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First Presbyterian Church

First Presbyterian Church, Stamford, Connecticut

    We were transported to heaven... in the belly of a whale... to the skirl of bagpipes.

    In this season of nostalgic visits to old haunts we worshiped in a church in my hometown, a building described by others as The Fish.  The congregation proudly brandishes that name at its website: www.fishchurch.org.  In 1957 an architect under the influence of Jonah (or maybe with a fondness for tartar sauce) designed this church building in the shape of a whale.  See for yourself in Betsy's drawing (when it is posted).  We had cased the building a week earlier and had been told by the associate pastor that this Sunday, Reformation Sunday, would also be a celebration of the Scottish heritage, complete with tartans and bagpipes, shortbread and a preacher who rolled his "r's". "Better arrive early," he advised us.  And we did, in time to hear the choir anthems rehearsed, and get seats on the aisle up front. 

    A friendly Scotsman from Long Island, now attending law school in Connecticut, joined us, he with his red and green McGregor tartan necktie and me with mine, a washed out green, yellow, and blue Weir. We felt the Scotch rise in our blood (without any early morning imbibing!) as the procession down the center aisle commenced.  Pipers and drummers in bright red tartans, and the black feathered headgear one sees on Buckingham Palace guards, led the line of march.  The bass drummer must have been six and half feet tall.  The snare drummers when at rest held their sticks to their noses.  Flags and banners with white X's on a blue background and a red lion on a field of gold preceded the clergy who came next, the four pastors each wearing his or her ancestral plaid.  The choir, garbed in St. Andrew's blue and white sauntered forward. Then appeared the Campbells and Walkers and MacLeods and you-name-your-favorite Mac (but not Big), carrying their tartans forward for a blessing.  St Andrews Society and Clans and the Daughters of Scotia (think Highland equivalent of Knights of Columbus or Pythias) brought up the rear. Oh, yes, under Isaiah's rubric that a little child shall lead them, a boy bearing an open Bible for the lectern was the centerpiece of the whole procession. Glorious!

Building: this fish shape is a novelty and an attraction; but not without a price in acoustics and drainage.  The building is long and narrow with a swelling in the middle.  The tail provides ample space for the entrance and reception of worshipers.  But every surface is hard and angular.  At the beginning of the service the associate pastor tried to speak without the aid of a lavaliere mike.  Not good, and probably not possible, at least if one wants to be heard beyond the tenth row.  

    A brand new pipe organ faced the congregation behind a cross which stretched from the blow hole to the bottom of the belly, probably thirty feet.  The organ's trompette ranks reached out toward the congregation a full six to eight feet perpendicular to the standing pipes.  Decorative woodwork set off the pipes, topped by a carved star with seven points and star and sun rays interspersed below.  The natural burnish of the copper pipes added to the treatment, altogether very tasteful.  A large bouquet of flowers on the communion table hid the head and hands of the organist choir director at the console recessed and in front of the choir.  In keeping with the Presbyterian tradition of the parity of Word and Sacrament, a large table, in the middle of the chancel and in front of the choir, was flanked by a sturdy pulpit and a slightly less prominent lectern. 

    The building rests on a hill above a busy thoroughfare.  A stone wall lines the far reaches of the lawn.  Imbedded in the wall are memorials to those local saints who worked and gave to make the new building a reality.  The walkway from the street to the church entrance is composed of cement flags memorializing those saints who "in glory shine."  Among the fifty or so remembered are Martin Luther King Jr, Pope John XXIII, Eugene Carson Blake (ask me sometime who he was), and Oliver Cromwell.  I would take issue with this last choice, because I must listen not only to my Scottish heritage but my Irish one too.

Children: the associate pastor, surrounded by children, explained the "Kirkin' of the Tartans," how Scotsmen during the Ban (on the wearing of tartans, seen by the King of England as an act of treason) sneaked swatches of their plaids into the kirk (church) and fingered the family colors when prompted by the pastor.  The message stressed strong family connections, but not at the expense of the Christian Gospel's insistence that we are, everyone of us on the face of the earth, brothers and sisters.  The tartaned children left early for Church School.   

Music: the choir of twenty-five boasted ten (!) men.  Judging from the volume and enthusiasm with which the hymns were sung, the choir could be tripled in size without losing pitch or rhythm.  A cantor from the choir, a tenor, led the Psalter with congregational response, much after the manner I've heard and seen it done in the modern Roman Catholic mass.  Four congregational hymns covered all the Reformed and ethnic bases.  One paraphrased Psalm 23; one was Celtic ("Be Thou My Vision"); and one just had to be sung with the bagpipes: (you guessed it!), "Amazing Grace."  During this last hymn I really choked up, what with the skirling of the pipes and the final verse about heaven.  Yeah, I could almost see the Gates of Pearl themselves.  The choir also had the advantage of a piper, using two different kinds of pipes, one without drone pumped beneath his right elbow, the other the usual, blown by mouth.  Simply wonderful!  Then, adding wow to wonderful, we exited the church after the benediction with the bagpipers leading the recessional playing "Scotland the Brave." 

    Those of you with no fondness for bagpipes (and there are more than a few of you) will not understand my exuberance.  So, okay, it's a genetic thing.

Sermon: after the benediction, on our way to shortbread and tea and a peek at Scottish dancers, I shook hands with the preacher of the morning, J. Barrie Shepherd (There's a fine name for a pastor, right?, almost as good as Methodist bishop of yore, John Wesley Lord, or our own Lloyd Crist Wicke).  I unnerved him by observing that "I was worried about where you were going with your sermon when you started with a pastoral scene and moved on to a soaring cathedral."  I have little patience with the Gospel of serenity and exaltation, because it's usually at the expense of the center of our faith, the cross.  But I thanked him for taking us to that third scene where he had been "Summoned by the Bells," Dachau, and the Christ of the cross who is to be found in the cry of those in pain, summoning us to make peace and love one another, among many important service imperatives.  Dr Shepherd, author of several books, most of which he was offering for a price there in the hallway to Fellowship Hall, is a superb preacher. The "r's" rolled gently off his tongue, a holdover from his upbringing in the Highlands forty or more years ago. He understands, as the rest of us in the pulpit would do well to learn, that evocative images make for memorable sermons.  The only quibble I would have with his "Proclamation" (the title in the order of worship, far better for the sermon than "Meditation") was that he was too closely tied to his manuscript; but the words were true and poetic and powerful.

Welcome: it was a very happy and holy morning.  We were enthusiastic like everyone else.  Lots of visitors and congregants who assumed that it would be a day filled with outsiders.  Which is to say, friendliness filled the rooms of our meeting.  I searched Fellowship Hall for someone of my own vintage who might remember Bobby Howard; but the best I could manage were a couple of women, one of whom had a brother, now deceased, who had been a classmate of mine at high school; and the other a husband whose cousin played football with me in the late Forties.  You may read about my disappointment with this failure to find anyone who knew my name, in Essays, this week's addition, "Nobody Knew My Name," a bittersweet and humorous look at growing older.   

Prayers: this measure of a church's worship deserves mention (and will be in subsequent reviews, when I shall abandon the less compelling, mostly redundant, Bible comment).  The top of the order of worship contained a prayer from the Iona Community, written I suspect by one of its founders, John MacLeod, a visiting professor at the seminary I attended when I was there in 1956.  I still remember it forty-six years later, and have tried in intervening years to replicate it use of the carpentry shop metaphor in prayers I have composed.  I am posting it among the prayers under the title, "From the Iona Community."  I was also taken by the co-pastor's concluding prayers, intercession and thanksgiving. She phrased the prayers simply, directly, arrestingly and with an economy of words... just the way Jesus told us to pray. 

Rating: for the fist time FIVE HALOES, for ceremony, sermon, prayers, and pipes, taking us from the belly of the whale to the throne of grace.  But, if you can't stand bagpipes, take away a halo.

 

 


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