The Church on the Hill
The Church on the Hill (UCC), Lenox, Massachusetts
Celebrating our 51st wedding anniversary in a country inn, we found ourselves this June Sunday in an historic (200 years old) meetinghouse for morning worship. We arrived earlier than anyone else except the organist and the flower arranger. We waited for worshipers to accumulate before entering. We were greeted cordially and with curiosity. We concealed our identity with the explanation that "we're just passing through." We found a bench in the middle of the room and I took a few photos.
The church was true to its billing, situated atop a hill at the northwest corner of Lenox, a mile from Tanglewood. A cemetery with centuries old markers is adjacent to the church. The early morning warmth hinted at a three H day. Without air-conditioning the ceiling fans were the extent of the cooling breezes in the sanctuary where, near the end of the sermon, the blades noisily picked up momentum.
The building is obviously well-loved because well-maintained. The organist, John Cheney (no relation) proudly pointed to the two hundred year old tracker organ, renovated in 1991 by the Andover Organ Company. He played it for the prelude and postlude and hymns, but accompanied the anthem on the piano. The benches were sufficiently comfortable for a 21st century body. The room was bright and, with windows open, airy. The founding fathers might not approve of the use of paraments and would certainly complain that candles and cross suggest capitulation to the Papists... or a sop for the Evangelical and Reformed denomination with whom the Congregationalists merged in mid-20th century. The pastor wore an alb and a green stole, which would also mystify the founders, almost as much as seeing that the pastor is a woman. Times change, most especially over two hundred years. A fact for which, everything considered, I am profoundly grateful, with every bending of the knee and every turning of the ignition in my Taurus.
It was Father's Day and all of the women of the congregation were encouraged to, and if refusing, embarrassed into, singing the anthem. Barbara can be seen in the following photo of the serenaders to baldies like me, a hymn (as the pastor noted, not a her), "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," meaning (Fount, that is) God and, maybe, Dad too.
We were spared the use of The New Century Hymnal, with its exclusionary inclusive language, and sang instead from the old Pilgrim Hymnal. I for one thought that consideration a very nice gift for Father's Day. But we did lose the Father in the closing benediction, the theologically suspect trinity, "Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit."
The pastor was in a teaching mode, which may be a necessity every Sunday when facing a congregation with people from three group homes, one of them for emotionally crippled teenagers, and one for retarded adults. The Rev. Natalie Shiras carefully and successfully explained the Trinity on the day in the Christian year set aside for its celebration. The body of the sermon was devoted to a stanza by stanza commentary on the hymn, "Now Thank We All Our God." It was written in the immediate aftermath of the bloody, diseased-ridden, and, therefore, horribly decimating Thirty Years War in Germany in the 17th Century, by a pastor who regularly had as many as twelve funerals a day. The hymn was written when the war ended. The main thrust of the message was getting the Gospel inside of us, so that its understanding becomes the main motive to our days come what may.
The Church on the Hill is a small one that has endured through centuries. I checked the list of pastors. They have been numerous. In recent years the tenures have rarely been more than eight to ten years, suggesting that those who have served were either at the beginning or after the ending of their productive years in the pulpit. That's the particular plight of the small church situated in localities demographics do not favor and do not hurt. We arrived the Sunday before the concerts began at Tanglewood. Perhaps some church-minded music lovers fill the pews in July and August; but the rest of the year, I surmise, will be like our Sunday there.
I have never really been there and done that. The Brooklyn church was small but the constituency large and the community overflowing with people, quite a few of whom found their way into the congregation. But The Church on the Hill, if not my church in the Borough of Churches, is far more typical of Protestantism than the occasional megachurch that garners most of the publicity. The kingdom comes every bit as certainly with Pastor Shiras preaching and pastoring as it does with Drs. Shuler smiling in high definition to millions.
Would I return? Maybe. Next June 17th, on the eve of our big day, the 52nd time. And maybe this time the advanced sales booth at Tanglewood will have a couple of tickets for us for next year's visit of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion."
Rating: three and a half haloes. I wasn't transported to the throne of grace; but I did sense the embrace of the communion of saints in a fellowship working hard at practical Christianity.