In Joshua 4, after the Lord miraculously stops the waters of the Jordan River so that the people of Israel are able to safely cross, Joshua invites one man from each of the twelve tribes to take up twelve stones from the riverbed. They are souvenirs from terrain the Israelites would never have been able to touch had it not been for the intervening hands of God. Joshua says these stones are to be a sign “in the time to come.”
One day their children will ask what these stones mean to them, and they will be able to say that the Lord broke through in their time of need, reshaping, with ease, the world they thought they knew. They had touched the cool, silty bottoms of a river that flowed mightily only moments before and had their doubts silenced by an overt display of power they revisit on days the wilderness becomes oppressive, and remember that the seemingly incontrovertible reality before them is only a veil.
Joshua has the Israelites leave river rocks at their first encampment after the crossing. They are a memorial inviting future generations to revisit the stories of what God has done, and to grasp the truth that Joshua and his generation learned and struggled to retain. They saw God as a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night. They saw him bring flocks of quail to the hungry, cause water to flow from rocks, leave manna thick upon the ground. At times their faith flickered and they succumbed to the belief that the world they saw was all that existed, but in other moments they realized that the world holds its form at his pleasure. At his command rivers stop, and in their place, highways appear.
I think about this story often in conjunction with Jesus’ words, quoted in Acts, that we will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Bearing witness to the presence of God is a joyous act that requires endless labor. He is so easily found and yet he and his ways can be difficult to remember. After the moments of clarity spent in the heat of his gaze, disorientation sets in, the world threatening to swallow and suffocate unless his words slice through like a knife and make me lucid once again. This is the gift I think Joshua is trying to give Israel’s children: a physical marker to remind that in God’s hands, reality is malleable, and his goodness is its ultimate arbiter.
How many times have I borne witness to the nearness of God? Seeing his goodness is not labor; it is a gift. Like the Israelites looking with wonder upon the ground strewn with manna, I am often surprised by kindness that I did not earn or expect. And like the Israelites in their forty years of intermittent complaining, I easily forget that it is his hands that have fed me, his presence that has comforted and shielded me. The endless labor of bearing witness comes after I see the miracle, in telling and re-telling the story so that I can remember and exhort others to remember what is real.
I tell versions of the same story over and over: I think I am in a wilderness until I catch sight of the Lord, hovering over me as he did at the dawn of creation, bringing form to the void and turning darkness to light. Once I see him I sound the call, as all creation is intended to do, that God is good, and he truly is all that he claims to be. In the end, I think this is my life’s work. I am part of a Church that has tried to map his movements for generations and I am a single member keeping the faith, rendering portraits of his love so that together, we see him in greater and greater relief.