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Marble Collegiate Church

Marble Collegiate Church, New York City

 

    Sunday morning following a day and evening of reuning with college classmates, Barbara and I worshiped in the church which, if Norman Vincent Peale didn't build it, he made famous during his fifty-two years of preaching in (or better, around) that pulpit.  How we got there and how it might be that we were there bears some explaining.

    The latter first, how it might be, because I had some misgivings to overcome.  The author of "The Power of Positive Thinking" was, to say it as politely as possible, not in favor during my years in seminary.  We tended to think J. D. Salinger had it about right with his satirical turn of phrase in "Franny and Zooey" about the famous city preacher who had written a book entitled, "God Is My Hobby."  And we repeated, then and long after, the put-down of Dr. Peale by Adlai Stevenson, that he found "Paul appealing and Peale appalling." 

    When, lo and behold, a fellow graduate of Union Theological Seminary, Methodist preacher, a colleague with me in ministering to souls in Brooklyn, Arthur Caliandro, signed on as Peale's assistant, leaving Wesley for Calvin's Reformed tradition, just as Peale had done nearly forty years earlier.  Arthur was one of a quartet of Caliandro clergy in the New York corner of the Methodist Church: Tom, his father; Bruno, the elder brother, my classmate at seminary; his younger brother, Ernest; and Arthur.  The Caliandro family was nurtured in the Italian-American Methodist church, Tom serving for many years at St. Paul's Methodist Church in Flushing. Ernie died suddenly at a very young age, while on vacation at the family's summer place in Maine.  Bruno, who engineered my election to the presidency of the Brooklyn Division of the Protestant Council of Churches, has also made his way to the church triumphant at, to my way of thinking, too young an age. 

    Arthur remains; and his health is fragile... we learned from the church member seated to my left at worship, and from Arthur and his wife, Sandy, following the service when they welcomed Barbara and me to the upper room where Arthur retired for a few minutes after preaching, before a meeting with the church elders.  He is recuperating from kidney surgery gone awry, and this Sunday had been only his fourth following a long hospitalization.  Whatever his apparent fragility in person, he was at the pulpit a pillar of strength and wisdom.  But more on that later.

     As to how we got there, well, you know me and the computer.  In anticipation of a Sunday morning in New York City, I went to the Internet to see what was to be the fare in all the famous Protestant churches.  Not much, I discovered. Transfiguration Sunday, the liturgical eve of Lent, the forty days of pastoral overextension, apparently argues for the senior pastor to take it easy.  You know, like getting a good rest the night before a marathon.  The pulpits of Riverside Church, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, and Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, all within easy travel from our hotel, were not to be graced by their senior pastors.  

    But Arthur Caliandro was preaching, seventy-four and in his forty-first year at Marble Collegiate. No bishop could force him to retire!  So out of curiosity and with remembered affection for the Caliandro Methodist ecclesiastical quartet, we made our way to Fifth Avenue and 29th Street, found, after three failed attempts, the garage with the church discount, and sat in a pew on the south side of the nave fifteen minutes before the opening hymn.   

    At 11:15 AM four of the six clergy on the staff entered the nave by a side door and took their places on the... well, what am I to call it? dais? platform? stage? chancel?... within the golden alcove.  Each wore black robes and academic hoods, in the tradition of Calvin and his overcoat in Geneva.  The choir sang (and sang beautifully) two anthems, an introit, and a response after the benediction.  Brevity was the order of the morning.  One scripture reading, a podium not a pulpit, no litany, no passing of the peace, no Lord's Supper (even though it was a first Sunday).  The only touch of liturgical extravagance was the congregational singing of four hymns, two of them on an insert and two from a vintage hymn book by Zondervan.  The pastoral prayer included intercessions by name, for those congregants in special need, but also for the past week's armed service casualties in the Iraq War.

    But what we were there for was Dr. Caliandro's sermon.  The longtime member seated next to me observed that Arthur, arriving as he did in the footsteps of Norman Vincent Peale, had through the years "found his own voice."  What I did not tell our fellow benchwarmer, but I shall tell you in detail, is that the present preacher at Marble Collegiate Church, if his sermons owe something to Dr. Peale, they owe even more to Dr. Scherer.  "Dr. Who," you ask?   Paul Scherer, that's who, the professor of homiletics at Union Theological Seminary when Arthur and I were young things honing our oratorical skills.  I had never heard Arthur preach before this Sunday.  I may never hear him preach again.  I do not know if he ever took a class with Dr. Scherer.  But as I listened to "A Way to the Good Life," a title worthy of Peale, I detected echoes of Scherer. 

    Let me explain.  Scherer while critiquing students' sermons offered epigrammatic comments.  Like: the preacher who speaks over his congregants' heads does not prove he has superior ammunition, only that he has poor aim.  Arthur's aim was accurate, drawing his illustrations, for instance, from television ads, a movie ("Schindler's List"), a personal encounter with a ne'er do well in a subway station stairwell, a meeting in the Peale's apartment with a woman with eyes of incandescent brightness, and a concluding reading from an essay by Karl Menninger.  That is, he presented the Gospel with reference to the world his flock inhabits.

    Dr. Scherer, seeing a student reading his sermon in the practice pulpit, would with a twinkle in his eye tell him that 'tis a pity to keep one's eyes glued to the manuscript when with an additional hour of preparation the sermon could be delivered with directness and the appropriate use of gestures available only with eye contact with one's hearers.  Dr. Peale no doubt would say "Amen."  Lay people unfamiliar with oratorical skills bless this manner of address, eye to eye, with the phrase "spoken from the heart," when the organ most responsible is the speaker's brain... and an hour extra of familiarization with the manuscript.  Arthur gets an "A" on this one.  He placed his notes on the podium and proceeded to deliver his sermon off to the side of it, his hands and fingers free to count the sermonic points (three, of course! Scherer would be pleased; Peale too), and to wave a self-dismissive gesture now and then.  I also noted with envy the way he whispered half his sermon (in part, yes, to his fragility, but also, I suspect, by design), which had the effect of hushing any extraneous sounds from the nave, the better to catch every word.  The next time I preach, if there is a next time, I might try that!   But only if I can be assured the church's audio specialist was as expert as Marble's.  We were, in a word, spellbound.  No, better, Gospell bound.     

    Most often and most certainly, Professor Scherer insisted that the Bible's situation is our situation; along with the corollary that the Scripture text for the sermon should be the sermon's integrity, not its pretext.  The "Way to the Good Life," according to Dr. Caliandro and Micah 6:8 leads  one to "[1] do justice, and [2] to love kindness, and [3] to walk humbly with your God." Simple.  Direct.  And Biblical!  Arthur sounded each theme, played a riff on it, and once or twice cross-referenced them, as in jazz improvisation or with symphonic counterpoint.    

    After the service reminiscing in the upper room, I exclaimed, "Arthur, what a long way we've come through those years since Brooklyn."  He sat in the chair opposite me and smiled and ever so gently lifted both feet an inch or so, in silent joyful approval of my benediction. 

    Rating: four and a half haloes.  I use a word to describe the morning's experience, a word I have previously eschewed, a word Dr. Peale would favor but Dr. Scherer would not: uplifting. 


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