I haven’t seen my friend Todd in 20 years or so since ministry took us in different directions: Him to Vermont and where ever, me to Bridgeport, California, and the Hartford\Springfield area. I have thought about him on-and-off for years and vaguely considered reconnecting for years. It turns out that he’s been serving a church in Belchertown, near where I work, and where my best friend, Al, lives.
When one of my counseling co-workers (Janna) and I were talking about church a few weeks ago, she said she went to a church in Belchertown and said her pastor and I would probably get along. She continued on, “his name’s Todd…” and before she could finish, I answered “Farnsworth” and I told her that he was a fine minister. She agreed and said he reminded her of me. Not totally sure what that meant, I nonetheless agreed when she said that I’d “have to visit the church and Todd sometime”.
Last Sunday, after 20 years of missed connection and broke the fast.
From my house to Belchertown is about an hour’s drive through every kind of road imaginable — 4 lane highways in the city, toll road connectors, back roads through the suburbs and narrow roads into the middle of nowhere. Out in the middle of what I’m sure is beautiful view come Autumn, the back roads broke out into the center green — a standard design in New England and for the UCC, where we are “the big white steeple in the center of town” in nearly every town in Mass. and Connecticut.
Belchertown UCC (or BUCC, as it’s called) is a huge, old church, building-wise. There are at least three buildings to it — the church, a fellowship hall and another building that does something else. The building looks old because it is — and because they haven’t painted it in a while. Inside is a huge sanctuary with an all-around balcony. On the ground floor is also a huge piano — not just a baby grand piano, but an actual grand piano that’s apparently been on loan from the town library for some 30 years. There’s a high pulpit in the center of the church and a circular choir area. Inside the building, you can easily picture the church having one of those traditional congregational meetings which are the center of New England democracy or — more likely, a Mass Conference Annual Meeting where the whole Conference sends representatives to discuss big items in the UCC. By now, I hope you’re getting a sense of the triumphant seriousness and rich historical tradition of the building.
But here’s the thing: The congregation and Todd don’t use the space that way. It’s still there , they’re not tearing it down or railing against it. They love the majesty and rich history of the Old Building and the old town that surrounds it. They understand that it was great and served its function for God in the past. But they’re new here, in some sort of weird way, so it doesn’t exactly fit for them. And “newnes”s isn’t a function of age, but Spirit. Even though I was greeted by a lady in her (what?…) 70’s with a steel grip after coffee hour, I never once felt like there was some sort of hierarchical power trip happening. That lady may have been at the church for years, but she wasn’t your typical “Cranky Yankee” who demanded respect via her stoicism or silence. She was a nice lady who was happy to see me. In the land of “God’s Frozen People” she was warm — the kind of people I like to go to church with.
The choir — plenty strong at about 15 people — didn’t sing classical arias with descants and arpeggios and other things I can’t pronounce. With their huge grand piano they sang simple songs that everyone could sing. They sang familiar songs that conveyed timeless messages without being schlock. And the choir enjoyed themselves. Worship began and a man with some sort of handicap led the opening part of worship and led Todd and the kids in a “mother-may-I” meets Madonna-esque “strike a pose” version of the Lord’s Prayer. Janna took the kids off to Sunday School. Though new there, she said she felt like she had something to offer and that she “fit right in”. So away she went.
Someone collected the prayers and brought them forward and Todd led the congregation in prayer. Watching Todd pray is a fascinating experience. Many Pentecostals and Charismatics get lost in prayer and raise their hands as though they are catching the Spirit like a baseball. Often-times, though, there’s the feeling of “Seig Heil” about it. People seem to be saying “bless ME” , almost as though they’re taking gifts from God. Todd, and I don’t know if he’s a Charismatic or considers himself Pentecostal, but his hand just couldn’t stay at his side. He looked to be deeply connected to the Holy Spirit while caring for all the people in front of him. It was liking a TV preacher who was also a pastor who actually cared for a flock.
Todd preached shortly after that and he preached from a short podium-type thing on ground level. He preached, not from the lectionary, but about the Lord’s Prayer. He told the people that it wasn’t a thing-to-be-said word for word, but rather that it was a form, a guide to prayer. After doing his homework about early languages, debts, and other things, He encouraged the congregation not to argue about the “correct” translation or even the name of God, but to see God in whatever metaphor (lover, peace, mother, father, judge, etc.) that worked best for them. He exhorted them to find a real relationship with The Living God. In short, Todd gave the congregation meat — intelligence, , Spirituality and something to do with their faith, while teaching them the basics of it. He gave them God from every angle and they got it.
There was a calm about the place, a homey-ness to it. I had gotten dressed up in my tweed coat and nice pants, but debated in the parking lot about wearing a tie. I felt like I would choke, so I left it in the car. Luckily, everybody else must have done the same thing because, as far as I could tell, there wasn’t a tie in the place except on Todd (who was only slightly more formally dressed and without a robe or stole.) So here’s the vibe of the place and Todd’s worship in a nutshell: It felt like a house church surrounded by tradition and BIG piety. As I thought about it on the way home, I realized that it reminded me of my idea of what church should be — the early church mentioned in the book of Acts: “2: 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” .
It was like they met in the Temple Courts. They all devoted themselves to worship as they listened to the basics of the faith. The church’s mission work –as displayed around the walls via T-shirts — was for anyone who had need — the church is Open and Affirming and they do a support group for Veterans. They do a Hunger Walk and support the Mock Trial Association in town. Handicapped people, the old, the young, the educated and not-so-educated are all treated as the equals they should be because Todd has the ability to see the world through God’s eyes, and he’s teaching his congregation to do the same. They act like a little faith community, with the emphasis on community. As far as “saving” people, they seem to save them all, in one way or another. And while Todd is definitely “set apart” as it’s pastor, he is never “over and above” them. He wouldn’t do it and they wouldn’t want him to. It’s not that he lowers himself to their level, It’s that he raises them to his. They don’t have it all down yet, but they don’t ever expect to, this side of heaven. They are on a journey together, they are still “living into” their faith, as it should be.
It’s a wonderful church and a wonderful congregation led by an incredibly spiritual, connected-to-God, pastor. If you don’t mind being there for 9:30 (I hate getting up at 8 am on the weekends, which I had to here) , I encourage you to attend Todd and God’s big little church on the green and in the middle of nowhere — Belchertown, Massachusetts United Church of Christ.