By Rev. Dan Wilcox
This past Sunday, we sang “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing.” In this hymn, there is the line, “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come; and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.” Every time I’ve sung this with a church, I feel compelled to explain what we mean by raising ‘my Ebenezer.’ Many of us hear that name and immediately think of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. In the hymn, it is not an invitation to Christmas spirits past, present, and future but rather a reference to the book of Samuel.
Samuel is a unique character in the Hebrew Scriptures as he acts first as a judge and then as a prophet. He represents a volatile time in Israel’s history when they’ve entered and subdued much of the Promised Land. At one point, Samuel erects a large stone, calling it the Ebenezer stone. Saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” It was to serve as a reminder of all the ways that God had been present with them, with the assurance that in the future, God will still be there. The idea of the Ebenezer stone has taken on significance in several places as a reminder to the people who live there that God has been present, is still working, and will continue to work in their lives for a very long time.
For those reading this who have already been annoyed at what appears to be a typo in the title, I realize that I wrote ‘raze’ instead of ‘raise.’ The difference, of course, being one is tearing down, and the other is lifting up. My reason is the ongoing discussions and divisions in The United Methodist Church. In the past few weeks, several churches we have had some connection with over the years have either begun discussions about disaffiliation or have voted to disaffiliate. This means that once they have their conference’s approval, they will no longer be part of our denomination.
Many of these folks have been with us in difficult times and in our formative years. They have prayed with us, mourned with us, celebrated, sung, cried, worshipped, studied, worked alongside, and sat down at tables with us. Now, they choose to leave. As some of them go, I realize that I’ve felt as though part of that ‘Ebenezer’ for me has been shaken. Those whose lives have been a witness to my spiritual journey will no longer be part of the church I still call home.
As they leave, some have suggested that it is about Biblical authority, accountability, and covenant. For those who haven’t heard me say it before, I continue in my support of full inclusion of our queer siblings because of Scripture and my accountability to the Spirit’s work in me. Long before I was ordained, the baptismal vow my parents took for me, which I affirmed at my confirmation, was that I would ‘resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” The work to resist continues even as we say goodbye to those who go.
And so, I raze my Ebenezer – tear down the parts of memory and nostalgia that I sometimes think of as the foundation of my faith. Replacing the memories and people with the grace and mercy God has shown me through them, I’m reminded that Samuel’s Ebenezer was not about the people and memories but about what God has done. Through the Spirit’s guidance, we need to create the safe spaces, policies, and practices where all are welcome, where all can seek their God-desired wholeness, and where all can and do experience love deeply.
Rev. Dan Wilcox is an ordained elder in the Pacific Northwest Conference, currently serving at Christ First UMC in Wasilla, Alaska, and Palmer Fellowship in Palmer, Alaska. He also serves as disaster response coordinator for the Alaska Conference.