The Worshiping Oak

ImageFirst Congregational Church Haverhill has had a continuous, systematic narrative that can be traced back to a tree next to the Merrimack River and a man named John Ward.  I stumbled across this information while researching the University of Massachusetts archives on the early history of Haverhill. The reason why this became important was because I was moving to John Ward Ave and was told he had founded the city of Haverhill.   As I continued to read I discovered not only had he founded the city, he was ordained its first minister.  A replica of his house is only yards away from where I will soon live.  I felt like an archeologist and had discovered something lost and forgotten. That was now taking on new meaning!

I read that on October 24th 1642 John Ward was ordained and upon his ordination he was given 16 acres of land, one cow two, pigs a dozen chickens, six cords of wood that would be cut and stacked at his door, 400 shillings a year, and a portion of the crops grown by the people would be shared with him. In dollars and cents today, 16 acres of prime real estate alone would be in the millions.  When I thought about it I realized I would be l living somewhere on those same 16 acres! Another fact to this story is that there were only five houses for rent in the city of Haverhill when we began making plans and only one person called back. This house sits on those 16 acres and we move in a few weeks! I couldn’t help wondering what God was doing. As fascinating as this is, there was even more.  More than once the narrative mentioned the “Worshiping Oak”.  It was the place where the town’s people had its first worship services. This lasted about two years until the town had grown big enough to build a building.  

I discovered in my research that the Worshiping Oak still exists so I set out to find it.  It really wasn’t hard to find. It is on the site of the Buttonwoods museum and the John Ward house. I went there two days ago.   I felt a deep connection! That feeling when ones awareness is so acute your senses seem to pierce the veil.   There it was.  I walked toward  the great Oak and imagined it as an ancient sentinel present for over 350 years.  I imagined those first settlers gathering there under its branches.  I stood beside the tree and watched the Merrimack meander toward the ocean. Then I stood in front of the tree facing the grassy knoll. I imagined that John Ward had once stood in the very spot I now stood. I wondered what sermons he preached. What vision did he hold for the towns future. Had he prayed about posterity and about legacy?  This was “The” place it all began. This tree shaded the first worshipers and now centuries later looked down on me, a new kind of Pastor about to lead a reemerging Christian Community that can trace its roots back to this very patch of earth!.  In that moment, the Phoenix Rising UCC narrative joined itself with its ancestors.  From this very spot, figuratively resurfacing, a sapling, taking nourishment from the tap root of the Worshiping Oak.   So folks, who will join me at the “Worshiping Oak”[date to be announced] to dedicate and celebrate the history of First Congregational Church and its new child Phoenix Rising United Church of Christ, come and make a memory with us and experience the awe and wonder of the moment? God is still speaking!

“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” Isaiah 55:12




2 thoughts on “The Worshiping Oak

  1. In his book, “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything,” James Martin S.J. explains how he learned about something he calls “nature prayer.” He acknowledges that this is a powerful way of connection with God, and Martin learned this from a woman on a retreat that he was leading. “What was your prayer like yesterday?” he asked the woman who responded, “Well, I spent a long time hugging a tree.” Martin suppressed a laugh and wondered if she was kidding. She continued, “when I hugged the tree, I felt connected to the earth and to the beauty of God’s creation. Stretching my hands around the trunk made me feel grounded, connected to the earth, in a way that I never had. And here I was holding on to a living creature, which reminded me that God is continually creating.” These comments changed the way Martin would look at this method of prayer. It reminds me of the spiritual power of a tree.

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