What I had prepared to say on Sunday morning in Skainos, if time hadn’t been so pressing.
When the children of Israel crossed over the Jordan, each tribe was instructed to take from the middle of the river bed, a stone. I like to imagine some choose enormous rocks, with which they struggled across the river. Some chose playfully because the stone reminded them of something. Some carelessly, heedlessly, slipping the stone into their pocket more intent on getting across than heeding the instruction. Some choose a stone for prominence, some choose to be hidden away. Some choose for shape, some for colour, some for function. And when they made it to the other side some craftworkers took the stones, shaped them a little perhaps and built something of those rough rocks.
When the people asked why this was done, they were told by Joshua that these stones were for the future, as an encouragement to their children who would later ask ‘What do these stones mean?’ (Jos 4:6,7). The stones were chosen therefore and placed deliberately so that when they were asked what do these stones mean, there was a compelling story to tell. Which was a story of rescue.
In this way their architecture and the things they built, played a role in the spiritual formation of each succeeding generation.
Since 2005 when the Skainos team started full time on the development of this project it was an aspiration to build something which was more than just functional but which would serve a similar role to Joshua’s pile of stones.
Since 2005 I have had the immense pleasure and privilege of working with some very talented people, architects, artists, craft workers, contractors to put flesh on a dream, to incarnate something special here on the Newtownards Road that would serve this and future generations in a meaningful fashion. In a small way I hope that we have been faithful to the wisdom of Joshua all those years ago who knew instinctively that just as we invest significance in our buildings through our use of them so too do our buildings shape and form us in meaningful ways.
And just as those stones from the Jordan were invested with important memories and stories, so too there are there stories in this beautiful sanctuary. And I asked Gary to allow me this morning just to hint at some of the stories built into this room so that in the future when people ask ‘what do these stones mean?’ or ‘why did you build it like this?’ we have a story to tell.
One of Farrans employees said on Thursday evening that he would love to come to this church, and when asked why he said, because in the boring parts of the service there are plenty of things to count!
And he’s right.
The Skainos metaphor of the tent, reflected in our logo has continued to be the guiding story for the development. From our tent poles in the gathering space, to the beauty of our glass installation ‘Shelter Within’, we want to remember the story of incarnation. As John’s Gospel says, the word was made flesh and pitched a tent in our midst.
This beautiful sweep of timber in our ceiling remembers the inside of a tent canvas and marks this place as a tent of meeting where we come to meet under the hovering presence of God. Some of you will already have noticed over the last few days that this feature is replicated in the cafe. I like to think of this as a reminder to us of the presence of God in the place of worship and in the place of mission.
This sheltering curve is repeated in our prayer space, in our reception area, in the Prayer Chapel upstairs, and outside each of the meeting rooms in the building and even in the EBM office area. Everywhere, the sheltering presence of God.
Some of you in this room know the story of our doors created for us by Stephen Mackey and recalling the history of this congregation since 1826. I know they do because I told them. Ask someone, what do they mean, and then tell the story on.
Or maybe the story of these oak beams, why they are made the way they are? Ask, tell.
As those who lead the service stand here at the front of the congregation, they can look out through the glass of the Gathering Space and see the great cranes of Harland & Wolfe shipyard, so iconic for all of Belfast. They are a solid reminder of the industrial heritage of East Belfast. And throughout this room are hints and reminders of that history and tradition.
And so the art glass installation of Andrea Spencer and Scott Benefield on the eastern elevation of the auditorium, reminds us of the twisted fibres of the mighty rope works in this part of the city. The glass is deliberately only partially obscuring Hosford, our hostel for people who are homeless.
Even in this communion table and lectern, conceived and designed by John McLaughlin. At the beginning as we talked, John began to describe a communion table like a carpenter’s work bench. Big honest joints and simple design, the angles of whose legs recall the entrance doors of the church and the angles of the great yellow cranes. An exact scale replica of this table can be found in the Prayer Chapel. And now, God willing, year after year, communion will be served from the carpenter’s table, reminding us of his hands and his careful eye for detail.
And likewise this lectern, again angles which echo the cranes. Resting on three legs, reminding us of the trinity, and so wonderfully, and fortuitously producing for us a cross. Can you see it?
And behind me Chuck and Peg Hoffman’s paintings, inspired by readings in Genesis and Revelation. Originally conceived for the prayer chapel, but when they were laid out to view for the first time we agreed instantly these were for the sanctuary not the Chapel and here they are, telling us the story of the scriptures from beginning to end with the story of the cross so prominent
Everywhere you look there are things to count. Stories to tell.
There is so much more to this room and the rest of the development which we’ll fill you in on as we make our home here. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Nial O’Neill and Barbara Baird our architects who have worked with us for so long. And to all our engineers and designers, and to Farrans, represented this morning by Robert McAllister and their subcontractors who have built such a beautiful building. But it’s important to stress that each story that can be told by artists and craftspeople and architects and contractors is just a beginning.
We are now letting go of this piece of work and handing it over to you. It is now your opportunity, and your responsibility to start filling out these stories, and tell more and new ones to bring life and vitality to this building. So that just as you fill this room with worship and prayer and make it sacred space, so too will this space begin to shape your faith and your walk with Jesus.