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."