Awe came upon me one hot August night when I was only 17 years old. That night there was supposed to be a particularly amazing meteor shower. So, about a dozen of us, we headed down to the beach, where there was boardwalk, to sleep out under the stars. It was a fabulous night. No adults were there to tell us what to do. So, we were trying on what it would feel like to be an adult ourselves and to do what we wanted, when we wanted. We had good friends to talk to. There was swimming after dark. We had an illegal campfire to make us feel just a little bit afraid that someone might catch us doing something a little beyond our abilities. It was a brilliant night. We laughed and we played, and we solved all the problems of the world, but we never saw a single meteor.
Around 3 o’clock in the morning we finally settled down to sleep. I’m not sure what woke me up. But I do remember looking up and seeing nothing but stars, and when the first meteor streaked across the sky, rather than waking up my friends so that they could see what I was seeing, I just lay there watching as streak after streak stretched across the darkness. I knew in my head that these were meteors, but it was as if the stars were putting on a show just for me. I’d never seen anything like it, and I couldn’t believe my own eyes. Suddenly the Cosmos, was more than just a backdrop of my imagination. The Cosmos was there, right there in all its glory. It was the most beautiful display of cosmic grandeur. I was totally overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe. Far from feeling small, I felt like I was big enough to reach out and touch the stars. It was wonderful. There were moments when I felt that I wasn’t the only one doing the watching. There I was lying below the sky, looking up, feeling strangely at peace. For the first time, it felt as though I was actually being watched and seen. I was being seen and I was being known by something bigger than the sky.
In a sea of a billion galaxies, I felt the CREATOR of all that IS, surrounding me. The gentle sea breeze seemed to caress me, and for the first time in my life, I became conscious that I am part of something far larger than myself and I felt my heartbeat begin to quicken. Serenaded by the heavy breathing of my companions, I began to wonder about stardust, about breath, and wind, and about this thing called the SPIRIT, and I knew that somehow the heart of what I was staring into was miraculously related to the heart that which was beating so quickly in me. And the tears flowed, and I knew such joy. It was as if the Cosmos itself had opened up inside of me, and for the first time I knew who and what I am. I also knew somehow, deeply knew, that the breath in me and the SPIRIT at the heart of the universe that was exploding before my eyes, is intimately ONE.
I remember my joy was tinged with a kind of fear, because I knew that this was bigger than anything I’d ever been able to imagine, and I wondered if my head was about to explode. I remember laughter rising within me, which I suppressed because I didn’t want my friends to wake up and find me deliriously happy, like some kind of crazy person. I knew I’d never be able to explain the joy I was feeling. Nothing had ever filled me so full. I had no words with which to explain my experience. I still don’t have the words to describe this mystical experience. I felt as though my whole being was going to burst open because the joy, and love which I felt simply could not be contained. Over the years, I have returned to this experience to try to put into words an experience which is BEYOND words.
For a long time, I used the word “God” to describe what I was experiencing. At the time I remember thinking that GOD had better ease off just a little or I was going to entirely loose the plot. GOD was too much to take in. I wasn’t sure I could take much more, when suddenly; the sky began to change its hue. I was conscious of colour behind me. Don’t ask me how you can be conscious of colour, I just was. I was afraid to look toward the colour, because I knew that behind me the Sun would be rising, and if tiny meteors streaking across the sky could do what they did to me, I wasn’t sure I could handle the magnificence of the Sun rising. I closed my eyes, and in the darkness of my own mind, I felt the power of GOD overwhelming me.
In the Book of Genesis, there is a powerful story about one of our ancestors named Jacob. The story takes place after Jacob has tricked his father into giving him the blessing which according to their custom, should have gone to his older twin brother Esau. Jacob has just left home and is travelling through the desert when he sets up camp for the night. Jacob takes a rock and uses it as a pillow. During the night, Jacob has a dream in which he sees a ladder, which stretches from the ground all the way up into the realm of the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call God. The Hebrew text uses the unspeakable name for God – YAHWEH – a word so sacred that the Hebrews did not speak it, a word which translates into English as “I AM WHO I AM!” Messengers of the DIVINE MYSTERY were travelling up and down Jacob’s dream ladder. Jacob could see the MYSTERY standing over him and from the HOLY ONE Jacob received the knowledge that his descendants would be as numerous as the specks of dust on the ground; spreading out all over the Earth and those descendants, that’s us, we, Jacob’s descendants would see ourselves as blessed by our ancestor Jacob. From the DIVINE MYSTERY, Jacob knew that the HOLY ONE would never leave him. Then Jacob woke and said, “Truly, YAHWEH is in this place, and I never knew it!” He was filled with trembling and said, “How awe-inspiring this place is! This is nothing less than the dwelling place of God; this is the gate to heaven! Jacob rose early the next morning and took the stone which he had used as a pillow and set it up as a monument and he anointed it with oil. Jacob named the place BETHEL “House of God” saying, “Truly, YAHWEH is in this place, and I never knew it!”
BETH EL – BETH from the Hebrew word “bayit” which means dwelling place and “EL” the word for a god. BETHEL the dwelling place of the DIVINE MYSTERY we call GOD. There’s another ancient name for the MYSTERY we call God: SHEKENIAH is an ancient Hebrew name which can be translated as SHE WHO DWELLS AMONG US. For we are in God and God is in us. All around us, within us and among us you will discover the contours of the dwelling place of the DIVINE, the SACRED, the HOLY ONE.
Way back when, standing within DIVINTIY, it took a long time for me to have the courage to open my eyes and when I did, the light was blinding. I squinted as the orange ball of burning gas which is the Sun rose over the treetops and I laughed out loud at the beauty of it all. Awakened by my laughter, my friends began to dance around and wax poetic or as poetic as a bunch of adolescents can be at an early hour, as they struggled to put words to the beauty in which we were held. Before long we were marveling about the power of the CREATOR of all of this. Laid bare by the magnificence of a summer morning, we began hugging one another as we declared how great it is to be alive.
We did not have words to name our experience. Our notions of God were crude and simple. I’ve learned many words since then; words like MYSTERY, mystical, spiritual and I’ve learned how to string some of those words together to try to describe the wonder I experienced at being held by the ONE who IS BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also, the ONE who dwells in, with, through, and beyond me, in, with, through, and beyond all of us. Words do not don’t even begin to capture the magnitude of such experiences. Looking back, I can now see that just like Jacob, I too had found the Dwelling Place of the HOLY ONE, the Great I AM, the ONE who IS DIVINITY.
I suppose BETHEL is as good a word as any to describe the Dwelling Place of DIVINITY, the place in which the MYSTERY we call GOD lives and moves and has BEING, the place in which you and I live and move and have our BEING, the place where we cannot escape the reality that we are ONE.
The word BETHEL is more than just a place, it is a way of expressing our experiences of our own place within the ONE in whom we dwell. In the beauty of the Cosmos, I trust that you too have experienced and will continue to experience BETHEL, the dwelling place of DIVINITY. May the SHEKENIAH, SHE WHO DWELLS AMONG US, May the SHEKENIAH awaken in you the joy of finding BETHEL in the magnificence of the Cosmos, in the miracles which are our neighbours, and in your very self. For we dwell in the ONE who dwells in us, our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself. Thanks be to All that IS HOLY. Amen.
View the full BETHEL Worship Service below