A habit with a great and godly history behind it
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My father finds it amusing that I keep a collection of walking sticks hidden behind a tree stump near the wrought iron gate to the wooded cemetery where we walk each day. You don’t need it, he is thinking, and even he in his 96th year elects to be a biped, not tri-ped, for as long as he is able.
To his puzzlement regarding my enamorment of shards of American sycamore branches that line our winding way I give the same reply each time: I like the feel of them, both in my hand and as they scrape the road below and make an earthy sound and ground me in creation.
Truth be told, the pleasure goes beyond that more communicable answer, to some atavistic call that joins me to a cloud of witnesses stretching back and back. The very first boys gathered sticks to make a fire to offer up their produce or their yearlings (Genesis 4). As did Abraham, whose son, alarmed, cried out, “My father! … Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7).
The staff of Moses was raised high at God’s command to part the sea.
Jacob peeled white streaks on rods of poplar, hazel, and chestnut, setting them by drinking troughs for flocks to see, which then conceived the speckled sheep miserly Laban designated as his wage (Genesis 30). In the wilderness, alone with God upon the eve of his escape from 20 years’ hard labor, Jacob with emotion said in praise, “With only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (Genesis 32:10). On his deathbed Jacob “blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff” (Hebrews 11:21).
It was by the staff of Judah, Jacob’s son, that Tamar secured justice and that God ensured the line of the Messiah would continue (Genesis 38:25). Hundreds of years later God enlisted Moses’ staff to scare a pharaoh and release the progeny of Jacob from another servitude (Exodus 4:2-3). The selfsame staff of Moses was raised high at God’s command to part the sea (Exodus 14:16). But why oh why was it then raised illicitly to strike a rock that God had said to speak to (Numbers 20:7-12)?
A rod from each tribe’s house settled the matter of which of the 12 had God’s authority to serve as priests, when Aaron’s staff alone produced not only buds and blossoms but ripe almonds (Numbers 17). A later priest from Aaron’s tribe, ashamed in filthy robes, elicited from Satan condemnation, but God overruled and called the shamed prelate “a burning stick snatched from the fire” (Zechariah 3:1-3).
A prophet’s borrowed ax head was retrieved from water that it had flown into when Elisha threw a stick in it and made the iron float (2 Kings 6:4-7). But the same staff was powerless to raise the Shunammite’s dead son when wielded by the ignoble Gehazi: Elisha had to go and stretch himself upon the child before his blood would warm again (2 Kings 4:18-37).
Jesus, training new evangelists to trust, forbade them to bring aught with them on missionary journeys but their staff—“no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (Mark 6:8). God Himself would shepherd them, and His own rod and staff would comfort and supply (Psalm 23). Only let God’s people not “say to a tree, ‘You are my father’” (Jeremiah 2:27): “My people inquire of a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles” (Hosea 4:12). “Those who make them become like them” (Psalm 115:8).
Two “sticks” (Ezekiel 37:16), one called Judah and one Ephraim, will become “one stick” (v. 17) on the day that God “will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. … They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols … their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever” (vv. 20, 23, 25).
A promise to cherish while walking at my father’s elbow with my walking stick.
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