A church remembered

It’s strange to be cleaning out a church building. I don’t mean just cleaning up a church, but actually cleaning out a building preparatory to selling it. And of all the people still attending that church, I probably have the deepest (although not the longest) history there. There is the spot where a fellow named Maurice first welcomed me to that little church body who had bought a rundown restaurant to make their own. There are the lovely glass-paned doors that Maurice made for our sanctuary before he went home to the Lord. There is the spot where I wept on Pastor Paul’s shoulder as I gave my heart to the Lord Jesus Christ. I stood on that stage-cum-altar for two of my own weddings, and for the funeral that came between them. There is the spot where I proposed to my new wife one Easter Sunday. I preached and worshiped in this place. I took my first baby steps at leading a Bible study in that fellowship room. Oh, how wonderful were those fires we lit in the fireplace there! We broke bread and had worship concerts there. We gave our hearts to ministry and experienced the joy of the Lord there. Sure it was an old, moldy, dusty hulk of a building, but we replaced the windows, rebuilt the stage, and expanded the old dining room to accommodate our flock. And now we have moved nearly everything out. Were it just a tad bigger, you’d hear echoes there.

But a church is not now nor has it ever been a building. Our church is the body of people now sitting in a rec center on Sunday mornings. It’s the faithful kids meeting at our youth group. It’s the handful who attend a weekly Bible study, and the larger group that gather at our Pastor’s home for worship two Fridays a month. The church is the men who faithfully lead us in worship as they continue to work full-time jobs and also work on their first full album together. The church is the people continuing together in fellowship and worship, a group continuing in the teaching of the apostles, a group who regularly greet each other with hugs and handshakes and blessings.

I said a prayer as I left that old building today. I knew I might not ever come back there except for one final cleanup, but I remembered something that happened my first Sunday there. After weeping through a service that made me realize how hungry I was for God’s mercy and love, the Pastor asked me, “So do you think you’ll be back next week?” And I replied, “You couldn’t tear me away!” That was eight years ago. I may be leaving a building behind, but nothing could tear me away from God’s church which I found there. My prayer is that there will always be more people who fondly remember their first time in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, and who grow in the Lord as I have grown. I pray those folks come to know Jesus in profound ways that lead them to share the gospel just as a loving shepherd once shared it with me in a rundown old restaurant outside of town.

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No king

Judges 17:6 NKJV
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

This is perhaps the saddest and most telling verse in the whole Bible. It tells us so much about ourselves, about our society, and about our relationship with God.

In the book of Judges, we have a history of the men and women who led Israel as a nation of God’s people during the generations after the Exodus. Moses had led the people to the banks of the Jordan, and Moses’ protégé Joshua had led the people in the wars and settling of the Promised Land. But at the end of his life, Joshua challenged the people to choose who would rule over their lives.

Joshua 24:14-15 NKJV
14 “Now therefore, fear the LORD, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the LORD!
15 And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

And the people responded overwhelmingly that they would serve the Lord God who had led their fathers out of slavery in Egypt. They said, “We also will serve the LORD, for He is our God.” But that didn’t last long:

Judges 2:10-12 NKJV
10 When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the LORD nor the work which He had done for Israel.
11 Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals; 12 and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger.

From that point on, the book of Judges is about how the people of Israel allowed themselves to be led astray by idolatry and pride and prosperity, how they were conquered by the very people they themselves had once subdued, and how faithful men and women were chosen to lead them out of slavery to serve the Lord again. And today’s verse sums up the problem of Israel in a nutshell.

But why should not having a king be a problem for Israel? One might think it had to do with not having a central government, not having a king to lay down the law and punish evildoers. One might think it pertained to a historical moment, because King Saul wasn’t to be chosen for a few more generations, and the great King David came after him. Perhaps we should look at King Saul’s story for a moment.

Samuel was the last of the judges of Israel, chosen at a very young age to serve the Lord and to lead them in a time when the Philistines were once again attacking and oppressing Israel. Toward the end of his life, the people called out for a king:

1 Samuel 8:4-7 NKJV
4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the LORD.
7 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.”

Do you see the problem? The people wanted a king “to judge us like all the nations”—i.e. they wanted a king to govern them like the pagan nations around them had kings to rule them. And the Lord’s response? “They have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.” The people didn’t want GOD to be their King, they wanted a man to be their king—and the king they got was Saul. They wanted to do what was right in their own eyes. In short, they wanted no true King of kings in Israel, and every man wanted to do what was right in his own eyes. Does that sound familiar?

Proverbs 14:12 NKJV
There is a way that seems right to a man,
But its end is the way of death.

Proverbs 16:2 NKJV
All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes,
But the LORD weighs the spirits.

We like to think we know better than God what is best for us. We weigh our happiness and our worldly prosperity, we consider the desires of our flesh, and we calculate that what God demands of us—repentance, obedience, and faith—is too much. It is far easier for us to mold a god into the image we desire of him, to build a deity out of nothing into someone who grants our every wish like some super-cosmic genie. We would rather that the true God not judge us at all, and instead love us so much that He gives us free reign to live as we like. And so we twist His Word—the Holy Bible, the two Testaments of His coming, the two Covenants in His name. We warp God’s Word and claim that what He said in the olden days doesn’t apply to us today, that those things were written for a particular historical reality, and that the law has been somehow amended by Jesus to allow for abortion, homosexuality, adultery, idolatry, usury, and murder.

Matthew 5:17-19 NKJV
17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.
18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophecies by LIVING them. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and He lived as a man and died as a man, and yet He did not sin. He didn’t break the law, He lived it, and so His sinless death bought our redemption and justified us before God. But that justification, that appearance of righteousness, comes at a price for our lives: we, too, must live like Jesus. We must repent of our sins—sins clearly laid out in the law and the prophets—and we must believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He lived sinless among us, He died willingly for us, and He lives again to bring us into eternal life and glory with the Father. The law of the flesh—our own desires—is no longer to reign in us. JESUS is to reign in our lives.

No law passed in any land can ever take away the reign of God in our lives, unless we let it. The people of Israel chose time and again NOT to be ruled by God. They refused to be ruled by the heart of the law and the prophets:

Matthew 22:37-40 NKJV
37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

If we truly love God, then we put HIS will for us first—and that includes obedience to His commandments. If we willingly break His commandments and then say “His love and grace covers my sin,” then we are blaspheming Him and His holy name and His law itself. Would we presume upon His grace at every turn? Should we assume that whatever is right in our eyes is right in His? Or, should we rather seek to make what is right in our eyes more like what is right in His? Shouldn’t we transform our idea of righteousness into His idea of righteousness?

In the days of the Judges, during the times of idolatry and pride and immorality, there was no king in Israel because the people refused God. And because they refused God’s law to guide them, the one “king” they did have was doing what was right in their own eyes. And we are no different today.

Brothers and sisters, no amount of secular legislation or judicial maneuvering should ever sway us from our commitment to God and His Word. We need not give in to the lie that whatever is right in our eyes is always the right thing to do. We are not to be ruled by a minority that assumes that what is right for them is right before God, nor are we to be ruled by a majority of people who are at best indifferent and who follow that immoral minority like sheep to the slaughter. Rather we are to be ruled by a minority of One, the true and living God. If we are to have any king at all, let it be Jesus, so that our way will not lead to sin and death but lead to repentance and eternal life. Rather than having no king in our lives save our own desires, let us choose instead to be ruled by the one true King of kings, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Father God, we choose life. We choose to be ruled by You and no other. We pray, Lord, that this nation should come out of the darkness and into the light, that they should depart from the slavery to their flesh and their indifference, and come to You and seek Your will and Your way. You have given us clear guidance, and Your Spirit works within us to transform us into the image of our true King, Jesus. May He reign forever in our lives! Amen.


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Suffering for Christ

I was blessed today to have the opportunity to share the message of God’s Word at our church, The Well of Iowa. My text was 1 Peter 4:12-19. Rather than post the whole text here, I am posting a PDF here so that you can download it and read it and share it. May this sermon be a blessing and a reminder of what it means to live in Christ’s image.

Suffering for Christ PDF

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Spring of the Caller

Judges 15:18-19 NKJV
18 Then he became very thirsty; so he cried out to the LORD and said, “You have given this great deliverance by the hand of Your servant; and now shall I die of thirst and fall into the hand of the uncircumcised?”
19 So God split the hollow place that is in Lehi, and water came out, and he drank; and his spirit returned, and he revived. Therefore he called its name En Hakkore, which is in Lehi to this day.

Alright, friends, time for a word association game.

I say “Samson,” and you say…?

Delilah? Blinded? Long hair? Hair cut?

How about “dependent”? How about “weak”? I bet those never came to mind, did they?

Let’s face it, when we think of Samson today, we really do think of him as some kind of Hebrew Hercules: brash, flawed, heroic, and very strong. We remember the whole bit about Delilah cutting his hair and making him weak—because as we all know, short hair was Samson’s kryptonite, right? We think we have a handle on this Samson guy because we’ve read the children’s versions of his story or we’ve seen the old movie with Victor Mature. But we don’t really know the stories BEFORE Delilah, do we?

Today’s verses come from the early part of Samson’s life. The short version of the story (which, by the way, is told across Judges chapters 13 to 15) is that Samson grew up a Nazirite, someone dedicated wholly to the service of the Lord God. Once he matured, God urged Samson to take a wife from the Philistines who were oppressing the Israelites at the time. Yes, God told Samson to try to marry one of the enemy’s daughters. And yes, it was really just an excuse to, as the saying goes, “kick the hornet’s nest.” Through a series of events, Samson went from merely angering the Philistines to killing quite a few of them when they killed his new bride. After Samson slew a great number of them, he ran off into the highlands of Judah and hid out. Then the Philistines marched right into Judah and demanded the people of Judah hand over Samson.

Now, at this point you might expect that the people of Judah, being fellow Israelites with Samson and enemies of the Philistines, would offer a polite (or impolite) “No.” But they didn’t. Instead, the people of Judah took three thousand men and marched to the mountain where Samson was holed up, and they arrested him. Yes, Samson was betrayed by his own people, by GOD’S OWN PEOPLE. Rather than cause a scene, Samson allowed himself to be bound and he was taken to the Philistines. This is where God comes back into the story:

Judges 15:14-15 NKJV
14 When he [Samson] came to Lehi, the Philistines came shouting against him. Then the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him; and the ropes that were on his arms became like flax that is burned with fire, and his bonds broke loose from his hands.
15 He found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, reached out his hand and took it, and killed a thousand men with it.

Nothing was going to hold Samson back. Literally, God “melted away” the bonds from Samson’s hands and turned him loose to do the Lord’s work. And such work Samson did! He picked up the jawbone of a donkey and killed a thousand Philistines all by himself! That’s got to be hard work for any man, even someone infused with the power of the Holy Spirit, and so after bragging about his triumph, Samson realized something very important: he was as mortal as any other man. So he called out to God.

Jeremiah 33:3 NKJV
“Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.”

Samson had relied on the Lord for strength in battle, but up to now he had not needed to worry about something as simple as food and water. The admittedly brash young man was worn out from his one-man war, and he need the Lord to strengthen him.

But there is another thing going on here. Let’s backtrack and take a quick look at how Samson got there. Here’s the scene where the men of Judah arrested Samson:

Judges 15:11-13 NKJV
11 Then three thousand men of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock of Etam, and said to Samson, “Do you not know that the Philistines rule over us? What is this you have done to us?” And he said to them, “As they did to me, so I have done to them.”
12 But they said to him, “We have come down to arrest you, that we may deliver you into the hand of the Philistines.” Then Samson said to them, “Swear to me that you will not kill me yourselves.”
13 So they spoke to him, saying, “No, but we will tie you securely and deliver you into their hand; but we will surely not kill you.” And they bound him with two new ropes and brought him up from the rock.

Look at what Samson’s own people said to him: “Do you not know that the Philistines rule over us? What is this you have done to us?” Here was a man clearly devoted to the Lord God of Israel, and yet the very Israelites who ought to be applauding the young warrior are instead complaining that he is causing trouble. Here is one man standing up for God’s people, and God’s people want to capitulate to their enemies and stop that man. Here is a man who ought to be an inspiration to people—kind of like Gideon was several generations before—and yet no one comes to Samson’s side. And the worst part is this: the people of Judah know they are wrong. Why else would they come to Samson with three thousand men? They expected a fight!

However, Samson isn’t there to fight God’s people but to judge them, to save them, to show them the way. So Samson docilely goes along with them…and then kills a thousand Philistines.

After that battle, Samson not only thirsts for water, he hungers and thirsts for righteousness among God’s people. He thirsts for the living God to make His presence known among His people, to inspire them, to encourage them, to revive them. Samson calls out, and God doesn’t lead Samson to water, and He doesn’t simply make it rain. Oh no, God does better than that: He breaks open a rock to bring forth a spring of water where there was never one before! And Samson drinks of that water, and he names it En Hakkore, “the Spring of the Caller.”

Isaiah 41:17-18 NKJV
17 “The poor and needy seek water, but there is none,
Their tongues fail for thirst.
I, the LORD, will hear them;
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.
18 I will open rivers in desolate heights,
And fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
And the dry land springs of water.”

Mighty Samson was weak and he was afraid of the victory of God’s enemies, and he called out to God for water. And God brought water from the rock, living water that only God could provide to His people. The glory of God was revealed from a spring of water pouring forth in Judah.

John 4:13-14 NKJV
13 Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”

Samson stood alone against the enemies of God, and he was rewarded with grace upon grace, with water bubbling up to refresh and revive him, to give him strength for the rest of his days—and eternal life for the days beyond.

Have you called out to God for His living water? Have you found yourself worn out from the battle against God’s enemies? Do you feel like even those who ought to be serving God are giving in to the ways of the world, simply because they choose to be ruled by popularity or political correctness rather than the one true and living God? Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness in a high desert place? Then call out to Him! Call out to God for the water of life, and He will answer you, and He will revive you, and He will give you everlasting life. Call out, and He will open a “Spring of the Caller” for you, too.

We call to You, Lord God of heaven and of earth. We call out for righteousness and strength, for a flood of Your waters to rise and overwhelm the evil that threatens Your people. We call out, Father, for revival in this land, and a great thirst for You and only You. We call to You because we know that You alone can give the world the Living Water it so desperately needs. We praise You, Lord, and thank You for that Water, who is Jesus Christ. Amen.

Glenn A. Pettit

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Book Review: Good Faith Hunting by Henry Stewart

As a transitional Baby Boomer myself, I know a thing or two about spiritual journeys. One cannot grow up in the 1950s, 60s or 70s and not have faced great questions about spirituality, faith, and ourselves. Society went through massive changes early in my life, and here in the middle of my life we are facing still more huge changes as a truly global cyber-society becomes a reality. I have traveled a long way in my journey of faith, and that in itself might make a good book for someone to read, but not today. I can summarize my faith journey briefly like this: raised attending a Methodist church, refused to go anymore at age 14, spend nearly 30 years as an agnostic, met up with Christ at 43, and have since become a deacon, Bible teacher, and writer. That’s the short version, and it will have to do for now.

As someone who has been through some radically different faith explorations, I kind of had my hopes up for reading Henry Stewart’s Good Faith Hunting (Wipf & Stock, 2012). (That is an unfortunate title, because it is not about “hunting” for faith but about “journeying” in our faith. But I guess the temptation to use a title that resembled an Oscar-winning film’s title was too great?) I myself have written about faith journeys quite a bit, and I continue to teach about such journeys in the Bible studies I have led and still lead on the books of Joshua and Judges. As I started into Stewart’s book, I thought I had hit on something that might give me insight into how others of my generation might have traveled their roads. More importantly, I had hoped to see an examination of how our modern faith journeys can be understood through the lens of the Bible’s many journeys. The good news is that is sort of what I found, and the bad news is it was only sort of what I found.

Stewart starts off by talking some about how he came to write this book and about how history has gotten us to where we are in the Western church, with denominations bleeding congregants and middle-aged folks leaving churches and exploring other avenues to express their faith. Chapter 2 then talks about the different “Stages of Faith” that Stewart is going to use for the rest of the book, a framework for helping us understand the spiritual journeys of a generation. Those stages are based on the work of James Fowler, whose own work is based around psychological development theories. The six Stages of Faith make a certain sense on their own, and there is a usefulness to knowing that everyone—not just Baby Boomers—go through such stages in their faith development. However, I almost felt like the whole Stages of Faith thing was grafted onto the book. True, it was the place where Stewart’s doctoral thesis started, but I think he might have been better served to keep the Stages of Faith as just a starting point and talked more about journeys rather than stages.

After those introductory chapters, the book gives short Biblical examples of faith journeys, interspersed with stories and partial interviews of some of the people who participated in the study he did for this book. While the stories themselves are interesting and varied, I think Stewart tries too hard to pigeonhole people into the Stages of Faith rather than simply letting their stories speak to our own journeys. At the end of each chapter are questions for study and reflection, and in an Appendix at the end of the book are the very questions asked in Stewart’s interviews for the book. (I plan on writing out my answers to those interview questions as a way to help me see my own journey.)

For me what is most striking about this short book is not so much what it contained but what it didn’t contain. In examining the Biblical stories, I felt like Stewart was only giving us snippets, the beginnings of things larger and more complex than he cared to spend time explaining. Abraham’s story itself is not nearly so simple as the mere three pages dedicated to him would have us think. The Israelite’s Exodus is a beautiful metaphor for many of our faith journeys—leaving sin behind, traveling through deserts, facing the Promised Land only to know fear and doubt, losing a whole chunk of our lives in wandering, only to come home again to God. And yet Stewart spends more time on the medieval John of the Cross than on the long and rich Biblical narrative. After reading a few of these short-shrift chapters, I felt like Stewart was trying too hard to fit too many Bible stories and characters into too short a space. And yet if we are to understand Baby Boomer faith in light of the Bible, wouldn’t it be better to spend more time studying the Bible itself than wandering through chapters on the early Church’s desert fathers and the medieval mystics?

What was most striking to me was that Stewart completely missed the boat on the story of the apostle Peter, whose journey of faith has more connections to Fowler’s Stages of Faith than does Teresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich. Peter’s life is a case study in spiritual growth: expanding faith, personal disillusionment, and eventual martyrdom as he transcended his earlier doubt to become the very rock upon which the Church was founded. How could Stewart have left that out? I don’t know why. He just did.

The stories from the interviews were well-chosen to illustrate the many paths people have traveled in the past six decades. We come from many different backgrounds, many different paths in life. Many of us grew up in broken homes, faced massive changes in society, knew personal tragedies, and are now seeing our children finally mature in their own ways. We are embarking on second and in some cases third careers, and we have lived long enough to see the denominations of our childhood transform into something very different. In our youth we explored mysticism and spirituality, and now in our middle age we are coming back to those explorations with more maturity than curiosity. In short, I enjoyed the stories themselves, and I saw my own journey reflected in the lives of my peers there. It is too bad that the tiny Biblical chapters did so little to support those modern stories. I wish Stewart had cut down the number of Bible stories and expanded the few that remained, so that the modern stories had more context in the Biblical narratives.

In the end, I came away from this book feeling like I’d only read a summary of what was to come, almost as if this were a book proposal rather than the actual book. I did get the message—”Baby Boomers need to be allowed to explore their faith”—but I don’t feel like Stewart proposed any solutions for us Baby Boomers. I was left with more questions than answers, such as: How we can approach our own churches about our journeys? And how can we church leaders find ways to encourage and utilize such journeys in our church’s life? There has been a lot of talk in evangelical circles recently about how churches need to allow for and utilize the many stories of people’s lives. It is not simply enough to know where someone is now, we must also know where they’ve been and where they want to go. Yes, I understand that many folks are quite happy with a simple “stage one or two” faith. And yes, I get that middle-aged folks have been and are still on journeys of faith beyond that. But how can we prevent Baby Boomers from simply leaving churches and instead integrate their journeys into the life of the church?  There are hints of answers to that question, and there is some good background here in which to ground our answer, but Stewart himself never really answers the question.

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