WHEN I WAS A pastor in Pennsylvania, I had the privilege of serving a very old, historic church, founded in 1762, that was surrounded by a cemetery.

Whenever we gathered for worship, we were surrounded by an “unseen cloud of witnesses,” including a signer of the Declaration of Independence and several of my pastoral predecessors.

One of the biggest challenges of ministry there was a great old Victorian house next door, which the church had bought in the 1950s. They had wanted to demolish it to expand the parking lot, but hadn’t gotten around to it for various reasons. Finally, in the 1970s, they applied for the permit. The situation ended up in the courts. It is now a landmark case in historic preservation law. In a compromise solution, the community at large restored the old house, and the church agreed to house its offices there in perpetuity.

It was while serving that church that I learned some valuable lessons about the impact of the old and the historic, and the emotional sensitivities that develop around them.

In the 21st chapter of the Book of Numbers, as Moses is leading his flock toward the Promised Land, it has reported that God sent a plague of poisonous snakes as a result of the people’s complaining in the wilderness. When Moses interceded with God, he was commanded to make a bronze serpent and place it on a pole, so that anyone who gazed upon the bronze serpent would be healed. It’s an example of sympathetic healing – such as the term “the hair of the dog,” which originated as the belief that the best treatment for a dog bit was to rub a little hair from the dog on the wound. It’s a bad analogy, but I think you get the point.

So where is the tie-in with things historic? Just this: Read on in your Bible, all the way to 2 Kings, chapter 18. The good king Hezekiah is bringing much-needed reform to the nation. Among other things he does, like tearing down old fertility symbols from competing religions, he shatters the bronze serpent that Moses had made. The problem was that people began to worship the serpent, rather than the God who ordered it made.

I wonder what the people thought when Hezekiah smashed a 500-year-old historical artifact? There must have been controversy over it. But perhaps it is a reminder that sometimes things that have been sacred turn into curses in other times. Things intended to be means to an end turn into ends in themselves.

Reminds me of the “seven last words of the church” – “We’ve never done it that way before!”


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