Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Little Perspective When Burning Issues Flare in Churches

There come times in churches and denominations when we end up divided over some "burning issue of the day." To add to the intensity, this issue is often declared "the defining issue of our time!" Arguments over such issues have ended friendships, split churches, and divide denominations. While not all such issues lack long-term import, many can be put into better perspective with the following story from Mr. P.T. Barnum.* He relates a story about what happened in the little New England church where he was raised back in the early 1830s. 

There was but one church or “meeting house” in Bethel, which all attended, sinking all differences of creed in the Presbyterian faith. The old meetinghouse had neither steeple nor bell and was a plain edifice, comfortable enough in summer, but my teeth chatter even now when I think of the dreary, cold, freezing hours we passed in that place in winter. A stove in a meetinghouse in those days would have been a sacrilegious innovation. The sermons were from an hour and one-half to two hours long, and through these the congregation would sit and shiver till they really merited the title the profane gave them of “blue skins.” Some of the women carried a “foot-stove” consisting of a small square tin box in a wooden frame, the sides perforated, and in the interior there was a small square iron dish, which contained a few live coals covered with ashes. These stoves were usually replenished just before meeting time at some neighbor’s near the meetinghouse.  

After many years of shivering and suffering, one of the brethren had the temerity to propose that the church should be warmed with a stove. His impious proposition was voted down by an overwhelming majority. Another year came around, and in November the stove question was again brought up. The excitement was immense. The subject was discussed in the village stores and in the juvenile debate club; it was prayed over in conference, and finally in general “society meeting,” in December, the stove was carried by a majority of one and was introduced into the meetinghouse. On the first Sunday thereafter, two ancient maiden ladies were so oppressed by the dry and heated atmosphere occasioned by the wicked invention, that they fainted away and were carried out into the cool air where they speedily returned to consciousness, especially when they were informed that owing to the lack of two lengths of pipe, no fire had yet been made in the stove. The next Sunday was a bitter cold day, and the stove, filled with well-seasoned hickory, was a great gratification to the many, and displeased only a few.

This was the "burning" issue of the day. Seems silly in hindsight. So many of our burning issues and intense arguments do ... upon reflection and with perspective. Thanks P.T. for that perspective.

*You can find this little gem and many others in The Life of Barnum: World-Renowned Showman.

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