What about the wilderness has resonated with you?
That was the gist of a question that Dean asked me. I couldn’t tell you the actual question because it was towards the beginning of one of those conversations that end up being an excavation of the soul. It also caught me off guard for some reason.
We were walking down the Rail Trail near downtown: myself and my pastors Dean and Lisa. I was telling them about the summer and what I was writing for camp. I told them about the characters that are in the dramas and I laid out the theme of the wilderness.
I admitted that I did not realize how appropriate that theme would be when I suggested it back in the fall. Over the last year, I have come to identify greatly with the narratives of these characters, both scriptural and of my own invention, that are searching, wandering, and oftentimes feeling lost.
That’s when Dean asked me that question. What had I learned from those many narratives in scripture where people were wandering in the wilderness? I said something about trusting God in spite of not knowing what lies ahead and then we continued on to a much-needed conversation. My answer was all well, good, and true, but it felt like a placeholder for what truly resonated with me.
In the Hebrew Bible, which is many times one wilderness tale after another, men and women would often literally mark their encounters with God. They would build monuments and reminders at the places where YHWH had spoken to them and saved them. Think of Jacob awaking from his dream, building a pillar, and naming it House of God. Or the twelve stones in Joshua that were to remind the people of Israel of how the twelve tribes passed through Jordan into the Promised Land.
The marker in the wilderness that sticks out to me the most is one found in 1 Samuel 7. After the Israelites routed the Philistines, the prophet set up a stone as a reminder. Samuel named the stone Ebenezer and said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” (1 Sam. 7:12) This particular stone in a relatively obscure passage is referenced in one of my favorite hymns “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
Here I raise mine Ebenezer
Hither by Thy help I’ve come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home
There are these markers in my life to which I can point that help me make sense of the wilderness.
They are the times that God has spoken to me in scripture, in songs, in sermons, in prayer, in communion, in aspects of the church calendar, in conversations with family and friends, and in completely unexpected places.
They are the events in my life that have molded me, scarred me, shaped me, and pointed me towards some sense of a calling.
They are times where I have felt intimately close with God and other times where I was ready to chunk the whole thing but somehow did not.
I turned thirty-one today. Like most people, birthdays typically cause me to look back. So I’ve been envisioning the trail from which I came. And I see Ebenezers scattered all over the whole thing: from the way the story of Jesus ignited my childhood imagination to Rail Trail conversations that provide clarity as I seek to take my next steps through the wilderness.
I think that is what has actually resonated with me. I am grateful to be able to remember all of these Ebenezers and to know, as I search and wander, God has helped me thus far. And I hope by God’s good pleasure to arrive at home.