The Fish Church
The Fish Church (First Presbyterian Church, Stamford CT)... Again
This All Hallows Eve was a sweet, sweet, golden day.
Truth be told, I had approached it with misgivings. As has become our tradition in retirement, we scheduled a Reformation Sunday visit to the scene of the only five halo rating given on this website, to the descendants of John Knox in my hometown, the whale of a church on Bedford Avenue, next to the Nestle-provided carillon. We arrived with a tray full of homebaked shortbread for the festive reception following the worship. I had eaten my share in previous years and figured it was time to give as well as take. My misgivings were not about the sweets, which, after all, were concocted from a recipe in one of gourmet Craig Claiborne's cookbooks. What had me worried was the worship service, a Reformation Day celebration of Scottish Heritage, complete with kilts, rolled "r's," bagpipes (oh, especially bagpipes!), and tartans everywhere.
I just knew that there was no way under heaven that the exaltation experienced twice earlier could be repeated.
Which thought tells you more than I should be willing to admit about me: that in my years as a preacher I was bedeviled by an anxious consideration that robs the high moment of its sheer delight. After a truly splendid Sunday morning in prayer and preaching, I wondered how I could ever do it again? Go to the mountaintop. Find the right words and mood to match the moment. Pick a day with golden leaves and bright sunshine. Have the music just right. And too often my fears were realized, if by reason of self-fulfilling prophecy or the inevitability of a letdown after swinging so high.
The fish church (which is the way the church identifies itself: go to http://www.fishchurch.org and see for yourself) was, accordingly, due for a down day.
But not this Sunday. As soon as the pipers and drummers led the procession to the chancel to the melody of "Highland Cathedral," the lump returned to my throat. I missed the second verse of the opening hymn, "A Mighty Fortress," trying to catch my wayward soaring emotions. I fingered my tartan tie as clan representatives took to the Table a swatch of their family cloth for a blessing. The liturgy was rife, wonderfully rife!, with crisp Celtic prayers. The anthem too reverberated with the simple dignity (and profundity) of a Christianity woven into a highland plaid.
The morning was rescued from unrelenting Scottish chauvinism by reminders from the clergy, in children's message, sermon, and announcements, that the Presbyterian denomination, grateful as it is for its Scottish heritage, now boasts the devotion of believers around the world. The preacher, one of three co-pastors, reported the remarkable statistic that the number of Presbyterians in Korea (3.8 million) exceeds the number in the U. S. The woman behind me, who grew up in St. Luke's in Jamaica BWI, nodded knowingly. The stewardship moment, pitching for increased pledges for the coming year, featured an Elder of African-American heritage. Likewise two ushers, a husband and wife team. One of the pipers was tall enough and almond-eyed enough to be on Yao Ming's Republic of China Olympic team.
But the sermon, I just knew in anticipation, could not measure up to previous standards. Teaching Elder (pastor) Blair Moffett, six feet four of him in gray-red kilt, matching tie, and Harris Tweed jacket (the other pastor present, David Van Dyke, was similarly attired, but in a much more colorful tartan), preached. He presented four convictions distinctive to Presbyterians. I could have borrowed them for Methodists; and, for that matter, for all Christians: the sovereignty of a gracious God; the centrality of Jesus Christ; the solidarity of the whole human family; a commitment to peace and justice for everyone. He was literate, used an economy of words, provided real-life illustrations, and did it all, not just with a faithful certainty, but with a sense of self-deprecating humor. Wonder of wonders, I didn't even miss the rolled "r's" so numerous in J. Barrie Shepherd's message two years earlier!
The pipers lead us out of the belly of the whale after the benediction to the martial air, "Scotland the Brave." They then gave a brief concert in front of the church's entrance, after which we paraded with them to the parish house and a feast of tea and shortbread. Dancers, young and not-so-young, did their Scottish thing to grateful applause. I scanned the crowd in a vain search for someone, anyone, who could remember back fifty-five years. During the service, however, the congregation was informed of the passing of Michael Abbazia, a Boy Scout with me in Troop 3 at the Methodist Church in 1943. He remained in Stamford and was a dentist to, among many, my parents. I found David Van Dyke and got the particulars on the funeral arrangements. There was a connection after all.
Rating: four and a half haloes, a missing half only because my partner in review sorely missed a reprise of the bagpipe-organ duet which thrilled her last year. I could also wish that someone at Fish Church would take responsibility for timely management of the website, woefully anachronistic in the present moment.
The day was far from done. Barbara and I and friends in Scottish celebration, Jeff and Mary Rose McGregor, brunched at The Silvermine Tavern in Norwalk CT. We checked out the Inn, the better to provide accommodations for the guests at our 50th wedding anniversary there this coming June.
We returned to West Hartford in time to welcome trick-or-treaters.
Then, of course, Henry and Robert, Scream and the Joker, counted their "take" from the evening's perambulations. They tossed me a Charleston Chew and a Baby Ruth, with which sweetness the day came to a close.