Memories of tomorrow...

So we are almost at our weekend's celebration of the 250th
anniversary of First Church in Pittsfield.  Yesterday I journeyed to the "vault" with another member to look through some of the old artifacts. There is a copy of an Issac Watts hymnbook that was first published in 1767 in Boston. It seems that this was in use among us until the Plymouth Hymnal collection was published in Boston in 1855. And that remained the standard bearer until the Pilgrim Hymnal was published in the 1950s. Here is a wonderful description of what the freedom of the "congregational way" meant for public worship:


The "Precentor" was the singing leader in the colonial congregation. He stood before the congregation and sang the first verse to each Psalm, line by line. After each line the congregation would repeat the line until the first stanza was finished, and then the congregation would re-sing the first stanza together, then finish the song.

The Precentor would choose a familiar tune for each Psalm sung (some psalters and hymnals had music, while others did not) such as "Windsor," "High Dutch," "York," and "Saint David's."

Judge Samuel Sewell was the Precentor at Boston's Old South Church from 1694 to 1718, and reported numerous issues. Sometimes he'd accidentally change tunes mid-song, and sometimes the congregation would randomly go off in tunes of their own choice. Congregational singing became so chaotic in New England that, by the 1720s, it was evident that reform was needed.

The English clergyman, Isaac Watts, saw the need for reform and published his hymnal, which was often used in New England for family devotional singing, meetings during the week and other strictly non-Sabbath uses. His hymns were first published in 1707 and his Psalter in 1719.  This, and the rise of music education in New England helped reform the chaos of New England congregational singing.(see:http://18thcenturybibles.org/1767_ Isaac_Watts_ Hymnal. html)
There is a lot to get ready as we're presenting an anniversary concert on Sunday afternoon with a mix of sacred, jazz, folk and rock songs - plus our children are going to groove out to Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds." Going through some of the old silver in the vault - and looking through some of the earliest books - intensified my awareness that in the 21st century our church is no longer "first" in anything but name.  And that is a blessing.  We will have a few of our mission partners join us to bring greetings and encouragement as we renew our commitment to care and strengthen the common good in this small part of creation.

At the heart of the concert, from my perspective, is the song "Peace Train" of which I will say something like:

It takes the image of a train moving across the country on behalf of peace and partnership and invites us to ask ourselves:  are we ready to get on board?  Are we ready to be a part of the choir – or the band – or the dancers or painters who want to strengthen and build up our community? Are we ready to do our part in cooperation – not necessarily as leaders – but as servants?  Now pay careful attention here because there two truths we must consider:

+  The symbol of the train has been used for decades in American soul music. One song, “This Train” speaks about holiness – this train don’t carry no gamblers, this train.  Years later the great Duke Ellington and Billy Straythorn wrote “Take the A Train” about leaving the stress of oppression downtown behind and getting home to their safe and sweet neighborhood uptown in Harlem. Curtis Mayfield, in the 60s, wrote the incredible “People Get Ready” about a train ‘comin that was picking up passengers from coast to coast.

+  And just last month Bruce Springsteen released a new tune, “Land of Hopes and Dreams” that talks about a train that is so inclusive in love that it carries saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores and gamblers and all types of lost souls.

That’s one layer of train symbolism but there is another whole strata
built upon the Underground Railroad, and that hold meaning for us in this neck of the woods, too.  So one truth about the "Peace Train" is that it reminds us that there is a force – a power – an energy alive in the world that is rolling across this country – and every country – and it is about healing and hope and transformation and freedom.  

The second truth about “Peace Train” is that sometimes that force – that love – that grace finds us laughing, sometimes it finds us singing and sometimes it finds us crying.  But it never quits rolling – it meets and greets us where we are in life – happy or sad, broken or whole – and invites us to get on board. 

+  See where this is going…?  The Peace Train is an invitation to partnership in community no matter what our condition or station in life.  It acknowledges that there is pain and sorrow in our world – evil and injustice, too – and like Dr. King once said: we must choose which side we’re on.  Every generation must do likewise and either get on board or get out of the way.

+  The second thing we are celebrating today on our 250th anniversary is that we want to get on board with those who care about the common good as partners in Pittsfield. Not as first this or first that – as partners – dare I say as fools for Christ?

This congregation has always been drawn to music - sometimes it has been chaotic, sometimes structured, sometimes it has been classical and very lofty and sometimes it has been earthy and raw - that blessing hasn't changed in 250 years.  What has changed is the theology driving the music. It will be a delight to celebrate both the continuity and the change on Sunday.  (We'll open the gig with this tune by Keith Jarrett.)

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