Digging deep and leaving no stone unturned

Mar 15, 2024 | INSIGHTS, READ

I am always interested in digging out the origin of words and phrases, and I know I am not alone in this! So I decided to investigate the story behind one of my favourite phrases, ‘Leave no stone unturned.’

When Xerxes, the Persian leader who had launched a massive but ultimately unsuccessful invasion of Greece in 480 BC, was defeated at the great naval battle of Salamis, he left Mardonius behind to carry on the war in his name. When he too was defeated and took to flight, a rumour rose suggesting that he had left an immense amount of treasure buried in the ground near his tent.

It is said that a Theban called Polycrates bought the ground in the hope of finding this hoard. Having failed to do so, he went to consult the oracle of Delphi (as people did in those days, rather as the superstitious consult their horoscopes or Nostradamus today). Here, the high priestess of Apollo told him to ‘Move every stone’ – which he did and, so the legend tells us, which led to him discovering the treasure. A thousand and more years later, the great Renaissance theologian-philosopher Erasmus took up the phrase and shaped it to become, ‘Leave no stone unturned.’

It is an excellent principle to take to heart. While we can safely leave the oracles of Greek gods aside, there are times when searching out the treasures of the one true God requires considerable perseverance and determination. Sometimes there are many stones to be held up before Him in prayer as we ‘try things for size’ in prayer and the company of the Holy Spirit. We have a far greater certainty of finding treasure in the field God appoints us to, than did Polycrates!

The gifted nineteenth century composer Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) was one who turned over many, many stones. He was following up a strong conviction that Franz Schubert had left behind many lost and unpublished scores. Too poor to afford manuscript paper, Schubert had scribbled much of his most precious music down on anything he could lay his hands on, from napkins in cafes to brown wrapping paper – but had all of it perished?

In company with England’s top musicologist, Sir George Grove, Sullivan went on a mission of exploration to Vienna to visit one of Schubert’s relatives, who, as it turned out, had piles of his manuscripts stowed away in a cupboard where the dust had lain undisturbed for fifty years.

And here the two men unearthed musical gold: two of Schubert’s symphonies, and some of his finest chamber works. What a wonderful find!

But Sullivan was not satisfied. He had not found what he had really come in search of: Schubert’s overture to the opera Rosamunde. Persuading Sir George to go back to the house again, the partners continued their searching and turning over of piles. And this time they found, in a parcel stashed right at the back of the cupboard, a score which has ever since brought much delight to lovers of classical music.

Delighted by their discoveries, Sullivan and Grove left the house at 2am and went and played leap frog in the road! Praise God for those who are willing to leave no stone unturned. What might He have you search out in this coming year?

Digging deep into the words of Christina Rossetti’s poem
I wonder how many of us heard or sang the beautiful carol, ‘In the bleak midwinter,’ over Christmas? And who of us could not but ponder deeply the question of the final verse, ‘What can I give Him, poor as I am?’
The poet, Christina Rossetti, offers some suggestions. ‘If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb, if I were a wise man, I would do my part.’
Few of us are shepherds, and not many would claim to be wise. And perhaps we feel that we don’t have much to offer, and that we are just not good enough to really play our part for the Lord. But this is not the Lord’s view of the matter. Christina herself had reason to feel that way; like her father, she knew more than her share of depression. But she dug deep, wrote prolifically, and devoted ten years of her short life to working with Anglican nuns to restore abused women. Praise God for her.
May we come to the conclusion that she did, and say together, ‘What I can I give Him? Give Him my heart.’ Is that not that the heart and essence of everything?

Digging deep and seeking to leave no stone unturned – Lift up your heads

Paul drew his first letter to the Corinthians to a close (apart from adding a few personal remarks at the very end), with a series of short injunctions and exhortations:

Be watchful and on your guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong (resolute). Let everything that you do be done in love. (1 Cor. 16:13-14)

Watch, because it is so easy to drop our guard miss the Lord’s leading – or at least fail to pick up on all the details the Lord would have shown us had we watched and waited longer.

When we sense that something is important, that we should get in touch with someone perhaps, may we not put that thought off and leave it as a ‘Good Intention’, but rather have the determination to make the connection and to follow up on that lead.

Watch and stand firm, because both Jesus and the apostles warned us that there are so many distracting things around that would draw us away from pursuing our main calling.

In years gone by, we often used to come across Godfrey Birtill, and sometimes worked with that inspired troubadour who wrote such inventive words and tunes. After reading Paul’s exhortation to be ‘brave and to act like men’ (there is nothing sexist here: both genders are implied and included because the apostle was also writing to the women in the church) it is no surprise that the words of Godfrey’s version of his relative’s hymn, Lift up your heads by James Montgomery, came to mind. One stanza includes the words,

O fear not, faint not, halt not now
Don’t quit, like men be strong
To Christ shall every nation bow
And sing with you this song

Paul knew very well that nothing of lasting value is ever accomplished for the Kingdom without courage. The only other requirement he insists on is that everything be done in love, because that is much the distinctive hallmark of Christ that he repeats himself for double emphasis. Love it is that keeps at bay the spirit of dissension that otherwise so easily divides and hinders godly initiatives. Love is the summing up of all that he had written in this epistle. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13, 14:1; Col 3:14)

Here is Godfrey’s song, Lift up your heads:

To follow that, many of you will undoubtedly be interested too in a unique recording that was recently sent out from Israel on behalf of the hostages held in Gaza. From our perspective, it leaves us free to expand the scope of the prayers the music inspires, just as the Spirit leads us. May multitudes around the world who must wait and watch, often in lonely, uncomfortable and dangerous places, find their way into His loving embrace.

Come, Spirit of God, direct our hearts and minds as we lift people to You now in prayer.

Photo by Janusz Maniak on Unsplash

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