raising my glass and raising my Ebenezer: reflections on 2020

The year 2020 had been placated with losses and grief for many. To me, it has been a time of recalibrating my own inwardly-curved heart to the truth of the Gospel. And so here I pen, my customary letter to self, on lessons learnt in 2020.

Everyone began ringing in the new decade with excitement, “2020 will be my year!” but little did we know, that what would unfold was not simply unprecedented, but world-changing. The global pandemic, waves of natural disasters striking everywhere, and the battle for human rights were among some of the highlights unveiled on the world stage. But even at the close of the year, these were not yet resolved with happy endings.

Personally for me, 2020 had been the year I was looking forward to, too. I was supposed to fly back to LA twice–once on my birthday for the Resource Global Gathering, as well as at the end of the year for my Master of Education graduation. I was also supposed to be flying to Israel close to mid-year, for my very first Holy Land trip as an adult. Other travel plans had also been made–for friends’ weddings, as well as conferences. I had speaking engagements lined up, and a trip back to Sumba was due–I hoped to be able to see fruition to the community development project that I had started in the previous year.

But surely, as everyone else, I was bound for a detour. Though I did graduate (yes, again), all travel plans were cancelled. Zoom became a means to teleport, by which I witnessed many weddings, spoke at conferences, attended events, and even got to see the work of missionaries in secluded areas firsthand–sometimes even being at two places in a given time.

What dawned, however, is that life is not merely a series of checkboxes. And this year had been placated with losses of the invaluable. This was the year I grieved the loss of a dear mentor and friend, the loss of friendships to marriages, the loss of what we often call, “the human touch.”

But recalling the movie, Inside Out, is a profound truth: that sadness becomes sweet when accompanied by comfort. And constant had been my Comforter through this season of grief and loss–one that, I believe, many would be able to resonate with. So here, I pen, my annual letter to self, on what had been lessons learnt and emotions spent, with a hope that my reflections may be unto you, friend, an encouragement to come find rest in God’s sovereignty, amidst all the uncertainty.

Dear future Jessica,

2020 had not been what anyone expected. The first day of the year was already filled with news of forest fires in Australia, followed by flooding in Indonesia. Two countries that would strike close to your heart–places you’d consider “home”–were ambushed by natural disasters. The months that followed spiraled downwards. Los Angeles, a third city you once called home, also became the epicenter of a protest against racial segregation. And all this happened against the backdrop of the Coronavirus pandemic that had become a global phenomenon.

Such a widespread turmoil opened your eyes to the disparity of wealth globally, and how remaining within the confinements of one’s own home was not a right, but a luxury. You’d see many suffer the losses of financial hardships, and it was such a heartbreaking sight to see how no amount of help was enough. The need seemed bottomless.

Realization of mankind’s mortality surfaced before the eyes of the world. Death was no longer a stranger–it came knocking at the doors of those least expecting. Kobe Bryant, Glenn Fredly (a great loss for Indonesians), RBG, and the Black Panther actor, Chadwick Boseman, were amongst the lives lost that the world grieved for. But deeper had been the grief when the loss is closer to home. And 2020 was the year you lost a dear friend, mentor, and brother: Dr. Robert Harp.

Remember that day–when you woke up to the news, then later in the evening, had to share it with your sister, and sat with her in unbelief–neither of you knowing how to process the shock and grief?

A passing of a friend is one I don’t think I’ve had to face in my twenties. But on the 17th of July, 2020, I woke up to the news of the death of my mentor, friend, and brother, Dr. Robert Harp.
I’ve sat with others in grief, but wasn’t sure what to do with it when it was now served on my plate. It was such an unexpected passing that I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I didn’t know what to think, what to say, how to respond. My heart is heavy.
(Journal, July 20, 2020)

In the face of death, fear towered over the human race. In pursuit of survival of the fittest, you saw how people hoarded and robbed one another. Remember how you raged at how opportunists saw the pandemic as a means to exploit others in their suffering? Prices of basic necessities and even hospital supplies were being jacked up–ultimately the health crisis exposed a graver pandemic: at the core, fear revealed the inwardly curved nature of humanity.

And in the midst of all that–remember when you became the subject of cyberbullying? In an effort to fundraise through a series of webinars, you were asked to speak pro-bono for a topic that revolved around achieving success in your youth. Much to your own surprise, for weeks you became the subject of social criticism revolving around the topic of privilege–for the opinion was, did you not receive your “success” since birth? So surely, you were not one who were credible to give such a talk.

Remember how crushed you were when you read those articles, and saw those satire sketches? The comments people made on social media–they were uncalled for. And little did you know that in the months that would follow, you’d be the subject of an even worse internet attack. You deactivated your social media, disabled comments. You stepped back, shied away from the public eye.

[But] …take everything from the Lord as a love-token, even though it be a stroke of His rod, or a cut of His knife. Everything from that dear hand must mean love, for He has said, “I have graven Thee upon the palms of My hands.”
– C.H. Spurgeon, A Good Start, 129.

But amidst the noise, you recalled the words of Spurgeon–and you knew, that whilst you became the subject of mockery for a while, your Comforter had suffered much greater scoffing on your behalf. In your hurt, you penned the song “Silent“. And instead of raising your voice, you learnt to raise your Ebenezer; resting on the fact that Your Good Shepherd Himself came as a Lamb led to the slaughter.

For what the series of mockery had uncovered was, too, the inwardly curved nature of your own heart. One that still delighted in the praises of man. You had gotten used to being perceived as good in the public eye, especially as the head of philanthropies at work. A wave of mass criticism was not one you had expected. It did not feel good. It hurt. But such piercing was somewhat was good for your soul. For though your eyes were fixed to look to your own self, while you wallowed in self-pity, He is the Lifter of your head (Psalm 3:3).

This week has been a heart-exercise for me. Truth says, “my identity rests in the God who created me,” and my head surely knows this full-well. But the heart? It takes an act of God to enlighten the eyes of our calloused hearts. To bring the dull, even dead, heart back to life. I am thankful that He takes the time to intricately mould me in the Refiner’s fire. May all the scales fall off–and may we approach Him as those in whom He has taken great delight. For He is the Potter, and we, the clay–be us unto You, Lord, as You please, as You may.
Journal, August 29, 2020

Furthermore, against the backdrop of the viral outbreak, the inwardly curved world began to shut each other out. Lockdowns were in place, and out of fear, people lived in isolation. Some by choice, others by obligation. Nonetheless, the world was filled with loneliness.

But isolation had been something you had anticipated for yourself–as you were aware that by the end of the year all your best friends would have all stepped into a season of marriage. Earlier in the year, you went on that bachelorette trip to Paris with the brides-to-be with a somewhat saddened heart–knowing that ushering them down the aisle would mean that the dynamics of the friendship would change, as their priorities would now shift to cleaving to their husbands.

It was not as though your friends had abandoned you, surely they did not. But because you knew and understood the new allegiances that came with the holy constitution of marriage. “What God had brought together, let no man separate,” (Mark 10:9) for the two had now become one (Genesis 2:24).

But amidst the grief of a loss of a season, is deep rejoicing found in the one to come. And so in your send-off, as you celebrated the union of your best friend, you proposed a toast, and for the first time, raised your glass in public. You reflected at Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana, where He would turn water to wine (John 2). For that wedding was to be, unto the world, a display of the love of Christ and the church, His bride.

You mustn’t forget that 2020 had been the year where you laid down your identity as a teetotalist. For though it had been a conviction you held close to your heart from such a young age, you wrestled through, once again, what it meant to be a Christian, and to find freedom in, unconventionally enough, putting away your abstinence from alcohol.

For inasmuch as it started from a pursuit of holiness and a desire to present your whole life–body and soul, to the Lord, you realized how pride had crept into your heart as others praised you for your convictions. But shall your purity and holiness not rest on the finished work of Christ at the cross alone?

Truth be told, it was a difficult, two-year-long wrestling. For it was not as clear cut as “sinning or not sinning,” nor was it a matter of outright legalism. But the decision involved laying down something that had crept into the core of your identity. It had for the longest time made you feel “set apart.” Your ego, that inwardly curved heart, resisted the thought of you revoking this identity, for then it would make you somewhat ordinary.

But that day as you raised your glass to propose a toast at your best friend’s wedding, you were, too, raising your Ebenezer, as you laid down the identity you had clung to so tightly, and instead, learnt to put on Christ–who freed you from your own pride in your perceived holiness, and comforts in friendship.

For the loss of friendships to a new season of life and the loneliness that dug deep, and the call to lay one’s self down once again, was a gentle beckoning to the foot of the Cross. For there, is One who calls you: friend (John 15:15).

“why is it that I love these fairytales so much, Lord? I shouldn’t delight in them so much as I delight in You and obeying You. If You’re asking me to lay these fantasies–I will Lord. But my heart will recklessly pick it up again. But I have to lay it down again. Help me leave it there, at the foot of Your cross.”
(November 27, 2020)

And so in the years to come, when life hands you a bitter cup, be it through the loss of loved ones through death or new seasons, or the call to self-denial in public or private–one thing you may count on, rest assuredly, is that He had drank that bitter cup that was reserved for us. And moreover, poured Himself out as a drink offering (Philippians 2:17), so that we, who thirst, may come and drink (John 7:37), and have life to the full.

So set your gaze upon Him again. Set your gaze Heavenwards. And may each glass raised, here onwards, be unto you a reminder of your Ebenezer. “Where does my help come from?” asks the Psalmist. “My Help comes from the Lord.” (Psalm 121). Always. Through the seasons, may the Lord be the one to lift our head to the Heavens, that we may, like Samuel, raise our Ebenezer, meaning, “thus far the Lord has helped us,” (1 Samuel 7:12).

And trust that onwards, He shall continue to do so. For even when you’d find no strength in you to raise your weakened arms, Christ had offered Himself up, for He is your Ebenezer: for He had prayed in Gethsemane, “take this cup from Me, yet not My will, but Yours be done,” (Luke 22:42).

Love, Jessica Tanoesoedibjo (2020)

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