Re-Review of Immanuel Congregational Church, Hartford, Connecticut
We had hoped to drive to the Connecticut shore this Sunday to review a service of worship in another United Church of Christ congregation. A friend from our Long Island days has been urging us to go there because the pastor is a graduate of a United Methodist Church in Jackson Heights. But in this season of my semi-handicapped status, and considering the arctic temperatures blowing through New England, we decided, discretion being the better part of valor, to visit a church nearer home. One church we wanted to revisit, because the first time there had been so positive, is just a scant ten minutes from our house, down Farmington Avenue in Hartford, Immanuel Congregational Church U C C.
We arrived exactly at the appointed hour of worship, 10:00 AM. As I hobbled to the front door, the greeter, seeing my difficulty, motioned my wife to park in the semi-circular driveway directly outside the entrance. Inside additional greeters grabbed our hands, welcomed us, and handed us programs. We sat where we sat before, one third of the way to the front on the right hand side.
I'll not repeat my observations made on our first visit. I'll expand on them.
The Byzantine cruciform sanctuary ringed with two hundred incandescent bulbs (and only one of them needing to be replaced!), with a large domed ceiling, was filled with sunlight. Christmas decorations, destined to be removed this very day, adorned the room, including dozens of star-shaped golden figures hanging from the dome. The large etched windows on either side of the cruciform arms still need repair, and are destined to get it as the church embarks on a $1.4 million dollar renovation. The openness of the nave, the height of the ceiling, and the expanse of the windows I find most congenial to lifting and brightening the spirit.
Right off, before the worship began, the pastor, Edward Horstmann, announced the bittersweet news that the music director and organist for the past thirty years, Larry Allen, had submitted his resignation, effective this coming August. Larry is, however, looking forward to beginning a new chapter in his life in Pittsburg PA. He came to Immanuel directly following graduation from the Union Theological Seminary School of Sacred Music in 1974. He has recruited the singers and shaped the musicality of a choir of thirty voices that, as on this Sunday, adds immeasurably to setting the theme of worship and moving worshipers to take it with them into the world. I was especially delighted with the anthem following the Gospel reading, about the baptism of Jesus. A mostly unison setting, the text and tune by Carol Doran and Thomas Trodgen, "What King Would Wade Through Murky Streams?", prays to Jesus to "Recarve the depths of your fingers traced in sculpting me." Barbara (I am her husband) particularly liked the Call to Prayer, an anthem entitled, "Saint Theresa's [of Avila] Bookmark," set to music by Louie L. White. A third anthem was the always rousing text and tune, "Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation."
Clearly the music director consults with the pastor about his service themes. It shows, and its consequence is to enrich the meaning of worship... at least, for me. All preachers and music directors should go and do likewise.
The New Century Hymnal, so severely judged by me in several reviews, remains in the pew rack; but it is joined there since our last visit by a songbook, far less radical in its politically correct language, Chalice Hymnal, a publication of the Disciples of Christ. This Sunday, however, the three hymns selected were in the former hymnal; wonder of wonders, none of them could be faulted for ascribing modern (and often convoluted) words to ancient hymnists. In fact, I positively warmed to two of them, even though it took me to the final verse with one of them ("The Magi Who to Bethlehem Did Go," with a Puerto Rican melody) before I could sing the tune.
In the recommendations for a worshiper searching for a positive experience in Central Connecticut that precede the list of reviews, I named Edward Horstmann as a preacher worthy of a listen. He did not disappoint this Sunday. Former preachers, like, I suppose, former quarterbacks providing color in TV reporting of a football game, discern things laity miss and, maybe, couldn't care less about. I, for instance, respond eagerly to preaching which presents me with thoughts I hadn't previously considered but which provoke me to go one better. In the sermon (still entitled "Message" in the order of worship!), "Let Your Life Speak," Mr Horstmann began with the observation that only twice in the four Gospels does God speak to Jesus, at his baptism and at the transfiguration. Now that's a true and somewhat startling fact to visit on ordinary Christians disposed to believe that God whispers in the Galilean's ears moment by moment. Yet, considering the ordinary Christian's experience, how better to mark Jesus' humanity? Sure, God speaks to the Lord and to us in other ways, through the wonders of nature, in the voices of many around us (I would have insisted on Christ's summons to us in the cries for help and justice in "the least of these" our brothers and sisters), and within the depths of our own hearts.
The point is the preacher got me thinking, and thinking not to controvert his line of reasoning, but to augment it. That's a reaction I've too little experienced in this season of retirement and return to lay status (for which read, "ordinary Christian).
Oh, I could nit pick about some things in this corner of the kingdom. The website, once carefully maintained, has been allowed to lapse into a stale repetition of old events. The children's message could have used some excision. The Doxology in gender-sensitive revision still promotes bad theology (God the Father is far more than Creator; he or she is also the sovereign of history).
But I quibble. As Joe E. Brown said to Tony Curtis in "Some Like It Hot," "Nobody's perfect." Immanuel Congregational Church comes almost as close as South Church, New Britain, and First Presbyterian Church, Stamford.
Rating this Sunday: four haloes.