Lord, here I am. Here, where it all happened, so long ago. I am alone in the sanctuary of what is now called the “old church” by the new church members. This building, nothing more than a small sanctuary and a few rooms, is as holy to me as the Temple Mount is to the Jewish people. To most, it is an auxiliary building, the classes used for Sunday School, the rooms used for youth group functions or as a prayer room. To me, it is Bethel, the House of God. A strip of sanctuary floor in an old white building located at 631 12th Street in Imperial Beach, California, is holy ground. And I am anything but alone. As I sit on a padded, brown chair where the old orange pews used to be, I feel your presence. I Came here for Monday night prayer meeting, but no one showed. Faithful men, who rarely miss prayer meeting, yet, somehow, not one of them arrived. Is this your doing, Lord? Did you orchestrate this meeting?
The sun is nearly down. The sanctuary is growing dark. And here you are, in the darkness. I am in awe of your presence. You are the God who spoke to Abraham, who called to Moses from a burning bush, who appeared to the nation of Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. I feel your enormous power and realize this is what the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle must have felt like; your presence dwelling between the two cherubim on the Mercy Seat above the Ark of the Covenant. I am acutely aware that you are God, the eternal God, who made the Heavens and the Earth for your pleasure. I am in your holy presence. And I know you. You are my God. You are my master. You are my father. You are my friend. Me, an unclean man with unclean lips, allowed to be in your presence. Hide me in the Cross, Oh, Lord.
As I sit here before you, flood gates open in the recesses of my mind, and, one by one, the memories flow. I remember this place, this holy ground, my Bethel.
I was young, sixteen years old, when first I heard your voice; here in this very sanctuary. A declared atheist, I did not believe in you. I was born and raised in church. I received your Holy Spirit as a child. Yet, I no longer believed. Many don’t understand how this could be. But it was true. I was spiritually blinded. The stories of the Bible were, to me, on an equal standing with Roman and Greek mythology. How you created the world, spoke with the patriarchs, punished the gods of Egypt, parted the Red Sea. To me, it was a fairytale. The Christian religion was for gullible, weak-minded people, manipulated by money-hungry preachers. The idea that you robed yourself in a human body and walked this Earth, healing the sick, opening blinded eyes, walking on water, dying at Calvary and rising again the third day, was a fiction written by ancient people ruled by superstition, and believed by modern people of unsound mind. I believed in Science. I preached the doctrine of Evolution. On the advanced debate team in high school, I debated against your existence with the passion and fervor of a Pentecostal evangelist. I did so with all sincerity of heart, truly believing you did not exist. I was blind. I could not believe in you any more than a blind man can see the beauty of the world around him.
My parents were divorced, and I lived in San Antonio, Texas, with my father and stepmother. Though, outwardly, I was animated against God, inwardly I was miserable. For, though I was still very young, I had weighed much of what the world had to offer and found it wanting. I was slowly realizing the truth that if there is no God, there is no meaning. Still, I did not believe. Through a series of events that I now see were orchestrated by you, I left a middle-class family and a home in a respectable neighborhood to live in a single-wide trailer in a rundown trailer park with my mother, stepfather and my sisters. I questioned the whole time why I chose to leave my home in Texas to live in such a place. Yet, there I was. And the first conversation I remember having with my mother was about church.
“You need to go to church, Ricky. You still love God, don’t you?” She said. You know her, Lord. There are few people with the innocence and purity of heart she possesses. And I did not want to hurt her. I explained to her as kindly as I could that, no, I did not love something that did not exist. But, little by little, my mother’s unrelenting pleas and cajoling began to weigh on me. I finally relented and entered this building for the first time in many years. I wish I could say that I submitted to you immediately, but I did not. I felt your presence, but I did not allow it to move me. I remember watching the people, clapping hands, moving to the music, lifting hands in worship to you. And I refused to worship. Yet it dawned on me that I had never given you a chance. I believed Science. I believed in Evolution. Yet, I had never given you a chance to prove your existence to me. And I decided that I would. And here, in this place, I said a prayer to you.
“If you will prove to me that you are real, I will serve you every day of my life.”
It pains me, My Lord, when I recall the promise I made to you. How many times have I broken that oath? How many times have I failed you, ignored the leading and calling of your Spirit? Forgive me, Lord, for my unfaithfulness. Create in me a clean heart, oh, God.
Still, I began to seek you. I bargained with you in a way that I would hesitate to do now. I told you that I would try to keep myself from the sins I regularly committed and would continue to go to church. I did this on the agreement you would prove your existence to me. And this went on for a short time. Finally, someone told me I needed to spend regular time in prayer. I remember going to bed one night, considering prayer.
“Lord,” I said, “If you are real, wake me up at 4:30 am and I will walk to the church and pray to you.” And, with those words, I fell asleep. The next morning, the sound of my mother’s voice woke me up. She was talking to my stepfather.
“Roger, wake up. You’re going to be late. It’s 4:31!”
I opened my eyes and sat up in bed. It had worked! I asked you to wake me up at 4:30 am, and it worked. But as I sat in bed, the doubts came. It had not worked. After all, if there is a God, is he ever late? Is he even a minute late? No. It had to be coincidence. Still, I got up and went into the kitchen. I sat at the kitchen table for a few minutes. The idea that a bona fide miracle had almost happened puzzled me. One minute late. How could this be? I stared at the clock on our old, green microwave.
“Mom,” I said, “what clock did you look at this morning when you woke Roger up?”
“Huh?” She said.
“The clock. What clock did you look at this morning?”
“The one on the microwave,” she said.
In those days, you could check the accuracy of a clock by calling time on the telephone. I picked up the telephone receiver and dialed the number for time. Somehow, I already knew what the recorded woman’s voice on the other end of the line was going to say. The phone rang. I held the receiver to my ear and the familiar woman’s voice began to speak,
“At the tone,” she said, “Pacific standard time will be…” One minute fast. The microwave clock was one minute fast! I was awakened that morning by the sound of my mother’s voice at 4:30 am. The right time. Not the time of the microwave clock, which was one minute fast, but right on time. You are always on time, Lord!
True to my promise, I walked in the dark about two miles to this church. My mother had given me the key, and I entered through the back door. I made my way down to the front of this sanctuary and sat in one of the pews. The idea of kneeling to pray never entered my mind. I could not deny something had happened. I had given you a challenge, and you had met my challenge. But I wasn’t convinced. I needed more. Already, the fogs of doubt, the demons of atheism, were working overtime to deny your small miracle. Maybe it had been all in my mind. Maybe I had just dreamed that I asked God to wake me up. You know, the mind is very powerful, after all. I mean, think about it. Do you really believe some invisible, all powerful being exists, and if he did exist, would take time out of his busy schedule to engineer a situation where a sixteen-year-old boy would be woken up at 4:30 am? I needed more. I sat there on the front pew and issued yet another challenge.
“Lord,” I said, “If you’re real, talk to me. I know you spoke to several people in the Bible. That means you have a voice. Moses heard your voice. Abraham heard your voice. I want to hear your voice.”
I waited. Nothing happened. I waited more, and more of nothing happened. Finally, I left this sanctuary and went to school.
For several weeks, I returned to this holy place, early in the morning and late at night. I sat in a pew and challenged you. I waited to see if you would speak to me. I left day after day, night after night, not having heard your voice. Finally, I grew desperate. I came into this place, Lord. I had made up my mind. I stood in the front of the sanctuary, in the altar, facing the pews. I called out to you, in desperation.
“Lord,” I said, “tomorrow, there will be church here. There will be a preacher here. I believe that if you are real, you can tell that preacher what to preach. If you will tell the preacher to preach on faith, then I will know that you are real. If the preacher preaches on faith, then I will serve you as long as I live. If not, then I will never return to this place. This will be the last time I come.”
I meant every word. And, suddenly, while I was yet speaking, your presence filled this sanctuary. I was terrified. I felt the enormity of your power. My body was covered in goosebumps. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. I felt your presence emanating from the back of the pews on my right side. Something in me knew that the one whose presence I felt could speak and the universe would roll up like a scroll at his word. Matter would simply cease being. Time would end at his command. I knew I was in the presence of the living God. I was in your presence, Lord. And, as suddenly as your presence arrived, I heard your voice. I heard the audible voice of God. It was not a booming, loud voice. It was not deep or thunderous. It was the voice I believe Elijah heard when he sought you. It was the still, small voice. I heard your voice with my ears, I heard it in my spirit, I heard it in my soul. It seemed to enter me, to permeate every aspect of my being. I believe it was the voice that commanded blind eyes to open, demons to flee, the storms to calm, the voice you used to deliver the sermon on the mount, the voice that told Lazarus to come forth from the grave. The most beautiful, the most powerful voice the universe has ever known.
“You be here at seven o’ clock tomorrow.”
I trembled, Lord, at your word. I heard your voice, and no demon in or out of Hell could tell me different. The clouds of doubt and atheism were lifted at your word. Yet, I was terrified in your presence. I ran from this place. Having entered through the back door, I knew I had to pass by the spot where your voice had come from. As I ran by, I felt your awesome power, emanating from that spot.
“If that is you, Lord, I will be here tomorrow.” I ran out of this sanctuary and closed the door behind me. Shaking with a mixture of awe and holy terror, I locked the door with my mother’s key.
I returned the following evening, arriving here at seven o’ clock. The church holding services that night was not the regular church. They were renting the building. Normally, weekday services started at seven thirty. Their church service started at seven o’ clock. The sanctuary was filled with a mixed congregation, mostly Hispanic. They began to sing. And your presence was here, as powerful in that service as it was the night before. The church began to worship. I wanted to worship with them, but I stopped myself. We had a deal. I would worship when the deal was done. But, oh, how they worshiped! People were shouting. Some were dancing in your presence. Some were weeping. They sang songs about faith.
“Faith can move mountains…mountains of fear and of doubt…Faith can move mountains…so why don’t you try your faith now?”
For over an hour, they sang. They clapped. They shouted. They wept. They danced. They sang in Spanish. They sang in English.
“Faith, faith, faith, just a little bit of faith…faith, faith, faith, just a little bit of faith…you don’t need a whole lot…just use what you’ve got…faith, faith, faith, just a little bit of faith!”
I held the back of the pew in front of me with a tight grip. I was getting excited. It seemed every song was about faith. Surely, the preacher was going to get up behind that pulpit and preach about faith. I just knew it. And I could barely believe it was happening. You were real. This proved it. The mind may be powerful enough to play tricks on a person, but it couldn’t control the actions of this church filled with people I had never met before.
And, finally, the song service died down. The pastor introduced the guest speaker, a man named Brother Palacios. He stood behind the pulpit and began to talk, rambling from one subject to the next. He did not take a text and he did not open his bible. He explained that he was a missionary in Mexico and had travelled most of that day to get here. He apologized that he had no time to prepare a message. As he spoke, my heart began to fail. A dark, wet, cloud of doubt settled over me. Of course, the preacher won’t preach on faith. And do you know why? Because there is no God. That’s why. But the faith songs, the presence of the Lord, the fact that church started at seven o’ clock. How could this be? Brother Palacios continued to talk. He seemed to be winding the service down. It was growing late. I couldn’t imagine that he would preach a sermon after talking for such a long time. But I had heard the voice of God. Hadn’t I?
Finally, the old preacher’s soliloquy came to a halt. He looked out at the congregation over dark-rimmed glasses. I knew in my heart his next words would be our dismissal. I would return home, empty-handed. A fool, but a wiser fool. Never again would my shadow darken the door of a church. Never again would I seek after a God who did not exist.
“While I was up here,” Brother Palacios said, “the Holy Spirit spoke to me.” I sat up in my seat, my heart jumped a beat. I clutched the back of the pew in front of me and held my breath. “Tonight,” he continued, “I have to preach on faith.”
Thank you, Lord!
I don’t remember the message being particularly awe inspiring or exceptionally well taught. I am sure others who were there that night were dismayed that this man of God would speak for so long, then decide to preach a message. But you, Lord, were in control. You were working a miracle they knew nothing about. Bless old Brother Palacios, who listened to your voice and obeyed your word. I sat in that pew, stunned, numb. I knew you were real. I knew you existed. Everything I thought I knew about the world around me changed. You are real! My God is real! Your presence is real! Thank you, Jesus!
And, Lord, as I sit here before you in this sanctuary, I remember. This small sanctuary holds so many memories. I preached my first message here. I was in the altar one night after a weekday service. A woman in a wheelchair was being prayed for. She had come several times wanting to be healed. In times past, I would have mocked the idea of divine healing, but I knew then that you were real. I watched as ministers prayed for the woman, and I wondered why she was not healed. I asked you,
“Lord, I know you can heal her. Why isn’t she healed?”
I felt your presence again, and, though I did not hear your voice with my ears, I felt your word enter me in every other way, my mind, my soul, my spirit. And, suddenly, I was looking through your eyes and feeling what you felt. Love! Love like I have never known, never felt since. An all-consuming love, a vacuum longing to be filled. I looked out at your people who were standing and sitting in the pews. I no longer saw them as people I knew, but as people you loved; your children, your people your very heart, the apple of your eye. Then, mingled with this torrent of pure unadulterated love, was sorrow. And you spoke to me.
“They are my people and I love them. But they don’t trust me.” I looked around at your people, feeling your great compassion. “Preach this,” you said.
“But, Lord,” I said, “I don’t preach.”
Moments later, the youth leader walked up to me.
“You’re preaching this Friday,” he said.
And, on Friday night, I stood behind the pulpit for the first time, wearing a secondhand suit and navy work boots. Back then, the entire church attended Friday night service and the sanctuary was filled with people. My pastor sat behind me, looking down at my boots and shaking his head with a smile. For the first time, I preached your word. I felt your presence again, like fire deep in my belly, rising in power as the anointing grew, threatening to consume me. I preached what you had given me, declaring your limitless love. Oh, the Love of God, so rich and pure, so measureless and strong. It shall forevermore endure the saints’ and angels’ song!
Then, as I stood behind the pulpit, your word came to me again.
“Tell Sister Helen I am going to save her son.”
“Sister Helen,” I said to one of the church matriarchs, “God is going to save your son.”
You spoke again,
“Tell Sister Castleman I know what she is going through and everything will be alright.”
But I faltered. Sister Castleman? Who am I to say that to Sister Castleman? I am only a teenager in a secondhand suit. I don’t even own a pair of dress shoes. In my moment of doubt, I failed to speak your word. Still, your Spirit moved in this place. The altar was filled with your people, weeping and seeking after God. It was beautiful. I stood, watching, basking in the remaining glow of your presence, your anointing. I watched as your people continued to seek you in the altar. Finally, I stepped into the vestibule, where I saw Sister Castleman waiting to talk with the pastor. It turned out that her life was in chaos. She was under a heavy burden, a burden I could have helped to lift. I learned the lesson.
And here I am, Lord. I have returned to Bethel. Thirty years have gone by. I have seen miraculous moves of your Spirit. I have been a man after your heart, and I have been a Pharisee, forgetting that you, yourself, are love. I have obeyed you, and I have disobeyed you. I have been on high mountains and I have been in places so low I thought I might be in Hell. Somewhere along the way, I became more of a politician than a preacher. I became disillusioned with my religion, the organization I fellowshipped with, because I placed my trust in men, rather than in you. But here I am, Lord. I am home. And here you are. You are here, in this sanctuary. You were waiting for me when I walked in. I am not trembling in terror at the enormity of your presence. I am not running away. I sit before you in admiration, in adoration, in love. I will remember, Lord. I will hear your voice. I will obey. There is nothing in this world more important than you. Your presence, Lord.