Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

“Here I raise my Ebenezer” -- what?

I think my congregation is bemused by the fact that their minister often wishes to read the scripture lesson from the old version of the Bible. I refer to the one authorized by King James I of England. There are so many modern versions of the Bible now that clarity is easily obtained, but beauty and the sound of authority may be more difficult to come by.

Because the King James Version was “appointed to be read in churches,” attention was given to how it sounded as well as to its usefulness for private study.

There is a church on the highway from Holly Springs to Jackson, Tenn., that is dedicated to the exclusive use of the King James version. I certainly do not think that the King James version or its translators would have thought theirs was the final insight into the meaning of the Bible, and I am happy to make use of modern versions whenever their clarity is needed.

I am not like a friend who behaves as if western civilization has collapsed just because small changes in old customs are introduced.

For example, my friend nearly fainted recently when dining at Gallatoire’s in the French Quarter of New Orleans. There he saw that the formerly all-male waiter staffs had been augmented with the addition of a female waiter! God bless Gallatoire’s and the new lady waiter as she welcomes visitors coming to the city as it emerges from the desolations of Hurricane Katrina.

Sometimes, though, people simply sweep away old customs when some of them could be retained with just a little explanation. I think this is especially true of the beautiful hymns of the church. Our new Presbyterian hymnbook fortunately retained one, “Come thou Fount of Every Blessing,” set to a good, sturdy old American tune. It contains a verse that says, somewhat puzzlingly:

“Here I raise my Ebenezer,

Hither by thy help I’m come;

And I hope by thy good pleasure,

Safely to arrive at home.”

Do you know what an “Ebenezer” is? An Ebenezer is a memorial made of stones. The ancient Hebrews set them up at places where significant events occurred, much like the historical markers we erect by our roadsides today. I knew that, but I had to go searching through the Bible for the particular story the hymn recalls.

It is in 1 Samuel 7:12, where, after the Lord delivered the Hebrews from the Philistines, the prophet Samuel set up a hill of rocks as a reminder of the Lord’s mercy, saying as he did so, that “hitherto the Lord has helped us.”

You may not have to face the terrors of the Philistines, but all of us have felt the help of God at some place in our lives, and the hymn calls us to remember this and to find strength from it when we feel helpless against our troubles.

I think it is well worth explaining this little bit of Bible trivia than to jettisoning the old hymn and its wonderful message of strength.

By the way, I wonder if Dickens knew the hymn when he chose the name Ebenezer for his character Ebenezer Scrooge in his wonderful short story, A Christmas Carol (1843). Robert Robinson, the hymn’s author, was an English Baptist — a barber by trade — who penned the hymn about 1758.

So Dickens, who lived from 1812 to 1870, could have known it. At any rate, by the time the visits of the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future had finished with him and Scrooge had awakened and set forth a reformed man, he could certainly have said with the hymn writer, “Hither by thy help I’m come.”

Strange, but true: While I was composing this article, a religious program on television featured this hymn I was writing about! Here I might suggest that you borrow a hymnal from your church and take time to read the poetry of the old hymns. I’ll bet your minister will gladly let you have one.

You will be amazed at how meaningful the words are — especially in a world where the old hymns are less familiar.

We don’t want to let the rising generation grow up entirely bereft of either “King James” or the old hymns — and that includes the beautiful carols of Christmas. Take time to hear them this year — sung as they were meant to be heard — not to a syncopated beat, or via Muzak in a mall. It wouldn’t hurt to read Dickens’ Christmas Carol either. (I still have my grandfather’s well-worn copy.)

I find myself getting rather Scrooge-like as I grow older — in fact I told someone the other day I could almost sympathize with aspects of old Scrooge, and so the lesson of that story always does me good.

On Christmas Eve, read the story of the angels in Luke 2, in the King James version. I can confidently say that these quiet experiences will do you good.

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