Stones of help

by Gregory Sager

My father and my mother were both born in Buffalo, New York and were both raised in the working-class suburb of Buffalo called West Seneca. My father in particular grew up on the western edge of West Seneca, a stone’s throw away from the Buffalo city line. His neighborhood was called Ebenezer, and my father attended Ebenezer Elementary School as a boy.

By a coincidence of which I am sure my father was unaware during his lifetime, the history of Ebenezer is intertwined with the history of his spiritual home, the Evangelical Covenant Church. Like our spiritual ancestors who came from Sweden and founded the Covenant, Ebenezer was originally founded by Pietists. These Radical Pietists called themselves the Community of True Inspiration, and in the 1840s they left Germany and emigrated to America for the similar reasons that their Swedish spiritual cousins would leave their homeland a half-century later—to freely practice their Christian faith in the manner that God was leading them, unencumbered by legal pressure from unbelieving political authorities.

The Inspirationists purchased land at the northern edge of the Seneca Indian Reservation from the Senecas—which was itself a Christian testimony in an era when white people usually took land from the New World’s original inhabitants rather than paying for it. And there they set up a colony that was modeled along the lines of the early church as described in Acts chapter 2. They lived communally and held their property and their businesses in common, in a manner strikingly reminiscent of our brothers and sisters at Jesus People in Uptown in Chicago. They named their new community Ebenezer.

They didn’t stay there long; they were separationists determined to live apart from worldly temptation. But the population of the nearby village of Buffalo was exploding due to the opening of the Erie Canal and the coming of the Industrial Revolution along with it. So after a few years the Inspirationists packed up and moved again, this time to the far western wilderness in Iowa. There they founded the Amana colonies that still exist to this day and are a familiar tourist attraction. Although the Inspirationists left western New York, the settlement that they had built and then sold off to their secular neighbors to this day retains the name Ebenezer.

The Inspirationists preferred to give their colonies Hebrew names taken from the Old Testament. Amana is the Hebrew word that means “righteousness,” and Ebenezer

means “stone of help.” The name “Ebenezer” is taken from 1 Samuel chapter 7. At this point the Israelites are struggling to overcome their enemies the Philistines, not because the Philistines had a superior army (which they did), but because the Israelites were always either caught up in sinful lifestyles or were trying to go about doing the right thing the wrong way. However, under the leadership of their newly-minted judge and prophet Samuel, the Israelites finally did things right in God’s eyes. Samuel led them in a sacrifice before battle, and they carried the Ark of the Covenant with them into the battle. And they defeated the better-armed and better-armored Philistines, ushering in a generation of peace.

After the battle, they rolled a large boulder onto the battlefield and named it Ebenezer—the stone of help. It was their memorial to God for giving them the victory. For hundreds of years afterward, Israelite fathers would point at that large rock and say to their children, “That is the Ebenezer, the stone of help. That’s where God helped us to overcome our enemies. It is important that we not only remember that God is always there to help us and guide us, but to remember specific examples of when God helped our people.” It has become common for Christians as well to refer to incidents in their own lives when they remember God coming to their aid as “Ebenezer stones.” It is a way of marking that memory and making it sacred, giving God the glory for that particular good thing that happened to them.

When I think of my own father, I, too, remember many things he did as being Ebenezer stones in my own life. My father didn’t say much, but his actions said plenty. He served two terms as the chair of the Covenant church in which I was raised, and he served three terms as the chair of the trustee board. He was the leader of the initiative that built a new sanctuary for the church, a sanctuary that he designed himself. His service to his church serves as an Ebenezer for me when I consider how I can best serve my own congregation. My father was a private person and reluctant to speak about his own life or to intrude upon others. Nevertheless he was faithful to the call of Jesus to spread the gospel, and he led several people to Christ, including his business partner and his own father. To me, when I hesitate to talk about my own faith, his example of someone who obeyed the call to witness to others is an Ebenezer to me to call upon God for help when given an evangelistic opportunity of my own.

My father died ten years ago this summer. But in these ways and in so many others, my recollections of him and the things that he did serve as Ebenezers, stones of help raised up in my own memory, that show me the good things that God has done in the past through my father and serve as examples of ways that I, too, can raise Ebenezers of my own for my brothers and sisters in Christ.