By clicking on the link below, you will see a descriptive flyer of next weekend’s Merton lectures by Hugh Grant at St. Mary Episcopal Church. See you there!
Thomas Merton’s life and writings have had a huge influence on millions of people for the past 70 years. Before his untimely passing in December 1968, Merton visited Alaska looking at potential new retreat sites during September of that year. “Merton in Alaska,” published posthumously, documented his wide-ranging travels in Alaska, many talks, and ruminations via his letters and journal. I consider this book to be a spiritual “must-read.” (I’ve written about Merton and his time in Alaska in several previous columns.)
On Nov. 4-6, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church will host a series of talks, titled “Contemplation and Action: Insights from Thomas Merton,” by Merton scholar Rev. Hugh Grant, who will be brought to Anchorage through the generosity of The Caroline Penniman Wohlforth Lecture Series. The talks promise a welcome change from our contentious and damaging election cycle.
Caroline Wohlforth passed away five years ago but her contributions to Alaska are well known by many. She pioneered the “open classroom” model which resulted in Chugach Optional School. The Committee for Alternative Secondary Education was started through her efforts and those of others, out of which grew Steller Secondary School. She was also a member of the Anchorage School Board, serving as president for two years. A co-founder of KSKA, she also served Planned Parenthood, Thread, and F.I.S.H. A member of St. Mary’s, she led out in the Bible Workbench process, a concerted Bible-study program, editing and contributing to it for many years. The 27th Alaska State Legislature honored her posthumously with a resolution stating “Caroline has left an indelible mark on Alaska and will not be forgotten.” Caroline’s influence lives on through this pioneering lecture series.
After she passed, her husband, Eric Wohlforth, established a foundation to bring noted speakers to St. Mary’s, and other churches, on behalf of the community. The first speaker in the series was Rev. Robin Myers, an author and clergyman from Oklahoma, who spoke about the challenges and advantages of building inclusive Christian communities. The second speaker was Mark Osler, law professor at University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, who spoke on social advocacy and his book “Jesus on Death Row,” which challenged the death penalty based on the experience of Jesus Christ as a criminal defendant.
In choosing this year’s speaker, Wohlforth was deeply influenced by an Easter sermon he heard Rev. Grant give earlier this year at his church on Orcas Island where he was a guest speaker. Titled “Learning to Love our Whole Selves,” it presented clear thoughts such as “You probably don’t need me to tell you that Christianity over the centuries has been distorted, used as a means of social control and wielding power instead of a safe haven for weary souls longing for peace and a sense of belonging.” And, “Everyone gets a seat at the table, even if some need more help learning how to behave. The table becomes the place of wholeness and healing and incorporation. At the table, everyone belongs. Everyone gets a seat.”
Recalling it, Wohlforth said, “The sermon made me think of the fact that I want to live more intensely with much greater awareness of what is happening in my life. For me this refers to the quality of the thought conversations I have with myself as I react to the daily events of my life. Fred Buechner, a favorite writer of mine, talks about the need to ‘listen to your life.’ I interpret this to mean that for my thought conversations to work (and ‘to work’ means producing some ‘inner change’) requires that I listen more intensively and consciously to daily life events of family, friends and community.” Wohlforth especially recommends author/theologian Buechner’s book, “Listening to Your Life.”
Graduating from General Theological Seminary in New York City with a Master of Divinity, Grant was ordained a priest in 2008. He is also trained in psychotherapy and is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in Washington state, conducts wilderness retreats, and has a keen interest in mysticism. Prior to moving to Washington state, he served for five years in a New York City parish. He currently resides on Orcas Island, Washington.
Rarely do Anchorage churches go out of their way to bring thought-provoking speakers to town to challenge our ways of thinking, and to give us new perspectives with which to view our lives of faith.
On Nov. 4, at 7 p.m., Rev. Grant will speak about “The Spiritual Path of Contemplation and Action: Insights from the life of Thomas Merton.”
Grant’s talk on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 10 a.m.,”Practicing Contemplation and Action: A Quiet Day for Self-Inquiry and Devotion,” is more practically focused.
On Sunday, Nov. 6, at 10:30 a.m., Grant’s delivers a final session, “Further on the Spiritual Path.”
All sessions are at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Tudor Road and Lake Otis Parkway, and are free of charge. (For more information contact St. Mary’s Episcopal Church at (907-563-3341.)
“Our vision is that St. Mary’s might be a resource for spiritual growth for anyone in the wider community” says St. Mary’s rector, Rev. Michael Burke. “It doesn’t matter what faith community that you belong to, or none at all. Come on in. No matter what your perspective is, you’ll probably find someone here who agrees with you.”
In response to my question about what portion of his lectures will focus on Thomas Merton’s work, Grant indicated he plans on devoting one-half to two-thirds of them to Merton. In seminary, he studied Merton, recalling that “The Inner Experience” had just been published. Grant said he was “struck by the interplay between Thomas Merton’s being drawn into the monastery and his inner/outer life.” Merton’s humanity and devotion to the spiritual path proved to be an inspiration to Grant.
“The more we’re called to contemplation, the fruits are action,” he says. Merton wasn’t sure of mystical experiences, Grant noted, but his life seemed to be punctuated by them (he’ll talk about three of those.)
A number of Merton devotees will be attending these lectures. Last year an informal chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society was formed here and representatives will be on hand to offer membership and meeting information to those interested.
It’s been a great gardening season for local gardeners, if not without some challenges. A very late fall has stretched out the growing season almost a month longer than normal. Leaves have now fallen and the soil is quickly freezing, but not before some local church gardens managed to reap marvelous harvests benefiting those who depend on food pantries. My April 30 columnbriefly mentioned the new garden of Lutheran Church of Hope, constructed on church woodland and under the tutelage of member and master gardener Don Bladow.
Bladow, with the help of his wife, an ELCA hunger initiative grant and the support of a dedicated team of volunteers, has turned that land into a highly productive garden. All of the produce grown on it was transported directly to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska three times weekly, for distribution to scores of their clients. Approximately 20,000 square feet of land was cleared and rotivated, and about 8,400 square feet was planted with a wide variety of vegetables. Surprisingly, the site is very sandy, giving the soil good drainage and root penetration ability.
An avid woodworker, especially with regard to wood turning, Bladow converted as many of the birch trees as possible to bowls. Two hundred were sold at the church, raising funds to supplement the initial grant the church received for the project. He plans to make more bowls over the winter for sale in the spring at the church. Of various sizes, they’re light, both in color and weight, and a beauty to behold. It’s satisfying to hold one and realize you’ve become part of the project by your purchase. Bladow also made and donated 100 bowls to Bean’s Cafe’s annual Empty Bowl event. I consider his effort on the bowls alone as a concerted demonstration of putting one’s faith to work.
A lifelong Lutheran, Bladow says he got the idea for the garden project from the 2015 Alaska Lutheran Synod Assembly, which featured a hunger theme. He began thinking about ways to use the space behind the church. That year, he constructed and planted five elevated garden boxes but found they were not successful. After that, he immediately began clearing the lot.
Taking the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ online master gardener class, he also approached Julie Riley of the local Cooperative Extension Service for help. She offered him assistance with regard to clearing the land, testing the soil and amending the soil for best fertility.
With the help of 20 to 25 individuals — including church members, local master gardeners, the Turnagain Elementary PTO and friends of the church — he installed fencing, constructed a garden shed for equipment storage and planted the garden. Potatoes, carrots, cabbage, squash, cauliflower, broccoli, parsnips, kale, chard and three types of zucchini were planted in 2016.
“There is no way I could have done all that needed to be done without help from the congregation,” Bladow said. He gives much credit, especially for tending the garden, to his wife, Bonnie, who is also an active volunteer at the “Listening Post” program.
The results were astounding: 2,350 pounds of produce went to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, and this was only their first year.
Bladow attributes Jesus’ words as the driving force behind his efforts: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
He added, “If I can feed people the results of this garden, my life has been a success.”
“Don’s work, along with other volunteers’, was amazingly dedicated and faithful,” remarked Lutheran Church of Hope pastor Julia Seymour. “Each harvest brought a joyous ‘Glory to God’ response. The garden and those who committed to it are a true revelation of how prayer goes beyond words into the actions of our hands and feet. The garden helps LCOH love our neighbors in word and in deed.”
Unfortunately, many local church gardens start small and stay small, producing a small amount of food for pantries. Such smallness might indicate a lack of faith, of vision or of a spark plug like Don Bladow to get it done. What if more churches got very serious about planting the abundant unused acreage around their facilities, turning it into productive use for others?
“We’re so blessed to be able to provide fresh, locally grown produce to our clients who use our food pantry,” said Alan Budahl, Lutheran Social Services of Alaska’s executive director. “This produce helps us to supplement the produce we buy each week, in order to give our clients a better choice. We’re very excited about the growth in gardening in our faith-based community in Alaska.”
“Many people love rhubarb, so don’t throw it away but bring it in to us, leafy tops removed,” Budahl added “Our clients love it. Consider finding the video ‘Just Eat It,’ which is excellent in showing how much food is tossed away in America.”
Budahl said that LSSA is investigating putting a garden onsite at the pantry, and have a social work practicum student help them work through the various methods of growing in Alaska. (Budahl said he’s willing to help any faith-based organization get started, and mentioned that startup grants are also available to help. He can be reached at 272-0643.)
Another successful large first-year garden can be found at Christ Church Episcopal on O’Malley Road just east of the zoo. They actively planted more than 1,000 square feet on the rear half of their property this year, sending the produce weekly to St. Christopher’s Food Pantry in Muldoon. Christ Church’s Rev. Katherine Hunt indicated many parishioners also brought their excess produce such as rhubarb, crabapples, lettuce and squash to go to the pantry. They’re planning on doubling their planting area next spring. (Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Don Bladow has also offered his help to other churches in getting started with their gardens. He may be contacted at email@example.com. He also maintains a useful blog of information and pictures. (Pictures of Lutheran Church of Hope’s “Harvest of Hope Memorial Garden” shared by Bladow may also be viewed on my website churchvisits.com.)
To the many other churches in the area that offer plots for community gardens, I offer hope and encouragement to continue. I strongly believe they help build community.
Now is the time for faith-based organizations to plan for their 2017 gardens.
This week’s column features Lutheran Church of Hope’s “Harvest of Hope Memorial Garden.” The following pictures graphically demonstrate the power of putting church land to use in just one year. My Alaska Dispatch News column can be viewed at adn.com/churchvisits, usually Friday evening. These pictures were submitted to churchvisits.com by the featured gardener/member, Don Bladow.
As I visit churches, many sermons I hear lack practical application to our daily lives with demonstrable clear takeaways. They don’t give biblically down-to-earth advice and admonition to guide the daily lives of Christians, to encourage and enable them to be as distinctive as were the early Christians.
In my church visits here, I recall hearing only one sermon full of practicality containing admonition for maintaining one’s physical, mental and spiritual health. Obesity, diabetes and heart disease, for example, are on the upswing. Yet, many church dinners tend to be unhealthy, reflecting a lack of knowledge about the link between diet and disease. Why, for the most part, would churches remain silent on practical advice and knowledgeable practices to their flocks?
Last Sunday, I was treated to another practical sermon at The Crossing in Chugiak. Titled “An Honest Day’s Work,” it was given by Dave Lemaire, a layman with deep roots in men’s ministry. A lifelong Alaskan, Dave has operated businesses and worked in a variety of positions in the transportation industry from the Kenai Peninsula to the North Slope. In July, I wrote about Dave and Michelle Lemaire’s Copper River Float Ministry in this column.
Introducing Lemaire, The Crossing’s senior pastor, the Rev. Brad Rud, said he’d invited Dave to speak about being a Christian and work. My first-ever sermon on this topic, it fascinated me.
Early in his sermon, Lemaire, holding up his Bible, repeated a frequently used statement at The Crossing: “This is my Bible. It is the word of God. In this book are the keys to an abundant life, a joy-filled life and eternal life. I will take God at his word. Amen.”
Early on he cited Ephesians 2:8-10: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Lemaire stressed that we’re “God’s handiwork,” his masterpiece. Other key texts used to support his talk were Colossians 3:22-4:1, Titus 2:9-10, 1 Peter 2:15-21, and 1 Timothy 6:1-2. Supported by this Scripture, he proceeded to provide a framework for employer and employee conduct and relationships.
Breaking down the day of the average American to 8.9 hours working, 7.7 hours sleeping, 2.5 hours of leisure, one hour on household needs, 1.2 hours caring for others and one hour of doing other things, Lemaire said work offers our best opportunity to affect more people for Christ than any other daily activity, adding our work should say much about our character.
If we’re doing an honest day’s work, people will see Jesus in us. Throughout his talk, Lemaire told of multiple work instances in his and others lives where employers saw honesty in their work habits, opening the door for employers to understand true Christians can represent Christ just by performing their work justly.
On the part of employees, Lemaire underscored the toll employee-theft takes on businesses — $20 billion yearly, while break-ins and thefts by customers’ cost businesses — $13 billion yearly. He stressed employees should not steal, be dedicated to their employers and work with sincerity, as God is always watching, and others too.
In a past work life, I worked with businesses to address time-theft, estimated by many researchers to be 10 percent of what the average employee is paid. While not quantified specifically, Lemaire addressed time theft, time wasted on the job, texts, emails and other personal business at work supported by Scripture points.
Working responsibly during our work time, not wasting time, being responsible with employer resources, being obedient and respectful, giving our best, being loyal and letting our work point people to Christ were all Scripture-driven points Lemaire underscored.
He summarized the gist of being a true Christian in the workplace by this statement: “We make the message of Christ effective in the workplace without preaching the Gospel.” Personally, I’ve worked for “Christian” employers who were anything but Christ-like in the workplace.
He stressed fairness in the workplace works both ways. Similarly, employers should treat employees in the same way employers themselves wish to be treated. This means being honest with them, paying them fairly and with integrity. Employees need to see employers demonstrating their own work ethic and making good business decisions. He cited the need for employer loyalty to employees, by not threatening them or always appearing to be looking for replacements.
Lemaire’s sermon can be watched online at vimeo.com/187096414. Covering much ground in 33 minutes, he offered great advice for anyone. Think of it. If rightly followed, Bible studies, face-to-face witnessing, or personal testimonies would be of less importance if more employees and employers followed this advice. In an encouraging manner, Lemaire shared stories of employees expecting to be fired for making mistakes, but not losing their jobs when they honestly came clean with their employers.
This message needs to be heard at many more churches.
Beer and hymns this Sunday
Hymn singing at the “Beer and Hymns” events has proven to be a blessing to those who participate. Unfortunately, I’ve heard Anchorage pastors denounce this event as a beer bash; it’s anything but. Rather, it’s a coming together of people of faith to sing praises to their God and to show financial support for Lutheran Social Services of Alaska.
Participants pay for their meal and beverages, sing hymns for two hours and donate money. Between $6,000 and $10,000 are raised in this short time several times a year.
Event founder, retired Rev. Dan Bollerud, formerly of Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, is the driving force behind it. Recently he said that, “With all the anger and rancor that we are surrounded with, as seen daily on the news, you might feel the need for a healing experience. The Gospels call us to reach out and care for the least, the lost and the lonely in this world. This time will allow you an opportunity to reach out to these children of God in the fellowship of friends.”
If you like good food, great hymns and heartfelt fellowship, the last Anchorage Beer and Hymns evening for 2016 will be held 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday evening at O’Brady’s in South Anchorage. I’ll be there too.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.
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)alaskadispatch.com.
A few years back, I visited a church that prayed for another church in the community. I was taken aback, as I’d not ever seen this practice in my many years of church visits. The church they prayed for that day was All Saints’ Episcopal Church. Curious, I asked members if something was happening at All Saints’ that prompted them to pray for them that particular day. I was told they pray for another church in the community every Sunday; nothing unusual was happening at All Saints’ that prompted their prayers. (See on.adn.com/2dGKru9 to read the blog post about it.)
In the intervening years, I’ve made hundreds of additional church visits but never seen the practice duplicated. However, it made such a deep impression upon me, I dug a little deeper to see what motivates a church to do this.
I talked with pastor Lon Elliott of that particular church, Scenic Park Bible Church, about this practice. He indicated they still pray for an individual local church each week as a regular part of their service. Although he is unsure of the date they began that practice, it’s been ongoing for many years. He said it was sparked by “some of the struggles and challenges that churches in our area and around the nation were facing. I recall there was an African-American church Outside where a gunman went in and shot several people, and I was burdened for those folks.” Elliott said he realized “that was an extreme event, but the Bible says in the book of Ephesians that there is spiritual warfare being waged, and our church decided we needed to support the other believers of Anchorage through prayer.”
In preparation for this column, I contacted a number of local pastors to see if they practiced prayer for other specific local churches every week, but most indicated they did not. Several Pentecostal churches said they’d done this in the past but were not currently doing so. Clearly, I did not contact the majority of local churches, but I believe I visit more local churches on a regular basis than anyone else in town. If your church is praying for other churches weekly, I’d love to hear from you and find out more about this wonderful practice.
Unfortunately, many churches and denominations have become convinced that their take on the Bible and the gospel is the only interpretation to be followed. As such, members often become exclusionary and fail to remember that many God-fearing members in those other churches are living up to their faith in the way that they honestly believe. I’m not Catholic or Orthodox but I can say most of their core beliefs echo the basics of Christianity followed by Evangelicals and mainline churches.
Pastor Elliott clarified the purpose of those prayers, saying: “Our prayer for the churches is not based on them agreeing with our point of view about everything, but on the fact that the Body of Christ is so much bigger than our little part of it. All true Christ-followers need the support that presenting them to the Father will give. And we do not pray to change other churches to our specific point of view, but rather we ask them what they see as needs and pray for their concerns, and that the good news of Jesus Christ will be advanced.”
Describing the process they use, Elliott noted: “We call the churches we will be praying for, before our next Sunday prayer time. We ask if they have concerns we could bring before God for them. Sometimes they will have specifics for us to pray for; some churches don’t answer at all, but we pray for them either way. We are convinced that we need to support each other this way.”
Personally, I call that leading by example and doing so with a servant heart. Scenic Park Bible Church also prays for our nation, and different missionaries and missions organizations worldwide, whether or not they financially support them.
“We value the privilege we have to come before God,” Elliott concluded, “and hold our spiritual family up to Him for care and help and blessings. With all the clamor and rush of life, this is a quiet way to do what we ought to do for each other.”
Greg Gilbert, pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote in aninsightful 9 Marks Journal article, “Why I Pray Publicly for Other Churches,” that the practice helps him in “crucifying my own spirit of competition,” noting, “It’s so easy for pastors to subtly (if not less than subtly) begin to think of other churches as ‘the competition’ instead of fellow proclaimers of the gospel in their city.” Gilbert says it underscores that “we all have the same mission … to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and make disciples.”
Commenting on the rarity of this approach, just as I first felt when I encountered it, Gilbert says: “Believe it or not, the practice of praying for other churches is so rare in many Christians’ experience that many don’t know exactly how to process it. More than once during my pastorate, a visitor to Third Avenue has walked up to me with a very concerned look to express surprise that such-and-such church is having troubles. After all, why would the pastor of one church pray for another church if there weren’t serious problems afoot there?”
The practice of praying for other local churches as shown first to me by Elliott and his church are worthy of emulation. I’d love to see more churches doing this, as it truly emulates the work and practices of the early Christian church and commendable Christian practice.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser.