My thoughts on Grace Chapel and why it is holy, candid, and special:
First, there are elements that make it feel instantly homey. There is coffee, there are donuts, there are pews--snuggle in!--and there are children scampering about. Second, there are spoken reminders that the adventurer, the new face, and the wanderer all belong, and soon they discover that they have never been new at all. We know them and they know us; we are them as they are us. Third, there is humility from the pulpit, balm for the church-sick. This iconic place of brow-arching disapproval is instead a display case for the humanness we all know and share. Finally, there is an understanding that our fears, joys, and poverties are not separate stories but one, and that in their telling is the rest of burdens released and born together.
And now a point by point explanation:
1. The Geneva House, where coffee and donuts are provided, serves as a buffer zone where less than comfortable newcomers or attendees can acclimate to the environment. To me, this is a foretaste of the later, more deliberate meal we share together. They are elemental to setting the mood because they provide immediate familiarity, and not least importantly because they travel with us to the sanctuary. Yes, there are greeters saying "Good morning!" but first there is the unspoken "Good morning!" of drink and food--the first family meal. If you are new and anxious, at least you can cling to a coffee mug.
2. As a partner to the candidness of traveling mugs of coffee, the service always begins with an acknowledgement of just how challenging it is to wander into a new church followed by a hearty voicing of support for such adventurers. This underscores one of the other essential mood pieces of Grace: the intentional airing of realities we know to be true of us. Church is tense if you're new. No reason to quietly hope new people don't feel the tension--instead, there is explicit permission to feel it and also to be encouraged in the midst of it that you are, in fact, brave just for being present.
3. I've yet to forget one of the first times I attended when I heard these words come out of the pastor's mouth in the opening prayer: "...forgive the sins of he who preaches, for they are many..." It may have been the first time I felt like the pastoral voice ever partook in the spirit of the Lord's Prayer with us ("...forgive us our debts..."). If we preach and believe that heaven and earth are being made one, it only follows that we should strive to make pulpit and pew level with each other. It took 25 years for me to feel like a pastor existed on my plane, a pulpit on my earth.
4. This final piece is the least tangible of the four elements I've tried to summarize, but it is the most essential for what I mean by "holy candor", which is the phrase I've arrived at to describe the general tenor of this place. A chapel is a humble, unassuming place, and inside this particular one there is a sense we are wholly sacred when we are able to be wholly human. The human story, which is to say your story and my story, has sanctity. Its strands are individual but undivorceable from one another since together they stretch, tie, and tether us to the ultimate reality. Without the blending of each individual life's colors, we paint a pale picture. Thankfully, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, those in positions of leadership are both shepherds and the first to put their strokes to canvas.
Addendum (four months later):
I arrived at "holy candor" because a question was posed to me about the essence of Grace Chapel. After reflecting for some time I feel it encapsulates the sense of the people and practices of this dear place. I realize much of it is quite rosy. Everything is not perfect, though, and Grace would be the first place to say that. Some of it is idealized as I look back on the last eight years, but all of it comes from what I felt there then and even more acutely now as I search for a spiritual home here in Seattle. There is holiness because there is Great Presence. There is candor because there is deliberate frankness regarding who we all have been, likely are now, and God willing can become some day. Together, there is this "holy candor" I have tried to articulate.