October 23, 1976. Very early in the morning, 36 years ago this week, Matthew Paul Whipple died.
I fed him his bottle, put him to bed, and while leaving his room had a strange sensation something was not right. I could hear in those days, but I could not hear him at all. He had stopped breathing. Trying to help him breathe, Sue calling for an ambulance, rushing him outside hoping the cold air would revive him, handing him to the EMT and being told we could not ride with him—we would never again be the same. Alone in the waiting room, our friend Ruth arrives, the Doctor says no brain activity, Sue in utter despair, yes turn off the machines—I went alone into the room where his body lay on a table to say goodbye. I thanked him and kissed him.
Matt was 5 months, 17 days old when he died. Sue’s pregnancy, the delivery, the first mention of his heart disease, the surgeries, the smiles, the hopes, the unspeakable joy he brought to our lives—all of these could be expanded upon and included in the story of this little boy who, when he had accomplished everything he was created to do, grabbed God’s hand and went home.
Throughout the book of Joshua the reader keeps running into piles of stones. Not remembering is absolutely disastrous for the people of God. To keep God’s people energized to take on the next faith challenge, memorials were established to help them remember and teach the God given moments when their lives and God’s purposes collided. The pile of stones at Gilgal (4:20-24) remind us to tell the story of God parting the Jordan River. The pile of stones in the Valley of Achor (7:25-26) prompt us to tell the sad story of the sin of Achan. And several more stone piles appear to teach memory challenged people like us that God is strong, dependable, loving, intentional, wise, and always on time. Imagine being a participant in the Valley of Achor, a stone thrower (7:25). Now imagine telling the story to your young teenage child of that terrible day, the gripping emotions of what you did, felt, saw and experienced. God’s holy hatred of evil was stamped on your soul and you must teach that to others through a story.
Many of you have a date or dates on the calendar that interrupt your routine like a pile of rocks. The anniversary of your spouse’s death, a miscarriage, a family member’s death, a surgery, a phone call with shocking news, the date you learned of the affair—the list is long. Happy anniversaries are cool. They come with cards, presents and smiles. These other anniversaries are far too often undervalued and minimized to our great loss. These other anniversaries remind us of the deep impact of God’s gracious assignments that pushed us into an accelerated understanding and appreciation of his great loving kindness.
What is your story? Who or what did God use in your life to seemingly forever change how you talk, think and feel about God? God told Joshua to put up a pile of stones, a visual and intentional reminder of a past meaningful event. The function of the pile of stones was to get the children to ask a question: “What does that mean?” Then, the story is told. Find a way to tell your story of how God made himself really big in your life.
Sue and I, like many of you, were broken beyond what we thought we could bear 36 years ago this week. Our story has the same ending as many of yours and certainly the same as Joshua’s several thousand years ago: Matt’s life and death were simply “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever” (Joshua 4:24).