There are only five of us, plus friends, in this group in Lucerne Valley. Our purpose is to ask God what He wants and then try to do it. This arrangement has been mostly “unreligious” and we hope more like Jesus Christ would do if He were in our shoes deciding what God would want in a world so sated with religion. We have been led by God to operate a shopping center, supermarket, hardware, and coin laundry as a way of serving our community.
What brought me to this way of life is a little complex. I was brought up in a religious Baptist family, very active in church meetings and functions. At the age of five, I convinced the leaders of the Baptist church that I wanted to be baptized as a follower of God. Years went by without much significance. In 1966, when I was sixteen, I wanted a change. Either my life as a follower of God had to be more substantive than “believing in God”, “praying”, reading the Bible, and church attendance, or it would be better to shed the whole time-consuming routine of religion and its demands. Out of deep frustration I yelled, “God, if You’re real, show me; otherwise, I want to drop out of religion and spend my time more effectively!” Immediately I found myself flat on the floor and didn’t know how I got there. Sounds crazy, but I was an experimenting scientist and God had convinced me He exists! At first I thought He might kill me for yelling at Him; but nothing happened, so I thanked Him and asked what I should do. No voice responded, so I figured I’d hear from God when He was good and ready. Who was I to question God two times in a row?
I told many people about this experience of meeting God. Very few were interested. At the Baptist church I was asked not to talk about meeting God the way I did as it might “upset the faith of others” in the church who had not experienced such an encounter themselves! The choice was either to obey the church leaders, or God living in me, so I started telling church members what had happened. For months I was treated with caution and suspicion by the church pastor. Then one Sunday the pastor asked me to read the Bible text that would precede his sermon, Luke 4:14-21. In front of the church I stood up and read: “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning Him went out through all the surrounding country. And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and He went to the synagogue, as His custom was, on the Sabbath day. And He stood up to read; and there was given to Him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ And He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
Instead of sitting down as expected, I reminded the church how at age five I believed and was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and how I had faithfully worshiped God ever since. Next I told them about meeting up with God (as mentioned on the previous page) and urged them all to ask God for this same kind of experience and relationship with Him. Then I quoted Jesus and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” As you can imagine, everyone was staring at me! The pastor was angry and it was a VERY long time before I was asked to participate again in that church’s worship services!
About six months later, one of the church deacons and I began sharing experiences. After church meetings we’d go over to his house and the meetings there seemed far more meaningful than those at the church. We dealt with situations from daily life and asked God what we should do about them.
Things were happening at school, also. A group of us guys was meeting after school in one of the classrooms until someone turned us in for meeting on school property! But a family who lived across the street from the school let us start meeting there. Those were exciting and spontaneous meetings of up to twenty boys and two girls.
During the summer of 1968 I went on a camping trip with one of my friends from the Baptist church. During a hike he said, “I assume you asked God where He wants you to go to college?” I lied to him by saying, “What do you think?”, implying that I had asked. For the rest of the hike I was asking God what He wanted me to do about college as I had been accepted at UC Riverside and was expecting to proceed with a career in plant disease control. In fact school was to start in just two weeks. Finally I said, “God, if You don’t want me to go to UCR, please tell me plainly; otherwise I’m going.” Two days later, at home, I asked God if He wanted me to do anything. Going for a drive came to mind, so I did. I drove to the Youth For Christ headquarters in San Francisco and sat in their hallway. When asked if I’d help to make posters, I declined and said something more important was on my mind. Bored, I stared into a dark room off the hallway and saw rows of books on shelves. Three of them caught my attention, so I pulled them out and returned to the hallway. In my hand were three college catalogs! One was from Biola, one from Westmont, and one from Bob Jones University. Well it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where this might be going!
I really wanted to attend UCR and I really didn’t want to attend a religious school, but I did want to do what God wanted. So I wrote this letter to all three:
God wants me to attend your college.
I felt certain no one in their right mind would respond positively to that unless God wanted them to. Two nights later the doorbell at home rang. It was a postman with a special delivery, air mail letter to Bill Lembright from Westmont College! Incredible! Good-bye science career! Hello God and whatever You have planned! The letter from Westmont said:
We prayed over your letter and agree God wants you to attend Westmont.
School starts tomorrow.
We don’t have any dormitory space left, but come anyway and we’ll see
what can be arranged.
After informing my dad of the above, he agreed I’d better follow my convictions. The next morning I flew to Santa Barbara and enrolled at Westmont. Another latecomer and I were housed in a laundry room in an old dormitory off campus.
Westmont was churchy and dead in regards to God’s Spirit. I looked everywhere to find others who knew God and genuinely wanted to know what He wanted them to do. In 1969, a group of six guys and one gal started meeting daily and would ask what God wanted us to do. But, even in that group, other demands would often take precedence over the daily meeting. It bothered me that life in the real church, as I considered that group, would be so unimportant as to be displaced by other activities.
At age 19, still at Westmont, I was the high school director at Goleta Baptist Church. It seemed odd to be teaching teenagers only one to four years younger than I, but my relationship with God and ensuing experiences did make me seem much older than they. One evening a fund raiser for the Baptist mission society presented a slide show during which I thought God told me to go to Crooked Tree, British Honduras, one of the churches shown in the slide show. On the back side of a church pledge card I wrote: God wants me to go to Crooked Tree, British Honduras. I handed the card to the speaker and left. Not a word was spoken.
Three months later a letter arrived from British Honduras. It said: “Dear Bill, The pastor and church secretary of the Crooked Tree Baptist Church ran off together with the church money. Please come as soon as possible!” Wow, God, I can’t believe this is really happening, but I’ll go! It happened to be the end of my freshman year and I arrived in British Honduras a few weeks later.
Now I was not a preacher and had no training, but would preach up to four times a week. Every day I’d ask God to tell me what to say. At first up to one hundred people attended the church meetings, but as time went on the numbers declined. One unpopular development occurred when I quit using a generator for lights during evening prayer meetings. We used candles so we could hear each other for a change. As it turned out the people didn’t want to be heard. Another unpopular occurrence was that after several weeks of inviting and encouraging island residents to give up their lives to God, the preaching began to stress God’s expectation of change in our lives. There was almost no change apparent and the message I preached said that no change was not acceptable to God. The people of Crooked Tree tended to be very religious but spiritually dead, very similar to Westmont College. By the time I left British Honduras, only a handful of people seemed to have responded to God speaking through me.
Once back at Westmont I tried to visit various cutting edge religious meetings, where previously I had felt right at home. But, in every case it seemed God was saying, “My Spirit is not in this meeting.” This search for meaning and spiritual companionship was frustrating and I didn’t know if something was wrong in my head or if God really was trying to direct me toward a different way of life. The only group God seemed to approve of for me was that little group of seven that met on campus. I tried to convince others at school that we should be THE CHURCH at Westmont and not run around looking for life elsewhere, but few seemed to believe it or care.
One day I was preaching to a group of guys at Westmont’s Dining Commons when a gal interrupted and asked if I’d like to visit a group of believers in Reche Canyon near Colton. Annoyed she had interrupted an important meeting I said, “No, thank you,” and went on addressing the guys. Minutes later it seemed God said, “Go to Reche Canyon.” So I did go.
At Reche Canyon I found a group of believers running a combination market, snack shop, gas station, and feed store as their service to God and their community. Real work in the real world in response to the Spirit made a lot of sense, but there were some habits of these followers of God that bugged me. Ernie Gommel, the preacher and manager of the store, cussed and yelled at one of the staff while we were building a feed trailer. Gommel was pretty straight and not very nice. I considered “nice” to be one of God’s traits. Another problem was the group members drank beer and wine, something that as a Baptist I believed was wrong to do.
Before returning to Westmont I had a meeting with Gommel. I asked several questions that a normal religious person wouldn’t answer well; but by his answers I knew Gommel knew God the same way as I, something I had seen in only a handful of people in over four years.
Several months later I returned to Reche Canyon for a two week stay. When not working I asked God, “Why did You bring me here? These people drink alcohol and they shouldn’t.” It seemed God said, “Jesus drank wine. Was He wrong to do so?” “No, of course not! Jesus did NO wrong,” I responded. To prove I believed God, that drinking was not a sin to Him, I started drinking beer and wine even though it tasted nasty at first.
While still in Reche Canyon, another thought was bugging me: Maybe God wanted me to move there and work with those people. I didn’t want to. There was a more exciting sounding church in Yorba Linda that seemed more likely to be the place for me. But, it seemed Reche Canyon was what God wanted. Before returning to Westmont I asked this group what they thought God wanted. By secret ballot each member thought I should finish my sophomore year at school, then return to Reche Canyon.
So, that’s how I came to be a part of this group. There’s nothing like everyday work together to separate religion from real convictions. You can’t easily fool people you’re with every day. In any other group I’d been apart of, most members seemed reasonably spiritual at meetings, but were likely living for themselves, rather than God, the rest of the time. In Reche Canyon we were God’s people helping our neighbors with their everyday needs from groceries, to gasoline, hardware, feed, and even their spiritual needs, at times. It would have been difficult coming up with a more appropriate way to serve God AND our neighbors!
Working and meeting together daily and often asking God what He wants is an unpredictable and exciting way of life. You can honestly say, “Not what I want but what YOU want, God.” What comes of this each day is up to each individual. For those who want to surrender their self-determination, ask God what He wants, then try to do it, this way of life is ideal. For those who want to resist the Holy Spirit and do their own thing, it is more difficult, since, if their brother or sister in the group cares, they will point out the error of your way in an effort to help.
The group was surprisingly open to finding out what God wants: a quality hard to find in ANY conventional church which tends to care more about its own survival than what God wants. An example of this arose when we were drawing up a pamphlet that we might be able to pass out to customers curious about group life. We came to realize that the popular church works AGAINST Christ, rather than FOR Him. The popular church has created a false image of Jesus: a nice guy who isn’t judgmental, wouldn’t want to upset anyone, soft-spoken, and wants everyone to be happy and comfortable. Jesus would never have been killed if He were like THAT! He had guts, the courage of the Spirit to speak the truth and confront wrong and falsehood wherever He found it! And we are to follow His example. This truth made us uncomfortable as it judges members of the typical institutional church. One of our dilemmas then, as well as now, is how much to hold up such truth to peoples’ faces since we rely on their shopping with us to survive as a business. Of course Jesus would probably say the truth anyway, to hell with the consequences!
Another eye-opening event came when Mike, one of the group leaders, was offered a promotion in the military which would require him to move out of state. Also, his wife and children were a part of the group. We expected to ask God what HE wanted Mike to do, but Mike had made up his mind to choose the promotion regardless what God wanted. How tragic! The next decision was whether Mike’s wife and teenage daughter would, with us, ask what God wanted THEM to do. Unfortunately neither chose to ask but decided to remain united as a family regardless of God’s choice in the matter. This was very MUCH like the group at Westmont where people professed to want to know what God wanted until it might interfere with their personal desires.
Twice since meeting up with God I had asked Him if I might marry someone and both times the answer seemed, “No.” In Reche Canyon I asked God again. His answer seemed to be, “It’s O.K. for you to marry.” I brought this subject up many times in group meetings. Finally it was suggested that I list the qualities most important in a wife and then consider whose traits came closest to the list. I let the group know that member Jan Todd seemed the best choice. As a group we agreed that a courtship would be the best approach to see if marriage would be right. Also, when I asked Jan to consider marrying me, she didn’t agree for several weeks. Being open to a group about dating was a challenge and turned out to NOT be a smooth situation. Being blinded by romance and being mutually open to what God wants as a group led to several spirit conflicts, including nearly calling off the whole thing. Finally, we did marry and in my opinion God chose my wife through the help and honest advice of His people.
Another challenge came along when Gommel and his wife, Barb, started feeling attracted to the high desert town of Lucerne Valley 65 miles away. After many visits and much asking God what He wanted, we concluded we should move to Lucerne Valley and operate a store there. The Hitchin Post Market in Reche Canyon had been 1000 square feet expanded to 2500 sq. ft. The Lucerne Valley Market was the 7200 sq. ft. former Leo’s Market. From 1975 until 1981 Jan, Louise, and I operated The Hitchin Post while Linda, Barb, Gommel, Rivets, and Jo operated Lucerne Valley Market. In 1981 we sold The Hitchin Post and all lived in Lucerne Valley running the store there. It was a relief living, meeting, and working in the same town again. We rely on each other quite a bit and being physically separated stretched our spiritual and physical resources.
Sales had tripled at Lucerne Valley Market by 1981 to the point we asked the landlords to expand the facility. Instead of expanding they asked us to leave and sell them back the business. After asking God, we concluded that He wanted us to do just that and consider building a new store. We retained the rights to the name Lucerne Valley Market and the shopping carts which were so labeled, but sold the inventory, equipment, and fixtures back to the landlords.
This was an unexpected new beginning: a great spiritual challenge! Gommel spent the next year planning a new Lucerne Valley Market, involving real estate, financing, architecture, engineering, endless blueprints, contractors, and permits. Barb took care of the main house where we eat, meet, and some sleep, including meal prep. Linda, Jan, Louise and I went out and found jobs so we wouldn’t drain resources away from the possible construction of a new store. For most of that year it was not clear at all whether God wanted us to build or not. One problem was that interest rates were over 20%!
Finally we became convinced we should build no matter how bad the economy. Linda and I resigned from our jobs to plan the merchandising. Linda worked on grocery and I on hardware and variety. With Gommel pushing, the new 15,530 sq. ft. store was built in just 90 days! It opened on March 26, 1983.
Sales did not live up to expectations so our profitability was hurting. And as soon as we announced the decision to build, our former landlords stopped payments on the business, inventory, and fixtures hoping to stop us. We nearly went bankrupt, which of course made us very aware of our need for God. I'm sure that God was testing us and teaching us to trust Him! Finally sales picked up and we survived financially.
In 1985 we added on a rental complex and opened a coin laundry. In 1990 we expanded the store to 36,000 sq. ft. and added rental space where First Mountain Bank is located. Expanding made a lot of sense as the population of Lucerne Valley and sales were increasing at 10% per year and had been for years. We thought it would be wise to stay ahead of future competition from outside superchains by expanding to fill the void created by the growing population outstripping the size and selection offered in the 15,530 sq. ft. store. Then in 1991 the country went into a serious recession and Lucerne Valley went into a depression. The population and sales began seriously shrinking creating new financial challenges for our community and store. Ever since 1991 we have relied on the department heads, the store’s acting board of directors, to use financial statements; sales and labor budgets; ad strategies; and pricing and promotion plans to make ends meet. This has been a wonderful opportunity for the staff to grow and be needed.
One of the biggest disappointments over the years has been the departure of group members. If they had been sent off on a mission in the Spirit, it would be something to celebrate. Instead, the departed members seem to have left to lead lives directed by their self-determination rather than by God. This is like watching someone in their prime die. Such tragedy does sober us and remind us to RE-turn to God (continue to repent) and to avoid the same error ourselves. Plus, we are forced to examine how our own sinful conduct may have driven these people away.
At this time the committed group members consist of Gommel, Helen Whittaker, Linda, Jan, and myself. (Jan. 4, 2004 Barb Gommel passed on.) We always hope that others will want to join with us in asking what God wants for their lives, but we’ve pretty much accepted the fact that very few people really want to know what God wants at the expense of giving up their human wills to God. Unfortunately we turn off many possible would-be seekers by our own failure to surrender to God and be what we should be as His people. Admitting this failure, however, can only be a start. Next we have to DO something about it!
We are very much a group of stubborn, intractable members who think we’re pretty much OK in God’s eyes! We’re not upset enough to surrender sufficiently and continue the life of change in the Spirit that we began when we first met up with God. We MUST DO something to correct this unacceptable situation. The strongest chain that still binds ME is the image of the false god of the popular church: Jesus as a nice, gutless wimp everyone would like and not crucify! Jesus was a straight-shooter who cared for God and His truth, who really would help those He encountered with little concern about Himself. Spiritually I’m stalled out over this. By my choice I remain a churchy nice guy, playing up to people for their approval instead of following Jesus example of, “To Hell with what people think, I’m here to obey God in the power and courage of His Spirit!” With God’s help I will stop resisting and receive His courage and become repulsed at receiving approval from anyone but Him.
If we eagerly want to know what God wants and make the changes necessary to be and do what He wants, there will be many more stories of faith and victory that will follow.