Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Remarks on a hymn and a church

Today's chapel on campus served as a dedication service for our new hymnals.  Amidst the many new hymns being explored from the new book were a few words on singing in the church and the role of music in Christian life and such.  The meager remarks below were my contribution.  In this case they were in reference to one specific hymn new to the Presbyterian book, and how it reminds me of the role one of my past churches played in my life even as I didn't completely realize at the time.  So, a little appreciation for "Old First."

"Look Who Gathers at Christ's Table," which we will sing at communion, was commissioned by First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee, Florida, in honor of the 15th anniversary of the pastor, Rev. Brant Copeland (a Union alum).  The image of people from all across the faith -- saints and sinners, all together around the table of the Lord -- was one often stressed in his preaching and observance of communion.  The church commissioned the text from renowned hymnodist Thomas Troeger, and the church's organist and choirmaster Michael Corzine composed the tune.

My wife and I came to First Presbyterian after a couple of years in Tallahassee at the invitation of one of my professors (well before the commissioning of this hymn).  Even so, that sense of welcome and hospitality was one of the first things that became clear about the church.  We were attracted by its music, of course, but knitted into the community by its unflagging hospitality and outreach that came not out of a program, but out of the congregation's innate sense of mission and of its place in Tallahassee and in God's greater church.

For me, this was an incredible and well-timed turnaround.  Many of you know I'm not a cradle Presbyterian, and some know I've been to seminary before.  That was not a particularly welcoming experience.  PC(USA), you may not realize, is not the only denomination to have trouble holding it together.  That previous denomination's battles did not end in a split, but a purge, which came to the seminary just as I was settling in.  After three years mostly filled with recrimination, dishonesty, anger, and violent rhetoric in the name of doctrinal and scriptural purity, it would have been easy to walk away from not only any sense of call, but from any sense of "church" at all, and I came a lot closer than even my wife realizes.  The welcome and care of that church in Tallahassee played a huge role in that not happening, and this hymn will always be a beloved and valued reminder of that.

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