Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church, West Hartford, Connecticut
September 8, 2002
Protestant worship in the Northeast, and probably any region in the U S subject to the rhythms of the seasons, tends to slow down if not shut off in July and August. Then the program year explodes into a fever of activity the first Sunday after public schools resume classes. Rally Day, the Sunday of fever and explosion is named. It is one of the two or three Sundays in the year when the preacher can count on a full congregation. The other Sundays, not counting Christmas and Easter, are Mother's Day, the first sunny warm day in January after several gloomy people-less Sabbaths, and, of course, that first day of the week when something new or naughty or disruptive is brewing.
So there we were in someone else's church on Rally Day. The preacher may have had difficulty bending the lection to the needs of the moment; but an upbeat mood was established at the outset when the adult choir, the church school teachers, and a couple of dozen children marched into the sanctuary to the staccato of a drum and the drive of an African tune with a repeated melody like, if more vibrant than, a composition by Philip Glass. A teenager led the procession with a cross with three arms, each one festooned with brightly colored rags. Actually, the comparison forced on my consciousness was Disney World, the procession nightly at Epcot lakeside in the circle of nations. Which I mean in no sense derogatorily: I smiled and tapped my foot and was captivated by the vibrancy of the moment.
The woman seated next to me remarked, loud enough for this visitor to hear, "What a good show!" The pastors were beaming... but not processing. A few of the basses in the choir were obviously ill at ease rocking and rolling down the aisle, and I felt for them: I too would have been, were I in their place, acutely self-conscious, looking less like a celebrant at a tribal dance and more like Frankenstein trying to do the fox trot.
Westminster Presbyterian Church would be a good fellowship in which to nurture one's Christian discipleship, raise children, and through which to serve the world beyond its doorstep.
Building: the architecture is contemporary, with a wooden (teak?) ceiling and exposed beams. The room exudes brightness. The pipes of the organ rise front and center, for me something of a blast from the past of the churches of my childhood in which the pipe organ was more prominent than the cross. A large wooden Celtic cross does hang from the ceiling between the pulpit and the lectern. The choir sits up front and on the diagonal to the pulpit. The console faces the choir. For seating the room has cushioned, non-folding, moveable chairs tightly arranged; so tightly, in fact, I was loathe to take notes lest the cheerleading lady next to me figure out what I was up to. Colored helium-filled balloons were attached to the first chair in every other row. I was only one of five men wearing jackets on this warm morning. But, praise God, the room was air-conditioned. We had to climb a flight of stairs to access the building; but I've got to believe, since every other handicap seemed to be provided for, that there is another, less strenuous, entrance. No problem in this room, with its glass windows wide to the world, believing that God is God of the living and the lively.
Music: the bulletin listed the start-up of six choirs, two English handbell and four vocal, with all ages covered from eight to eighty. On this morning there were 30 singers in the adult choir, 12 of them men, and seven of the men tenors (!). A paid quartet provides voice leadership, a common practice in many churches, aided and abetted in this community by the presence of a music college. The anthem for the morning, "With a Voice of Singing," by Martin Shaw, seemed just right for a day of balloons flying and basses lurching down the aisle. The Presbyterian Hymnal, in its gender-sensitive edition, is the songbook in the racks under the chairs. Two contemporary hymns (that I enjoy singing, to the tunes Abbot's Leigh and Union Seminary) plus "In Christ There Is No East or West" got me to bellowing louder than a visitor ought. The congregation seemed to be singing loudly too, but how could I tell!?
Bible: NRSV, the Epistle read by a Lay Reader, the Gospel read by the pastor-preacher. The lessons were the assigned lections and, my, how much better it would have been if the preacher had not let himself be constrained by the choice of Bible readings by someone out there. For Rally Day the text I would have chosen is Isaiah 55, ever so appropriate on a Sunday when the whole congregation was to be treated to a barbecue following the benediction.
Children: "Time for Children" came early in the service. A woman of young middle years gathered about twenty children around her on the steps to the dais. She engaged the children with questions, but I could have wished she had employed a handheld microphone to hear the cute answers that got the congregants in the front rows giggling. She made her point, several times (!), that the main rule in life is a golden one, to treat others the way we want to be treated. Brevity is not only the soul of wit, it is a saving grace with children, especially if you are preaching to them. Getting in and out of a children's message in five minutes is optimum. A few tricks and object lessons, the crazier the better, help too. The Sunday School precedes the worship; and it would be fair to assume, from the young and eager look of many of the people present, including the pastor, father of a toddler, that children fill the classrooms. Westminster Presbyterian would be a child-friendly congregation.
Sermon: Rally Day presents special problems for preaching, especially if one is tied to a lectionary. The pastor did his best to half-nelson the text into compliance, but the result was more a testament to his ingenuity than a careful rendering of the texts' meanings. The title of the sermon, "The Armor of Light," bore little connection to the substance of it, which could be summed up in an old and worthy axiom about the church: "Enter to Pray, Depart to Serve." Or: we need the church and the church needs to serve the larger world. Garrison Keillor and St. Augustine were quoted. A manuscript, to which the preacher frequently referred, gave evidence of thoughtful preparation. I could have wished, however, for a more authoritative manner in presentation. Maybe it should be said before the sermon as it is said after the Scripture Readings: "This is the word of the Lord (adding for the sake of honesty) and me."
Welcome: the first person to greet us and the last person to bid us goodbye invited us to the barbecue, and seemed genuinely disappointed when we declined. I did have some business to transact with one of the members, so I may have, in my rush to find the fellow, confused fellow worshipers about my status as a visitor. Besides, most congregants were hungry for hamburgers. The cheerleader next to me read our names in the attendance book and greeted us by name. The pastor went out of his way to say "hello," and to comment that there were a number of other Bob and Barbara's in WPC. It is a friendly place and we could, were I to have a different more settled agenda, worship there regularly.
Rating: three and a half haloes.