Hanover Center Congregational Church
The First Baptist Church of Hanover in Etna and The First Congregational Church of Hanover in Hanover Center (NH)
Finding a good sermon in northern New England has been more difficult than locating a palm tree in the Green Mountains. Over the past fifty-two years we have sampled many of the servings of the bread of life in maple syrup land. Mostly it has been stale or insufficiently baked. Real Vermont bread, however, unlike the bread of the word, has been superb, thickly cut, fresh, and tasty. But the sermons, dear Lord, have been for the most part innutritious, fair substitutes for sleeping pills.
So we go to church most Sunday mornings in August on vacation in the green and white mountains with high hopes and low expectations.
Friends from college travel in France a year ago this coming October, John and Betty Brown, had invited us to worship with them at a Baptist Church they had discovered after reluctantly leaving a church in the big city (i.e., Dartmouth College's Hanover) when they could no longer put up with the politically correct hymnbook and the pastoral leadership to match. When they told us that the pastor in their new church was a good preacher, I would normally have shrugged it off as the enthusiasm of new members, but since Betty is a PK (Preacher's Kid, to the uninitiated) and her Dad had been a renowned Presbyterian preacher in Buffalo, I was anticipating a sermonic treat, instead of the usual treatment.
I was not disappointed. Pastor G. Edward Brayman delivered a Biblically-grounded, intelligently-explained, and personally-illustrated message of Jesus' post-Resurrection appearance to the fisherman for breakfast along the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, entitled (of course!), "The Most Important Meal of the Day." I'll offer a further critique of the sermon further down the page, but for now I would observe something I have failed to emphasize in any of my previous church reviews or my book: that an essential ingredient in arresting preaching is a well-prepared intelligence. The Rev. Mr. Brayman proudly reports that he is a native of Rhode Island (the Colonial hotbed of the Baptist witness - think Roger Williams) and graduated from Brown University in Providence, one of the four Ivy League schools in New England, pretty much guaranteeing him a superb liberal arts education. Serving four years in active duty and eight in the Reserves in the U. S. Army Chaplaincy also helped to ground him in reality and hone his ability to find a way to reach reluctant minds and hearts.
If you find yourself on a Sunday in the northern reaches of the Connecticut River Valley and want to spend a thought-provoking, heart-touching hour or so in praise of God, get thee to The First Baptist Church of Hanover in Etna mid-September through mid-June; or for the summer Sundays, The First Congregational Church of Hanover in Hanover Center, assuming Pastor Brayman is presiding and preaching.
Building: nothing to write home about, the summer digs of the congregation is an unimproved meeting house built in the mid-Nineteenth century. It does not have a central heating system, but it does have air-conditioning, provided the windows are open. The benches were cramped but not to the point of insulting my prosthetic knees.
The far-more substantial quarters for this congregation are situated a mile or so down the road to the south. We didn't venture inside the building, but, gauging by the preacher's comments, The First Baptist Church of Hanover in Etna has all of the conveniences expected of a modern church. The pastor explained that it would be inaccurate to describe the congregation as Congregational or Baptist, since the ministry is decidedly community-oriented. Mr. Brayman was ordained in the American Baptist Conference, and is certified as a preacher in the United Church of Christ, the same interdenominational arrangement, I note but he didn't, as Riverside Church in the upper reaches of Manhattan island.
Welcome: we arrived earlier than any of the parishioners, except the organist. Pastor Brayman spoke with us at length before and after the Browns found us in their sanctuary. Following our hosts' lead we didn't stay for the coffee hour. That is, no one had the opportunity to show us how friendly they were, except, of course, the preacher, who spent an inordinate amount of time at the door after the service chatting with us.
Music: the hymns, two of them from the Gay Nineties' era of six-eight time tunes with sentimentalized lyrics (think Fannie Crosby), so popular among the generation slightly older than mine, were played with difficulty on the foot-pumped reed organ by a woman of mature years. Betty, the born-Presbyterian, complained about the slow tempo. I was pleased with the inadvertent recognition of the Williams College connection with the playing during the offertory of the tune to "O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee," the text having been written by Washington Gladden, the same Congregational preacher who composed the words to the college's alma mater, "The Mountains."
Children: young Christians in this church hewed to the ancient prescription for children, that they should be seen and not heard. I was hardly aware of their presence in good number until the time for them to leave the worship after the singing of the second hymn. There was no message for them in the service. I can only hope, considering how quiet and obedient they were, there was a message and a treat for them in the room (the only other one) adjacent to the sanctuary.
Sermon: it was, of course, why we were there. Preacher Brayman had a prepared text, but he did not so much read the sermon as refer to it. Read, referred to, or off the cuff, the proof of the sermonic pie is in the eating. The basic theme was that we find God in the commonplace circumstances of our lives, like at breakfast. That theme is dear to my preacherly heart, a note sounded again and again on this website. This Sunday morning the illustrations were drawn from many sources, Biblical, literary, and personal. Especially personal. Whereas I found the personal anecdotes very listenable, I would sound a note of caution. Drawing upon personal experience is essential to any compelling witness to the meaning and grace of the Gospel, especially if the illustrations are self-deprecating. But it can be overdone. After twenty-eight years in one congregation most of the stories a preacher has to tell have been told several times over. A fellow in my Brooklyn congregation once complained to me in the sanctity of his own living room that, "Pastor Howard, would you please stop talking so much about Vermont." From that moment to the day I left for a church fourteen miles to the east I said nary another word about the Green Hills and our corner of paradise therein. Now and then in my own preaching career I would step aside and listen to myself as others do and conclude, with the fellow from Brooklyn, that it's high time to shift from the personal to the objective, to draw my illustrations from other people's experience.
Website: the church has one,www.etnahanoverctchurches.org. I did not access it and cannot, therefore, evaluate it. My highway to the Internet while in Vermont is a very narrow lane via a cell phone to a cell on a mountaintop 30 miles away. The best I can manage on a good day is 9600 bps, which is approximately one one-hundredth of the reception provided in West Hartford. I'll try to remember to write an addendum to this review once we return to civilization.
Rating: four haloes, entirely on the basis of the preaching.