a manger, a chapel, and faithfully gathering
Tomorrow we'll have our last "Children's Sunday" in our existing sanctuary as, God willing, we move into our new facility in February. But before the move, very small children wearing halos will be brought to the front of the church in the morning services to sing, "Away in a Manger". Those who sing on that day will be the last in a long string of those who sang the very same words, with the very same halos, on the very same stage.
Having occupied this chapel every Christmas since 1970 means that there are countless children who sang, halo clad, about the "little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay." Whether singing, crying, picking their nose, or making faces at their aunt who came especially to hear her nephew sing, they showed up, participating in what has become a rich tradition at Bethany. People who today are firemen, software developers, lawyers, real-estate developers, and nurses all wore the halo, sang the song. Some of the original halo-clad have watched their own children do the same.
The words of that song speak of God's provision to Mary, Joseph, and their new baby, of a shelter for birth, a place of safety which, though humble, was just right for the tumultuous times that characterized that night, in that Roman occupied province so long ago. While Herod raged in paranoia and the zealots plotted overthrow, the true hope of the world was ‘asleep on the hay' in an obscure cave outside Bethlehem.
Similarly, we have lived through both crises and innovations a plenty during the past four decades: Vietnam, Watergate, Iran hostages, earthquakes, software and some crazy ideas from a guy named Bill Gates, cell-phones, $4.00 cups of coffee, punk-rock, the grunge scene, a mysterious new disease called AIDS. Bridges have sunk. People dressed like turtles destroyed downtown to make a point. Towers have fallen. Presidents have made brash claims and failed to live up to them. Real-estate prices have climbed faster than condos. We've moved from a backwater fishing and logging community to a premier economic power, ‘the place to be' as they say in all the magazines. As our city's power and prominence grows, it's tempting to feel that church life is less significant, a sort of ‘country' tradition that will inevitably drown in the sea of political prestige, global trade, and cash consumption that is Seattle.
But through all the transformations, every year without fail, some little children would gather wearing halos and sing under the cross about a manger, a shelter in the midst of storms. The song is metaphor for what this chapel has been for thousands and thousands of people; a place of safety in a scary world; a place where the real substance and hope for the future is being formed – not in tall towers and board rooms among the opulent lifestyles of the powerful, but in a little chapel with stained glass windows that talk about Jesus as the Bread of Life, and Light of the World.
I came into this chapel once in '78 or '79 while in college. Pastor John, my predecessor, got up to preach and share about his recent trip to India. He was so moved that he began to weep, as he read, prayed, read, exhorted, and read some more. It was, and still is, the best sermon I ever heard. 16 years later I would sit in Delhi India, through a strange series of ‘coincidences', eating breakfast with the man who hosted pastor John while he was in India. That man told me that morning that God wanted me to be the pastor of Bethany, a word from the Lord which would be fulfilled nearly two years later.
And so now, I often come into this space when there's nobody present and ponder: "What has God done here? How has this space been shelter? How has the real work of changing the world gone on in these humble wooden pews, with funny blue cushions?" No one will ever know the answer, not really, not fully. But we can know this: the world has been changed because people have gathered faithfully, week after week, through good preaching and bad, good music and bad, democratic and republican administrations, plenty and want, to bear witness to the reality of the hope to be found in Christ. That's what it means to be a church, a shelter, a manger.
Merry Christmas Chapel — thanks for being so hospitable to Jesus' body.