First Presbyterian Church
First Presbyterian Church, Stamford, Connecticut
October 26, 2008
Another Scottish Heritage Sunday at the Fish Church, and we almost didn't make it. No, the station wagon wasn't broken down, the rain hadn't begun, we didn't oversleep, and I suffered no senior moment. The reason we almost missed this last Sunday in October excursion to my hometown to taste shortbread and tea, among many delights, was worry. Mine. I worried that we might be subjected to another sermon on Celtic spirituality, that owed more to the druids than to St. Patrick. Such was the previous year's fare.
Two developments conspired to lead me to reconsider my reluctance to chance another walk among the thistles and faeries. First, our annual companions on this Reformation Sunday jaunt wanted to go, explaining that even if the sermon was less than stellar the bagpipes would be thrilling. Second, I accessed the church's website and discovered that the preacher for the morning would be the co-pastor, Mary M. Theis, about whom I had a fond recollection of her prayers two years earlier. With this double push we went one more time (the fifth) to Bedford Street down the hill from my high school, within walking distance of my home on Hillside Avenue.
At the conclusion of the worship, when the preacher stands by the door, as I've heard it deplored, "to collect compliments," I shook Pastor Theis's hand and quickly recapitulated how we got to the Fish Church that morning. I concluded by telling her, "You are the reason we are here, and we weren't disappointed." She sighed loudly with relief and said something like "Oh, thank the Lord!" The sermon did not delve into Celtic spirituality; and made only passing comment on Scottish heritage. She developed her theme with reference to the two greatest commandments (which were in the day's New Testament lection) and our American civic responsibility to vote. The title of the "Proclamation" (Fish Church's euphemism for sermon) was "How Christians Should Vote." Preacher that I used to be I predicted to my benchmates that Mary Theis's prescription would be to vote conscientiously, keeping in mind commandment one, the fallibility of every human institution, including the presidency; and, keeping in mind commandment two, what is best for our neighbors.
Other events in the service also brought gladness to my heart. The "Kirkin' of the Tartans" had me fondling my tie made of the Weir plaid, an undistinguished blue, green, and yellow. Representatives of twenty clans walked to the communion table to place their tartans on it for a blessing. The young man at the lectern reading the roster of family names did so with an appropriate Highland brogue. Co-pastor David Van Dyke explained to the children gathered at the front of the church the history and lore behind the tradition. He and Mary and the organist were wearing kilts. I was unable to persuade Barbara to wear hers.
The choir's anthem, "Psalm 126, from the Scottish Psalter," setting by J. D. Wetherald, combined raucous but majestic organ interludes with simple two-part choral harmony. The text had been reworked for the service by Pastor Theis, who explained to me, in so many words, that the original was in impenetrable Scottish and would without a modernization have been unsingable. Sitting in the fifth row from the front, I listened to the anthem with a big, appreciative smile.
Amid these several delights the most thrilling (I use the word advisedly) moments arrived with the sound of the bagpipes. The corps from Mt. Kisco marched this morning as they had on every previous visit to the church on Scottish Heritage Sunday. The crescendoing of the drone announced the processional. The pipes went at it full throat on Highland Cathedral. The snares and the bass beat a strident rhythm. The bass player looked like a defensive end from the NFL, only taller, due to his plumed and furry headpiece. One of the drummers captured my attention as she twirled her pompomed sticks in perfect pattern. I've heard that the Scots made much less of gender differences than other tribes; and, accordingly, Mt. Kisco Scottish Pipes and Drums had a full complement of women piping and drumming... though the wearing of kilts made it difficult to tell the genders apart.
A musician in my adopted hometown of West Hartford, having read my review of the Fish Church from an earlier year, disparaged my exhilaration with bagpipes. Yes, they're not everyone's epitome of musicality. But, I confess, as the pipers marched down the aisle Sunday morning a lump rose in my throat, which only rarely happens for me in church... or anywhere else. I reported this experience to my gym buddy, Dennis, of Scottish heritage too. He knew exactly what I had reference to, adding a coda less ecclesiastical and more military, that in days of old when Scotsman in war heard the pipes they would throw all caution to the wind and advance, even against the gates of hell. I'll have to explain to my musician friend that I am seized on the hearing of bagpipes with an ancestral memory.
The lump arose again as we recessed behind the pipes to Scotland the Brave.
But we were not advancing against the gates of hell. We were on our way to shortbread, tea, and some highland dancing in the parish house. As per usual, I searched the crowd for someone of my vintage. Finding such a one I plied her with "did you knows," only to have her founder with a memory clogged from eighty years of collecting names and thoughts. Alas, people nod in nonplussed agreement when I refer to the church's location in 1949 or my friends who frequented the kirk there and then. Remembering former pastors and organists also elicited one "uh-uh" after the other from those milling around and munching sweets. Sometimes I get the feeling I've lived too long and remember too well.
How many haloes? Four and a half, thinking of the bagpipes first and foremost, but also with a nod to a sermon that restored my confidence in the Presbyterian pulpit to preach the Gospel.