The Preacher Says....  

Just before I left home I looked at an old minutes book that I think is in my possession because it was among my father’s possessions when he died and his books and manuscripts came to me. And in that ‘minute’ book was the first set of minutes for the business meeting held in 1897. 100 years ago. Exactly 100 years ago. The recorder, Bro Ben Dozier, was happy to report in the minutes that in the latter part of June Thomas Williams was coming to town. Thomas Williams was the greatest of the brothers, in my opinion, at least in his literary skills because he wrote The Great Salvation and The World’s Redemption. 100 years ago. People of his age and mine–reflection is not always about the past–when you get older, as a friend of mine said to me, "my future is mostly in my past", then one’s reflections tend to be about the past. Recently I’ve enlarged my study so that it can accommodate more bookcases. Now displayed there, I can better see what I have. Strolling down memory lane I picked out two volumes, one published in 1832, the other in 1853. The first had been rebound. It was a history of the Christian church written by a man named William Jones, and in the frontispiece my father had written, ‘This book was given to me by Sister Chapman’. Her father was Dr. Thomas, a dentist, and perhaps having been associated with the Church of God of the Abnrahamic Faith out in Ohio. My memory about a lot of these things is colored. All this stuff I’m telling you about now I remember from when I was 10 years old, and experience has taught me that memory is not always reliable. Sometimes you remember things people told you, and sometimes you remember things because they happened, and sometimes you remember things because you want to remember them that way. I do remember about Sister Chapman, however, that she was a tiny little woman who had a limp. I think she lived on Park Avenue. My recollection is a big yellow house on a wide street. And Sis Chapman wrote poetry. There was something faintly worldly in my recollection of Sis Chapman. I don’t know why I remember that unless somebody told me so, because I was only 10 and not familiar with the fine distinctions between worldliness and unworldliness. But she was a poet who wrote poetry, not always about religious subjects, and often at the Sunday School entertainment she would be called upon to recite one of her poems. I think perhaps she was thought of as being worldly because she was on the local Board of Directors of the American Red Cross. She was mother to Dr. Chapman who practiced medicine in Berkeley. Thumbing through the book–and incidentally, that book was so marked up, how anybody could read it anyway–it had tiny print, dense prose, and yet Dr. Chapman and his daughter had marked it up page after page, after page, after page agreeing with some doctrine and writing dissenting notes in the margin when they disagreed.

Again reflecting on the past I found in an old Bible a paper which reads across the top ‘United States Civil Service Commission’–that’s a clue, and it’s dated 1927, with columns for each month of the year. Names are listed down the left side of the page. Sometimes the name stands for one individual or for a family. So there are 25 names representing maybe 50 people, and even more than that if you include the children. These people had undertaken to accomplish some goal, each having agreed to give so much money a month over a period of time. The first item on the page is Henley, Balance $226.75. That was Bro Capt Henley, as he was known. I’ll tell you more about him in a minute. He apparently turned over the office of Treasurer to Willie Murphy who must have taken over the job, because I recognized his handwriting. He was once the secretary of the meeting, and he always wrote good minutes, subtly humorous describing debates that went on for three hours where nothing was accomplished. Bro Henley was the member who was a man of means. He was the only man of means we had, and in retrospect, he wasn’t a man of great means. He was a retired pilot. Ship pilot. Pilots who brought great vessels in from the Atlantic ocean to our great ports. So he was a man of means. He had his clothes made. He was probably the only man who could afford to have his clothes made by James Dozier, a gentlemans’ tailor here in town. And one of our stalwart brothers. And Bro James Dozier made Capt Henley’s suits. Bro Henley always had his suits made without pockets in his pants. He thought it was inappropriate for men to have pockets in their pants. Never put his hands in his pockets because he didn’t have any pockets to put them in. I think it was probably from his days as a sailor, perhaps. I think sailor’s pants don’t have pockets. He was a wonderful old man. He may have been a man of means, but I remember my father saying this about him when he died. I said, "Pop, Captain Henley was a wealthy man", and he said "Not so wealthy anymore, he gave it all away".

In those days, 1927 before welfare, social security, and food stamps, people lived or died based upon the generosity of their friends. My father described to me trips he used to take with Capt Henley in his car with isinglass windows you could put up on the side when it rained, carrying groceries to Bro Bonney, a tinsmith. Bro Bonney could quote practically all of the Psalms. He could quote more scripture than any man I ever knew, I think. And I suspect this made my father a little jealous, because he thought he could quote some scripture, but he wasn’t in the league of Bro Bonney. But Bro Bonney was on hard times, and Capt Henley took care of him and a lot of other people.

As I go down this list, I won’t tarry with everybody, Sis Burfoot–Mary’s mother–was down for $.50 a month and Sis Elizabeth Brown, for $1.00 a month. In 1927 $1.00 was the equivalent of at least $10.00 today. I can only deduce from this list that they were collecting money to pay for building the Sunday School classes. When the chapel was first built, it didn’t have classrooms underneath as it came to have in my day. I was two years old in 1927. I think they were collecting this money to pay for the construction of those Sunday school rooms underneath the main sanctuary or to pay off the note that they had borrowed to build those improvements. Sis Brown was down for $1.00 a month and she paid it every month–missed one month, but made it up with $5.00 at the end. Sis Brown was, as we would say today, a victim of domestic abuse. I mean her husband, long since dead–one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead–but he was bad to Sis Brown. She lived a lonely life, raised children, and supported herself as a seamstress. That’s the way she made her living, and I know something of her financial affairs because when I came back from school she was still alive and I had something to do with what little she had–and what great things she did with it. How she managed to scrape up $5.00 to contribute in December, I don’t know.

The next one on the list was my grandfather. He had a difficult time making a living all his life. During the last 25 years of his life he had one of those books you carry through the worst parts of town collecting $.25 from people for $500 insurance policies to bury themselves with. My grandfather was a frail man. Any sister in the meeting could knock him to the ground I expect. And yet he traveled through the worst parts of the slums of this city for 25 years. Everybody expected that at some time or another, somebody was gonna kill grandpa. He was never violated that I ever heard anything about.

My father was next on the list. He was 26 years old in 1927, and he had just started his practice. He had just gone into business for himself.. He put himself down for $1.00 a month. And he missed a few months, but he caught them all up by the end of the year.

Bro Holmes and his wife. He was a large contributor–$3.00 a month–one of the bigger ones. I don’t know about Bro Holmes; but Sis Holmes died in the poorhouse, such was her change in fortune. We had a poorhouse here then. She wasn’t the only resident there; Bro Clifton lived there as well. My father used to go get him and bring him to the meeting every Sunday, and we’d ride over to the poorhouse. He’d always be dressed and he had one leg. And he walked on crutches. He died in the poorhouse.

Bro Jackson and his wife. He lost his mind in his old age, and was found in odd places at odd times. She, to use the current vernacular, was a saintly woman; never had anything. Yet they were both contributors. Bro Jackson and his wife put in a dollar and Sis Stacy $.50.

Then there was Sis Osborne. She never came to the meeting, but she was down for $1.25 a month. She lived in a big house on the edge of City Park, and I used to ride over there with my father when he broke bread with Sis Osborne. I think maybe at one time she had been an organist here at the chapel.

Bro Quillen and his wife. How they got to that meeting every Sunday I don’t know. It was a big deal. You had to catch the ferry and the streetcar, and maybe a streetcar at the other end. And he was the biggest monthly contributor at $4/month. Sis Sharpley–frail, widowed Sis Sharpley. An object of pity. And Aunt Fanny Salisbury who, to my knowledge, never left her front porch. She lived right on the boulevard, and she was the daughter of one of the founders of the meeting, Joshua Dozier. She has a grandson who, every now and then, puts in an appearance.

Sis Woodhouse–her father, I think, was Bro Shipp. He lived around on Westminster, had a big trumpet and was deaf as a post. You had to speak in the end of Bro Shippo’s trumpet, and I think he lived to nearly 100. Bro Williams whose wife used to play the organ here. Bill was steady as a rock–had a good job in the Navy Yard. He’d gone to college and was an engineer, as I recall.

There’s somebody on this list called ‘no name’. ‘No name put in $1.00 each month. This is someone who really believed in doing his alms in secret because Bro Murphy was not allowed to put his or her name on the book. And there were two small contributions in November and December of 5 cents and 10 cents respectively, by one of the Sunday School scholars, identified here as Mamie Elizabeth.

So who were these people besides that little identification I showed you? What were they like? Well, most of them worked six days a week. Nobody ever retired; maybe in a government job you retired, otherwise if you stopped working there was no income. Everybody worked until they died. They worked six days a week and on Sunday they put on their Sunday best. All the men wore dark suits, white shirt and felt hats. There wasn’t a woman in the meeting without a hat on in those days. And they come to the meeting. About half of them lived within a mile of the place I suppose. They had a committee that if you missed three Sundays they would pay you a visit to have these absences explained. "Why weren’t you here?" It wasn’t easy to do. My grandfather was on the committee. He’d get on the streetcar and go to the residence–wherever it was–to see somebody whom the meeting was concerned about because they had missed. I noticed in that old minute book that a lot of those people who missed meetings had to meet with the committee to find out–what is it?–this loss of interest, loss of support.

Did they know their Bibles? I’ll say they knew them. Were they perfect? They had their triumphs, tragedies and scandals–little tempests in a teapot. I can remember my father used to stand out on the corner of Norchester and Kimball to smoke a cigar. ( My grandfather had been a cigar maker by trade before the making of cigars became mechanized and put him out of a job.) Bro Henry would walk around and see my father there and tell him the parable of the tobacco seed. It was a made-up parable, the message being that smoking was a sin and tobacco was evil. And I can remember my father coming into the house and saying to my mother, "And I said to Capt Henly, what gospel is the parable of the tobacco seed found in?" So they had their differences. If you could take a snapshot of that ‘minute’ record that I showed you, what could you learn from it? I think we’d say today, as they say in sports, they had momentum. The truth was growing, they were building a Sunday School. The message is full of optimism. There were plenty of good works done because there were a lot of good works that had to be done to support one another in that meeting in the days of no welfare.

Now here we are, 70 years later. 70 years exactly. And what does a snapshot like look now? Comparisons are odious, but how do we compare? It’s so different. Times are different. I remember recently someone spoke to us about ‘entropy’, the second law of thermodynamics as it applied to physical matter. It seems to work the same way in social organizations. Is there still the same momentum, the same optimism and the same sense of growth? We have a large, functional chapel now–far better than what was available then. But it’s not used except on Sunday mornings. I don’t think the snapshot would come off as well as the one 70 years ago. Well, if we decided to do something about it–I mean if we decided we didn’t belong here anymore–the neighborhood is dangerous, we can’t come over at night–do we have the will–emotional, spiritual, financial, to do something about it? The enthusiasm? Well, maybe the fault of our lack of entropy is not our own; I mean that’s current psychological theory. Whatever’s going on is not your fault, it’s somebody else’s. Usually, the blame lies on your ancestors. Was it the fault of those people 70 years ago that we’re no bigger than we are today? Given the size of that group, if their progeny had joined the meeting, there’d be 300, 400, 500 people by now. What happened? Well, maybe it was a case of paranoia, Pharisaism or paralysis.

They weren’t perfect. They didn’t do a perfect job in creating the next generation, but I suspect they did a better job than we are doing now. How many of our 15 year olds in the Sunday School can recite the 8th Psalm, the 12th chapter of Romans, the 19th and the72nd Psalm? Sis Brown, the seamstress I mentioned earlier, beat that stuff into my head, and with a little prodding I can recite them now. One of todays problems is that we have too many books. We have too many Bibles–versions, that is. I’ve heard, "Beware of the lawyer who has only one book" He has only one book, but he knows what’s in that book. While many of the translations of the Bible are helpful and desirable, in teaching our children we need to stick with one version for memory work.

Dare I ask this question? Why can’t we be like other churches? Do we want to be like other churches? What do they have that we don’t have that we want? Well, they have enthusiasm, prosperity, activities. You see friends of yours who are greatly involved in the life of their church. But our spiritual ancestors left those churches. They didn’t want to be like those churches. We can never be like other churches–even at our best we can’t be like other churches. Because we could never substitute for the emotional appeal, we could never substitute for our faith the emotional appeal of the charismatic movement requiring these charismatic leaders, with gifts of the spirit and speaking in tongues. That’s not our way of seeking the truth. Nor could we be like the mainline churches–many of whom in our area enjoy a revival because they preach the social gospel. They trash the Bible and preach the social gospel. It is more and more evident that man thinks he can save man when the premise of the truth is that’s God’s gonna save us. We can never, ever agree with them to believe the serpent’s lie, because that’s at the base of our difference. "Thou shalt not surely die", said the serpent to Adam. And all of Christendom today, largely, believes the serpent’s lie. And speaking of Bro Murphy once again, he was my mother’s Sunday School teacher. She had been raised in the Methodist church, but he made a great impression on her with a story that she told me many times. Bro Murphy had a–in those days people weren’t conscious of cholesterol and diets and gentlemen of some age were supposed to be portly, and he was–he had a vest which covered his portliness. He used to unbutton that vest all the way down the front, and then begin to button it back up. But he would always start it wrong; one button out of sync. And when he’d get to the top you’d see at the bottom that the ends were uneven. And he would say to the class, "you see, if you start off wrong you can never get it right. And that’s the problem. If you start wrong, if you believe the serpent’s lie, if you believe in inherited immortality, then heaven and hell follow the trinity if you inspect it closely. It’s derived from that doctrine. The necessity for the kingdom on earth disappears. So we can’t be–we can be better–like other churches.

I don’t know where this church is going. I know this: it’s not gonna go anywhere unless each one of us is strong. You don’t build the exterior, you build the interior. If you and I were stronger, then we don’t have to worry. We live in a world now where education and knowledge is paramnount. Every school in America is raising hundreds of millions of dollars, the University of Virginia just completing a drive to raise $750 million, the business school just got two gifts of $25 million. President Clinton talks constantly about education–the need for education. And people with a superficial knowledge of the Bible are not gonna be able to stand the onslaught of educated people unless we educate our children–consistently, daily. They have a greater burden to bear than you and I did. Today theological scholars say that none of the gospels of the New Testament were written by any of the historic writers. They were all written by somebody else, and that gospel is no longer in existence. In fact, in all the gospel accounts only three of the lines Jesus spoke can be attributed to him. Those kinds of onslaughts. The geochronologists are dating the world at 3.5 to 4.5 billion years. And if we’re not prepared in every way–we have to be prepared in secular education and we have to be prepared ultimately in Bible education, otherwise the next generation will be blown away.

I’ve spoken too long. Let me just end with the 11th chapter of Hebrews. You remember at the end of that chapter the writer says, "These all", that is to say these faithful witnesses, "having obtained a good report through faith received not the promise, God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect." Looking back at the list 70 years ago, I hope we can say about those names that they died having obtained a good report through faith. They didn’t receive the promise, and that verse says they’re not gonna receive it because they’re gonna receive it with us when we receive it. Seventy years from now will there be anybody left to say that about our generation? Finally, in that 3rd chapter of Revelation, Jesus said to the church at Philadelphia, "I know thy works. Behold, I have set before thee an open door. No man can shut it. For thou hast a little strength". That’s the way I describe us. We have just a little strength. The candle is lit, or the candle is flickering. In this day and age we can’t let it flicker. If we don’t make it grow–that strength–it won’t exist at all. So I named this talk Quo Vadis to help you remember what it’s about. It’s Latin for the name of a novel that won the Nobel prize at the turn of the century. Whither goest thou? Where are you going? Quo Vadis.