Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen. He gave it the name Ebenezer, saying, “The Lord has helped us this far.”
-1 Samuel 7:12
🎶 Here I raise my... Ebenezer?, [what that means I've never known,]
And I hope by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home... 🎶
Well, those aren't the exact lyrics for the first line of that verse, but it doesn't matter either way, because if you've ever sung "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" in a church gathering, there's a chance your mind started wondering because you have no clue what an Ebenezer is (you are prone to wander, after all!). It's a really beautiful song, but you know I'm right. That second verse gets you every time.
I always imagine some guy powerlifting Scrooge, as like a sacrifice to the gods. But I don't believe that's helpful in my spiritual journey.
Recent versions of the song actually deal with this linguistic challenge by rewriting the lyrics completely: Now it's, "Here I raise my highest praises...."
And that's great and all. But that's not what Ebenezer means! Not fully at least.
Literally in Hebrew, Ebenezer means "stone of help." And that checks out. After a big battle due to a Philistine attack in the book of 1 Samuel, the tide turns and Israel prevails. This happens just after the Israelites choose to turn from idols and trust God once again. It's a big, complicated (and rather bloody) story, but at the end, Samuel the priest wants to mark the moment together with something that could be seen and remembered through the generations. So he puts a big rock in between a couple villages as a reminder of God was their rescuer.
So more metaphorically, ebenezer is really about using something physical to mark moments of God's touch in our lives, so that we don't forget. It's a reminder of our past with God to build faith in our future with God. And this is something that I've been thinking about, especially during this unique season where exhaustion and discouragement have a real hold a lot of people (me included, frequently!). I've been remembering how forgetful we are!
In the world of psychology, it is often said that 5 positive interactions in a relationship are required to counteract 1 single negative interaction. For every insult someone gets, they need 5 compliments to be built back up to neutral. Have you heard that before? That means that for some reason, the negatives have a disproportionate amount of power in our lives. A day of struggle can make for a bad week, even if all the other days are hopeful! We remember the empty moments far more than the beautiful ones. We're forgetful.
That's why disciples of Jesus need to raise ourselves some Ebenezers.
Seriously though. We're no longer nomadic, so we miss out on the way the early people of God marked special places of spiritual encouragement as they passed by them. And we're also becoming less and less tactile, with most of our pictures and memories stored on our phones and our digital media accounts instead of on our actual walls. And so we easily forget them. Stones of help aren't common.
This matters in spiritual formation because so much of our faith is just that.... faith, where we can't see much in the moment, yet we still trust in God's care, rescue, and goodness. So maybe we need more stones around us-- more ebenezers to remind us that God has "helped us this far."
Ebenezers can be journal entries written to look back on in moments of despair, reminding you of the times you saw God's provision and care when you needed it.
Ebenezers can be stories told over meals and mugs about that time when you sensed Jesus's love so close that it was undeniable.
Ebenezers can be like my custom lanyard that says "Coach Miller" that my runners gave me, which reminds me of one way that God has opened a door for me to care for my local community doing something I love.
I don't know what they may be for you. But I think we should probably do a better job of collecting "stones of help" and raising them up by keeping them in our views, keeping them in our minds, and looking for new moments to mark the beauty of where Jesus is working. Because when I see your stones, my faith gets strengthened too.
What ebenezers do you already have? What new ones are you making?
Jesus, help me learn to mark my moments with you, to remember them, and to allow others to see them, so that we will not lose heart.
Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.
A few months ago during a backyard discipleship circle, the old Amelia Bedelia books came up in our conversation. I think it somehow connected to the idea of offering grace to people, but I can't exactly remember. What I do remember is that I had read these famous books as a child many times, but couldn't recall the actual storyline at all. But it peaked my interest enough to revisit them a bit.
Amelia Bedelia is a somewhat antiquated children's picture book series about a housemaid who repeatedly misunderstands the tasks that her employer gives her, because she takes every word completely literally. So anytime a figure of speech is used, she interprets the words exactly as written. Obviously this leads to some funny situations. Her boss asks her to draw the drapes when the sun is shining, so she breaks out a sketchpad and gets to work. And when she is told to dust the furniture, she gets out the makeup kit and puts dust all over everything... just like he said to do!
It made me think about the complexities of communication and understanding in our world. How many times do we think we are being clear, yet we feel absolutely misunderstood? How many times do we read or hear something and get a very different impression than what the writer, speaker was trying to say? How many movie storylines rely on an overheard, out-of-context statement that gets misinterpreted? Before you know it, a wedding is off, a best friend is angry, or Shrek and Fiona almost ruin their future together!?!
Communication is hard. Especially when our human emotions get involved.
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."
We assume that people understand exactly what we're saying. And we assume that we know what others are saying. But words are often seen completely differently based on our social location, history, biases, and a number of other factors.
So why is this so important to disciples of Jesus?
Communication breakdowns are often the result of people moving far too fast, or allowing anger to take the place of understanding.
That means we need to learn to slow. down.
Slow down our minds. Slow down our hearts. And ask better questions.
Jesus' brother James watched Jesus closely for much of his life, which gives each of his written statements an added layer of authority. And to be a disciple, he writes, is to be quick to listen rather than to speak. And to not move toward anger or offense quite so fast, because we're seeking understanding.
How often, when you hear something that you don't like, is your first statement or thought a rebuttal rather than a question to try to understand better? Most of us are quick to take a word at its literal value (what we see as literal, anyway), rather than try to listen closer so that we are sure to understand where another is coming from.
Simply put, this requires leading with an attitude of grace. And if we've received grace upon grace in Jesus in our own lives, despite our own shortcomings, surely we can slow down enough to extend grace to others and be eager to listen and more slow to become angry. In fact, you'll find that the world opens up in new ways when your desire is to understand people with the eyes, ears, and heart of Jesus. You'll find that many times, people use vastly different words to communicate similar desires for the world... which then becomes a building block for reconciliation, partnership, and relationship. This can be true in church experiences, in politics, in culturally diverse interactions, and in community development. There is hope!
Amelia Bedelia's employers did extend grace to her once they learned that the real issue was a misunderstanding in communication-- but that was only after she baked an amazing pie for them. As Jesus people, let's go beyond that. Let's be eager to listen, to learn, and to extend grace with nothing else required (though who doesn't love a good pie!).
Jesus, lead me to depth in you that slows me down enough to be a grace-filled listener and understander of my neighbors.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God..
When was the last time you felt really limited in what you could do? Most of us probably don't need to think beyond the past 24 hours.
I'm not particularly skilled in embracing my limitations. Right now I'm typing at an agonizingly slow pace, thanks to a splinted left index finger that braced my fall during a creek hike Tuesday morning. If I don'rrt slow down and retype eveything, rvrty sintece would look like rhis. Dor real. Also, I have to keep my finger elevated to stop it from throbbing, so everyone that sees me right now looks up to the sky to see what I'm pointing at. Joke's on you, buddy.
This is a temporary and relatively minor issue in life. Yet for a little while, almost every single thing that I try to do is impacted by my limitedness. I'm acutely aware of all that I'm incapable of. In fact, I almost convinced myself not to write at all today because it would be slow and annoying and my capacity is less than what I'd prefer. And that's one of the temptations that comes along when we don't have a healthy understanding of our God-given limits: We don't do anything if we can't do everything. And therefore, we never learn one of the core tenets of discipleship: You don't accomplish your way into the kingdom of heaven. We trust the abundant grace of God through Christ, and we live out of that, at peace with what we can accomplish and at peace with what we can't. So when grace is leading us, we're ok with simply doing what we can, even if that doesn't feel like enough.
This frustration with our limits can impact us outwardly as well. Our church got a call from a homeless man experiencing a crisis this morning. I went to meet him and we were able to help him, but he needed far, far more than what we were able to do for him. I couldn't fix everything for this young man. I wanted to rescue him from a whole series of unfortunate circumstances and decisions. But I was limited in what I could offer. And because I sensed those limits right away, I almost decided to not even return the call. There's that temptation again that comes along when we don't have a healthy understanding of our God-given limits. If we can't do something really huge for people that need help, maybe we shouldn't do anything at all.
Maybe bumping up against our limits is how we learn to trust in God's goodness. Maybe when we fail or when we're incapable in some way, we have no option but to trust that God's salvation is available to us in the midst of our very obvious shortcomings. And maybe when we are reminded that we can't be another person's savior, it forces us to trust that Jesus can be... and that God can meet and provide for people in ways that we cannot and will one day make all things whole. This shouldn't discourage us from acts of compassion, but make us all the more willing to be compassionate, in spite of the fact that what we offer others may feel woefully inadequate.
Or maybe these are just random thoughts from a guy who can't type well, slightly hopped up on pain meds, and discouraged that we can't just snap our fingers and make all the pain in the world disappear. Because life can feel like a lot sometimes.
Either way, where do we go from here?
Today we look first at Jesus. We pray. and we do what we can, in love. Then we pray some more and thank God for the gift that it all doesn't depend on us. Then we get up tomorrow, fully aware of our own limits and God's limitless care, and we do it all over again. In faith.
Jesus, help me do what I can today, and trust you with all that I can't.
Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection.
I'm not sure exactly how it happened, but at some point over the past few years my wife and I became fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I think it was those extra pandemic nights at home that got us enjoying the 20+ movies that all work together in an unfolding superhero storyline. Now we look forward to the release of each new film or series. Anyway, regardless of what you think about the sometimes less-than-profound storylines in the various Marvel screenplays, it's fairly easy to agree that Tom Hiddleston is a compelling actor. He plays Loki, the god of Mischief (and Thor's brother), and is the kind of villain that steals the show when he's onscreen. He was so fun to watch in his role that his own spinoff series is being released right now, with his name as the title.
The main premise of the show is that Loki is in prison, but he agrees to help his own captors track down other delinquents in order to hopefully free himself. That's oversimplified, of course.
But the thing that makes the show so compelling is this: every character knows that every other character can't be trusted. It's impossible to know what to believe. Which emotions and statements are genuine, and which ones are simply scheming in order for someone to get what they want? Loki is brilliant at deceit. Every act of kindness ends up being a strategy for his own selfish gain. Yet one cannot deny that there seems to be a goodness and humanity (and even sadness?) within him. But maybe that's just him getting people to let down their guard!
Is it real? Is any of it real?
So we keep watching to find out.
Deep down, the viewer wants to discover the humanity in Loki, but we're not positive it's there because it's covered by so many layers of strategic appearances.
Well that pretty much sums up our world, doesn't it?
Interestingly, the exact thing that makes the show so compelling is the reason that we often struggle in relationships. We may not be out to destroy all that is good and rule over all the beings of the universe like Loki, but there is a lot of posturing and a lack of trust that play a major role in how humans relate to each other. Even when our motives are mostly good, our actions are not always done out of sincere love. This can happen in friendships, in work environments, and among family.
Sometimes we act in certain ways because we want to please everyone.
Sometimes it's because we want them to like and accept us.
Sometimes it's because we want to accomplish something and they might be useful.
Sometimes it's because we see others as a nuisance in our lives.
And sometimes we haven't learned to trust the sincerity of others, so we keep our own guard up.
Now, there are certainly times and places where it is appropriate to guard ourselves. Not everyone needs to be within our smallest circle of trusting relationships. Yet we can also use that reality as an excuse for a lack of sincerity with others in our lives.
The discipleship question in front of us is one of genuineness. Are we rooted enough in the love and character of God to truly care about the people in front of us as our first response? Or do we more readily see others through a lens of judgment, selfishness, or annoyance? When we ask someone how they are doing, is it genuine, and are we ready to offer a caring response? Do our words and actions match the heart and spirit within us?
When Jesus rescues us from death and the destructive patterns of death, we are made new for a reason. And that reason is to dwell fully with God and express God's kingdom in our relationships.
That leads to more honest and genuine interactions with others, because the spirit within us is becoming more loving and genuine at the same time.
In other words, when Jesus forms us into his image, then the realest thing in us will be genuine love for others, and nothing else. In that case, it's easy for our love to become sincere, because sincerity is all that's left in us.
We give others a gift when we go first in this way. We open the door for them to become more real with us, when they experience something that is undeniably genuine. But that requires our own formation in Christ every single day.
Jesus, help me be sincere today, and change me from within so that sincerity looks more and more like love.