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  1424: Crown of Life, Sun City West, Arizona, USA

Crown of Life, Sun City West, Arizona, USA

Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Crown of Life, Sun City West, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.
The building: A modern stone structure in the Spanish style found throughout the American southwest. Inside, the pews are arranged in a half-octagon around the free-standing marble altar. White walls, plenty of track lighting and chandeliers, and a large stained glass triptych behind the altar give the space a bright, airy character.
The church: As might be expected given its locale, Crown of Life engages in a number of ministries for the elderly, the infirm and the handicapped, all enumerated on their website. They hold services late Saturday afternoons as well as Sunday mornings, alternating between worship service and holy communion. The congregation was comprised of older couples, most likely residents of the community. No children were in evidence.
The neighbourhood: Sun City West is one of several upscale planned retirement communities in Arizona, California, Florida and elsewhere that share the name Sun City in one form or another. Arizona's Sun City, located in the northwest suburbs of Phoenix in the hot desert southwest, is the only place in the country where, as comedienne Bette Midler once quipped, in order to live there your age has to match the temperature. The church is on a quiet residential street.
The cast: The service was led by Deacon Gary Smith. The Revd Jerry Scansen, pastoral assistant, preached the sermon. The Revd Steve A. Kappler, pastor, assisted with the distribution of communion. All clergy were vested in albs and white stoles.
The date & time: April 22, 2007, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Communion.

How full was the building?
Full. I estimated the church can hold about 500.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Greeters at the door smiled, said hello, and shook my hand.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The blue upholstered pews were very comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite a bit of visiting. The organist played a Buxtehude praeludium which tended to drown out all but the most energetic chatter. A blue-robed choir of about 30 voices filed in just before the service began.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The Lord be with you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A hymnal entitled Lutheran Worship and a service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ and, for one of the anthems, grand piano. The choir sang well, especially the women, although the men would sing better if they took their noses out of their music folders long enough to learn the meaning of projection. The hymns and anthems were traditional, but I'll have more to say in a moment about the service music.

Did anything distract you?
There was a video camera mounted under one of the organ chambers. Every time I glanced at it, it was pointed at a different section of the congregation. I wondered why we were being surveilled or filmed, if that's what it was doing.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Dignified and formal. The deacon led the service, including the eucharistic prayer and consecration. He made the sign of the cross profusively – during several of the prayers, over the elements at the moment of consecration, etc. Most of the congregational responses were chanted, although the deacon did not chant his parts. At offertory time the gifts were brought up to the altar with liturgical bows. The words of peace were spoken, although there was no exchange of peace among the congregation.

Crown of Life, Sun City West, Arizona, USA

Exactly how long was the sermon?
20 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Pastor Scansen spoke in a strong yet intimate style that held our attention. He glanced at his notes only once or twice.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The pastor took as his text the day's gospel reading, John 21:1-19, where the risen Christ asks Peter three times if he loves him. Love is a beautiful word, even if we sometimes use it loosely. The Greek word agape, or self-sacrificing love, is used to record Jesus' question, but Peter replied using the word philia, meaning brotherly love. Even though Jesus posed the question three times, Peter had not yet matured to the point (but he will!) where he understood the concept of sacrificial love – the love of God for mankind. As an especially tender scene from the musical Fiddler on the Roof illustrates, it's nice to know we're loved. Christ died on the cross not for his own sin (for he had none) but for ours. We need never again worry about being outside the love of God. But Jesus commanded us to take love outside of our comfortable little world and out to where people are hungry, needy, or otherwise in need of agape. As a poet once wrote, God slips in among those who need our love.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I thought the sermon was heavenly – one of the best I've ever heard.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The rhythmical irregularities and complete absence of melodic worth of much of the service music rendered it unsingable. I readily forgave the gentleman next to me for having no concept of pitch. And if I were the organist, I would not have attempted the Widor Toccata as my recessional.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No one paid any attention to me. I had the impression that Crown of Life does not cast its nets out for prospective Lutherans, but rather waits to be approached.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I am not inclined to embrace Missouri Synod Lutheranism, but if I were, I would seriously consider jumping into the nets of this congregation. They seem to take their Christianity and liturgy quite seriously.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, especially the sermon.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
"God slips in among those who need our love."
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