“Then Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, where the feet of the priests who bore the Ark of the Covenant stood . . .” Joshua 4:9
Always remember, we were created ‘in God’s image’ so we could know Him and enjoy Him without restraint.
All of us who grew up in traditional American Christianity are vulnerable to the confinements of what I call ‘prescriptive’ religious practice. That is, living out our faith with a more or less rigid template for worship, discipleship, stewardship, fellowship, and interaction with the world. We’ve chosen a certain ‘way we do this’ and in so doing we fulfill our service to God.
Institutional Christianity provides little encouragement for folks who ‘do it their way.’ Deviations from the norm create wrinkles in the otherwise smooth fabric of church life. But I suggest that the infinitely creative God we serve truly values the man or woman who responds more eagerly to the inner promptings of their spirit than to the common religious regimen.
This is not to say there’s any value in ‘different for difference sake,’ but only to imply that some really meaningful transactions between us and our God may be forfeited because we’re afraid to act on the overflow of our own heart. In that case, God and I both lose.
When my college friend Cory Nickerson texted me recently about a Facebook post, he reminded me of the stone monument Joshua erected to memorialize the miraculous crossing of the Jordan by Ancient Israel. I had just that day been thinking about writing this piece.
Crossing the Jordan into Canaan was a seminal event in Israel’s effort to conquer the inheritance pledged to Abraham almost 600 years prior. Interestingly, the river was at flood stage, overflowing its banks, when God spoke to Joshua (1:2) that it was time to take the land. Most of you know the story (Joshua 1-4). The Israelites prepared to move, the priests bore the Ark of the Covenant to the muddy banks of Jordan, and when their feet touched the water the flow of the river stopped, piling up somewhere upstream near Zaretan. I’ll just bet it was a mess up there!
As their crossing began God told Joshua to have twelve men, one of each tribe, to carry a large stone from the riverbed to the other side. Later, as they camped at Gilgal, Joshua erected a memorial out of those stones; “this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, ‘what do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall answer that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the Ark of the Covenant . . . . that all the earth may know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”
Almost nothing was done by the children of Israel that was not directed by God. They followed carefully His instructions through Moses, and then Joshua, and in their obedience they were blessed. God had them create a memorial to this great event that they might, generation to generation, recall His loving providence.
But I’ve always been intrigued by a single verse in this narrative; a verse which, for me at least, calls to my deepest self to do personal business with God. “Then Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests who bore the Ark of the Covenant stood, and they are there to this day.” (4:9) Why did Joshua do that? He hadn’t been instructed to do it. What was the point in it? The waters of the Jordan would shortly resume their flow and those stones would never be seen again!
The narrative, most likely written or dictated by Joshua himself, contains no explanation of its significance, no command to ever recall it again. At the very center of an historical occurrence so significant that is was to be rehearsed over and over for millenniums, stands this singular, and most curious act. I’ve spent hours contemplating it, and I always end up smiling inside.
In the summer of 2005, I began building a stone pillar on our land as a monument to prayer; ours, and the prayers of our friends and colleagues in ministry. Ron and Lydia Lewis had given me the sculpted hand that sat atop a great church in Phoenix, and I immediately was moved to erect a monument near the spot in the woods where I had prayed for 25 years. Why? I don’t really know, but I envisioned God looking at it with pleasure.
Those months spent hauling, sorting, and stacking stone were a precious time with the Lord. The purpose for it was of little account; the doing of it was the joy! It wasn’t important that no one would ever see it unless we took them to the spot. (When you get near our house you’re either coming to see us or you’re terribly lost!) There is no reason for it to be there except I wanted it to be there; for me, for my family, and I guess for whoever might eventually call this lovely place their home.
So perhaps in some small way I understand what Joshua meant by the stones in the riverbed. He was savoring the moment when God did for him something similar to what He had done for Moses 40 years before. He was the new leader, just beginning a long campaign to possess Canaan as God had commanded Abraham. His uncertainties were probably multitude; his challenges greater than he wanted to think about.
But for that moment, as he stood in the most unlikely of places, the middle of what should have been a torrent of muddy water, he was captured by the significance of it all . . . not for Israel, but for himself! He stood smack-dab in the middle of God’s purposes for him, and he was moved to do something to celebrate it. Shortly, no one would see again what he had done, but no matter; “I know it’s there, I know how it got there, and I know what God did for me that day! Praise God!”
We’re a joy to our Father, not when we’re useful, or productive, or successful (whatever that is), but when we express ourselves in glad response to His goodness and grace. Those spontaneous, sometimes funny, sometimes crazy things we do before the Lord may become a memory that sustains or energizes us in a challenging time ahead. Shout, dance, write, give, journey, fight, sing . . . who cares? Folks have always done things like that when they engaged the living God.
I once was so overcome with the presence of the Lord as I was working in a ditch that I jumped out and took off running as fast as I could in shorts and work boots. Doubtless, that looked pretty bizarre! After more than a quarter mile I stopped, laughing and weeping . . . . and I wasn’t even breathing heavily. “For by You I can run through a troop and leap over a wall.” Psalm 18:29
Don’t be afraid to get personal with God. Some of our most significant, and perhaps memorable acts are not for public consumption. The tides of time may roll over them, but for you they will always remain a present and most intimate connection with ‘the Power of the world to come.’ Do your thing. Do it for Him. Do it for you.