I’ve been pondering an idea that came to mind over this past week, that so much of modern life is geared around taking little bits of information and forging a larger idea or principle from it. Think about the myriad ways in which we do this. The legal profession uses this principle liberally, taking small pieces of evidence, and weaving them together to try to paint a picture or person in a particular light. Academics from every field also do the same. Business, particularly the markets, is very much tied to this idea as well, where every little factor from a company’s situation, from the health of the founder to the supply of rare metals, is boiled down to a simple choice: buy or sell.
But this is hardly limited to the business or professional sphere, as it extends into our personal lives as well. If you’re in a romantic relationship, or pursuing one, how often have you taken the smallest little signal and gesture as a sign that someone is interested in you, or not? Conversely, we do the same with people that we dislike, where a raised eyebrow and crossed arms are a telltale sign of contempt. This tendency is so pervasive that it appears to be a universally human one, that our brains are somehow wired for pattern recognition, to take small things and from them, forge a greater whole. It is perhaps the primary means by which we discern what is true in life.
Here’s why I have been pondering this idea:
You see, I have a problem controlling my emotions, and the emotion that I have the most difficult time warding off is discouragement. I get discouraged very, very easily. And the reason that I get discouraged so quickly and so easily is because of that tendency that I talked about above: pattern recognition. My mind is incredibly quick to take small situations and conversations, and to come up with a larger assessment of the state of my life as a whole, and for all time. Sometimes that assessment yields incredible insights, giving me the ability to think on my feet and plan for the future. But usually, that assessment ends up being: “I suck. No one likes me. And I’m never going to get anywhere.”
For instance: only 10 page views on my blog, paired with writer’s block? That can only mean that I suck at writing and it is a waste of time to continue. Those of you who have been following this blog know how often I have struggled with that one! A small disagreement as to how to run the church, paired with sermon writer’s block? Clearly I suck at pastoring, and made a terrible mistake when I decided not become a doctor. Rejection by a publisher, and then rejection by a prospective church? The only answer is that God has no plan for me, and I’m completely on my own. I know this sound ridiculous, and it is, but this how my mind works. And I have a feeling that I am not alone in this, either, because this mentality is so engrained into our lives both professional and personally that it frequently hemorrhages into our view of self. We are at the mercy of the patterns our minds detect, whether true or ludicrously false.
But in rare moments of emotional lucidity, I remember the deeper truths of my life, instances and ideas that are so monolithic that the truth that they testify to can hardly be denied. God saved my wife from cancer, and my son from chemotherapy. CLEARLY, He has power, and has a plan for my life. Sure, maybe a lot of little things are not going my way. But how can I doubt God after something like that?? Or when we needed health insurance this winter, friends and family from across the country donated so quickly and generously that the entire amount was raised in 10 days. CLEARLY, I have wonderful brothers and sisters who love me and support my family and what I do. At the very least, I can admit to myself that I am not despised. These are truths that did not come in little pieces, then cobbled together into a fragile whole. It is a piece of granite that falls in my path and shows me what the truth really is, in one fell swoop.
The ancient Israelites had a way of remembering such things, by raising stone monuments to mark occasions of God’s faithfulness. The most famous of these is from the book of 1 Samuel, when the Israelites defeat the Philistines, and the ark of the Covenant, the physical sign of God’s presence, is returned to them. In that place, Samuel erects a stone and names it Ebenezer, which literally means “stone of help”. It was a monument that was designed so that whenever a person passed that place and saw the stone, they would be reminded, beyond the shadow of doubt, that God is faithful. Our tendency in modern times is to make matchstick monuments, a hundred little memories and impressions that we carefully stack into towering but swaying skyscrapers, testaments to the power and the fragility of our imaginations. But what we need are more Ebenezers, firm markers of unshakable truths. And what we need is not a better mind for deduction and analysis, but for remembering and celebrating.
It seems as if this tradition is so ancient it is all but lost to us, but even we modern Christians have a great Ebenezer in our lives, and that is the cross. The cross is a physical thing that testifies to greater truth. It speaks of God’s plan, and God’s power. It speaks also of redemption, transformation, and new hope. But above all else, the cross stands as an unwavering testimony of God’s love. It is a monolith, 10 miles high that screams one thing above all else, directly from the throat of God:
“I LOVE YOU.”
There are so many moments in our lives that we doubt this is true, and not without good reason. We see great suffering in our own lives, and in the lives of those around us, and our marvelous minds deduce that no loving God would allow such things to happen. But in the midst of these thousand painful cuts, the cross stands to proclaim that God does indeed love us. It is the clearest evidence of God’s love for humanity, that He would be willing to go so far as to lay down His own life for us. It does not deny our pain and suffering, but reminds us that Christ understands what we endure, even shares in our sufferings, and redeems us through His own. It is our greatest Ebenezer that communicates to us: “This is how much God loves you.”
May the cross forever be our Ebenezer, for all time.