We sang a beloved hymn on Sunday in the 9:00 service, but we didn’t sing my favorite verse. There is no talk of raising Ebenezers in the 1982 hymnal version of “Come, thou fount of every blessing,” even though the missing verse is part of original lyrics composed in the 1750’s.
“Here I raise my Ebenezer,
hither by thy help I’m come.
And I hope, by thy good pleasure,
surely to arrive at home.”
The stanza has been more popular with the likes of Baptists and Pentecostals, and more poignantly in the Black church as an anthem through the dark days of the Civil Rights Movement. (It does appear, in fact, in an alternate version of the hymn found in the African-American songbook for the Episcopal Church.)
After Sunday’s 9 o’clock, I found myself in a conversation with someone about that “missing” verse and what it means. “What is an Ebenezer?”
The song is alluding to a story in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the book of First Samuel: God’s people were already exhausted and afraid and struggling in their faith when they suffered a brutal attack by powerful enemies, the Philistine army. The story says that God intervened and caused confusion among the Philistines, to the extent that they are driven back and defeated. The people were rescued from yet another wave of defeat and oppression.
After that victory, the prophet Samuel takes a stone and sets it down as a monument to the divine help that showed up just in time. Samuel calls that rock in that place “Ebenezer,” which means “Right here, the Lord helped us.”
The verse in that beloved hymn about raising my Ebenezer can be a powerful reminder of God’s faithfulness and help amidst great difficulty and discouragement. I often reflect on Ebenezers along the journey of my own life when I’m going through hard times. Those stones make places that inspire gratitude and faith for whatever lies ahead.
As we—the Parish and Rector of St. Michael & All Angels—prepare to gather for worship this evening in the Celebration of New and Mutual Ministry, I am taking some time to reflect on the “Ebenezers” in my life and in the stories of this parish’s long life together. Please allow me to invite you to do the same. Where has God been present to see you through? Too see us through? There’ve been difficulties and discouragements, for sure – adversity, disappointment, sadness and righteous anger. And we’ve also known places of extraordinary provision and encouragement, love and surprising resilience.
We won’t sing those words or that hymn tonight. But no matter. Please come ready to worship and celebrate, to raise our Ebenezers with praise and thanks to God. And let’s keep walking.
The Rev. R. Scott Painter, Rector