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Living Stones

A Tribute to Dona Belle Bratcher, and to Heritage

Joshua 4:19-24 - Mothers’ Day - Weatherford, OK

Dennis Bratcher


A couple of weeks ago, I attended a performance of the Fiddler on the Roof. The play is interesting because of the diversity of the characters, the music, and the sometimes subtle humor.

But it is the story itself that is especially gripping. It deals with tradition, with change, and with the struggle to hold onto what is important amid the shifting circumstances of life. The story is told through Tevye, a poor Jew living in Russia in the early 20th century century. Immense changes are on the horizon. The social turmoil seething in the country would soon break out into the Russian revolution.

But Tevye doesn’t know that. He only senses that the world is changing. Like the fiddler who plays while balanced precariously on the roof, Tevye must find a way to balance who he is and what he believes with the realities of a changing world.

In his opening song Tevye sings about tradition. For him, the traditions of the past, of his community, and of his faith, give stability to his life. Tradition helps him define the world and himself by something beyond the small peasant community where he lives. For him tradition is an anchor point that cannot be touched by the prejudices of the people around him, by the persecutions against his faith and his people, or by the shifting whims of political rulers. Tradition provides the balance.

Yet, as the story unfolds, Tevye begins to realize that tradition is not something cast in concrete and unchangeable. His five daughters are growing up. He soon realizes that they have grown up in a different world than he did. At first they make minor decisions which do not fit with his understanding of tradition. He struggles with trying to decide exactly what is important enough for which to change, and what he must held on to. He weighs the options. On the one hand, tradition. On the other hand, change. Each time, he decides that sometimes tradition must bend to keep pace with a changing world, and for the sake of people.

But the choices of his daughters escalate until finally one daughter wants to marry a non-Jew. He is not only of a different faith, he is a Russian soldier who has been involved in the persecutions of the Jewish community. Tevye cannot bend that far and disowns the daughter. As he says, "If I bend that far, I will break." Tevye will not give up his tradition.

Finally, though, he bends far enough to make a move of reconciliation toward his daughter. The story ends with the family going different directions. Three of his daughters have moved away. He and his remaining family are forced out of their home by renewed persecutions against the Jews.

Tevye and his family journey into an unknown future -- followed by the fiddler, the symbol of tradition. It is the tradition, finally, that will help them keep their balance no matter what comes, even when the tradition itself must be shown the way. It is the shared traditions that bind them together, even when everything around them is changing. And it is their shared heritage that provides them the base from which they can change when change is necessary.

The Questions

We don’t hear as much talk today of traditions and heritage. In fact, in many church circles ‘tradition’ is almost always used in a negative sense. It is used to describe the old, dead ways that stifle growth. It describes the lifeless past that has no potential and from which our modern world has escaped. "Tradition" is often contrasted with the new, freer ways of the present.

This is especially true in spiritual matters. From our church background in the revival movements of the middle 1800s, most of us are accustomed to focusing on present experience. That is important. In fact, it was John Wesley’s emphasis on experience in spiritual matters and religion of the heart that has shaped much of American revivalism and the holiness movement of which we are a part.

Yet, as important as that is, the emphasis on present experience makes it difficult for us to understand the significance and power past encounters with God held for the Israelites and early Christians. And sometimes it blurs our own sense of tradition and the value and impact of heritage on us and our children.

The Jews have always understood the importance and power of tradition. And the early Christians understood, too. In fact, most of our grandparents understood.

Many of the questions we face today are the same as they were for Tevye. How do we, as Christians, respond to a changing world? How do we balance our experience of the past with a world that did exist even five years ago? How do we teach our children what is important, when so much is changing so rapidly? How shall we prepare them to face the 21st century? How do we maintain a moral and spiritual balance amid the relativism of modern culture?

How far can we bend before we break? If we do not bend, will we simply become irrelevant to the modern world and lose the people we are trying to hold on to with the tradition? How do we face an unknown future?

I would suggest that our answers do not all lie in the present. There are many biblical passages that deal with these questions. Perhaps by hearing the message of one of them speak to us, we can begin to understand ourselves, and our heritage, better.

Crossing of Jordan Joshua 4:19-24

19 On the tenth day of the first month the people went up from the Jordan and camped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. 20 And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan.  21 He said to the people of Israel, "In the future when your descendants ask their fathers, 'What do these stones mean?'   22 then you shall let your descendants know, 'Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.'  23 For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The LORD your God did to the Jordan just what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over.  24 He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always reverence the LORD your God."

The Story

The setting of this story is no doubt familiar to most readers of the Bible. The Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt by Pharaoh for several hundred years. When the oppression became unbearable, they cried out to God for deliverance.

And God heard their cries. God had raised up Moses and had empowered him to deliver the Israelites from the bondage of Pharaoh. The conflict was set. Moses and Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; against Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods. But it was really no contest. God brought the plagues and the death of the Egyptians' first-born. God parted the waters of the Sea of Reeds and allowed the Israelites to escape. God even protected the fleeing slaves with a cloud of fire.

Repeatedly, Moses told Pharaoh and the people that God was doing those great and wondrous things so that they might know that he was God. And the Israelites believed in God and in His servant Moses. So now, after forty long years of struggle in the desert, their descendants were crossing the Jordan to enter the land. Joshua was their leader now and they were finally going home.

The story of the crossing of the Jordan told here takes two whole chapters at the beginning of Joshua. The people have prepared for their entry into the land by sending out spies. They have been assured by the spies and by God that they will be able to enter the land.

The Jordan river was all that lay between them and the land of Canaan. Normally the Jordan was a small river that could be easily forded. However, during the Spring the melting snows in the mountains turned the river into a torrent. It spread out over the flood plain and could be as much as a mile wide. But Joshua assured the people that God was about to do something wonderful so that they might know that He was their God and that He was with them!

As the priests carried the ark of the covenant into the flooded river, the waters stopped flowing. The people crossed easily. After they had all crossed, the river again began to flow. God had again entered history and had brought a wonderful deliverance to His people!

The Significance of the Story

Here, if the story is to have meaning for us today, we need to slow down and hear how the writer tells us the story. We need to ask: "What is the author communicating here? What does he want us to hear about God, about us, and how we should respond to God?"

Of course, the crossing of the river is the central event portrayed here. But throughout the story there is an added dimension that catches our attention. "Stones" are an important part of this story. The people take stones from the river and place them in a heap. The end of the story is not the crossing of the river, but the pile of stones they raise, and their significance.

The story itself tells us the purpose of the heap of stones. They are to be a memorial of this event. When those who come later, those who have not experienced this great revelation of God, see the stones and ask about them, then the story of God's great act for the people is to be recounted.

21 "In the future when your descendants ask their fathers, 'What do these stones mean?' 22 then you shall let your descendants know, ‘Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.’

And the story is to be told for a specific reason. It is not to be just a story about national origins or something told to entertain the kids. They are to tell the story so that the people might know "that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always reverence the LORD your God." Later generations need to know who God is and what he can do! Sometimes even the ones who have witnessed God’s actions need to remember.

Here is where we sometimes struggle to understand the story. If we are not careful, this event becomes simply a memorial to a long past event that really has little meaning for us, beyond saying, "Yeah that was neat, how God did that. Nice history!" And the stones become simply another cold, lifeless monument to the past.

What was so critical about these piles of stones for the Israelites? Why was it so important that the people retell the story, and know its meaning ?

If we think ahead, like Paul Harvey, to the rest of the story for a moment, maybe we will begin to understand the significance of this pile of stones.

The Israelites will go on and enter the land, their promised land. But it will not be easy. As they move away from the Jordan River, things will never again be the same for them. Most of them were born in the desert and they have lived their whole life there. They know the desert. Now, they are moving into a unknown land and an unknown future that they cannot imagine.

They will face well fortified walled cities. On foot, armed only with stone and bronze weapons, they will face fierce, chariot mounted Philistines with iron weapons. Untrained in warfare, they will be outnumbered by skilled Canaanite warriors. Worst of all, they will encounter the fertility religions of the Canaanites and be lured into the worship of Baal. They will forget God.

They face a rough future. Oh, God will help them. Jericho's walls will fall. At Gibeon, the sun will stand still for Joshua. Gideon will rout a Midianite army with only earthen jars and 300 men. David will kill Goliath. God will do great things for His people.

But in between the great acts of God, the people will have to live in a real world. They will have to grapple with day to day living. And they will get discouraged. After the great victory at Jericho will come the defeat at Ai. After the miracle at Gibeon will come the failures recorded at the opening of Judges. After Gideon defeats the Midianites, he will turn to building Baal idols. And after David kills Goliath, he will also kill Uriah the Hittite to hide his adultery.

You see, these Israelites who now stand on the banks of the Jordan after a great miracle, will experience times when they will not be able to see by their present experience that God is God at all. There will be times when they will not be sure if God is present among them. There will be times of defeat, of discouragement, of despair. There will be times of no miracles. There will be times when their world is thrown into such chaos that they will be able to see no future at all.

It is in those times, perhaps most of all, that they will need to look back and know that the hand of the LORD is powerful. In those times they will need a reference point. When they cannot prove God's presence by their own experience, when they do not know how to adapt to a changing world, they will need to be able to look back and know from past encounters that God is God. They will need an anchor point.

They will need to be able to look at that pile of stones by the Jordan River and say, "We are not sure right now about God's presence, but we know for certain that God is God because this pile of stones bears witness to Him."

Part of the responsibility of the community was be sure that future generations knew the story and the meaning of the stones for just such occasions. This pile of stones was to be that anchor point, a point of reference for later times when the path would not be so clear.

For you see, these stones are not just stones. They are far more than a pile of rocks on the bank of a river. These stones are a heritage, a tradition. These stones are the "fiddler on the roof," the tradition that balances the known past and an unknown future. They are a way to recall who the people are, who God is, and therefore what they should do and be as God’s people. The stones become a beacon that shines far beyond the banks of the Jordan, far beyond the time of Joshua, and tell of far more than parting waters.

They are a signpost from the past to the future. They are a marker by which they can stand in their present, look to the past, and then draw a straight line into an unknown future. They are a way to define the present, and the future, by means of the past.

They cannot know where to go until they know where they are. And they cannot know where they are until they know where they have been.

Straight Lines

During high school I worked on a farm during the summer. One of my responsibilities was changing irrigation pipe. Twice a day the 30-foot long sections of pipe had to moved sixty feet over in the field to water the entire field. After learning to balance 30-foot long sections of 3-inch pipe, the greatest challenge was to lay the pipe in a straight line so that all the crop would be watered.

Moving the pipe in row crops like cotton was no problem because I could just count over so many rows and lay the pipe down the row. But it was not quite so easy in open fields like alfalfa.

There was one field that was especially tricky. It was about an eighty acre field that sloped up a gently rolling hill. Just about the middle of the field the hill crested and the rest of the field was down the other side. That meant I could not see the other end of the field from where I started setting pipe. I knew it was there, I just couldn't see it.

The first few times I laid pipe in that field it was a mess. I would move the first few sections of pipe over and they would look straight. But then when I got further out in the field I could see that the pipes were straight, but ran at an odd angle out into the field.

Then I would try to correct for that and before long the row of pipe looked like a six-year-old had laid them. What made matters worse was the hill. Once I topped the hill and started laying down the other side, I couldn't tell where the row of pipe started in the field, and so had no way to keep them in line. After some remarks from the owner about the intelligence level of people who couldn't lay a straight row of pipe, I was ready to go back to throwing papers.

But one day as I again went to work proving my intelligence to the boss, I noticed that about 3/4 of a mile behind me there was another low, flat topped hill. On the horizon across that hill was an old CCC shelter belt of cedar and elm trees. It struck me that if I could pick out a tree on that hill and lay the pipe in line with that tree, I might be able to lay a straight row. And I might even be able to see that tree on the other side of the slope. It worked! I ended up with a row of pipe so straight that it actually impressed the boss.

You see my problem had been that once I got out in the middle of the field, I needed a reference point. Although I knew generally where I was going, I couldn't see how to get there. I couldn't see where I was going, but I could see where I had been. So I used the reference point of that tree and the line of pipe that I had already laid to guide me in laying the next one.

Do you see the significance of this pile of stones in Joshua 4? They are the anchor point. They tell the people where they have been. They tell them who God is. And they tell them what God can do. These stones allow them to draw a straight line from the past acts of God into their uncertain present, and beyond.

The Exodus - Passover

There is one other interesting feature of the story in these verses. It is in the last part of verse 23.

The LORD your God did to the Jordan just what he had done to the Reed Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over.

This reference back to the exodus from Egypt is significant here. The exodus was also one of those anchor points in the past for the Israelites. I don't think it is any accident that the exodus event is remembered in this passage as a time when God did great things.

There was no pile of stones to remember the exodus, at least not physical ones. But there was a service of worship that the people regularly observed to remind them of God's acts in the past.

In Exodus 12-13 we read about the Passover service that was used in later generations to proclaim how God had revealed himself and brought deliverance to a bunch of slaves. Twice in the instructions for keeping Passover, the people are told that the significance of that event was to be observed faithfully throughout the generations (12:14, 25-27).

14 "This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD-- a lasting ordinance.

25 When you enter the land that the LORD will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony.  26 And when your children ask you, 'What does this service mean to you?'   27 then tell them, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.'" Then the people bowed down and worshipped.

And again in chapter 13:14:

14 "In days to come, when your son asks you, 'What does this mean?' say to him, 'With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

Why was it so important to commemorate this event by a ritual? Again, if we think ahead in the story, the same reasons emerge as in Joshua 4.

The Israelites had escaped from Egypt through God's great deliverance. But ahead of them lay the desert with all of its perils. They will grow discouraged. They will fail. They will wonder where the God of the exodus is. They will turn to the worship of a golden calf. They will even want to return to Egypt and slavery.

It will be a long journey between the exodus and the crossing of the Jordan. In that gap between the great revelations of God in history, the people will have to live in a real world. They will experience times when they will not be able to see by their present experience that God is God at all. There will be times when they will not be sure if God is present among them.

In those times, they will need to look back and know that the hand of the LORD is powerful. In those times they will need an anchor point. When they cannot prove God's presence by their present experience, they will need to be able to look back and know from past encounters that God is God.

They will need to be able to draw on the tradition and heritage of their family and community and say, "We are not sure right now about God's presence, but we know for certain that God is God because once we were slaves in Egypt but God brought us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm."

Notice the plural back in Joshua 4:23.

The LORD your God did to the Jordan just what he had done to the Reed Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over.

But those people had not crossed the Reed Sea with Moses; their parents and grandparents had. They were not just remembering their heritage; they were living their heritage. They had drawn a straight line from the exodus, through that pile of stones on the banks of the Jordan, on into an uncertain future.

The Last Supper

So, I don't think it was any accident that as Jesus sat with the twelve disciples and commemorated the crossing of the Reed Sea at Passover, that he drew the line again. Jesus asked the disciples to remember the new action of God in history that was unfolding before their eyes. As Jesus took the bread and passed the cup, he asked them to remember Him through the ceremony. He was building a new pile of stones.

Why would they need a special symbol to remember Jesus? Why was it so important that they commemorate Jesus in this way? Again, let's look ahead. Mark's gospel records that immediately after the last supper, Jesus and the disciples went out to the Mount of Olives.

And Jesus said to them, "You will all fall away; for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.'"

The disciples would face a rough future. Oh, there will be the empty tomb and the joy of Easter morning. But there will also follow persecutions. They will grow fearful and discouraged. They will fail. They will wonder if Jesus really was who he said he was.

They will have to live most of their lives in a very real world, in a world in which resurrections don't happen everyday. They will experience times when they will not be able to see by their present experience that God is God at all. There will be times when they will not be sure if God is present among them. They face an unknown future.

In those times, they will need to look back and hear the promise, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age." In those times they will need an anchor point. When they cannot prove God's presence by their own experience, they will need to be able to look back and know from past encounters that God is God.

They will need to be able by their participation in the heritage and traditions of the community to say, "We are not sure right now about God's presence, but we know for certain that Jesus is Lord because once we stood and looked into an empty tomb."

As those disciples lived in a real world of prisons, of scourgings, of persecutions, of Roman crosses, they had to have an anchor point. They had to have a reference point by which they could chart a path through an uncertain world. So they remembered. Their pile of stones was a hill called Golgotha, a cross, and the Son of God saying, "Remember Me!"

Heritage, Past and Future

So how do we face the uncertainty of a future that we cannot control, in a world not of our own making, in the face of events that do not bend to our will?

I don’t know about you, but I live in a very real world. I cannot always see God at work in miraculous ways. I know He is there, but I do not always know what decisions to make because I do not know how things will go. Events change too fast. How do we face a future that we cannot imagine? We look back at the heritage of the Reed Sea. We look back at that pile of stones on the banks of the Jordan. And we listen to those who tell us of an empty tomb.

But there is even more than that. There are piles of stones in our own lives that others have left for us. Stones that come from the life experiences of others who have faced their own armies of Pharaoh, and then turned to find the waters of the Reed Sea parted. Those who have seen their own walls of Jericho fall. Those who have seen their own lives empowered by a God who is really God!

They have told us their story. And when their children have asked, "What do these stones mean?" they have said, "I met God here, and I know that the hand of the LORD is powerful. And I want you to know so that you might always reverence the LORD your God."

And so, before we knew first hand for ourselves, we saw the piles of stones and learned the lessons of heritage and tradition. Not the stale tradition of facts and ritual, but the tradition of living encounters with God, the heritage of living stones that speak to us of God, and his work in the lives of His people. We can look at our piles of stones and draw a line from them to where we are. So we understand how we got here. And we understand who we are, and what we must do.

Our task is to take that line drawn through those piles of stones in the past and extend it into a future that we do not know. But it is a future that we can face because we have a reference point, a stability, a faith that even though we cannot see the end of the journey, we know how it is headed, because we can see the piles of stones stretching behind us plotting our course. That is what it means to have faith, to journey into the future backwards. That is the only way we can know where we are going!

Our task is also to leave those piles of stones for our children and others so that they may ask what the stones mean. And we will tell them the story so they may know that God is God, and so also guide them into an uncertain world.

Heritage: Living Stones

I have a great heritage, a heritage God has used to shape my life. I remember the people in the church where I grew up. Jim Tedder. Rosa Taylor. Vera Teasley. And so many others. They all left left piles of stones that I have seen and that God has used to mark my path. That church community was a place where I asked a lot of those questions about the meaning of piles of stones. They told me the story. And they lived the story. And I understood.

We are honoring mothers today. My mother was Dona Belle Bratcher. I could give you a lot of details about her and her life. But there is one way of describing her that she would like, and that would really summarize who she was. If there is one thing that mother did, she left a lot of piles of stones. Not that God favored her more or did more for her. It was just that she understood about heritage, about faith, about commitment to God, and about telling the story. But Mom didn’t just tell the story. She lived it. In fact, most of the piles of stones that Mom left were not even words, but a life lived in total commitment to loving God and loving other people. Mom was a living pile of stones bearing witness by her life of who God is and what He does.

Maybe that is what Peter meant when he referred to God’s people as living stones, who were to "declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:1-9). A living stone. An anchor point. Someone who had met God, and then told the story. Someone from whose life you could get your bearings when you faced an unknown future. Someone who provided a solid place to stand from which to face a changing world. A living stone marking the way. That was Dona Bratcher.

I hope and pray that by God’s grace I may build as many piles of stones with my life as I have found in others. And that I may follow Jesus, Dona Bratcher, and many others of God’s people, in becoming a living stone. So that when those who come after me ask, "What do these stones mean?" I can say, "Let me tell you the story of God and His grace!"

That is my heritage.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2019, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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