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I thought the Memorial Day message on Isaiah 2 was a harmless little piece of encouragement for Christian believers.  I was somewhat taken aback when I heard the response of some extremely fundamentalistic visitors who said something to the effect that preaching was obviously not my calling and that I was a deceiver and a liar and if I was honest I would leave the ministry.

Wow.  And thanks for sharing…

What upset these folks was my failure to interpret Isaiah “literally”.  I preached that Mount Zion being raised above the other mountains was a symbolic way of saying that the God of Israel would one day be worshiped all over the world (cf. John 4:21-24), even by pagans who used to worship their own false gods on various mountains.  But these folks insisted that if Isaiah says that Mount Zion will be “established above the mountains” then it could only mean that seismic activity would one day raise Mount Zion over 27,000 feet into the air to make it higher than Mount Everest because that’s the literal interpretation of the prophecy.

 

These folks also believed one day people will literally “beat swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning hooks”.  It didn’t bother them that armies today don’t use swords or spears and that most equipment is no longer built by hammering things out on anvils.  To my surprise they acknowledged these facts and said that what Isaiah really meant by “swords and spears” was “tanks and machine guns”, and they would be melted down and turned into “tractors and farm equipment” (not necessarily only plowshares and pruning hooks)!  It never dawned on them that this was NOT literal interpretation!

Scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries introduced “literal interpretation” as the only correct way to interpret the prophets because they believed that such interpretation was reasonable and scientific, and a scientific approach would create a result about which there would be absolute certainty.  Absolute certainty about the future has become a fundamental of the faith for many Christians, and fundamentalism in general has come to regard certainty based on scientific interpretation of the prophets as one of the key values of Christianity.

Is Christianity about scientific certainty – or is it about faith?  Faith isn’t the substance of things which are there to be observed and seen, but “of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  If something can be seen and known for certain, proved exhaustively and conclusively, no faith is required.  One then simply KNOWS.  The thing that makes faith great is not the overwhelming evidence for a thing, but the overwhelming size of the gaps between the evidence.  It is the gaps in our knowledge which force us to believe rather than to know beyond a shadow of a doubt.  And I think that some fundamentalists want the certainty of knowledge, not the certainty of faith which lives with enormous gaps, with lack of knowledge and certainty.  I think some fundamentalists are afraid to believe.  They MUST know;  they insist on being certain – or they will NOT believe.  And they insist on literal interpretation of the prophets to safeguard that certainty;  they couldn’t have faith without it.

 

This despite the fact that Jesus and the apostles didn’t consistently use literal interpretation when explaining the prophets.  But that’s another can of worms for another time… 

 

I got to taste a bite of life this past month that I haven’t tasted in ten years.

             I own one of the only houses on my block that doesn’t have a driveway or a garage.  I depend completely upon on-street public parking, and the two most convenient spots are the one in front of my half-double, and the spot in front of the other half of the double.  When we moved in over twenty years ago the neighbor in the other half of the double invited me to use the space in front of his house.  He had no need of it since he has a two-car driveway and a two-car garage.

I parked in that space for a little over twenty years.

Then suddenly, last year, something happened.  I’m not sure what I did, but my neighbor got angry with me and stopped talking to me.  When I said “Hi!” he would wave with only his middle finger, and when I tried to talk to him about what was bothering him, he wished me unfavorable eternal predestination.  To make my life more difficult, he applied to the town council to turn “his” space (it’s not really his – it’s public parking on the street that happens to be in front of his house) into a handicapped parking space.  He told the borough manager when he applied that he was only doing it to anger his neighbor, and that he had no intentions of using the space.

But my neighbor has some good friends on the town council, and the ‘good ole boy’ system worked.  The measure was pushed through.  I appealed, but they said that they could only rescind the handicapped parking space if it was demonstrated that the space was not being used for that purpose.  They encouraged me to keep a record of my neighbor’s use of the space.

So I did.  In forty-seven weeks he used the space for about one hour.

This past week I took my findings to the town council – outlined and typed up, a copy for every member of council.  I handed out my report and then presented my case to the council.  ‘The good ole boys’ on the council tried to attack me on several irrelevant points;  I drew their attention to the fact that their points were irrelevant, and so did the borough’s attorney.  The only point that I needed to make was that my neighbor had not used the space, and they had said they would rescind the measure if I could make that point.  And I had.

Finally one of the ‘good ole boys’ said there was nothing left to do but vote on the matter.  They went around one by one, each council member giving their vote.  It ended up tied – three in favor of removing the sign, three opposed.  The measure to rescind did not pass.  The handicapped sign would stay.

The facts I presented didn’t matter.  They were completely ignored, and the three good ole boys who voted against me didn’t have to explain their rationale to me or to anyone.  They just voted “nay”.  Other citizens in the room just nodded in disgust and told me afterward what a travesty the decision was and how badly they felt for me.  I appreciated their sympathy, but the outcome is still the same.

The fact that I can’t park in front of my house is only a slight personal inconvenience.  The thing that gnawed at my heart was not the outcome, but the complete injustice of the decision.  I was disappointed that these council members – men that I had grown up with, men that I had been taught to respect, and whom I had respected – were corrupt.  It sounded like too harsh a word, but this was political corruption;  corruption on a small scale and corruption regarding a matter that was of no consequence in the larger scheme of things – but corruption nonetheless.

As I tasted that bitter fruit firsthand, I couldn’t help but think of those who have experienced such exasperating corruption in bigger ways:  people who wouldn’t be allowed in certain restaurants or seats in a bus because of the color of their skin;  people who were hustled into labor camps and put to death because they were born with the name Goldberg or Finkelstein;  and Jesus himself who did absolutely nothing wrong, but was framed, tried, found guilty, scourged, and crucified.  The sense of helpless exasperation I felt leaving that council room was nothing compared to what these and many other folks have experienced and endured in their lifetimes.

I made my soul take note of this.  I decided that disciplining myself to respond graciously, praying and seeking for eventual reconciliation with my embittered neighbor and continuing to live joyfully in Christ is what God would have me to do next.  A lost parking spot is nothing compared to the corruption and injustices that many of my Christian brothers and sisters around the world experience.  If I can’t handle this matter graciously, how could I ever kid myself into thinking that I could handle that sort of weighty and cruel persecution?

But Christians do.

And I can…by the grace of God.

 

 

Mark Twain at the Dessert Theater


I am plenty safe enough in [God’s] hands…The one that I want to keep out of the reach of, is the caricature of him which one finds in the Bible. We (that one and I) could never respect each other, never get along together. I have met his superior a hundred times -- in fact I amount to that myself. -- Letter from Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) to his wife Olivia, July 17, 1889

Bold and blasphemous words, these. How Olivia Clemens, a believing Christian, put up with such things for so many years is difficult to say. But Mark Twain was not hostile to the idea of a God per se; just the cold, heartless, ruthless “version” of God that Presbyterian Christianity had taught him.

Dessert Theater Fund Raiser

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