I spent this last weekend at a Church in Barnstable Massachusetts that celebrated their 400th anniversary as a congregation. Their roots dates back to the English Reformation, during which time their pastor and many members were imprisoned. They were released from prison on the condition that they would go into exile – an act they were wiling to perform in order to fully express their faith.
They ended up in Barnstable.
There are so many things to talk about regarding this remarkable congregation and my weekend away with them – but what I want to reflect on here is their worship space: the building.
The congregation formed in 1616. They landed in the New World in 1634. They moved to Barnstable in 1639. The building they now worship in was constructed in 1717 – and next year the building itself will celebrate its 300th year of service to this congregation. It was redesigned in the late 1800s, but in 1952 the church undertook a campaign to restore it to its original look.
It is stunning in its raw simplicity. Bare, unfinished and large, well constructed pine beams are held together with mortise and tenon finish carpentry , using their massive weight, gravity and well-constructed joints to keep everything in place. The care with which this space has been crafted and maintained speaks of a fierce dedication that is to be admired.
The only adornment is a temporarily placed, small wooden cross which – during the worship hour – hangs from the face of a raised pulpit that hovers above the ground floor but below the lofted pews and aisles of the upper chamber. When worship ends, the cross is removed and the space becomes a gathering center for Town Hall meetings.
In that room Tories and Revolutionaries gathered to debate whether it was wiser to honor the King or declare independence from the throne. Abolitionist voices were raised calling for an end to slavery. Later still leaders would gather to debate about the right of women to participate fully in their democracy and be given the right to vote.
If these walls could talk….
I arrived a couple hours early before the service celebrating their 400 years together. Call me crazy, but I am sure they did talk. I walked every square inch of the space. I felt the wood beams and ran my hand along the joints. I touched the scars made by axe and adze in shaping those beams. They spoke to me of courage; of facing uncertain futures and conflicted dialogue and tough choices; and of endurance. Through it all, these beams held. Like a faith not shaken by the tragedies and traumas, by the vagaries and vicissitudes of life – these beams stand the test of time and endure. They hold firm.
With a conviction that surely was encouraged by those stately beams, the congregation sang with full voice:
Forward through the ages, in unbroken line
Move the faithful spirits at the call divine.
Yes, indeed. Forward through the ages. 400 years and counting.
Here’s to endurance. Here’s to a faith not shaken. Here’s to the abiding presence of the sacred Grace of God. May your own faith be fed by spirits which endure. And may you find the strength to follow the call divine in the unbroken live of those who have traveled their own way Into the Mystic.