My Hiatus is Over

It’s been over a month since my last post.  My website/blog is alive and well.  Many long-time readers are not getting my Church Visits columns because I’m no longer published in the Alaska Dispatch News. Also, many of those readers do not use social media such as Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook which I use to distribute my writing.

I’m hard at work setting up MailChimp as an additional distribution mechanism for my columns. If you subscribe, MailChimp will send you an email of each column as it’s published.  In order to do this, I’ll need email addresses for you and your friends.  Please email me with your request to be included and I’ll do so quickly, I anticipate my MailChimp connection will be live in about a week.

Email your requests to me at churchvisits@gmail.com.

Blessings

Chris

Ashes Signal Lent’s Beginning Tomorrow

It’s difficult for me to believe that Lent commences tomorrow. Part of that difficulty is wrapped up in my lack of understanding of how quickly the church year whizzes by. My evangelical upbringing did not honor the church year, as observed in so many mainline, orthodox, and Catholic churches. That, of course, extended to Lent.

Over time, I’ve become very involved in observing the various waypoints of the church year, discovering the various ways many Lent observing faith traditions journey through Lent. In the process Lent, Advent, and other similar traditions provide comfort and spiritual centering for my life. Over time these various faith traditions have sunk in and nourish my soul.

Ash Wednesday is one of those waypoints.  In this age-old simple ritual of accepting ashes on my forehead, and being reminded by the ash imposing clergy of my mortality with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, I’m annually reminded that, as the old spiritual says, ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.”

Orthodox Lent has already with Forgiveness Sunday services last Sunday. I’ve observed this healing practice at St. John Orthodox – Eagle River, and Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox – Anchorage.  What a wonderful healing practice which should be emulated by many more churches.

Often, Lent observing Christians are asked about what they are giving up for Lent, with somewhat humorous tongue-in-cheek replies.  In fact, the annual Twitter Lent Tracker for 2017 (see https://www.openbible.info/labs/lent-tracker/2017) indicates the top 10 Lenten give-ups seem to have little to do with drawing closer to God at this season.

Rank What Number of Tweets
1. social networking 1,076
2. twitter 933
3. alcohol 771
4. chocolate 664
5. chips 554
6. sweets 321
7. fast food 319
8. school 298
9. soda 295
10. swearing 288

Lifeway Research started its own poll Lenten poll this year and discovered these were the top ways Christians said they would be observing Lent: Fast from a favorite food or beverage (57%), Attend church services (57%), Pray more (39%), Give to others (38%), Fast from a bad habit (35%), Fast from a favorite activity (23%). (see http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2017/february/what-to-give-up-for-lent-2017-twitter-top-100-ideas.html)

I’m impressed with people who resolve to do something for others or take up a useful habit during Lent. The Christianity Today article, noted above, stated “LifeWay found that nearly 3 in 10 evangelical believers (28%) now observe the Lenten season before Easter, while Catholics remain most likely to do so (61%).”  To me that is a startling but growing number.

Another Orthodox practice that impresses me is their rigorous fasting during Lent, primarily to keep their heads and bodies clean and clear to fully participate in the joys and sorrows of what the Lenten season brings.

If you do not observe Lent or haven’t been exposed to its practices and significance, I urge you give it a try starting with Ash Wednesday tomorrow.

Lenten blessings to each of you.

East Anchorage congregation gave generously to the community in December

In my December 17, 2016 column, “Three Churches, Three Approaches to Christmas”, published in Alaska Dispatch News, I mentioned Baxter Road Bible Church’s annual giving campaign in December.  Unbelievably, they donate 100% of church income to charitable causes in our community, causes suggested by individual members. Their theme is “It’s not your birthday, it’s Jesus'”.  (see http://www.churchvisits.com/2016/12/three-churches-three-approaches-to-christmas/)

This congregation walks the talk, and unbelievably gave over $102,000 in December!  I’ve been privileged to become acquainted with some of the members of this dedicated church community.  They give out of their love for God and their fellow man.  A few members might not even want me to mention their giving in the event this practice might be mistaken for being a prideful act.  Clearly they lead by example and their example has been a personal inspiration.

Coincidentally, the same day I visited BRBC in December, I also visited Anchorage Baptist Temple. Unbelievably, Pastor Prevo made an earnest appeal before his sermon for a coming “Christmas Miracle Offering”, to be distributed to staff of ABT, Anchorage Christian Schools, and their missionaries.

Some churches might take up a special offering in December for the poor or local projects of concern such as various non-profits.  I thank God for churches like BRBC which remind me that Christmas is the time to emulate the gift given to us in the form of Jesus.

In his wonderful book, “Christmas is Not Your Birthday”, Pastor Mike Slaughter reminds us, “At Christmas, we celebrate a messiah, a deliverer, who was born to die. So, we too are called to give ourselves sacrificially with Christ for the world that God loves. More for him and less for us. Such sacrifice is paradoxical because the more of ourselves that we give away, the more abundant our faith and our contentment will be with what we have. In our culture of consumption, this is a countercultural way to live. Living on less when we could have more and giving away more when it means having less is a frightening proposition to many people. It is not easy, and there will be naysayers, but this sacrifice is what Jesus truly desires of those who would follow him.

Since 2004, Ginghamsburg Church and local partners have raised $8.3 million to provide humanitarian help for Darfur with their Christmas Miracle Offering. (see http://ginghamsburg.org/serve/ways-to-serve/christmas-miracle-offering)

I didn’t read a single word or hear a single TV story about Darfur during the Christmas season just passed.  Makes you think doesn’t it?

 

Church Visits Back Online!

Welcome Church Visits reader.  It’s been 10 days since my final Alaska Dispatch News column. Some readers mistook my last two posts as news that I’d retired from writing the column. Although ADN decided to no longer carry my column, I’m continuing to visit churches, comment about those visits, and share related matters of faith.

After 8 1/2 years of writing for ADN via blogs and published columns, all without compensation, I felt the expenditure of many hundreds of hours visiting churches, researching topics of interest, and submitting written work was worth the cost.  Unbelievably, I never even received a single free newspaper from ADN during all those years.

My website, churchvisits.com, contains a compendium of everything I’ve ever written for ADN. They’ve assured me that, for the foreseeable future, all of my recent writing for them will continue online at adn.com/churchvisits.

I’ll be posting each of my future articles to Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. If you do not use these social media, you can request to be included on article updates I’ll be emailing via MailChimp. This will result in your receiving an email for each new article so you can stay up-to-date.  Please send me an email at churchvisits@gmail.com if you’d like to be included for that list.

Future articles will cover:

-10 things I liked about church practices in 2016

=Altar calls – genuine or psychological blackmail?

-Demonic possession – real or fake?

-Faith and science – are they compatible?

-Three popular views about hell

=Church visits – good and bad

Thank you for your support of my writing. I look forward to keeping your minds active in the coming years. Very few writers tackle religion as I do across the U.S. It’s a unique emphasis that’s unconventional but engenders great interest.

Blessings for the New Year!

Chris

10 things I’d love to see churches address in 2017

Churches are complex groups of people who develop their church’s DNA — often over the course of many years. Many are heavily influenced by their pastor of the moment, “lifers” in the congregation, or core denominational beliefs that may change as they develop or morph over time. During the course of my many local church visits, I’ve seen some meaningful change over the years, but some issues I’ve noted every year seem to be impervious to change.

For many years now, I’ve been sharing my lists of 10 things I’d like to see churches tackle seriously in the new calendar year. This list will be my last published in Alaska Dispatch News but I’ll continue to write about them and other pertinent visit-based observations on my website, churchvisits.com. This list is in no particular order, but these items are widely recognized to be significant in attracting new believers, retaining members and sustaining church growth.

1. Hospitality should be world-class.

A major reason a church guest will never return occurs when they receive a sense they are not welcome when visiting a new church. It’s easy: Just don’t open church doors for them, establish eye contact or genuinely welcome them with a handshake and smile while handing them a bulletin or order of service. It’s every member’s responsibility, not just a designated greeter’s. I’ve only heard one pastor deliver a sermon, in all my Anchorage church visiting years, that talked about the importance of hospitality.

2. Music should be relevant and respectful.

Every church has its own musical styles, from the Church of Christ vocal-only music with no instruments, to some Pentecostal and evangelical churches with killer music groups blasting up to 115 decibels for sustained periods of time. I’ve noticed, for the most part, that the louder the music, the longer the play time. Usually the contemporary music is a medley of mostly unfamiliar songs to which people stand and listen to the group perform. That’s silly. It’s even sillier to perform 30-45 minutes of such music that’s unconnected to anything else in the service.

3. Sermons should be Bible-based with great takeaways,

Sermon series seem to be the flavor of the moment in many churches. They may last weeks or months. Many pastors seem oblivious to the research that indicates millennials, for example, are concerned with issues such as science and faith, sexuality, fostering relationship building, and hypocrisy, and feel the church fails to address these issues, to name a few. David Kinnaman’s well-researched book “You Lost Me” provides the data to back up these concerns. Yet, I’ve never heard a single sermon address any of these issues. Little wonder this group feels religion is failing them.

4. Meet-and-greets are not guest-friendly.

Many churches practice this mind-numbing exercise to make themselves believe they really care about guests. Incredibly, some churches still ask guests to stand up and identify themselves, when research indicates this practice singularly discourages return visits by guests.

5. Visitor parking should be plentiful and convenient.

Visitor parking spaces, of a sufficient number, say, “Welcome, we were expecting you!” Yet, too many churches have too few of them. Like designated handicapped parking spaces, they say, “We value our visitors.”

6. Guest packets are a must.

Every first-time guest should receive information about the church, its beliefs and practices, and information about learning more about it. Unless churches learn to know people walking in their doors, they’ll never know who is or is not a first-timer. These information packets are often more effective when accompanied by a memorable gift such as a freshly baked loaf of bread, a great candy bar or a coffee card. I’ve received fewer than 10 such packets in all of my hundreds of Anchorage church visits.

7. Offerings must exclude visitors.

A very common practice is to shove the offering plate under every guest’s nose without exception. Guests should hear clearly that they are not expected to give. Some churches take up multiple offerings, making it doubly important to remind guests, who are not members, that they’re excluded from giving to offerings.

8. Follow up with every visitor.

It’s a delicate matter getting information from new church guests. Many will be checking you out before they commit to sharing information. Others will gladly share that information if their visit seems to be going well. The field is divided whether a personal visit or some other type of follow-up, such as a letter or phone call, is best. However, the value of a guest visit to a church lessens with each passing day. Make that after-visit connection quickly.

9. Websites are important connectors; treat them accordingly.

I’ve seen some major improvements in church websites over the years but an often-overlooked fact is that most people consult them for two things: location and times of services. That information should clearly be showing at the top of the page when your main site comes into view. Many websites have taken the approach of using rapidly changing graphics to entice the user. Often that can confuse instead of help. All church websites should be updated weekly, if not daily.

10. Phones – make them work for your church.

Calling churches is currently, in my opinion, a waste of time. Even during office hours, it’s a rare occurrence if a real person answers. Often, a messaging system will answer the phone and give numerous options about what you’re looking for: worship times, location, staff, etc. Personal contact may be the lifeblood for establishing a relationship with a person needing what a good congregation can offer. Personally, I’ve discovered that messages left are returned less than half of the time.

This is my last ADN Church Visits column. I want to thank ADN for filling a void in church and religion coverage starting in 2008 with my blog and then in a weekly print column in early 2014. Over the years I’ve tackled a variety of issues regarding church culture and matters of faith. Though this column will no longer be published at ADN, I’ll be regularly updating my website with similar posts of my visits and religion issues. I’ve stepped on a few toes but I write truthfully and honestly. My opinions are my own but I back up my writing with other knowledgeable experts and research. Thank you for reading my column. I invite you to visit my website, churchvisits.com, which contains all 8 1/2 years of my ADN writing and many more useful resources on music, mission and topical indexes (and ADN has indicated they’ll be keeping my ADN-blogged and column writing, online into the future at adn.com/churchvisits).

Happy New Year to each of you!

The value of Christmas is deep and remarkable

When many of you read this, Christmas Eve preparations will have been made. Churches will be ready for you with multiple services; this annual event will be celebrated with great joy. Music, candles, pageantry, sermons and goodwill will herald the end of Advent and entry into Christmas.

Because Christmas falls on Sunday this year, some churches will not hold Sunday services. But, according to Christianity Today, “Eighty-nine percent of pastors say their church will hold services on Christmas Day. Leaders of Lutheran (94 percent), Church of Christ (93 percent), Baptist (91 percent), Presbyterian/Reformed (91 percent), and Holiness (92 percent) churches are most likely to say their church will hold Christmas Day services. Pentecostals (79 percent) are less likely. Small churches and large churches are slightly less likely to be open for Christmas.”

Some argue against churches having Christmas Day services, especially when Christmas falls on Sunday, because Christmas Day is a family day. Presents need to be opened and family Christmas traditions need to be observed and perpetuated.

The purpose of Christmas Eve services is to celebrate the birth of Jesus in imaginative and multiple glorious ways. For many churches, these services are their most heavily attended of the year. Many evangelical churches now actively use them for evangelism, i.e., attracting new adherents. And what better way to use them. But for many, Christmas Day is an afterthought.

Be sure to check with your church to ensure it is holding Christmas Day services before going. Last week, over coffee with a pastor, he revealed he’d made the mistake some years ago of going to a church retreat during a weekend assuming all members would be there.

Unfortunately, no notice got posted on the church door. Upon his return, he discovered some people did come for a Sunday service and left with the impression the church was no longer in business. This also happened to me when visiting a local church. It turns out they were away at a camp meeting but the door had no notice of it.

Most Catholic and Orthodox churches hold both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. As always, it’s best to check church websites or call to ensure when services will be held. I fondly remember, as a then-member of the Anchorage Concert Chorus, singing for the Christmas Eve Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral several years ago.

It’s truly a beautiful service with brass, choir, organ, timpani and piano focused squarely on the birth of Christ and culminating with the partaking of Eucharist. To be able to participate in this “extracurricular” event was an honor I’ll always remember. This might be a good year to experience this beautiful Mass along with this elite musical group.

As a choir singer for most of my life, I can personally attest to the amount of effort church music directors put into the preparation of music for Christmas services. In some churches with large choirs, the choir itself can represent a sizeable portion of those present for services. Choir members invest significant amounts of time preparing for this special music, and enjoy the participative efforts of their singing.

Regardless of your faith tradition, I urge you to experience Christmas celebrations of other faith traditions. It always amazes me how rarely Christians allow themselves permission to experience Christmas through the eyes of another faith.

Maybe they are fearful of eternal damnation if they do so, or are so tied to their personal congregation that they feel nothing could be better. I’ve experienced Christmas in various areas of the world, and through the eyes of various cultures. It’s fascinating to do so, and gave me new insights and appreciation for practicing my own faith in ways that were enriching.

Growing up in a Christian family, even if we did not go to Christmas Eve service, we always commenced Christmas Eve festivities with a Gospel reading of the Nativity story. It’s an enriching story and needs to be read in its entirety to catch its fullness.

I like Luke’s version the best, and Luke 2 is the place to start. Matthew’s version of the Nativity starts at Matthew 1:18 and is preceded by the genealogy of Jesus. Try reading with some different translations to capture the scope and sway of the text. The King James Version, even with the Elizabethan English, still captures the imagination. These days I often enjoy the English Standard Version for its translation accuracy and beauty of language.

My experiences with Anchorage Christmas services have always been an enjoyable part of my church year. No matter where I go, churches seem to be on their best behavior during this time. Many years, I’ve gone to multiple churches to experience their Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.

I’ve been particularly blessed when churches offer “Lessons and Carols” services during Advent or at Christmastime. I see that First Congregational Church is offering such a service at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Also, Holy Family Cathedral will be offering this type of service on Christmas Eve at 11 p.m. Zion Lutheran offers its own Christmas Eve service of “Lessons and Carols” at 7:30 p.m. These types of services are beautifully rendered with readings, carols and special musical presentations.

As I wind up my writing year, this will be my next to last column for the Alaska Dispatch News. Next week I’ll present my “10 Things I’d Like to See Anchorage Churches Address in 2017” column. My “10 things” columns at year’s end have been something I look forward to writing and will continue to do as I confine my church writing to my website, churchvisits.com. The site also contains all of my ADN blog posts and columns for the past eight and a half years, approximately 530 articles.

As we complete Advent and transition into Christmas, I wish each of you warm Christmas greetings. May the peace and hope brought by the birth of Jesus’ attend your ways at this time, and into the coming year.

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Three churches, three approaches to Christmas

Last Sunday I attended three separate services. After focusing on Advent this month, I wanted to experience services at evangelical churches not observing Advent. While I believe Advent, rightly observed, can be an antidote to the crass commercialism hijacking Christmas, evangelical churches should also be urging their parishioners to keep focused on the true purpose of Christmas, Jesus.

Anchorage Baptist Temple

This megachurch, Alaska’s second-largest with approximately 2,500 members, is always a feast of sight and sound. Everything seems to be larger than life with an enormous center-stage video screen, flanked by two large video monitors to the right and left. Spirited singing by choir and congregation was underway as I entered the 11 a.m. Sunday service.

The music was a blend of Christmas carols, along with some modern classics such at the “Little Drummer Boy.” Hymnals are not needed as the words are projected on the screens, which use incredible animation to bring the words to life. A vocal group composed of Anchorage Christian Schools youth sang a number of songs, and a singer sang a lovely song.

The stage was decorated with the traditional icons of the season. I counted six decorated Christmas trees on the stage, plus eight more lighted trees in the choir area. There were stacks of presents, teddy bears and candy cane poles all over the stage.

Throughout the service reminders were given about the Christmas pageant to be held this weekend, donations to ABT’s bus Christmas store, and sacrificial giving to the church’s 2016 Christmas Miracle Offering. I was bothered when the Rev. Jerry Prevo mentioned the purpose of this offering as being for employees of the church, the school and church missionaries.

Prevo made a very hard sell for this offering, the likes of which I’ve only seen in one other church — a certain prosperity Gospel church in Anchorage. The goal was $30,000, and I was concerned they were thinking more of each other this time of year than those desperately in need of physical and financial assistance.

Prevo presents well-prepared sermons. He interrupted this one, “Two Kinds of People,” to show a dramatic 12-minute short film to illustrate his talking points. The video illustrated people who respond to invitations to help and those who do not, which he later typified as the “lost” and the “saved.” My ABT visit showed me a “Christmas as usual” attitude with much giving expected, heavy appeals to give to the Miracle Offering, and a significant emphasis on the upcoming Christmas pageant, quite a contrast to my next two church visits.

Baxter Road Bible Church

Less than a mile from ABT, lies Baxter Road Bible Church. The church offers two services on Sunday: 10 a.m. and noon. Arriving at the noon service a few minutes late, I found Communion already being served. The church’s musical group is enjoyable to listen to and sing along with; it presented hymns and carols of the season, typical of non-Advent practicing churches.

Children presented several songs. No matter how good or poor the singing is, this is a time of wonder for the adults. Many of us have been there before, and can only remember the faces smiling back at us.

The Rev. Bob Mather’s sermon, “Preparing for Christmas,” was Bible-based, giving practical advice about preparing our hearts for Christmas. Though this church is a little over a 10th the size of ABT, it’s opened its heart for years to giving during December without urging.

Using the theme, “It’s not your birthday, it’s Jesus’,” the congregation dedicates 100 percent of December church income to community nonprofits and other religious organizations members suggest. These organizations are actively doing the work Jesus referred to in his teaching.

Last year, Baxter’s December’s giving reaped over $90,000, more than twice what ABT has set as its 2016 goal. No sales pitch was necessary Sunday morning for this cause at Baxter. The congregation doesn’t need it; it’s one of those things they do without urging. Mather, pastor at the church, has often told me: “The more we give, the more blessed we are.”

ChangePoint

Alaska’s largest church at around 3,500 members, ChangePoint leads by example in the local community. I tend to find the music overly loud at ChangePoint and don’t visit as often as I could. However, the Sunday 6 p.m. service found a smaller crowd, and music easier on the ears than normal. My decibel-meter measured most of the music at 90-98 decibels, a sharp reduction from previous services.

As I entered, I was greeted at the door and welcomed by a member. I noticed the church’s OnRamp life group was collecting practical gifts for children at McKinnell House, Salvation Army’s temporary family shelter, during November and December. What a sensible ministry!

Before the sermon,the Rev. Scott Merriner, executive pastor, introduced Adam Legg, newly appointed executive director of Love Alaska, and Rick Steele, executive pastor of operations. Legg is in charge of an exciting new venture that joins two previous ChangePoint initiatives, Grace Alaska and Priceless.

Grace Alaska took on some major projects in town such as getting the Downtown Soup Kitchen started, and providing automotive services for single mothers and widows through Rightway Automotive. Priceless is a service to women involved in human or sex trafficking. Approximately 70 women have been referred to the program, which provides them access to over 120 trained mentors in 18 local churches.

Love Alaska will now be a separate organization not subject to ChangePoint’s structure. Members of ChangePoint will be encouraged to support these efforts to address areas of brokenness in our community along with members of other churches. A third initiative of Love Alaska will be Chosen, a program which focuses on mentoring youth as they leave the foster care system. ChangePoint’s annual Uncommon Gift Offering will be taken Sunday to support Chosen. These changes are exciting for Anchorage and ChangePoint is to be commended for making them happen.

Student ministry pastor Adam Brown’s message was the second in a series titled, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” His particular message was subtitled, “The Wonder of Real Treasure.” Using Matthew 6:19-24, he said “real treasure is what we think it is,” noting we must each choose our treasure — temporal or eternal — and to chase our master whether it be God or money.

I thought this was a powerful message from a church that is making a difference in our community. As we look at the consumer-driven brokenness of Christmas, it was refreshing to hear this message on Sunday, a real antidote to consumerism.

Advent and Christmas are much more than consumerism

As we move through this time of Advent, and pre-Christmas, my various visits to church services and religious events have been instructive, mostly offering signs of Advent hope.

Attending Clear Water Church the Sunday before Advent, I saw them taking steps to incorporate the spirit of Advent. Karen Gordon, a teaching acquaintance, making her way to greet me after the service, mentioned she and artist husband Steve had recently switched from another church. I asked to see him. He was making his way toward us from children’s sessions where he’d shown them how to create Advent wreaths, complete with candles; Steve and Karen work with elementary children. That morning 24 wreaths were made: 20 for elementary school families plus four for preschool families. Steve said it promotes Advent as a family social occasion.

“Growing up,” Steve said, “Advent was devotional family time that brought faith to my home, not just at church. It’s a tradition that brings value. God can direct what comes of that. Advent inspires kids and families to talk about their faith.”

Steve’s also been instrumental in creating a puppet show for the children that depicts real-life drama. This Sunday, their Christmas puppet show will be enacted from the viewpoint of the donkey, teaching valuable spiritual lessons.

I asked pastor Mark Merriner about Clear Water’s Advent focus. He mentioned his wife had sparked his interest in Advent several years back and they’d begun observing it in a quiet fashion in their home. Clear Water is making Advent an element in each of its services during December. Various members take a few minutes to share personal thoughts about Advent, using teaching points or a story about something that happened to them.

First Sunday of Advent, I attended services at First Presbyterian Church. It was a rich experience with warm greetings, Advent candle lighting, meaningful congregational and choral music, and a sermon on “holy waiting” that had a sticky factor. Pastor Matt Schultz stressed that Advent was about waiting. As Schultz concluded his message, he urged the congregation to consider waiting a few minutes before eating meals, and waiting again before laying heads on pillows before going to sleep, to ponder what waiting and Advent’s theme of waiting really means. In my mind it was an excellent application of his remarks.

On the second Sunday of Advent, I attended First Covenant Church of Anchorage. This multicultural church close to downtown never ceases to amaze me. They were friendly to me from the time I entered until I left. I like this church’s mixture of music. This morning, their praise band of six led the congregation reverently through four traditional and contemporary songs including “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” “Joy to the World,” “Mighty to Save” and “Come Lord Jesus.” These were not played at earsplitting decibels and were enjoyable to sing.

They recognized Advent with a reading and lighting of the second Advent candle, the peace candle. The theme for second Advent embraces the prophets who foretold the birth of Jesus. Pastor Max Lopez-Cepero was on vacation, and in his absence, the sermon was given by Kristi Ivanoff, wife of Curtis Ivanoff, superintendent of the Alaska Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Kristi, an accomplished student of Scripture, used Isaiah 7:10-16 as the basis for her sermon titled “Sign of Immanuel,” underscoring the day’s theme. A recording of her sermon is available on First Covenant’s website.

A luncheon invitation capped my Advent visit to this social justice-oriented church. I believe they “walk the talk” of Advent throughout the year.

Last week’s column mentioned an Advent concert at St. Patrick’s Parish on Dec. 2. Attending, I was not prepared for the breadth of the music and the skill of the musicians performing. Additionally, there were Advent readings and lighting of each of the four Advent candles: hope, peace, love and joy. I was not prepared for the length of the concert but found it to be a great Advent blessing. The small admission charge, which went to Catholic Social Services to benefit Brother Francis Shelter, was worth it. Many people brought donated warm-weather gear to benefit those in need. Kudos to St. Patrick’s Parish and the many musicians from the community for their hard work in creating this Advent treat.

The sad part of this evening was that St. Patrick’s, by my estimation, was only half full. I fear that many in our church community are too involved with the consumer-driven side of Christmas to be bothered with attending such events. Christian historian John Pahl, writing in his insightful book “Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces,” says: “If places as well as events shape the contours of piety, then clearly a trip to the mall can have an impact on the contours of one’s faith. Personally, I have rarely left a mall inspired to be a more generous and caring person.”

Many are caught up in a frenzy of shopping for each other and themselves at this time of year, because they’ve lost sight of the fact that Christmas is not about giving to each other. The World Bank estimates that more than 700 million people live at or below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. The Christmas story is about recognizing the gift of love that was given to us and sharing it with others, but not in self-gratification. Another just-released book, “The Christian Wallet: Spending, Giving and Living with a Conscience” by Mike Slaughter, a United Methodist pastor at the at 4,000-member Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio, addresses this topic.

I asked Slaughter why so many pastors are silent on this issue.

“Many pastors have taught a ‘me-centered’ gospel,” he said. “It has been reduced to how God can bless you, prosper you and increase your wealth. This emphasis only fuels the debt cycle that many of our folks are experiencing and fails to heed Jesus’ call of self-denial. One of the mantras that I continually remind our folks is that we are to live simply so other people can simply live. I challenge folks to spend as much on the ‘widow and orphan — the least and the lost’ as they do on their own families each Christmas. Note the emphasis on ‘equal amount.’ Is this not what Jesus meant when he said do unto others as you would have others do unto you? By this practice our people have built 294 schools in Darfur that has impacted 35,000 children as well as agricultural and water projects.”

What a challenge from a Christ-centered spiritual leader who has also appropriately written “Christmas Is Not Your Birthday: Experience the Joy of Living and Giving like Jesus.”

Advent Music Here

Too many churches fail to recognize Advent by jumping into Christmas right after Thanksgiving and continuing the pattern of Advent and Christmas carols until New Year’s celebrations. Anchorage’s local classical music station KLEF-FM, 98.1, presents a wonderful sacred music program Sundays, from 6 – 9 a.m.  Host Jon Sharpe always seems to find sacred music for every mood and taste.

During Advent, Jon’s focusing on Sacred Advent and Christmas music. For 15 years he’s been producing a program on KLEF-FM 98.1 called “Sacred Concert”.  It airs every Sunday morning from 6 to 9.

His remaining December lineup includes:

European Advent and Christmas music will be featured on December 4.

Early American Advent and Christmas music will be featured on December 11.

An English Christmas Celebration will be featured December 18.

Christmas Day, “Christmas in New York”, is the special feature.

KLEF’s website is at http://www.klef98.com/. They also provide an internet streaming experience over the internet. (http://www.klef98.com/listen-live) If you are outside of Alaska, remember the time zone differences from your locality.

Thanks to KLEF, it’s sponsors, and Jon Sharpe for fine sacred concerts Sunday mornings. I’ve been listening for years and have never been disappointed.

Two faith traditions, one common cause—helping others

As the holiday season progresses, various faith organizations are gearing up to help others in our community. A pair of significant events this weekend are worthy of note. The Reform Jewish community and local Presbyterians are holding separate, but similar events this Sunday to raise funds for worthy organizations.

Mitzvah Mall, Congregation Beth Sholom, noon to 3 p.m. Sunday

If you’ve not experienced Mitzvah Mall, you’re in for a surprise. Imagine coming to an event that raises money for local nonprofits without the giver receiving anything in return. It’s something akin to a cash call at a gala. An annual event at Congregation Beth Sholom since 2008, it continues to grow.

“This is something that the congregation has done for a number of years,” explains Rabbi Michael Oblath. “We just provide the space, and gain nothing from it other than knowing that we can contribute a little bit of time and effort into bringing people into a place where they may talk to strangers or friends, meet new people, and, most importantly, bring a little joy into other people’s lives. We do it, just because it’s nice… and a good thing for the community… just seems like it’s the right thing to do. I’ve always seen it as a way to give a double gift… one to a friend, and one to someone that you may never know or meet.”

Intrigued by the word “mitzvah” in the event, I asked Oblath to explain the meaning. “Mitzvah translates as ‘commandment,’ so the commandments, as the guidelines and path to how we live our lives, reflect both relationship to God and to the world, even including humans,” he said. “Within the Reform movement we tend to conceive of the performance of the commandments as the way to achieve the healing of the world. That is the same notion as achieving peace and harmony in life… not just an individual’s life, but basically life in general.”

The way it works is local nonprofit organizations are invited to participate at the Mitzvah Mall and then chosen on a first-come/first-serve basis. Each organization is provided with a table for staff who present their organization. Those attending make contributions to any organization present in someone’s name. That person receives an elegant gift card noting the gift has been given in their name. The conversations I’ve had with nonprofit representatives at past events have helped gain a better understanding of their mission.

According to Penny Goldstein, organizer of Mitzvah Mall, the non-profits represented will include Alaska Botanical Garden, AK Child & Family, Alaska Innocence Project, Alaska WildBird Rehabilitation Center, American Diabetes Association, Anchorage Project Access, Bean’s Café/Children’s Lunchbox, Catholic Social Services, Equine Assisted Therapy of Alaska, FISH (Fellowship In Serving Humanity), Friends of the Library, Helping Hands for Nepal, Joy Greisen Jewish Education Center, Lemong’o Project, Malawi Children’s Village, Parachutes Teen Club and Resource Center, Pedals for Africa, Turnagain Community Arts Alliance, United Jewish Communities Alaska and Victims for Justice.

“If you want to send someone a present,” Goldstein says, “and are tired of the materialism or just can’t figure out a good present, here is your remedy. We have calligraphers to fill out lovely cards that you can send in lieu of, or with, other presents. It is a fun event. We have birds (two owls and a sandhill crane, plus a therapy dog) as well as human representatives of those agencies. We also have music!”

Coffee, hot chocolate, and tea are offered without charge, but no food is being offered. The event is about giving and learning more about the fantastic work being done by multiple nonprofits many may not know much about. Congregation Beth Sholom is located at 7525 E. Northern Lights Blvd. (just west of Carrs).

First Presbyterian Church Alternative Gift Market, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday

A similar event to Mitzvah Mall is First Presbyterian Church’s Alternative Gift Market. Open from 9:30  to 1:30 p.m. Sunda,  (except during worship, which begins at 11 a.m. and lasts about an hour) it offers gifts from a variety of mission partners First Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and Yukon Presbytery. Now in its third year, it’s slightly different from Mitzvah Mall.

According to organizer Danna Larson, the market is  “a combination of alternative giving and supporting agencies by buying fair trade products. We offer a fair and just way for our congregation to shop at Christmas, either through organizations that sell fair trade products or those that provide opportunities for one to donate in someone else’s name.”

This year’s partners include Bean’s Café, Downtown Soup Kitchen, Anchor Presbyterian Church (homeless ministry), Presbyterian Hunger Fund Equal Exchange (fair trade coffee, teas and chocolate), Yukon Presbytery: Gambell (new church building), Haiti Artisan Network, Presbyterian Church (USA) Gift Catalog (featuring different projects to donate to in honor of someone), Pal Craftaid, Emergency Cold Weather Ministry at First Presbyterian Church, Two Spirits Carving Studio (cooperative studio for Native artists), and Presbyterian Women.

For refreshments, Presbyterian Women are hosting a Christmas bake sale. A soup lunch that raises support for Downtown Soup Kitchen will be offered. In years past, I’ve purchased Haiti gifts and a variety of soups; both make great alternative gifts.

Curious about the focus of their ministry, I asked Larson for more information. “AGM is an appropriate nonprofit response to consumerism and provides a fair and just way for our congregation members to shop at Christmas and choose gifts that will make an important difference in helping people in our community, our nation and our world,” Larson said “In addition, congregation members have an opportunity to learn about the ministries represented and the importance of supporting those who are involved in fair trade practices. Often times, connections made at the AGM lead to other involvement in the local agencies represented.”

First Presbyterian Church is located at 616 W. 10th Ave.

It’s heartening to see individual faith organizations, like these, stepping up to the plate to infuse new spirit and meaning into a holiday season that has become devoid of meaning for many. If your organization is doing something innovative in the spirit of the season, like these two congregations, let me know. I’m always happy to share the joy.