First Presbyterian Church
First Presbyterian Church, Stamford, Connecticut
October 25, 2009
As the preacher walked from the pulpit I whispered to Barbara, "Now that was a sermon!"
Later that same morning, before partaking of shortbread and tea, I repeated my declaration to the one whose words led me to say it, The Rev. Mary Theis, co-pastor of the Fish Church, First Presbyterian, in my hometown, Stamford CT. The declaration needs context. And here it is: this Scottish Heritage and Reformation Sunday followed a Stewardship Sunday at a church in a neighboring town, a service at which an empty pulpit was my most enduring memory of the visit. But Mary Theis this day filled the pulpit, physically and faithfully.
She addressed the appointed lections, one from Job, the other from Mark. The title was "I Can See Clearly Now," a musical paraphrase of the exclamation of Bartimaeus in the Gospel reading. The theological theme, if never said precisely this way, was theodicy; that is, the inevitable "why?" human beings raise to heaven in the face of cruel and undeserved circumstance. Archibald MacLeish, in his drama "J. B.," a modern reworking of Job, phrased it memorably: "If God is god, he is not good; if God is good, he is not God." It's a puzzle a pastor wrestles with again and again in ministry to souls, particularly those souls (and their friends) afflicted terribly and sometimes horribly and without rhyme or reason. Pastor Theis, offering a Presbyterian "Amen" to John Calvin's insistence on the sovereignty of the Almighty, invoked the mystery of God's ways with us, when the temptation in the pulpit and in counseling is to mitigate, to find cushioning thoughts of God's sympathy and guilt-engendering thoughts of our sin. I heard echoes in the sermon of what Samuel Rutherford called "the stormy north side of Jesus Christ"; the God of the Bible reflected in Blake's "Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright"; and the voice out of the whirlwind who addresses Job. Preacher Mary spoke quietly, but she spoke mightily. And she spoke truthfully.
Now that was a sermon!
There were, to be sure, other delights to the morning's service. Bagpipes, of course, of course! One of the readers of these reviews has noted (with an accuracy that should shame me... but doesn't) that a five halo rating goes to those churches which feature bagpipes or ukuleles. The Mt. Kisco pipers and drummers led the Processional playing a soul-stirring "Highland Cathedral"; and led us out with a Recessional of "Scotland the Brave." It's been a while since I felt the emotion rise so high up in my throat. Almost as high as when the kilt-clad musicians accompanied our singing of "Amazing Grace." The choir sang a Gaelic hymn, "The Spirit Breathes Upon the Word" (Nl buaidh an Spioraid facal Dhe), attributed to William Cowper, set to a new tune composed by the Fish Church Minister of Music, James D. Wetherald. It matched the pipers with its strident and sturdy affirmation: altogether fitting for a Scottish Heritage Sunday.
Fitting too was the Kirkin' of the Tartans, a reminder of a touching bit of Scottish subterfuge during the English occupation of the 18th Century, when the faithful of the Highlands were prohibited from wearing their clan tartans. They sneaked a patch of their colors into church and fingered them in their pockets while the parson offered a blessing on kith and kin. What they had to do in secret, the Stamford Scotsmen did openly and proudly as family members from seventeen of the clans marched forward to lay swatches of their tartans on the altar for a blessing by co-pastor David Van Dyke, clad, of course, in a kilt.
The three Scotsmen in our company wore no kilts and burred no "r's," but honored the day and the heritage nonetheless with tartan ties.
Following the service we sampled a variety of shortbreads in the parish hall. I cased the crowd as in other years, looking, previously in vain, for someone, anyone who could remember with me back some sixty-five years or more, to the old Presbyterian Church next to the library on Broad Street. Eureka! I found someone. She was carrying a basket filled with miniature tam o'shanters she had made and was giving away, souvenirs for the day. I took two, one for Alanna and the other for Sohani, and asked the woman about her past. She graduated from "dear old S. H. S." in 1961, which would make her 12 years younger than Bobby Howard. But she remembered the old Presbyterian church building, Pastor Campbell, and my friend from Boy Scouts, Johnny Peebles. For the first time in six tries, I felt at home in this hometown church. It brought a certain moisture to my eyes. To hers too. Methodist to Presbyterian, unified at last, thank God Almighty, one at last... in Stamford anyway.
I carry with me from the morning a warmth for the nostalgia; but, more, a gratitude for a pulpit filled the way God wants it to be. Thank you, Mary.
Rating: five haloes... and you had already guessed it, right?