The Fish Church
The Fish Church (First Presbyterian Church, Stamford CT)... And Yet Again!
Sunday evening at an informal reception following a wonderfully entertaining and expertly performed concert by Concora based on the life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, I said to the accompanist, who knows my peripatetic inclinations and my fondness for a certain Scottish musical instrument, "Well, Jason, they did it again, sent my spirit soaring through the blowhole of the whale." He caught my reference immediately, although you may not... to First Presbyterian Church of Stamford CT, on Scottish Heritage Sunday.
When in the last verse of "Amazing Grace" the organ sounded through and over the choir of bagpipes, I got that feeling again, that certain lump in the throat, which, if it were slightly lower in my anatomy, might be my version of Wesley's heart strangely warmed. The aforesaid accompanist, Jason Charneski, probably attributes it to a genetic susceptibly in me, traceable to my Weir ancestors from Glasgow. There is just something about the skirl of the pipes that deeply stirs me. Others plug their ears or giggle at the drone, I just stand there suffused in sentiment.
On this morning the bagpipers hailed from Mt. Kisco. The absence of the solo bagpiper of previous years was explained by his emigration to Scotland in retirement.
But what truly elevated this Sunday's Scottish Heritage celebration was the preaching and the praying.
Let's take the last first. At the tea hour (yes, tea hour, as befits a Scottish gathering) following the service I sought out the three pastors to compliment them on a memorable hour of worship. One of them, Blair Moffett, is retiring at the end of next summer and, since we visit the church only annually, in late October, I knew we wouldn't seem him again. Misery (contentment too!) loves company, so I wanted to ask him where to and what would he do. The second pastor will be featured in my review of the sermon. It is the third pastor, Mary Theis, to whom I said, over tea and shortbread, "From one professional to another, you really know how to lead public prayer": strong verbs, no procession of synonymous phrases, and graceful forms of address to the deity. She clearly works at fashioning her prayers for a simplicity of line and a directness of expression, with nary a hint of preaching in the prayer. Yale Divinity School should hire her to teach wannabe pastors how to lead prayer in public worship.
Yale might also sign on the second pastor, David Van Dyke, for a homiletics class. On this Reformation Day the text (the solitary lection, be it noted) was Galatians 3:26-29. That passage contains a verse many of you will remember hearing cited many times: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." To which the preacher added another alternative phrase to celebrate the indiscriminate love of God, "Scot or not," a reminder that celebrating Scottish heritage is not meant to be an invitation to Highland chauvinism.
One Sunday in another summer two hundred miles to the north I overheard a very well-known preacher, in the pew and not the pulpit on that day, express his dissatisfaction with the pastor's message, which was about gossip, how it is disruptive of true communion in the Body of Christ. Something like that. The famous pulpiteer's criticism was that the theme was too small. The Gospel provides ample material to address eternal issues, life and death issues, issues on which the future of the world depends; so, please, save the small matters, like lessons on passing along stories about a neighbor, for board meetings or counseling sessions.
Pastor Van Dyke offered us the grandest of Gospel messages (and, maybe, the hardest to hear) about forgiveness, through and beyond justice, that gracious love for which the cross of Jesus stands, which makes a better future possible, without which there may be no future. We didn't begin at the foot of the cross. We began at the British National Open Golf Championship this past summer at St. Andrews. While trying to glimpse Jack Nicklaus' last hurrah, preacher Van Dyke found himself atop a large generator casing side by side with a native. Upon hearing bagpipes and a casual mention of Pakistan, and thinking of the recent terrorism in London's underground, said the Scottish golf fan, "Every Pakistani should be turned into a bagpipe."
The sermon concluded on Long Island with a woman maimed by a frozen turkey hurled at her car while she was driving. It broke the windshield and nearly killed her. At the culprit's trial, when the judge was inclined to throw the book at the man, the victim interceded for mercy's sake. Her reason can be understood only in the light from the cross of Jesus, that since she was given a new lease on life so should the vandal.
In between golf and frozen turkey, Mr. Van Dyke raised that verse which throws into sharpest relief the requirement of the Gospel of God's extravagant grace through Jesus Christ: Matthew 5:44. You can (indeed should!) look it up even if you already know it by heart. No, we were not led to believe it, this loving of the enemy, would be easy or directly efficacious. Prisons and armies and law would always be necessary. Repentance, true repentance, too. But what sets the Gospel of Jesus Christ apart from all of the other claims upon us in this world, none surpasses, or holds the promise of a better life for everyone, than the grandest of all themes, the love of God through us to others.
Preacher Van Dyke never said it, but he stirred in my mind that certainty of the great Reformer of the 16th century church in Germany, that Christians are to be channels of grace. I was, we were, humbled and at the same time emboldened by a sermon that opened upon the vast, vast mercy of God. Good news indeed!
There were other excellences in worship, the colorful and touching 'kirkin of the tartans'; a choir anthem in the spirit of Celtic Christianity; the dedication of a new quilted banner in the Scottish mode; a printed prayer from the Iona Community; and the belly of the whale itself, resplendent in a mix of earth tones and primary reds and blues.
Was anything amiss? Not much, but I would appreciate more up-to-date and complete, especially complete, information on the website (http://www.fishchurch.org) about who the pastors are and what they're preaching on. Also, though this complaint is no fault of the church, it would be nice one of these Reformation Sunday gatherings to meet someone in the congregation who can remember with me back to 1949, the old church on Broad Street next to the library, and my friend Johnny Peebles.
Rating: five haloes