Tag Archives: First Covenant

Easter 2017 Memories

Every year, when Easter finally arrives, I visit churches for the joys of communal Easter celebration but vow this is just a personal experience for me.  Usually later, I find my thoughts bending toward sharing the experiences I’ve been a part of. Easter this year is no exception.

My visits took me to two separate churches of different denominations.  The commonality of the joy was expressed in both, but in different ways.

The first visit was to St. John United Methodist Church’s 9 a.m. service. The music was glorious, full of choral expressions and worshiper singing. Most churches tend to start Easter services with the pastor intoning “Christ is risen!” to which all reply “Christ is risen indeed!” repeated three times and ending with “Allelula!” The same was joyfully done this morning.

The choir’s anthem was “Rejoice, He is Alive” by Shafferman, and beautifully sung. St. John is one of the shrinking number of Anchorage churches still maintaining a fine choir. Ably directed and accompanied by a husband and wife team, they are a credit to this church and our community.

Pastor Andy Bartel’s sermon was titled, “What Are You Looking For” and tied to the New Testament scripture for the day of John 20:1-18, the account of the resurrection discovery and Mary’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus when he asked her what she was looking for. Bartel provided a great challenge for today’s Christian.

The service concluded with G.F. Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”, led by the choir and participated in by all. I was invited to join the choir as the led out in this appropriate and beautiful ode to joy, and tribute to the Messiah. Wonderful service at this friendly church!

The 2nd service I attended was at First Covenant Church, downtown Anchorage. To me, this church offers its multicultural congregation wonderful evangelical services.  My few visits there have been accentuated by hymnody led by a spirited singing group of six, using acoustic instruments, stepping through hymns in an upbeat fashion. This day their songs included, “Low in the Grave He Lay”, “Amazing Love”, “I Surrender All”, and “The Easter Song”.  An all-church choir came forward to sing that old evangelical song, “He Lives”.

Pastor Max Lopez-Cepero’s sermon was actually a reading of noted author Walter Wangerin, Jr’s “The Ragman”. I considered it to be a remarkably moving tribute to the power of Jesus in changing people’s lives. If you care to read it click this link. http://tinyurl.com/n3uky2g

There was a baptism of a young man as the service was concluding. First Covenant practices full immersion baptism and it was a scene of joy as he was baptized while his family looked on.  All were invited to a coffee and dessert reception as the service concluded.

I was filled with joy and wonder at the power of religion to bring hope, and the celebration of that hope by these two churches this Easter. Although only four weeks has passed since Easter, the memories of it linger in many hearts, including mine.

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.”

First Covenant Unfriendly – Ultimately Impressed Me

New Church for Church Visits
I’ve been driving by First Covenant for years. Located just off C Street South of the Delaney Parkstrip, it’s convenient to find. Their paved parking lot was only half full when I arrived for their 10 a.m. service on Sunday July 7. I’m always excited to visit a new church but was underwhelmed by my first five minutes at First Covenant. Read on.

No Greeting or Bulletin/Worship Guide
Despite the lobby being quite full with people having coffee and chatting, no one greeted me or gave me a bulletin when I walked in. There was a single greeter who was talking with another person. Entering the sanctuary, I found a seat about half-way back. At no time during or after the service did anyone approach me. This is inexcusable in any church. As a church visitor, I never do the work the church should be doing. Yes, I could have gone back and retrieved a bulletin, or introduced myself, wringing a greeting from someone. However, I’m there to experience how an average visitor is treated, not to train church members how to respond to me. Many pastors tell stories of people coming to church as a last desperate act before they end their life. In Anchorage, I could have gone on to end my life many times after visiting many churches where I’ve been totally ignored. It’s inexcusable!

Before Worship Service
Although I arrived on time for the worship service, few people were sitting in the sanctuary. I’d estimate 10-20. Most everyone was in the lobby having coffee. I don’t know why the service was late starting. Possibly the coffee crowd may have been the reason. I was there at the posted time, where was everyone else? Those sitting in the audience started talking louder and louder, over an organist who was mainly playing delightful renditions of hymns. At 10 a.m. she sat down in anticipation of a service start which didn’t happen. First Covenant’s website talked of a diverse multi-cultural membership but I saw little evidence of it. There were a few Alaskan Natives present this day, but I did like the mix of ages of the worshipers.

Finally the Service Starts
At 10:07 the service finally got rolling with a pastoral welcome. The pastor focused on visitors who were part of a Merge team from the Yakima, WA area who were performing various hands on work and other ministries. Even at this juncture I did not feel he was welcoming me or any other non-Merge guests.

An upbeat group of 3 younger acoustic guitarists, a drummer, and pianist began the first of four hymns, pleasing to hear, and quite theological, a surprise in Anchorage where so much weak theology Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is performed every week. The 15 minutes of singing was a joy.

They sang songs like:
-On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand
-Where Justice Flows Down Like a River (CCM and a bit tricky to sing)
-Come Thou Almighty King (updated and awesome)

The prayer time was lengthy and the prayer was read by a native member. I believe reading prayers takes away their impact. I’ve heard few truly extemporaneous prayers given in the years I’ve been visiting churches. So many are read, seeming to tell God what is going on in this world, instead of relating to God in thanks, praise, and requests. We were then asked to stand to repeat The Lord’s Prayer.

Offering Taken
This was another church that asks everyone, including guests, to give. We were instructed to give with a “joyful heart”, as giving was an “act of worship”. No exceptions were noted for those visiting for the first time. It’s such a kind act to mention to guests to let the offering plate pass without feeling obligated to give. One of the mission team members from the Yakima, WA area played an offertory on the guitar, teaching the worshipers a new song. I liked this part very much.

But Then Something Happened
Pastor Max Cepero started talking at 10:35. Titled “What Does the Bible Say About Patriotism?” it was one of the best sermons on the topic I’ve ever heard. Cepero preaches extemporaneously, using limited but effective visuals. He raised solid questions about whether it’s truly possible to serve God and country at the same time, pointing out that dissent is our highest form of patriotism.
Pastor Max shared three struggle/questions he had.

1. Why do church members claim this country founded as a Christian nation?
Facts don’t support it.
2. Why do we only pray for “our” people in this country?
Why not others in other countries?
3. When we say God bless America, how do we say it…boastful?
Why just America?

You can listen to Pastor Cepero’s excellent sermon HERE .

Communion and Dismissal
For communion a pre-communion hymn, Come Share the Lord was sung. Some readings and a commentary preceded communion but nothing was said about their practice of who may receive communion, a serious omission. The pastor wore a black anorak throughout the whole service, an Anchorage first for me. After dismissal I engaged Rob Williams MD, a member of the Merge team, in conversation and learned Compassion International was the organization directing them to their short-term mission assignments. The team of about ten limited themselves to budgets of approximately $1,000 each, a huge departure from the many Africa-bound short-term missioners from Anchorage last summer where $5,000 to $6,000 was the average for a similar length trip. There are other ways!

Why Did I Ultimately Like This Church?
I was conflicted by this visit. Although they don’t seem to have a guest-welcoming ethic, they have a great website, one of the best in Anchorage, one that drew me in. The music was a pleasant surprise. The variety of ages represented was very comfortable and a bit unusual for a church of this size. I estimate approximately 75-100 worshipers were present.

The sermon was Biblical, well-delivered, and easy to follow. Clearly this group is well cared for by an insightful pastor. They had a potluck after church to which all were invited. As I hadn’t had any interaction with a single member, I was uncomfortable staying. I’d visit again and would recommend this church for a visit by someone looking for a good church. It may have been a bad day for the hospitality. After some time has elapsed, I’ll check out First Covenant again.