Four tall pines flank this unpretentious boxy flat roof adobe-like structure. My initial impression of the interior was that it looked like the traditional churches of my childhood: a dozen wooden pews with padded seating, low ceiling and a sense of timelessness. The front of the church had two floral arrangements on small shelves in front of darker wooden vertical paneled strips. Candelabrae flank the altar, with the organ on the left and the podium on the right. Near the organ on the right side is a beautiful needlepoint of the Last Supper, one of the few remaining articles of devotion in use since Mount Olive's earliest history. The windows are not stained glass, but rather the faceted glass known as dalle de verre or slab glass.
One of the first things I noticed was the high percentage of "seasoned saints." I learned later that many of the congregants are what we in Tucson call "snowbirds", meaning they reside here only in the winter months. This does not seem to hinder some substantial ministry and service activities that go on at the church. This particular Sunday, the Ladies Guild was presented with a United States flag that had been flown in Afghanistan, as a thank-you for donations raised for the military at Christmastime. Every Wednesday morning, a group gathers to work on producing bibles in Braille. On the church's website appears the statement: "We confess the unaltered Augsburg Confession." In this age of ecumenism, when visiting a Lutheran church, I want to find the real deal, not something that would be unrecognizable to Luther himself.
The church building is located off a fairly busy two-lane road on the outskirts of Tucson, on a large desert-landscaped lot with mountain views in the background and surrounded by prickly pear cacti and other desert foliage. Nearby are two other churches on similar lots, and the trio are surrounded by rather well-to-do neighborhoods of single family homes of prime Tucson real estate (again, large lots with mountain views).
The Revd Jon D. Scicluna, pastor, officiated, with Melba Middendorf presiding at the organ. Louis Burmeister III was the acolyte, Dick Reid the lector. Ushers were Tony Potter and Richard Ziegler.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Worship
How full was the building?
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted at the door by friendly ladies handing out the bulletins. As I sat down, the woman next to me in the pew smiled and said hello.
Was your pew comfortable?
The traditional wooden pews were padded and quite comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Before the service, there was a fair amount of friendly chatter, with people greeting one another.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The unconventional first words of the service were: "Louis's mother had surgery this week." (Referring to Louis Burmeister III, the acolyte.) This was followed by sharing of other church members' prayer needs. Then the pastor asked visitors to make themselves known as he walked down the center aisle.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Lutheran Service Book. Some congregants had a few enlarged pages of songs and words stapled together in sheet protectors (I wanted one of those!).
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
There were moments when I was distracted by the faceted windows, as I was sitting right next to them. The sun was shining through them, and they were so colorful and beautiful! My home church does not have stained glass, so perhaps this is why I was so captivated by them. I was often tempted to keep turning my head to look at the windows!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship at Mount Olive was very traditional. The Divine Service II was used. There were a few familiar hymns such as "Come Thou Almighty King." A lesser-known hymn was sung called "Mark How the Lamb of God's Self Offering." Its lyrics told of the baptism of Christ and its meaning , and concluded with the challenge to stay true to our own baptisms. The hymns were accompanied by a proficient organist, and were sung with enthusiasm and warmth. The whole service was very Christ-centered.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Pastor Scicluna has a resonant and pleasant voice, and sounded like he could be on radio. He also has a good singing voice, and did some short chants during the service. But I came away from the service remembering more about the content of the sermon than the personality of the pastor.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Pastor Scicluna spoke on our identification with the death and resurrection of Christ, taking Romans 6 as his text. It was encouraging to be reminded that no matter what happens in this coming new year, and no matter what our failings, we as believers have died with Christ and have been made alive with him. This is our great hope and confidence, all that has been given us by God because of Christ, and it all stands firm and unshakeable come what may.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I'm always moved and inspired by the recitation of the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer in a body of believers. We affirm our unity with all believers in far-off times and far-off places, and nothing new or innovative can compare. Being a small church, there was that warm feeling of familiarity among the people. When prayer needs for health situations were being mentioned, people in the pews felt free to call out additional information or updates.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I felt a bit awkward during the sharing of the peace, since this is not a tradition in my home church. (We have a greeting time, during which you can hear all kinds of things, from "God bless" or "Welcome" to "Hey, whazup?") It seemed to go on for quite a long time, and each person seemed to use slightly different wording. I caught on eventually, though, and was soon feeling pretty Lutheran!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I had a most enjoyable time after the service, as several people came up to introduce themselves and greet me. I had the privilege of meeting a retired Lutheran pastor, who also served as a chaplain during the Vietnamese War. He told me some about his experiences of doing different types of services for the soldiers, even charismatic! I had the chance to inquire whether or not Lutherans read Luther.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
After the service, most of the people filed into the next room for a fellowship time. There was fresh and tasty coffee served in styrofoam cups. There was also a nice spread of various cookies, even sugar free. An unexpected bonus was the offer of free grapefruit to anyone who wanted some!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – This place seemed like a community of fellow believers who would welcome me into their midst not only on Sunday mornings but also for book club, home fellowship and brown bag lunches.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
What I will remember? One of the congregants actually said, "We'll see you next week."