It began with a knock on the door, the same door that has opened to lend comfort and balm to literally tens of thousands, but on Saturday night at the First Presbyterian Church it was different. In one of the most moving and wonderful worship services I have ever witnessed, the eight-sided rotunda of a sanctuary at the huge Chattanooga church was spectacularly rededicated to Jesus Christ this weekend.
Rev. Timothy E. Tinsley, the newest in a short line of just six ministers who have served the church since Dec. 18, 1910, called out, “Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will go to them, and I will praise the Lord.” (Psalm 118:19)
At that, Jimmy Lail, who today is the church’s chairman of the Board of Deacons, heeded his call and then, with the choir streaming through that door and the throng joining to sing, “The Church’s One Foundation,” there began a delightful two-hour mix of a worship service, a history lesson, and an earnest prayer for the years yet to come.
As is my life’s pattern, my mother firmly “hooked” me early, making it perfectly clear that for her 86th birthday nothing would replace my taking her to the third-row pew where our family has sat for more than my 61 years. Oh my heavens, I was baptized in the same sanctuary and vividly remember when all of us, with my grandparents and younger sisters still in diapers, would take up the whole row.
I’ve walked across its stage to accept attendance pins, help sing in Christmas pageants, and accepted memory-work Bibles. I have even given a eulogy or two. I’ve ushered countless times and admittedly wondered why on earth some sufferers felt so convicted to give such revealing testimonies on a given Thanksgiving morning.
But on this weekend’s program there was hardly room for lightweights. No, it began with a stirring tribute to the Confederate war hero, Dr. Jonathan W. Bachman, who was pastor between 1873 and 1924 and it was beautiful. His great-great-grandson, the now beloved pediatrician Dr. Peter Rawlings, told how Dr. Bachman was changed by the war, going from an officer in Gen. Lee’s command to a chaplain by war’s end.
Dr. Bachman, whose tenure included a terrible flood and a Yellow Fever epidemic, said at the sanctuary’s unveiling in 1910, “There is an old prophecy (Joel 2:28) which reads, ‘Your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions.’ You will see an old man’s dream on the wall of the vestibule.”
Then the delightful Bob Venable, a longtime church elder, delivered his Shining Moment when he spoke of the next pastor, his father. Dr. Joseph G. Venable served for only four years (1924-28), dying of a heart attack in his 50s when Bob was still an infant. But his 86-year-old son brought him wonderfully to life, his best story being when a kidnapped child, Jo Gilman, was once delivered to his father’s manse and the culprit hid in the bushes to make certain the babe would be found safely.
Between 1929 and 1967 the next pastor was Dr. James L. Fowle, who was evermore larger than life, and another church elder, David Cooper, delivered a performance worthy of an Oscar. David, wearing a mourning coat as Dr. Fowle used to do and pitching his voice deep and low, brought both laughter and tears as he gloriously told tales of Madden McCallie and so many other earthy saints who made the church almost as inspiring as the legendary “Jamie” himself.
What was so overwhelming, as Peter, Bob and David spoke, was the heralded roles the three ministers have played in Chattanooga’s overall history. Dr. Bachman dedicated both the Market Street and Walnut Street bridges; Dr. Venable’s “home missions” program during the early Depression was stunning; and Dr. Fowle’s tremendous outreach and compassion for others was incredible.
To think, almost 20 area Presbyterian churches have been spawned from the very sanctuary where we were sitting – Signal Mtn. (1929), Brainerd (1939), Red Bank (1942), Lookout Valley (1946), Wayside (1946), Brainerd Hills (1948), Chattanooga Valley (1949), East Ridge (1951), Fairview (1954), Rivermont (1957), Lakeview (1958) Fort Oglethorpe (1958) and Hixson (1967).
Ben Haden, who stood in the pulpit from 1967-1999, followed and it got only better. Dr. Haden has lost not an ounce of his tremendous ability and appeal and when he praised the people, from Madden to Baird McClure, Lee Anderson, Jack Evans and, law, so many others, there was a warmth; no, check that, more volume, please sir, a glow of goodness that carried the night.
Dr. Michael Milton, who then served for eight years as the senior pastor before becoming president of the Reformed Theological Seminary, was eloquent, telling those he still tingles at the city’s lights as he drives over Missionary Ridge. And finally Dr. Tinsley, who has just been here since March, was most gracious, delicately adding but taking care to do nothing that might detract from those who have gone before.
Rev. Tinsley is new and vibrant. So perhaps the best sign that times have indeed changed was when he revealed his younger brother, horribly ravaged by drugs, was shot and killed one Christmas morning. That alone assured those gathered on Saturday that the century-old sanctuary, with its matchless Alpha and Omega stained-glass windows lending light, is needed in today’s world just as much as it was 100 years ago.
It was way back then that the stonecutter chiseled, “Who so ever thou art that entereth this church remember that this is the house of the God. Be reverent, be silent, be thoughtful, and leave it not without one prayer to God for thyself, for him who ministers, and for those who worship here.”
Everybody stood to sing the Doxology at the end, just before the Benediction of course, and as the brass played and the organ roared, I thought of the similar cold December nights when I once stepped into the warmth, carrying those armloads of oranges and other fruit, each wrapped in white tissue paper, towards the shining altar.
Isn’t it funny? Just as a small boy way back then, I can still sense, deep in my soul, that the best is yet to be. Believe this, the Sanctuary Centennial Rededication Celebration just held at the First Presbyterian Church is a beginning, and, oh, what a grand beginning at that.
As Dr. Haden would often end his sermons, “What a Christ!”