By Nikki Toyama-Szeto

Rock Polishing

“My non-Christian friends are better about talking about things like this,” lamented my friend as we discussed some tough issues coming up in both our lives. What is it that makes Christians think that they need to be smooth and shiny — everything together, everything wrapped up nicely? Are we scared that if we’re honest, if our lives are falling apart, somehow that will be a bad witness to God?

What lies do we believe that make us think that being a Christian makes lives smooth and shiny? And why do I believe I have to be smooth and shiny to call myself a Jesus follower? What an irony — given where Christianity stands among the major world religions. Buddhism calls people to disengage from the unpleasant and to withdraw from the world. Islam calls people to a level of purity that is all but impossible. Christianity was born, as a child in a barn, in the midst of the grit and grime of the human experience. Jesus sought out those who seemed farthest from God, and made his home there. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV).

Christians who limit their image to being shiny and smooth might as well lock themselves in well-lit display cases, too remote and removed from the real world to be of any relevance. A more honest approach is to recognize we’re not finished, that in fact we’re rough rocks in need of polishing. Rich Lamb once likened discipleship to a rock polisher. Take a few crusty, pointy rocks, toss them into a canister, and add some grit. The machine agitates everything inside. The rocks bump against each other, breaking up the rough spots. And when it’s done, you have a surprising collection of polished, smooth, and interesting rocks.

This image, in my best moments, helps me reframe the stressors in my life. It helps me view each person — the person in the office who bugs me, the nosy neighbor, the family member who keeps stirring up trouble — with different eyes. I view these folks as fellow rocks, with sharp and knobby edges. We’re all bumping around, hurting each other, but also banging up against each other and getting rid of each other’s pointy edges. It’s what gives me grit to have the tough conversation with the guy in the cube next door, a fellow rough-hewn rock. The pressure of a work deadline, the rapidly shrinking bank account, and other external factors are the agitation that speeds along this polishing process. These things are not issues that disappoint a Savior who is a curator of perfect specimens in display cases; rather, it is in my response and honest engagement with the real world that I find Christ is present and his love is tangible.

But this image asks for something from me that is difficult. It calls for honesty, transparency, and vulnerability. No one wants others to see the impurities embedded deep. I don’t want to show the crevices and cracks on my surface or expose the dirt that is the tell-tale sign of the places I’ve been as I’ve tumbled through life. And it requires a willingness to be thrown into the rock tumbler with other Christians.

In some ways, being thrown into the tumbler is one of the scariest places to be. It is an invitation to others — saying, “I will journey with you, and look for God to use you to refine me.” And that refining doesn’t necessarily come from coaching, positive words, or personal improvement projects only. God does use those tools for transformation, but sometimes he uses a more rough-and-tumble process when a gentle file isn’t enough.

I’ve recently seen some new levels of dirt and rough spots in my own character. I’ve been bouncing around in the rock polisher for a while, but it seems that there are some crevices and pockets of dirt that go pretty deep. One of my temptations is the pursuit of success — for myself, but also for my kids. While I teach others that Christ is the only hope, I find myself fighting hard to play the academic game — and helping my kids to get all the tools they need to play the game, and win. While I espouse the intrinsic value of all people, I find myself hoping that my child is not in the same classroom as the troublesome kid who’s picking fights and acting aggressively. Did I mention that my kids have not yet entered kindergarten?

It has taken others who see my actions and motivations and walk alongside me to point out to me my inconsistencies. It takes others asking hard questions for me to realize that I’m saying one thing, but my actions are pursuing another goal. It takes others who are following Christ and have dealt with similar temptations honestly to challenge the assumptions, or point out the implications of my choice. And on my part it takes honesty and vulnerability. If I have some of one, and a teensy bit of the other, I consider it a success. Most of the time it’s hard to have both — that’s why I’m still in the rock polisher, bouncing around, but making some progress. I’m not done yet.

It’s an effort for me to stay in my rock polisher and not try to avoid the other rocks, pretending to already be polished. It’s tough to hear hard feedback about my own sharp edges, bumping up against others in the workplace, in my community, and in my family. It’s embarrassing to own my mistakes and failures. I would prefer to protect myself with a nice cushiony layer of defensiveness rather than have a posture that seeks out the sand grain of truth that might be present.

And yet, it is this honesty, this vulnerability, and this truth grappling together that give us relevance in a world that is gritty, dirty, and sharp. Our pretensions at being shiny and smooth offer nothing to those around us. Instead, they keep others at arm’s length while we excuse ourselves to gloat and toss out judgment and opinions. But it’s in our willingness to stay in the rock polisher, bumping into other rocks, that true depth, strength, and the transforming power of life with Jesus will be revealed.

About the Author

Nikki Toyama-Szeto serves as Program Director for InterVarsity’s triennial missions conference, Urbana. Before joining InterVarsity, she worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley. While on staff, Nikki served at Stanford, U of San Francisco, and UC Berkeley and helped develop and direct the Global Urban Trek, an urban immersion program designed to challenge students to use their majors on behalf of the world’s poor people. She is co-editor of the book More than Serving Tea, a collection of essays, stories, and poems looking at the intersection of race, gender, and faith for Asian American women. Nikki resides in Madison, Wisconsin, with her family.

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