This is a letter written by Ernest Gommel to Marta Becket, entrepreneur and star of the Amargosa Opera House, Inc., Death Valley Junction, CA. Gommel, with his wife, Barbara, attended a show at the tiny Opera House in November, 1986. Marta Becket is a ballet artist who found herself when she took a wreck of a building, repaired it, and began to express her first love: ballet. Small audiences? Never mind. She painted her audience on the walls, very well done, too!
Gommel was impressed with the implications of what Ms. Becket had chosen to do, and her dedication to it. This letter of Gommel’s followed a brief conversation with her on the evening of the performance and the exchange of one letter by each. Those sections in square brackets have been added since the original letter was written.
Dear Marta Becket, (Rev. November 30, 1987)
Thank you for putting me on your mailing list as a friend of yours and of what you are attempting to do there in Death Valley Junction. I am putting you on our Lucerne Valley Market mailing list, which will help you get to know me and us, if you still want to after reading this letter. I hope that you will see why our mailer will help you get to know us as you continue this letter.
Thank you, especially, for your letter of Dec. 8. I really do appreciate your sensitivity and consideration in taking the time from your busy schedule in order to share meaning and significance with me, a person you hardly know.
In your letter, you comment, “You have asked nothing about my ‘life’, just my philosophy, . . .” God save me from ever wanting to discuss philosophy only. I appreciate the fact that you responded by sharing of your life, with philosophy secondary or implied. You emphasize what I realize is a great truth: The important communication is to share our experience and our thoughts about it. Philosophy alone is empty. I have spent uncountable hours reading and discussing philosophy, theology, sociology, etc., and long ago came to realize that most of it is emptiness. All I can do — the greatest thing that I can do is to share what has happened and is happening to me (and those close to me), and my thoughts about it all. Words and more words so quickly or eventually lead one into futility and despair. Really, all that I have to give is testimony: what has happened to me, and what I’ve thought about it and done about it.
You are corresponding with me, a 65 year old guy [That was 1987] who is certainly not retired and I am not looking to be. I identify with your words in your letter: “I just know that I am happy after all that I have something waiting for me to finish. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I felt that way the day I was dying.” I, too, will probably only retire if forced to by illness or death. As you do, we live a very busy and demanding life!
Now I get to the difficult part of this letter. How do I express myself to you without using terms that turn you off? Too many words and phrases have been misused by the game-players, so that it is difficult to say what I have to say without being misunderstood. I can only beg you to try to hear me out in this letter and any other communication we might have. What you may at first think I am saying may not be what I’m really getting at. (When you later come to realize what I’m trying to say, you may be turned off all the more! But I hope that your conclusions, positive or negative, will be based not on popular images and terminologies, but on what I’m really trying to say!)
I am a Civil Engineer, registered in this State; I am a fully educated (overly educated?), properly ordained minister (please don’t turn me off yet), preaching weekly (and those around me accuse me of preaching far oftener than this). I preach to those who gather in my opera house: our home here in Lucerne Valley, a tiny town in this 400 sq. mile valley. I do not have the talent or inclination to paint an audience on the walls of the large living room, and so I preach only to the faithful, usually four or five others. But so long as I feel that God wants me to, I must preach, no matter how many gather.
The preaching meeting is only a part of the lives of the five of us who have given our lives to God (please don’t jump to conclusions as to what I mean here). We are trying to serve Him, seeking His Will with abandon (no holds barred), and trying to do it, daily. Incidently, it was in 1967, about the same time that you found your place in Death Valley Junction, that I, along with a few others, finally gave up trying to dance to the world’s tune, no matter how religious it seemed, and decided to try to be honest to God, and so we started to meet in a home, figuring that we would go wherever He would lead us, and do whatever He wanted.
Yes, I am an engineer and a minister, but there is more. We sort of own (we did own) Lucerne Valley Market, a beautiful 16,000 square foot [As of 2005, 36,000 sq. ft.] modern, 2 year old, general store and supermarket, and the 13 acre, slowly developing shopping center (Crossroads Center), which now has a new coin laundry which we operate, and a beauty shop (leased). As you apparently have done, a few years ago we gave away our ownership to the non-profit organization, our little “church”, legally a “church”, but certainly not a church in the popular sense. It is all legitimate, approved by the I.R.S. It is not a tax dodge. The businesses and we pay taxes just like everyone else. The five of us committed to this way work for the little corporation which runs the Market, etc., and for $180/week gross no matter how much we work (that’s $4.50/hr. based on a 40 hr. week.) [And, as you know, once our assets have been given to the non-profit corporation, we cannot legally recover them. Now, in 2005, we earn $6.75/hr.]
This total life (24 hours/day, 365 days per year) is our service to God and our neighbors (mankind). We are not a closed little group. We are open. We welcome any who would want to consider giving their lives to God (Problems of terminology again!), or who would want to join us in following Him. But others see the cost as too high, being enticed by worldly values and images of “success”. So, even though the group has been larger, we are at this time five people: Bill and Jan Lembright, husband and wife, and Linda Gommel, the 37 year old daughter of Barb and me. That’s it! Five. Maybe we do need to commission you to paint a congregation on our walls!
There are others who come and go, one or two at a time, with greater or lesser understanding and commitment to God or this way of life. Many have come and gone over the years, with great pain of separation in some cases. Furthermore, it always is hard to take when we realize that most do not or will not understand, in many cases because of the brainwashing by doctrine and practices of the popular churches, along with society. Then why do I preach? Why do you dance? Until the Spirit inspires otherwise, I must, no matter how few gather to share!”
Now, how on this paper can I share the excitement (and pain) of my life! How much better if we could talk face-to-face! But I hope you have the patience to bear with me as I try to share.
I was born in 1921 in Orange, Calif., then an agricultural community of 6 or 8,000, but as early as the ‘20’s and ‘30’s it had become a part of the obsession of the L.A. Times newspaper, and Southern California: becoming the biggest and “best”, whatever “best” meant, too often equated with the biggest or most. I was an offspring of those values, and so I did what was considered to be upright and good: I was an obedient son, even though I questioned and struggled a lot. I was raised in a group socially and doctrinally involved with a conservative “church”, which later became Methodist. I was programmed to become an engineer, not unsuited to my natural interests and talents, and so in 1940 I graduated from Santa Ana Junior College and from home, leaving to attend Univ. of Calif, at Berkeley, graduating in 1942, with a BS in engineering with honors.
I continued to go the way of the world, generally being considered to be a good young man; a rising businessman. Barb and I married in 1942, just after I graduated, and we had 3 children, only one of which is with us in spirit at this time.
I had to (What an opportunity!) finance my college education totally by what I earned while attending, and so I started to work for a steel fabricating company in Berkeley. Fourteen years later (1956) and at the age of 35, I was still working for the same company, but was an executive in a much larger enterprise. The smallish company I had started with in 1942 had been twice bought and now I was working for U.S. Steel Corp., in Southern California. Because of the worldly values of Barb and me, and because of my rising in the company, we had moved several times. I often and for some prolonged periods lived out of a suitcase, and I had begun to wonder, “What’s worth my life?” “What is success?” “When I am 80 years old, or whatever — at the end of my productive life — and when I look back at my life, what would I feel I had done that was worthwhile?”
In 1956 I had opportunity to go to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to build from bare ground, and be the chief executive of a multi-million dollar steel pipe manufacturing plant. It meant leaving the security and position I held at the division of U.S. Steel, but it also meant opportunity to try out some ideas and ideals of business management, and to try my own wings. So Barb and I and the children moved for the umpteenth time, this time to Edmonton, in the middle of a very cold winter! — from Southern California to the emerging oil and gas industry of western Canada!
The pipe mill in Canada was a great success. The next step up would be to become President of a larger corporation, and that opportunity no doubt would come. In the meantime, inside of me was a growing challenge: We had enjoyed worldly success. We were accumulating property and other material things, including money. We had attained a real degree of status, hobnobbing with the Premier of the Province, the Ambassador from Germany, the Presidents of large corporations, and the like. We had a home in town and a beautiful hobby farm of 320 acres with ponds and lakes. But, there I was, at the midpoint of life. What was worth my life? There was all the success: superficial. It would pass away. There were many “friends” and some enemies, and much pain and frustration. Which of those people were really friends — loyal — or would they turn away when our “friendship” was no longer profitable to them?
In the meantime, between 1956 and 1959, while I was building and operating the pipe mill, some “friends” kept asking us to come to their little church (now, Marta, don’t turn me off, yet!) Finally we did. God had been involved in my life. Now He confronted me in the total experience of my profession, my family life, and in this church experience, as well as other ways. I read the book of the Bible called Luke in a translation I could understand. I remember, over a period of time, being challenged and excited with questions and discoveries:
This is really something else! Did Jesus really mean what He’s saying?!? He calls me to give up my life and follow Him! This is not just a neater way to justify a good, successful, worldly way of life, but God wants me!
All of me!
Giving myself to God does not mean being good enough to be acceptable to God! When I was raised in the popular church, I got the idea that when I was good like the church members pretended, I’d be acceptable to God. But God loves me just the way I am! He may hate some of the things I do, but He loves me and wants me to give my life to Him and for Him! That was (and is) exciting! I am free!
I am free if only I will care only about what God thinks and not what men think! I had been playing politics, trying to be all things to all men, but I found out that you cannot please men! You’ll go nuts! But suddenly I was free when it came to reality in me that to hell with what men think, I’m going to try to please God, and, fortunately, God who loves me even though I cannot be good enough!
It’s a long and wonderful, trying story (to me, at least). But suffice it to say that I gave my life to God, we left the steel industry, spent several months waiting and working while we waited for God to show us what He wanted us to do. We tried different things, had lucrative offers from other companies, but I finally decided that God wanted me to spend the 4 years in seminary to think things through. We finally went to Indianapolis in June of 1959 where I enrolled in a first-rate seminary. (I was very aware that God might want me to go back into business, and if He did, it would be the right thing to do.)
I served as associate minister and full minister during the four years of seminary and for three years following graduation. I graduated as a straight A student. I served in the popular churches because, of course, I believed God wanted me to, and also because I thought that the people in these churches were eagerly waiting to hear the truth about God; eager to receive the Holy Spirit. God showed me how wrong I was! What a lesson!
The same thing happened to me as happened to Jesus. The people wanted me to play religion — to dance to their tune — to justify the lives they wanted to live — to bless them even though they hadn’t surrendered their lives and wills to God! And they held the hypocrisy high! Being “Christian” meant being a member of an institution, and it meant being (or acting as if one were) “good”, i.e., being “nice”, moral in certain ways, not smoking, not drinking, and not running around with other men or women. The “church”, I came to realize, is simply a benevolent institution of our society, and in bed with it! (I hope you’re still with me, or more so!)
A group of us realized, in September, 1965, that if I continued trying to be honest to God, I would simply split the church I was serving, between those who wanted to serve God, and those who wanted a social organization. So what would happen? We who really wanted to serve God would end up with a huge building and overhead to pay, and we would have meetings to try to raise money, rather than meetings to ask God what He wanted us to do, and plan how to do it. So the few of us simply started meeting in a home in Indianapolis.
Then God wanted to teach and test us further. He sent me and my family for a year with Campus Crusade for Christ in San Bernardino, CA. We thought, “Here is an organization where the people really want to serve God with abandon! Let’s help!” A year later we had been shown how such organizations are really self-serving. We got involved with a conservative Baptist church. We thought, “Here are people really trying to serve God!” We were shown that they, too, wanted to play religion!
So we were led by God in 1967 to find a home and simply start meeting and preaching there. But we hadn’t (and to some extent still haven’t) gotten “playing church” out of our approach. This was in Reche Canyon, Colton, CA. We tried lots of things. I was full-time minister. We found a home that would seat maybe 70 people. We even had a radio program for awhile. We published a weekly newsletter. We did all sorts of things. One right thing we did: We continued to ask God what He wanted us to do, poorly as we did it!
He showed us that we were merely trying to play super-church. That is, we were trying to do what the popular churches were doing, but better, and with more integrity. He also made it clear that I was not to be a professional (set-apart) minister. (In fact, we have been led to question whether such a position has any merit at all in any organization that claims to be of God!)
Then God led us to do something in July of 1967 that we never had imagined! It seemed so unholy. So unreligious. We bought a small market in Reche Canyon: 1100 square feet of square cracker box on one acre of weed-infested land. Reminds me of what your Opera House might have looked like! We knew nothing about the grocery business! We worked. We learned. We continued to meet, to preach, and to seek God’s will and try to do it. God showed us that being Christian (really) is not a matter of being good enough. It is not a matter of whether one drinks or smokes, or uses coarse language, or whether the world thinks a guy or gal is “nice”. It is a matter of surrender of the will and of “things”, and trying to serve Him, and trusting His mercy. We cannot know we are good. We certainly will try to please God (and often fail to try), but we will never be good enough. In fact, the better we know God, the more we are aware of our failures and perversity.
Marta, I wish I could have opportunity not to be hampered with this paper and pen (I hope I can get this typed so you can read it!), but I would like to tell you of the exciting experiences we have had, along with the pain. We operated and ministered (in the best sense, I hope) in Reche Canyon for eleven years. In the meantime, we bought an old Leo’s Market (7500 sq. ft.) in Lucerne Valley in 1975, renamed it Lucerne Valley Market, operated it till January of 1982, when we were “busting at the seams”. We spent a year out of the business, asking God what He wanted us to do and designing and building the present store which we opened in March, 1983.
This is a total way of life: business, meetings, home, and relationships, as I assume yours is. It is our way of serving God and neighbor. Things have happened that we can only call miracles, and I sort of read that in what I know of you. I certainly hope to learn more of what you think!
What’s worth our lives? Serving God, as best we can discern His will and try to do it, is all that is worth our lives! Our relationship with Him is worth our lives — nothing else! We pray that whenever He might want us to get out of the market business, we will rejoice and do it!
What is success? To us, it is growing closer to Him — our relationship.
We continue to struggle. We continue to have trouble knowing God’s will. We wonder if we’re doing right.
I hope that you are doing what you are doing because of the same Spirit! (And remember, we are, and we feel, very unreligious.)
(Now, please believe me, I am not trying to sell you anything. I’m just trying to share, and hope that you will continue to share in return.)
(End. For addendum, see article following.)
Ephesians 6 Is What It’s All About!
My testimony since 1987 by Ernest Gommel Addendum to the letter to Marta Becket of 1987. Written in August, 2003.
Ephesians 6 is what it’s all about — it’s what I’m practicing:
I’m putting on the whole armor of God, that I may be able to withstand in this evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (Eph. 6:13, edited) And I am called to share, to preach, to call people to surrender to God, to warn, to care enough for God and neighbor to tell the Truth as I believe it, — and to inspire, the success not measured by man’s ideas of success in this, but by what You, God, want of me and by what You, God, think. O God, be merciful!
I’m practicing and exercising as described in Eph. 6 so that I may stand in these evil days, and so that I may be even stronger in commitment to, and zeal for You, God, as we know You in Jesus Your chosen One, by Your Holy Spirit. An analogy: It’s the spiritual equivalent of the physical exercise that I do: the barbells each morning, the bike riding, the running up the stairs, and the like, so that I am prepared to serve, and can and do serve.
In terms of the Holy Spirit, it’s exercising and practicing faith: surrender, repentance, belief, trust, hope and obedience, and giving these words right meaning. It’s exercising the eyes of my mind that I may see well and clearly, rightly discerning You, God, Your Will, and things of Your Spirit, God.
Ephesians 6: It’s my prayer:
“O God! O God! Not “sweet” God. Not “dear” God, but You, God! Awesome! Powerful! Loving as a real and good Father loves. Loving, as the real man, Jesus, loved —
“O God make me want Your Holy Spirit in all His fullness and power, quiet or loud, unpopular as it might be! Give me the courage to want what You can do with me — to be willing to be used by You God, not the way religion may teach, but to be used the way You inspire. Give me the conviction, courage and strength to walk in the steps of Jesus (no effeminate guy, but a real man, a man of courage), even if alienated from family, even enduring my cross.
“O God! Let me not hesitate, due to lack of inspiration and courage, — let me not hesitate to ask You to teach me to trust in You, to trust You for eternal life, to hope in You, to be obedient to You, to believe the Truth as You show me, to love as Your Holy Spirit would have me love You, Jesus, love You, Holy Spirit, and love you, neighbor.
“And Father, save me from destruction by the cares, riches, and pleasures of life — the temptation, perversions, deceptions and diversions. Yes, let me avoid them, as You would have me, but if I must experience them, let me learn from them.
“And teach me to be thankful. Help me to endure the lessons if they are hard.
“Father, keep teaching me to know the difference between loving my fellow men, as You would have me, and doing nice things for them, which really can be self-indulgence.
“Father, keep me striving to be obedient to Your call for me to please You, repenting for my tendency to ‘thank Thee, God, that I am not like other men ...’ (Lk 18:11)
“God, be merciful to me a sinner! And let me not feel righteous for even this!
“God, for today, at least. You have brought this little group together. At its core is the tiny group of Your people, banded together for more than 30 years, convinced for now, that we should live and work as we do, seeking Your will, with nothing held back, and trying to do it with abandon. Thank You.”
Since 1987 (the time of my testimony in the Marta Becket letter), we have been challenged. We have had opportunity to continue to serve our neighbors: by offering good jobs to up to 85 people (now 60); by our community involvement in many affairs of our area; and by continuing to work hard to care and serve through the ministry of running the store and shopping center. Perhaps one of the most important things we have continued to do is to be what a real church ought to be, unsuccessful, measured by popular opinion (and our own opinions as well). We are concerned as to Your opinion God. This should be our only concern. God, please have mercy!
One of the greatest challenges we face and have tried to deal with is stubbornness — hanging on to old, evil habits of empty words without genuine fruits of the Spirit. We may even seem so “nice”, but in reality refuse to surrender and repent (turn around).
Other events and turning points are these:
In March of 1986 we added the Wash n Shop building to the shopping center, 3700 sq. ft., housing our coin laundry and 2 rental spaces.
On March 31, 1990, we opened the expanded store, going from 15,000 sq. ft. to 36,000.
In 1991-92, recession hit the world, and Lucerne Valley was hurt more than most areas. We have not recovered yet. This has caused us to work harder and, hopefully, smarter, so that we may continue to serve. A great challenge: How to keep viable as a business, and show our convictions. [During the 2004 - 2005 period, business has recovered substantially.]
In 1996, Gommel instigated the formation of LVEDA (Lucerne Valley Economic Development Association), with the backing of the Chamber of Commerce. It is alive and well as of this writing (Aug. 2003). This has opened other important channels for ministry. After seven years leading LVEDA, Gommel resigned from official LVEDA duties, continuing as a member.
Now, back to prayer:
“God, there are others who meet with us who are sent by You for time short or long, to contribute as part of this body for a day or for years, as Your messengers, God, or as fellow workers, perhaps challenging all to discern Truth and falsehood, perhaps renewing us all in Your Spirit.
“O God, let our will — our wills — to be to seek Your will, for each or for all, and give our best trying to do it.”
I’m trying to prepare to meet My God. Because I’m 82 years of age? [84 as of 2005] Well, yes, but No! At least 45 years ago, I was shown that this is what life should be all about, preparing to meet You God, and challenging and helping others to do the same. I’m “trying”? Yes, “trying” — practicing, exercising. Struggling to put on the whole armor of God so that we may stand in these evil days, prepared to meet You, God, with repenting hearts!
Note: Attributes of the Holy Spirit: (Jn 14ff) 1. Truth 2. Teacher (reminder) 3. Witness (“He will bear witness to Me.”) 4. Counselor 5. Convictor. Convincing the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment. (Jn 16:8)