Raise My Ebenezer

Last week I traveled to Houston to visit my mom. She had some appointments at MD Anderson and I decided to make the short trek over to see her and see how the appointments had gone. Now, if you have never heard of MD Anderson, it is a cancer hospital, and in my opinion, one of the best. But to be clear, my mom was not necessarily there because of a cancer diagnosis.

Back in 2015, she had double knee replacement, and since then she has had trouble with one of her knees.  It swells up, it gives her lots of pain and at times immobilizes her. My mom is one of the strongest women I know, so when she says that she is pain, I believe her.

The reason we went to MD Anderson was because we were hoping they could run tests and figure out where the pain was coming from. Doctor after doctor back home kept saying they couldn’t find anything, and we hoped that if we went to the best hospital out there, maybe they could find answers.

Thursday, when I got to Houston and met up with my family and they told me how, once again, the doctors were not able to find anything. And as long as they can’t come up with a diagnosis, no one is willing to come up with a treatment. I could sense the feeling of defeat as my mom shared her disappointment with me.

It broke my heart as I heard her share this with me. It also broke my heart because I was reminded in that moment that so many of us live in that place. Things haven’t gone the way we want them to. Things seem to be falling apart all around us. Things feel too overwhelming. We see no end in sight to our struggles and we begin to lose hope.

So what do we do when we begin to lose hope? How do we hang on to hope in the midst of fear and despair? How do we keep from carrying this heavy burden on our own?

Perhaps this would be helpful.

In the book of 1 Samuel, the Israelites are at war with the Philistines. Even though they had been a very powerful people, this battle was not going their way. They were losing people left and right and as the Israelites began to lose, they also began to lose hope that they could turn this fight around. They decided to take matters into their own hands. They took the Ark of the Covenant and marched it into camp and as they mustered up enough energy to keep fighting.

This was a big deal. The Ark of the Covenant is not a big boat like Noah’s, rather, it was a box that the Israelites built to house the ten commandments. For the Israelites, this is where the presence of God lived and this would surely be their lucky charm just as it had been many times before.

The Ark helped clear impediments and poisonous animals as the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness. When they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, the river gave way when the Ark bearers stepped into the river. The Israelites carried the Ark around Jericho before the walls fell down and they defeated their enemies. The Ark had always been their lucky charm that helped them hold on to hope when things didn’t go as planned.    

But this time, their lucky charm didn’t work.

By the end of the battle, about 30,000 Israelites died and the ark had been captured.

They had lost and were on the verge of losing all hope. Where else could they turn for help? Their own strength could not get them through this, and even the ark was not strong enough to help them through this time. Many were in disbelief, many scattered and they felt as if “the glory had departed from Israel, for the ark of God had been captured” (1 Sam. 4:22)

I think that is how my mom felt. I think that is how I felt. I think that is how many of us have felt throughout our lives. The ark was supposed to give them victory and it didn’t. The doctors were supposed to give my mom answers and they didn’t. Maybe you were hopeful that counseling would help you work through some struggles but it hasn’t. Maybe you were hopeful that the new job or new house or new endeavor would bring healing but it hasn’t. Maybe you were hopeful that your financial struggles would be done by now but they are still there. Maybe you were hoping your relationship could make it through some difficult things, but you are still in the middle of the struggles. Maybe you too are on the verge of losing hope and don’t know where else to turn or what else to do.

You see, the problem is that we put our hope on things rather than God. And the reality is that things will always disappoint us; they will never be enough. But when we put our trust in God, we can hold on to faith even when we feel like we are being defeated by our enemy. For in doing so, we know that God always gets the final word that that nothing here on earth, not even death, can separate us from the love, care, and direction of God. So in seasons of struggle and despair and hopelessness, we must hold on to God rather than things.

Have you ever heard the hymn Come Thou Fount? The second verse in it says this:

Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’m come. And I hope by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.

This hymn became so much more powerful to me when I understood what an Ebenezer was. You see, a little after the Israelites were defeated, a guy named Samuel rose to lead the Israelites. And after encouraging them to give their hearts fully to God, to cry out to God and pray to him without ceasing, they were able to muster up enough courage to fight back and this time rout the Philistines.  

Samuel knew without a doubt that God had helped them thus far and he knew that God would do it again. They  just had to have faith and trust that no matter what happened, God  was with them. Even if they had remained captured, he knew that God was faithful and would not leave their side. Even if they had never regained their power again, he knew God was faithful and all would be okay. He knew without a doubt that God would always be with them, because up to this point, God had always been there with them.

So in order to never forget this truth again, Samuel did something really powerful. Samuel took a stone, lifted it up and named it Ebenezer for he knew that God had helped them thus far and he would do it again as long as they trusted God all the days of their life.

You see, when we sing, here I raise my Ebenezer, what we are saying is that we are choosing in that moment to believe that God is our helper and that as long as we hold on to God, we will make it through whatever it is that we are going through.

So when we walk out of the hospital and we don’t have the diagnoses we had hoped for, we raise our Ebenezer because we choose to keep trusting God. When our relationships continue to struggle, we raise our Ebenezer because we choose to keep trusting God. When our struggles become overwhelming, we raise our Ebenezer because we choose to keep trusting God. When our doubt grows so big that we can’t see beyond it, we raise our Ebenezer because we choose to keep trusting God.

Whatever it is that you are going through today, raise your Ebenezer, let the world know that there is nothing this world can do to pull you away from your trust in God. And while I cannot promise you that your struggles will simply fade away, I can tell you that there is something comforting about knowing that the God of all creation is right there with you. I could not face life any other way, and my prayer for you is that you may choose to do the same.

Together on the journey,

Pastor Fernie

Lessons From A Fig Tree

Last year, just before my wedding, I got really intentional about watching my weight. After all, I wanted to look good for my pictures! For six months, I watched what I ate, I exercised, and checked my weight on the scale every couple of days. About two months before the wedding, I weighed myself and I had lost 32 pounds. I was so excited because I was about 10 pounds from my goal. But after stepping off of the scale that day, I also lost part of my motivation.

In my mind, I had two months to lose ten pounds and I was convinced that it would be easy. So I started cheating every once in a while. But soon my occasional cheats, turned into cheat meals and those cheat meals turned into cheat days and those cheat days turned into a cheat lifestyle. And while I looked good for my wedding pictures, by the time our wedding came along, I had not lost the ten pounds. Soon after that, I lost all motivation and within three months I had regained all that weight.

I was tempted to just give up on ever losing weight and let go. But like most, my New Year’s resolution became to lose the weight again. Once again though, I would lose motivation pretty quickly. I wanted fast results. I wanted to keep eating the same way and lose weight. I wanted to spend more time on the couch and lose weight. I wanted to snack in the evening and lose weight. But as we all know, losing weight doesn’t work that way.

The reality was that if I wanted to lose weight, I had to do something different than what I was doing.

In Luke 13, Jesus tells this story:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

I can relate to both the gardener and the owner of the vineyard. If I have stuff in my life, I expect them to bear fruit. I expect my budget to help me save money. I expect my roof to keep me dry. I expect my vehicle to get me from point A to point B. I expect my phone to connect me with people. I expect my AC to keep me cool.I expect my lawn mower to cut my grass. I have expectations of my stuff.

But if we want our stuff to meet our expectations, we have to invest into them as well.

I believe that the gardener gives us a great lesson as to how to do this. If we want our stuff to work, we must nurture it; we must “dig around it and put manure on it.” In other words, if I want my AC to work, I have to continually upkeep it. Because if I don’t, it will not produce as I expect it to. If I want my roof to keep me safe and dry, I have to do maintenance work on it so that it lasts longer. If I want my vehicle to take me from one place to the other, I have to do oil changes and check the tire pressure and maintain it. If we want our stuff to work, we have to do maintenance work on it. We have to nurture and cultivate our stuff if our stuff is going to produce any fruit.

But there is also another thing that this gardener reminds us to do: give it time. Notice that he did not ask the vineyard owner to let him dig around the tree and put manure on it and if it didn’t bear fruit by the next day, then he would cut it down. This gardener asks for a year of taking care of this tree before they even considering getting rid of it.

You see, if we want something to produce fruit in our life, we have to care and nurture that “thing,” whatever it is, but perhaps more importantly, we have to give it time. If you want to lose weight, start exercising, choose healthier meals, and get plenty of sleep. But know that you won’t lose the weight overnight, it takes time. And when you reach your goal, you have to keep taking care of yourself if you want to maintain that level of health.

If you want to become better at your hobbies, or work, or a certain aspect of your life, start going to conferences, get training, ask for help, let others teach you. But know that you won’t develop your skills overnight, it takes time. And when you reach your goal, you have to keep fine tuning your skills if you want to maintain that level of ability.

If you struggle with anxiety, depression or any form of mental illness, go talk to a counselor (as someone who has not only struggled with depression, but benefited from counseling, I am a huge advocate for this). But know that you won’t overcome your struggle overnight, it takes time. And when you do overcome, you have to keep taking care of yourself if you want to maintain control of your struggle.

If you are searching for life and purpose, I promise that you will only find true fulfillment of that by deepening your relationship with Jesus. But know that you won’t do that overnight. It takes time. And when you finally feel like your relationship with Jesus is on track, you have to keep going deeper if you want to not only maintain that level faith, but go as deep as you possibly can.

We all have goals and dreams in life and it is so easy to get disillusioned or to believe that maybe these goals and dreams are not for us. But I promise you that, if like the gardener to the fig tree, you dedicate yourself to nurturing your goal and give it time, you will meet those goals.

Whatever your dreams and goals are, I want you to hear this. None of those dreams and goals will help you experience true life and purpose. They are all temporary fixes for a permanent longing. But if you choose to deepen your relationship with Jesus, I promise that everything else becomes conquerable. The best place to begin is by nurturing your relationship with Jesus.

As always you can reach out to me by replying to this email. I would love to connect with you and talk some more.

Together on the journey,
Pastor Fernie