First Baptist Church
First Baptist Church, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
When visiting a church for the first time, I arrive with a camera and an unwritten set of expectations. The latter informs the former as to whether or not it will be used. It's not used if it becomes apparent (from the disappointment of the expectations) that no review will be posted. Of course, no one should judge a book by its cover, or a church by its appearance and the opening tone of its worship. But they, appearance and tone, do raise prejudices at the start in this critical Christian.
On this bright and beautiful late summer morning in the Berkshires we found our way to First Baptist Church on Rte 7 in the heart of what once was a GE industrial town. The day before at a breakfast kicking off the Alumni Fund campaign for Williams College for the coming year I spoke with a member of the Class of 1991. In the course of that conversation, and for reasons evident to anyone who has ever engaged a clergyperson in conversation, she told me her college roommate is a Baptist pastor. Then and there I resolved to pay said Ashley Smith a visit the next morning, Sunday, at her place of work.
When we arrived at the church, the doors to the sanctuary were blocked by an imposing gentleman of considerable girth and stature. We waited until he relented, which was after the block-long procession of Sunday School children, choir, and clergy entered the building singing, "Marching to Zion." Something inside me hinted I would not be using my camera this morning. The opening of the service, the welcome, the announcements, the explanations seemed to convince me further, what with the relentlessness of the good cheer. Smiles seemed mandatory.
"But," I counseled myself, "don't be so unblessedly sour."
The choir sang an anthem worthy of a megachurch: that is, simple with a Christian rock beat. Then, I could hardly believe my ears. The Rev. Smith taught the Sunday school children the Shema in Hebrew; and thus-equipped they read with the congregation the litany for the morning, providing the appropriate responses. Two new members were received and the Sunday School teachers dedicated themselves to another year of Gospel study, all, I note with approval, with a minimum of ritual and explanation. The choir sang a second and more sedate anthem. The passing of the peace was mostly "Good morning!" The final hymn, "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord," was written, I thought to myself on this Ivy League weekend, by Yale College president Timothy Dwight during the Great Awakening. I meant to ask Ashley if the same thought had passed through her mind; but I never got around to it, asking her, that is.
What really turned me sweet to First Baptist and led to the unsheathing of the camera was the sermon, a real sermon, albeit disguised by the label in the order of worship, Meditation. Dr. Bob Rennie's text was Mark 7:24-37, the meeting with the Syro-Phoenician woman and the healing of a deaf man; and the title, "Grace Out of Control." Which means, the title, that grace, God's grace, cannot be controlled, nor should Christians want it any other way. 'Tis a theme close to my heart. It combines the sovereignty and mystery of God with heavenly generosity. The world - one in which Time magazine this week headlines the question, "Does God Want You to Be Rich?" - can never hear this message enough. Dr. Rennie offered it with plenty of down-to-earth illustration, provoking a silent "Amen" from CCRWH with the observation that the Spirit of God, blowing where it will (see John 3) alights in what holy, God-fearing people might consider the least likely places. But, then, God's grace, you see, is out of control.
As soon as the benediction had been pronounced, I began snapping pictures.
First Baptist belongs to the ABC (American Baptist Churches), not to be confused with Southern Baptists and other "dunkers" of a more fundamentalist bent. They appeal to the same socio-economic strata as Methodists, although, I hasten to add, the Rockefellers (think Riverside Church) were Baptists... J. C. Penney, too. What distinguishes a Baptist worship center is its baptistry, a large, usually-tiled basin up front and center, filled with water chest high on the occasional Sunday when new Christians, of an age to speak for themselves, are immersed.
Of course, I could not resist asking to see the baptistry.
Through my Sundays in Brooklyn and Valley Stream a few congregants, including a real estate agent and the owner/director of a day care program, have told me that, for their money/tithe, the sermon is the main thing. Many in the present generation of clergy would dismiss this claim as old Protestant hogwash in a day an age when the main thing is usually something else, such as moments of praise and inspiration... or fellowship... or deep, deep prayer. But on this Sunday morning on the far edge of summer amid the purple mountains, the "main thing" revved up this old Methodist's spirit and rescued what started as an inauspicious morning of worship, making it an hour of uncontrolled grace.
Rating: four haloes... thank you, Dr. Rennie