Monthly Archives: January 2016

Longtime Alaska priest Norman Elliott turns 97

Well, it’s happening again. The Rev. Norman Elliott of All Saints Episcopal Church will celebrate another birthday Feb. 2, his 97th. It’s extremely rare to find clergy still active at his age. Elliott’s ministry and friendships have touched thousands of Alaskans and beg recognition while he’s still with us. Elliott retired in 1990 at age 70, a church requirement then, but came out of retirement two years ago to act as “priest-in-charge” at All Saints when their previous rector departed with little notice. The Rev. David Terwilliger has been selected as All Saints’ new rector and will be installed by the Right Rev. Mark Lattime, bishop of Alaska, at Easter.

Recently Elliott was hospitalized with pneumonia. Still recovering, he maintains an active schedule of worship and hospital visits. While he was in the hospital, Sen. Lisa Murkowski visited him. She told me: “He is a guy that’s not going to let things pass him by. A couple of weeks ago when I visited him in the hospital at Providence, he was sitting there in the hospital bed grumping about the fact that he had places to go. I think with Father Elliott, he lives every day to the fullest, from the time that he wakes up in the morning to the time that he goes to bed at night. He is living every day, and that’s living a life well.”

Elliott regularly visits patients at Anchorage hospitals.

“Father Elliott is famous for visiting sick people in our local hospitals, somehow knowing exactly when someone is admitted,” says the Rev. Michael Burke, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. “In all my years of ministry, it was rare I got to the hospital before him. Once, when visiting a parishioner who both he and I had connections with, I was astounded I’d arrived at the patient’s bedside before Father Elliott. I remarked about this to the parishioner. The patient broke into a huge grin. ‘Look behind you,’ he said, just as Father Elliott arrived in the doorway. I had beaten him there by a full two minutes!”

At last Friday’s funeral for former Anchorage Archbishop Francis T. Hurley, Elliott reflected on his longtime personal friendship with the archbishop in a story about two bottles of water. The story began with Pope John Paul II inviting the choir that sang when he celebrated Mass on the Delaney Park Strip in 1981 to Rome to sing at the Vatican. Two months later, a group of 250 departed Anchorage for Europe.

At the direction of Hurley, who envisioned the church as ecumenical, the group was not limited to Roman Catholics. Elliott and his wife were part of the group, which stopped in London for the weekend. While there, Hurley celebrated Mass at a large Catholic cathedral and invited Elliott to vest. In his homily, Hurley noted that at one point, Roman Catholics and Anglicans had been one church but centuries earlier the Church of England (which in U.S. is the Episcopal Church) split off, and said that at some point down the road maybe the two churches would be unified again. Several days later, the same thing happened: At a Mass at the Vatican, the Catholic archbishop — with the vested Episcopal priest by his side — gave the same homily.

How did the bottles of water fit in? After Mass in London, Elliott went to the River Thames and filled a bottle of water there. After Mass in Rome, he filled a second bottle from the Tiber River. At one of Hurley’s birthday parties, Elliott presented him with the two bottles, saying it was his wish that one day both would stand unified at Ship Creek pouring both bottles of water into the river to celebrate a united church.

The archbishop held on to the bottles and had a case built for them. When Elliott retired, Hurley presented him with both bottles. Elliott concluded that he would most likely not be around to see that unification happen but hoped it would happen and that the waters from the Tiber and Thames would be poured into Ship Creek.

“I had the privilege of meeting Father Norman Elliott when I first arrived at the Archdiocese of Anchorage as the newly appointed archbishop,” recalls Roger L. Schwietz recalls. “It was shortly after Father Norm’s 81st birthday.  He had supposedly retired 12 years earlier. I would have never known. I have great admiration for Father Elliott for his continued dedication to ministry, his deep love of Christ and his longing for the unity of the Christian family.  May God continue to bless him in his life of service to the greater Anchorage community.”

Sen. Ted Stevens was a close friend of Elliott’s. Whenever Stevens was in Anchorage, he worshipped at All Saints. When, in 1978, a Learjet with Stevens and his wife, Ann, aboard crashed at Anchorage International Airport, Elliott was alerted that Stevens was in serious condition at Providence Alaska Medical Center and was provided a police escort to quickly reach him. It fell to Elliott to break the sad news to Ted that Ann had died in the crash. Later, when Stevens married his second wife, Catherine, he chose Elliott to perform the marriage.

Former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan first met Elliott in the early 1950s in Nenana, where his dad was a U.S. marshal and his mom commissioner, a judicial position. He has fond memories of Elliott’s care for his family, even though they weren’t Episcopalian. When Sullivan’s dad and mom were in hospital prior to their deaths, Elliott provided warm spiritual care for them.

I deeply enjoy my conversations and relationship with Elliott. He’s a real Christian in every sense of the word, and I wish him many more happy and healthy years.

All Saints Episcopal Church invites friends of the Rev. Norman Elliott to an early birthday party at McGinley’s Pub in downtown Anchorage from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31.

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) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any Web browser.

Millennials haven’t completely deserted Anchorage churches

For several years, I’ve written about issues churches face in the failure of attracting millennials — at least as we currently understand that word.

Pew Research defines millennials as the demographic group that fell between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2015 and projects that they number about 75.3 million, slightly surpassing the projected 74.9 million baby boomers (ages 51 to 69).

As I visit churches, in many I’m seeing fewer attendees I would identify as being in the 18-29 year range. In any organization, this group would ordinarily be the lifeblood that carries an organization into the future. (This is true not only for churches but also for civic and fraternal organizations such as Rotary Clubs and Masonic Lodges.) But not all churches are losing millennials.

In mid-November I attended Sunday services at TrueNorth Anchorage. This fairly recent church plant was meeting Sundays at the Loussac Library’s Wilda Marston Theatre but outgrew that space. Now they are meeting at Clark Middle School. I was warmly greeted by millennials as I entered Clark. The church met in the multipurpose room decorated with TrueNorth banners, and full of tables, information and helpful people. There were areas for children’s instruction as well. Many millennials attended the service, which started with a brief 15-minute musical service led by a seven-piece worship band.

The pastor introduced himself as Jason and warmly welcomed guests, explaining that the regular pastor, Brent, was at an Outside conference for pastors. Few pastors take the time to warmly welcome members and guests, much less to identify themselves by name. Jason, a millennial himself, identified as the key text for his sermon Nehemiah 3, which described rebuilding a gate and wall in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. It shows how almost everyone pitched in to accomplish this common goal. Jason tied this to TrueNorth’s mission of “reaching people in this state who do not know Jesus’ name,” a brilliant take on the meaning of Gospel. Following communion, the pastor challenged worshippers to consider inviting just one person to church during the week, and talked briefly about TrueNorth’s life groups. I can see why millennials might be drawn to such a service: It was brief and friendly and featured good music and excellent preaching. I’ve seen similarly effective services at Great Land Christian Church (Central Middle School), Clear Water (Wendler Middle School) and C3 (Begich Middle School). Attending services of all of them, I’ve found millennials well-represented at each.

David Kinnaman of the Barna Group, released a research-based book, “You Lost Me,” several years ago detailing how this young generation is giving up on church. There are many issues involved, but a few key ones were: failure of older members to connect, sexuality, perceptions of hypocrisy, not addressing science and faith and church exclusivity. In a recent interview titled “Q&A: Why Millennials are less religious than older Americans,” published by the Pew Research Center, New York University sociologist Michael Hout contends that millennials, the children of baby boomers, were raised to think for themselves, to “find their own moral compass,” rejecting “the idea that a good kid is an obedient kid,” approaching religion with a “do-it-yourself attitude.” He also notes millennials reject more than religion, citing “lack of trust in the labor market, with government, in marriage and in other aspects of life.”

Ray Nadon, pastor of Great Land Christian notes they’ve achieved positive results with “personal contact, meaning young people caring about other young people. Building relationships with them, learning to talk with them and not be ‘religious,’ but real and honest.” Sounds a bit like Kinnaman’s observations to me. Nadon further notes that training and teaching is important, aided by personal dives into Scripture, community service and active involvement by everyone. He did express a concern that too many churches try “to play in the millennials’ weaknesses by making ‘church’ about entertainment.” I agree with Nadon that’s a mistake, and isn’t really what millennials are looking for.

Brian Cook, lead pastor at ACF Church in Eagle River, another millennial-heavy church, thinks “that many current cultural issues are polarizing the church, which is reducing the number of nominal Christians, especially in the millennial generation. This is causing many to weigh the cost of aligning with the label of ‘Christianity.’” He notes that ACF is “a community of grace, where doubts and questions are welcomed. People don’t have to ‘believe’ to ‘belong.’” Cook believes “millennials are simply looking for honest and loving community with a real vision to make life better in our cities.”

Many churches continue to conduct church in traditional ways that frankly do not address millennial needs. Millennials are searching for authenticity in an unauthentic world. Churches could provide more of this if they really tried. Mentoring could help in many, but the big question is, will it happen?

However, I’m encouraged that millennials in Anchorage are finding places of worship that address their various backgrounds and needs, places that extend themselves in ways that are not claustrophobic.

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) Send submissions shorter than 200 words or click here to submit via any web browser.

The old Alaska traditions surrounding Orthodox Christmas

Last week I attended Orthodox services at St. Alexis Mission in celebration of Christmas. The Orthodox Church in America counts nearly 90 churches across Alaska, and congregations here, and in Canada and 14 other countries, celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, a practice harkening back to the church’s beginnings. The church in these regions follows a modified Julian calendar. (Locally, Greek and Antiochian Orthodox celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 using the Gregorian calendar for dating Christmas.)

In Alaska, Orthodox churches conduct Divine Liturgy services at 9 a.m. When a place of worship becomes too small, they do not add services but form a new body, i.e. mission, for the purpose of raising a new church. St. Alexis Mission meets at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association headquarters building on East International Airport Road. This temporary meeting space requires them to pack and store everything after services, no simple feat. Orthodox services involve the use of many icons and Eucharistic items which, in the temporary space, cannot be left in place.

The Very Rev. Jonah Andrew is assigned to the the mission, where he is sometimes assisted by the Very Rev. Michael Oleksa. Although Oleksa is retired, he is active in many other activities outside of St. Alexis. Andrew was in Tyonek celebrating Christmas at St. Nicholas Church, so Oleksa was the celebrant at both services I attended.

The 9 a.m. Christmas service at St. Alexis, a simple service including Eucharist, was led by Oleksa and a small choir. Orthodox services, except for the homily, are celebrated with the congregants standing. The service was very musical with the choir and the priest intertwining voices during the liturgy. Often, Oleksa raised his voice in support of the choir, even harmonizing with them.

In the Orthodox tradition, Christmas is preceded by 40 days of fasting — no easy feat, considering the fast period starts before Thanksgiving, and runs through the New Year. The Christmas service was a standard liturgy with special introductory psalms. The Gospel was Matthew, the story of the Magi, and in his homily, Oleksa talked about the Magi, and the birth of Jesus, pointing to the Magi in the primary icon, which are depicted as if seen from afar to emphasize the length of their journey. After the Eucharist, St. Alexis’ star was twirled to the sound of liturgical hymns for this feast day. Several times Oleksa joyfully announced, “Christ is born!” To which all responded, “Glorify him!” After the service, all were invited to Oleksa’s house for more hymns, folk carols and breakfast.

Oleksa was the celebrant again when vespers was celebrated that evening at St. Alexis — this time with fewer worshippers, and a much smaller choir. It was a beautiful service with another brief homily in which Oleksa depicted the Christian ending to one’s life; painless and blameless. Another “starring” was held. Not even the Protestant churches mark this time and event with such gusto.

After the service, Oleksa invited all present to meet up and join for “starring” and hymns at Lois and Tomislav Vasiljevic’s home in Russian Jack. Separately, Oleksa told me Tomislav, who is Serbian, was also celebrating his family Slava. “Serbian Orthodox are unique in that they do not celebrate their patron saint or Name Day, but instead celebrate the feast day on which their family became Christian,” Oleksa said. “In Tomislav’s case it was over 1,000 years ago that their whole village became Christian. St. Alexis always takes its star there, and sings for Tom and his family, who also treat us to a meal.”

Worshippers sang traditional Serbian religious music, while Oleksa’s son twirled the star. After the meal, Vasiljevic asked Oleksa to pray a healing prayer for him, which Oleksa did while placing a cross on him.

As I started writing this column, I had the impression most Orthodox worshippers avoid the temptation to succumb to the commercial trappings surrounding Christmas. However, the Rt. Rev. David Mahaffey, bishop of Sitka and Alaska, shared a strong statement of support for those who hold true to church recommendations saying, “I admire all those who wait until January 7 to celebrate the Nativity of Christ, because all the commercialism and busyness that has become the trappings of Christmas, has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, but more to do with the merchant’s pocketbook.”

“Alaska Missionary Spirituality,” a collection of 18th- and 19th-century letters, diaries and sermons of Orthodox missionaries in Alaska edited by Oleksa, explains starring as a “Native Alaskan term for traditional Julian calendar Christmas, combining elements of Ukrainian/Russian Orthodox hymns and folk customs and traditional indigenous practices. A pinwheel-shaped star, representing the Star of Bethlehem, with an icon of the Nativity of Christ in the center, leads the procession of carolers from house to house, where:

(1) In Aleut regions, they sing Orthodox and the traditional ‘“Many Years,’ often greeted with a rifle salute.

(2) In some Yup’ik Eskimo regions, all are treated to a lavish three-course meal (with the elders and church functionaries dining first). And in some households adults are presented with small gifts.

(3) In other Yup’ik areas, each household presents ‘to the Star’ their major annual contribution to the parish that the singers represent.”

I enjoyed my warm, in-depth introduction to Orthodox Christmas.

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


A fresh look at the ancient tradition of Epiphany

As I write this column, it’s Epiphany, a holiday on traditional church calendars that I’d never previously observed — though for most of my life I understood its meaning. Epiphany celebrates the visit by the Magi, or wise men, to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, a story told in Matthew 2.

Although the gifts of the Magi tend to be linked by popular custom to Christmas, it has little to do with that tradition. The Magi traveled to Jerusalem led by a star. Seeking King Herod, they asked (as rendered the New International Version): “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Herod did not know to whom they were referring and inquired of the Jewish chief priests and teachers of the law what this meant. He was told the Messiah was foretold to be born in Bethlehem. Asking when they first saw the star, he was told the exact time. The Magi were asked to report back to Herod after finding the child. The star led them to Jesus’ house, where they bestowed upon him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh they’d brought him. Not returning to Herod, they returned home by another way after being warned in a dream.

Searching for Anchorage Epiphany services, I located only two references, both Episcopalian. When I asked the Rev. Leo Walsh of St. Benedict’s Parish about Roman Catholic Epiphany services, he replied, “Epiphany is celebrated in varying ways in various places. In the western states, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord on the second Sunday after Christmas. In other, less secular places, it is celebrated on Jan. 6, the traditional 12th Day of Christmas. In the Eastern Church, its celebration corresponds with our celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.”

I attended two Epiphany services Wednesday, a personally enriching experience. The first service was held at noon at All Saints’ Episcopal Church downtown. Though sparsely attended, it offered a rich liturgy. It seemed strange to be attending church on a midweek day. The liturgy, primarily spoken without singing was led by the Rev. Katherine Hunt from Christ Church Episcopal. Her brief extemporaneous homily underscored the meaning of the arrival of the Magi and its significance for Christians, mentioning that many of us go home another way after meeting Jesus. The Eucharist service followed, after which a healing prayer was individually offered by her for those remaining at the communion rail to receive it, a Wednesday tradition at All Saints.

An evening service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church capped my Epiphany day. The service was more heavily attended than I anticipated. From beginning to end, the service was warm and welcoming. Rector Michael Burke explained various aspects of the service to keep all worshippers, especially guests, comfortable. Few local churches exhibit the practical hospitality I’ve observed at this fine church. Burke made sure members from another church that use St. Mary’s facilities weekly were welcome, along with other guests.

I was surprised to find the Rev. Martin Eldred — who pastors Joy Lutheran Church in Eagle River — had been invited to deliver the homily. (Lutheran and Episcopal churches enjoy a full communion relationship, where each can officiate in the other’s churches.) Martin’s extemporaneous homily began in Old Testament times when, post-exile, Jews rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and created purity laws that were driving people away. He fast-forwarded to the New Testament, which found the people of Israel under the yoke of Roman oppression, yearning for the king foretold in Isaiah. Eldred described the shepherds, who celebrated the birth of Jesus, as being social outcasts. Later, the Magi came, found the young Jesus, and brought him their gifts. The embracing message of these foreigners visiting Jesus was that other cultures recognized the significance of his birth, coming to pay royal homage to him.

Walsh says we can draw two lessons from the visitation of the Magi: “First, like the Magi, one has to be looking for Christ in order to perceive him. Faith is about relationships. When our relationships are rightly ordered, then we can see God is at work. If not, then it is unlikely that we ever will. Second, we often want to understand everything all at once. But life and God’s plans unfold slowly. Life is a journey, and one for which we don’t have a map. Rather, the spirit is more like a GPS, which barks out one instruction at a time.”

Celebrating Epiphany, I found new meaning in the gospel narrative of the Magi. Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his poem Epiphany, writes in part, “Give us the imagination like theirs to go home by another route on the path where foolishness is wisdom and weakness is strength and poverty is wealth. Make our new foolishness specific that the world might become — through us — new.”

It’s unfortunate that more local churches, which tend to pull out the stops for Christmas, don’t incorporate the lessons of Epiphany at this time of year, underscoring the universality of the gospel.

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) Send submissions shorter than 200 words or click here to submit via any web browser.

Top recommendations for churches — and church members — in 2016

When I write about churches I visit, I am really visiting congregations or assemblies of people. They may or may not meet in a dedicated building. For Christians, the biblical term for church is taken from the Greek word ekklesia, which is defined as “an assembly” or “called-out ones.” When people refer to their churches, often they’re referring to a specific building, but my columns tend to focus on churches as a congregation made up of its members, including leaders — and this column is no exception.

In this year’s top 10 list, I’m offering  recommendations that can strengthen and maintain strong Christian congregations. But they’re not only for church leaders: Individual church members must also take responsibility for their congregations. Leaders alone cannot achieve what their church’s members are not willing to tackle.

Resolve to attend church regularly

Attendance patterns for Alaska churches are some of the lowest in the U.S. Regular church attendance has strong physical, mental and spiritual benefits.

Study the Bible and its origins

Regular, personal Bible study has significant benefit for believers. Don’t depend on what your minister feeds you. I highly recommend studying Bible origins and translations. Several readable scholarly study books might help: Bruce Metzger’s “The Bible in Translation,” Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” and just published, Robert Hutchison’s “Searching for Jesus” will add to your confidence level in scripture.

Measure, discuss and confront loud music at your church

Many smartphone apps provide the ability to measure the loudness of music in your church. Loud music can damage your hearing and your family’s through repeated exposure. In many churches music is played at 100-105 decibels. My highest reading this past year was 117 decibels. A papercovering 43 studies of hearing loss published by McGill Journal of Medicine demonstrates how preventable it is. It’s foolish for churches to promote physical, mental and spiritual health but create hearing damage. Be proactive and communicate with your church leadership. Your church’s sound people and worship team must understand the gravity of this issue.

Be part of the greeting solution

Why support missions halfway around the world and be dismissive of the stranger who is visiting your church? Be friendly. Introduce yourself to strangers and welcome them. You’d do the same in your home, wouldn’t you? Church is your spiritual home. The number-one reason church guests vow to never return to a particular church is that they are made to feel unwelcome. Every church should adopt the 10-foot rule — meaning every member should be encouraged to welcome those within a 10-foot radius.

Learn about and observe the concept of Sabbath

Christians, for the most part, observe a day of worship limited to a few hours on Saturday or Sunday. A quick read of the Bible reveals Sabbath to be a 24-hour cessation of work. Its intent is for a physical, mental and spiritual R&R. Devoting only a few hours to the observance of Sabbath cheats you of the benefits God gave us at creation, and underlined in the 10 commandments. “Sabbath” by Dan Allender, “Mudhouse Sabbath” by Lauren Winner and “Sabbath Keeping” by Lynne Baab are excellent books about the benefits of reserving a day a week to worship, rest and restore.

Support community needs with direct action

Many Christians in our community avoid helping others. Evangelical churches here often ignore helping the poor, sick, needy and downtrodden. Appeals are often made to support world evangelism and missions, but the greatest mission field is here in Alaska. It is hypocritical to think otherwise. Roman Catholic, Orthodox and liturgical churches regularly care for and support community-wide needs. Why this divide exists puzzles me. The Bible says “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Use group study to replace dying Sunday schools

A distinct national trend has developed about Sunday schools — they’re dying. Some churches have replaced them with small groups that meet at various times during the week or sometimes on Sunday. A tendency of many groups is to read and discuss various “flavor-of-the-month” spiritual books rather than to delve into the Bible, digesting it and learning from it. Don’t neglect the Bible for these types of groups. Be courageous and form your own Bible reading and study group instead. Radical church transformations can occur.

Be comfortable inviting someone to worship or study with you

It’s a wonderful thing to sing about the “good news” of Christ, and be effusive over his presence in your life. If this is true, then share it with someone who may not have a connection with Christ or may possibly be unfulfilled in their current church experience. Offer to personally study with them or accompany you to a meaningful service at your place of worship.

Give back financially

Christians believe a key response to the value of the gift they’ve received merits a heart response in giving. Scripture tells us “God loves a cheerful giver.” If you believe your church is spending too much on overhead and not enough on the “good news” of spreading the gospel, get involved. Ask to be included in discussions of church finances.

Pray more, complain less

Prayer is one of the healthiest things you can do. A recent Psychology Today article listed five benefits of prayer. National polling data indicates that more than half of us pray every day, and more than 75 percent believe prayer is important to our daily lives. Prayer is not posture. One can pray anywhere and everywhere. Very few pastors talk about prayer in their sermons. It should be stressed.

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)