Letters From the Bean Field
2 Samuel 23
April 23, 1995
Sometimes you stumble across a new idea in the most unlikely places. Mine came from a little note that a friend wrote when he explained why he had decided to become a Prayer Warrior. He did it because of “Shammah, the Philistines and the Bean Field.” I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. His next sentence confused me even more. He said that in his opinion “931 Lake Street is a bean field.” That didn’t help, because you can find many things up and down Lake Street, but you can’t find a bean field within miles of here.
So I asked him later to explain what he meant. He wrote a nice letter referring me to an obscure passage in II Samuel 23, the chapter that tells of David and his mighty men. It is from that unlikely spot that I begin my 1995 State of the Church message.
David’s Special Forces
We all know that King David was a great leader of men. He combined in himself those qualities of bravery, compassion and integrity that made other men rally to his cause. The Bible tells us that within his army of soldiers there were thirty warriors who might in today’s terms be called his “special forces.” These men were the best of the best, the strongest of the strong, bravest of the brave, the ones who would not flinch under fire, the men on whom you could depend if you were surrounded by the enemy. To put it in another context, these thirty men combined the best aspects of Rambo, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude van Damme and the Terminator. They were David’s “go-to” guys when things got tough. II Samuel 23 lists their names.
In all Israel you could not find better men than the men called “the Three.”
Above the Thirty were the Three. These were the three soldiers who were leaders of the Thirty. In all Israel you could not find better men than the men called “the Three.” One man was named Josheb-Basshebeth, another was named Eleazar, and the third was named Shammah. Each man had risen to fame by virtue of a great victory won against overwhelming odds.
Let’s look at the third man, Shammah, for a moment. The record, though brief, tells an amazing story:
“Next to him was Shammah, son of Agee the Hararite. When the Philistines banded together at a place where there was a field full of lentils, Israel’s troops fled from them. But Shammah took his stand in the middle of the field. He defended it and struck the Philistines down, and the Lord brought about a great victory.” II Samuel 23:11-12
At first glance, fighting the Philistines in a bean field (“a field full of lentils”) doesn’t seem to rank up there with landing at Omaha Beach or the Marines taking Iwo Jima. What was so significant about this encounter in the bean field? Was it something about Shammah, the bean field, or something else?
Why Fight In a Bean Field?
We begin with the simple observation that Shammah was a soldier. Every soldier knows that when you are outnumbered, you either retreat or you seek another position in order to even the odds. This usually means finding a place that is easily defensible, such as a mountain top or a cave or a valley with a very narrow opening. That way even though you are outnumbered, you can make the terrain work to your advantage.
Shammah wasn’t stupid, but neither did he “give up ground”.
It seems that some of the Israelites didn’t like the idea of fighting the Philistines in the middle of a bean field. They favored making a “strategic withdrawal” to a better location. But not Shammah. He was one of David’s best warriors. He wasn’t stupid, but neither did he “give ground” to this host of Philistines. Why?
Think about the bean field for a moment. It’s a large, flat field with no cover, no place to hide, with the bean vines almost knee-deep. Your feet get tangled every time you move. Whenever you stand up, the enemy sees you, and you’re an instant target. The enemy can attack from all sides at once, in whatever numbers he can muster, so it’s easy to find yourself surrounded by people who would rather kill you than say hello. The bean field is thus a difficult place to fight a battle, with the situation made worse by the fact that most of Shammah’s brothers have hightailed it to the hills where they can establish a “proper” defensive position. There doesn’t appear to be much here that would encourage Shammah (or anyone else) to take a stand and defend the ground against the army of the Philistines.
O Little Town of Gettysburg
But students of warfare know that you can’t always choose your preferred battleground. Historians tell us that the Battle of Gettysburg happened by accident. A chance meeting turned into a skirmish which became a battle that eventually drew the Army of Northern Virginia into mortal combat with the Army of the Potomac. The whole course of the Civil War (and ultimately of America itself) hung on that chance meeting in early July 1863.
Sometimes you choose your battles; sometimes your battles choose you.
Sometimes you choose your battles; sometimes your battles choose you. David chose Shammah as one of “the Three” because when the battle chose him, he didn’t run away. He stood and defended the ground even though it wasn’t a good place to fight a battle.
On Friday I ate lunch here in Oak Park with some friends from my days in Texas. As we walked down Lake Street toward the restaurant, we talked about how the history of this village is tied up in two names–Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway. Many people consider Frank Lloyd Wright the greatest architect America has ever produced. He lived and worked three blocks from here for twenty years. There are more Wright-designed homes in Oak Park and River Forest than anywhere in the world. Although he left Oak Park eighty-five years ago, he remains our number one tourist attraction. Ernest Hemingway was born four blocks from here, grew up seven blocks from here, went to church one block from here, and graduated in 1917 from Oak Park High School, about eight blocks from here. By all accounts Mr. Hemingway is one of the two greatest American writers of the twentieth century, winner of both the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for literature.
Voices From the Past
Go to Washington and you will find monuments to Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Come to Oak Park and you will hear about Wright and Hemingway. Both men were brilliant, extraordinarily gifted in their respective fields, unquestioned geniuses. Yet while he was here Frank Lloyd Wright had an affair with a married woman, for whom he designed a beautiful home that we today call the Cheney Mansion. That torrid affair, which ended in fiery tragedy, has been called Oak Park’s most famous romance.
The heroes we choose tell much about us.
When Ernest Hemingway graduated from Oak Park High School, he went off to World War I, came back with false stories regarding his war record, left Oak Park again, leaving behind his Christian upbringing, moved to Paris where he met F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, and others who would form “the lost generation.” He married, divorced, remarried, divorced, married again, had innumerable affairs, wrote brilliant novels, fell into deep despair, and in 1961 took a shotgun and blew his brains out in Idaho.
We have chosen as our heroes deeply-flawed men, men of great brilliance who epitomize the term “secular humanism.” They represent both sides of the great truth about the image of God in man. All men are made in God’s image. That means that every human being has inherent worth because they reflect the handiwork of God who made them. It is because of the image of God that men are able to write great novels and design world-renowned buildings. But ever since the Fall of Man, when Adam knowingly ate the fruit, that image of God inside all of us has been deeply marred by sin. Thus you have men like Wright and Hemingway who were capable of great works of art and yet lived in complete disregard of the Christian faith. Wright wanted nothing to do with biblical Christianity which he regarded as narrow and sectarian, while Hemingway knowingly rejected his Christian upbringing.
The Way We Were
When I explained this to my friends on Friday, they asked if Oak Park had always been that way. Oh no, I said, Oak Park was founded by families that moved here from New York state in the 1830s. They came primarily from Scotch-Irish Presbyterian and Congregational backgrounds. In those days, when Joseph Kettlestrings settled here, Oak Park represented the first bit of high ground after you left Chicago and traveled west across the marshland that eventually became the West Side of Chicago. Those early settlers saw more than symbolism in the high ground. They were Christian people who wanted Oak Park to be a Christian village, a “city set on a hill” that would shine its light into the darkness of Chicago. That’s why there are so many churches built around Scoville Park. They were sending a message that the church was to be at the heart of the village, the moral conscience of Oak Park. The founders of Oak Park wanted this village to be built upon the enlightened teaching of the Bible as the guide of moral and civic life.
Things have changed in the last 150 years. Oak Park started out on the high ground. We’re a bean field now.
Sooner or Later You’ve Got to Fight
So what’s left for Shammah? Most of his army has fled, the area is infested with Philistines, and even the terrain favors the enemy. Why did Shammah take a stand against the Philistines when everything he could see, hear, and touch was clearly against him?
Somewhere along the way you’ve got to stop retreating.
There are many possible answers to that question, but I favor this one: I think Shammah stood and fought because he knew if he gave up the bean field, he’d have to fight the Philistines later anyway. The more territory you give up now, the more you’re going to have take back later. Somewhere along the way you’ve got to stop retreating. Sooner or later you’ve got to join the battle. Why not here? Why not now?
If they take the bean field, pretty soon they’ll go after the barley. If they take the barley, they’ll also take the corn. If they take the corn, they’ll come after sheep. Once they have the sheep, they’ll slaughter the cattle. Philistines aren’t nice people and they don’t make war according to Robert’s Rules of Order. They attack and attack until someone starts to fight back.
Victory Comes When We Stand Our Ground!
That’s what Shammah did. Instead of running and hiding he decided to fight back. From a worldly point of view, what Shammah did was foolish at best. He dared to stand his ground amid challenges from every side. He did not compromise with the enemy, he not retreat from them, and he did not establish a “multicultural discussion team” to help iron out the differences between the Israelites and the Philistines. He stood his ground, striking down the attacks of the enemy, and the Lord brought about a great victory in that bean field.
It has always been that way for the people of God. Victory comes when we stand our ground. Note the perfect balance between our part and God’s part. What Shammah did required courage, faithfulness and initiative:
Courage: “He took his stand in the middle of the field”
Faithfulness: “He defended it”
Initiative: “He struck the Philistines down”
Then comes the victory: “And the Lord brought about a great victory.” What made the difference? One man who refused to run away. One man turned the tide of battle and through him, God brought about a great victory.
One question. What’s the hardest part of winning a battle like that?
Answer: Having the courage to take your stand in the middle of the field. If you can do that, the rest is easy. The hard part is not running away.
A Modern-Day Bean Field
In many respects 931 Lake Street is like that bean field. It’s located in an area that attracts all types of modern-day Philistines who neither acknowledge the true God nor desire to obey his commandments. They have either not accepted or have outright rejected the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The moral and spiritual landscape here is relatively flat with no real “high ground” recognized by all participants as being generally defensible. We’re knee deep in regulations and ordinances that can trip us up if we’re not careful. Some people look at the situation and prefer to head for high ground elsewhere. Faced with such a situation, Calvary Memorial Church has chosen, like Shammah, to take a stand against the attacks that threaten the Christian values intended by God, Jesus and America’s Founding Fathers. We’re out in the open, the battle is very real, and the we need to rely on God to bring about another great victory through us.
(I am very grateful to my good friend John Wyrich for his penetrating analysis of the story of Shammah in II Samuel 23. It was his cryptic note to me that led me to this intriguing story.)
Never a Dull Moment
I suppose one fair question would be, “Pastor Ray, how do you feel about things right now?” I realize that some people might not enjoy living in a bean field, but after six years, it feels like home to me. There is much to enjoy about Oak Park–the arts, the music, the culture, the educational opportunities, and one thing is for sure: Life in Oak Park may be many things, but it is never dull.
The banners on the wall behind me proclaim that 1995 is “The Year of Celebration.” That refers to the fact that it is our 80th anniversary as a church. Eightieth birthdays always call for a special celebration and this one is no different. It was 80 years ago this month that a small group of people formally began Sunday worship services in a Chinese laundry on Madison Street. When they started, they had less than one hundred dollars between them, most of which they spent on wooden chairs and hymnbooks. But they had a vision of building an independent, Bible-believing church here in Oak Park that would be interdenominational in it’s outreach and evangelical in its theology. Our founders wanted to establish a church that would do three things very well: Teach the Bible, win the lost, and support world missions. You can trace those three concerns from that small beginning across the decades to the great church God has given us today.
What Would Louis Talbot Think?
As I think about the size of our congregation and all that God has given us, and when I reflect on our humble beginnings in 1915, it occurs to me that our founders would be amazed to see what God has done with the church they started, but they wouldn’t be surprised that God has done it. They knew all along that God was bigger than their plans, and that he had dreams for this church that they couldn’t begin to imagine.
I don’t know what Louis Talbot, our first pastor, would say about our contemporary worship service, but I think he would be delighted to see a sanctuary filled to overflowing. I don’t know what Herbert Peaslee, one of our first missionaries, would say about our spending $200,000 on world missions this year, but he’d be delighted that Greg and Carolyn Kirschner are going to Nigeria this summer as fulltime missionaries. None of our founders would understand the words or the music our teenagers listen to, but they would recognize the gospel that Craig Steiner preaches and they would rejoice to know that our youth group today is seven times larger than the church they founded 80 years ago.
The Sawdust Trail
In 1921 our church built its first building on the corner of Madison and Wisconsin streets. They decided to celebrate by inviting a famous evangelist named Homer Hammontree to conduct a two-week revival. They invited a 16 year-old boy to play the piano for those services. That was 74 years ago. That precocious teenager was Merrill Dunlop. I don’t have to wonder what he thinks about Calvary because when I saw him three weeks ago he told me how thrilled he is with our redesigned sanctuary platform and our new grand piano.
When Merrill was here a few months ago to play for the Senior Adults, he told me that he remembered attending the Billy Sunday Crusade in 1918 in the huge wooden auditorium at the corner of Clark Street and North Avenue in Chicago. A few weeks ago while I was preaching in Florida I met a man who told me about hearing Billy Sunday preach at the Temple Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Six months ago I had the privilege of portraying Billy Sunday standing in front of his grave at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park. With the help of a few friends and some gifted actors and actresses, we spread sawdust in front of his grave and recreated the sawdust trail. That day I told the story of Billy Sunday’s life and preached the gospel to nearly 400 people. One woman came out of the crowd to shake my hand and say that she was trusting Christ as Savior. Most people appreciated it but not all did. One of our workers heard a woman ask her husband who was the man portraying Billy Sunday. “It’s Ray Pritchard from Calvary Memorial Church.” “It figures,” she huffed.
That’s life in the bean field, and frankly, I love it. To me, this is the most exciting place in the world, the most exciting church, the most exciting village, and for all its problems, it’s a great place to live and raise a family for the glory of God.
We Ought to be Grateful
As I look to future, I find many things that encourage me. God has been so good to us. If we aren’t grateful, we ought to be because God has given us so much. We have a wonderful location, an inspiring history, a beautiful building (nearly paid for, too), over a thousand people in worship every Sunday, gifted men and women who serve on the staff, godly elders, deacons and deaconess’s who exemplify the meaning of the word “servant,” over two hundred prayer warriors, a vast army of Sunday School teachers, Awana workers, Caraway Street leaders and workers, a growing small group ministry, a burgeoning family ministry, gifted lay counselors, our wonderful choir, the brand-new church orchestra, our contemporary worship teams, and the college students who come each Sunday from Moody, Wheaton, Trinity, -UIC, Concordia, Rosary, Triton, and Morton, to name only a few schools. We ought to be grateful for Power Connection and Allied Force and for the opportunity to work with ministries such as the Near West Chicago Care Crisis Pregnancy Center, Circle Urban Ministries, and Inner City Impact. In addition to all that, God is opening the door for us to play a leading role in the upcoming Luis Palau Chicago Campaign.
Last year I shared that my greatest dream is to see a first-class, evangelical Christian day school established here in Oak Park. In less that twelve months God has brought us to the east bank of the Jordan River. By God’s grace the waters will part and on Monday, August 28 the Oak Park Christian Academy will open its doors for the very first time. In October when I visited Jerusalem we spent a few minutes at the Western Wall, the holiest site in the world to Judaism. It is the only remaining part of Herod’s Temple, the temple that Jesus visited during his ministry. People come from around the world to write their prayer requests on little pieces of paper and place them in the crevices of those massive foundation stones. When I was there, I wrote my prayer request on a piece of paper and placed it in the wall–”For the foundation of a Christian school in Oak Park, Illinois by the Fall of 1995.” With all my heart, I believe God is going to answer that prayer.
The Most Important Thing
The most important thing is that after 80 years people are still coming to Christ. Though much has changed, our heart for people remains the same. We preach the same gospel today that Louis Talbot and the founders of this church preached eighty years ago. We have the Lord, the same Bible, and the same the message they had. That has not changed at all. Everything we do as a church is geared toward one goal: Seeing men and women find salvation and the forgiveness of sins through the Lord Jesus Christ.
This week I received a letter from someone who told me about a friend who accepted Christ in our services last Sunday morning. Let me share a part of her letter with you:
When I first met him I learned he had attended another church for most of his life. He was fairly active with his mom during his youth, but only casually attended lately. He told me he was a Christian and we agreed to attend Calvary. Recently I began to realize that what he thought made him a Christian and what I thought did were two different things. I tried to explain what we believed, as did my brother and family. He struggled with things he had done in his past and with the concern that he had to be perfect before God would accept him. He believed he was going to heaven because he was baptized as a child. Well, each week he would go to church and I would pray for you to speak directly to his heart. Your sermon on regeneration I think is what did it!!! You said you can be baptized 100 times and attend church every week, but you still won’t go to heaven. In another sermon you said God will take us as we are. I tried to reassure him that he did not have to never sin again to be loved by God.
Well on Easter Sunday he accepted Christ into his heart. He told me in my Easter card and said that if you asked him where was born, he would say Melrose Park the first time and Easter Sunday in Oak Park the second time. I was so happy I cried.
At the end of the letter she added this sentence: “I just thought you should know the positive impact you have on people’s lives, but may not always know it or hear the stories.” It’s not me or my sermons, but it’s the Holy Spirit working through all of us to create an atmosphere where seekers can find the Lord.
Five Years From Now
There is much work that needs to be done. Yesterday at the New Members Seminar I was asked to share my vision for this church. Specifically, I was asked to share where I thought Calvary would be in five years. Well, I don’t know the future, but I hope that we are all right here together, still serving the Lord, still preaching God’s Word, still sharing the gospel, still loving each other, still willing to take new risks for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.
I do believe God has more people for us to reach, more missionaries to send, more children to teach, more families to help, more broken lives to mend through the power of the gospel. I have no doubt that the challenges before are in many ways greater than anything we have faced in the past. I fully expect that we will be challenged by the community because of our stand for the gospel, and we may find ourselves crucified by the local papers and we may see pickets show up in front of our church again. But that’s okay. Our founders weren’t trying to win a popularity contest in Oak Park and neither are we.
I believe God has called us to take our stand right here in Oak Park. Like Shammah of old, this is our bean field, not the easiest place to serve the Lord but it’s the only place we have. We might as well stand and fight right here because if we run away, we’ll just have to fight somewhere else.
There are exciting things ahead for us. We have new services to begin, new ministries to form, new opportunities to reach across ethnic and racial lines with the love of Jesus Christ. In the years to come we’re going to find new ways to fellowship with evangelical Christians in many other churches. I believe God has called us to become a regional church for the near western suburbs of Chicago. Already people drive great distances to attend our services. That trend will continue in the next few years as our congregation grows increasingly far-flung. I also predict that in the next ten years we will expand by starting five new churches in areas north, south, east and west of here.
Four Images of the Church
I close now by sharing four images of the church God is calling us to build.
I believe God has called us to be
a lighthouse of truth in the prevailing moral darkness,
a hospital of grace where the sick can find healing,
a school of discipleship where we can all grow spiritually, and
an army of God marching forth with the gospel to the ends of the earth.
I have been your pastor for nearly six years now. When I mentioned that to my friends from Texas, they said, “No, it seems like you’ve been gone for only two or three years.” On the other hand, someone told me Friday night that they could see lots of gray hair mixed in with the brown. Which is right? They both are. These have been wonderful years. Not always easy, but greatly rewarding.
Someone has said that the future is as bright as the promises of God. I believe that, and because I believe that, I am excited about tomorrow. These are great days to be alive, great days to serve the Lord, and great days to part of God’s family at Calvary Memorial Church.
Welcome to the bean field.