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3120: Phoenix Laestadian Lutheran, Cave Creek, Arizona, USA
Phoenix Laestadian Lutheran, Cave Creek, AZ (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Old Rackensack.
The church: Phoenix Laestadian Lutheran, Cave Creek, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Laestadian Lutheran Church. Laestadianism was begun in Lapland in 1844 by Lars Levi Laestadius, a Lutheran pastor whose preaching took on a new fervor when he received the Holy Spirit after confessing his sins to a reader at his church. A revivalist movement ensued that soon spread beyond the borders of Lapland. Finnish immigrants brought the movement to North America in the 1860s, and as it grew, much dissention and schism arose. The Laestadian Lutheran Church, established in 1973, is today one of the largest branches, with about 35 congregations primarily in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Washington and Saskatchewan. Laestadian Lutherans believe in avoidance of worldliness, modesty in dress and grooming, the importance of family (divorce, homosexuality, contraception, abortion and even abstinence are considered sinful), and other fundamentalist practices. Members are encouraged to socialize and form friendships only with other members; marriage and even dating outside the church are frowned upon.
The building: The congregation met at first in private homes, but as it grew, the need for a permanent church structure became apparent. The present church was completed in 1988. It is a plain, stark building, joined to a matching parish hall like conjoined twins. The inside is also plain and triangular, with beige walls and carpeting. A wooden altar stands on a platform at the apex of the triangle, backed by a large cross. On either side of the altar are the United States flag and the Arizona state flag. Two candles were lit on the altar, and flowers adorned the platform.
The church: They work closely with sister organizations around the world that include groups in Finland, Sweden, West Africa and Ecuador. Laestadian Lutherans believe that one’s social life should center around the church, and so they provide many opportunities for socializing in a godly atmosphere (although I was not able to discover what these might be). There is Bible study, a Sunday school, and a summer camp program. Twice each year, once in winter and again in summer, Laestadian Lutherans observe a special four-day series of services at which congregations from various locations come together for worship, discussion, communion and fellowship. This morning’s service was the penultimate in the current winter service series at this church.
The neighborhood: Cave Creek, founded as a gold mining town in the late 19th century, is today a well-to-do suburb on the northeastern fringes of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Noted for its Wild West ambience although most of the original structures are long gone, the downtown area features saloons, restaurants, and shops specializing in Western themed goods. Famous residents include one Ralph Hubert Barger, better known as Sonny Barger, founder and past president of the Oakland, California chapter of the notorious Hells Angels outlaw biker gang. Now almost 80, Barger has authored five books and has become a model citizen of sorts, supporting local benevolent organizations and working to increase public awareness of motorcycle safety. The church sits at the end of an unpaved dead end street.
The cast: Laestadian Lutherans are governed by a lay ministry whom they refer to as Brothers, all of whom may preach. Juha Kaarivaara and Jim Jurmu were listed on the website as taking this service. I learned later that Brother Kaarivaara was the first of two preachers that morning (see below), and that Brother Jurmu preached the second sermon. I also learned that Brother Kaarivaara was visiting from Finland. His remarks were translated from Finnish into English by John Lehtola. Both were dressed in black suits with white shirts and colored ties. I was told by a gentleman I spoke to that Brother Lehtola was also visiting from Finland, but another gentleman later told me that he was visiting from Minnesota. Confused? Imagine poor Old Rackensack's discombobulation!
The date & time: Sunday, February 26, 2017, 10.00am.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.

What was the name of the service?
Winter Service.

How full was the building?
Completely full, with standing room only. Lots of infants, toddlers and youth as well as adults of all ages. Ushers had set out extra chairs in the front and rear. There was a tent outside filled with chairs where people viewed the service on a monitor.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not at the door. Some time after I had sat down, a gentleman eyed me suspiciously for several seconds and then asked, “And who are you?” He added, “With so many out of town visitors, I don’t know who is who.” After that, a gentleman seated in front of me turned around and asked, “Have you been here before?” Other than that, no one said anything to me.

Was your pew comfortable?
I had taken one of the extra chairs; it was comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were literally streaming in from the parking lot in droves. There was lots of greeting and visiting – very noisy. Small children ran to and fro. One little boy was jumping up and down so much that he lost his shoes! I can’t count the number of children who jostled my chair as they brushed by. A young gentleman with a baby carriage asked me if I would mind moving further down the row so he could sit on the end. I stood to let him have my seat, and two older women brushed past us to occupy the seat I had vacated plus the next one. I went out and sat on the patio until I heard organ music begin, whereupon I went back inside and found a seat next to a tall young gentleman who was sitting with friends (more about whom in a moment). I noticed that the gentleman with the baby carriage had managed to sit on the aisle after all.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
We sang a rousing chorus of “A Mighty Fortress” followed by a hymn in Finnish that I didn’t recognize. After that, the service leaders said: “In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” first in Finnish and then in English.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Songs and Hymns of Zion, the official hymnal of the Laestadian Lutheran Church, was in the pews, but none were provided for the people sitting on chairs. I noticed that the young gentleman and his friends next to me, as well as several others, were following along on cell phones. I was hoping he’d invite me to lean over and read off his phone, but he didn’t. There was no service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?
Electronic organ, masterfully played by an unnamed organist who knew how to make it speak and how to accompany congregational singing. It sounded marvelous. There was also a sole cantor who led the hymns in a fine tenor voice.

Did anything distract you?
There was a continual background cacophony of crying babies and babbling toddlers that made it very difficult to concentrate on what was being said up front.

Phoenix Laestadian Lutheran, Cave Creek, AZ (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A very staid, sober service. Bilingual – that is, Brother Kaarivaara spoke a sentence in Finnish that was then translated into English by Brother Lehtola. The entire service went on like that, sentence for sentence being translated. The only exception was for passages from scripture, which were read first in Finnish in their entirety and then translated into English in their entirety. There was an opening prayer, scripture reading, sermon, hymns – and more (read on!).

Exactly how long was the sermon?
I stopped timing it after 40 minutes. The sermon sort of segued into farewell remarks by Brother Kaarivaara, who would soon be on his way back to Finland, and I wasn’t really sure at what point the sermon stopped and the farewell remarks began. At any rate, the sermon itself was really half that length, as it was first said in Finnish and then in English (sentence by sentence, as noted above).

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – I thought the content was good, but Brother Kaarivaara (the one who spoke in Finnish) in my opinion had better oratorical skills than Brother Lehtola (who translated into English) – who tended to speak without emotion and without making eye contact with the congregation. At first I wasn’t sure if he was reading a prepared English translation of Brother Kaarivaara's remarks or if he was translating on the fly. After he had to consult several times sotto voce with his colleague as to what was being said, I concluded the latter.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The text was John 17:1-26 (Jesus’ farewell speech to his disciples, the so-called High Priestly Prayer). Jesus prepared his disciples for great changes, how their lives would go from that point forward. The disciples had enjoyed the company of the Lord and had heard his teachings first-hand. Jesus had fulfilled the task spoken of in the Old Testament: to reconcile the sins of the world. But his disciples did not know what was to come. They suffered (as do we) “smallness of faith.” We have doubts. But Jesus encouraged them to stand firm against ridicule and opposition. We must securely believe that God will help us. We all battle against sin at every moment in our lives. The enemy of souls gives us a beautiful picture of the sinful life – he even tempted Jesus with such a picture. Sometimes he tempts the young but passes over the old. May God protect us from such enticement! That was Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, and it must be our prayer. God’s work has a future here.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There was a lot that I liked: the organ music and the singing, the preaching. But what impressed me the most was the festival atmosphere of it all. Outside on the patio (see below) there was quite a cheerful scene, even while the service was continuing inside and was being broadcast on the patio over loudspeakers. This must have been what it was like with the multitudes who followed Jesus around, I thought.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was such a non-stop hubbub of crying infants and babbling children that I found it very hard to concentrate on the sermon or on anything else. It wore me out to have to concentrate so hard. The young gentleman next to me and his friends appeared to feel the same, as one put his head down and fell asleep and another busied himself playing with his shoelace. From what I could see, the parents of the children were distracted too, as there was a lot of fussing over and attempting to control children who just weren’t into the service at all.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Well, now it gets really interesting. After the sermon there was another hymn in Finnish, during which about a quarter of the congregation got up and left. I thought the service had ended, so I went outside, where I encountered a festive atmosphere. Lots of greeting, talking, visiting, etc. out on the patio. But then I realized that the service was still in progress, as I heard over the loudspeakers that intercessions were being made. So I went back inside, where Brother Jurmu was finishing up the intercessions. After that he read another passage from scripture and began to preach another sermon. I was debating whether to stay or to join the festival out on the patio, when two small children pushing a stroller ran over my foot. Patio time, I decided. Out on the patio, I wandered around a bit but no one paid me any attention until a gentleman came up to me and introduced himself as John. He asked me where I was from and what denomination I belonged to, and we chatted a bit about confession and forgiveness of sin. We were joined by another gentleman who wore an Usher tag on his suit jacket. I eventually took my leave, and they both said I was welcome to come back at any time.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The website stated that the service would be followed by lunch, but it was a ticket-only affair and I really didn’t care to purchase one. The menu did look tempting, though: hamburgers, barbequed pulled pork, salad. Tables had been set out where people could enjoy their lunch out-of-doors. I noticed a line of coffee urns on a table in an adjacent room, but they were empty.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – Well, what can I say? They seem like lovely people, but I think they would find me too worldly to claim as one of their own. The music and preaching were good, but it would exhaust me to try to tune out the crying and babbling week after week.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Festival time on the patio.
 
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