My Bethel Experience

If it is true (and it is) that we are in a Kingdom struggle of darkness versus light, we are at war against spiritual realities – “principalities and powers” as they are called in Ephesians chapter six. So it is not a surprise that we’ll experience the “fog of war” from time to time. I have felt that of late … confusion about direction and purpose and my role in ministry. (If this sounds vague, yep – that’s the issue from inside me as well!)

So, I had a scheduled vacation day yesterday and decided at the last minute to use it as a time to go meet with God … and not just anywhere, but to go back to our beginning (humanly speaking, not theologically – since I can’t get back to the foundation of the world!). There is some precedent in the Old Testament patriarchs of visiting the place where a covenant was established – doing so as a sort of reconnection or reaffirmation of God’s calling and work. As an illustration of this, I’d refer you to Genesis 25 and the account of Jacob visiting Bethel.

And so, I went to visit my own Bethel – a place called Calvary Community Church in Harmony Township, NJ, just a few hundred yards was where I grew up. It was in this church that I have a first memory of understanding and committing to the Gospel of Christ (as I recall, in a children’s program with a teaching about Jacob and Esau).  This happened about 49-50 years ago, and I remember the exact spot and knew I could even now pinpoint it to within a foot or two of where I was sitting that evening.

This church was founded as an independent congregation that split from a liberal church and denomination about 75 years ago. My grandfather was one of the original elders and my father one of the first deacons. My family attended until I was age 10, and when the church voted to join a certain denomination, we departed to go to another independent church – where I grew through my high school and college years, Diana and I were married, etc. And then, after seminary, I moved back to this same community to be a pastor at a third local church there (for 11 years before coming to TSF).

So anyhow, this is a somewhat small, older, traditional church building. Attached is the church office and the old parsonage. There was nobody in the office or the parsonage – now occupied by old family friends of many generations (who are the church caretakers). I tried one of the lower level doors of the church, and it was open. So I made myself at home and looked around at rooms I’ve not seen in literally decades. Most were far smaller than my childhood memories of them.

My plan was to read and pray at the spot where I first met the Lord. Well, it is no longer an educational space; it has been turned into a kitchen – with a door frame now at my spot! So I went to the sanctuary and sat in the pew where I went to church EVERY Sunday with my family. I would sit with only my father, since my mother was the church organist and was on a sort of side stage for the duration of the services.

I read and prayed and read and prayed – through the entire pastoral and prison epistles … and a collection of other Gospel accounts, Psalms, etc.  I would have much preferred that God showed up in some vision and sat there next to me and answered all my questions and concerns. But I believe I came away with what I needed to move forward – yet as always, living it out over time is the challenge. Even the first generation church was a major mixed bag of blessings and burdens, of faith and encouraging people, yet of those who abandoned Paul and even denied the faith!

So it was a good trip for me, though I don’t want to make the final trip there too terribly soon – since the cemetery there is my final earthly destination! Not everyone gets to be born and raised and ultimately buried “in Harmony!”

This was my view of the front from where I sat for 10 years.

We moved into this house that my father-in-law and I built exactly 28 years ago this week.

6 thoughts on “My Bethel Experience

  1. It must have been a heart warming trip, back to the church where you first met God. And the house that you and your father-in-law is beautiful. But, picture this… you holding onto that house/area with your left hand and reaching out to the future with your right one. You can’t move, you re stuck. You were meant to move forward. I feel you were hoping God would lay out your future before you. Did he? Care to share?
    I’ve not yet read more on your twitter thing but I’ve learned you do not like to be disagreed with. Do you banish a friendship/relationship out of your life when that happens? I did respond to your complete explanation of the use of it during a sermon, to which I disagreed…if you recall.

  2. I’ve now read all the cmments to date. Much food for thought. Respect and inclusion of all generations is the way to go. The reverse is true also, when eveone over 60 – make up the majority moving/stacking chairs and rolling tables around afer a meal together. C’mon youngsters – teens and 20’s – give us a hand. Plenty of time to talk and hang out!

  3. You will look long and hard before another pastor is found whose life is as much an open book as is mine. I say what I think; what you see is what you get; there’s not much more – for better or worse. I’m so known for my openness among pastoral colleagues – particularly in the EFCA – that I’m regularly teased about how I say and reveal everything I’m thinking and feeling. And here in a blog of my own doing (this is not a TSF-based doing) I put it all out there (with pictures) for the world to see.

    As an adopted child, my background is rather convoluted. I cannot give a family medical history that is complete – for one example. And yet, in all the craziness, I was graciously placed in an environment rich in the truth of the Gospel – with an adopted grandmother who prayed before I was born that I would do what indeed I have done with my life. So going back to reacquaint myself with God’s work in the past as it relates to threads extending to today and tomorrow … makes sense to me.

    I don’t have much of a draw to the past. I burned those bridges pretty hard to follow God’s calling to this area – even left behind parents in their 80s to follow God. I don’t have a past to hold on to. I don’t really have hardly any family at all… since I don’t even know whom I’m related to really – though I’ve recently done some research on that with little fruit.

    TSF … and my boys … that is about all I really have … it is my family, my life.

  4. To your humility point, there has been much discussion in our Bible study group about letting folks know what is happening, and know why it is happening, as well as possibly helping them hear a call to help others. It’s amazing to me that lately we’ve been hearing a great deal about helping others, then read…………..well, what was just written. Also, I’ve quoted Mother Teresa in her poem “Between You and God” many times. Here it is, once more. “They may see the good you do as self serving, continue to do good. They may see your generosity as grandstanding, continue to be generous. They may see your warm and caring nature as a weakness, continue to be warm and caring. For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It never was between you and them anyway.” To your point about the elderly having more money to give, maybe you ought to check into how many don’t even have to pay income tax, or that Wall Street also took most if not all of their assets, and that what they give really is a sacrifice. But, because it all belongs to God anyway, the giving is not fearfully cut. Praises to the God Who will provide.

  5. Randy, this post is wonderful and heartwarming, and heart-wrenching at the same time. Thanks for your transparency and obvious love for the God you serve.

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