Memorial United Methodist Church
Memorial United Methodist Church, Avon, Connecticut
Guilt rising: I've visited too many UCC's and not enough UMC's. Like I said to my exercise friends this morning, "So many churches, so little time." After the Internet yielded a listing of nearby United Methodist Churches, I chose this one for a Sunday morning critique. Years and years ago, I accompanied to this church a wise man bearing a treasure. Emmanuel Sante, whose family founded and supervised Casa Materna, a Methodist mission for orphans in Naples, Italy, was the wise man. His treasure was a Stradivarius with which he accompanied his fund-raising talk on Casa Materna. That drive from Valley Stream to Avon is the closest I've come to musical legend, other than, of course, my meeting twenty years earlier with Charles Ives.
I went solo. My wife had grandmotherly chores to attend, watching the youngest grandchild, Alanna, while Mom double-dipped yoga classes. I arrived too early, drove to a doughnut shop, bought coffee, and listened to Click and Clack's "Car Talk." When the service began, the announcements reported the pastor had to stand aside this Sunday because he fell in the driveway of his home, fractured two ribs, and may have punctured his lung. Two Sundays in a row now that the "boss" wasn't there: is someone sending warning of my approach?
But, as I said to Diane Hornaday, the guest preacher, when she suggested I should return another Sunday when the pastor would be there: "No way, Diane, that he could do any better than you did." In fact, I was so impressed with her leadership of the worship I asked her if she was ordained or had attended seminary. "No" on both counts. She conducted herself and the service as one who knew exactly what she was doing, and why. That kind of self-confidence is infectious. And she backed it up with substance.
It was good to be back where I probably belong. The United Methodist Hymnal filled the rack behind the chair. Oh my, how glad I was to see it after suffering weeks of The New Century Hymnal. Sure, the Methodists have revised some of the hymns according to gender sensitivity. And the opening hymn, the Wesleyan "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing," footnotes the sixth verse, which mentions the deaf, the lame, and the dumb. Since those references might offend the hearing and vision impaired, the footnote suggested it might not be used. But there is no wholesale rewriting of the texts. A supplement, The Faith That We Sing, that is truly a supplement, containing hymns second thought recommends for inclusion in the original hymnal, was stuffed into the rack. We sang from that supplement one splendid Scottish hymn and one less than exciting praise hymn, "The Summons" and "To Know You More."
Building: modern reverse lean-to would be a fair, if not complimentary, description of the architecture. But it worked for me. The back of the auditorium (sanctuary) is two and a half stories and it provides a choir balcony. The front, where the pulpit and the communion table are located, is a story and a half. I kept looking for the sleeping lofts (only kidding!). It's all hard surface, cement, not wood. The wall behind the pulpit and table featured a full length white dossal with a large cross embroidered in gold. Off to one side is a scallop shell dropping three tears. Methodists know that the scallop shell, if owning other liturgical meanings, also represents the Wesleyan coat of arms. On either side of the room ten feet from the floor stand seven electric candles, one each, I assume, for the seven cardinal virtues. No pews, but row upon row of sturdy wooden chairs with cushions, spaced a trifle too close for knees as decrepit as mine. The audio system worked fine with the standing microphones; but the opening announcements and the Children's Message suffered from lack of a portable or lavaliere mike. A handicapped access ramp winds its way to the front door and an elevator from the basement entry, near the reserved parking, assists those with legs like mine in getting to the church on time.
Welcome: couldn't have been warmer. When we rose to leave following the benediction, a woman in the bench behind me noted my hearty and, I hope, harmonious singing of the hymns. In the space of five minutes I discovered that she grew up in Florida, loves Connecticut, has two children, and her husband is an orthopedist in the group with whom I have entrusted my worn out knee. I managed to tell her very little about me. But Diane, the guest preacher, was another story. She flushed me out with persistent questioning about what I did before I retired. The she introduced Pastor Howard to everyone in sight. I've preached my share of sermons on the blessed merciful, that, among other points, to have friends you must first be friendly. It would be a cold church indeed that refused to yield to my persistent questions and enthusiasm. Ah, but a few have... refused.
Children: this congregation is family-oriented, plenty of kids, a generous mix of every age, with a leaning, if there is any, to couples in their forties. Two teenaged boys sat in front of me and participated in the service with studied indifference. Church School preceded the worship. Two dozen young children answered the guest preacher's invitation to come forward. She used sand and a salt box to demonstrate how hard it is to take back mean things scattered on a world full of others. When dismissed, the very young children went to a special program; and the not so very young children went to choir rehearsal.
Music: the choir sang Craig Courtney's "Be Not Afraid." The dynamics were blunted for me because the choir sings from the rear balcony and I sat at the far end of a row near the wall just a few feet from the balcony overhang. I know the liturgical reason for putting the choir out of sight (so worshipers can focus on the glory of God, not the splendor of bright-colored robes and smiling faces). The trouble is that out of sight is often also out of hearing. I prefer my anthems sung up front and head on, just the way I prefer my preachers and their sermons. But the electronic organ's console is in the back, so I doubt the Avon Church has any feasible way to amend this deficiency.
Sermon: those of us who preach for a living would do well to take notes on the guest preacher's sermon. I did. Diane Hornaday, Georgia Methodism's gift to Yankee Connecticut, developed her message on Jesus' healing of the paralytic made possible by his friend's efforts and persistence, lowering him through a chimney hole in the roof into the crowded circle around the Lord. The focus was on those friends. In true Methodist fashion the emphasis was placed on getting up and doing what needs to be done to make the world a healthier, kinder, and better place... like those friends. The illustrations were timely, the logic clear, and the the imperative direct. There is another vocation, other than preaching, which uses persuasive summations to reach a decision. Maybe Diane is a lawyer... either that, or a PK.
Computer: although I found my way to this church thanks to directions on the Internet site (www.gbgm-umc.org/mumc-avon), I regret to report that the site itself is woefully outdated, offering a newsletter more than a year old. As firmly as I believe that central air conditioning is essential to a church's life and witness in the modern age, so do I insist that any church that wants to be taken seriously in this third millennium will maintain its website on a weekly if not daily basis, posting upcoming orders of worship as well as newsletters. Families headed by parents in their forties and fifties all have one and probably multiple computers in their homes. Ignoring the use of the computer for the Gospel in the present age is tantamount to preferring a horse and buggy to a minivan. Email and websites are fast becoming the way the world communicates and gets its information.
Rating: three and a half haloes. If the home we bought were located five miles to the west, we would have made this church our home church, with the proviso, that Diane, the guest preacher, be invited to speak at least once a month.