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Raise Your Ebenezer!

13 June 2010

Jessica Maxwell

Sometimes people ask me why I decided to go church.  The answer, as all RAH readers know, is that I didn’t decide: I was called.  If I had followed my own intelligent, progressive, humanist, church-free model, I never would have discovered intelligent, progressive, humanist churches. Or sacred music. Or spiritual community. Or Yvonne Young’s turkey meatloaf.  Or Tom, for heaven’s sake (literally). Worst of all, never in a million years would I ever, ever, ever have learned how to raise my Ebenezer.

A dozen years after the coldhearted winter’s morn in 1998 when I asked my fishing buddy Greg Tatman to take me to church with him (wherever it was…), Tom, whom I met and married there 4 years later, and I moved north and became members of an intelligent, progressive, humanist Presbyterian church in Portland, Oregon. So did his parents, Hank and Mary, who now live two blocks away from the church in an intelligent, progressive, humanist retirement community filled with intelligent, progressive, humanist octogenarians, many of whom attend the same church we do.  I take great comfort, for instance, in passing-the-peace on Sunday mornings with our great good friend Peter Ford, age 85, a retired internist of such pure and gentle spirit that Charles Dickens would have fashioned one of his very-good-guys after Peter were we in  London in the 1800s. It is also a weekly balm to spy the rogue grin of our other favorite 85-year-old, the excellent Reverend Clayton Rice, long retired, who somehow manages to sit with a different (age-appropriate) woman each week.

Both men are widowers and both are heady, cutting-edge fellows who make very fine company.  For instance, in 1971 Harper & Row published Peter’s book The Healing Trinity, which put forth a then-radical concept of holistic healing which required the concerted efforts of clergy, psychologists and physicians. His current literary project is more purely theological, and addresses nothing less than “the future of the world and what I believe needs to be done to prevent human extinction, including how people must change, how we must treat one another, and what must be done to save the Earth’s environment.” His thesis is that the church and Christians should follow the teachings of Jesus rather than the teachings of Paul, “something that Christianity has failed to do since its inception 2,000 years ago.” Paul, says Peter, offered a gospel of salvation, whereas Jesus put forth a gospel of love.  “I make the point that these two gospels are in complete opposition to one another,” Peter contends, adding that he believes Paul suffered from a bipolar disorder “which, by definition would cause him to have periods of delusional thinking as well as lucidity. During his lucid periods he was brilliant,” Peter allows.  “But during his delusional periods he doesn’t make much sense.”

Clayton, meanwhile, introduced me to a Hubble Telescope experiment that identified fully 10,000 new galaxies in one speck of sky Hubble researchers heretofore believed was empty. Then he tracked down Michael Moore’s email address so I could send Moore my RAH! Story essay on his new capitalism documentary.  Recently, Clayton asked me if I’d only attended Trinity Episcopalian Church in downtown Portland for musical events. “I was intrigued,” he said, “about your mentioning that something might be astir with Marcus Borg,” meaning the famous, ultra-progressive Christian mystic author who is a member of Trinity and who is about as RAH as a contemporary theologian could be.  To wit, and this is straight off of Borg’s website:

“My most formative religious experiences were a series of mystical experiences. They began to occur in my early thirties. They changed my understanding of the meaning of the word “God”-of what that word points to-and gave me an unshakable conviction that God (or “the sacred”) is real and can be experienced. These experiences also convinced me that mystical forms of Christianity are true, and that the mystical forms of all the enduring religions of the world are true.”

If Hank, Mary, Tom and I are very lucky, Peter and Clayton will agree to go to brunch with us after church.  And so it was that we found ourselves waiting by what we affectionately call the “Dumpster Door” while Tom fetched the car.  As sometimes happens, I was humming a hymn we’d sung that day called “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”  The lyrics were written in 1757 by a Methodist pastor from Norfolk, England named Robert Robinson. Robinson’s father died when he was only ten years old and a few years later Robinson’s mother sent him to barber school in London.  There he took up with ruffians instead. One night Robinson and his hooligan pals managed to get a fortune-teller drunk (one would think a fortune-teller would have seen this coming).  The woman ended up pointing a finger at Robinson and claiming that he would have a long life.  Back then, anyone who made it past age 35 was lucky, and Robinson began to worry about the effects of his controversial lifestyle on his future family’s reputation. This drove him straight to the pulpit of the famously theatrical, Evangelical, 18th-Century, pro-slavery, future running buddy of Benjamin Franklin and co-founder of Methodism…George Whitfield.

Naturally, Robinson thought Whitfield’s sermon that day was designed just for him.  “O, generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” pounded Whitfield, choosing a little of the choicest hellfire from the mini-Apocalyptic part of Matthew.  It should be mentioned that many Biblical scholars today believe that the Gospel of Matthew was written by an unnamed Greek who had never met Jesus and probably leaned pretty heavily on Mark. But Matthew, and apparently Luke, also leaned heavily on a mysterious written document referred to in Christian theological circles as simply “Q,” short for the German word “quelle” or “source.” Q is thought to be the origin of the most power-packed sections of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels that don’t appear in Mark.  You know, little items such as the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Scholars remain flummoxed as to why a document as obviously important as Q, and a key source for two Canonical gospels for chrissake (literally), would have been left out of the early Church Catalogues.  However, one of the two cataloguers was the Palestinian eunuch Eusebius, right-hand man of Constantine 1 until the Emperor’s death, and both of them adhered to the ideas of the early Christian theologian Origen who argued that everything was subordinate to God, including Jesus. Since Q was supposedly a written record of Jesus’s sayings, one could surmise that perhaps these got a little too cozy with “I and my father are one” for Eusebius’s taste?  Just a thought…

Panicked by the picture of doom Whitfield delivered upon all sinners, Robinson repented rather spectacularly and by age 20 had become a Methodist minister himself.  At 22, he wrote the words to “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which, these days, we sing to the lilting melody of an old American folk tune.  Robinson’s first two verses go like this:

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise his name, I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Sorrowing I shall be in spirit,
Till released from flesh and sin,
Yet from what I do inherit,
Here Thy praises I’ll begin;
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

To be honest, I can certainly understand a 22-year-old former hoodlum worrying over the problem of “flesh and sin,” not to mention being “prone to wander,” as mentioned in another verse.  But what I was fretting over there by the Dumpster Door was much more troublesome, and that was the business of raising ones Ebenezer, whose Dicksonian reference only baffled me more.

“Clayton,” I said.  “What is an Ebenezer, anyway?”

Clayton ran a hand through his still-thick silver hair.

“Hell if I know,” he replied.

“But…” I said. “You have to know what an Ebenezer is. You’re a minister!”

“Well, I don’t.” he said flatly.

“Then how do we know what to raise??”  I asked. “And how can we raise our Ebenezer if we don’t know if we have one?”

“And if you don’t have one,” my 84-yr-old mother-in-law Mary, added innocently, “then do you have to raise one?”

This sent Clayton and me into hysterics, soon followed by Mary with red-faced glee.  Peter just thought we were fun to be around.

“And if you don’t have one, how can you raise it??” I added between guffaws.

“Oh, we have our ways,” Mary replied, wiping her eyes.

Peter, finally catching on, said: “I think we’d better find out what an Ebenezer is….fast.”

“I’ll Google ‘my Ebenezer,’” I said, whipping out my Iphone.

“Oh dear,” said Mary.

“Wow!” I announced.  “An Ebenezer is a call for help!”

“I’ll say it is,” replied Clayton.

“Actually,” I went on, “an Ebenezer is a big Scottish…uh… stone.”

“Uh-huh,” said Clayton.

“And, I guess, you stand it up to tell your friends that you’re, you know, on the ground and in trouble.”

“Uh-huh,” said Clayton.

I kept reading.  It was soon clear that the word Ebenezer began its etymologic life in the Bible (book 1 of Samuel, chapter 7) when “the Lord thundered” (with nothing less than “loud thunder”) at the Philistines who were about to attack the Israelites, thus sending them scattering in panic, so Samuel set up a stone and named it Ebenezer, saying “Thus far has the Lord helped us.”  This morphed into  a sort of ancient highway flare on early Scotland’s bloody battlefields, but by the time Robinson got his hands on one, as it were, an Ebenezer was a metaphor for an emphatically spiritual call for help. Dickens, of course, knew this when he named Scrooge “Ebenezer” some eight years before Robinson was born.  And Scrooge was certainly a walking abyss of spiritual need if ever there were one.

“Well,” I offered, “I think the real problem is Robinson’s decision to personalize things with the word ‘my.’  If he had said: ‘raise the Ebenezer” it wouldn’t be so…confusing.”

“Or nearly so much fun,” noted Mary.

Peter gave us a small smile and added:   “Who says Presbyterians are boring?”

Or, I might add, octogenarians.