What Is Bethel? The Moments That Make Up Our History

Earlier this week I was invited to talk about Bethel’s history at a dinner celebrating the university’s 150th anniversary. For once I spoke without notes, but here’s the best I can do to reconstruct what I said: my attempt to make our history more personal for more people, rather than focusing on the stories of a few leading individuals and decisive events.

It’s truly an honor to be here: to stand in, in a sense, for all of our faculty and staff at this special event, and to reflect once more this anniversary year on Bethel’s history.

When I write or speak about Bethel history, I tend to focus on famous individuals — presidents like John Alexis Edgren and Carl Lundquist — or landmark events — like the move from Chicago to St. Paul, from St. Paul to Arden Hills. And no doubt, those are important moments in our story. They’ve made us who we are today.

But they’re not the only moments. And tonight I want to mark the occasion by doing something different: more personal, more intimate even. I want us to think about how our stories intersect with Bethel’s story.

Let me start with a visual metaphor, one I use in our Introduction to History class. It comes from C.S. Lewis, the great English Christian writer, who once said that the past was like a waterfall.

Maybe like this waterfall, to be specific: Angel Falls in Venezuela, one of the tallest in the world.

Licensed by Creative Commons (Luis Carillo)

First, Lewis said that the past was like a waterfall because it rushes by, then vanishes from sight into the mists below. The present is here, then gone… so we need to put in work and thought in order to recover the past before it disappears: to remember it, to preserve it, to make sense of it and interpret it. And sometimes we need the help of professionals, such as historians.

But the past is also like a waterfall because something this impossibly vast is composed of something impossibly small. Staggering and sublime as this waterfall is, it’s ultimately nothing more than billions upon billions of molecules of a simple chemical compound.

Likewise, the past is composed of billions upon billions of individual moments in individual lives.

And that includes the turning points I usually talk about. Imagine that this waterfall is Bethel’s past… we look to the bottom and see John Alexis Edgren founding a small immigrant seminary in the embers of the Chicago fire. Then a little higher up is Carl Lundquist praying about whether or not to buy some dynamite testing grounds in Arden Hills.

Between 1966 and 1972, Bethel moved from its St. Paul campus to land in Arden Hills purchased from Du Pont – Bethel Digital Library

But most of the moments that make up our past are much less famous, but no less important. Most are moments in the lives of relatively anonymous people like us: tens of thousands of students, and hundreds or thousands of employees, plus trustees and donors and partners and friends.

So let me encourage you to pause and try to see yourself in this waterfall, in Bethel’s past. Think back to your experience of Bethel. (Or if you’re not an alum or employee yourself, think about the child or grandchild, spouse or friend, or business partner or pastor who is your connection: think about what they’ve told you about their experience of Bethel.)

Now, imagine a key moment in that experience, perhaps a “turning point” that defines Bethel to you to this day. Close your eyes it helps, but one way or another try to visualize details: what are you doing, what’s happening around you, where are you, who’s with you… I’ll try to prompt a bit if a moment hasn’t already leapt to mind:

Maybe it’s the moment when you first started to make your faith your own… not something to be inherited from parents or repeated from pastors, but a faith that has come through honest questioning and even doubt and come out the other side ready to sustain you and give you purpose and meaning as a beloved child of God. Maybe it’s a moment when you first started to make your faith your own.

Or maybe it’s the moment when you first heard God’s call on your life… maybe you were sitting in a lecture or reading a book, or playing a sport or rehearsing a play, or on an internship or a missions trip, and you heard a voice like thunder or a voice like a whisper pierce the noise of this world and say, “This is who you are and who you’re becoming. You have a gift, a passion, an ability that can glorify me and do good for your neighbors. Your deepest gladness can meet the world’s deepest need, and here’s how.” Maybe you’re thinking of a moment when you heard God’s call on your life.

But maybe it’s a moment when your path forward seemed clear… until you stumbled. Maybe it was a moment when you struggled, you fell short, you did something that felt like a failure… but someone picked you up, challenged you to try again, and then supported you when you did. You tried, and you succeeded; then you tried something harder, and you grew and grew, becoming more and more the person God made you to be.

Maybe it’s simply a moment when you met Jesus, or saw him with new eyes… maybe it was in Chapel or a Bible study in your dorm, but maybe you saw him in an art studio or a science lab, as the Word by whom all that is was created… or you saw him in a history class or a social work practicum where you found him in the midst of suffering, weeping with those who weep… or maybe you caught a glimpse of his resurrection dawn, as hope and love prevailed over fear, despair, and hatred.

My Bethel moment takes place in March 2002. I had just finished my dissertation and was in town for my brother’s wedding. I had a cousin who was studying history and political science at Bethel, so I came to visit her. After lunch and a tour, she brought me to the 2nd floor of the AC building, to an ugly cinderblock office with dingy red carpet, and said “Chris, meet G.W. Carlson.”

Licensed by Creative Commons (Bethel University Digital Library)

At first, all I could see were the piles of books and files, and I feared that I was about to be crushed beneath them. But then I heard him asking me questions — where I grew up, where I went to school (and why it wasn’t a public school), what I studied, what I wanted to do, could he have a copy of my dissertation… then as time ran out he joked, “Maybe I’ll offer you a job someday.”

And a year to the month later, I was back in that ugly office with the dingy carpet and the mountains of books and he offered me a job. And here I am, nearly twenty years later. Having learned from him not just what it means to be a professor and a historian, but a follower of Jesus who nurtures that relationship through prayer, study, music, and worship. But as importantly, I learned from GW how to follow the compassionate gaze of Jesus into the darkest corners of this world — to empathize with the marginalized and oppressed, to serve the hurt and suffering — and there to help build the kingdom of God.

Maybe your moment took you to a nicer spot on our campus than GW’s office — maybe you saw yourself on the stage of Benson Great Hall or on a soccer field at Ona Orth — but I suspect that almost all of our moments have something in common: someone else was there with you.

Because if Carl Lundquist was right, then a Bethel education has much less to do with facilities and equipment and spaces and curriculum and classes, and everything to do with what he called “the impact of one life upon another.” So it was for me with GW; so it probably was for you, with a professor or a coach or a resident assistant or campus pastor or a best friend or a mentor.

But here’s the thing… let’s go back to our visual metaphor.

Licensed by Creative Commons (Luis Carillo)

Waterfalls run by gravity. To keep Angel Falls crashing down, nothing is needed besides Newtonian physics.

Bethel doesn’t work that way. We don’t run on gravity, but grace and gratitude.

The only thing that keeps these moments happening, the only thing that keeps lives impacting lives, the only thing that makes it possible for Bethel to remain Bethel from past into present and then on into the future is God’s grace working through the people who support and sustain us: congregations that have prayed for us; people like GW who have given decades of their life to us; donors who have blessed us with their resources; and, most importantly, parents who have entrusted us with the most precious people in their lives: their children.

So here’s my deepest honor tonight: on behalf of all our faculty and staff — past, present, and future — I get to stand here before you all — standing in for everyone who has supported and sustained us, who does support and sustain us, who will support and sustain us — and say thank you.