Come to us, abide with us

Four years after World War II ended, Germans created Kirchentag, a movement among Protestants to express their independence from a government-run faith. Since then thousands have gathered every second year for five days of worship, prayer, music and intensive discussion of current issues of concern. An important dialogue between Jews and Christians grew out of the German event in 1961, leading to new forms of worship and ways of expressing one’s faith.

Kirchentag has grown enormously through the years. It now attracts 100,000 visitors from all corners of the world, many of them under 30 years of age. About 30,000 of them actively participate in 2,500 events over the event’s five days. Berlin-Wittenberg will host Kirchentag in late May of 2017. In 2007, Betsy and I traveled to Cologne, which was hosting Kirchentag that year. Organizers had invited United Voices of Praise, a multiracial gospel choir in which I sang, to sing at several Kirchentag events. As we gathered to sing at a concert of choirs from several countries, I chatted with several young singers from Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian town next to Bethlehem, 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem. They told me they were facing an anxious future as Israelis were driving their families from their farms and their homes.

Today my thoughts are in Bethlehem on the eve of Christmas in 2016. This town has always held special meaning for me, beginning with its familiar Christmas carol, my favorite. Phillips Brooks wrote this carol for the Sunday school children at Holy Trinity Church, his parish in Philadelphia, following his trip to Bethlehem in 1865. Historians tell us that the pastor drew inspiration for the carol as he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. “Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. . . . Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.”

Anna K. Zink, who accompanied the wonderful all-girl choir in which my sister Peg sang, fashioned a gorgeous arrangement of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Its melody differs from the tune with which we are more familiar, but it’s equally beautiful. I love the music, but it’s Phillips Brooks’ words, two verses in particular, that inspire me afresh every time I hear or sing them. And bring me hope.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

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