Shelter Island Presbyterian Church
Shelter Island Presbyterian Church (2)
Is it possible to get too much of a good thing? That question careened through my mind when the benediction was finally pronounced at 11 AM this past Sunday morning, July 27th. If the service had begun at 10 AM, there would be no question; but the summer heat and the summer crowd (who want to make the most of their weekends) must have dictated an opening a half hour earlier than in the winter, 9:30 AM.
Some there are who are more patient than me, or more culturally sensitive, who will insist that exceptions should be made to the hour optimum rule by which I abide. Ethnic churches traditionally go on for hours. Even some suburban United Methodist Churches have been reported to stretch the limits of congregational endurance with long sermons, long litanies, endless hymns, and interminable "moments of concern" during which everyone is invited to say anything the Spirit moves them.
Presbyterians pride themselves on doing everything in "good and decent order." I thought the phrase also meant "with dispatch." But these Presbyterians on this Sunday jam packed the service with five special events: (1) an introit by a close harmony quartet of men, singing (very touchingly), "Amazing Grace"; (2 and 5) two duets, violin and viola, by Dvorak, by students at the Perlman Music Program, music that lifted us heavenward with their lyrical beauty; (3) a fifteen minute presentation by the editor of a United Nations magazine, explaining the success of the democratic imperative which first launched the UN in 1945, and which, please let us note, explains the willingness of nations around the world to disagree with the one surviving superpower with which the UN began; and (4) a memorable sermon by the pastor on miracles, in which he considered Jesus' feeding of the multitude from three different perspectives, but concluded that the truest miracle, among several, would be to make peace on earth.
Like I asked myself, "Is it possible to get too much of a good thing?" Maybe. If you have a couple of restless eleven year olds occupying the same pew. If your gluteus maximus cannot long suffer a wooden bench. If your expectation of a quicker release is thwarted.
On the other hand, the sanctuary was air-conditioned on this hot, humid morning. The prospect of a brunch in the social room adjacent to the sanctuary was enticing. And the eleven year olds seemed less squirmy than usual. Besides, the content of the service was exceptional. The morning fare was a feast for the ears, through which the mind and the heart were offered ample nourishment.
Rating: four haloes.
An Afterword on Critiquing and Additional Critiques
My wife, among others, considers any caveat in a review a negative. She subscribes to Jesus' rule that "whoever is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:30). I, Critical Christian, prefer the other less restrictive rule of our Lord, that "whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40). The evaluator evaluates. The critic critiques. And that is a sifting process, in which the good and the not-so-good are measured. So, please, consider the following in the light of the final assessment of four haloes:
(1) Prayers. The Call to Worship and the Prayer of Confession, printed in the order of worship, were very good; but they are too good for congregational use. They belong in a book of prayers. George Licht Knight, late pastor of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, something of an authority on church music, claimed that the best hymns were written by second class poets. The same can be said of prayer for congregational use. They should not be so stylistically polished as to tempt the congregant to pause in mid-sentence and say to herself, "My, wasn't that a beautiful phrase!" The words of the prayer should fit comfortably on the congregant's lips, something he would like to say if he could marshal the directness and an economy of words. But the following sentence, used in the order of worship, arresting as it is, simply overwhelms with its unusual words: "Then confront us with whoever and in whatever wild ways are necessary to unburden us of our cherished illusions, unhinge us from our careful timidities, craze us with glory, with audacity, and ecstasy..." For more on this thought, consult the essay on prayer on this website: Essays, 139. The Art of Public Prayer.
(2) Introductory Words. Not every thought, however insightful and humorous, has to find its way from the brain to the mouth. Nearly every turn in the order of worship this morning was attended with an explanation. But that, explaining and announcing, I thought, is the purpose of a printed order of worship. What happens, however, in a worship service with five special events is the necessity of having done it for one the leader must do it for all. The pastor-preacher will always be something of any emcee, just don't exacerbate the role. By my calculation, the service this Sunday could have been held to acceptable time limits if the introductions had been limited.
(3) Delivering on Promises. And, please, oh please, don't tell me the sermon will be shortened when it turns out to be as long as usual! Were the preaching not so compelling this Sunday morning, I might have been less generous with the haloes, on this matter alone.
(4) Conclusion. Whenever you are on Shelter Island on a Sunday morning, take in this church's worship service. It rates right up there with the scallop shells, sea breezes, and sandy beaches. And maybe you shall find, as we have on other occasions, just the right amount of a good thing.