Old First Church
Old First Church (Presbyterian), Huntington, New York
It's a long story calculated to leave you yawning, as to how and why we found ourselves at Old First Church Sunday morning, September 7th. Suffice it to say, curiosity impelled me. The ecclesiastical cliche claims that the Presbyterians "do it in good and decent order." I wanted to see for myself how they did it on the critical issue of hiring a pastor. This Sunday the preacher was the pastoral candidate recommended by the Pastor Search Committee, chaired by my friend and classmate from college, Peter Fetterolf, a retired computer entrepreneur, specializing in the applications of the computer to the medical profession.
Not so incidentally, I, a Methodist, have reason to question the efficacy of my denomination's way of "doing it," changing pastors. For the first twenty-five years of my ordained ministry the church bureaucracy in my corner of Methodism simply assumed that a church in search of a new pastor would go looking on Sunday mornings to sample the preaching of available candidates. Somewhere in the 1980's that practice was not just discouraged, it was prohibited. Why is a matter of speculation. I suspect the primary reason, explained as "connectionalism," was to gather the control of clergy appointments to the bishop and his cabinet. It also limits competition among clergy in the same Conference for the "better" pulpits. Hiding not below the surface in this policy is the thought that preaching, after all, is of secondary importance in the work (and talent) of a pastor.
With Presbyterians, however, preaching, if one judges by ecclesiastical practice, is of first importance. The person recommended by the Pastoral Search Committee, Richard Raum, currently serving in Fargo ND, was up front and on the spot this Sunday morning. A congregational meeting convened directly following the benediction for the sole purpose of deciding whether or not The Rev. Mr. Raum would be hired.
And I was given pause to consider whether or not I had spent the past fifty years in the wrong denomination.
The worship was an altogether positive experience... but especially the music and the sermon.
Building: "Old" just about says it all. The building seems to creak with age. It's a meeting house accommodating maybe 350 worshipers maximum. A rear balcony is occupied by the Sanctuary Choir. (You may have read my earlier complaints about choirs in rear balconies, how one has to strain to hear them while trying to resist the temptation to turn around in the pew. I mean, if you have something that needs hearing, please face the congregation!). The pulpit stands front and center. A communion table, this morning filled with the trays of bread and communion cups, was directly below the pulpit. I remember no stained glass, but, in my fascination with the proceedings, I may have overlooked a colorful pane or two. I suspect there is no air conditioning, but on this bright, clear early fall Sunday none was needed.
Welcome: Friend Peter spotted us as soon as we were seated four rows from the front. Whether or not his greeting marked us as members of the church family, I am unsure; but several people spoke to us as if they already knew us. Metropolitan New Yorkers in churches will do that, approach you with a wonderful openness and directness. We amazed another soul who like us absented herself from the congregational meeting, about how we had dinner the night before in Brattleboro VT... and had breakfast at Village Diner in Huntington that morning. We returned to a coffee hour following the congregational meeting, linked up with Peter and his wife Lucy and the pastor elect. Everyone was very happy. So were we.
Music: Superb, yet so early in the season. The Sanctuary Choir surely must have been rehearsing two weeks earlier than most program year start-up schedules. Two anthems were sung, neither of which was familiar to me. "And the Father Will Dance," by M. Hayes, was contemporary and lively. "Once to Every Man and Nation," a familiar text, was set to new music (to me) by D. S. York. And the hymns, ah, the hymns, were sung with gusto by the congregation and the choir: "Come, Sing, O Church with Joy" (new words, old tune); "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" (always a winner); "Let Us Break Bread Together" (my favorite communion hymn); and (as a fit prelude to the congregational meeting electing a new pastor) "Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart." We departed to Marcello's "Psalm XVIII," which is always joyful listening.
Children: Barbara (I am her husband) pointed out the pencil marks on the back of the pews facing us. Sure enough, children crowded into the front rows and piled into the aisles for the Children's Message given by the Associate Minister. She invited the young Christians to report on any special memory they have taken with them from their summer. The pastor-elect was also invited to tell his special memory. He chose to remember a church retreat on a hot weekend when communion was the featured final event, but the day was so hot and the thirsts so demanding, he broke out of the ice chest his stash of communion grape juice before the ritual service and shared it with retreaters, justifying it with WWJD. I prefer a more expeditious handling of the message to the children, with five minutes as optimum; but at the start of the season with a new pastor in the wings, one can forgive a little meandering for God's sake.
Sermon: To the point, clearly expressed, simply structured, appropriately illustrated, Biblically founded, and theologically sound. Old First Church members have found themselves an excellent preacher who goes to his pastoral office with wisdom and warmth. The text for the morning was the Apostle Peter's healing of a lame man (Acts 3), that the gift of new life in Christ is better than silver and gold, that Christians are summoned to call people's minds (no less than hearts and souls) to the wonders of God's love, and that the offer of new life in Christ is always accompanied with a helping hand. Pastor Raum illustrated the last point with a truly remarkable event from a Dodger training camp in Vero Beach years ago, after the stands were desegregated but Black fans hesitated to occupy the "good" seats, until the players climbed over the fences into the stands and took them by the hand. I predict a long and productive ministry for the new pastor at Old First Church.
Rating: four and a half haloes. I shall expect five the next time we visit with the Pete and Lucy Fetterolf