Category Archives: ADN Articles

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Chris Thompson

Thanksgiving’s a time for thanks—what are you thankful for?

Thanksgiving will be celebrated soon. This started me thinking about local faith community practices at this time of year. Last week, I noted Thanksgiving Blessing, a huge effort by the faith community and the Food Bank of Alaska. It takes many people to make this event a success and I’m thankful for those in our community who lead or participate in these efforts.

The story of the Pilgrims offers a teachable moment.

It’s a familiar story: After a harrowing transatlantic voyage and a disastrous winter, the surviving Pilgrims were grateful for the bounty offered by their first harvest and Native American neighbors.

Although Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, the story of the Pilgrims links it to American faith traditions. Few of us have ever suffered the privations they endured. It is a proper time to truly give thanks, and to teach others the spirit of the day. Some faith communities show their thanks by emulating that early Thanksgiving by incorporating those around them in that practice of celebrating and sharing.

The Pilgrims fled Europe because they were restricted in free practice of their religion, and sought to return to worshiping as they believed the early church did. I’m thankful for the four freedoms President Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated in 1941 that symbolize what our country represents to the world: freedom of speech; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. These were artistically and forcefully expressed by illustrator Norman Rockwell in four paintings, used as covers for the Saturday Evening Post.

Many people in the world do not have these freedoms as we celebrate Thanksgiving. According to Freedom House’s 2016 assessment of liberty, “Of the 195 countries assessed, 86 (44 percent) were rated Free, 59 (30 percent) Partly Free, and 50 (26 percent) Not Free.”

Few non-Catholic churches in Anchorage seem to be offering Thanksgiving services this year (Most Catholic churches do offer Thanksgiving Mass. Check your local schedule for times.). I would guess it’s probably due to preoccupation by families with dinner, football, etc., but many people of faith have found value in using this day to take time to be truly thankful for the gifts God has placed in their lives. And a few churches are offering Thanksgiving dinners prior to Thanksgiving, but just a few.

Clear Water Church, First Baptist Church and Skilled Missions Alaska are embarking on an innovative approach this year. They will be ministering to displaced families with relatives in Providence Alaska Medical Center. They will accomplish this by providing a Thanksgiving meal and fellowship at the Walter J. and Ermalee Hickel House.

For those unfamiliar with Hickel House, it offers an affordable, comfortable “home away from home” for outpatients and their families receiving medical attention at Providence. I think this is an exciting opportunity to show some true Thanksgiving spirit. (If you’d like to participate, call Clear Water member Brian Whitson at 268-8659.)

Joy Christian Center is holding a Thanksgiving service at 7 p.m. followed by a pie social on Thanksgiving Day. It’s located at 4335 Laurel St. A few local churches are offering Thanksgiving services during the week, but I was unable to locate others offering services on Thanksgiving Day through an internet search.

Bean’s Café and Brother Francis Shelter will serve Thanksgiving dinners Thursday. The Downtown Soup Kitchen is closed on Thanksgiving Day. Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission serves Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday because People Mover doesn’t run buses on Thanksgiving.

Bean’s, Brother Francis, and the Rescue Mission would sincerely appreciate donations of items such as turkeys, canned vegetables, mashed potatoes, hams and yams to support these special events.

As you celebrate Thanksgiving this coming week, take time to consider things you are truly thankful for. The “Four Freedoms” are a good place to start. Whether or not you are a person of faith, Thanksgiving is an ideal time to pause and reflect on those things for which we are truly thankful.

Merton lecture series was well-attended

The recent Caroline Penniman Wohlforth Lecture Series held at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Nov. 4-6 was well-attended and introduced participants to the prayer and meditative concepts of Thomas Merton. Many people are seeking deeper spiritual relevance and time for reflection in their daily lives.

The Rev. Hugh Grant from Washington state delved into the life of celebrated Trappist monk Thomas Merton in a Friday evening talk to a capacity audience. The lecture, captured by church staff on video, can be viewed at St. Mary’s website. Grant summarized Merton’s life, writings, brief time in Alaska and his relevancy to our everyday lives.

Saturday’s lecture was a time of reflection, training in centering prayer, personal meditation, and practical instruction about how to slow down to perceive God’s speaking to us. Sunday’s lecture focused on observations about what nature can tell us, especially about ourselves.

Coming just days before the election, the lectures offered insights about how to deal with stress and contentious issues. Merton, writing about the spiritual life, said “We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.”

A key lecture topic was contemplation and centering prayer. Merton, writing on the subject, said, “Prayer is then not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart – it is the orientation of our whole body, mind and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration. All good meditative prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God.”

This lecture series was a gift to the community, and a good number of people took advantage of the opportunity. Thank you, St. Mary’s, and the Wohlforth Lecture Series.

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 adn.com/churchvisits.

Alaska Dispatch News Story – Fr. Norman Elliott’s Passing – 9/13/16

The Alaska Dispatch News ran a story on Fr. Norman Elliott’s recent death, and brief review of his life.  This link will take you to the story online. There is a factual mistake in that he was awaiting a call to the Philippines rather than India as reported in the story.

http://www.adn.com/obituaries/2016/09/12/norman-elliott-longtime-episcopal-rector-in-anchorage-dies-at-97/

I will be addressing Fr. Elliott’s life from a personal perspective, as well as including comments from others who were also impacted in a major way, within the next couple of weeks.

RIP – Fr. Norman Elliott

The much loved senior clergyman in Alaska, Fr. Norman Elliott, passed on Friday.

A Visitation will be held Monday 9/19/2016  from 1:00pm to 4:00pm with the service starting at 4pm.  It will be held at All Saints, with overflow being in the Egan Center.  A reception will follow at the Egan Center. The burial will be the following day (Tuesday)  at 1:00pm at Angelus Memorial Park Cemetery.

Fr Elliott’s passing will be mourned by scores of Alaskan who owe their connection to God to him. I’ve written several columns about him which can be found using the search tool on the right under the word cloud. Use Elliott for your search. I’ll post a detailed column after his services.
RIP dear friend.

Local blogger comments on South Africa mission trip column & letters to ADN editor

Last week I discovered a local blogger had articulated his views and responses regarding the South Africa mission trip I wrote about in May.  He did a creditable job in detailing more thoroughly some of my presented material dealing with the problems  these short-term mission trips present.  In his views, he suggests the mother’s letter to the editor may have complicated the issue, especially with regard to her participating son/daughter.

http://whatdoino-steve.blogspot.com/2016/05/parent-bias-blocks-message-prevents_28.html

My column was not submitted to discredit this particular church, but to point out these types of short-term mission trips do more for the participant than the people on the other end.  In light of all of the evidence these trips do more harm than good, long-term, I’ve suggested this church present an op-ed regarding their views.

Unfortunately, in Alaska, we’re often more comfortable dealing with issues on the other side of the world rather than providing caring Christian services to those in our own neighborhoods. It is my hope these articles on missions will bring missionary activities into clearer focus here in Alaska.

Church gardens update

Anchorage Lutheran Church is planning on joining the ranks of local churches with community gardens.  Blessings to you!

Additionally, today’s column should have included the name of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in the roster of churches with food gardens, even though they were mentioned earlier.

Congregation Beth Sholom is also in the process of planning a community garden.  Great news!

A disappointing visit to a charismatic church

Charismatic, Pentecostal churches are growing fast worldwide, and only a bit slower in the U.S. For those unfamiliar with these terms, “Pentecostal” refers to churches or religions characterized by an emphasis of speaking in tongues, baptism of the Holy Spirit, healing, prophesying and exorcism. The word comes from the Pentecost described in the Book of Acts. Webster defines “charismatic” in the context of religion as “describ[ing] Christian religious groups whose members believe that they can communicate directly with God to receive help and guidance and the power to heal others.”

“In the U.S., Pentecostals represent 5 percent to 12 percent of Christians, depending on the measurement used,” according to the Hartford Seminary. “That figure is outnumbered only by Baptists, Methodists and Lutherans.”

“The growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America is estimated to be at three times the rate of Catholic growth,” theWashington Post recently reported. “Non-Catholic believers now account for 2 percent of Latin America’s 550 million Christians. Today, Brazil not only has more Catholics than any other country, but also more Pentecostals, reflecting Pentecostalism’s astonishing global growth.” Amazingly, this is a movement that started just a little more than 100 years ago.

Recently, I attended a service at a prominent local charismatic Pentecostal church. I’ve visited this church several times before, but always seem to come away with more questions than answers. It appears to defy the advice given by Pentecostal writers who urge practices these churches should follow to be more welcoming to guests.

Assemblies of God Theological Seminary’s J. Melvin Mingin an Enrichment Journal article titled, “Helping Outsiders Become Insiders,” cites studies of five fast growing Pacific Northwest churches representing four denominations and what made them grow. He lists similarities the growing churches shared in how they welcome guests, including greeters in the parking lot, hosts at the front doors to make people feel welcome, a visible hospitality or welcome center, bulletins with a simple but clear order of worship, and a reception after the service for guests to meet with church leadership.

This church had more than the usual number of problems, but many churches are guilty on one or more of these counts, and in order not to single one out for special scrutiny, I’ve chosen not to identify this one. I arrived at the church about 10 minutes before the service started. I saw no parking lot attendant or greeters before or after the service. I entered the church through the main front entrance and no one greeted me. People were ordering and enjoying coffee from the coffee stand, yet no one seemed to notice me as I entered. Next, I proceeded down the hallway to the auditorium yet no one greeted me in any way. Entering the auditorium, I picked a seat in the middle section toward the back of the church.

The worship team, finished with their practice, was on the platform forming a circle for prayer, which lasted until just before the service. I like the practice of asking God’s blessing on the musical portion of the service. Musicians and singers can get hurried forgetting to do so, but I believe it’s important, both for the participant and the observer. The service began with music performed by this worship band of six, and continued for more than a half-hour. In starting, the leader said, “we encourage you to stand,” a positive request; usually I hear “stand” or “please stand.” The lights were turned way down, highlighting the band performers, a tip the music was primarily a performance. On the positive side, I noted their sound levels were down significantly from my previous visits, rarely exceeding 100 decibels. Toward the end of their set, one of the musicians broke down, tearfully talking about having a bad week, and that she was “impressed” to perform again the song they’d just sung. This brought back memories of an inspirational gospel-bluegrass “sing” I’d attended where the performing group played their last song over and over again, with tears and crying.

After concluding, the music group continued playing behind the following speakers. Personally I dislike this practice; it seems many contemporary churches have transitioned into a soundtrack mentality. Doing so tends to create primarily emotional — versus rational — responses, whether it’s an altar call, an appeal for funds, or prayer.

Someone, who did not give their name (a poor practice in any church), introduced the various speakers. The first offered words of encouragement, urging people to “fall in love with Jesus.” The next encouraged people to, “Take a moment and engage God where you are,” but by raising their hands to show it — strange jargon for a visitor new to this church. The speaker after that gave her testimony, and started singing “You are awesome in this place,” telling people to stand and welcome the Lord with mighty hand-clapping. A final speaker spoke about evangelism. Altogether these speakers lengthened the service by about 30 minutes, without, in my opinion, adding substantial value.

Finally, the ushers were asked to come forward to receive the morning offering. All were told that “giving is a holy moment,” and we would not be asked to come forward to give this morning. Instead, large buckets were passed. Next, a series of video announcements were shown about a variety of church-related activities — a break from the more common practice of holding such announcements until the end of a service, where they are less disruptive to the flow of worship.

The pastor was finally introduced with this strange announcement “Put your hands together and welcome our pastor ______.” I can’t even begin to imagine Jesus, the Apostles, or Paul being introduced this way. His 45-minute sermon was delivered dynamically — and mostly extemporaneously — with much walking of the platform. I enjoyed the sermon, but it was overly long and I was distracted by the repeated used a key phrase — also the title of the sermon — throughout the sermon; I counted 15 times he said this phrase, but it may have been more. No matter how good the sermon was, this phrase wore on me. Another irritant was an audience member kept saying, “wow!” or “oh yeah!” throughout the entirety of the sermon — in sharp contrast to the rest of the congregation, which was mostly unresponsive.

Many churches, not just charismatic ones, forget the basics when it comes to holding church. I wonder how many more guests might become members of churches like this if they were just treated in a more friendly manner. Based on how this church treated this guest, it will be a much longer time until I revisit them.

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. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com 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,churchvisits.com.