Monthly Archives: January 2015

2 events highlight work of Anchorage’s Methodists – 1/24/15

Alaska’s Methodists, through Alaska United Methodist Conference, and United Methodist Women of Alaska (separate organizations), are tackling two major issues many area churches either fail to address or address inadequately.

Religion and spirituality in today’s world will be the topic of an upcoming conference as seen through the eyes of prominent theologian Diana Butler Bass. I’ve repeatedly addressed the growing “spiritual but not religious” attitude by many professing Christians.

The other issue confronts attitudes and behaviors by members and clergy toward people with disabilities. Both concerns, but especially disability, have been repeatedly brought to my attention by affected church members over the years. (I’ve blogged, for example, about autism spectrum disorders and a lack of church support in dealing with them). I believe churches failing to adequately address disability issues cannot correctly call themselves Christian. Christ repeatedly spent time in his ministry dealing with those with disabilities. The United Methodist Women of Alaska organization is providing information and training about this issue in an upcoming two-day seminar.

Diana Butler Bass

Christianity has been undergoing major transformations in the past couple of decades. These changes have affected every area from scholarship and belief to religious practice and divisive cultural stances on issues such as homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Diana Butler Bass is a noted historian and chronicler of Christianity, its origins and new directions. The Alaska United Methodist Conference is bringing her to town next weekend to share her knowledge with the faith community. She is the author of eight popular volumes, including “A People’s History of Christianity,” “Christianity for the Rest of Us” and, most recently, “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.” She will give three presentations: one free and two for a fee. The free lecture will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.

For this column, Pastor Carlo Rapanut, Alaska United Methodist Conference superintendent, said, “Our Conference recognizes the reality we are ministering to an ever-changing world and that most, if not all, of the ways of doing ministry we are used to, may no longer be relevant today, especially among the younger generation. Dr. Bass is an expert in religion and spirituality in a post-modern world. We look to her to share with us insight to better understand today’s post-modern society and wisdom into how we may retool and reset our ways of doing and being as an organized denomination.”

Personally, I’ve enjoyed the insight Dr. Bass offers in her many books and recommend them. They are an excellent starting point to understand the origins of Christianity and the development of our belief over the 2,000 years since the time of Jesus. In her latest book she writes, “Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service,” and “Spiritual awakening is not ultimately the work of invisible cultural forces. Instead, it is the work of learning to see differently, of prayer, and of conversion. It is something people do.”

In my many years of spiritual questing and journeys into the many sacred spaces the churches of Anchorage offer, I often see the lack of self-examination of one’s belief practices. Too many Christians are utterly consumed by the multiplicity of distractions in their daily lives to concern themselves with devoting time to examining the reasons for their beliefs. While I’m not in full agreement with everything Dr. Bass writes, I find her thinking challenges me deeply. She speaks on Friday, Jan. 30 and Saturday, Jan. 31. Further information can be found here. I look forward to attending her presentations and learning from her.

Disabilities and the church: some background

I first became aware of issues surrounding how churches handle disability when several parents of children with autism contacted me, in great distress, because they had been ostracized from participating in the activities of their church, and urged to go elsewhere. In researching this issue, I discovered many churches were not prepared to deal with members, and/or their children, with a wide range of physical, mental, developmental, neurological, and psychological disorders.

“Without the full inclusion of people with disabilities, in a truly authentic and genuine way, we fall short of being the Body of Christ in any given time and place. To deny the Church the benefit of the wisdom and perspectives that such folks bring is to consign ourselves to being a mere shadow of who and what we are called to be,” said Michael Burke, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.

Leaders at many levels in churches, as well as members, need sensitization toward the needs of disabled worshippers or training to help them (or both). These are not merely mobility or architectural issues, but cut across the spectrum of human behavior. For example, most Sunday school teachers are not trained to understand how to respond to those with communication, learning or behavioral problems. Take autism as an example: In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated autism rates were 1 in 150 children. By 2010, it rose to 1 in 68 children. By 2050, estimates indicate 1 in 20 children will be affected. How are churches to respond?

Addressing the problem: a conference to help

The conference “Mission U: Learning Together for the Transformation of the World” has been organized to address these needs. Participants will explore these themes and receive detailed instruction in a two-day symposium at Hope Community Resources on Feb. 6-7. Program sponsors are United Methodist Women of Alaska, UAA Trust Training Cooperative and Hope Community Resources. Further information and registration can be found here and here.

These Methodist organizations deserve our thanks and support for these learning opportunities. Regardless of your faith background, you will find useful information and challenging material to bolster your Christian growth.

Changes afoot in local Catholic diocese – 1/17/15

Last Sunday I attended St. Benedict’s Catholic Church’s services. I did so with no intention of writing about their services, but afterward decided to write a few words about my experience there. The reverence displayed by congregants was a real contrast with what I often experience in attending so many other churches services. Often, a din and buzz of conversation makes it almost impossible to adjust one’s mind for the commencement of actual worship, confession, prayer and communion to be received, regardless of faith. There was a reverential quiet as I entered their church sanctuary, which was most refreshing.

I was further impressed by the deportment of the children I observed in my immediate seating area. They were actually paying attention to everything that was going on, even to the point of following the service through the printed liturgical guide that included the key elements of the service. I see children in many churches scribbling, coloring, talking, playing, reading, lying down or acting totally bored. The children I saw were interspersed with their parents and looking on with them, in a most participative way. As a substitute teacher in Anchorage schools, I am often astounded at the levels some of the children achieve in areas such as reading, math, respect for adults and others. Upon inquiring, I almost always find one or both parents are doing what I witnessed in church — being actively involved in their child’s education. It is my understanding Catholics are currently emphasizing re-catechizing all levels of believers so there is a better understanding of the church and its mission. Cardinal Dolan emphasized this aspect last year when he visited. The importance of a role model parent cannot be underestimated. I applaud the behavior I witnessed at St. Benedict’s on Sunday.

The interplay of music, Scripture and readings was well-coordinated. In many churches there is nothing to tie the music to the sermon, or other portions of the service.

St. Benedict’s offers seating on three sides of the platform and its altar. That dimension alone lends a participative air of worship. Their choir, too, sits in the congregation and rises as required. The use of their cantor, choir and congregation on a particular song was beautiful and effective. Clearly this church does not use music as an entertainment platform but as an artful form of instruction and worship.

Although I’m not a Catholic, I appreciate the St. Benedict’s community and its love and respect for its pastors and one another. I urge believers in Christ, Catholic or not, to visit them to see, firsthand, how solid their worship service really is.

Designation of Our Lady of Guadalupe as co-cathedral

Generally, Roman Catholics have only a single cathedral in each diocese, except where practicality dictates otherwise. Seeking to better incorporate the facilities of Our Lady of Guadalupe church in the activities of the archdiocese, Archbishop Roger Schweitz petitioned the Vatican to declare them a co-cathedral to Holy Family Cathedral. The approval process took about a year and was declared publicly on Dec. 12, when Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Pope Francis’ highest ranking ambassador to the U.S., delivered the good news to the archdiocese with a warm homily. (You can read the full text of Vigano’s remarks in the Catholic Anchor.)

For some time, local Archbishop Schweitz had been contemplating how to address parking and other practical issues at Holy Family Cathedral in downtown Anchorage. Holy Family, hemmed in by commercial development downtown, has found it is increasingly difficult for parishioners and staff to find places to park.

“The designating of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church as co-cathedral was necessitated by the growth of our Catholic population,” Schweitz said. “This is certainly good news. Also, through this growth the Catholic community is being enriched by the increasingly diverse cultural backgrounds of our people.”

Tourist activities prevalent in downtown Anchorage weighed in on Schweitz’s decision to designate Holy Family a historic cathedral.

When I asked the Rev. Anthony Patalano OP, pastor of Holy Family Cathedral, about the co-cathedral designation, he was most enthusiastic. “I think it’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “It needed to be done.” The Rev. Patalano also emphasized that Our Lady of Guadalupe offers better space layout for pontifical events and other ceremonies, compared to Holy Family Cathedral. The Rev. Augustine Hilander OP, parochial vicar, noted the cathedral was the scene of a papal audience by Pope John Paul II in 1981, and downstairs he conducted a similar audience for the handicapped, underscoring its historical significance.

Cathedrals are considered to be the seats of bishops where they pastor to people of their diocese. What to do for a cathedra? The cathedra, i.e. bishop’s chair, used by Pope John Paul II in his historic Mass here in 1981, is being prepared for placement at Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral to signify it is also the seat of the bishop’s presence.

Archbishop Schweitz, very active around the archdiocese, is a familiar face during many of the times I’ve attended Our Lady of Guadalupe. In years past, I’ve visited the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City several times and have witnessed the love Catholics hold for the Virgin of Tepeyac and her connection with Mary. The imagery of Mary and local ties to the Mexican origins of Our Lady of Guadalupe were invoked several times by Archbishop Vigano, who connected their roles in evangelization and proclamation of the gospel.

2015 is a significant year for the Archdiocese of Anchorage. The centennial of the Archdiocese and 50th anniversary of Holy Family Cathedral’s building will be celebrated. The Catholic Anchor has provided excellent coverage of Catholic events and activities in the archdiocese in print and online. Catholics in our community maintain vibrant, caring communities, consistently demonstrating their love for the gospel. With a long history in Anchorage, the Catholic presence will undoubtedly continue to a blessing for residents of Anchorage and Alaska long into the future.

Orthodox Christmas tradition burns brightly in Alaska – 1/10/15

Some of the most remarkable experiences I’ve had writing about religion in Alaska have been in connection with the Orthodox Christian faith. Last summer I addressed three flavors of Orthodox Christianity in Alaska in this column. In preparing for that column, I met many Orthodox Christians who are truly blessed by their beliefs. But I had never attended a Russian Orthodox Christmas service. Jan. 7, the traditional Russian Orthodox Christmas, I attended a wonderful service at Anchorage’s St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Beginning as Vespers, but ending with “Christ is born,” Bishop David Mahaffey continued by blessing elaborate stars congregants brought for the “starring” after the service. Starring — i.e., spinning them — proceeded to liturgical music and a selection of Christmas carols. The choir for this service was small in number but beautiful in tone. The church, packed with believers celebrating Christmas, will continue starring for days by going to the homes of congregants, wishing them merry Christmas and singing carols. That service was a wonderful departure from what I typically experience in many local churches. It really put Christ back in Christmas!

A well-known local Orthodox priest, the Very Rev. Michael Oleksa, extensively shared his thoughts with me about Russian Orthodox Christmas and its cultural place in Alaska:

“Most Orthodox Christians in the New World, following the lead of the Greek Orthodox Churches, use the ‘new’ Gregorian calendar and celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, 13 days before those who follow the ‘old’ Julian Calendar, will celebrate Christmas this week, Jan. 7. Those who continue to calculate their religious holidays on an outmoded calendar that is clearly nearly two weeks behind the astronomical realities of the universe, however, do so for two rather simple reasons … or maybe three!

“The first is simply that the Julian calendar has been in use since the time of its namesake, Julius Caesar, and is still in use in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, Palestine, the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos, as well as Ethiopia. Immigrants whose ancestors came from these places tend to keep the old calendar in continuity and solidarity with their ethnic roots and traditions. The missions who inherited the Julian calculations, like in Alaska, keep the customs they inherited from their spiritual ancestors, the saints who first brought the Gospel to North America 220 years ago.

“The second is more complicated. American culture has become so increasingly secular that any mention of the original meaning of Christmas, the birth of Christ — the date from which the whole planet counts its years — is practically impossible. With few exceptions, the ‘carols’ broadcast on radio stations and in shopping malls are of the Rudolph, Frosty and White Christmas variety. The traditional carols, praising God, welcoming the Christ-Child, celebrating the Incarnation have been banned from public arena. Here in Anchorage, the only place I heard a Christian carol was while I was on hold, waiting for a GCI agent to answer. I invoked God’s blessing on my phone company!

“So having another, later, second Christmas allows those of us who celebrate Dec. 25 as the Santa Claus, Reindeer and sleigh, elves and presents holiday to then focus totally on the religious essence of the Feast: ‘Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One! And the Earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels with shepherds glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star: since for our sake the Pre-Eternal God is born as a little child!’

“In ancient times, the Yup’ik people in Southwest Alaska invited neighboring villages to feasts at this time of year, thanking the animals who had sacrificed themselves, allowed themselves to be hunted, killed, skinned and eaten, during the past year, and also in memory of their own relatives who had passed away during the previous 12 months. Entire villages visited their neighbors and received gifts. This has been combined with the Ukrainian custom of carrying a large pinwheel-shaped ‘star’ from house to house, singing Orthodox hymns and folk carols and then feasting and receiving gifts in memory of those who have died — just as was the custom long before the Christian faith arrived.

“To change to the astronomically more accurate calendar would deprive those following the old (ways) of their chance to celebrate a religious holiday, sever their bond of faith and love with their spiritual ancestors and deprive the non-Orthodox village guests of the chance to participate in Slaaviiq, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ which now incorporates so much of ancient Yup’ik culture and makes the holiday a beautiful synthesis of the old and new, the Alaska Native and the Slavic Christian streams that flow together in what is often called ‘Russian’ Christmas, although it is a celebration that is uniquely Alaskan.

“And we get to take advantage of all the post-Dec. 25 Christmas sales too!”

Orthodox Bishop David Mahaffey also shared thoughts with me on the difference between the two calendars.

“It is not a matter of ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong,’ but what is more important to you; holding fast to the traditions we have been taught, (2 Thessalonians 2:15), or having a desire to keep the calendar in line with the its actual movement around the sun?

“I don’t see either way as being wrong; they are just different ways of observing important dates in the life of the Church. One must also be willing to admit, there is less secular distraction on Jan. 7 than there is on Dec. 25. Thus, in one way, waiting to celebrate the birth of Christ until January has a stronger focus on the spiritual aspect of Christ’s birth than does the December feast.

“So, I understand the logic behind both dates, and until we are able to reach an understanding that both East and West can agree upon, this is going to continue to be situation we live with. Somehow, I think it would be better if we were all on the same calendar, and I pray that we are able to find a way to come together in the interests of fulfilling the command in the Gospel, to be of one mind (Rom. 15:6 and others).”

Next Christmas, I urge you experience Russian Orthodox Christmas, as I did.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at

Five new year’s resolutions for Christians – 1/2/15

When you read this column it will already be 2015. New Year’s resolutions are traditional in many cultures. They started in ancient times as Babylonians, and later Romans, adopted the new year as a time for making resolutions. Later on, Christians began adopting the practice with emphasis on desired Christian traits and practices. This is an appropriate time for Christians to make resolutions regarding their spiritual lives as well. Here are five great ways to incorporate them into your life.

Read the Bible

Earlier in 2014, I devoted a column to the significant lack of Bible study by Christians in Alaska. Based on the American Bible Society/Barna Group study for 2014, only 19 percent of Christians are engaged with the Bible. For many, the only exposure to the Bible is that which they receive in church when they attend. Why not resolve to actively study the Bible daily this year? There are many excellent reading plans. offers some innovative ways to read the Bible, including a January 21-day challenge and many plans to read the entire Bible in a year, reading only 15 minutes a day. I have YouVersion’s app on my iPhone and frequently refer to it. They offer dozens of Bibles which can be read or played online or offline. Olive Tree offers 36 downloadable Bibles for computers and smartphones. Daily Bible study enriches the mind, increases biblical wisdom and gives strength for the journey. The Apostle Paul wrote, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

Get healthy

Many people, Christians included, have unhealthy practices in their lives. Negativity, excessive drinking, smoking, unhealthy dietary practices and lack of sleep and exercise have been documented to bring ill health and lead to shorter lives. The Bible is rich with helpful advice for healthier living. Often Christians don’t understand that God requests we do all we can to maintain the wonderful gift of life he has given us, even blaming him when sickness and disease come. Churches, too, should take a look at practices that discourage healthy living. Many of the church suppers and potlucks I’ve had in years past were extremely unhealthy — high in fat and carbohydrates. Yet in the past 10 years I only heard one pastor deliver a practical sermon encouraging his parishioners to live healthily, in all aspects.

Attend church regularly

In a February 2014 column, “Churchgoing is good for the body as well as the spirit,” I noted the significant body of research connecting churchgoing with improved measures of health, including better blood pressure, longer and healthier lives, happiness and reduced rates of divorce. The focus of my research and writing for many years has been on finding churches that provide warm greetings, genuine Christian hospitality, great biblical messages and music that is not purely entertainment. Our faith community does provide some great examples of such churches and I regularly report on them. Unfortunately, Alaska ranks at or near the bottom of many surveys of church attendance or membership. If you are already a regular church attendee, that’s great. If not, why not resolve to start attending regularly in 2015?

Pray more

A popular Christian aphorism is to “Pray more, worry less.” Surveys show that many of us neglect prayer to the detriment of peace and true contentment. It’s difficult to pray unless you intend to do so. The Apostle Paul counseled the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.” Daniel prayed three times a day. Pew Forum surveys reveal 58 percent of U.S. adults report praying at least once a day, while 31 percent report praying and receiving an answer to prayer at least once a month. A University of Rochester study showed more than 85 percent of people facing a major illness prayed. Prayer and meditation is an important part of a healthy living regime including diet and exercise. It invokes the relaxation response, which is very healthy. Prayer can be done any time and any place and does not require any particular posture to perform.

Share your faith naturally

If you are experiencing a Christian life that is satisfying and providing many benefits, why not share? I often hear people excitedly exude glowing information about hobbies, recreational pursuits, books being read and so forth. What I rarely hear is people actually sharing their joy about their Christian walk. When someone shares something of extreme interest to them that is providing huge benefits to their life, it can be exciting and possibly inspire others to take a deeper look. I’ve often noted in my column that I do not get invited to visit the churches of people I come into contact with, or to take a look at their religion. (This, of course, does not apply to those who write to me or comment on my columns saying I should investigate or write about their church or religion.) National research consistently shows the only reason people do not go to church or visit another’s church is that they have never been asked! Yet it is so easy to do. If you’ve found power in prayer, tell someone. If you find your church helps you in unique ways, share it. If healthy living has given you a new lease on life, share the wealth. Too often we forget to share the good news.

2015, like preceding years, will come with its share of challenges; it’s a given. But adopting some of the practices I’ve enumerated can add new dimensions to your life, and to those around you. Happy New Year and may God bless your life in the coming months.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at