When it came to his wardrobe, my grandpa was not easily manipulated, and not one to be dictated to by anything as unstable as a thermometer. No summer day, not even Virginia’s notorious ‘dog days’ of August, ever intimidated him into a short-sleeved shirt. Pa’s long-sleeved shirts were as much a trademark as his hat and that little half-smile he held in reserve for those rare incidents that were particularly hilarious.
‘Pa’ was not a man given to exhibitionism in any context, and his approach to men’s fashion illustrated that. He figured that since every button on his shirts was paired with a corresponding buttonhole, there was a purpose. The top button on a shirt was not a manufacturing accident, so he was careful not to overlook it in the process of buttoning all the rest of them. So, all of Pa’s buttons were buttoned, zippers were zipped, and had he lived to see Velcro, every ‘vel’ would have been securely ‘croed’. Protecting himself from unnecessary exposure was a characteristic that extended beyond his utilitarian approach to fashion. He kept other things protected and hidden as well, and I and my children are in many ways poorer for it.
One of the very few physical things I inherited from my grandpa, who was in every practical way a father to me in the early years, was a picture. It wasn’t one of those pictures like you often see of older guys from that era. You know the ones I mean, where a guy is just standing there rigid as a board with that deadpan, half-angry look, like he just discovered that he was tricked into getting all dressed up in his ‘funeral suit’ and nobody really died. The picture I got from grandpa was not one of those. It long and narrow—the longest photograph I ever saw as a kid. It was a picture of all the soldiers, including my grandpa, who comprised the 387th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, a unit activated on September 5, 1918. They were lined up in formation on the parade ground and officially memorialized on film. That brief moment of his life was captured with the click of a shutter nearly a hundred years ago, and now I have it. The sad thing is that I only have the memorial, I don’t have the memory. The monument was passed along, but I was not allowed to inherit the meaning.
That picture was taken near the end of World War I, a global conflict that saw the death of some nine million combatants and seven million civilians—lifeless statistics I learned from history books, not from my grandpa. Like my picture, monuments are just symbols. They have no capacity in and of themselves to transmit anything unless they’re connected a memory, unless there’s a story to be told. Monuments don’t experience life. People do. Monuments don’t think. They don’t feel. They can’t move on their own, and they neither love nor hate. Monuments simply assume their position and patiently wait to prod some living person to explain them.
God illustrated it this way:
“And it came to pass, when all the people had completely crossed over the Jordan, that the LORD spoke to Joshua, saying: “Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from every tribe, and command them, saying, ‘Take for yourselves twelve stones from here, out of the midst of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood firm. You shall carry them over with you and leave them in the lodging place where you lodge tonight.’
“Then Joshua called the twelve men whom he had appointed from the children of Israel, one man from every tribe; and Joshua said to them: “Cross over before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and each one of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you shall answer them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever.” (Joshua 4:1-6 NKJV)
Joshua’s command was clear, pick a guy from each tribe and have each one bring a rock up from the bed of the Jordan, carry it to the other side, and then stack them up at the camp. The rocks they picked up were just rocks, some bigger than others, and some shaped differently than others, but just rocks. They weren’t polished rocks, or engraved rocks, or rocks containing precious metals or valuable gemstones. They were just plain old nondescript ‘bottom of the river’ rocks that happened to be exposed because of the miraculous events that occurred on that day, to which, by the way, the rocks had contributed nothing.
We don’t know what any of the rocks in the pile looked like, or what they may have looked like once they were stacked up. Their only significance was attributed because of where they were that day. They were in the presence of a supernatural event, but wholly unable to observe it or feel it, and had no ‘memory’ that it ever happened. Those rocks were arguably the most lifeless part of the whole landscape, and helpless to ‘experience’ the awesome power of God in fulfilling His promise.
“Tell your kids about this pile of rocks,” God instructed. “Bring them here and tell them what they mean,” God said. The rocks couldn’t tell the story. They could only lay there in a pile, silently waiting for a chance to prod their visitors to re-live the event, to re-capture the glory, to remember and re-absorb all that the events of that day represented—and to re-tell the story. The rocks can’t remember, and none of them can talk, and without the memory, the rocks aren’t even a memorial anymore. They’re just another pile of lifeless rocks.
If rocks could feel, their hearts would break when God’s people quit bringing their kids, quit telling the stories, quit re-living His power in their lives—because when that stops, the story dies, and when the story dies, the glory dies with it.
© 2015 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
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