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First Congregational Church of Williamstown

First Congregational Church of Williamstown, Massachusetts


    We've been here before.  An earlier review is posted in the archive of "Reviews."  As in the past the occasion for the visit was a mini-reunion of my college class.  That get-together coincided with the bi-centennial celebration of the birth of American foreign missions, a grand adventure for the church which began in the minds and hearts of five Williams College students out for a stroll one August day in 1806 when a thunderstorm arose and they sought shelter in the lee of (you guessed it!) a haystack.   

    We attended a day earlier a panel discussion on contemporary missions.  One of the panelists, the President of the United Church of Christ, was John Thomas. He impressed me as thoughtful and articulate... which, I confess, does not fit my stereotype of those I have referred to dismissively as "ecclesiastical functionaries."  I have over the years listened restlessly to bishops, and not just Methodist ones, speak at length and say very little.  It's an art form bureaucrats seem to develop. John Thomas ran against the stereotype, and I thought it might be a worthy way to spend a Sunday morning, at a service in which he was the preacher.

    I was not disappointed.  More on this score later.

    We were houseguests the night before of a tenor in the choir and his deacon-usher-alto wife, added incentive to go UCC on Haystack Commemoration weekend.  We arrived well in advance of the stated time of worship.  I saw familiar faces, including the man who had been the financial aid director at Williams College more than fifty years ago, when I was a scholarship student and had to file my budget with him annually.  I also found the young man (only seventy-two) who presides over the agency that sends us around the world in barges, postal boats, caves, on burrens, buses, and foot. We exchanged "hellos" as he set up his wife's poster soliciting clothes to sell to raise funds for an educational mission for inner city children. 

    That is, I was put in a good frame of mind not just by a crisp if cloudy fall day outside, but by friendliness and recognition inside.

    And there was a lot more to like about the morning service.  How about a Hawaiian hymn accompanied by a ukulele? Someone is bound to remark on this reviewer's fondness for ethnic instruments, five haloes for bagpipes and the same for Don Ho's favorite strings.  Ah, well, the uke added a certain liveliness to the worship, the more so as leis were handed out to the children gathered for their "time."  This nod to American foreign missions' earliest endeavors to the island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (mostly Congregationalists) might stir up angry thoughts in fans of James Michener, but, never mind, the Samoans leading the singing infected us all with their joy.

    The use of that infelicitously-worded songbook, The New Century Hymnal, with its doctrinaire "improvements" on original words, was mitigated by the inclusion of a new hymn, "In the Shelter of a Haystack."  Written just for the commemoration, its words by Anne McKinstry (an editor, be it noted, of the aforesaid NC Hymnal) and music by the church's organist, Edwin I. Lawrence, caught the spirit of the moment in 1806 and beyond. Mr. Lawrence also sent us forth after the benediction with a rousing postlude by Gerhard Krapf on "Jesus Shall Reign." 

    Like I said, there was much to like in the service.

    But nothing more to like than the sermon, entitled "Receiving the Child," on the text in Mark 9:37, preached by the aforesaid John Thomas.  Form enhanced content.  There was a perfect symmetry in Mr. Thomas' three "moments" on children.  The sermon began with a Minnesota Sunday School child who was asked after his first week in school how it went.  His response: "Going pretty good so far."  Like life should be, was meant to be, for those with their guardian angels in heaven.  The second moment depicted an Indian child, stunted by malnutrition, sweeping a path free of debris for passersby in the hope of a few rupees.  How hard it is for 90% of the world's children to get a good  beginning and a fair chance at life!  The third moment featured thoughts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his Letters and Papers from Prison."  Even there, in prison, the German theologian hanged by the Nazis in 1945, worried about the future of the world and the church.  He counseled those of us who love Jesus to think compassionately and seriously about those whom we do not see but who shall be, the coming generation, making the world they shall inherit a place where life will flourish.  Where every child will be able to pronounce the benediction, "Going pretty good so far."

    There was more to it, much more, a reference to Rosa Parks and an extended report on the plight of Palestinian children. But you get the point: John Thomas got to the point... and stayed there... and held my wandering mind, tethered, if you will, to Jesus' insistence to receive children in his name.

Rating: five haloes, adorned with leis and dancing to the melodies of a ukulele. 


1990 - 2017 Bob Howard