Monthly Archives: August 2012

Installation of New Lutheran Bishop – 9/1/12 – 3 p.m.

There will be an installation of Lutheran ELCA Alaska Synod’s Bishop designee, Shelley Wickstrom, on Saturday September 1 at Central Lutheran Church in Anchorage. Convening at 3 p.m. this ceremony signals the start of her leadership ministry in Alaska.

I had the privilege of talking with Ms. Wickstrom recently after attending a Sunday service at Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage. She has a good grasp of contemporary issues, challenges, and is ready to engage them on behalf of her synod. But she was quick to point out that her first duty would be to listen. I’m sure she’ll be a great listener as she was a most active listener with me.

This will be a meaningful ceremony and urge you to attend, even if you’re of another faith, to understand the importance passing the reins to new leadership represents to this church and many others. I’ll be there and look forward to sharing impressions of this service.

For further information on Bishop-to-be Wickstrom, click HERE.

Interview – St. John UMC’s Karen Horton: Uncommon Organist & Outstanding Choir Director

This week we focus on another key Anchorage church musician. Karen Horton has been a mainstay in Anchorage’s musical community. She is in her 20th year of teaching music in the Anchorage School District.

Her first ten years with ASD were spent at Williwaw Elementary, while her second ten years were and remain at Rogers Park Elementary. Countless students have had their musical knowledge and skills, shaped and sharpened by this remarkable woman. [img_assist|nid=162209|title=Karen Horton – Lighter Moment at St. John’s Rodgers Organ|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=252]

Church worship music is currently undergoing a drastic change their leaders hope will halt the mass flight of attendees from their churches. I am intrigued by her insights regarding this phenomena.

Karen’s academic background includes a Bachelor’s in Music Education, Major – Organ from University of Central Arkansas, graduate studies at University of Oklahoma concentrating in organ performance, and a Master’s degree from Louisiana State University with a Masters degree in Vocal Pedagogy. I first became aware of her talents when I went to a Christmas program at St. John UMC where she ably led her talented choir through Vivaldi’s Gloria. What a beautiful concert! It was then I determined to find out more about her wonderful talents.

CT – How many years have you played the organ and led the choir at St. John?
KH – My husband Darrell and I started singing in the choir in 1995. I became St. John’s organist in 1996. In January of 2004, I also became the choir director.

CT – In light of the fact that so many church choirs in Anchorage has disbanded, to what do you attribute the long-term success of St. John’s choir?
KH – We have a feeling of purpose and community, the desire to aid in worship and the knowledge that what we do is for the glory of God. The music is one of the big draws. There is always the challenge to stretch the choir musically and to grow toward a closer relationship to God. We perform many different styles and so there is constant variety. We perform everything from chant to Rutter, from Sacred Harp to Handel, from gospel and spiritual to contemporary and traditional hymns. Besides, we just love to sing!

CT – What do you believe the main function of music to be in worship?
KH – Music reaches people on many different levels. It takes the spoken and written word to a new dimension that touches us both mentally and emotionally. As a choir, we are leaders in worship and music should be selected carefully to enhance the worship experience. Music should also be an avenue for the congregation to participate in worship (the work of the people.) Thus, music for congregational singing should be chosen carefully, to encourage people to reach a profound understanding of God and ourselves and as an opportunity to express praise, adoration, humility, service, hope and dedication.

CT – Today’s church music scene is getting louder, more contemporary, and less theological. What is your interpretation about what’s happening?
KH – The contemporary music I hear on the radio seems to be all about the beat and the driving energy of the percussion. The lyrics tend to be superficial and repetitive. I have not listened to much of the contemporary church music but what I have heard seems to fit this pattern. I haven’t figured out why it needs to be so loud. Often the church, in trying to reach the unchurched, has made the music more simplistic and the driving rhythms and loud instruments “yell” at us so that we are overpowered with sound.

We are given no opportunity or inclination to listen to the quiet inner voice that asks us to question what and who we are and what we can contribute in service to God and the world. What good does it do to say “God loves us” and to say “I love God”, and “God is awesome and wonderful” but not take it to the next level of commitment? There are times when we need to shout “Alleluia” but there are times when we also need to reflect and be still. Faith is more than just feeling good about ourselves and praising God. A “childlike faith” is a great beginning but there is more and our music needs to help us journey to the “more.”

When I select music for the choir, the words are my first concern. I ask myself “What is the message? Are these relevant for worship? Do these help in our faith journey?” In our hectic, stress filled lives we are looking for guidance, support, comfort, strength and peace. Don’t misunderstand me. There is good and bad in all styles of music. (Even Bach wrote some doozies!) If we are using contemporary music as our main style, we should be looking for the good. We should find the theologically meaningful music and encourage and support its use.

CT – What has been your greatest challenge as a music leader for a major Anchorage church?
KH – Church choirs perform the most with the least practice of any musical group I know. We are always striving for perfection but have the Sunday deadline of two anthems every week. Our volunteer choir ranges from the “I love to sing but can’t read music” group to people with graduate degrees in music. It is a constant challenge to select music to help them grow musically and spiritually and to keep all of them engaged and excited about what we are doing.

​There is also the balance of performance and ministry. We strive for perfection (it is after all, our offering to God) but must realize that what we do is an expression of faith and that our goal is to create a worship experience that draws both the choir and the congregation closer to God.

CT – What Biblical theme is your personal favorite as a performance theme?
KH – That’s really a tricky question. I tend to select music based on the liturgical year. I also try to coordinate the theme with the pastor’s sermon topic when I know about it far enough in advance. There is good and bad music of every style and in every theme. Whatever liturgical season where the music is relevant and well done always tends to be my favorite. ​If I have to pick a “theme,” I’d say it is that God is among us and in us and that we have the assurance that no matter our struggles and concerns, joys and celebrations, God is always present.

CT – What is your favorite sacred choral piece?
KH – Requiem by Maurice Duruflé reaches to my innermost being and never fails to touch me when I hear it. “Sing My Soul His Wondrous Love” by Ned Rorem and “Set Me As a Seal” by Rene Claussen are two of my favorite anthems.
*During our interview, Karen animatedly shared her story of having the once-in-a-lifetime experience of playing Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain op. 7 (1942) on the organ in a master class for Durufle himself.

CT – What is your favorite sacred organ piece?
KH – The key word here is “sacred.” Of the sacred organ pieces there are two that immediately come to mind. J.S. Bach is the ultimate organ composer for me. His chorale, “Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland” (Savior the the Nations, Come) BWV 659 from the “Eighteen Chorales,” is sublime and is filled with beauty and the mystery of the incarnation. It is unfortunately more than five minutes long (also an Advent piece) so I don’t often have the opportunity to play it for services.

​I seem to be picking two favorites for everything but there is so much good music out there its hard to pick just one! My other favorite to play and hear is “Dieu Parmi Nous” (God Among Us) from the Nativité du Seigneur (the Birth of the Lord) by Olivier Messiaen. I love the symbolism of the descending pedal tones of the toccata showing the descent of Christ to earth. In this piece, Christ doesn’t come quietly but with a mighty sound and there is no missing his birth! And besides, its just plain fun to play!

CT – I understand St. John is going to a more contemporary music format. Do you agree with this approach?
KH – Only one of the three morning services will be using the contemporary music format. The other two will be traditional services. I understand that people worship in different ways and have different needs (which is why I as the choir director always seek to include many different styles within the traditional music format) and hope that people will find the style that best meets their needs. I go back to what I stated earlier about their being good and bad music in all styles. I trust that the planner of this service constantly seeks the “good” and strives to make the music theologically meaningful for the congregation.[img_assist|nid=162210|title=Karen Horton in Familiar Territory|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]

Thanks to you Karen for sharing some of your story in this interview. You are an inspiration to me and many others.

CME Church Burns: Terrible Tragedy

I was saddened to read in this morning’s ADN that the First Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) was heavily damaged in what appears to be arson-caused fire early Friday morning. This church was the focus of one of my church visits in July 2009.

In my visit comments, I noted:
After the dismissal, I went up front and talked with several people. They were warm and open. I believe this church would warmly welcome anyone into their midst. First CME didn’t believe it was an accident I was there that day. In a special welcome sheet for visitors they say, “We’ve been waiting for you! It’s true, because we believe that every person who comes into the circle of this special fellowship was sent by God Himself. It’s not by accident we have the joy of meeting you. So, above all else we want to express Christ’s love to you with genuine, heartfelt warmth.” Clearly, this church is doing something few other churches in Anchorage do.

Click HERE to read the complete review of my visit to First CME.

I sincerely hope the faith community in Anchorage comes forward and joins arms with First CME as this noble congregation plans to rebuild. Additionally, if it proves to be arson, and the perpetuators are caught, I’d like to see their sentences include participation in the work of rebuilding. It’s not a stretch to imagine this could happen to any of our churches in Anchorage. Churches of this kind are built only with blood, sweat, tears and reliance on God’s word.[img_assist|nid=142326|title=First CME Church Before the Fire|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=174]

Christian House of Prayer: A Visit Cut Short

Lack of Website Causes Problem
Last spring, a professional colleague asked if I’d ever visited Christian House of Prayer. I told her I was unfamilair with this church of which she and her husband were members. Making a mental note to visit, I finally turned my thoughts toward a visit on June 3, but first to find it.

Finding a map to the church on Google but nothing about service times, I was unable to locate anything resembling a website. There a Google+ page (click on above hyperlink) but other than providing a map and directions, no other information about the church was given. A fully functional website is one of the basics churches must have these days!

Warm Greeting But Late Arrival
Arriving at the church at 10:30, the recalled start time based on my friend’s discussion, I heard the music through the walls of the church from the parking lot. Upon entering I was warmly greeted by a man/woman team. Asking my name, and how I’d heard about them*, they then gave me a name badge and bulletin. At least four people greeted me before I reached my seat. There was sparse attendance, 30 or so, by the time the church finished filling up over the course of the hour. Attendees were well-dressed, much better than the average church I visit. The service was already in progress, having started at 10:00 a.m.[img_assist|nid=162099|title=Singers at Christian House of Prayer (sorry it’s blurry)|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=256]

Good Music
All of the singing was to soundtracks. The singers were five attractively dressed women in matching yellow gowns. The music was good, mostly praise songs, and the vocals were great, a form of black R&B gospel offerings. The music continued until around 11 a.m. Most of the attendees seemed familiar with the lyrics although I could not recognize any of the tunes. Every church has it’s own culture, but I feel a one-hour musical service is a bit too long. There was much repetition in the songs, and the final song, Breath Into Me, was repeated so many times I lost count. The singers were led offstage by a small boy, a respectful touch. Many churches are completely finished with a full serving of Christian love, communion or eucharist, Bible study, and a sermon, in this amount of time, i.e. one-hour.

Long Preliminaries
The next hour was consumed with prayer, an offering, and a lengthy meet n’ greet. The prayer was delivered by a woman who strode back and forth in front of the podium invoking and repeating the various names of God (Father God, Lord God, God, etc.) with increasing volume. It was a wonderful prayer, one which many other churches could learn from. Before the offering there was a gracious time of welcome in which vistors were also asked to stand up and introduce themselves. Most church experts believe this practice to be hazardous as it tends to distance visiting guests. The call for the offering involved a long exhortation from a member, about giving, after which members formed lines going forward to deposit their offerings. A second offering for pastoral appreciation was also called. After this the women in yellow came back up and sang again. This section of the worship service ended with a meet n’ greet seeming so long, I though church had let out. Less than 10 of the 30 worshipers came by to greet me. [img_assist|nid=162100|title=Pastor Lawrence Preaching – Christian House of Prayer|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=342]

The Third Hour
When Pastor Tobitha Lawrence, one of the five women singers dressed in yellow, finally settled in at the podium, people perked up and opened their Bibles or electronic devices with their Bibles on them. Pastor Lawrence is an articulate speaker and a real student of scripture. I enjoyed listening to her. Unfortunately, at about 12:20 p.m., after I took a quick picture of the pastor preaching, my second picture of the day, (see picture above) I heard a voice in my ear telling me not to take pictures. I’ve never been asked by any other Anchorage church not to take pictures but respected the request. I could see this was going to be a long service, and chose not to stay any longer. After I left this person followed me outside. We discussed his request. At this time I identified myself and the reason for my visit. He said he just didn’t know what I was doing by taking pictures. I’ll give Christian House of Prayer the benefit of the doubt, but thank the other Anchorage churches for their patience with me taking a picture or two.

In retrospect, I feel the service could have been shortened by an hour or even more. Clearly it’s their church culture, not mine. They’re duly proud of their church and should be. Their pastor is well-liked and articulate. They are raising money for a new church and proudly share those results weekly. This church could benefit from a fully functional website. Our community offers a diversity of beliefs, service styles, and choices of houses of worship for which I am duly thankful.

*Most church experts tend to agree it’s friendlier for greeters to offer their name to a visitor, than to ask the visitor’s name. Also, asking how guests found you is a bit self-serving and distancing. It’s better to say, “We’re glad you found us and hope you are blessed by worshiping with us.”[img_assist|nid=162102|title=Sign on Church|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=166]

Still Visiting: Computers Are (Mostly) Down (But Here We Go!)

UPDATE – 8/17/12
Well, after two weeks, my computer repair vendor finally said said it wasn’t the hard drive after all but the motherboard. Not putting any more money into either the repair or parts. I was able to restore an older computer and am using it now. Posts will start flowing post haste! Thank you for your patience.

Believe it or not, all three of my computers are down. This is why I’ve not posted lately. Lots of visits to post. Pastors and parishioners take a deep breath. The best is yet to come!