Despite a questionable approach to oral hygiene, I have a curious travel habit beyond Australian shores: I collect toothpaste.
Not excessive amounts – I don’t have a pool room filled with 472 tubes of paste, it’s a little more humble and practical than all that. If I see an unfamiliar tube of toothpaste, I buy it. Colgate or Oral-B are of no interest to me. Why would they be when I can get them at the supermarket just down the road? Pasta del Capitano, Botot, Aquafresh, Darlie, Marvis and Tau-Marin, though, they’re keepers. Or users, as it turns out. While some collect souvenirs, I use them to remind me of places – every time I brush my teeth. Sometimes that’s, like, two or three times a week. (Ok, it’s not that bad, he says self-consciously.)
My little tubes of foreign toothpaste remind me of something bigger. They’re mini-memorials that rekindle memories that I want to preserve. I don’t want those experiences to fade but have reasons for them to be triggered and reinforced.
Our memorials, large and small, give a sense of continuum—a journey connected: the past, present and future. Not ephemeral snapshots in a photo album, but a legacy. My tubes of toothpaste don’t establish an eternal legacy, but they do make me hanker for places to which I’d love to return.
One of the finest legacies we can leave for the generations ahead are the memorials, markers and testimonies of God’s grace and faithfulness in our lives.
In 1 Samuel 7, the prophet Samuel and the Israelites found themselves under attack by the Philistines. Fearing for their lives, the Israelites beg Samuel to pray for them in their impending battle against the Philistines. God hears Samuel, causing the Philistines to lose the battle and retreat to their own territory. After the Israelite victory, Samuel records:
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’
As a kid singing hymns in church, I always used to stifle a snicker as I sang the line ‘Here I raise my Ebenezer’ in ‘Come thou font of every blessing’. There was no footnote giving an explanation of Ebenezer – the hymnal just assumed that we all knew. But it’s this very thought that the hymn reflects. The shorthand is ‘so far, so God’. God has journeyed with the Israelites and Samuel makes a memorial to remind them of God’s faithfulness.
I think we all need Ebenezers. We need to be memorial builders. Not only to remind us of God’s faithfulness but to reorientate our journey – to remind us of the source of our strength and blessing. Too often we forget; we are prone to wander. We soar to new heights (or plumb new depths) and forget where we’ve been.
What do those memorials look like? What shape do they take? Some of mine are people. Some are marked with words in a journal. Or by celebration.
Inspired by a road trip from LA to New York with my mate Brad, a memorial phrase evolved: ‘Do you remember the time when…’. I have a leaning towards the not yet as much as the now and this phrase always brings me back to the moment.
We used this phrase to remember the now and the not yet. Our ‘tenses’ are all wrong, but before we began our road trip Brad emailed me a couple of times and, somewhere in the email would say, ‘Remember the time we drove across the States?’. It dignified our journey before it had even begun.
As we drove through the Arizonan desert at dusk sucking up one of the most breathtaking vistas I’ve ever seen, I remember him saying: ‘Remember that time we drove through the Arizonan desert as the sun was going down?’ And I do. Thirteen years on I can tell you this: We were in a Ford Explorer. It was 6.43pm. Tom Waits was singing ‘Small Change’. And I cannot describe the hues of that night sky with any justice. The thing is, the memorials we create along the way remind us of where we’ve been.
In the seasons, in the wilderness, the open highway or the raging river, God tells us to build memorials to remember His part in our journey. Plant a tree, write something, draw something, get a tattoo, buy someone a ring, lay a foundation, use the toothpaste; dignify occasions and connect the dots of journey with the smooth stones of joy, love, repentance, encouragement, and grace that God lays in the river for us to collect. And collect and use them, so you don’t forget where you’ve been.
Better brush my teeth. Pasta del Capitano – The Captain of Paste!