Skipping Stones

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Have you ever noticed that, when skipping stones on a river, the object is not always to get the thinnest, most perfect rock you can find? Sometimes it’s better to throw one of the thicker, less-rounded stones. Sometimes the irregular stones are better. Sometimes--just sometimes--the heavier stones go further. And the same is true with life.

The trick to skipping stones is not all in the rock. A great deal depends upon how you throw the stone, the lateral “spin” you give it, and its angle when it hits the water. After many tries, proper wrist action can make up for almost any irregularity in the shape of your rock. And the number of skips on the surface is often directly proportional to the velocity and angle of the rock against the surface of the water. But not always.

I can remember choosing a very thin, almost perfectly rounded stone; I brushed off the dirt and mud that clung to it and then flung it out towards the water. I did everything right: I had cocked my wrist to give the stone a spin, I had angled the stone so that it would impact the water at about a 10 degree angle in the direction of it’s motion, and I had given it more than enough velocity.

It sank after just two skips! I was so disappointed.

Next I chose a larger rock, thick at it’s midpoint, irregular in its shape, and at least three or four times heavier than the first rock. It had the aerodynamics of a Methodist Hymnal -- which is to say, none at all. Well, I cocked my arm with just about all of my strength, intending to release that stone with a vicious spin. Unfortunately, I felt the rock slip in my fingers as I threw it, and its spin was off center just enough to make it wobble with vicious irregularity.

It skipped 6 times!

Life is definitely sometimes like that. You can be doing everything right: you’ve been careful in your planning, in your preparations, and in your dedication to what you’re sure is right. You put all of your energy and resources into your endeavors, you struggle to make everything perfect, but everything fizzles. You only get two skips.

Other times you apparently do everything wrong, and somehow everything turns out all right! You get six skips!


The Mountain Fork River, right below the old dam, is one of the clearest rivers I have ever seen in my life. It is actually possible, when casting, to see the fish go after your bait. The unfortunate thing about this is: if you can see the fish, the fish can see you. And so, when casting down by the old dam, it’s best to try and fish further out toward the middle--far enough away so that the little buggers can’t see you. It’s not obvious at first, but with practice you discover that it’s the only way to catch one.

But, be careful! To get your cast to go that far, you’ve got to put a lot of energy into it--and that can throw you off your balance and cause more problems than it’s worth. Furthermore, the rocks are very slippery and the trees behind you on the river bank like to catch your line when you’re on your backward cast. This makes for some frustrated thrashing and some colorful, unchristian like language, both of which will scare away the fish and make you look silly.

Sometimes the truth is staring us right in the face, only we’re too blind to see it. To put it simply: just as the really deep truths of this life are not always obvious, the really great successes of this life are not always our doing.

Sometimes it’s not worth it to try and catch that little goggle-eye, while just watching him play with your bait--as he watches you play with him--is worth it. Sometimes a perceived disadvantage is, in actuality, an incredible advantage.

Sometimes the size of the rock is not important. Sometimes the angle and speed of release is not important. Sometimes--just sometimes--the bigger, irregular rocks work better. And, quite often, we learn a lot more from failure than from success. We can throw all our effort into skipping stones, and they might or might not skip at all. We can cast far away and catch that fish, but we might not have nearly as much fun as watching the fish watch us.

You see, I am convinced that we rarely succeed by our own actions alone. And, when we do, we often times discover that it really wasn’t worth it. In my opinion, the joy is simply in the doing. Sometimes it’s fun to just watch as God works though our imperfections to make miracles happen. And that’s the whole point of skipping stones in the first place.

© 1995 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from