Monthly Archives: December 2008

First Christian…Warm & Welcoming

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Conveniently located, Midtown Anchorage’s First Christian Church offers warm welcomes, participative services, and delightful cameraderie missing in many local churches. I felt welcomed from the very beginning. Although I visited them on December 14, the Third Sunday of Advent, I left feeling their warmth was not unusual for this or any other day. Offered a name tag, I was on a first name basis with everyone immediately. A poignant recognition by the church of a long-term Sunday School teacher was a great sharing point. Pastor Dale Kelley’s childrens story time and the star gift for each child helped underscore the importance of children to this slightly older congregation. The sermon was the first, among my Anchorage church visits, to be delivered by a woman. A sad but true sticky thought from her sermon was “Mary’s song will not be heard as often this Christmas season as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Open communion was served followed by a time of food and fellowship to which I was invited numerous times. Many parishioners greeted me warmly during this time engaging me in meaningful conversation. No question about it. This is a great church to visit!

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Why First Christian?
A smaller congregation than I normally visit, I’d been wanting to visit this church because I’ve been
going there regularly. No, not to worship but to practice with a local men’s chorus to which I belong. Sited on LaTouche just off Benson past the BP building, First Christian Church, an affiliate of the Disciples of Christ, is easy to find and access. Unlike many church websites, their worship times are prominently shown on the first screen page. Thank you!

Pinned at Last
Upon entering I was immediately greeted by Pat who inquired if I had a “pin” (name badge) on the wall behind her. This is a wonderfully unobtrusive way to determine if one is a regular attendee at a church. Saying no she then offered a blank badge to me which I merely labeled with “Chris”. Congregations that have member pins usually do not offer a name badge to a visitor as a rule. This distinguishes members vs. visitors and usually in a way that is not visitor-friendly. From this point forward, I was greeted by name by everyone I met. Even before the official “Meet n’ Greet” I had several members introduce themselves. This is not a shy church.
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Full & Effective Liturgical Order
First Christian offers a standard liturgy with good parishioner participation. I particularly noted their sharing of Joys and Concerns which offers a sharing opportunity and time to corporately present them to God. Many churches do not take the time to do this but it is one of the only times attendees are offered an opportunity to have a voice in the service. The Lord’s Prayer notation indicated Debts and Debtors, an advance warning of the form of the Lord’s Prayer to be recited. This is visitor-friendly language.

I make many Anchorage church visits and know there are several women who serve as clergy. I’ve only heard one other woman pastor deliver a sermon in Anchorage. Pastor Kelley’s excellent sermon entitled “The First Joy to the World” was accompanied by a memorable phrase “Mary’s song will not be heard as often this Christmas season as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” What a sad commentary on the Magnificat. I feel her sermon could have been more effective if extemporaneously delivered rather than read, but that’s a small quibble with a great morning. It’s my opinion that written sermons are more formal sounding than sermons delivered free of the printed page.

A small choir on the podium provided musical leadership for various portions of the service. The service closed with communion, open to all believers, effectively and quickly shared. Their practice is to partake of the loaf and the cup immediately as you are served.

Hospitality and Welcomes Rule Here
On my way out after the services, I was invited to join them for coffee many times and was glad I accepted. Their coffee hour, designated “On Holy Grounds”, is hosted by a different family/couple each week. An incredible assortment of sweets and munchies was offered, as well as delicious coffee and other beverages. The room (intimate) and atmosphere invites sharing. So many people came up to me to introduce themselves that I lost count. One of their mission projects was being shown and available for access. I’m glad I visited this church. It demonstrated how people-friendly churches can be.
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Trio of Advent Treats Served at St. John UMC

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Last Sunday, I started out to visit one or two other churches but missed both services due to one church having a non-functional website, and the other showing just a few cars parked just before the posted 10:30 a.m. service time. Instead, I passed both by and headed for St. John United Methodist Church, a friendly and dependable worship venue. What a treat I had! A beautiful morning service accentuated by special music, caring for each other, meaningful prayers, and a welcoming congregation. Pastor Dave Beckett had an unusual advent sermon, filled with probing questions, lots of hope, and illustrated by short clips from the film, Christmas Vacation. I came back for the evening meeting to discover it was a casual version of the morning service, but with the added treat of a musical group of eight singing, playing guitars, instruments, percussion, lots of wonderful Christmas music. The third surprise was an incredible performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria. A choir of approximately 30 singers was accompanied by an eight piece chamber orchestra and piano under the expert direction of Karen Horton. One never knows what will happen when your day doesn’t start out right.

Warm, Friendly, and a Great Christian Community
Earlier this year I visited St. John United Methodist Church, and wrote about it here. I was impressed with their friendliness, warmth, and sense of Christian community. When my planned visits to the other churches fell through [will be covered in a future blog post] , I wondered where I would visit. St. John immediately popped into mind and I’m glad it did.

I felt the service was intensively personal. From the children’s story and lighting of the advent candles, to the congregational sharing of joys and concerns, it seemed a gathering of an extended family. The joys and concerns were real and one could not help but be touched by their being spoken. When a joy is spoken the pastor says “Thank you, God”, and the people respond “Alleluia”. After a concern the pastor says “God, to your love”, and the people respond “We trust this prayer”. During the 11 a.m. service there was special music by the bell choir, always a treat, and a vocal solo accompanied by violin. During the opening of the word, the reader lights a candle and the congregation sings “Thy word is a lamp unto my feed, and a light unto my path.” St. Johns service connects to real, heartfelt, intensive meaning.
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Unusual Advent Message
Pastor Dave Beckett’s message format was one he used in some summer sermons, which unfortunately I missed. He uses a film to illustrate, sometimes in outrageous ways, the point he is making. This Sunday he used Christmas Vacation, a funny Chevy Chase film about the meanings of Christmas. Beckett posed the question “What do you want for Christmas?” quickly clarifying the questions further, “What do you really and truly want to happen in the next several days in order for your to feel Christmas joy?” Yes! I like that! But creating and managing family traditions can be difficult. He noted even he couldn’t imagine what future Mary saw for the Son of God when pregnant: his ministry, miracles, and crucifixion. “Don’t we all need to be reminded of Jesus whose birth in Bethlehem was and continues to be the reason for the season? The challenge for us in seeking this Christmas joy is to have ready and open hearts to receive it when it comes.” Quoting James Noland, Beckett continued “Sometimes we miss the extraordinary because we are blinded by the ordinary.” After the last film clip, Pastor Becket summarized “It is one thing to know what would put us in the Christmas spirit. It is another thing to try to force it to happen. The key is to prepare ourselves for when it surprises us. Be ready. Prepare a place for the Christ child in your heart. Joy is very near. Thanks be to God!”

I know I walked out of St. John walking on air. It wasn’t just one thing, it was the whole package, a real Christmas gift for this writer.

Evening Surprises
I discovered the evening worship service at 6:30 p.m. was a more casual version of the morning service with a more relaxed feel, but the same message. A church musical group of eight individuals provided the backdrop of well played music to accompany congregational singing of advent hymns and music of the church. What a great way to end the day and a perfect solution for those who require an evening service due to commitments during the day. A smaller group, but certainly as warm and welcoming as the earlier services.
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Musical Fireworks!!!
During the morning service I was made aware of a sacred concert to be performed at 7:30 p.m. at St. John for which I made immediate plans to attend. The work to be performed was Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria. A choir of 30, accompanied by an eight piece string orchestra and piano directed by Karen Horton performed this moving religious work. There were three solos and one duet, performed by women of the chorus and beautifully sung. I was quite moved by the duet “Laudamus te. Benedicimus te. Adoramus te. Glorificamus te.”. It is a tribute to the entire musical group, and to St. John for performing this masterful work as a Christmas gift to the community. It illustrated the manner of Christian love and sharing I’ve come to associate with this fine church.

Looking for a Meaningful Christmas Eve Service?
St John will be having services at 4:00, 5:30, 7:00, 9:00 and 11:00. The two earlier services are for families with children, the 7:00 p.m. service features the Sanctuary Choir, the 9:00 p.m. service is a candlelight service with the Sanctuary Choir, and the 11:00 p.m. service is a candlelight service, music by the bell choir and offers communion.
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Maybe I’ll see you at one of these services. Merry Christmas!

Cool Advent Reception at First Baptist

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A recent visit to First Baptist Church, one of Anchorage’s largest congregations years ago, helped usher in the Christmas season but not in a way I expected. As a former choir member and regular attendee, I was not recognized or greeted by anyone except two members who used to greet me by name. Both greeted me as a total stranger. Just before the service, my old friend Pastor Keith Bennett, the minister of music, came by and acknowledged me but that’s it. Also, as experienced in some other Anchorage churches, I did not receive a bulletin, although they were evident. The “Hanging of the Greens”, a Christmas tradition at First Baptist, was a major feature of this day’s service. From the theater-like screening of church advertisements before the service, the 3-point sermon, to the final trademark Baptist alter call and baptism, the service felt cold and impersonal, which may account for what appeared to me to be a decreased number of attendees.

The Beginning
A few years ago I attended First Baptist Church, sang in the choir, and participated in a number of their activities. Initially, it took some time to get their attention but there was usually a warm welcome when I attended their sole Sunday morning service. During the oil boom days, this church had a huge congregation and was very active. Conveniently located at 10th and L Street, First Baptist offers great access.

It has been several years since I last attended First Baptist. I felt it was time for a revisit to see how they compared to the other Anchorage churches I’ve been visiting. Entering by the front door at 10:50 a.m. on December 7, I was surprised to be neither greeted nor to be offered a bulletin. Except for being visited at my seat by two members who knew me from my past association with the church, I was left alone. The minister of music did stop by to acknowledge me but I was not particularly greeted by anyone nor welcomed. This is particularly strange as this was an advent service. What better time to reach out to one’s community than this. Members were greeting each other however. Christmas music played over the sound system and theater-like advertisements for church activities were being flashed on the screen in front.

Music Pleasing
First Baptist has offered a terrific music program as long as I’ve known them. The piano/organ prelude was quite nice. From the strains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” on violin and piano, to the children wandering in with candles, to the choir’s entrance with white poinsettias, this was clearly an advent service. The adult and children’s choir sang beautifully, as always, except they were largely unsmiling with the exception of a couple of children’s soloists who did smile. The choir’s song, “I Have Seen the Light”, should have been reflected in the faces of the singers but sadly was not. Maybe the music was not felt by the singers.

Television Taping
First Baptist’s services are taped for replay on Anchorage Baptist Temple’s TV station at various times during the week. To facilitate this, several elevated TV cameras with operators are at work during the service. Consequently, First Baptist is more punctual in their order of service than other churches.

Pastor Ed Gregory had interesting remarks, accented by PowerPoint slides onscreen, about “The Tree of Christmas vs. The Christmas Tree”. He noted the Christmas tree came from pagan roots, but observed “Let’s not let them take away a beautiful symbol.” Continuing, he noted trees decorate our homes, but behind them stands another tree, the tree of the cross. Although this is a great sentiment, Christmas trees do have pagan origins, as do many other religious traditions. Because pagan traditions have crept into church services, it might be better to dispense with referring to them altogether than explaining them away during the advent season.

Pastor Gregory ended the service with the traditional Baptist alter call, and a baptism.

First Baptist is not as warm as I remembered it. They certainly could be as attentive to visitors as they are to each other. This may have been a fluke, but Christmas and Easter are two times in the church year that see an increase in the number of visitors. Why miss a tremendous opportunity to show visitors that they are welcome?
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St Mark Lutheran…A Cold Day’s Visit

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After receiving queries about omitting Lutherans from my church visits, I chose St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church for a visit. As it turned out, I picked the last day of Pastor Rick Cavens nineteen year pastorate, November 19, for my visit. Just before departing for the service, I perused St Mark’s website to determine their membership and normal attendance. Catching my eye, their latest newsletter contained an article by Vicar Sandra Rudd where my church visits were mentioned, along with tactful suggestions about hospitality to visitors. Members must not have read this newsletter because I received no welcome at St. Marks. I also held the door in the bitter cold for a series of late arriving members, and none of them welcomed me either. My “good morning” from the bulletin passer was it. Pastor Cavens seems to have functioned as the official greeter of the church and spent some time welcoming visitors by name. It was a beautiful farewell service for the Pastor accompanied by a farewell meal at the end of the service. No, I was not invited to join them here either. I did however have a wonderful conversation with the organist about their beautiful pipe organs. It may have been that all of the members were too preoccupied with Cavens departure, but church hospitality should not be the responsibility of one person, and it should always be in full Christian force.

A Beautiful Church
Located one block south of the busy Lake Otis & Northern Lights intersection, St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church is a beautiful church with an active congregation. I was tempted to schedule my visit for another week when I found the reference to my visits in the newsletter, but I need not have worried as it changed nothing. I prefer to visit a church unannounced so I can receive the same treatment any visitor would get. Only after a service, I might mention I’m blogging my visit, usually in the interest of obtaining clarification of certain points connected with the visit.

Pastor a One-Person Hospitality Icon?
Pastor Cavens personal touch with visitors was fine. He informally strolled around the church to point out this or that visitor and the circumstances of their visit. It was a warm touch but in my opinion lulled the members into leaving hospitality duties to the pastor. This was my first visit to an Anchorage church where the pastor was so involved in pointing out visitors and making them feel at home. During the “Peace” Cavens made his way back to me and said, “There you are. I missed you. You disappeared on me.” I had been sitting in plain sight all along. He could have obtained my name and made mention of the miss, but those liturgical schedules need to be adhered to.

Some Good Memories
There were wonderful highlights to my visit. There was handbell music by a special group of church members. Long will I remember their performance. There was much participation by various church members. An elderly reader was helped to the podium to read the Old & New Testament scriptures. That was awesome. Caroline Valentine skillfully and sensitively presented the music from their beautiful pipe organs which wonderfully accented the service. I spent a few minutes with her after the service and she patiently explained the background of the organs and her joy in serving her church with music. Thank you Caroline! The church interior is quite modern with wood beams. It is tastefully appointed but not overdone.

I can see why Cavens was so long at this church as he has an informal style that has broad appeal. He did the children’s story using a hand puppet of a cat, describing his M&M ministry. M&M’s were handed out to the children and to other church members.

Cavens sermon was based on the parable of the talents in Mathew 25. He mentioned the interim pastor told him on his arrival that “All you [St. Marks members] needed was to be loved.” Cavens shared his vision of where he hoped the church would continue to grow, physically and spiritually, ending with the challenge, “What are you going to do with your talents?”

The Prayers of the People were especially touching this day with much participation. After the offering, communion was served in a most meaningful manner with Pastor Cavens being joined by his wife and two daughters who assisted him with serving the congregation. The service was closed with a special liturgy for the Departure of a Pastor from a Congregation. Sister Kathleen from Horizon House joined Cavens onstage for this ceremony.

In many respects I did enjoy my visit to St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church. In all honesty I cannot say it is a warm and welcoming church presently. I believe all Christians are sufficiently enjoined by Old and New Testament citations to extend hospitality to visitors. This needs to be a natural and normal part of our faith life and extended through our churches.
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Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Church…Unusual Service…Not Welcoming

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My visit to Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, a Roman Catholic church on Huffman Road, was an interesting contrast with my visit to Holy Family Cathedral this summer. Not greeted by anyone in the church either coming or going, I felt much the same as when I meet with a similar lack of reception in many Protestant churches. However, it was a most unusual service with a visiting 77 year old priest from Oklahoma City presiding. Well lit for a Catholic church, Seton is wonderfully accented by floor to ceiling stained glass windows behind the alter. A strong church voice in the area of “Right to Life”, this priest, Fr. Daniel McAffrey, drew the attendees attention to the Churches position in this area. Rarely do I hear this kind of “message from headquarters” in any church service. If this is the position of the Catholic Church, it seemed appropriate to share it in a service of this type. The other bright spot was the choir/musical group of seven, including two of the group who played guitar, plus a pianist. Unfortunately, I drifted back out into our community without any personal connection being made with this church.

Catholics Tend to Not Be Evangelical
My experience with Catholics is they really are not looking for new converts. New members tend to come from “cradle Catholics” and from a steady influx of Catholic believers from outside our borders. So, I was not overly surprised by a lack of a greeting or even a bulletin being handed to me as I entered Elizabeth Ann Seton’s sanctuary on October 19, 2008 for the 11:30 a.m. service.

Except for a large cross behind the alter, Seton seemed architecturally similar to a Protestant church. Modern in design, sparing of ornamentation, it was exceptionally well lighted for a Catholic church which often are quite dark. It appeared quite full with approximately 300-400 worshipers. The musical group was quite delightful, small in number, but having great voicing. The guitars played by several of the group and the piano added to it’s refreshing character. The group sang hymns most pleasing to the ear. At one point, they stopped singing for 7-10 minutes which I felt was an uncomfortable pause.

Unusual Priest
The visiting priest this day was Fr. Daniel McAffrey from Oklahoma City. As the readings from scripture were introduced he asked for our attention because “These are love letters from God.” (Isaiah 45:1, 4-6) This 77 year old priest, spoke on “Right to Life” issues. Saying he was ordained 50 years ago, he presided with a generous sense of humor.

He noted that contraception and sterilization was taking married couples away from God. Saying marriage brings new life into the world, he further noted 80-90% of Catholics were contracepting. Priests are silent on this issue, he added. With 50% of Catholics divorcing, he questioned the role or lack of role the spiritual life played in this, i.e. rosary, confession, reading the bible, etc. Further compounding these issues is the fact that 62 is the average age of priests in the U.S., and 70+ is the average age of Catholic sisters in the U.S.

Consistent with a previous article in this blog, he noted that in other areas of the world, Alaska was being viewed as a foreign mission, with Fr. Jaime, a Bishop in the Philippines being one such proponent.

What’s the Solution?
Fr. McAffrey said the solution was to return to God. Pleading not to be arrogant, as picking up your cross is tough. He called attention to marriage being about children and intimacy. He noted there would be a woman physician available to counsel couples about these issues after the service. Whether you agree or disagree with his position, he was clear and gently pleaded for Catholic mind share on these issues. It was refreshing to hear these issues discussed openly, to know that some churches still care to share church-oriented teachings with their parishioners.

The Eucharist
Very practical and teaching-oriented, Fr. McAffrey clearly explained the sacraments, preparations, and prayers during the Eucharist. There was a great tide of attendees who participated in this ritual, so much so that it appeared they would run short on the Eucharistic emblems.

In conclusion, it was an interesting visit. I had little contact with anyone during the service, except for the Catholic version of “Meet n’ Greet”, The Peace. I’m guessing Catholic churches are not warm because they don’t have to be. Catholics come to church because of very strong programming to attend services. I’m still hoping to find a Catholic Church that is genuinely warm and outgoing, and welcoming to visitors. I tried several times to take pictures of the stained glass to accompany this blog article, but found the church locked, even when I was assured it would be unlocked.
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