Union Church Summer Service Reflection
For many years in past Summers, I would set out for an outdoor worship service held at Chocorua Chapel on Church Island on Big Squam Lake in New Hampshire. At the time, my family owned a lake house on Little Squam Lake, and it was a short walk to our little dock to board our 13 ft. Boston Whaler motorboat for the twenty minute ride to Church Island. Little Squam Lake covers about 450 acres of water connected by a small river channel to Big Squam Lake, which is about 6000 acres of water. In the early years, my son and I would go together both of us dressed in our blazers, leaving a little early so that we could race ahead of other boats to secure one of the few dock spaces for smaller boats. That would avoid having to tie up to a mooring and wait for a water taxi. A bit of un-Church like competitiveness I must confess but still fun because an early arrival gained not only a dock space but time to lie back in the boat and lose ourselves in the pure blue sky through the trees.
We usually had beautiful weather and there were not many other boats on the lake for the ride to the island. With our Sunday dress, we usually stood out from the few other boats out on the water. Even the Squam Boat Marina staff would wave to us and say, “going to the island.”? The water was usually calm with a few loons to greet us along the way and some occasionally treacherous rocks. There usually was a NH Marine Patrol officer watching from his boat in the no wake zone in front of the island. I always thought, with a chuckle, that I never saw these patrol officers much on Saturdays when everyone was speeding and violating no wake zones but here they were watching the church goers. What divine reassurance!
Chocorua Chapel had evolved from Camp Chocorua, the oldest boys camp in America, that operated from 1881-1889. Some worship services continued to be held on the island following the closing of the camp for former campers who returned to visit the island. Then in 1903, The Chocorua Chapel Association was formed, and its weekly Summer services from the end of June to Labor Day have taken place continuously since its founding, carefully stewarded by term and life trustees drawn from families with long histories with the Squam Lake region. Protestant ministers from around the country and sometimes other countries are invited each year to give the services and frequently stay as a guest of one of the lake’s Summer residents. The service usually followed the liturgy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
Each time we arrived at the island, we joined a flotilla of incoming boats that included classic mahogany wooden Chris Crafts, Boston Whalers and many others. It was a spectacle of families and friends, young and old dressed in seersucker suits, blazers, pastel dresses and more casual dress. As with our reading from 2 Samuel, it was an assembly of royalty come to praise God. Indeed when my brother and his wife came with us to worship at Chocorua Chapel, he looked around and said, “is this a church service or a board of directors meeting?”
The short path to the Chapel itself proceeds from the docks through the woods over arched by weathered trees to a sign carved on a piece of wood that, as I recall, said, “you are entering a house of God, please be reverent and show respect” or words to that effect. Everyone sat outdoors facing a cross of birch and looking out on the entire expanse of the eastern half of the lake bordered by the foothills of the White Mountains. Youth were frequently recruited at the last minute to help pump the air organ -something that eventually discouraged my son from attending.
For me Chocorua Chapel became a place where, as our opening words say, “ Faithfulness will spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky.” In looking back on my many Sundays on the island, it is easy to cherish memories of the joys of taking family and other house guests there all of whom found it a unique and moving experience; it is easy to cherish the peace and solitude of the trip to and beauty of the island and celebrate it as God’s creation. But, as this excerpt from “Reflections: Chocorua Island Chapel” a commemorative book prepared for the 90th anniversary states, there was something else to be learned in this beautiful place:
“Besides the glory of God’s ancestry, this Chapel teaches us some mundane things as well. We learn that naturalness is better than pretension. The simplicity of this place alerts us to our extravagance and other’s poverty. Here we understand our nostalgia as the search for historical truth, not as escape from reality so that we are thrown God’s justice and mercy alone. These mark the significance of this place”
Indeed, this beautiful location called me, in the words of Psalm 85. “To hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts,” Because what I remember most about those Sundays on the island, more than its beauty, were the words of faith by many different ministers.
One minister told us we don’t have to be winners, but we do have to be good. Her words, delivered during one of the Olympic years spoke to everyone who might be wondering, at the time, why they weren’t an Olympic competitor or more of a champion. After hearing her sermon, I remember beginning to feel that what I felt about myself inside was more important than external and frequently superficial measures of achievement.
Another, the senior minister of Old South Church, preached about the parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16) and wondered why the children of light could not be as shrewd as those in the business sector in serving those in need. I have often thought of this particular sermon and how it motivated me to try and bring some of what I learned in the business world to my volunteer work with non profits.
On another Sunday, a long serving Presbyterian minister made his sermon a confession about his faith journey at age 80 with his family to come to terms with his alcoholism. He concluded his sermon by saying that “we are really all just bozos on the bus of life” and I realized he was calling us, with a little humor, to humility and acceptance of each other with all our faults and shortcomings. Given his stature among the lake residents, his was a sermon of courage and hope.
Another minister, who edited the Journal of the Episcopal History Society was a particularly intelligent and thought provoking preacher who once called on everyone assembled “not to be toadies of the rich.” I will always remember that remark given the privilege and wealth of the attendees. I wondered how it would be received and later learned that one of the presidents of the Chapel Association spent every Winter in South Africa with his wife supporting a village with everything that they needed. That called to mind my son’s favorites lines from the General Confession of the Book of Common Prayer:
“I have done those things that I ought not to have done and left undone those things that I ought to have done.”
What a simple but robust statement of faith that was, something that the couple who went to South Africa each Winter must have taken to heart.
Once every Summer, Gene Robinson, the then Episcopal Bishop of NH, would come to preach to a large crowd. His messages especially called on everyone to “take risks” and come out of their current lives and follow their faith to do what is right. I remember being very inspired by his frank and articulate call for us as Christians to be of service to others less fortunate and how much people were attracted to his message, despite his emphasis that there would be risks in doing so. He also had a sense of humor. He told everyone that he once had a mission of helping churches in conflict, and that whenever he arrived, the problems were solved immediately because everyone turned on him. A reference no doubt to the mixed reaction to his courageous ordination as the first gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. He was, however, very popular on the island.
These words of ministry in a beautiful place taught me over the years to work to turn my extravagance of gifts into an extravagance of faith and service. I deeply believe that is the best way to insure that I am not alone in receiving God’s mercy and justice. Recalling one of the island sermons mentioned above, I know my work won’t be perfect but hopefully good.
When my marriage ended in 2012, I was not able to go to the Island as easily as before, but the faith that had risen up with me from Sundays on the Island stayed with me. I wanted a new place for Summer worship and came to the Union Church at first for a service like ours today. For that, I am eternally grateful, because the Union Church and its wonderful ministry will keep me on a journey to an extravagance of faith, the better and more lasting gift than even the beauty of that Island. That makes these Summer days in Ordinary time something much more than ordinary.
May it always be so!