God is in this Place
Synopsis: I again find myself in an in-between place as I retire as our pastor. I have learned that in-between places can lead to my growth as a person if I stay attuned to God’s Spirit and attend to what I can learn in this place. It helps us recognize the despair that too often drives us and offers us the kind of hope that is a good habit leading to action. Like Jacob we can recognize this Bethel—the house or place of God.
Ruth and I have been living in a strange in-between space between our home here in Fairfax and our new home in Harrisonburg. We’ve been staying in a friend’s basement apartment as we waited for the occupancy permit so we can move into our new house. As of Friday, we’re now finally in our new home. That wait reminded me of other in between spaces in our lives. Like Jacob, can we recognize God’s presence in these in-between places?
Ten years ago, we were living in a small upstairs MCC apartment in Akron, Pennsylvania as we were waiting for the renewal of our work permit so we could return to our assignment in Kolkata where we were serving as the regional co-directors for MCC programs in India, Nepal, and Afghanistan. After three months of waiting, working remotely, and lots of futile attempts to get our work permit from the Indian consulate here in DC, we finally gave up and resigned.
That was stressful and scary! We had planned to work for MCC until we retired. Now we both needed to find new employment following the 2008 economic recession. We had recently watched our retirement accounts lose a big chunk of their value and we really needed gainful employment. I had just turned 60 and Ruth was two years younger than me. I found a temporary position as interim pastor at Madison Mennonite Church in Wisconsin. So we loaded all our furniture that we had stored in a shed at a friend’s farm into a U-Haul truck and moved to Madison. That gave us one year to figure stuff out. Such in-between times can teach us a lot about ourselves.
I learned that I really loved being a pastor. Before, I had split my time as a pastor and a professor at Eastern Mennonite University. The academic world involves the constant pressure to get published in order to get tenure and advance in one’s field. I enjoyed that challenge but it eventually began to feel like running on a never-ending treadmill. The bigger challenge for me, as an introvert, was teaching large university classes. It didn’t come naturally. I had to really work hard and then start over again with a new cadre of students each semester. The tension of continually starting new classes and the stress of end-of-term final tests and grading became a grind that left me feeling exhausted.
I much prefer learning to know people and building long-term relationships in a congregational setting. It also gives me the time and opportunity to build other connections in the community. This is my sweet spot. So, I readily agreed when the pastoral search committee at Madison Mennonite invited me to apply for their permanent pastoral position. Ruth, however, didn’t know what she’d do in Madison so she was applying more broadly for positions in her field. Several weeks after I had agreed to be a candidate for the permanent pastoral position in Madison, she was offered a job with World Vision here in DC.
What should we do? Ruth really wanted to take the job and move to DC. Besides, I wasn’t completely sure I’d get the permanent pastoral position at Madison. After lots of prayer and some long discussions, we decided to move to DC and I told the church in Madison that I was withdrawing my candidacy. We were moving to a new place for the third time in four years.
I was again in a liminal in-between place where I needed to figure out what I’d do with the rest of my life. Ruth moved to DC first and when I followed her several months later, I began to remodel the house we had bought in Hyattsville, Maryland. I volunteered as a pastor in residence one day a week at the MCC Washington Office and then signed up for one year of clinical pastoral education as a chaplain intern as the Medstar Washington Hospital Center.
That was when Mel Schmidt, the retired pastor at Hyattsville Mennonite Church, and I agreed to share the role as interim pastors here at our church. A year later, I agreed to become our permanent pastor. Now, on the last Sunday as our pastor, those seven years seem to have taken wings.
We experienced lots of confusion and doubt since Ruth and I made the rather audacious decision to take that MCC assignment in India. We still have the brave photo of us with our three adult children saying goodbye to us at the Dulles Airport. They were holding us a big sign that one of them made. It read “India our Bust.” Now here I am retiring and again wondering what will come next.
I feel a connection with Jacob on his journey to his uncle Laban’s home. I can even identify with some of the relational estrangement that drove him from his family home to start over in a new place. Mind you, I haven’t cheated my brother of his birthright and made him so angry that he wanted to kill me. But life is more complex than the happy things we post on Facebook.
Being in an in-between place can make us recognize and acknowledge the despair that drives us. Despair is so devastating, not because it directly opposes God’s truth or God’s story, but because of our sense that “whatever the truth is, or whatever the story may be, there’s nothing in it for me.” It unmoors us and leaves us drifting.
Theologian Charles Pinches, says that hope is linked to action. He writes, “Hope is a good habit by which we move forward toward a future good that is both possible and difficult to attain. . . Hope is what sustains us when the stories we have a share in turn unjust and require our dissent.”
Hope is not an optimism that rests on positive spin and refuses to look at our dark side. In contrast, too much of our American culture lives on spin and demands quick-fixes to problems. That easily becomes cynical and self-serving. In contrast, hope centered action is more modest and reliant on the persevering qualities in our hearts. We find God in this place.
The story of Jacob’s dream of that ladder extending to heaven can inform us as we seek to move from despair to hope. His dream and encounter with God were in a distant place as he was fleeing to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. It’s not a story about God’s blessing premised on Jacob being a morally upright person. He was, at best, a troubled young man.
Notice that Jacob’s meeting with God happens in a dream, a liminal, in-between space. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes: “The wakeful world of Jacob was a world of fear, terror, loneliness (and, we may imagine, unresolved guilt).” The vision of the connection between earth and heaven and an alternative future is given to him when his guard in down.
When he awoke, Jacob recognized this site as a holy place. He took the stone he had used as a pillow, set it upright as an altar, poured oil over it, and named the place Bethel.
El is an ancient Semitic name for God and beth is the Semitic word for house, hence, “Bethel” (house of God or place of God).
At Bethel, the place where Jacob met God, he received three truths that belong to all of us. The first is the promise of God’s continual presence. The second promise is of God’s protection. As the Psalmist so beautifully expresses it, “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” The final promise is of homecoming. No matter how tortured and convoluted our journey is, God will accompany us, protect us, and eventually bring us home.
The promise came to Jacob as a dream but his wakeful response made all the difference. He recognized the place as Bethel, the place of God. Jacob trusted the dream, finding it more convincing than his old world of lying, cheating, fear, and guilt. Even so, he didn’t always follow the world of the dream during the rest of his life. It’s instructive to read the rest of his story keeping in mind the tension between resorting to his own dubious devises versus trusting in God’s promises.
How can we re-learn a spirituality of place? As part of my own spiritual growth, I seek to be more aware of God’s presence in the world around me and in the people I meet each day. I recognize that, like Jacob, my resentments and anxieties can keep me from living in God’s presence. I seek to embrace this in-between place as a spiritual homecoming.
We sang the hymn “I Bind My Heart this Tide,” at my request when I was ordained at Park View Mennonite Church for our mission assignment in the Philippines in 1987. Now, as I retire as our pastor (again at my request) we’ll sing it as our closing hymn. As in Wendell Berry’s short poem, “There is a day when the road neither comes nor goes and the way is not a way but a place.” For me that place is by the Galilean’s side.
 Charles R. Pinches, “How to Live in Hope,” The Christian Century (July 19, 2017): 23.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982), 243.