The First Churches of Northampton
The First Churches of Northampton, Massachusetts
This Sunday turned out to be a mix of serendipity and meat loaf supper.
Serendipity - I learned long before it had cachet with the boutique-y crowd, learning it from my father-in-law, the Methodist preacher who had a favorite sermon on the theme - means going in search of a treasure and finding a better one. We began the day with the thought of finding our Vermont sporting the garish reds of leaf-peeping season, stopping along the way for a Sabbath service. At 9:40 AM we found a parking space across from the church, The First Churches of Northampton, UCC and ABC (you probably know what UCC stands for; ABC represents American Baptist Church). We locked the car, cracked the windows, and left a dish of water on the floor, only slightly worried that the dog police would roust us out for leaving a dog in the car. Anyway, our pet bichon would be in barking distance.
We entered the church building. The room was suffused with golden light playing off the mahogany of the pews and the earth tones of the walls, ceiling, and front organ pipes. Over the entrance was a large stained glass window with amber panes catching the morning sunlight and painting the room dark gold. Deja vu overcame me. I remembered an essay I wrote for Miss Favrao in high school creative writing. It began, "Everything is brown." I was describing the interior of the church of my childhood. My usual standoffishness in someone else's church melted away with this serendipitous similarity.
I glanced to the right of our pew. On the wall a bronze plaque celebrated this church's most famous preacher, than which no other in U. S. history until now can match for the combination of zeal, intellect, and influence, none other than Jonathan Edwards, the spark who ignited the Great Awakening of the 18th Century in New England. I hadn't counted on this leaf-peeping expedition to do any historical research on my chosen and now-relinquished vocation. Serendipity again.
Midway through the service the pastor announced that the choir would not be singing the anthem listed in the order of worship. They would sing another piece and the soloist would be Holly Smith-Bove`. My ears, like our pet bichon's, perked up and my mind confirmed that, yes, this is the town where Phil and Susie Smith's daughter Holly lives. She sang while I beamed with pride, as if she were a member of our own family. Serendipity, surprised by the discovery of a woman we had known since her childhood, in a church which she and her family endorse with enthusiastic personal commitment.
So, what about the meatloaf supper? No, we didn't stay for lunch. I mean by it to draw a favorable comparison between urban and suburban cathedrals, where the haloes have proliferated, and less auspicious ecclesiastical environs where most Christians find their spiritual nurture. I certainly enjoy a sumptuous five course meal featuring chateaubriand and crowned with sorbet and fresh berries alongside a very, very sweet cake. But dining every Sunday on rich fare would make me into a facsimile of Dom DeLouise. More often than not when ordering dinner in a diner on an ordinary day out, I'll pick meatloaf and mashed potatoes with a side of green beans, and no dessert, thank you. A meat and potatoes church service, well prepared and presented, can nourish my soul just as surely as a cathedral banquet.
Maybe First Churches isn't meatloaf and mashed potatoes. How about a New England boiled dinner?
Building: like I've already said, warmly evocative of my childhood church, maybe not to everyone's taste, but comfortable with diverting colors, plaques, and stained glass windows. The nave is pitched down toward the elevated pulpit. Organ pipes (which probably don't make sound) and a choir provide the backdrop to the pulpit.
Welcome: the sanctuary was spacious and the attendance sparse, so during the passing of the peace we were close enough to just one couple to exchange the ritual greeting. After the benediction, since there was no postlude, I headed straight for Holly. She took us in tow and introduced us to the pastor and his wife with whom we had an extended conversation (while their meatloaf - actually, ham salad sandwiches - dried up). Pastor Peter Ives, distantly related to Charles, generously abided my curiosity about the UCC/ABC merger and what it's like to stand in the same ecclesiastical line as Jonathan Edwards.
Children: there was a preponderance of grey hairs in the congregation, a feature to which we wholeheadedly contributed; but there were sufficient representatives of other generations to make the service inter-generational. A children's quartet sang the Call to Worship. A teenage boy stood tall in the bass section of the choir. Although I did not note any moment at which the children made their way from worship to Church School, the information on the website indicates that that is the standard Sabbath procedure. The order of worship listed a schedule of activities for youth from toddler to teenage and beyond.
Music: well, Holly sang, and that would have been enough to satisfy me; but it was World Communion Sunday, and in observance the hymns and anthems (as well as unison prayers) had a global flavor and a global imperative. Of course, we sang "In Christ There Is No East or West" and "Let Us Break Bread Together." But we also sang a Spanish hymn, "Sheaves of Summer," led by a man for whom Spanish is mother tongue. The church chairperson of Missions gave an impassioned message about helping Haiti, reworking the fine Wesleyan conviction to "The world is our parish." The organ was not a prominent part of this service, which made me wonder why the 42 rank "king of instruments," highly touted on the website, was so quiet on a jubilee day.
Sermon: how good and sweet it is to hear a sermon literate in content, sensible in logic, Biblical in its foundation, relevant to its hearers, and short enough to be absorbed by a seventy-two year old mind! The Gospel lection for the morning featured Jesus' observation about mustard seeds and mountains. Pastor Ives quoted Luther, the Letter to the Hebrews, and William Coffin, among others, in lifting up the the life-changing and world-changing possibilities of faith. What was especially refreshing, considering the previous week's experience at the Bark-Eaters Community Church, was the clear understanding that Christians do not live to themselves alone, that we are in this world for others. The preacher didn't quote Bonhoeffer, but he could have. The sermon may not have been serendipitous - I have a high expectation for sermons - but in my wanderings in retirement I have often seen those expectations disappointed. Not today: meatloaf and mashed potatoes all around... tasting very much like chateaubriand!
Website: minimal current information is provided; but, if a church is short on money and computer tech volunteers,http://www.firstchurches.org/ may be the way to go. Finding it was a chore. Praise God for Google. A picture of Holly and her family went unidentified. What was, however, serendipitous, so much so I commend it to you, was a sermon (an essay really), by Dr. Ronald Story of the University of Massachusetts, on Jonathan Edwards that mitigated his reputation for severity due mostly to his famous (infamous?) sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." If the essayist is to be believed, the central theme of Edwards' preaching was the love of God. Which might explain how it could ever be that a Puritan New England congregation might eventually merge with Baptists.
Rating: three and a half haloes. Left to my own devices, considering my fondness for meatloaf and mashed potatoes and the very personal memories the visit evoked, the verdict would have been four; but I suspect many of you would not be as enthusiastic as I am. On your next leaf-peeping tour up Interstate 91, stop in on a Sabbath morning.