No summer day, not even Virginia’s notorious ‘dog days’ of August, ever intimidated my grandpa into wearing a short-sleeved shirt. 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. His tendency toward understatement and concealing things that didn’t need to be exposed was a characteristic that extended to every part of his life.
Not the Usual Kind of Picture ~
One of the very few physical things I inherited from my grandpa, who was in every practical way a father to me in my early years, was a picture. It wasn’t one of those pictures you often see of a guy from that era where he’s standing there rigid as a board with a deadpan, half-angry look, like maybe his wife tricked him into wearing his ‘funeral suit’ and he discovered too late that nobody had really died.
My picture was encased in a black wooden frame about 18 inches long and 8 inches high — the biggest, longest photograph I had ever seen as a kid. The 387th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army was standing at attention, shoulder to shoulder, and arranged on a set of bleachers so that everyone’s face would be visible to the camera. Their role as defenders of America was officially memorialized on that day, September 5, 1918, and my grandpa was on the second row. One click of a shutter captured that brief moment of his life nearly a hundred years ago, and now I have it. The sad thing is that I only have the memorial, not the memory. The photographic monument was passed along, but I was not allowed to inherit the meaning.
Something’s Missing ~
That picture was taken near the end of World War I, a global conflict that saw the death of some 9,000,000 combatants and 7,000,000 civilians. Sadly, I learned those facts about ‘The Great War’ from history books, not from my grandpa. Like all monuments, my picture was just a lifeless symbol with no capacity to add anything or transmit anything beyond its presence.
Monuments need more than that — they need memories. Monuments are dead things. Memories live. Monuments don’t experience life. People with memories do. Monuments don’t think, can’t feel, and are powerless to move on their own. Monuments neither love nor hate. Monuments can only assume their position and wait until some living person comes along to explain them.
A Peculiar Command with a Memorable Lesson ~
In bringing His people into the Promised Land, God highlighted their predicament when He issued this unusual command:
“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… And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever.” (Joshua 4:1-6 NKJV)
The rocks they picked up were just rocks, different shapes and sizes, and maybe some variation in color, 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 in their presence—events to which, by the way, they contributed nothing.
We don’t know what any individual rock looked like or what the finished monument looked like when they were all stacked up. Their only significance was that they were in the presence of a supernatural event. They didn’t observe anything, feel anything, or remember anything. They were just a lifeless part of the landscape, helpless to experience or explain anything about the astounding power of God.
God made His intention clear. He told His people to tell their children what those stones meant. The implication was that they were to bring them to that place, for that purpose. Those rocks alone explained nothing. Their silent sentinel could only prod their visitors to revisit that day, to watch again as the Jordan parted, to be amazed again at what God was doing, to remember the glory, and to re-tell the story. The rocks couldn’t remember, and none of them could tell the story. Without a ‘memory’ to share, the rocks are no longer a ‘memorial’. They’re just a pile of rocks.
Rocks with Broken Hearts?
If those rocks had been granted the ability to feel, their hearts would have been broken, because God’s people eventually stopped bringing their kids, stopped telling the stories, and ceased to re-live His power in their lives. They weren’t really a memorial anymore – just a lifeless bunch of stones. If we strip Memorial Day from its memories, then its monuments mean nothing. Our symbols have no voice of their own; and whether it’s a cross hanging around our neck, or a statue in a park, or the picture of a loved one in a uniform, if we stop telling the stories, then they’re not really memorials anymore. If we reduce Memorial Day to no more than another reason to grill hotdogs, then we’ve turned it into just another meaningless ‘pile of rocks’.
© 2017 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
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