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Christmas Joy

‘In our living, in our giving, we are there’

December 16, 2021 by Emily Enders Odom

As he strode purposefully down Broadway against the cold, New York City air last Sunday, the Rev. Chris Shelton had a song in his heart.

One he had written himself.

Shelton was returning to the sanctuary of Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City — where he has been pastor for 10 years — to gather a few of the church’s musicians to record his new hymn, “We Were Not There (We Are There)” as a gift to the PC(USA) in this holy season. Listen to the hymn here.

The hymn, which Shelton wrote at the invitation of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Special Offerings, has five verses. The first four verses are built around scenes from the Gospels, and the fifth relates to Pentecost. In composing the hymn, Shelton said that he tried to “catch the tone and the spirit” of each of the four Offerings, Christmas JoyOne Great Hour of SharingPentecost and Peace & Global Witness.

“The range of programs supported by our PC(USA) Special Offerings is quite breathtaking,” said Shelton. “Through these offerings, we are invited not only to share our individual gifts, but to watch them multiply. Ever wished you could have been there when Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes? It only takes a little imagination, and you can see that it’s still happening. When our many gifts come together, we are there.”

Shelton, a trained vocalist, writer and composer with a new hymnal of his own published earlier this year, invited his friends and fellow musicians, Paul Vasile (piano), Simon Doong (clarinet) and Jay Julio (viola) to bring his new hymn — and everyone’s weary spirits during yet another COVID Advent and Christmas season — to life.

“We’ve spent so much of the last two years in isolation, and yet we’ve discovered again and again how connected we really are,” Shelton said. “I wanted this hymn to be a reminder that we’re not only connected to each other, we’re connected to our ancestors in faith, we’re connected to those friends and neighbors and strangers who gathered around Jesus. When we read the stories they left to us, we are standing right there beside them, and we’re invited to live their stories out in the here and now.”

Although Shelton doesn’t imagine that all five verses will necessarily be sung every time the hymn is used in worship, the recording captures all of salvation history for congregations to share in their hybrid or digital worship.

We were not there out on the hillside
when the heavens rang with joy
or when the shepherds sought the savior
in the hay—a helpless boy—
but every time we echo angels
speaking words of peace on earth,
and every time we live as shepherds,
risking moments of new birth,
and every time we see God giving
gifts beyond all earthly worth,
then we are there out on that hillside.
In our living,
in our giving,
we are there.

— From ‘We Were Not There (We Are There)’

“The refrain of the text tries to pull us all together and into the ongoing story, ‘In our living, in our giving, we are there,’” he added.

Bryce Wiebe, director of Special Offerings, agrees.

“There is a unity of message and music in the hymn,” said Wiebe, who is also a trained musician, “which grounds us in our sense of connection with God’s story throughout history and with God’s story of the Church and its purpose in our world today.”

That sense of connection is also paramount for Shelton, who became a Presbyterian because he was invited to sing in the church choir at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Denton, Texas.

“In that community, I was not only invited to sing, but I was invited to meet the living Christ at work in every corner of our lives — in the here and now; in the midst of our struggles, challenges, and joys,” he said. “There I heard it loud and clear: the Gospel has less to do with the world beyond us, and everything to do with the world that is before us. I’m not in the choir anymore, but that’s still the Gospel I love to sing about.”

Give to the Christmas Joy Offering to assist Presbyterian-related schools and colleges equipping communities of color and to help the Assistance Program of the Board of Pensions support our leaders: past, present and future.

Follow Special Offerings to learn of future plans for “We Were Not There (We Are There).”

This was published for Presbyterian News Service on December 16, 2021.

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For those supported through the Christmas Joy Offering, this help is truly a gift from above. May our gifts, and the leaders who receive them, point us always to the truth of the one whose birth we celebrate, Jesus Christ — the truly perfect gift.