First Church of Christ UCC
First Church of Christ UCC, Farmington CT
On the way out the door following the service, we struck up a conversation with a woman ahead of us in the reception line. She explained in the course of our exchange that she had previously belonged to the church we visited last week, Memorial UMC in Avon. Without disparaging her former loyalty, she extolled her present one: "I really love this church."
There is much to love about First Church, as you may read further down the page. But the main attraction, I judge from this Transfiguration Sunday sermon, is the preaching. The pastor, in his tenth year leading this congregation, spoke with humor, intelligence, Biblical authority, and a sure knowledge of just where his listeners were in their minds and hearts. It doesn't hurt my evaluation that his theological orientation is similar to mine, with a strong emphasis upon finding and doing the will of God in the middle of our lives, not just on the edges, however rapturous the rare special moment may be, a theme which suits this Sunday of the Christian year.
The church is steeped in history, and proud of it. The website (which you may want to visit) address celebrates the year of the church's "gathering":http://www.firstchurch1652.org The coffee hour, had it been held, was scheduled for Porter House, a parish building across the lawn from the meetinghouse. Those who are familiar with Ivy League feeder prep schools will recognize the name Porter, as in Miss Porter's, a girls' preparatory school founded by the daughter of the pastor whose sixty year tenure spanned most of the nineteenth century. The school and the church apparently still share common ground.
Noteworthy and reassuring to me, a retired clergyman, were the plaques which covered the front and side walls of the meetinghouse. Most, if not all of them, celebrated the pastoral leaders of three and a half centuries. Perhaps I am quicker to note this honoring of the clergy because the church in which I first served, in Brooklyn among the Norwegians, lined the walls of its fellowship hall/chapel with pictures of mustachioed laymen.
Hallowed history may be a strong anchor to a church's ministry; but it may also be a heavy weight to drag into the twenty-first century. This thought may explain why the pastor seemed concerned at several places in the service to remind the congregation that Christ summons Christians to service in the present moment. Bouquets for the past, sure, but enthusiasm and faith for the future. There might be a certain edge to the pastor's concern, I gleaned from the website and from our post-benediction conversation with the woman in line, because he is seeking to lead the church into an extensive building program about which some members seem to be hesitant (what else is new!).
Herewith is a detailed summary of the excellences experienced this Sunday at First Church UCC, Farmington:
Welcome: we were uncertain of the entrance to the meetinghouse. I took the low road, Barbara the high. She found the front door locked and eventually entered the same way I did, along the side of the rectangular room. I really didn't give anyone a chance to be friendly, hurrying to find an unoccupied bench without an obscuring column. On the way out, however, we discovered, as we often do, that the measure you give is the measure you get. There was the extended conversation referred to earlier; and the pastor was eager to meet us, find out where we came from, and encourage us to return... the way a pastor should!
The welcome by the administrative staff the following day was, however, politely chilly and, finally, forbidding. I forgot my camera Sunday. So we returned to take the picture at the top of the page. I thought to supplement that photo with one or two of the interior of the church, and maybe show you the plaque of The Rev. Mr. Porter. I went to the Church Office and sought permission to enter the meetinghouse. Without asking for a reason or inquiring as to who I was and what I was about, I was told, "No; just take a picture of the outside." There seems to be some contradiction between Sunday's open arms and Monday's closed doors.
Building: the meetinghouse was built in 1771 in true Congregational fashion. The high pulpit, reached by ascending twelve steep steps, leaves no doubt as to what worship is about, attending to the Word of God. The pulpit and the large communion table below are situated on one of the long sides of the triangle. The windows are paned with clear glass. The benches have small doors guarding their entrance. The paint inside and outside is white. Two large silver vases hold large bouquets on either side of the table. A lectern at congregational level is used for leading the service, though not for the sermon. Two modern chandeliers, colonial in style, hang from the ceiling. A wrap around balcony seats the adult choir and contains the thirty-three rank pipe organ and its console. The overall effect of the room is a pleasing brightness.
Children: at first glance young Christians seemed to be few in number; but when the pastor called them forward for the Children's Sermon, you would have thought he was the Pied Piper of Hamlin, not the Peaceable Pastor of Farmington. He held the customary brown bag and pulled from it a pair of sun glasses which led to a personal story about the blinding snow in his home state, Michigan, and walking on the ice on a lake there, how it took some getting used to to take his eyes off the ice, for fear of falling in, and seeing the profusion of life all around him. Accordingly, Christians should not be so blinded by the light of their personal epiphanies they fail to see God's wonderful world of people all around them. Something like that. The pastor kept the children's attention, all of the children, including the older children of God. Church School followed immediately in Porter House.
Music: the most disappointing aspect of the worship. A promising prelude, a single a cappella anthem by Billings sung indifferently by the senior choir, and no postlude whatsoever. We felt a little cheated since we went to this church in part because we had heard earlier in the week of the organist, a graduate of the same institution of which I am an alumnus. I know he had other duties that afternoon; so I'll chalk it off to a busy Sunday with later distractions.
The hymnbook is one to be seen in many UCC congregations that have not chosen the denomination's latest edition, the really bad and deceiving "New Century Hymnal." The "Chalice Hymnal," produced by the Disciples of Christ, is this church's choice. Two of the hymns, "Let the Whole Creation Cry" and "Transform Us," were obviously not in the congregation's repertoire. The third, one of my favorites for reasons I've repeated too often, was "O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee." One more time I was congratulated - by a parishioner seated in the bench ahead of us - for my solo singing.
Sermon: as I reported above, outstanding. The title was "Bedazzled," but it should have been "God Will Not Be Put in a Box." For that is the all too human tendency, The Rev. Ned Edwards explained, to restrict God to our thoughts of what a proper deity should be. Peter's proposal on the Mount of the Transfiguration, to build booths for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, reveals that the first pope had this "all to human tendency." But God, the preacher declared quoting an Email he recently received, blows the lid off every box, flattens the sides, and makes a dance floor on which to celebrate life. Plenty of arresting imagery in the sermon, delivered with a modest certainty too often absent, I note, in the pulpits before which I have sat in these two years of retirement.
Computer: the website (see above for the URL) is among the best I've come across lately for local churches. It is well maintained, pleasingly formatted, up-to-date, and filled with information, sermons, and newsletters. I did complain when greeting the pastor that I searched high and low on the website but could find no mention of the hour of Sunday worship. He was surprised, thanked me for alerting him to the oversight, and told me it would be corrected.
Rating: three and a half haloes. It would have been four had the staff been more accommodating on Monday, or if the music had been more appealing on Sunday.