Sacred Places: In Search of Ebenezers

Sacred Places: In Search of Ebenezers

I have come to believe that there are two ways of discovering the places that are sacred in our life. One way is to designate a spot as sacred: a church we build for worship or a closet we use for prayer. The other is to have places designated as sacred for us, not because of what we build or do there, but because of the way God makes himself known there. Both have their place, but my experience is that one is far more recognized and appreciated than the other. We expect to encounter God during worship in a sanctuary, or while studying the Bible in a classroom at the church. And because we expect it, we more readily recognize when God is speaking to us, challenging us, or helping us to grow. But there are other times when God’s presence takes us by surprise, and because we don’t expect or anticipate it, we fail to recognize it, or even miss it. In his book The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade writes,

For religious man, space is not homogeneous; he experience interruptions, breaks in it; some parts of space are qualitatively different from others. “Draw not nigh hither,” says the Lord to Moses; “put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus, 3, 5). [1]

I like the fact that Eliade associates the places where we experience interruptions with places where we experience the divine. No doubt Moses’s encounter with God at the burning bush was a tremendous interruption. From shepherding the flock of his father-in-law, to hearing the voice of God emanating from a bush that was burning yet not consumed. What if Moses had been too busy to turn aside and investigate this wondrous site? Henri Nouwen once wrote, “You know…my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.” [2]

So the question becomes, could it be that we have missed some sacred places where we encountered the divine. In the Old Testament we see the heroes of faith intentionally marking the places where they encountered a divine interruption. After dreaming of a ladder reaching the heavens, with angels ascending and descending on it, we read:

Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. (Gen 28:16-19 ESV)

After Israel miraculously crosses the Jordan River on their way into the Promised Land, Joshua instructs twelve men:

Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you?” then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever. (Josh 4:5-8)

When God intervened on behalf of the Israelites to grant them a victory over the Philistines, the Bible says:

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.” (1 Sam 7:12)

The thing that strikes me about all of these instances is that these places were declared sacred after God had intervened in the life of the community in some incredible way. Israel had a tabernacle, and later a temple, and yet so many of their formative stories happened away from sites that had been designated sacred solely for the purpose of worship.

And so I ask myself, where are the sacred places of my journey following Jesus? Without a doubt some of them are found in places of worship. The church where I grew up and was baptized, the camp where I spent a week each summer studying the Bible during my teenage years, the congregation where I discerned God’s call to ministry. And yet there are others, less overt and yet no less sacred. The apartment complex where I learned refugees were not people to be feared, but fellow human beings made in the image of God. The soup kitchen where I first experienced what it means to serve the poor. The bedside of a dying sister in Christ, where faith and uncertainty danced together. My faith is much richer because I recognize how God worked in these moments and places. And if my calling is to help form the faith of those I serve, then a huge part of that task is helping them discern those moments where God is at work in their lives. If we learn to recognize and appreciate the unexpectedly sacred places in our lives, the places of divine interruption, then our time together in the place we expect to be sacred will be all the more meaningful. Then, the lyrics of the old hymn will become more than words that we sing, they will become a way of life.

Here I raise my Ebenezer; Hither by Thy help I'm come; And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, Safely to arrive at home.


[1] Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, pg. 20.

[2] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, pg. 36.

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