Patterns and Depression, Ebenezers and the Cross

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.

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12 thoughts on “Patterns and Depression, Ebenezers and the Cross

  1. I agree with you, many times people extrapolate the most minute expressions, or lack of expected response, into an interpretation that may be inaccurate or misleading. I understand your struggle, and I thank you for writing about it. I am not a person who comments often, but I felt the need to do so today, to let you know you are NOT alone, your blog is appreciated, and I am very thankful that God has blessed you so mightily. He has worked miracles in my life as well. Many blessings to you and your family!

    1. thank you lorraine, so much! you know…sometimes little encouragements really help a lot too! 😉

  2. Your writing is so often like a Davidic psalm — beginning with plaintive pain or protest and ending with poignant praise. Thank you for being so open and vulnerable — in your writing as well as your sermons. You are encouraging me to use a similar process to work through my own feelings of despondency, which are all too common.

    1. thanks j – i’ve always resonated with david very deeply, probably because of the constant screw ups. but like david, the screw ups have given me a better understanding of God than i had before!

  3. Peter, I have just found your blog, thanks to Christianity Today. I would expect you have many more new readers since you were featured there. I look forward to catching up on your past entries. I am a mother of nine, dx with cancer last year, so your wife’s story, of course, caught my interest. My cancer is considered incurable – though many people live with it for many years. I can honestly say God has blessed me in ways I never knew before this last year. He is good and faithful. Thanks for writing. You never know which seeds will bear fruit, so keep sowing.

    1. deborah, thank you for the encouragement! my prayers for healing and comfort are with you as you persevere through this season. God is definitely good and faithful, but also wild and mysterious – may you continue to see his presence and blessings in ways you never before imagined!

  4. Timely, heartfelt, sincere, humble, open confessions are what I would think of as I read your blog and the article in Chrisitianity Today. I so needed a heart check (more spiritually) and your sharing came in time…I think discouragement as a “first response/reaction” seem to be an Asian thing, or maybe not but generally the way we were brought up might have an impact on our first responses…God however, reminds us of who we are and indeed, therefore, may the cross and His Word become our first response….this as we are changed into His likeness..
    “I wait quietly before God,
    for my victory comes from him.
    He alone is my rock and my salvation,
    my fortress where I will never be shaken.
    Let all that I am wait quietly before God,
    for my hope is in him.
    He alone is my rock and my salvation,
    my fortress where I will not be shaken.
    My victory and honor come from God alone.
    He is my refuge, a rock where no enemy can reach me.”

  5. Peter – I first found out about you in the Christianity Today article on feelings of betrayal. Now after reading your blog, I am so grateful God is still showing me He speaks to us through His Word, circumstances, the church, and the Holy Spirit. (I had taken a bible study of Huckaby’s “Experiencing God” many years ago and that theme still rings true.) I’m 60 now and it is a solid truth that we need to refresh ourselves with how God speaks to us, especially in these troubled times. My need, first and foremost is, and has been over the last 6 months, are messages like yours that suffering at the hand of a sovereign God, in whatever form it takes, can produce growth in ways that will turn out in the end (The Omega) to remind us that God still and will always love us. Your comments on susceptibility to feelings of discouragement were also timely for me. I have been unemployed for 6 months, but God has provided as he did for you and your family. Similar to your story, an innercity pastor’s ministry led me and my wife of thirty four years to salvation as teenagers in a church youth group called Conquerors Club (based on Romans 8:37). He and his wife have gone on to be with the Lord, but their impact and legacy are so profound that many people affected by his ministries, even to this day, are thinking of compiling a book of reflections by people who are still around that benefited from his ministry. I’ve already written a draft of my own reflections. He and his wife suffered too, from among other things, his wife and son being tied up by burglars who broke into the parsonage. He and his wife were led to retire from the church in the city in his 60’s and they began a new ministry working with the Anglican Church as missionaries in Uganda. Being foreign missionaries in Africa was their life long dream. 100’s of thousands were led to Christ as a result. Even then the trials came here and there. His wife contracted throat cancer and was treated and eventually recovered. Well I could go on, but let me offer you one word of encouragement. You write extremely well. One of my many flaws is I can be impatient reading someone else’s writing. Your wiriting style flows well and your thoughts are clear and conveyed in an interesting and impactful way. I pray God will provide more writers like you who will by His grace be coupled with needy readers like me. FYI am on Facebook under the name send with this reply. Thank you again for your articles and blogs.

    1. thanks for this, will, it really encourages me to know that what i’m writing is life-giving to others. i often forget this and lose heart, and messages like this go a long, long way for me!

      1. you’re welcome. I started listening to your posted sermons too. You have a great preaching style. May god continue to bless you and your family.

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