what it tells. I’m going to explain what I wish I had known back then. It would have saved me a lot of time, and at this time of life, I feel cheated that those 25 years are long spent and unrecoverable.
About half-way through that first pastorate (it lasted four years), I was sitting at a table with the congregation’s elders, analyzing a problem – or at least what I perceived to be a problem. While our congregation was not wracked with dissension or party spirits or schism, neither were we united. The elders didn’t agree with my assessment (mostly because they didn’t understand what I was trying to explain), so I resorted to an image.
“Men, when we assemble on Sunday mornings, we have all the unity of a pile of raked leaves. We are together in one place, and so are the leaves. And, it’s usually the same thing or things have brought us or the leaves to one place. But, that’s just about it. We are connected, for a little while, by place and not by much else. Even when we’re all doing the same thing (like singing a hymn), I think a good number of us are still acting as lone rangers, along with all the other lone rangers in the room around us.”
Their uncomprehending stares frustrated me, for I knew I had gone just about as far as I was able to go in explaining what we lacked during our Sunday morning worship together. And, trying to describe what is not there is about as difficult a task as you could choose. I needed some other analogy, a positive one, positive in the sense of setting forth a genuine exemplar of what I wished we could achieve as Christians gathered to worship the Triune God of the Bible.
I actually had such an analogy, but I didn’t use it. It wasn’t a religious one (well, okay; neither is the pile of raked leaves), but worse, it was a kind of mystical experience I would be pointing to, one I feared they might not appreciate, one I feared they had never experienced themselves, and (worst of all) one which I feared they might scoff at.
Let me share it here, however, because you are not one of my elders and if you think I’m cracked, I’ll survive that just fine.
I reported for boot camp in San Diego California, at the United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot on October 12, 1968. Placed into a platoon of 72 skin-headed, confused, and terrified slimeballs, we quickly found our psyches being systematically dismantled by the Drill Instructor, before he endeavored to re-assemble us into something useful for the Marine Corps and its missions overseas. Among the few, foundational ideas he strove to pound into our thick skulls was this one: our identity derives from the team to which we belong (in this case, the training platoon). We must never think of ourselves individually, but only in terms of the team, in terms of the unit, a unit to which we made a contribution (obviously), but nevertheless a team which gave us far more in terms of identity than the other way round.
Training us in this idea had utterly ignored our intellect – rather, it proceeded via gutsy, frequently painful, deliberately painful trials. We ate together, we slept together (yes, separate bunks, but into our bunks the same instant, and out them the same way). We showered and shaved together, we laundered our clothes together, we defecated and urinated together, as a group, never individually. We attended class together, got our shots together, received and read mail together, polished shoes together, cleaned our rifles together. I cannot remember doing anything, ever, which was not also being done by all 72 of us at the same time.
When we failed, we were punished together. No, that’s not right – when one of us failed, we all were punished together. And, there was no praise, no reward, unless it was earned by everyone together – which meant we went many, many weeks without praise, or reward.
Now, a momentary digression – the unity we seek with one another in worship does not need to be achieved through the tools available to the drill sergeant in the Marine Corps, although I will note in passing that shared suffering produces much unity, among both Marines and the saints. I am resorting to my boot camp memories for three reasons: (1) it was expressly designed to forge a unity of identity and action among us thoroughly individualistic recruits; (2) this goal was pursued by constant and never-relenting focus on unity of action; and (3) our abiding failure to be unified produced a hungering and a thirsting for unity that became voracious.
A crisis arrived one evening at about the two-thirds mark in our 16 week training. By this time we had learned enough of the basic “steps” and movements of marching to stagger through a miserable parody of parade drill, a parody because our bumbling lack of precision was highlighted at each and every step, miserable because every time 72 heels struck the pavement we could 72 thuds, compacted together in time but still distinguishable from one another.
We had marched and marched and marched, night after night after supper, while our drill instructor sang a gravelly cadence, richly interspersed with long, blisteringly profane denunciations of our marching as a mob instead of marching as a single man. It was mid-November and the parade ground was dark. There was no moon, and the distant lights emphasized the murkiness through which we plodded, 72 sputtering heels, accompanied by the acrid scorn of the DI’s cadence.
We were all near to drowning in despair when a miracle happened. Like a rifle shot, all 72 right heels struck the darkened parade ground the same instant. It was followed by an anguished mushy muffle of 72 left heels hitting the same asphalt in 72 different slivers of time. But 72 hearts had leapt out 72 chests to hear that single sole slap the pavement. The hair on our ears prickled. And, then it happened again. Just once. But we heard it, and it was a noise we had made. A single unmuffled crack. Seventy-two hearts were near to bursting with longing.
And again. Crack.
And again. Crack.
And again. Crack.
The drill instructor’s voice was silent. We were in the darkest part of the parade ground, heading into the inky blackness of a thick stand of trees that shaded any light from the distant horizon. We didn’t care. We weren’t watching. We were listening as if our lives depended on whether or not the next sound was a Crack. Crack. Crack. We hoped it would never stop.
And, then we heard a sound that truly pierced our hearts with a joy so strong it scalded us. Low, from the rear of the platoon, the Drill Instructor’s low, lilting voice began to sing cadence over the sound of the blows drumming on the pavement. Softly at first, as if anxious to disturb something so fragile as the sound of 72 heels striking the ground in a single, sharp cracking slap. But we had it. At long last it was ours, and there was no way we would turn loose of it.
And so his voice grew stronger, fuller; long, insistent phrases flowing, skipping above the confident crack, crack, crack. Until he was in full song, a powerful, coursing current of gorgeous, manly syllables with no meaning other than to crown the metronomic crack, crack, crack of 72 heels marching as one.
We made a duet in the dark. And we marched like that, and he sang like that for an hour or more. We’d have joyfully marched all night. The next day we learned that all of us had lain awake in our bunks long after taps had faded, savoring the solitary booming beat we no longer heard with our ears, relishing the unity we no longer felt in our feet.
That’s what I didn’t tell my elders twelve years later. I wasn’t sure they’d understand. The unity of a pile of raked leaves – surely that was accessible. And whether they concurred with the light esteem I gave such unity, they probably understood what I was pointing to.
But, the unity of a marching platoon – that marching platoon – well, I could not have borne their scoffing or jesting about the most electric engagement of unity that I had, up to that point, ever experienced. If I thought I could have gotten away with it, I’d have related to them what I have just finished describing. I remember it as if it had happened last night, instead of 25 years ago. And, to aspire to something at least that wonderful when gathered with the saints in their union with Jesus and their worship of the Father with Him in the unity of His Spirit – well, that may be asking a lot, but surely it is not asking for anything out of the ordinary for Christians.
How do 30 or 50 or 150 or 500 souls pray as one, praise as one, confess as one the faith once given to them, and not to them only but to all the saints? Whatever else the communion of saints means, might it also point to a unity that not only transcends a multitude of souls gathered in one place, but also transcends the multitude that cannot be numbered, that mighty army, terrible with banners, marching down the centuries of time?
How does that happen for us? How can it happen, unless there is something more among us than the unity of a pile of raked leaves? Something which happens very like a marching platoon? Or a multitude dancing?