catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 15 :: 2004.09.24 — 2004.10.07


Love is a pile of rocks

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the local industrial coffee barn, and I walked to the counter and asked for a grande . . . latte . . . vente . . . no comprende. "That'll be $1.95," the barista said, so I dug into my pockets, and, not caring that I wasn't in the third grade, I dumped 39 nickels on the counter. During my four-year tenure here at Covenant Theological Seminary, I have collected $9.35 in nickels, all from the drink machine on the far left in the mailroom. Everytime I walk by, I remember to glimpse into the change slot, and, quite often, there's a nickel waiting for me.

On the way home from the coffee barn, I turn off Ballas Road onto Conway, and I almost hit the car in front of me, the car having stopped right in the middle of the road. I'm perturbed . . . start to pass in the turning lane . . . then it takes off again . . . then stops again . . . and I become visibly upset, raising my hands in the air and putting my forehead on the steering wheel. Then the car turns into St. John's hospital, and I realize what a fool I am: Here's this person most likely stressed out, in the middle of some traumatic situation, not sure where to go, and I'm signalling disgust for him. I feel so ashamed, so much so that when I approach the seminary, I drive past the entrance and make a block so the people behind me, who saw my display, don't connect me with Covenant. A day later, I'm coming home from somewhere else, and I do the very same thing.

How is it that I remember to check for nickels every time I enter the mailroom, but I forget myself when I pass St. John's?

Before we get to Joshua 4, Israel has been rescued from Egypt, been spared in the wilderness, and is now crossing the Jordan, bound for Canaan, the promised land. Israel is between redemption and consummation, between salvation and promise. They're so close they can smell the honeysuckle and their eyes are wide, the color of milk. God has just stopped the Jordan River for them, and the people are looking at each other confidently and knowingly, maybe even laughing; the men are thinking about their fathers who couldn't be there; Joshua is thinking of Moses, maybe, and there are just a few more days to go and a battle to prepare for and a promised land to inherit and God says "build a pile of rocks." Build a pile of rocks.

New Testament Israel, God has delivered you from bondage to sin and then over and over and your promised inheritance is so close you can feel it breaking in and there are just a few more days to go and some battling left to do and God has convinced you that he is trustworthy enough to deliver you in the future "and build a pile of rocks." A pile of rocks.

We're the same, God having delivered me over and over. He has proved himself trustworthy to me, through experience and the teaching I've received here about my identity and security. I delight in the breaking in of promise, and I have been overwhelmed to see him use me as part of that breaking in. If you know me, you know that I love to write; that's because I can sense God breaking in through writing, so much so that I applied to graduate school to pursue this calling.

Two weeks ago, I woke up, walked into the bathroom to take a shower, leaned over the sink, hands on the counter, and stared at myself in the mirror for 30 seconds. Then I started talking to myself: ?Are you kidding me? You?re such a joke. Get real. You can?t writein the next room on my desk was my second rejection letter from grad schoolyou?re worthless.? Then I looked at my left shoulder in the mirror, where the Hebrew word ?chesed? is tattooed. Chesed, God?s covenant love for His people, God?s promise to be their God, God?s devotion and loyalty to me.

God had proved his love for me over and over in the past, and it took black ink on my left shoulder to remind me.

I?m not surprised. You do this, too: Sin has reached even our memories.

God calls us over and over in Scripture to ?remember these things,? ?recall these words,? ?do not forget what I have done,? and he relates our ability to remember directly with our ability to keep the covenant, with our ability to love him. But I can?t even remember your name, and I just met you eight seconds ago, so what hope do I have? What is God doing to redeem our memories? God says, ?Build a pile of rocks.?

The same God who watched Israel forget him and worship a golden calf and forget their previous situation and complain about manna, this God is fully aware of our memory problem, so what does he do?

God allows us to love him by association, allows us to remember him by association. Why is this important?

Since being converted in college, I have been fortunate to sit under good teaching, first through Reformed University Fellowship, a campus ministry, and then here at Covenant Seminary, and all that time, my teachers, out of a concern to teach grace, have rightly driven a stake into legalism, pharisaism, and the external accoutrements that are so disdainful to God. But somewhere along the process, someone, maybe I, forgot to drive a stake between that abuse and its proper use. There is a legitimate connection between my mind and my hands, between the internal and the external. That?s why I feel uncomfortable singing about lifting my hands to the Lord and my hands are in my pockets. Why I wish we had kneeling benches in our churches when we ?bow before the Lord in prayer.? Why I can?t help opening my eyes during grace to see all the beautiful food that we are thanking the Lord for.

If the abuse of externals, of associations, doesn?t negate the proper use, and God truly has condescended to allow us to love him by association, then what is the proper use of these externals, of associations?

Two things. First, we must nurture the associations God has given us. Second, we must love beyond the associations.

So, first, we must nurture the associations God has given us. That leaves us with two more questions: What are the associations? And how do we nurture them?

When I say ?nurture,? I?m talking about training our memories, training them to build the right piles of rocks. We are not casual observers, having no influence on the formation of our memories. Our memories are connected to and triggered by associations, associations that we have the ability to change, to nurture. For instance, when I prepare for an exam, rather than sit by and hope I remember the material, I study in the room, with the pencil, in the seat where I?ll be taking the test, so that at test time, my memorization of names and places and doctrines are associated with the buzzing lights, wood veneer desktops, the scratching of pencil, and when I take the exam, the presence of these things helps trigger my memory for the answers. I remember a lecture on pornography a few years back, and, by way of negative example, the lecturer said that the lingering effects of pornography on memory are strengthened if the pornography is associated with masturbation or some other form of sexual release. Trigger.

So, we have the ability, the responsibility, to nurture the associations God has given us.

What are they? What are the right piles of rocks?

. . .And command them, saying, ?Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan. . . and the people of Israel did just as Joshua commanded. (Joshua 4:3a & 8a)

The primary association, and it?s so obvious that it?s easy to miss, is God?s word. God does not say, ?Go play with the rocks; build as you wish?; otherwise, the people would be competing to see who could build the tallest tower, the children would be skipping them across the Jordan, someone would be re-enacting David & Goliath. He gives specific direction, specific words for building the stones.


God?s word is the first association that we must nourish. Look at verse 6 of Chapter 5: ?For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished, because they did not obey the voice of the Lord; the Lord swore to them that he would not let them see the land that the Lord had sworn to their fathers to give to us, a land flowing with milk and honey.? God promises, on oath, that he will give them this ?promised? land, but then he promises on oath that he will not give them this land. Why? They failed to obey his Word; they did not nurture this association; they built the wrong pile of rocks.

But there?s something else here, another association:

Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man . . .and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel. (4: 2 & 5)

Joshua is not the only one building here. The 12 men, the representatives of the entire community, are commanded to participate in the building. Community is the second association. We cannot remember God on our own. This shatters the Lone Ranger mentality that I harbor, shatters the notion of individual Christianity that you won?t find anywhere in the Scriptures.


For four years, I have lived in the RUF house on campus, where we gather as a house for Sunday lunch, and the more we eat, the more we share memories and, inevitably, have to remind each other, in the middle of the story, of details we have forgotten. Community keeps us from being captive to our own memories: When I doubt God?s faithfulness, a friend will remind me of a time when I witnessed and proclaimed clearly that faithfulness. When I?m at an art museum, a friend will see something in a painting that I can?t see. When you find out that a loved one has cancer, and you feel profound loneliness, a dear friend holds you in his arms and tells you that he loves you, and you remember, at least for a moment, that you are not alone.

God mediates his presence through community, and he calls us as counselors, teachers, future pastors, homemakers, artists, laypersons, to be a tangible demonstration of the existence and character of God. We, the community, are his association.

But you say that you have been burned by community, abused by a pastor, gossiped about. Yes, we are rough, often sharp-edged rocks, but this is all the more reason that we must nurture the right associations and allow the Word to direct them, because God has established community as his association, a way to remember him, and, again, the abuse of this association does not negate its proper use.

In Advanced Homiletics, I had a miniature nervous breakdown in the middle of my class sermon and wept like a baby in front of my class, and I will never forget Mark Davis walking to the podium, putting his hand on my left shoulder, and praying for me along with the rest of the students?the community reminded me that I am not loved for my ability to preach, but for my presence in the community.

So Joshua has erected a pile of rocks in the middle of the Jordan riverbed, and another pile will soon be erected on the banks at Gilgal, and the Jordan is going to flow in a few moments, and some Canaanite kid up to no-good is gonna kick down the other one next week, and that?s okay: ?When your children ask in time to come, ?What do those stones mean to you?? then you shall tell them . . .? (4:6, 7a). When your children ask later?literally, tomorrow. The point is not that they will literally ask the next day, but that at some point in the future, they will ask. This is so important that it?s repeated again in verse 21. The point is that the community must perpetuate this reminder of God for the children, that the association is effective only when the community perpetuates these memories for future generations. You have the privilege and responsibility of being associations for your children, of actively providing ways for your children and the community?s children, to remember.

And what of the peoples of the earth in v.24? How will they know that the hand of the Lord is mighty? It?s possible, here, that the Canaanites will have seen what happened and will see the rocks, which will remind them, but it?s more likely that they will understand these things as they see the people of God, the community, reflecting the character of God: his righteousness, his judgment, his mercy. Associations are, by their nature, open to observation.

So God?s Word and community are the main associations He has given us so that we may remember him. How, specifically, might we nurture the associations? Parents, how do you fulfill your responsibility to set up associations for your children?

A few specific ideas, and you can apply the principle to your situation:

  • Dr. Collins, our beloved OT professor, encourages his son to drop extra nickels in the offering plate on communion Sundays as a way of showing that he knows how "special" communion is.
  • If I ever have kids, we will light sparklers on Sunday, and only on Sunday, so that they will feel and smell and hear and see that Sunday is special.
  • Fill your kids? lives with good books, music, art?it?s no accident that so much of Old Testament narrative is memorialized in poetry.
  • Do your children see and hear you pray for them? Do you have other believers into your home so that your children will benefit from community? Have you set up associations in their lives that will remind them of the loving discipline and chastening of the Lord?
  • Do you expose your children to the preaching of the word, to corporate worship?
  • Do you tell your children stories? Do they know about your conversion? Elie Wiesel says that ?God created man because he loves stories.? I think that God created stories because he loves man. Even if the stones at Gilgal were still there today, no one would know what they mean without being told the story of the Jordan River.
  • Students, do you study God?s word with other believers, or do you go it alone? Do you run your sermons by each other? When you are pastors, you will forget priorities and think that you should be primarily concerned with budgets and numbers, and you will need people to remind you that you are there to shepherd the community of sheep that you have been given, to help them nurture associations.
  • When God teaches you something, do you write it down or take a picture or something, anything, to help you remember later?
  • Professors, how does this affect the way that you teach your students? Students, are you making time to sit down and learn from your professors over coffee and a bagel rather than just soaking in Greek vocab?

Ask people to tell you stories, and when you share your stories with people, whether your children or your friends, make sure that you are engaging in remembering rather than mere nostalgia. Nostalgia is an abuse of memory that seeks to remember only the easy parts, the nice, manageable things. Nostalgia says that good Christians don?t think about the past, that good Christians should just think happy thoughts. Nostalgia fills community with Christian activities and clich?s to keep it from dealing with the whole story. Nostalgia says to the widow that she is more than a conqueror, and she should just get on with life. But God says that when we tell the story of the Jordan, we must also tell the story of the wilderness before it. Nostalgic rock piles will topple over and crush people, causing them to erect external safeguards, but the right kind of rock pile is redemptive, will embolden people to build external associations, inspiring them to embrace the covenant from the heart.


I began thinking about this subject about a year and a half ago, after I said goodbye to the only girl I had ever loved. I have spent a good part of that time trying to understand what it means to fall out of love with someone. If you know black and white photography, you know the term "middle grey," the "color" that defines everything else. Over time, my mind began to lose those middle grey memories, those things that defined our relationship, why we loved each other:

  • the way she said my name.
  • the sound of the phone ringing at 3 am to tell me that she was praying for me just then.
  • the way her forehead wrinkled when she was upset with me.
  • her crooked front teeth, the way it peeked from her mouth when she laughed.

By refusing to nurture these memories, by not reading letters, not calling her, not looking at pictures or listening to ?our songs,? I have found that I am left only with the extreme goods and bads, the blacks and whites, the manageable things, those parts of the relationship that I can mentally control?in essence, a perfectionist picture, a black and white version of a technicolor relationship. And I am increasingly unable to love her, and she the same with me.


But this was a necessary falling out of love. I think there?s a connection here with the way we fall out of love with God. I realize that there is a big difference, that my relationship with God is defined by a covenant, so that he won?t quit loving me. But as we fail to nurture the associations that God has given us, by buying into nostalgia and remembering only the blacks and whites, the manageable things about God, we are increasingly unable to love Him. We must nurture the associations God has given us.

These things are true, but they are not the whole story. I do not want you leaving here thinking, ?No problem, let?s just build some rockpiles.? Two chapters after the Jordan and the piles of rocks, we get the story of Achan, and Israel has sinned again. Sparklers will not keep you from sinning, from forgetting God.

Yes, we will set up associations, but how is this any different from legalism, from mere externals? Why doesn?t this association business lead to idolatry or pantheism?

The answer is that God calls us to love beyond the association. God has given the association to remind us of Him, not of the association itself.

If you were to tear these chapters out of your Bible, tape them to the wall, and throw a dart at them, you would be less likely to hit the word ?and? than the word ?ark.? ?The ark, the ark of the covenant of the Lord? is given more attention than any other object in these chapters. As I was laboring over exegesis (I say laboring only because Hebrew makes me sweat and become short of breath), I found a curious exception to the phrase ?ark of the covenant of the Lord.? In verse 3 of Chapter 3, I read ?the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God.? I was going to tell you something mildly interesting about the fact that this gives extra emphasis to the LORD, but then I came across something spicy (as opposed to mild). I decided to check the living commentary, and, lucky for me, Dr. Collins was in his office, and he fed me this scrumptious grammar morsel: This actually says, ?The ark of the covenant [comma] the Lord your God.? God has so associated Himself with the ark that they are used in apposition, they are identified with one another.

If you read through the section again, you will also notice that the people do not move until the ark moves. The ark directs all the movement in this narrative, even the movement of the water.

Then you will note the order of the crossing: ark first, then the people. In Chapter 3, the people are commanded to keep 2,000 cubits from the ark. Partly, this is to keep anyone from pulling an Uzzah and touching the ark; but it?s also so that, among this throng of people, the ark will be far enough away for the people to be able to see it, to follow it.

Then there are the stones, which are both placed at and taken from the feet of the priests, where the ark stands.

In verse 23, when the parents answer their children regarding the purpose of the stones, the parents tell them not about their bravery in crossing, but about what the Lord did there and at the Red Sea.

God is the focus here. God is the reason for the rocks. The associations are put in place to remind people of God, to remind us that He is the one working through his associations, through his community, through the people who couldn?t possibly cross the Jordan on their own, as verse 18, by mentioning that the river was over its banks, makes sure we don?t miss.

No matter how clever our associations, if they aren?t nurtured for the sake of remembering God, they will be like the footprints in the riverbed that wash away as soon as the Jordan flows again.

My mother has loved me passionately, and she has devoted herself to me. Every once in a while, I get out my old 8mm tapes and projector and sit in my room like Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation and watch them and cry. And I always watch this one where I?m about six months old, and I?m in the pool, and I look like an albino watermelon floating in a piece of styrofoam, and my mom has this gorgeous smile on her face, and she?s so in love with me. And I realize then that despite her love, and despite the fact that it?s caught on 8mm tape, I still forget how much she loves me, and I fail to love her as I ought.

No matter how careful we are to nurture associations, to nurture associations that remind us of God?s love and work in our lives, we will still forget, and we will forget that we forgot, and what then?

4:19: ?The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho.? The tenth of the first month. The next thing that God has them do after crossing is to circumcise themselves, and then, four days after the stones, on the fourteenth of the first month, they do what they did 40 years before as they left Egypt: they observe passover.

God says, ?Build a pile of rocks,? and then God says, ?As good and necessary as this is, there?s something better coming.? God says, ?You will nurture these associations, and you may even remember me for a time, but you will surely forget again, but do not despair, because I am giving you an association, a pile of rocks, that towers above all the rest.?

Do you see this grace? God gives us the privilege of nurturing associations, yet he knows that we will fail at times, so he provides a greater grace.

The circumcision points them to what God has done to bind them as a community, and the passover points them to what God is continuing to do to sustain them as a community. And even in these things, there are stories to tell (a circumcised member is not self-explanatory; it requires verbal explanation). And the passover is fulfilled only as the parents tell their children the story of the exodus.

Do you see this grace? And some 1,400 years later, Jesus sits in an upper room with his disciples, and in an association that remembers the past and points to the present and makes a way for the future, he pours wine and breaks bread and says, ?Do this in remembrance of me.? And the man who does this is the rock that the pile has been building toward. He is God taking on flesh and blood, who condescended to provide the association that we can?t provide. Here is the breaking in of holy association.

He says ?Do this in remembrance of me,? and he?s talking to a roomful of Jews, who understood remembrance not as mere recall, but as an active nurturing, as an embracing from the heart.

And when you partake of communion, and the words that attend the association are spoken, and you nurture, actively remember, what God has done for you, you are at the same time nurtured by an act more mysterious and awesome and powerful than the stopping of the Jordan River. And when you witness a baptism, are you not reminded of your own baptism, and what the Lord did for you? Baptism reminds us what brought us together, and the LORD?s Supper reminds us what keeps us together, and the whole time, God is breaking into the present and reminding us that he remembers us and loves us and nurtures us and provides for us even when we have forgotten him. The bread and wine replenish our memories. And ?to desire something more spiritual and otherworldly,? as Wade Bradshaw says, ?is to want a God too unimaginative to become flesh himself.? These are the associations he has provided, and he calls us not only to nurture them, but to love beyond them to him who has provided them.

Those of us who are currently in the pastorate or are heading for the pastorate or will ever have any influence on the pastorate (this includes everyone), in light of this breaking in of holy association during the Lord?s Supper, if we are not taking advantage of this association every week, we need to ask ourselves why not, and if any of the reasons is motivated by convenience or preference or nostalgia, we need to forget those reasons.

You are, no doubt, used to seeing me unshaven. I decided to shave this morning, so that on the chance that you see me in the future clean-shaven, it will serve as an association, so that you will be more likely to remember this morning, more likely to remember what God is doing to redeem your memory.

I chose this passage because every jot of ink on these pages is flooded with grace, grace spilling over the banks of the margins. It?s so amazing, that all I can do is lift my hands in the air and drop my head in gratitude:

Because I can?t remember God, yet he allows me to love him by association.

And when I have nurtured the association, I still forget him, and even in this sin, he calls me to love beyond the association, and I remember that he has provided a greater grace, a grace greater than all my sins of memory.

That grace spills over into the part of my brain where memory is stored; it flows through all the wrinkles and washes over synapses and spills over neurons, and in that split second, I know that I, along with my memory, am bound for promised land, and I am so convinced, it might as well be tattooed on my heart.

This sermon, entitled "Love is a Pile of Rocks," was presented as a Senior Sermon in the Chapel at Covenant Theological Seminary in the spring of 2002. You can read Jeremy's blog, Junkmail for Blankets, here.

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