Here I raise my Ebenezer

What most people think of when they hear the proper noun in my title–if they think of anything at all–is the protagonist of A Christmas Carol.  And since I can’t let a reference to Charles Dickens pass without pausing on it, let me digress before I even begin.  My guess is that Dickens chose the name “Ebenezer Scrooge” for its sound.  Dickens tended to choose names for that reason, and this particular name is odd and old-fashioned like its owner, but also harsh like its owner, with all those long vowels and hard consonants.  “Ebenezer” is the type of obscure Old Testament name that might be given to the child of people who subscribed to the type of bleak, joyless religion that Dickens so hated.  (Dickens fan fiction writers–I know there are a few of you out there–here’s a topic for you.)  Whether Dickens intended it or not, the name may also have a deeper significance in a story about a person reaching a milestone in his life.  And it gets even more interesting: his pivotal moment takes place at a literal stone–a memorial stone.

That’s significant because the name “Ebenezer” was originally given to a stone set up by Samuel the prophet.  The word literally means “stone of help,” and when Samuel dedicated it, he said, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).  This statement is quoted almost verbatim in my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which I in turn quoted in my title for today.  Here’s the full line, addressed to God: “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come / And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”  A similar idea occurs in another beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this concept of stopping and looking back on the road by which God has led me to this point and looking forward in hope–the theological kind of hope, which has a sure basis.  (By the way, it’s almost impossible to talk about this concept without using road metaphors; even the word “milestone” comes from road travel.)  One reason it’s been on my mind is that last week I had to write my salvation testimony and reflect on my spiritual growth over the years since then.  I closed my response by referring to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  I don’t know where he will lead me next, I said, but I trust that he will lead me into green pastures and beside still waters (and sometimes through the valley of the shadow of death, but never to stay there).

I’m also thinking about the Ebenezer stone because it seems that change is in the air–for an unusual number of people around me, and maybe even for me.  I used to be afraid of change.  I was scared of not being able to control how things changed.  The so-called butterfly effect–the idea that if I go a different route to work this morning, I could change the whole trajectory of my day and even my life and maybe even THE WHOLE OF HUMAN HISTORY–didn’t make me feel powerful; it terrified me.  But I’m coming to understand and trust that God’s guiding hand–what old historians and theologians called Providence–is working to shape those events.  I’m not in control, and that is a very good thing.  I probably wouldn’t have chosen the job I’m in, the friends I have, or–dare I say–the family I belong to, and yet these are the greatest blessings of my life.  God has brought me to a good place, and he will continue to guide me.  Ebenezer!

I’m a church lady.

I hinted last week that I might post about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this week, but after watching the Blu-Ray, including the deleted scenes (which were enjoyable  but didn’t fill in any of the story gaps I’d hoped they would), I found that I don’t have a whole lot that’s new to say about the movie, except that I still love it, story gaps and all.  I will briefly mention, however, that I now have a favorite sequence: the one in which Newt and Jacob work together to catch the Erumpent in Central Park.  It starts off with that lovely little scene in which Newt does the Erumpent mating dance, showing that he has no problem making himself look ridiculous for the benefit of his beloved beasts (and making us love them too, vicariously).  After that, it’s a well-paced, purely fun caper through the park that solidifies the partnership between Newt and Jacob–at the end, the latter puts out his hand as if they’re meeting for the first time and finally says, “Call me Jacob.”  The music is also perfect in this sequence; it’s beautiful and sounds like something that should be in a ballet, but it has just enough of a sense of humor to fit the tone of the events.

But that’s not the topic of today’s post.  Instead, I want to write a little bit about the wonderful time I had this past weekend at my church’s women’s retreat at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Ashville, NC.  I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m a mountain lover, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed my surroundings, especially the feeling of being enveloped by the woods while zip-lining on Saturday.  I also enjoyed The Cove’s gourmet meals, the music and teaching sessions, and getting to sleep in almost total darkness and quiet.

But my favorite thing about the retreat was looking around and realizing just how many women from my church I recognize and, of those, how many I can call my friends.  This is significant to me not only because I belong to a large church, but also because for a long time, I didn’t think I was a “church lady.”  During college and for a number of years after that, I did not consider myself the type of person who would go to a women’s retreat–nor who would attend a Beth Moore Living Proof event (which I did last fall) or who would wear a piece of jewelry inspired by a book from a women’s Bible study I participated (and I love my necklace pendant that looks like the bird’s nest on the cover of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts).

Now, when I look back on the period when I thought I wasn’t a church lady, I realize that my attitude largely stemmed from pride and prejudice.  (I promise that was not an intentional Jane Austen reference, but I decided to run with it.)  I had a very narrow definition of what a church lady was.  Although I couldn’t have pointed to one person who fit this description, my stereotyped mental image of a church lady didn’t like to read non-Christian fiction, hugged everyone who came across her path but didn’t really know them, would have considered me unspiritual and just plain weird for liking Harry Potter and rock music, and used Bible verses in all of her decorating.  She was also, although I may not have ever articulated this is a verbal thought, intellectually and spiritually inferior to me.

Of course, I was wrong, not to mention lousy with pride.  My erroneous thinking derived from two main problems.  First, I was forgetting that the true definition of a “church lady” is any woman who belongs to Jesus Christ, even if she lives in a country that doesn’t have a single Lifeway.  Second, I didn’t know very many women from my local church.  It took me a long time and some deliberate actions–serving in various ministries, becoming an official church member, deigning to attend Wednesday night Bible studies–before I really started getting to know some of them.  Now, in my church, I have running buddies, I have fellow Harry Potter fans, and I have women who may not have any superficial interests in common with me but with whom I can have a genuine conversation about life.  It was beautiful to look out over the crowd in our sessions over the weekend and realize that.

two good guys and a real woman

There’s apparently something about April that makes me want to write short stories.  (Check out last April’s creations, another brother story and a cousin story.)  This one is a best friend story, but it also has male protagonists.  For some reason I find it easier to write about men, but sometimes I need actual men to let me know if my characters are acting like men.  So feel free to critique.  I’m also aware that the non-male of my three main characters, Ramona, isn’t as compelling as the other two.  Since they clearly think she’s something special, I need to do a better job of showing why.  And I do know that the legal stuff the characters discuss about copyright and fan fiction is a bit murky.  I need to do more research on that, although this ultimately isn’t a very important part of the story. 

Please enjoy this as-yet untitled piece.  Warning: It is fairly long.

Back in college, they used to get pizza wasted.  This doesn’t mean that they ordered pizza while wasted.  This means that they ate so much pizza, they got stupid.  There was one three-week period when they watched Psycho every night, at least that’s how they remembered it later.  Every night they quoted the same lines.  “You’re going to put me in the fruit cellar.  Think I’m fruity, do you?”  After destroying three large stuffed crust Pizza Hut pizzas, they could barely breathe, far less think.  Adrian was skinny in college, even more than now.  Sam was, as now, bless-his-heart fat.  This made little difference.  They both demolished about a pizza and a half each.

Adrian was not exactly wishing, just now, that he was pizza wasted.  But he was thinking, with a twinge of nostalgia, about what a different setting he and Sam were in on this particular evening.  Instead of a B.O.-funky dorm room, they were in a vast hall with crystal chandeliers, which hurt Adrian’s eyes, and thick, somnolent carpets.  Sam was sitting at the front table, wearing a suit and looking flushed and sweaty but radiantly happy.  Adrian was sitting at one of the indistinguishable round tables with Ramona, who was falling asleep.  He saw that she had her phone in her lap and knew it was set to vibrate, so he texted her, “Wake up!”  Her eyes flew open, and she looked at Adrian sheepishly.  He texted again, “My little flower.  You wilt when there’s no natural light. :)”  She texted back, “Shut up and pay attention!,” but she was smiling.

Adrian looked up at the podium and tried to pay attention.  A middle-aged woman, who clearly didn’t read Sigyn: Intra-Yggdrasil Negotiator, was talking about Sam.  Sam wrote and illustrated comic books for a living.  He routinely referred to this as “the ultimate loser job,” but Adrian called it what it really was: living the dream.  Sam had pulled Sigyn out of a footnote in Norse mythology and turned her into the heroine of his hugely cult-popular series.  A national feminist organization had noticed that Sigyn was a “real” woman and now was honoring Sam for his work to advance realistic and positive portrayals of women in the comic book genre.  As far as Adrian, Sam, and Ramona had been able to tell, “real” meant that Sigyn didn’t take crap from people, and it also had something to do with the size of her hips.

Sam had been floored by this honor.  “I wasn’t trying to say anything,” he’d said last night while freaking out over his acceptance speech.  “I mean, she’s just a great character, and I think she’s hot.”  “I don’t think you should mention that last part,” Adrian had warned him.  “No, I don’t think the feminists would like that,” Ramona had agreed.  “Even if it is true.”  The laugh in her voice when she said this had made Adrian stare at her for a few moments, trying to see if he could find some hidden message.  Adrian had long suspected that Sam was modeling Sigyn’s appearance, and some of her mannerisms, after Ramona’s.  It was just little things, like her hair color and her fondness for wearing green.  Since Sam was clearly infatuated with his fictional creation, the possible connection between Sigyn and Ramona was one that Adrian was afraid to pursue.  He hoped he was just being paranoid.

Adrian snapped out of his reverie and realized that he was staring at Ramona, who was looking at Sam, who was now at the podium speaking.  Sam pushed a damp clump of hair off his forehead and took a sip of water.  “I’m so grateful for the love you’ve all shown Sigyn.  I was just trying to create a character who was smart and strong and happy and . . . you know . . . healthy, mentally and emotionally and . . . physically.”

Adrian and Ramona exchanged a glance.  So far Sam hadn’t said anything to get the feminists indignant.  Sam continued, “I think Sigyn’s greatest quality is that she brings peace with her wherever she goes.  She’s able to get these crazy, selfish, combative kings and demigods to stop fighting, and she can do that because she’s . . . like I said, smart, and emp–empathetic.”  He took a bigger swallow of water.  “So, I’m glad you love her too, and thanks for this . . . honor.”  Sam gave a tentative little wave and started to go back to his chair but stopped at a signal from the middle-aged woman who didn’t read Sigyn.  “Oh!” he exclaimed, sounding out of breath.  “Um, questions?”

A younger woman sitting in the press section raised her hand.  “There’s a lot of speculation on the message boards that Sigyn is having an affair with Balder.  What would you say in response?”

“STUPID QUESTION,” Ramona texted Adrian.

“Oh, that’s ridiculous,” Sam said, the hesitation gone from his voice.  “Balder’s not that kind of guy; he’s just a good guy, you know?”

Adrian texted back, “Seriously, what does she think this is, Inside Edition?”

“And besides,” Sam continued, “as weird as it sounds, the whole series is based on the premise that Sigyn actually loves Loki.  And in his limited, narcissistic way, he loves her too.”

The fact that Sigyn, true to the original mythology, was married to Loki was one of the reasons Adrian suspected that she was modeled from Ramona.  Unlike most normal women, Ramona wasn’t particularly attracted to Thor; it was the pale, dark troublemaker who caught her fancy, and for some reason this made Adrian extra jealous.  “Do you have to have a picture of Tom Hiddleston on your desktop?” he’d asked the other day, knowing he sounded petulant and ridiculous.  “Do you have to drool every time a preview with Jessica Chastain comes on TV?” she had rejoined, with a smile that said she didn’t take this nearly as seriously as he did.

Adrian wondered if he was becoming unreasonable, or worse, pathetic.  It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Ramona.  It was just that he sometimes, increasingly often, had the self-esteem of a 14-year-old girl.  There was no other reason for him to feel threatened by mythical gods and unattainable British actors, and by–well, by Sam, who now, it seemed, was finished answering questions.  The middle-aged woman was now making closing-type remarks while Sam stood at a deferential distance from the podium, his cheeks bright pink and his blonde hair turning dark at the ends from perspiration.

“Sam looks miserable,” Ramona texted.

“He’s fine,” Adrian typed at first, but backspaced this and wrote instead, “Those lights up there look really bright.”  What he wanted to write was, “Hey, I’m feeling kind of miserable myself over here, you notice?”  But that would really be pathetic.


Later, in the cab, Sam was happy again now that he’d taken off his jacket and tie and unbuttoned his collar.  “Man, I haven’t worn a suit since you two got married.”

“Yeah, but that time it was a tuxedo.  So this isn’t that bad,” Adrian pointed out.  Sam had been a groomsman in their wedding–not the best man, a distinction that had belonged to Adrian’s brother.  Sam didn’t have any siblings, nor did he have any other close friends, and his parents didn’t like to travel, which was why Adrian and Ramona had been his guests for the banquet.  (Of course, there was also the distinct possibility that Ramona was the inspiration for the character whom all the fuss was about, but nobody talked about that.)  After a brief, awkward spat, Adrian and Ramona had agreed to let Sam pay for their plane tickets and hotel room.  “I’m still shocked that I’ve made any money from writing comics,” Sam had said.  “And what better way to spend my money than to spend it on my best friends?”  Sam had a way of saying embarrassingly sincere things like that.

Now, in the cab back to the hotel, Sam punched Adrian in the arm.  Adrian cringed, which he knew was stupid, because it didn’t hurt and he normally didn’t mind being punched in the arm.  “Hey,” said Sam.  “Have you thought about it?  Are you gonna be Percy?”  Sam wanted to start a new series called Percy Weasley and the Ministry Aides, and he’d asked for Adrian’s permission to let him model the title character’s appearance after his own, which corresponded superficially to J. K. Rowling’s description of Percy.  Adrian found this annoying.  There was nothing particularly special about having red hair and horn-rimmed glasses.  Besides, all this was clearly just a formality, since Sam hadn’t asked for permission to model his other title character after Ramona.  Unless he had, and nobody had ever told Adrian.  But this was too enormous to be considered.

“Can’t you rest on your laurels for a while before starting your next project?” Adrian asked.

“But this one is going to be awesome!” Sam said.  “I’ve got it all planned out.  I think Percy is going to be kind of a hipster.”

“Why?” Adrian asked with an edge to his voice.  He certainly wasn’t hip enough to be a hipster.

“I don’t know; that’s just how I picture him.  I think it’s the glasses.  I’m thinking Cornelius Fudge can send Percy down to the local pub to get him a beer, and Percy comes back with this obscure craft brew called, like, Goblin Hoard.”

Ramona laughed.  She was the biggest Harry Potter fan of them all.  “Is Percy going to get reconnected with Penelope Clearwater?”

“Of course!” Sam exclaimed.  “I haven’t quite figured out how, though.  I think she’s working for the Daily Prophet.  Oh!  And I’ve already got the Christmas issue planned out.  Percy is going to get a card from his mom that just says, ‘Come home.’  And he isn’t going to come home, because this is before all the Battle of Hogwarts stuff, but he’s going to have this whole Christmas meltdown thing.  Great stuff.  I can’t wait.”

“Percy has always broken my heart,” Ramona said.

“J. K. Rowling is probably going to sue you,” Adrian said, even though Ramona had sounded like she was going to say more.  He was looking straight out the windshield; Sam and Ramona were leaning across him to talk to each other.  He felt a little sick.

“No, she isn’t,” Sam said.  “Has Marvel ever tried to sue me for using Loki and Thor and Odin?  I’m not famous enough to be a threat.”

“Yeah, but you might have to be more careful now that you’re a noted feminist artist,” Ramona said in a wink-wink voice.

Sam chuckled, always a fan of Ramona’s humor.  “Naah, this is the 21st century.  The whole concept of copyright is changing.  And I’m basically just writing fan fiction.  I’ve done my research; I won’t get in trouble for the stuff I do.”

“Please don’t go to jail, Sam!” said Ramona in an exaggeratedly worried tone and a proper British accent.  Ramona enjoyed doing British accents, especially when the context didn’t call for it.

“We’re at the hotel,” Adrian said, before the cab had even reached the breezeway.  He was angry at everyone in the backseat, especially himself, and he wanted to go to bed.

After Sam paid the driver, he hustled to catch up with Adrian and Ramona, who were already in the lobby.  “Hey,” he said.  “It’s probably just me, but–are you guys still hungry?”

“Actually, yeah,” said Ramona.  “I thought it was just me.”

“Kind of,” Adrian conceded.  “The food at that banquet was . . .”

“Not great,” Sam said apologetically, as if he felt bad for taking his friends to a lousy banquet.  “And there wasn’t much of it.  And I was so nervous, I couldn’t eat.”  He paused for a beat.  “Just kidding!”

Adrian never knew how to respond when Sam made fat jokes about himself, which this seemed to be.  “Earlier I saw a pizza place at the end of this block,” Adrian said.  “I’ll go get some pizzas.”

“We could just get delivery,” Ramona suggested.

“No, I want to walk,” said Adrian.

“I’ll go with you.  You’ll have a lot to carry.  And I want to pay,” said Sam.

“But you have your jacket and tie . . .”

“I’ll take them upstairs,” said Ramona.  “I have some grading to do, so I’ll wait up there for you guys.”

Adrian sighed.  He wanted to be alone, but at least this way Sam and Ramona wouldn’t be alone in adjoining hotel rooms.  “Okay, come on, Sam.”

It was a balmy night.  In spite of himself, Adrian was starting to feel calmer.  Sam seemed a little high from the evening’s events.  “Adrian,” he said.  “I want to tell you something.  I think you already know, but I want to say it out loud.”

“Don’t say anything you’ll regret,” Adrian said dryly, looking down at a pebble he was kicking along the sidewalk.

“Well, like I said, I think you know, but . . . I really . . . I mean I’ve always . . . I love your wife.”

Adrian nearly tripped mid-kick.  “What?”  He stopped and turned to look at Sam, whose face was redder than it had been all evening.  “Why would you tell me that?”

Most people would’ve had the decency to look away, Adrian thought, but Sam just looked at him with those big blue eyes that made him seem desperate even at the best of times.  “Come on, Adrian, I’ve loved Ramona pretty much ever since you two started dating–”

“Stop saying love!” Adrian shouted.  He was shouting, on a street that wasn’t entirely deserted, but he didn’t care.  “You don’t even know what that is!”

Now Sam turned away.  Adrian immediately realized what he’d said.  “I’m sorry, that was . . .” It was cruel, but that word sounded overly dramatic.  “Does she know?  Have you said anything to Ramona?”

Sam shook his head emphatically, still not looking at Adrian.  “Of course not.  You know me.  I would never act on this.”

“Because you’re a good guy,” said Adrian, in a dull voice now.  “And you know that as weird as it sounds, Ramona loves me, and I love her, in my limited, narcissistic way.”

Sam looked at Adrian now.  “What?  Did you think I was saying that about you?  That was just some literary crap that sounded good when I was on the spot.  It was about Loki, and you’re definitely not him.”

“Believe me, I know that!” Adrian turned and started walking briskly toward the pizza parlor.  Sam was shorter and practically had to jog to keep up with Adrian’s stride.  Adrian turned to speak again, as if Sam had kept the conversation going.  “Listen, I know this makes me sound like a douche bag, but it’s true.  You don’t know what it’s like to be married to a woman who’s whole leagues better than you, and to always be baffled about what she sees in you, and to constantly be paranoid about pretty much all the other men in the world, even if they’re fictional characters or . . . or really good guys.”

Sam stopped walking, forcing Adrian to stop too, and indicated his whole person in a sweeping gesture.  “Have you seen me, Adrian?  I’m a fat nerd.”

Adrian flung his arms out too, which he normally only did when he was teaching and making a very important point.  “Sam, did you sleepwalk through that banquet tonight?  Did you hear what those people were saying about you?  You’re like the Stan Lee of our generation.”  Sam snorted.  “Okay, maybe not yet, but you will be!  You spend all day, every day writing incredible stories that people all over the world love.  So don’t tell me–”

“I’m lonely, Adrian,” Sam cut in, not loudly.  It took Adrian a moment to realize what he’d said.  “I’m so lonely.  It’s worse than ever.  If I’d had to go to this thing by myself, I don’t think I could’ve gone.”  He paused to take a breath.  “Do you forget what that’s like?”

Adrian ran his fingers through his hair and straightened his jacket and his glasses, as if he’d been physically hit.  “Geez, Sam.”

They were at the pizza place.  Sam held the door open.  “How much pizza do you think we should get?”

Adrian shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Whatever.  All of it.”  He felt sick again.  “You decide.  I need to sit down.”  He went over to a far corner booth, sat down, took off his Percy glasses, and sat there with his face in his hands, while Sam placed what sounded like a very long pizza order.

Sam came over and slid into the opposite seat.  He let out a long sigh.  “It’s supposed to be ready in 15 minutes.”

Adrian put his glasses back on.  “You know what I was thinking about tonight?  Remember in college, how we used to get pizza wasted?”

Sam briefly chuckled.  “Oh, man.  Remember when we watched Psycho like 21 nights in a row?”

Adrian nodded.  “That’s exactly what I was thinking about.”  He paused, a moment of silence for their former selves.  “How did we pay for all that pizza?”

Sam shrugged.  “Student loans, I guess.”

“But . . . why did we do it?”

“I don’t know.” Sam shook his head.  “Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I know why did it.  I was especially miserable that year, and I was trying to numb it, I guess.  Kind of the story of my life.”

Adrian cringed again.  “Geez, Sam.”

“Sorry.”

“No, don’t be sorry.”  There was a long, comfortable silence, the kind men can generally pull of much better than women.

Finally, Adrian said, “Look.  I know I suck as a friend.”

“No, you don’t,” Sam insisted, with an are-you-crazy face.

“Yes, I do.  I’ve said some awful things to you tonight.  And just so you know, I was totally zoned out during at least half of the speaking part of the banquet.”

“So was I,” Sam laughed.

“Dude, the whole banquet was for you.”  Now Adrian had the are-you-crazy face.

Sam shrugged.  “I know.”

“Well, then we both suck as human beings.  But listen.  I’ll be Percy if you answer me one question.”

“What’s that?” Sam asked slowly, probably thinking that he’d spilled enough guts for one evening.

Adrian took a deep breath.  He thought he already knew the answer, but he was scared to hear it aloud.  “Is Ramona–when you draw Sigyn, are you really drawing Ramona?”

“Yes.”

Adrian let out the breath.  “I knew it.”

“But not on purpose, at least not from the beginning.” Sam closed his eyes for a second, the way people do when they’re trying to look into the past.  “I was just drawing a woman who was all those things I said in the speech earlier, strong, and–you know . . .”

“Smart, and happy, and healthy, and all that.”

“Yeah.  And then one day I was like, ‘Sigyn looks really familiar,’ and it wasn’t just because I’d gotten to know my character, although that was true; it was because I was drawing Ramona.”

Adrian look at Sam and realized he didn’t feel angry.  He then looked down at the table and realized he’d been tearing a straw wrapper to bits.  He brushed the pieces into a little pile.  “Well.  I think you should tell Ramona that she’s Sigyn.”

“What, really?”  Sam had been looking out the window, but he snapped back to look at Adrian when he heard this.  “But if I tell her, won’t she know–”

“Ramona is smarter than the two of us put together,” Adrian interrupted.  “She’s probably known about all this stuff–I mean all of it–for, like, ever.  And besides,” he added, “people like to hear nice things about themselves.”  For once in his life, Adrian wasn’t fishing for a compliment when he said this.  Which was good, because Sam didn’t give him one.

Instead, Sam just said, “Wow, okay.”  And then, after a pause, “Oh, hey.  Do you still like pizza without any tomato sauce?  Because I got you a whole one like that.”

“Sam,” said Adrian.  “I should start calling you Samwise, because you are, without a doubt, the world’s greatest friend.”  After a second of introspection, Adrian was pleased to find that he was perfectly sincere.