Peripatetic People and Religious Faith

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

On June 5, worshippers at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church heard a fascinating sermon on Bacalaureate Sunday to celebrate those members who had just been graduated from high school, college or graduate school. Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s sermon–“Can Faith Guide Our Future?”–did just that and more. It spoke to all of us, no matter whether or when we had graduated from any of these institutions.[1]

1 Samuel 7: 3-16

The Scriptural text for the day was from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, 1 Samuel 7:3-16, which states (New Revised Standard Version):

  • “Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, ‘If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines. So Israel put away the Baals and the Astartes, and they served the Lord ‘” (Emphasis added.)
  • “Then Samuel said, ‘Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.’ So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord. They fasted that day, and said, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.”
  • “When the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it they were afraid of the Philistines.The people of Israel said to Samuel, ‘Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, and pray that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.’ So Samuel took a sucking lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord; Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as beyond Beth-car.”
  • Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’ So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. The towns that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath; and Israel recovered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.He went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah; and he judged Israel in all these places.”

The Sermon

The sermon opened with these words: “One of the most common ways Scripture speaks about the people of God is to talk about them as being on the move…The Exodus is a journey out of Egypt to a Land of Promise…The Exile to Babylon is a forced relocation from Jerusalem…Paul’s missionary journeys across the eastern Mediterranean keep the Apostle always traveling.”

“Even the life of Jesus is peripatetic as he roams the hills of Galilee. To be his follower is to be on the move, a pilgrim on the way.”

“Jews and Christians are not the only ones who have at the center of their religious narrative the idea of pilgrimage…Hindus go to the Ganges River. Muslims go on hajj to Mecca. People of faith in every tradition are on the move.”

Rev. Hart-Andersen then discussed the “recurring themes” of the past four annual pilgrimages he and his wife, Rev. Beth Hart-Andersen, have taken in Europe, each of which has been a “spiritually and physically and emotionally rich experience that invites reflection and brings balance.”

‘Some of the paths [on these pilgrimages] have been marked clearly; some were not marked at all and we spent a lot of time discerning the right direction to follow.”

This thought, Rev. Hart-Andersen said, undoubtedly was the case for the new graduates. Indeed, it also was the case for Tim’s “own pilgrimage after graduating from college. I had no particular direction. I meandered, seriously. In the space of about five years. I was a graduate student, a teacher (twice in two different states), a construction worker, a security guard, a custodian, and a civil servant. I graduated from college in 1974; I was ordained a minister in 1985, more than a decade later. Meander is a good word to describe the route I took, but along the way my faith kept quietly telling me (and, I hope assuring my parents!) that God would work through my life, and the way forward would be clear.”

“How do we find our way [on our own pilgrimages]?”

“It’s a matter of paying attention.” This was illustrated on his and Beth’s hike “on a lonely stretch of Welsh coastline [when] the path disappeared into overgrown ferns. They were so thick we couldn’t see where to go and we were on top of a steep cliff. But then we saw a sheep up ahead. It knew the path, and we followed. Sometimes help comes from the least expected places.”

“How do we know what direction to take as we move through life?”

This was often true, exhilarating, terrifying and chaotic for those just finishing school or college or graduate school. In such situations, “It helps to know we’re not the first to take the path. Many have walked it before us, getting there in different ways and heading toward different destinations. It’s good to watch for signs of them having passed by, to learn from them.”

As an illustration he cited a hike in “the wet, cloud-covered hills of the Lake District in England. No marked path and no other walkers to follow. Even the sheep were hard to see through the fog. A compass helped in a general way – we were heading east – but the footing was treacherous and we needed something more specific. We came to depend on rock cairns, stacks of rocks that would emerge from the mist and offer direction. We were never quite sure if a cairn marked our path, but we usually went that direction anyway, because it had been someone’s path.”

“There are many ways to get where we’re going. The rocks themselves in those cairns weren’t offering direction; it was the prior pilgrims who had marked the way. We found ourselves depending on people we would never meet, people who might have come that way decades or even centuries before, people like us, looking for direction. We assumed they had seen other rocks cairns left by earlier walkers. Often we would stop and add a stone in gratitude for what we had received.”

“That’s what Samuel and the people of Israel do when God brings them through a particularly rough patch in their journey. They’re facing huge odds against the Philistines preparing to attack them. The Israelites are outnumbered. Divided and confused. Losing focus on the one God and following other gods. Near panic. In disarray.”

“Like some of us on our journey as we try to figure out what to do with our lives, no matter our age.”

“Samuel tells them, over and over again: ‘Direct your heart to the Lord.’ By that he means, trust God to lead you through. Trust God not to abandon you. There are larger things at work than you can see. You are not alone. Trust that the way forward will be made clear.”

Direct your heart to the Lord. That’s good advice for anyone setting out on a journey, especially one where the direction isn’t clear. Don’t turn inward, counting only on yourself. Keep your eyes on God’s love and justice and pursue it with all you’ve got, trusting that God will be at work in it.”

“When God does help them through their predicament with the Philistines, Samuel marks their gratitude by raising a large rock. They call it an Ebenezer, from two Hebrew words eben haezer meaning “stone of help.” Every time they pass that stone of help it reminds them people had been that way before, and God had brought them through a time of trial.”

“’Here I raise my Ebenezer,’ we will sing in the final hymn this morning. ‘Hither by thy help I’m come. And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.’ (Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, vs. 2)”[2]

“A few weeks ago I spoke to a young woman who grew up in this church and graduated from college several years ago. After wandering a bit she has now found her passion and is pursuing it. She lives in another state. I mentioned I hoped she would still consider Westminster her community. ‘Are you kidding?’ she said. ‘This place is home for me. It keeps me grounded. I’ll always be part of Westminster.’”

“She went on to describe mission trips and global travel and youth group and choir and Cabaret – all things that make up the Westminster journey for our young people. It occurred to me that this congregation had become for her a kind of ecclesiastical Ebenezer, a living reminder that God is with her, that God will not abandon her, that she can trust God to see her through.”

“Westminster and its partner communities of faith can be Ebenezers for the entire city, reminders that God is present, that justice will triumph in the end, that love is more powerful than hatred or violence.”

“The signs wishing our Muslim neighbors a Blessed Ramadan are little cardboard Ebenezers, defying the human tendency to vilify those not like us, pointing in a direction of mutual respect and humility, reminding us of the full humanity of all our neighbors.”[3]

“If we are to be a community reflecting God’s intentions that will be the way forward: each one of us and all of us together, living Ebenezers, signs of God’s love.”

Can faith guide our future? The answer is yes, if we are ready to let it, if we direct our hearts to God, if we trust that God is at work in our lives, even when it’s not obvious.”

“We who follow Jesus are a people on the move. Our faith will help us find our way – if we can see the signs all around that God is present on the journey with us. Thanks be to God.”

Conclusion

As indicated in a prior post, I have wondered about the seemingly strange Biblical reference to the Ebenezer erected a long time ago by the Jewish people and concluded that Samuel publicly dedicated this stone “as a monument to God’s help, God’s faithfulness, God’s eternal covenant. And as the people got on with their lives, the stone stood there, visible to all who passed that way, a reminder of judgment and repentance, mercy and restoration.” Thus, I said, “‘Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come’ is a metaphorical way of saying that I recognize that God has helped me reach this point in my life and that it is important for me to create an outward expression of this recognition and gratitude.”

The June 5 sermon added to my understanding by stressing everyone’s need for help from those who have gone before and the importance of outward signs of those previous pilgrims and of the interconnectedness of the generations of believers.

The sermon’s emphasis on journeys also says to me that no one is defined by where they are from or where they are currently living. We all are children of God no matter where we live. And we need to live like God’s children wherever we happen to be.

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[1] The bulletin for the service is online as is the text of the sermon.

[2] A prior post discusses the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

[3] Westminster is participating in a project of the Minnesota Council of Churches to post signs at churches and homes announcing “To Our Muslim Neighbors: Blessed Ramadan.” These signs, said Rev. Peg Chemberlin, the Council’s executive director, are reminders that “Minnesota is respectful of religious differences.” Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said, “If I see a sign, it tells me that the person believes this country belongs to everyone, that no one should be excluded. There is a vast reservoir of good will among people. The Blessed Ramadan signs allow that to be expressed.” (Minn. Council of Churches, To Our Muslim Neighbors: Blessed Ramadan; Hopfensperger, Minnesota council offers ways to support Muslim neighbors in Ramadan, StarTribune (June 8, 2016).)

“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

This beloved hymn was sung as an anthem by the choir at the July 28th worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] Listening to it was enriching although joining in congregational singing of the hymn would have been even more meaningful.

At least for me, however, there is not enough time while listening to an anthem or singing a hymn to ponder the true meaning and significance of its words. I recently have discovered that gaining a better and deeper understanding of a hymn or anthem requires subsequent meditation on the words, researching the hymn’s history and writing an essay recording the results of that meditation and research. In short, such a practice has become a spiritual discipline.[2]

The Lyrics

Here are the lyrics of the three verses of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing:”

1. 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 the mount! I’m fixed upon it,

mount of thy redeeming love.

2. Here I raise mine Ebenezer;

hither by thy help I’m come;

and I hope, by thy good pleasure,

safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,

wandering from the fold of God;

he, to rescue me from danger,

interposed his precious blood.

3. O to grace how great a debtor

daily I’m constrained to be!

Let thy goodness, like a fetter,

bind my wandering heart to thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

prone to leave the God I love;

here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

seal it for thy courts above.

The hymn testifies to the amazing graces God provides to human beings. God bestows “streams of mercy, never ceasing.”  By God’s “help I’m come” thus far in my life, and with God’s “good pleasure, [ I hope] safely to arrive at home.”  “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger.” [3]

Confession of sin also is prominent in the hymn. The human being has a “wandering heart” that is “prone to wander” and “prone to leave the God I love.” The human can be and has been a “stranger, wandering from the fold of God.”

Therefore, the human being needs constraints, binders and fetters to combat this impulse to wander. The human needs God to “tune my heart to sing thy grace.”

God responds to this need with “goodness.”  The human in turn responds with “songs of loudest praise.”  “Praise the . . . mount of thy redeeming love.” “Fount of every blessing.” The human then offers “my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.”

The hymn’s reference to raising “my Ebenezer” long baffled me. The answer is found in the following passages of First Samuel in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), which is believed to have been written in the seventh century BCE:

  • Israel was engaged in battles with the Philistines. While Israel’s troops were encamped near the village of Ebenezer, the Philistines routed Israel and seized the Arc of the Covenant in accordance with the ancient custom of taking the statue of the god of the defeated enemy as booty. (1 Samuel 4-5.)
  • Seven months later the Philistines returned the Arc of the Covenant to Israeli people in the town of Beth-shemesh who subsequently delivered it to the people of the town of Kiriath-jearim. (1 Samuel 6-7:1.)
  • Twenty years passed, and Samuel, a prophet and judge, told the people of Israel. “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods [and idols] . . . from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve Him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” (1 Samuel 7: 2-3.)
  • The people did as they were told, and Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at [the town of] Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord” for forgiveness for your sins and for deliverance from the Philistines. The Israeli people then gathered at Mizpah for this religious ceremony. (1 Samuel 7: 4-6.)
  • When the Philistines learned of this assembly, their troops advanced to attack the Israeli people at Mizpah. The Lord, however, “threw [the Philistines] into confusion; and they were routed before Israel.” (1 Samuel 7: 7-11.)
  • To commemorate this event, “Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and [the village of] Jeshanah, and named [the stone] Ebenezer [stone of help and the site of the prior victory of the Philistines]; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” (1 Samuel 7:12.) In other words, Samuel publicly dedicated this stone, according to another blogger, “as a monument to God’s help, God’s faithfulness, God’s eternal covenant. And as the people got on with their lives, the stone stood there, visible to all who passed that way, a reminder of judgment and repentance, mercy and restoration.”

Thus, “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come” is a metaphorical way of saying that I recognize that God has helped me reach this point in my life and that it is important to create an outward expression of this recognition and gratitude.

The Lyricist

Robert Robinson
Robert Robinson

The lyrics were written around 1757 by Robert Robinson, an Englishman then age 22 and a recent convert to Evangelical Methodism. In 1759 after a brief period at a Congregational Chapel, he joined Stone-Yard Baptist Chapel in Cambridge, England. There he remained for most of the rest of his life, first as Lecturer and then, from 1762 to at least 1788, as Pastor.

Although Robinson had argued against Unitarianism for many years, in 1788 he apparently converted to that faith although never doubting the full divinity of Jesus Christ. In 1790 he visited Joseph Priestly, a noted Unitarian in Birmingham, England [4] and preached several sermons at his chapels. There Robinson died and was buried in that city’s Dissenters’ Burial Ground.

The Composer, Publisher and Arranger

Nettleton
Asahel Nettleton
John Wyeth
John Wyeth

In the U.S., the hymn is usually set to an American folk tune known as Nettleton, composed by Asahel Nettleton (1783 –1844), an American theologian and pastor from Connecticut who was highly influential during the Second Great Awakening.

In 1813 the hymn and music were included in the Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second that was published by John Wyeth, a Philadelphia printer. This book and its predecessor, the Repository of Sacred Music, were highly successful, selling over 150,000 copies. In the preface to his work, Wyeth claimed three qualifications as a compiler of sacred music: years of attention to the charms of church music; acquaintance with the taste of eminent teachers; and the possession of more than a thousand pages of music to use.

Howard Don Small
Howard Don Small

The musical arrangement used at Westminster on July 28th was by Howard Don Small (1933-2007), who had been the Choirmaster and Organist at Minneapolis’ St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. When he retired from St. Mark’s in 1998, a choir member expressed appreciation for Small’s “qualities of professionalism, musicianship, and leadership;” gratitude . . .  for the opportunity to grow, learn, and deepen my spirituality; sadness – that [Small] will be leaving, but also; happiness – that [Small] will be able to be relieved of the extreme pressure of your role to do things at a manageable and enjoyable pace.”

Conclusion

Melanie Ohnstad
Melanie Ohnstad
Jere Lantz
Jere Lantz

 Merely recounting the involvement over 250 years of four men in the creation, publication and arrangement of this hymn (and anthem) and then the Westminster choir’s singing the hymn under the direction of Jere Lantz with the organ accompaniment by Westminster Minister of Music & the Arts/Organist, Melanie Ohnstad, brings to mind two Scriptural passages.

All of these individuals are members of the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1-2) who meld their different gifts into one body to produce something pleasing to God (Romans 12: 3-8). Including Samuel in this cloud of witnesses, as we should, expands the time period to over 2,700 years.

I must confess that the Howard Don Small arrangement that was sung by the choir made a significant, and, I think, unfortunate change in the lyrics. Instead of “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come,” they sang “Here I find my greatest pleasure; In the help I hope I’m come.” (I am not too sure about the latter part of this substitution.) This change undoubtedly was prompted by the arranger’s knowing that many people today do not understand the reference to “raising my Ebenezer.”

This wording change, however, obliterates Robinson’s meaning and also prevents people from researching and discovering that true meaning. A professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Gary A. Parrett, has been crusading against such changes to this hymn. His article in Christianity Today expressed the following reasons for this opposition, which I endorse:

  • “Robinson [undoubtedly] felt he had found just the right expression to say what needed to be said. His phrasing, in this case, was succinct, biblical, pointed, poignant, and poetic.”
  • The “revisions are, at best, inconsistent attempts to be culturally relevant. How can the revisers leave in words like hither and fetter, as they typically do, while Ebenezer is heartlessly expunged?”
  • The revisions ignore the Biblical foundation for Robinson’s words, as pointed out above. As Parrett says, the “single word [Ebenezer] ushers the worshiper into both the biblical episode and the greater narrative of God’s redemptive dealings with his people. It points us, also, to Robinson’s dramatic conversion three years before he penned the hymn, inviting us to reflect upon our own stories and to remember God’s faithful dealings with us. By removing the word from the hymn, we likely remove it from believers’ vocabularies and from our treasury of spiritual resources.”
  • “What we have in such revisions is the worst sort of accommodation, even contribution, to biblical illiteracy. Our faith is filled with names and terms that were unfamiliar to us when we joined the family—atonement, propitiation, Sabbath, Passover, Melchizedek. What are we to do with such terms? We teach! How difficult would it be to simply explain the reference to Ebenezer?”

[1]  The bulletin and a video and audio recording of this service are available online.

[3]  These words remind me of the third verse of another great hymn, Amazing Grace: “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; ‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.”

[4]  Priestly (1733 –1804) was an 18th-century English theologian, Dissenting clergyman, natural philosopher, chemist, educator, and political theorist. He usually is credited with the discovery of oxygen