LAWTON (BP)—When Lawton, First sensed godly inspiration to add a second weekend to its Living Christmas Tree, Senior Pastor Mike Keahbone didn’t realize what was in store.
“To ask for a church to do it two weekends back-to-back was a difficult, difficult ask,” Keahbone told Baptist Press, citing the long hours and labor required in the production. “But it just felt like the Lord was in it.”
The additional weekend, Dec. 1-3, accommodated an exclusive performance Dec. 2 for Fort Sill soldiers that drew 116 professions of faith among 700 attendees. Keahbone had been working to invite the soldiers to the 42nd annual event that at one time drew heavy attendance from the large Army base adjacent to Lawton.
“They were not going to be able to (attend), except for the fact that they found out we were doing an alternate date,” Keahbone said. “Had we stuck to just doing it next weekend (Dec. 8-10) when we normally do it, they wouldn’t have been able to come.”
Lawton, First began the evening with a dinner of grilled burgers and hotdogs in advance of the service. The church gifted soldiers with a commemorative challenge coin Lawton, First commissioned with the logos of all six U.S. military branches on one side, and the living Christmas tree logo on the flipside. Gideon Christian Fellowship provided New Testaments with the Psalms.
“We obviously shared the Gospel that night,” he said, “and it turns out we had 116 professions of faith, several others that want to know more, and then a whole bunch that already knew the Lord … indicated that the living Christmas tree sort of brought them back home and kind of got them back on the right track.
“What excites me about this is that it has opened the door in a significant way for us to possibly do more things with our post here at Fort Sill. This was a bridgebuilding opportunity with them.”
Soldiers recorded their professions of faith and other spiritual decisions on cards, and Lawton, First gave copies to Fort Sill for follow up counseling. Several chaplains attended the event.
Col. Robert Glazener, Fort Sill’s senior chaplain, said the decision cards will be given to chaplains assigned to respective soldiers for follow-up.
“Our chaplains spend a lot of time with soldiers. They probably spend six to eight hours a day visiting with soldiers with a variety of needs,” Glazener said. “I know that they will be diligent about doing this.”
Such outreaches as the Living Christmas Tree are important to the ministry military chaplains provide.
“One of the important things about being a chaplain is to ensure that soldiers have an opportunity to practice their faith in a manner that they feel comfortable with,” said Glazener, commissioned by the North American Mission Board 25 years ago. “And particularly during High Holy days like Christmas, those Christians who want to do something extra, we set up the condition so that they’re able to go if they want to.
The Living Christmas Tree is among several holiday events Fort Sill offers annually, Glazener said, including Christmas and Hanukkah observances.
“Part of the job of a chaplain is to ensure religious freedom is practiced,” he said. “All of our religious freedom is interconnected.”
Lawton, First has held the event the past 43 years, breaking only during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
A Dec. 1 dress rehearsal accommodated a small group of assisted living community residents, some of whom Keahbone said also accepted Christ, and some of whom were military veterans. Local news media publicized upcoming weekend performances extending through Dec. 10.
“I love the tradition of (the living tree) with our community. And I love it as a pastor (because) we’re sharing the Gospel with our community,” Keahbone said. “For those thousands who come to take in the show, we’re sharing the Gospel every single time. We see people saved, that’s obviously the best reason. And then the other part is just watching our church rally to serve our community.”
In addition to the 50 vocalists, an orchestra and a 30-member cast performing in the accompanying Christmas drama, the event requires extensive work behind the scenes and additional hospitality outreach during the production. Crews assemble and disassemble the tree hardware each year, parking lot attendants direct traffic, volunteers prepare and serve refreshments and others hold ventilation ducts under the tree to prevent singers from overheating from the lighting.
The challenge coins, measuring 1.75 inches in diameter, were a special encouragement to soldiers and military veterans who attended during the dress rehearsal.
“A challenge coin, typically earned, can also commemorate being a part of something,” Keahbone said. “We wanted all of our soldiers here to know that they’re a part of our family, and that they can always count on Lawton, First to pray for them and support them and to have their family’s back.”