The First Baptist Church
The First Baptist Church, West Hartford, Connecticut
"Love covers a multitude of sins," Peter tells us. I would add to his observation that a little warm-hearted sharing of the blessed tie that binds goes a long way to making a church fellowship and its worship a positive experience, and helps the attendees' willingness to overlook minor impediments. Methodist John Wesley is credited with the invitation, "If your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand." But on this Sunday it was Baptists who made Mr. Wesley proud. The ushers at the door, dressed in their Sunday suited best, escorted us down the aisle and offered to seat us anywhere we would like (in the middle and a little to the left, of course). After the service several people surrounded us and, knowing we were visitors, wanted to know from where. I did my best to equivocate, but certain twin ten year olds, showing their cursive skills, wrote in the guest book our address and phone number. In the early afternoon while in the midst of preparing a banquet brunch, the phone rang and a volunteer from the church asked if she could visit with us that day. I begged off with poor excuses, but I was impressed with the friendly and prompt pursuit of potential members.
We selected this church not only because it is nearby, but because the organist and choir director had held the same office in the church I pastored in Brooklyn in 1956. I hadn't seen Bruce Hector since. I recognized him instantly. I can't say the same for Bruce with me. Maybe it was my bald head. I watched him throughout the service, peering around a panel which seemed to be designed to mask his very expressive countenance. I have to assume he had it put in place. He has been the organist and choir director in this church for more than thirty years. I can easily understand why he has endured.
Following the service one of the members invited our daughter to sing in the choir. No one invited me. They must have heard me singing. The daughter, Betsy by name, warmed to the attentiveness and openness of the people. Were it not for other commitments, she would have signed up then and there for membership.
She would go back there again. I would gladly accompany her.
Building: another meeting house in the New England white clapboard, steepled fashion, with a divided chancel, in the form of an assembly hall, no stained glass in the tall windows, an organ console recessed in the chancel and a grand piano down front. No air-conditioning, but on this cool Sunday of late summer none was needed. A congenial setting for meeting with others to attend to the Word of God.
Music: there were two solos, sung by a young soprano graduate of Hartt School of Music, on her way to New York City for further training. The first piece was by Scarlatti on a text from Matthew, "Come Unto Me"; the second, by John Ness Beck, a fetching tune, also on a Biblical text, "Lord, Here Am I." The hymnal was Presbyterian (!), but a specially-prepared addendum hymnal was in the pew racks, filled with hymns of more recent vintage. The service began with a hymn sing and (how did they know?) included one of my favorites, "Be Thou My Vision."
Bible: New International Version, with only one reading, from the Old Testament and, I suspect, from the ecumenical lectionary, Exodus 3:1-15, about Moses and the bush burning but not consumed.
Sermon: the sermon (only it was listed as "Meditation," because, I assume, it was first Sunday of the month communion) followed directly upon the Bible reading, a practice which does aid in focusing the service theme. The preacher's idea may not have been novel, but it certainly was worthy, how it is ordinary people who receive God's extraordinary call and, in the aftermath of that call, equipped with extraordinary grace. The message was well-prepared (I detected a written manuscript), but could have used some judicious editing to prune away repetitions and sharpen the conclusion.
Children: near the beginning of the service the children were invited to the front of the room to sit (why do children's messages usually find the clergy sitting on the chancel steps?) with the pastor as he led them around, after some gentle banter, to the theme of the morning, about the ordinary doing and being extraordinary. Pre-schoolers were sent off to a back room, while the others, about ten of them, including two of ours, returned to Mom and Dad to sit through the remainder of the worship and participate in the sharing of the bread and the cup of holy communion.
Welcome: like I more or less said above, nobody has done it better than these Baptist Christians. We even formed a friendship circle for the benediction just before which we sang "Blest Be the Tie That Binds." The Associate Minister made a point of finding out who were were and inviting us to refreshments on the lawn.
Rating: three and a half haloes, maybe four, with a nod in the direction of the warmth of the congregation's welcome.