“..If these were to be silent, the very stones would cry out.”(Luke 19:40)
When I was growing up, I always felt very blessed that my brother and I had parents who were school teachers. For us it meant they had the summers off and those few months were usually filled with some sort of trip to some spot of the United States and oftentimes Canada that we hadn’t explored yet. Mom and Dad would offer up the usual vacations like camping or going to a water park, but my favorite trips were always the ones where we were learning about history, particularly American history. I loved the museums, the Civil War battlegrounds, the homes of former presidents. I was fascinated to be in locales where history happened. I soaked it all in. Well, most of the time anyway. When I was seventeen, we visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to view an exhibit of artwork from the Vatican. My mom and I had to share a headset and I fast-forwarded through the exhibit at record pace. I digress and I do chalk that incident up to teenage angst because I still love learning about our past.
I think it is important to remember our past, to know who we are and where we came from. It is important to be able to garner a sense of what is right and wrong from our history and what works and what doesn’t. Monuments are a good way of showing us our past. Joshua knew this when the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land. After they had crossed over the Jordan River into the Promised Land, they took twelve stones from the river, each representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Remember that this was a pre-literate society; they had no books or libraries. So like ancient peoples around the world, they marked important places and events with piles of stones. Think of the primitive stone cairns in Ireland and Scotland.
The Hebrews erected a monument to commemorate what happened at the Jordan River, so that the story would be remembered, and retold, as our text says: “that this may be a sign among you, when your children ask in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you shall tell them” about how God liberated their people from slavery, and led them through the river to freedom. “So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” That is to say, when your children ask, “What do these stones mean?” you will have stories to tell them, sacred stories that give them a foundation from which to live and grow: stories about who they are, and to whom they belong, about what life is for, and how to live.
As Americans we often build memorials or monuments to do just that. Just look to the bronze highway markers that dot the American landscape, the Washington Monument as it towers over our nation’s Capitol, or even the recently dedicated 9/11 Memorial in New York City that stands in silence to those we lost on September 11, 2001. One of my favorite, perhaps lesser known monuments stands in Buffalo, New York and it’s the Western New York Irish Famine Memorial. It commemorates the thousands of Irish immigrants who travelled to America to escape the Irish Famine and who eventually settled in Western New York. Part of the monument is a well surrounding the standing stone symbolizes “The Great Silence” — that period following in the Famine when no one dared speak of it. The biblical inscription in Irish below the standing stone is an expression of a culture and language and a memory nearly lost. It translates… “If these were to be silent, the very stones would cry out.” Irish-American descendants from all over this region banded together to raise funds and build this testament as a symbolic end to the silence and also to serve as a reminder of what our ancestors endured and the lives they led.
We also build memorials in our own families, on a much smaller scale of course. We don’t usually erect monuments out of stone to remind our children how to live, but we do leave legacies of memories and traditions of how we lived life and what was important to us. Jessica Clem – a wife, mom, breast cancer survivor, and someone who is facing death from lung cancer is someone who shows us what it means to leave a legacy behind for our children. She is leaving behind memories for her son, Carson – scrapbooks, videos, and a journal so he will have a sense of who she is and what she was like. But, she is also doing something that will have an impact on others that will be felt for decades after she is gone. Not wanting to be remembered as ‘the woman in the hospital bed’, Jessica set out to do something different. Her friends and family helped her plan what they called a “FUN-eral.” It was not only a part to celebrate her life, but also a way to raise funds for the William R. Bliss Cancer Center where she had received so much care and compassion.
Like Jessica Clem, the pilgrims and our founding fathers wanted to do something more; something for future generations. The pilgrims risked life and limb not for their own personal liberty, but for the sake of future generations. Our founding fathers risked their lives to ensure liberty for us as well. A monument of how they lived and what their lives meant stands proudly yet quietly in Plymouth Massachusetts. The Forefather’s monument in Pilgrim Memorial Park stands as a testament to the pursuits that motivated the Pilgrims to leave England and start their own colony. Dedicated on August 1, 1889, it honors their ideals as later embraced by the United States.
I have to admit, despite being a self-professed history buff, I had no idea this monument existed. My apologies to Sister Neil MacDonald, my high-school American History teacher, but I don’t recall ever learning about it. I recently watched “Monumental: In Search of America’s National Treasure”, a documentary by Kirk Cameron that shines a spotlight on the National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The statue is the heroic figure of “Faith” with her right hand pointing toward heaven and her left hand clutching the Bible. On four buttresses are seated figures symbolic of the principles upon which the Pilgrims founded their Commonwealth: Freedom, Morality, Law and Education. The actor and evangelist tells Christian Post, in an interview about this film, “Because I suspect our Forefathers knew we were a forgetful people, that someday we would lose our way as a nation. So they left us a map that would guide us back to the source of America’s success.” The Mayflower Compact and later the Forefathers Monument are those road maps.
Today if you were to drive by the monument grounds, the largest granite monument in the United States is obscured by trees and hardly visible. The recipe for America’s success, too, is also obscured from view. We don’t seem to be telling the story of America’s formula for success the way our forefathers intended us to. We don’t use our nation’s foundation as the key to keeping America successful. Today most of us don’t share the story of America with our children. As the poet says, “It had been so long since we believed…” Like the period after the Irish Famine was the “Great Silence” for Irish immigrants who didn’t want to talk about their struggles, we seem to find ourselves in a period of “Great Silence” when it comes to solving our nation’s woes.
Too many of us seem to think that we are beyond the tipping point and America as it once was is an ideal of the past and something beyond reach. The difficulties the nation is facing today can be healed if Americans return to relying on God, and not the government, for salvation. We live in a world now where most people look to the government to take care of all of their needs. They profess trust in God or trust in Christ, but then in practice, they are really trusting in Washington D.C. — take care of my health care, take care of my education, take care of my finances, take care of my overall happiness and well-being. Help me buy a house, and get a job. Give me free healthcare and pay my mortgage. People are actually looking to the government to be their savior and when you do that you give all the power to the savior you are depending on. “If our ancestors had that mindset hundreds of years ago, we would have never produced the most blessed, strongest, secure nation in the world that has then been able to send the Gospel out to the ends of the Earth,” Kirk Cameron said in his interview.
American citizens need to stop being on the defensive and go on the offensive. Kirk Cameron says in “Monumental” that the change does not begin at the White House, but at every American’s house. At the kitchen table, we need to start telling the story of America’s founding to our children. The truth is: stories are powerful. The stories we rehearse repeatedly, to ourselves and to each other, tell us what the world is. And they tell us what is “normal.” Normal today is reliance of the government for success and happiness. America’s story is headed in the wrong direction on so many levels. It’s obvious. If you have a spirit of discernment, you are keenly aware that we are not moving toward God nationally but away from God. But it’s not hopelessly moving in the wrong direction. There is always hope. Christ is our hope. And to the extent that we are walking in faithfulness toward God and we’re obeying His precepts and we’re trusting His Word and we’re teaching these things to our children, we can expect the protection of God — the blessing of God — and the healing of our families, of our nation. We know this from Scripture and we can see this in history. But to the extent that we walk away from that and abandon God, just like in Romans 1, God will hand us over to our foolishness.
Stories shape our perceptions and expectations, which in turn shape our behavior, which then generates new stories, in a kind of reality-creating spiral. If you want to change people’s lives, if you want to change society: tell different stories. Tell the story of our forefathers. We don’t need to travel to Plymouth physically to be reminded of the lessons our forefathers brought with them when they came to this country or to impart the story of the pilgrims’ success. We don’t need to be dealing with a life-threatening illness like Jessica Clem to know that our lives live on in the paths we set for future generations. Like the twelve stones at Gilgal, the mass of granite that sits atop a hill in Plymouth should serve as a reminder to us and our children. In his farewell address to our nation, President Ronald Reagan implored us to remember the pilgrims. The stones from the Forefathers’ Monument cry out to Americas imploring us to return to the values and principles the pilgrims brought with them in their search for freedom nearly 400 years ago. It’s the same strategy that Moses used with the Israelites: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and honor His world.” We must get involved with taking a real responsibility with our family life, particularly in the worldview that we teach our children. And then get involved in the process of electing leaders who are men and women of character. In that way, we will move forward by looking back.