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.
Lutheran Church of Hope – Hope Garden – 2016 (Don Bladow pictured in garden)
In 2015, at the suggestion of a St. John United Methodist member, I wrote my first column on church gardens. I followed that column up with several others about the fantastic strides some local churches have been making in planting those gardens. (see https://www.churchvisits.com/?s=church+gardens to read those columns).
However, considering that Anchorage has around 400 churches, it’s disturbing to see so few churches devoting space and emphasis to this practical ministry with many spiritual implications. Fewer, if any, of those gardens involve individuals in the community who are given the produce grown in those gardens. Is it possible that a sense of entitlement has grown up among recipients of all of this fresh produce, overriding any real interest in learning how food is grown, where it comes from, and the significant amount of labor to make it happen? Or, are churches struggling with the concept of involving needy recipients in the process of food production?
It’s already planting season, and planning for those gardens should have occurred months ago. While never too late, concerted effort could still be made to make them happen yet this year. If one looks at the average physical church property, many have adequate space surrounding them to make it happen. Just look at the average church property you drive by regularly.
Several churches are making a difference in the community by dedicating the space, putting in the requisite planting beds, and fencing them for protection. One of my favorite church gardens, and largest to my knowledge, is Lutheran Church of Hope on W. Northern Lights. They started last year with around 4,000 sq ft, and have doubled their space to over 9,000 sq ft. Their bountiful harvest goes to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska (LSSA) for distribution through their food pantry.
Master gardener Don Bladow shares that “The garden is not free of snow yet so is looks like we won’t be planting ’til the more traditional time near Memorial Day. We did expand it last fall to about 9,000 sq. ft. It’s all fenced. We got that done in October. I have been planting starts and have plans for a couple of new experiments this year. Will try to grow a number of other species of peppers and cucumbers. The cukes will be outside under a lean to type greenhouse that will be open on the ends. Will also plant beans and turnips this year as well as most of the stuff we planted last year.”
Anchorage Lutheran has also taken the plunge into church gardening with 17 – 4×8’ raised beds. They’ll be fencing the garden shortly, a necessity, as church gardens make excellent browsing and forage sources for rabbits and moose. I talked with Lisa Wilkinson, co-coordinator of their garden, who, with member Dick Mikkelsen has been a strong champion. They’re planting potatoes, cabbage, carrots, primarily, along with a mixture of other things. They’ll be donating their product to LSSA and Beans’ Café according to member/gardener wishes. They’ll be planting in compost, and are setting up a composter on site to further this practice. Lisa shares their goal is “to teach and donate”. That’s the first step in involving a wider community.
St. John United Methodist Church has had a “Jesus Garden” for several years. Coordinator Allison McLain has personal and practical visions for the Jesus Garden. Allison says, “My Jesus Garden vision for this year is one I have followed for as many years there have been Jesus Garden’s in my life: grow fresh vegetables for people in need of food. Growing vegetables is something that I can do to support people in need and happily there are friends at church and a husband and daughter who believe in this idea too!!! I feel called by Jesus to do this…and I wonder sometimes if Jesus called me to do this because it is something reasonably easy for me to do for people in need with a full-time job, family, church, and the other adventures in my life.”
“My practical vision for this year is to expand our vegetable growing abilities by asking people in our church to be Potato Nannies – to grow potatoes at home in buckets – all the potatoes would of course be part of our St. John Jesus Food donation to Downtown Soup Kitchen. With potatoes growing elsewhere we will have more space to grow more chard and kale in the garden at St. John. My goal for this year is to grow and donate 300 pounds of food to DSK.”
“Kale and chard are two standard soup ingredients for soups on the weekly menu at Downtown Soup Kitchen (DSK), where all the Jesus Garden produce is donated. Last year we donated 260 pounds of produce (peas, red runner beans, chard, kale, parsley, basil, lovage, and potatoes.). I plan what we grow with Vicki Martin at DSK; we only grow what will be used in soups made by DSK chefs. Often what we deliver early in the week is used later that week in soup. If our donated vegetables don’t go into soups right away DSK volunteers process them for freezing and later use.” Other churches with gardens this year include: Central Lutheran Church Christ Church Episcopal Church Joy Lutheran Church Lutheran Social Services of Alaska St. Anthony’s Catholic Church St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Turnagain United Methodist Church Trinity Lutheran Church – Palmer
If I’ve omitted any church from this list, please let me know and I’ll add it to a new tab I’ll be placing on my website ChurchVisits.com.
Blessings to all churches for the coming harvest from these gardens. I’ll provide updates as I receive them. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org to keep me updated. There is a very practical side of ministry but most local churches seem to be missing the boat in applying that lesson.
Dear Local Anchorage Readers As mentioned in my last post, I’m attending the AFACT Breakfast of Hope, Central Lutheran Church – 7:30 a.m. I’d love to have you join my table, get acquainted, and also hear about what AFACT is doing in our faith community.
Dear Local “Church Visits” Reader I’d like to invite you to join my table at AFACT’s “Breakfast of Hope”. This event is a complimentary breakfast for people to come and learn more about AFACT (Anchorage Faith & Action-Congregations Together). Yes, it is a fundraiser. There is no minimum or maximum gift requested. You are welcome to join me to learn more about the organization and the work they are doing in the city of Anchorage. It will be the job of the organization to inspire people to want to give. As much as anything, we want people to come and find out about the great work AFACT is doing to change the lives of families in our community.
What: AFACT’s third annual “Breakfast of Hope” fundraiser
When: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 7:30am – 8:30am
Where: Central Lutheran Church 1420 Cordova St. (15th Ave. and Cordova St.)
AFACT (Anchorage Faith & Action—Congregations Together) was created in 2003 by eight local pastors to organize, empower and mobilize local faith communities to address quality of life issues impacting the community. Since its inception, members of local faith communities have stepped into leadership roles on a multitude of issues (examples below) and have worked with public and elected officials on all sides of the political spectrum. AFACT’s congregation-based community organizing model is at its core, about people. Today its membership includes sixteen diverse faith congregations across Anchorage.
Some of the issues addressed by AFACT leaders are:
public safety, bike and pedestrian safety
improving neighborhoods (streets, dumpsters, graffiti, bus stops)
substance abuse, including detox & treatment
health care (Medicare, Denali Kid Care, Medicaid Expansion)
education (specifically the quality of education for native students in ASD)
children’s issues (summer recreation and lunch programs, after- school care)
voter engagement (public candidate forums, voter registration & Get Out the Vote)
Also visit www.anchoragefact.org for more information. I look forward to hosting you at my table. Please RSVP by sending me an email at email@example.com. Just say YES, I’ll be there to sit with you and learn more. I’d also consider it a great honor to get to know some of my readers better.
During Holy Week this year, I participated in Congregation Beth Sholom’s (frozenchosen.org) 2nd Night Community Seder, my third with this warm congregation. Seder is observed during the eight-days of Passover (seven if in Jerusalem). Pesach (Passover) commemorates the events of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. In the Bible, the Exodus story is found in the book of Exodus, chapters 1-15. The Passover, proclaimed by Moses, was instituted in Egypt as the key last event preceding Pharaohs releasing the children of Israel.
Passover was intended to be observed by the Israelite’s after their deliverance. Instructions for its observance are contained in Exodus, chapters 12-15. Seder, as such, was formalized after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Before Passover is celebrated, each Jewish household is thoroughly cleaned and all forbidden items such as yeast, yeast breads, etc., are eliminated.
Pesach is one of the most commonly observed Jewish holidays, even by otherwise non-observant Jews. According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), 67% of Jews routinely hold or attend a Pesach Seder, while only 46% belong to a synagogue.
Generally a written Hagaddah is used which contains the various readings and songs in proper order. It was a treat to be seated with CBS member Michael Silverbook who described some of the key during the evening. At the same time, he was hosting three deaf gentlemen, using his phone to dictate what was happening at each moment, showing it to one who communicated to the others via sign language. Michael’s wife, and former Rabbi Frederick Wenger and his wife also were at our table. I should note that the meal was catered by Aladdin’s Restaurant who yearly does such a fine job of serving kosher and excellently prepared food with great service. The 2nd Night Community Seder is offered to non-CBS members for a fee, which includes all food and the ceremonial wine; I paid this fee in advance.
The entire celebration lasts 3-4 hours and is a delightful time of listening, learning, and celebrating Israel’s liberation. This is a family affair with all members of the family participating. Rabbi Michael Oblath, who replaced Rabbi Wenger, led the readings and singing from the Haggadah. Each act performed is symbolic.
Sanctifying the Day 2. Handwashing 3. Dipping Parsley in Salt Water 4. Breaking the Middle Matzah 5. The Seder Narrative —The Four Questions —The Four Children —The Ten Plagues —Dayenu —Explanation of Passover Symbols 6. Handwashing 7. Blessing at the Start of the Meal 8. Blessing over Matzah 9. Eating of Bitter Herbs 10. Matzah and Charoset Sandwich 11. Dinner 12. The Afikomen Dessert Matzah 13. Grace after the Meal 14. Praises and Blessings 15. Closing Section and Songs
I particularly enjoy the four questions asked of children, children’s search for the afikomen, drinking the ritual four glasses of wine, the ritual drops of wine of a plate for each of the plagues, singing of Dayenu, and the sense of community this celebration brings annually.
Some Christian churches conduct Seders in their churches which has created some degree of controversy and animosity within the Jewish community. Last month Christianity Today ran several articles dealing with the pros and cons of Christians observing Seders in their churches. I suggest both for a balanced view. Personally, I think Christians should respect the argument that having these celebrations amount to cultural appropriation. I attend to better understand Jewish tradition. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/march-web-only/jesus-didnt-eat-seder-meal.html
My thanks again to the wonderful community of Congregation Beth Sholom and their acceptance of me at their synagogue, allowing me to experience various festivals of their faith of which Seder is only one.