As a Christian educator, I have often been asked by parents how is the best way to pass faith along to the children. My response is this: Build a pillar. Then your children will ask....
Even if you are pretty familiar with the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, you may have missed the fact that the nation of Israel experienced two miraculous events in which God parted large bodies of impassable water so that His chosen people could cross on dry ground. These two events are pivotal to the history of the nation of Israel, and serve as bookends to the years of wandering in the wilderness.
The first one is, of course, the parting of the Red Sea that occurred as the children of Israel were fleeing Egypt. The Red Sea is on one side of them and all of Pharaoh’s fighting men are on the other. You may know about this event from films, and I have to say that the films I’ve seen all make it look pretty scary. I don’t know that I would have had the courage to step onto the sand while the wind held back enough water to drown the Egyptian army. I’m just being really transparent here.
The second parting of the water occurred some forty years or so after the first one. The location was the shore of the Jordan River during the flood stage of that year. The generation of those who had known slavery in Egypt had mostly died, including Moses, and Joshua had taken Moses’ place as leader of the people. The people who were there at the Jordan River that day had no first hand experience with life in Egypt, nor had they seen the Red Sea parted. God was going to give them their very own miraculous crossing. One amazing event to bind them into a nation.
As it is told in the third chapter of Joshua, God gives clear instructions for the crossing of the Jordan River. The priests are to take the Ark of the Covenant and go ahead of everyone. They must step into the river, and only then will the water stop flowing so that the riverbed is dry enough to walk on. I've heard several interesting sermons on that great act of faith, but that's not the part that is so compelling to me.
The people cross the river on dry ground, and as they all reach the Promised Land on the other side Joshua commands the male leader of each of the twelve tribes to go back to where the ark is being held in the middle of the riverbed. They are each to pick up one stone, put it on their shoulder (this always makes me think that they were pretty big stones) and carry it to the side of the river where they will be building a nation. Once they have done this, they are instructed to make a pillar of these stones. It's the next part that grabs my heart and tells me volumes about this ancient and mighty nation.
The stones are placed as directed in the form of a pillar where, according to Joshua 4:9, "they are there to this day." I'm assuming that "to this day" means the time at which the author of Joshua was writing all this down. I've been to the Holy Land several times and have never seen a gift shop set up by a pillar of stones beside the Jordan River. So I'm pretty sure it's gone now.
Anyway, it's what Joshua tells them about the purpose of the stone pillar that I really, really love. He means what he says,too, because he says it twice. The first time is in Joshua 4:7 and the second time at 4:21-24. He is clear in his instructions. And it is to those instructions that we owe generations of faithfulness.
The purpose of the stone pillar was simple and brilliant: it was so that their children and then their children would ask questions. Those questions would serve as a reminder to tell how God provided a miracle so this land could become their home. The pillar is there so that we can tell the children about God and His enduring faithfulness. We have been given the mandate of passing our faith to all generations, and after being given this mandate, we are given the tools to do it. As a Christian educator, this speaks to the inner most place in my heart. God always provides a way. He wants the children to know Him, and He shows us how to teach them. He always gives us a pillar to point to.
Every good teacher knows that the first thing you have to do before you can teach is to arouse curiosity in the students. Good teachers know how to use all the senses to get the attention of a class or an individual student. They also know that a curious learner is a successful learner, and in that wild and natural space by the Jordan River, a pillar of carefully placed stones would be an object of curiosity. With relatively few structures indicating human activity, this pillar would have been distinctive. Noticeable. Interesting. That pillar could not have made itself, so where did it come from?
It's always been interesting to me that a pillar was built after the crossing of the Jordan but not after the Red Sea. The only reason I can think of for that is that God knew that Israel would not be raising children in that place by the Red Sea. However, once they reached their forever home, the expectation was that the children would be well educated in the faith of their ancestors. There were to be organic, ongoing conversations encouraged by objects that inspired curiosity. They were to make pillars.
This pillar was far from the last one built for the purpose of enticing the children to ask questions, and as you read through scripture you will notice that this is a running theme: do this so that when your children ask you can tell them. "Teach your children" is a steady drumbeat throughout the Hebrew Bible. Those words are still there. It is still a command. There was no time limit for teaching the ways of God. This is to continue for 10,000 generations and more. We have not been released from this responsibility.
God knows the heart of little children. He knows that they will always ask the questions. That's good, because sometimes we forget to teach. I have often been asked by parents how is the best way to pass faith along to the children. My response is this: Point to the pillar. Explain why it is there.Tell the amazing story. Repeat the miracles of Jesus. Ask engaging questions. Encourage them to share their thoughts. Initiate open conversations about things of the spirit. Build in your child curiosity about the God who continues to bring us through the waters and into a Harbor Home. Go build a pillar!