Monthly Archives: December 2015

Six inspiring things from Anchorage faith organizations in 2015

During my forays into the local faith community in 2015 I experienced an intriguing mix of sights, sounds, venues and celebrations. This week I’ll briefly describe some that made lasting impressions. Next week I focus on my perennial quest regarding what I’d like to see churches tackle in 2016.

These impressions are mine alone, and omission isn’t intended as a slight to any faith-based organization in Anchorage.

Faith community support of social causes

As the years go by, I’m increasingly enthusiastic when local faith organizations and their members go out of their way supporting charitable causes such as Thanksgiving Blessing, Crop Hunger Walk, food banks and food distribution programs, kids programs, etc. There is sufficient need in our community, and these efforts show that, for the most part, Christian organizations walk the talk. When Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church periodically holds two-hour Beer and Hymns events, more than $5,000 is raised for Lutheran Social Services of Alaska. Church food drives are incredibly successful too, such as when St. Mary’s Episcopal Church collects donations of more than 4,000 jars of peanut butter plus other food items during the year.

Catholic celebrations mark years of progress

The Archdiocese of Anchorage held several important celebrations this year. One marked the 100th anniversary of Holy Family Cathedral, and the 50th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Anchorage. Many artifacts of local church history were on display, accompanied by colorful presentations by many local Catholic leaders. The ceremonial Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe marking Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz’s 75th birthday (and 25th anniversary of his ordination as bishop) was full of music, co-celebrating archbishops and bishops, and many priests. The investiture ceremony of the Royal Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, presided over by a cardinal, was a spectacular peek into church history.

Orthodox visits impressed me deeply

The Eagle River Institute at St. John Orthodox Cathedral during August afforded opportunities to learn about orthodoxy, and its history, especially Syrian-born Rev. George Shaloub’s lectures on Middle Eastern Christianity. With the Syrian refugee crisis in the headlines at the moment, it’s too bad more local Christians did not hear his messages. Vespers, held after supper each day, provided music and liturgy harking back to apostolic times. A recent visit to St. Tikhon Orthodox Church delighted me. The hour and a half liturgy was supported by an all-male choir singing in four-part harmony. The Russian Christmas celebration at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral was filled with music and liturgy, my first experience with starring, a beautiful Orthodox tradition brought from Ukraine.

Church worship experiences in middle schools

New churches (church plants) meeting in middle schools were a pleasant visit focus. Clark, Begich, Wendler, and Hanshew middle schools were the focus of those visits. They pay a standard Anchorage School District rental rate for use of the multi-purpose room for adult meetings and classrooms for the younger kids. Churches must bring everything needed and set up every Sunday, taking it all down after, but it works beautifully. Many of these locations provide better settings than some of our local churches. In each of these services, the proportion of millennials was greater than in an average church. I’ve been personally blessed by the number of these services I’ve attended, never feeling the absence of a dedicated brick-and-mortar church as a disadvantage.

AFACT support of Medicaid expansion

Earlier this year, Anchorage Faith and Action Congregations Together challenged the state Legislature with words and prayer at the Legislative Information Office to expand the Medicaid system on behalf of the working poor who slip through the cracks. AFACT, a local coalition of 14 local congregations, worked tirelessly on behalf of expansion. In the end, expansion of the health-care program did happen. When I attended the AFACT celebration at St. Anthony Catholic church in early fall, I was impressed with the passion this dedicated group expressed. I was especially taken with Pastor Julia Seymour’s remarks referring to “social junk.” She’s right. It’s so easy to criticize and ignore those among us we regard as not worthy of our consideration. However, everyone counts in our society, or it begins to rot from the center.

Longevity of senior pastors in our community

My interview with All Saints Episcopal’s Rev. Norman Elliott as he reached his 96th birthday was a true delight. His tireless devotion to his church, and the spiritual lives of those in our hospitals, should be an inspiration to us all. It’s not often we get to know a living church legend; Elliott certainly fits the bill. His stories of pastoring and teaching in the villages, coupled with flights of daring in the parish airplane, are fascinating. Whenever he digresses into the poetry of Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy, which he manages to slip into most sermons, he becomes a different man. Elliott is devoted to God and to his church. Retired Archbishop Francis T. Hurley celebrated his 45th year as bishop this year. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing him several times, and like Elliott, he was a flying priest who ministered to a far-flung area. Both have interesting tales of serving God by airplane. The Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church celebration of Pastor Alonzo Patterson’s 45th anniversary as their pastor and 66th anniversary of being a pastor was a warm and effusive display of love for their pastor. Many guest pastors were on hand to add their congratulations and thanks to God for Patterson’s many years of service. The musical tributes were warm and from the heart. It was an exceptional event to have experienced.

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

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)

10 ways to make the most of this Christmas

As you read this, the Christmas season is approaching a climax. Before Christmas passes, I’d like to suggest a few activities to help make the most of your observances of this Christmas season.

These practices will, I believe, help make the holiday’s meaning and message more real.

“Christians celebrate Christmas because they see, in the person of Jesus, God’s reign in-breaking amidst the sin, pain, despair and seemingly endless cycles of violence in our world,” says Rector Michael Burke. “The traditional teaching of Advent is threefold: to prepare for the birth of the Messiah, in the form of the tiny Christ child, in a place known only to those for whom the world has no place (or ‘room’).”

Advent observers experiencing a period of watchful waiting for the Messiah may be better prepared than other worshippers to celebrate the birth of Jesus as an eagerly awaited event.

As you celebrate Christmas, use this time to share with those around you the good news of His wonderful gift of love and redemption. Jesus was mostly rejected by his own people, yet much of his brief ministry was directed toward casting out devils, bodily and spiritual healing, kindness to prostitutes, loving the unlovely, and giving hope to the poor. Gandhi is famously quoted as saying, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Those of us who are Christians can remember this by opening our hearts and lives in loving response to the work of Jesus. Let’s share it with our children and everyone around us. Christmas offers many opportunities to do this. Here are 10 ways to restore the true spirit of Christmas in yourself, your family and friends and others.

1. Attend both a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day service.

Both are important. If you have children, look for appropriate Christmas Eve services. Many churches have them. They can be memorable for children and adults alike. A double-page spread in today’s Alaska Dispatch News lists many services offered by area churches. Personally, I’ve enjoyed Christmas services at St. John United Methodist Church, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and Our Lady of Guadalupe co-cathedral, especially the midnight Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

2. Read Luke 1 and 2 together with a group.

It’s a story where both chapters are important. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a wonderful film to watch on Christmas. YouTube has the poignant part where Linus recites the passage from Luke 2 for Charlie Brown to restore his faith in what Christmas is all about. Charles Schulz insisted this be included in the film.

3. Make snow angels outside with someone you love.

In doing so, remember the significant role of the angels of the Christmas narrative in Matthew and Luke.

4. Attend midnight Mass if you’ve never done so.

Like Easter, midnight Mass is one of the highpoints of the Catholic church year. Held at midnight, it rings in the true spirit of Christmas. Regardless of your faith, you’ll appreciate this special event. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church also has a service starting at 11 p.m., which culminates with candles and Eucharist at the stroke of midnight.

5. Invite a friend, regardless of religious persuasion, to join you at a service.

You’d do the same for them if they invited you to a meaningful service in their personal life. It goes both ways.

6. Extend yourself to the ‘beatitudes people.’

You know, the ones Jesus spoke of during his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, revilers and evil speakers. There are ways to reach out to every one of these. For example, there are many examples of the persecuted these days, such as Syrian refugees.

7. Ask any number of charities now if you and your family could help.

The Salvation Army, Bean’s Cafe, Catholic Social Services, Lutheran Social Services, Brother Francis Shelter, Downtown Soup Kitchen, AWAIC, Gospel Rescue Mission, Food Bank of Alaska and many others can make use of your monetary and other assistance at this time of year.

8. Share memories of Christmases past with friends and family.

Many of these memories are stories of hope and meaning that may die unless shared and maybe recorded for posterity. StoryCorps is a wonderful way to record these memories of a friend or loved one, which may otherwise disappear. has an app available to download to make this easy.

9. Consider a monetary gift to an Alaska-based relief and development project in someone’s name.

Alaska Sudan Medical Project ( is one such worthy cause in South Sudan that is saving and changing lives in many ways. So is the Malawi Children’s Village ( Both are spearheaded or strongly supported by Alaska physicians.

10. Call a long-lost friend to reach out in love.

Giving the gift of love is a virtually cost-free gift with huge dividends. Using Google or Facebook can facilitate your search.

Here’s my hope that God’s peace rests with you and your family as you celebrate the true experience of Christmas.

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

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words or click here to submit via any web browser.

What are we really celebrating at Christmas?

Let’s face it: Our stories about Christmas originate from the Gospels, particularly Matthew and Luke, but we don’t really know when Christ was born. Many scholars tend to favor spring as the most likely time of year. This is based on the account of shepherds watching over their flocks by night, something more likely to have taken place in spring than winter.

We probably celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 because of efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to co-opt pagan celebrations held around the winter solstice. It was also the birthday of Mithra, the pagan god of light. On the darkest day of the year, Roman pagans celebrated by lighting up the night with fires to repel the dark. Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival of Saturn, was also celebrated in December, with often-unrestrained merrymaking. Scholars believe elements of both festivals eventually became incorporated into Christmas.

Hans Lietzmann, in his definitive “A History of the Early Church,” writes, “The festival on Dec. 25 originated in the west, and undoubtedly Rome was its cradle. Here it was observed as early as A.D. 336 under Constantine. From that date onwards, it is mentioned wherever we are justified in expecting it. Epiphany was unknown in Rome throughout the whole of the fourth century, being observed for the first time about 450, when it was mentioned by Leo the Great as the festival of the ‘Magi,’ i.e., the wise men from the east.” Historian Will Durant, in “The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ,” wrote, “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it.”

Popular culture and Christianity have slowly developed traditions that don’t always correctly represent the facts surrounding Jesus’ birth. For example, Christmas cards, crèches in homes and churches, and living Nativity scenes wrongly depict the Magi as being present at the birth of Jesus, though they did not arrive until sometime after his birth — possibly days or weeks later, or even longer. Scripture notes it was some time after Christ’s presentation in the temple. The shepherds came, but not the wise men. Likewise, the Bible doesn’t say there were three wise men, only that three gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh — were given.

During the Reformation, many reformers, including John Knox, John Calvin and Martin Luther, rejected the way Christmas was celebrated. Luther, a former Roman Catholic priest, did allow certain Catholic observances of Christmas, and is said to have encouraged the bringing of evergreen trees inside and lighting them with candles. Presbyterians, on the other hand, were a late holdout against the celebration of Christmas, and when Puritans settled in America, they initially banned its celebration (cultural suspicion of the holiday persisted into the mid-1800s in New England).

Gift giving, once a tradition welcoming in the New Year, slowly shifted to Christmas in the 1800s. In the last hundred years, Christmas has become a phenomenon of unrestrained spending to honor the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s even become an international sensation in countries with virtually no official tie to the teachings of Christianity. To me, it’s curious that religious leaders do so little to correct this orgy of spending, redirecting those energies toward the holiday’s true meaning.

I’ve visited many churches in town during this Advent season, an annual time of reflection and preparation of recognition of the birth of Jesus, and with only one exception, I’ve heard “business as usual” sermons on many different topics including parables or explications of passages of Scripture unrelated to the coming Christmas season.

Thankfully, one pastor mentioned “Advent Conspiracy.” Advent Conspiracy (see is a movement started nine years ago to correct the excesses of this season. Its website states these four simple aims: “Advent Conspiracy is a global movement of people and churches resisting the cultural Christmas narrative of consumption by choosing a revolutionary Christmas through Worshipping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More and Loving All.”

It’s simple and easily accomplished. Some families have written to me telling me wonderful stories of how Advent Conspiracy has changed their perspectives, helping them become better Christian citizens of the world, fulfilling the truth of the Gospel.

This contrasts with pollsters’ predictions that average American spending for Christmas will be $830 per family, with many spending over $1,000, the highest amount since the Great Recession of 2008.

Who hasn’t had a family gift opening with squalling children, hurt feelings, and a numb sense after the gifts are all open, not to mention mounting debt as a result? I’ve seen it many times; it’s not pleasant. Christmas spending is a huge shot in the arm for our economy, but wouldn’t it be better to more wisely use those resources during the year to recognize family birthdays in turn?

Christmas is “not your birthday,” as the Rev. Bob Mather of Baxter Road Bible Church reminds me yearly. For Christians, at least, it’s Jesus’ birthday — to be observed in a manner reflecting all the glory and praise back to Him for the marvelous gift of grace God gave a fallen world. (And yes, I realize practitioners of other religions, plus atheists and agnostics, observe Christmas traditions that have become a part of pop culture.)

Despite the misgivings outlined above, I think Christmas is a wonderful time of year to look forward to and celebrate the birth of Christ in Scripture, spoken word, and song. It is also the least invasive time in which we can invite friends and acquaintances to our place of worship to celebrate this joyous time. For parents, it’s a teachable moment when your children can learn about the beginnings of Christianity. Advent observance can also delve deeply into prophetic scriptural writings, words and music dealing with Messianic anticipation.

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

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)

Three church visits on the first Sunday in Advent

Last Sunday was the first in the season of Advent. That morning I visited three churches along the O’Malley Road corridor. In last Saturday’s column, I mentioned that not all churches observe Advent, and on Sunday, I set out to visit several services to see what different congregations do during this liturgical season.

Amazing Grace Lutheran Church

My visits to Amazing Grace over the years have been satisfying, providing deep spiritual experiences. This time of year they offer three services: 8:15, 9:30 and 11 a.m. The sanctuary was decorated with white poinsettias, especially massed around a rough-hewn altar. An Advent wreath with four blue candles and one white one was positioned on the left. A trimmed Christmas tree was on the right side. Five banners hung from the large sanctuary cross, each spelling out one letter of the word “peace.”

The gathering song was “Prepare the Royal Highway,” a message of waiting for the Messiah. Not all music was traditional Advent music, but it offered distinctly strong theology.

The Advent candle for the day was lit early in the service, which was strongly liturgical; the first and second Gospel readings were from Luke 1, while the third reading was from Luke 2. Pastor Adam Barnhart’s message explored the readings from Luke within a personal story about how he asked his wife to marry him.

Communion was celebrated with the entire congregation present in a circle around the altar. At the conclusion of the Holy Eucharist, he prayed for all while hands were joined. Amazing Grace has always underscored the amazing grace we have. I enjoyed my visit immensely.

Cornerstone Church

My visits to Cornerstone have been pleasant and memorable. I especially enjoy the Rev. Brad Sutter’s preaching and I was welcomed warmly by greeter Mary Bolin. The 9:30 a.m. service started with the church’s talented praise band. They sang five contemporary Christian songs for about 40 minutes before the sermon. I felt the group’s volume — about 100-105 decibels, like many contemporary praise band churches — was unnecessary. Churches are responsible for the well-being of their congregants, and loud music threatens to damage listeners’ hearing. Congregational singing was drowned out, a common occurrence with loud church music. I estimated about half the congregants were not singing or were merely mouthing the words, in contrast with Amazing Grace, where everyone sang. The music was no different from any other time of year, with no Advent or pre-Christmas messages.

Sutter’s sermon was based on Romans 12:6-8, dealing with the gifts of grace. He noted he was following an outline he’d used before. Although well-delivered, it seemed repetitive and ran much longer than I expected. I had to leave before his remarks were completed to attend an 11 a.m. service in a nearby church. To watch his sermon, go to and click on “sermons.” Cornerstone does not observe the Advent tradition. When I asked Sutter, the church pastor, about this, he said, “We are flexible regarding the Sundays leading up to Christmas each year. Last year, during each of the Sundays of Advent, we did focus on a theme related to Christ’s coming.” This year, Sutter said, the church plans to explore the theme “Why Did Jesus Come?” over a series of services in December.

Christian Church of Anchorage

I attended Christian Church of Anchorage after hearing they planned to sing hymns. Indeed, when I arrived just after 11 a.m., they were singing hymns. Six hymns and a sending song were sung during the service. A group of four women, two men (one with a guitar) and pianist helped bring them alive. Unlike Cornerstone, you could clearly hear people joining in and singing these hymns. It was a pleasant experience and included some of the most recognizable music I’d heard that day.

The Rev. Deryl Titus’ sermon was based on the “60 Days of Celebration,” and drew from Matthew 1:18-25.

“Since Thanksgiving and Christmas are only a day each and they come and fade so rapidly, I chose to use the whole months of November and December” for the 60 days of celebration theme, Titus wrote in a subsequent note. “Every week we are realizing how to celebrate not two days but two months.”

At the conclusion of his sermon, Communion was served. I was greeted before and after service by a number of people. While not an Advent service, it offered symbolism prefiguring Advent. The service and sermon can be watched on the church’s website.

This trio of services on the first Sunday of Advent made for an interesting mix. I’d be interested in hearing about your Advent experiences.

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

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)