Monthly Archives: December 2009

Cornerstone Christmas Eve: A Real Treat

My Christmas Eve post expressed both my joy and concern about churches use/non-use of their webpages to inform the community about their Christmas Eve services. Many did so effectively but an alarming number either ignored doing so or did so ineffectively.

For a Christmas Eve service I settled on Cornerstone Church in South Anchorage because they’ve consistently met my visit criteria of welcome, hospitality, music going beyond entertaining, and effective Bible-based teaching (see visit criteria – top right). And too, I was attracted by their Christmas website presentation. Their main webpage had an attractive Christmas banner at the top with service times prominently displayed, and then again, partway down the page, both in the line of sight. Simple, graphically correct, and effective.

I was greeted very warmly by a greeter who was similarly greeting others with smiles, handshakes, hugs and programs. She was not the only greeter. Cornerstone has four outside entrances and two sanctuary entrances. My greeter, Mary, said they were gearing up to cover them all with greeters for every service. It gave me a warm feeling to discover she remembered me from my previous visit. Obviously Cornerstone cares about giving all comers, members or not, a warm reception.[img_assist|nid=146684|title=Praise Group Starting Christmas Eve Service|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=161]

The Cornerstone praise group was playing and singing as I entered the sanctuary. The music was pleasing, joyful, and appropriate. The pastor, Brad Sutter then got up, said his remarks would be brief that night, setting the stage by talking about Top Ten Lists. He proceeded to enumerate the Top Ten Reasons to Give Thanks This Christmas drawn from the Christmas story as recounted in Matthew and Luke. Cornerstone is one of the few churches in Anchorage to offer video and audio of their messages. Click here to see video or hear audio of Sutter’s Christmas message. I believe this was an example of an effective, Bible-based message.[img_assist|nid=146685|title=Joseph, Mary and Infant Jesus Tableau|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=205]

After Sutter’s message, communion was quietly served, self-service style “…for everyone who has accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.” It was an effective reminder that the Advent was just the beginning, which culminated in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. To me, it took the focus away from Christmas long enough to remind us what it’s really all about. No other religion offers the concept of a God loving His people enough to be willing to be sacrificed for them.

A tableau with Joseph, Mary, the infant Jesus was enacted onstage while a young girl and a woman beautifully sang I Adore You. The lights were then dimmed as candles were picked up, and flame was transferred candle to candle throughout the auditorium as Silent Night was sung. The service was concluded with all singing with the praise group, the very appropriate Chris Tomlin tune How Great Is Our God.[img_assist|nid=146686|title=Candlelight Silent Night|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=138]

I’ve been to few Christmas Eve services in my life that were as effective as this one. I thank the staff and members of Cornerstone for making my evening memorable. Even Noah, an occasional 4th grade student of mine, when I teach for ASD, spotted me and surprised me with a friendly “Hi Mr. Chris!”.

Christmas Eve: Service Times Shown on Websites by Thoughtful Churches

The following Anchorage churches gave prominent attention to their Christmas Eve services on their websites. Times were easily seen on the first screen, often in striking ways. Thanks to these churches for this great community service! It is obvious they understand how the Internet is reshaping the way churches communicate with the public.

* Trinity Presbyterian – Awesome Webpage
* Cornerstone Church – Just Right & Tasteful
* Amazing Grace Lutheran
* City Church
* First Baptist Church
* Anchorage Grace
* Holy Family Cathedral
* First Presbyterian
* Community Covenant – Eagle River – Can’t Miss It
* The Crossing – Birchwood – Wait For It
* Anchor Park UMC
* Christ Community Church
* Anchorage Bible Fellowship

In addition to event postings and display ads in the newspaper, webpage postings should be a “no-brainer”. Unfortunately, a Christmas Eve survey of many local church websites found either a single line of mention out of sight on a webpage or no mention at all. If your church is not listed above, you are probably in this category. I may have missed some churches, for which I apologize. I surveyed most of the churches I regularly visit and comment upon. Christmas Eve is one of the heaviest church attendance nights of the year. Why ignore drawing attention to it?

Holy Cross: Deeply Felt Visit

Though I’m not of Catholic background, leaning, or persuasion, during my December 13, 3rd Advent Sunday visit to Holy Cross Parish , I discovered a service rich with meaning, a congregation close to its pastor, meaningful music, and worshipful reverence. For the first time in my Catholic Church visits, I was actually welcomed and greeted by a number of warm and friendly people when entering the church.[img_assist|nid=146236|title=Holy Cross Catholic Church|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=166]

What Happened Here?
Holy Cross Parish has been on my list to visit for some time, to bring balance to my Catholic Church visits in Anchorage. So far I’ve observed a Catholic reserve entering their churches with a priest, sometimes, greeting parishioners as they enter. Often no one else is welcoming arrivals. This did not happen during my visit to Holy Cross Catholic Church. The outside doors were opened and I was warmly greeted by two individuals. Inside several more individuals again greeted me, and then another. What a difference it makes!

The church is relatively new and modern. Spacious, it is wider than deep which I liked. All were within easy viewing of clergy and participants. Acoustics were great. I estimate a culturally mixed group of 250-300 were in attendance this Sunday.[img_assist|nid=146237|title=Fr. Dan Lighting Advent Candles|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=466]

Starting on time at 11 a.m., the priest Fr. Dan Hebert lit the Advent candles accompanied by brief remarks. When lighting the 3rd Advent candle, he noted it was the JOY candle, and spoke about the need for JOY. He stressed we would hear much more about JOY during the entire service, and he was so right. I confess the simplicity of the candle lighting was an emotional moment for me, as well as the attendant meaning of each candle. Finally, I was impressed Fr. Dan was so meaningfully “hands on” in the candle lighting. It was a real treat, and so appropriate.

Musical Treat
In keeping with the very participative service I was witnessing, I was profoundly affected by the renderings of the musical group. Composed of 6 musicians, half played strings (guitars & violins), and all sang. The effect was beautiful. Their sound carried well throughout the church even though they were located in the upper right-hand corner. This was music that was made beautiful by its simplicity.[img_assist|nid=146238|title=Holy Cross Musical Group|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=221]

At the conclusion of the reading of the scripture, the reader clearly announced “The Word of the Lord”. This simple phrase, missing in so many church services, dramatically underscores what just happened.

Homily Worked for Me
Fr. Dan’s homily was on Joy, as promised. He understands how to communicate with his people. He began by noting how hard it is to rejoice when war, killing, current economics, health care problems, crimes, Ft. Hood killings, the Service High assault, and problems with our personal lives are on our minds. But he reminded us that “God is in our midst” and to “go find God in your life”. He admonished us we are to “bring glad tidings to the poor” and that we’re all poor. I could feel this was both literal and figurative in this congregation.

Fr. Dan made several useful concluding observations:
1. Things seem to come together when God/Jesus is back in our life.
2. Life is joyful when God/Jesus becomes part of your journey.

During his prayers, Fr. Dan asked “Lord, hear our Prayer” and requested He “Gift us with Your Joy.”

Just before Mass, Fr. Dan finished his homily by gesturing inclusively to the communion table and the elements of Eucharist by noting “Here’s our Joy right here”. During the quickly-served Mass, the musical group and audience sang “On Jordan’s Banks” and “Tis a Gift to be Simple”.

In conclusion, Fr. Dan said “We have a choice to rejoice or choose sadness and despair”. After leaving he warmly greeted parishioners with both hands as they streamed around him. I was in a bit of a daze as I left. This had been an unexpected Catholic service and I was happy to have been a part of it.

Fourth Sunday of Advent is Today

Today the three previously lit Advent candles are relighted, and joined in lighting by the fourth candle, whose theme is Peace. The following prayer, located on the noted website, is an excellent example of an Advent candle lighting prayer for 4th Advent Sunday.[img_assist|nid=146191|title=4th Advent Candles – First UMC|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=226]

Lord God, we light this candle to thank you for your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who is the Prince of Peace. We who live in discord and strife have found peace in the promise of eternal life, through Jesus Christ. We give you thanks and praise in Jesus’ name, because he lives and reigns with you in your glory, and in the unity of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Rev. Ken Collins’ Website

Often the candle is lit by someone other than clergy, but last week, at Holy Cross Catholic Church, Fr. Dan lit the candles. When lighting the JOY candle, he noted how the term JOY would be used throughout the whole of the service. What a powerful illustration and introduction to the term he made! The next and final Advent candle lighted will be the Christ candle, usually the center candle which is white. It is lit on Christmas Eve.

St. Mary’s Episcopal: Warmer But Noisier Than First Visit

Sunday, December 6, I revisited St. Mary’s Episcopal Church for the 11:30 a.m. service for 2nd Advent Sunday. My initial visit last year revealed both positives and negatives (click here to read previous visit review). During this visit I saw improvement in some of the areas I commented, most notably the greeting. When churches fail to warmly welcome each visitor and member, they tragically miss an important opportunity in their mission to share the “Good News”.

Sadly, the noise levels in this beatifully sited church before and during the service were high enough to mar my visit experience by blocking my ability to hear the music and officiants clearly. The sermon, well-delivered by the associate rector, did not produce a personal connection for me. The music for this service, the third of four Sunday services, was wonderfully delivered in folk style by a praise group of singers and instrumentalists. I highly commend this group for their dedication with well-written, beautifully performed, and appropriate selections.
[img_assist|nid=145931|title=St. Mary’s Episcopal – Praise Group|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=213]

It Starts With the Welcome
The greeter at the door was friendly, holding the door open for all. I commented on her warm greeting and she responded it was her “job”. Would that she was multiplied by dozens and sprinkled around Anchorage. She was not doing a “job”, but personally ministering to all comers. Thank you Ms. greeter!

This warm greeting was immediately tempered by the sole bulletin passer, so preoccupied with a personal conversation with a parishioner, it was difficult catching her eye to receive one. However, the voluminous bulletin proved to be a poor guide to my worship experience, as officiants names were omitted, leaving me totally unaware of the names of participants in the service.

Service Quite Noisy
At the start of the service it was virtually impossible to clearly hear the proceedings due to the unwillingness of worshippers to stop talking, and noise from the lobby. Closing the doors to the lobby could have diminished some of this noise, but the person calling for The Gathering (calling to worship) was extremely hard to hear. During the service, adults and children talked off and on making it difficult to clearly hear the proceedings. I have no problem with children being with their parents in any service, but also feel it offers parents a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate and train reverence in children. Children and adults were clearly observed talking loudly, unimpeded, at various times throughout the service.

Music Wonderful
The musical director of the 11:30 service, Wade Hampton Miller, has assembled a talented and dedicated group of instrumentalists and singers. Clearly they add much to this service, despite the noise levels. I particularly enjoyed the processional Walking to Jerusalem and a piece Miller created for Advent 2009, Come, Oh Come, Oh Chosen One. The music, in a folk vein, clearly was done with sensitivity and simplicity. I considered it to be a strong point of the service.

The Rest of the Service
The only evident sign of Advent was the Advent candle holder and wreath in the front. Lighting of the Advent candles was clearly an important facet of the service. The sermon was delivered by whom I later discovered to be the Associate Rector, the Reverend Doctor Ted Cole, Jr. (whew!). While a good talk and well-delivered, I felt a personal lack of connection to the speaker and topic.

The Eucharist, known here as The Great Thanksgiving, was preceeded by the Rector noting it was open to all! This is a rare statement in Anchorage church visits and I applaud St. Mary’s openness and sincerity.

After the service, the musical leader noted they did not do Christmas songs during the service prior to the celebration of the Advent, but because it was after the service, they would perform some. I greatly enjoyed their musical offerings and commend visiting this church just to experience this gutsy, polished group.

I left St. Mary’s with mixed feelings but realize every church community adopts various forms of expression. I did introduce myself to the Associate Rector on the way out, but not the Rector as he was preoccupied with others as I left.[img_assist|nid=145932|title=St. Mary’s Episcopal – The Great Thanksgiving (Eucharist)|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=126]

Third Sunday of Advent Begins Today

Many churches in Anchorage are celebrating the Third Sunday of Advent today. The first and second Advent candles will be relighted, and joined in lighting by the third Advent candle representing Joy. This meaningful ceremony does much to offset the pervasive commercial flavor Christmas has come to represent. In the simple act of candle lighting, Christians honor and look forward to the coming of the King, memorialized on Christmas Eve.

Second Sunday of Advent Begins Today

[img_assist|nid=145907|title=Candles – 2nd Advent – St. Mary Episcopal|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=262]Today, December 6, 2009, is the second Sunday of Advent. On this day the first and second of the four Advent candles are lighted. The first Advent candle, lit last week and relighted today, is often themed as representing HOPE. It will be joined in lighting by the second Advent candle which is often designated as representing LOVE. The candles are generally purple, representing royalty, i.e. the season of the coming of the King.

While not all churches observe Advent’s countdown to Christmas Eve, most mainline Protestant, and Catholic churches do.