It was a bright and sunny late November Sunday afternoon in 2009 in Anna, Ohio. Twelve years had passed since I was last in this place. I looked over to the edge of the parking lot, where there was an array of 2-4' limestone boulders spaced as boundary markers. Two of them had flat tops. Carrying the bottle of olive oil I had brought, I didn't remember seeing them the last time I was here. As I headed over toward the biggest one, which also happened to be one of the flat-toppped ones, my thoughts returned to the events of twelve years ago... [continued after the break]
Then, in late-October 1997, I had just shockingly learned that my wife was leaving me for someone else, was divorcing me, and that there was nothing I could do to change that fact. I had always been an agnostic, and little that had happened to me up until that day had any impact on me as far as changing that fact. A year and a half ago, I had taken the job in Lima, which meant an hour and a half drive to work, and it had seemed like the right career move, the chance to come into my own as a metallurgist, the chance to help run a company, to be a quality manager. But that day, it all seemed pointless. I had succeeded in my job, and in my career, but failed in my marriage.
As I often did then, on my way back to Springfield in the evening, I stopped for dinner at Wendy's in Anna. What happened next was to be the most extraordinary thing to ever happen to me. As I got out of my car and headed for the door, another man was headed for the door at the same time. As we got to the door together, I knew something was very different about him. We looked at each other, and had some sort of instant connection. I can't explain it, except to say that I have never before or since experienced anything like it. It was electric, magnetic, unavoidable. He obviously felt it also.
I am normally very reserved, and at that time in my life, I would have described myself as painfully shy. I don't know how, but the man and I struck up an immediate conversation, and decided we would share a meal together. Again, this was totally unprecedented for me. I liked my privacy, and honestly was in no mood to talk. But as we waited in line to order, he said he was a driver for Steelcase (the office furniture manufacturer), and that he had just gotten a speeding ticket, though his speedometer had showed he was within the speed limit. He was chagrined. I started asking questions, and he said he had just gotten a new set of tires earlier in the day. As we sat down to eat, the engineer in me came out, and I started calculating how much the larger circumference of the new tires would affect his speedometer, and it did seem as though it would be enough to explain the inaccurate speedometer and the speeding ticket. He speculated that he needed to have his speedometer re-calibrated, and I agreed that was probably his problem.
As we ate, the conversation changed over to my own circumstances, to the end of my marriage and pending divorce. This was one of those times in my life, where when I was out in public, and someone asked how I was doing, or told me to have a nice day, a dagger went through my heart and I just went silent. For some things, there are just no words in polite company. But for whatever reason, I just started talking that night. I told my story. He asked me about where I stood with the Lord, and I was surprised. But I told him my usual response, that I was an agnostic, and I just expected that to be that. I don't remember his exact words, as our meal ended, but he carefully told me a little about Jesus, and asked if he could pray with me. I don't know how, but he used exactly the right words to get through my carefully-constructed shell. I was taken completely aback, and did not at all know what to say. But I agreed, and he prayed for me. We went our separate ways, and my mind whirled. I didn't know what had just happened, but I knew it was something completely outside my life's experience up to that day.
After I got back home later that evening, I knew this was not something I could discuss with my then-wife, who to this day remains a hardcore atheist. She moved out shortly. I moved to Texas in a couple months, and tried to start over. But I thought about that night in Anna frequently over the course of the intervening seven months, when someone else would give me C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity for my birthday, and I would find my way to the beginnings of my Christian faith. I to this day do not know exactly what to make of the truck driver I ran into that night. But I do know that something special and supernatural happened to me that night. I knew that even then, as an unbeliever. Was he an angel? Was he a normal man filled with the Spirit of God? I confess, I do not know. But it was a Holy encounter, of that I am certain.
As my thoughts returned to the present day, I knelt next to the chest-high flat-topped rock at the edge of the Wendy's parking lot, praying to God. It had been a long twelve years, and I had recently moved back to Ohio after a similar end to my second marriage, in Texas. I had never expected to find myself in this place again, as a Christian. I stood up, and unscrewed the lid to the bottle of olive oil I had brought with me. I poured a tablespoon of it or so on each of the corners of the rock, and then at the highest spot on top. I watched it run, and marveled at the beauty of the green oil on the white stone. I thought back to the story of Jacob in Genesis 28:16-21, after fleeing from Esau and his dream of the ladder to heaven:
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it."
He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its top.
He called the name of that place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father's house in safety, then the LORD will be my God. This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God's house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You."
And I thought further about Jacob's return to Bethel twenty years later, which is recounted in Genesis 35:1-7:
Then God said to Jacob, "Arise, go up to Bethel and live there, and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau." It has been easy for me to think about all I have lost in life, about all my hopes and dreams which will never be. It has been easy to be desperately lonely as Thanksgiving approaches, and soon Christmas. But as I knelt before my altar, my Bethel, the place where God spoke to me, I had peace. God answered me in the day of distress and has been with me wherever I have gone. He has been with me and has kept me on this journey that I take, and has given me food to eat and garments to wear. I have returned to where I grew up in safety. The LORD surely is my God.
So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves and change your garments; and let us arise and go up to Bethel, and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone."
So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had and the rings which were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem.
As they journeyed, there was a great terror upon the cities which were around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob.
So Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him.
He built an altar there, and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed Himself to him when he fled from his brother.
As the sun lowered in the sky, I stood up, turned away, and began to walk quietly back to my truck for the trip back to Dayton. Though I do not know how long I will remain in this desolate in-between place, I am thankful, for I am blessed beyond measure.