Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: Shepherd of the Valley
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 November 2013, 9:00am
Ground was broken for the present building in 1964. It's a large, modern structure on a campus including offices, a chapel, and schoolrooms. The inside features concrete walls and a wood roof with green carpeting on the floor. A contemporary-style marble altar sits atop several steps. The stained glass is by the Judson Studios of Los Angeles, well known for their ecclesiastical, residential and commercial glass. Each window depicts one of the "I am" proclamations of Jesus as found in John's gospel.
Their many ministries are well described on their website. Special mention goes to their several childrens ministries, where (quoting from the website) they "make it a priority to teach our children about God's love and grace." They have an informal service each Saturday evening and two services on Sunday mornings, traditional and contemporary.
The church is on Maryland Avenue at 15th Avenue, a quiet, respectable middle class neighborhood.
The Rt Revd Stephen S. Talmage, Bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod, preached. The Revd Harold Stromer, transitional pastor, conducted the service. Godparents of the baptismal candidate were Gary St. Pierre and a young lady with the beautiful name of Constanza Santosusso, who is the candidate's first cousin and Miss Amanda's great-niece.
What was the name of the service?Traditional Service with Baptism of John Patrick Tyrrell. John is Miss Amanda's great-nephew and was named after his uncle, who died tragically last winter.
How full was the building?
It can hold about 400 and was about three-quarters full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman at the door said "Good morning" as he handed me the service leaflet. Inside, the pastor greeted all of us who were members of the baptismal candidate's family.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes - wooden pew with green plush cushion.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Our family visited quietly amongst ourselves. Most people entered quietly. The pianist played a medley of hymns. I was startled by a lady who said to me, "Excuse me, but may I disturb you? This is my regular seat." I graciously moved over to let her sit down.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Welcome to worship."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Evangelical Lutheran Worship; The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, and a service leaflet.
What musical instruments were played?
A rather out-of-tune grand piano in the front of the church. A choir of about 15 voices sang from the back gallery, where they enjoyed the benefit of a much better voiced piano in much better tune. A pipe organ was visible in the gallery, but it remained silent - we were told that the organ had suffered some water damage during a recent rainstorm.
Did anything distract you?
The people sitting in the pew in back of me (not members of our party, I'm happy to say) chatted incessantly during the choir anthem. When it ended abruptly, their chatter was quite evident.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A standard Lutheran liturgy. Traditional hymns, for the most part. Some seemed unfamiliar, both to me and to the congregation. Both the bishop and the pastor were vested in alb, white stole, and pectoral cross. Communion was ministered from both side aisles, not the center aisle or the communion rail. We received the wine (or grape juice - our choice) via intinction.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Bishop Talmage spoke clearly and persuasively, becoming quite emotional at times.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The gospel of John includes no "Christmas message" as do the others; rather, John proclaims Christ as "the light that shines in the darkness." Light and darkness are a common metaphor for good and evil. The Palestinians of Biblical times lived a dark existence of poverty and hardship in a conquered land, where the average life span was 27 years and death was an everyday occurrence. Their religion was rooted in fear. After Christ's resurrection and ascension, the early Christian community also existed in darkness, persecution and oppression. Today we, too, live in dark times, as evidenced by severe weather, hungry and abused children, homelessness, the casualties of war, and so on. But Jesus has good news for us: "I am the light." We refuse to continue living in darkness. The light shines through the work of the Church. Darkness cannot and will not win. Nor does death win - Jesus proved that! The light can never be extinguished.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Everything, especially the baptism ceremony, was conducted with dignity and grace. Most people, as they returned to their seats after taking communion, dipped a hand in the baptismal water left over in the font and crossed themselves. I had never seen this done before.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was surprised that Bishop Talmage took no part in the service other than to preach and assist with the distribution of communion. He did not preside at the baptism, nor did he give the final blessing.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was also surprised that no one paid much attention to the baptismal party, most notably Bishop Talmage. Several people did shake his hand, but he made no motion toward our party to greet us or to congratulate the candidate.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
While others in our party posed for photos inside the church, I sampled the coffee and assorted pastries that were available outside on the patio. Both were adequate. I did not want to spoil my appetite, though, as we were all expected at my sister's house for a luncheon.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I would seriously consider it if I lived in that neighborhood.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
People dipping their hands in the baptismal water and crossing themselves.