“Be back here by 5:00 so you have time to shower before supper!” Mom exclaimed as my brother Chad and I leapt off the front porch, landed in a leg-extended gait, and sprinted to the barn.
“We will!” we screamed.
The farm had a plethora of exciting adventures in the offing. We could spend countless hours building forts in the hay mow, collecting tadpoles in the ponds of the pastures, sing to the heifers (always a captivating audience no matter how awful the performance), or play in the grove. The grove offered two attractions. We could play in a tactically built treehouse that offered ladders, ropes, and swings or we could venture into the forbidden areas of the grove—a heap of garbage and an old hole under collapsed concrete (The remnants of an underground bunker my uncle Verlyn had accidently bombed from the inside from the fumes of cattails soaked in gasoline). The treehouse was safe and fun, but it lacked some of the adventure and excitement that one could easily encounter in the dangerous bunker or the heap of garbage. While Chad swung from the rope in the treehouse, I ventured over and started sifting through the garbage heap. Chad immediately joined me. It was forbidden; it was unsafe; it could cause injury or even death; it was exciting; it was an adventure! What is it about the human spirit that compels us to abandon the safety of the treehouse for the ambiguity of the garbage heap?
The night before attacking the city of Ai, Joshua chose five thousand of his best fighting men and commanded them to set up a place of ambush between the cities of Ai and Bethel. The next morning, when Joshua attacked the city, he planned to retreat and draw the king of Ai and his army away from the city, so the ambush to the west of the city could attack and overcome the unguarded city. The plan was successful, and Israel conquered the city of Ai and set it ablaze (Joshua 8:1-29).
This isn’t the first time we encountered the city of Ai in Scripture. Only weeks earlier, Joshua and the Israelite army underestimated the power and influence of Ai and they were routed by Ai’s army when they attacked the city (Joshua 7:3-5). Several centuries earlier, Abraham received a call from God to pack up all of his belongings and move to Canaan. Upon arriving in Canaan, Abraham first settled directly between Ai and Bethel—probably the exact same location the five thousand Israelite soldiers lied in ambush the night before the attack of Ai (Genesis 12:8; Joshua 8:9).
It’s peculiar to me that Abraham and the Israelite Army set up camp between Bethel and Ai—not committing to either city. The word “Ai“ means “a heap of ruins” and the name “Bethel” means, “The house of God.” Why do we neglect God’s desire to live within our hearts, and instead ogle the heap of runis on the horizon while anticipating the eventual ambush of the city and rummaging through it for treasures? I have to confess, there are several seasons throughout my life where I would rather dwell upon a heap of ruins than allow God to live and thrive within my heart. I fear that God’s presence will drag me down, prevent me from experiencing a life filled with fun and adventure—the life I frequently believe exists upon that heap of ruins.
We often underestimate the power that heap of ruins has over our hearts. God instilled adventure, excitement, love, romance, hope, and joy in every human heart. Like Abraham and the Israelite army, the illusory safety and boredom often associated with the house of God deters us from pitching our tents in Bethel. Instead, we are tempted to camp on the garbage heap of Ai. Often, the dangers and stench that comes from the death and destruction of Ai overcome our hearts, so we set up camp somewhere in between. We don’t commit to either, so we ebb and flow our way in between the life of Bethel and the death of Ai. Where did we go wrong? Who taught us that a life in the Kingdom—a life walking side-by-side with Jesus was uneventful and unsatisfying? Why do we envision a life within the presence of God to be dreadfully boring—lacking in adventure? Why do we perceive a life upon a garbage heap to be exciting and fulfilling? Who planted this notion that Ai was a place of treasure and Bethel a place of misery?
I have my theories. When I hear a boring sermon, endure the judgmental ostracizing from an elderly parishioner in a dying church, or suffer through a barrage of litanies while praying for the end of the service, I get why we avoid Bethel. When I witness people who claim to live in Bethel while spewing racial slurs and following bigots, I camp closer to Ai than Bethel. When the citizens of Ai are kinder, gentler and show more compassion than those in Bethel, I find myself pitching my tent upon the garbage heap.
Unfortunately, these “pseudo-citizens” of Bethel have given it a bad name. Arguably, God can’t dwell in the hearts of judgmental bigots, war-mongers, and merciless savages. Their hatred caused their hearts to harden, thereby impeding the Holy Spirit from finding a home within. True citizens of Bethel experience love, joy, adventure, and the thriving Spirit of God within their hearts. Imposters have prevented us from experiencing the joys of Bethel, thereby sending us to Ai to find an alternative that pales in comparison.
The treehouse in the grove can provide everything our heart desires. Joy, adventure, and true love can be found among its limbs, ladders, and rope swings. My prayer for today is to no longer oscillate between these two cities, and allow God to enter my heart to live in Bethel for eternity.
I want to dedicate this post to my uncle Verlyn—a man of God and true citizen of Bethel. Verlyn Vander Lugt discovered adventure, love, joy, hope, and excitement; not in Ai (a bunker filled with the fumes of gasoline-soaked cattails) but in Bethel (the Holy Spirit living and thriving within his heart).