Scottish Heritage Sunday at the Fish Church
Scottish Heritage Sunday at the Fish Church, First Presbyterian Church, Stamford CT - October 26, 2003
We double-dipped this Reformation Sunday, only these Presbyterians name it Scottish Heritage Sunday at the church in my hometown, the one that looks like a huge whale had been beached on Bedford Street. We were there a year ago and, as you may read in that review, were transported (spiritually!) from the belly of the beast through its blowhole to heaven on the sounds of bagpipes. That day was as sweet as freshly-made shortbread, and I wondered if it would be possible to duplicate that experience on a second go-round of tartans and pipes.
The short answer is "Yes," even if the longer evaluation might be, "Well, almost." One must allow for the eroding effect of familiarity. You know, "been there, done that." Novelty, especially novelty in the service of the Lord, if tasteful, can be exhilarating. But like seeing a great movie a second time, the viewer notices details previously overlooked, both good and bad. This Sunday the necessities of a stewardship campaign, complete with handouts to be signed, intruded on the more colorful and sacred events of the morning. But perhaps it was good for me, as I awaited transport heavenward on the wings of a skirl, to be reminded that the Church militant has to worry about paying its bills.
With the aid of a dozen or more pictures, I shall recap the special moments of Scottish Heritage Sunday.
For us it began a half hour before the 10 AM opening, as we walked up the sidewalk to the tail of the whale. There are perhaps thirty-five to fifty flags memorializing the heroes of the Christian church, from the beginning in Galilee through the Twentieth century. I picture here four that have personal resonance.
John Howard is a saint of whom I had previously heard nothing, but I kind of like his name.
Wilfred Grenfell's brother, in his later years in retirement, taught me my church membership (Methodists came to use the term "confirmation" long after my January to Palm Sunday study in 1945) lessons while the pastor was on a trip to, I think, China. Wilfred and his brother were missionaries to Labrador. Their deeds of kindness and bravery were celebrated in my young years.
Reinhold Niebuhr, professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological seminary, quite simply rescued me from academic despair about the Christian faith. His major opus, The Nature and Destiny of Man, provided me in my junior year at college with solid intellectual grounding, a thoughtful and reasoned explanation of the faith into which I had been born and which, to my mind at least, was accorded indifference and occasional contempt by the professors whom I admired. Then at seminary I literally sat at Niebuhr's feet in classes on ethics. He continues to inform my way of thinking, and that of many far more illustrious thinkers and writers of our generation.
Pope John XXIII, to my way of thinking, the greatest figure of the Twentieth Century: that a Presbyterian Church would honor him must have John Calvin and John Knox spinning in their crypts. The Methodist Church of my youth, in its official rule book, spoke negatively of "papists," yet Methodists were hardly the militant Protestants that Presbyterians were.
A carillon tower, gift of Nestles, whose headquarters during World War II were in Stamford, stands tall and center in the yard in front of the fish. A Celtic cross nestles in the courtyard between the church building and the parish house.
Pipers and drummers led the procession to the chancel. The tartan bearers followed, the choir next, with the clergy bringing up the rear. We were just five rows from the front. The sound of the pipes had me straining to hold back tears of gladness mingled with (I'm not sure how to describe it) sacred aspiration. We sang "Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven," like we really meant it.
The children's message was combined with the "Kirkin' of the Tartans," a truly Scottish thing, wonderful to behold, as people representing thirteen of the clans walked forward to place their tartans on the communion table. A dedication ritual, led by a gentleman in kilt and speaking with rolled "r's," blessed the tartans, the clans, and all of the families of earth. Jeff McGregor and I were tempted to ask to have our ties included in the blessing.
On the way to the Ceilidh, the Scottish word for Coffee Hour, I managed to catch up with the preacher of the morning, one of the three full-time clergy serving First Church Whale. David Van Dyke, whose fiftieth birthday was marked with an impromptu "Happy Birthday" in choral harmony during the worship, preached on the day's New Testament lection, about the healing of blind man Bartimaeus. I congratulated him: "No need this morning for a famous preacher from New York City," a reference to the previous year's imported proclaimer, a recently retired Presbyterian preacher from First Church, Manhattan. The theme of Teaching Elder Van Dyke's message was believing is seeing, truly and faithfully and passionately seeing the truth in Jesus Christ. In his discourse, he cited, among several worthies, St. Augustine, John Newton ("Amazing Grace," the final hymn of the morning), and a chocolate-addicted organist. He concluded with the invitation to follow Jesus with, "Will you?... Will you?"
Associate Pastor Mary Theis made the announcements. A joke (and I rarely find them amusing in church) she told bears repeating. It seems an Englishman traveling through Scotland was asked by a Scot what was his take on the Highlands. The Englishman complained that the weather was wet and the air chill; and there were too many Presbyterians. The Scot responded: "Why don't you go to hell? The weather's dry, the air is warm, and there are no Presbyterians there." In addition to excellent comic timing the associate pastor crafted and presented an engaging prayer with ample parallel phrases (if, perhaps, a trifle too many).
The music, most of it accompanied by organ and piper, put our hearts in the Highlands. Of course, we sang a hymn version of the 23rd Psalm. And, of course, we prayed a prayer composed by and for the Iona Community. Kilts abounded, in nave and chancel, on pipers and preachers. If March 17th makes everyone an Irishman, Scottish Heritage Sunday left many of us somewhere between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Rating: four and a half haloes, down half a peg from last year... but, hey, nobody's perfect. We're planning on triple dipping next year, when Scottish Heritage Sunday should be Halloween. Put the date on your calendar, and when you get to the whale, look for me. I'll be the fellow in the blue, green, and yellow kilt.