Tag Archives: Catholic

Advent Conspiracy is an antidote to the over-commercialization of Christmas

Why am I writing about Christmas now since it’s not even Thanksgiving? So many retailers have had Christmas items for sale as early as August or September this year. Plainly stated, it’s marketing greed in a rush to capitalize on every Christmas dollar to be spent. The time to plan for a proper Christmas is now, not later.

A small group of pastors made a positive step in addressing this issue a few years back, creating an organization called Advent Conspiracy. Their website clearly states their premise in just a few words. “Can Christmas still change the world? The Christmas story is a story of love, hope, redemption and relationship. So, what happened? How did it turn into stuff, stress and debt? Somehow, we’ve traded the best story in the world for the story of what’s on sale.”

That’s the problem, and the Advent Conspiracy’s solution is elegant. Its website offers a suite of resources for churches, parents and other individuals to address the problem of the abuse of Christmas as an orgy of spending for ourselves and each other.

Advent Conspiracy is focusing this year on water, noting: “Today, 663 million of our brothers and sisters around the world lack access to safe drinking water. What if the way we celebrate Christmas this year changes this? We continue to hear story after story of churches and families participating in Advent Conspiracy each year to conspire to spend less each Christmas and give in ways that collectively fund hundreds of life-changing water projects worldwide. This year, prayerfully consider including giving to end the clean water crisis as part of your Advent giving.”

Advent Conspiracy’s website offers several short videos which help to bring its focus alive. I urge you watch them.

Christmas, the highest holiday spending time of year, promises to be so again, almost eclipsing last year’s record spending. However, there are clouds on the horizon. According to Fortune magazine, “shoppers will rally after Nov. 8. Election stress is a real thing. And it could hurt retailers as the holiday shopping season gets under way next week.

A National Retail Federation survey found that a majority of Americans will be cautious about Christmas shopping this year, with many possibly pulling back on spending, because of anxiety over the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump presidential contest. What’s more, it’s hard for retailers to get a word in edgewise these days, potentially making their marketing less effective.” Christmas shopping is a nightmare for parents, driving many into debt and despair.

One local church has successfully addressed this problem for many years with its “It’s not your birthday” program. Baxter Road Bible Church began the program some years ago. It dedicates 100 percent of the income received during each December saying, “It’s our gift to Jesus because, after all, it’s his birthday we’re celebrating.” Last year they raised around $100,000 in December. The Rev. Bob Mather, senior pastor of the church, says the money “goes to the poor, the needy, and those going through hard times.” Much of it is spent locally.

The amount of $10,000 is dedicated to a Haitian mission the church has supported for years, vetted by one of the congregation. The focus of that mission is feeding and helping the poor, clothing them, and providing health care. The mission is led by a Haitian minister. I’ve been unable to locate any other Anchorage church that is so generous at Christmas. A few might dedicate one offering in December, or take a second offering for this purpose. Mather observes, “The more generous we are, the better off we are.” The faith and generosity of this warm group of Christians always amazes me. They walk the talk, and have grown rapidly as a result.

Christmas can be a teachable moment for parents with their children. I believe it offers families an opportunity to develop an awareness of the true meaning of Christmas, rather than a narcissistic display of spending that satisfies only ourselves, and does little for mankind.Other useful resources and film links about Christmas are available on my website Church Visits.

Anchorage’s next archbishop to be installed Wednesday

In August 2015, Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz submitted his resignation to Pope Francis I in accordance with papal law. After 14 months, an archbishop-designate for the Anchorage archdiocese has been selected. Bishop Paul Dennis Etienne was recently introduced to the community in a news conference. He is currently the bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

His installation will be held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral at 2 p.m. Wednesday. The installation will be preceded by evening prayer at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Holy Family Cathedral. Both ceremonies are followed by receptions. (A copy of the official invitation is available here.)

The Mass will begin with Archbishop Schwietz presiding. The Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Christophe Pierre, will read a proclamation from Pope Francis designating Etienne as the new archbishop. He’ll then show it to the archdiocesan consultors for agreement. At this point Bishop Etienne is now archbishop and will be led to the cathedra (bishop’s chair) and be presented with the crozier. Bishop Etienne will then preside over the remainder of the Mass. Eight to 10 other bishops will be present, including all three Alaska bishops. It promises to be an impressive installation.

After the installation, Schwietz will have the title archbishop emeritus. He’ll continue to pastor St. Andrew Catholic Church in Eagle River where he’s been pastor since his resignation.

“I leave with a tremendous sense of gratitude,” he told me. “The people have been so gracious, welcoming, and cooperative. They’ve been so caring for me. It’s been a wonderful experience. I lay down those responsibilities with regret but look forward to the leadership of the new archbishop.”

In anticipation of a full audience at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral, the archdiocese has announced the installation Mass of Archbishop-Designate Etienne will be streamed live online at CatholicAnchor.org.

A trio of events showcases the vitality of the local Catholic community

Last week I attended two local Catholic activities that indicate a growing and moving church. While attending, I heard about a upcoming third activity of local interest. While not all local churches embrace their Catholic neighbors, due to various theological points of disagreements, it’s important we don’t forget the words of Jesus, from John 10:16: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”

Alaska Catholic Youth Conference

Last week, 144 Catholic youth from around the state came to Anchorage for the 16th annual Alaska Catholic Youth Conference. The conference theme, “Boundless Mercy,” tied into Pope Francis’ 2015 declaration that this year be a Year of Holy Mercy, a jubilee year to follow the 50th anniversary the Second Vatican Council.

Each day’s theme was on an aspect of mercy: “What is mercy?,” “Living Mercy,” “Spiritual Mercy,” “Mercy is God’s Name.” Out-of-town youth stayed at Lumen Christi High School or with local friends. Youth participated in events that included workshops, social justice service projects, musical entertainment, and masses.

“The service projects were really good,” said Bonnie Bezousek, director of faith formation for the Anchorage Archdiocese.

“The youth painted bowls for Bean’s Café, wrote letters to military personnel in the family, and discovered how social media raised awareness of issues regarding Catholic social teaching and works of mercy. Junior high youth also painted decorations for St. Benedict’s VBS (vacation Bible school).”

All three in-state bishops were present and available to the youth: Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz, Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski, and Juneau Bishop Ed Burns. Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, was a special guest at the conference. Each bishop celebrated Mass with the youth. Pedro Rubalcava, a musician from Portland, Oregon, performed a concert at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral and provided music throughout the week.

The Tuesday evening program, called the “ACYC Tonight Show,” mimicked its broadcast namesake with spiritual trivia guessing games that included the youth and bishops, youth tweets about embarrassing Catholic moments, and a chance to question any bishop about anything. In all my years visiting churches and attending conferences I’ve not seen anything similar. This was an engaged group.

Raising money for Anchorage seminarians

Later that week I attended a fundraising dinner at St. Patrick’s Parish to create an endowment for seminarian education. The archdiocese is experiencing a renewed interest in the priesthood as evidenced by the recent ordinations of the Revs. Patrick Brosamer and Arthur Roraff, and Deacon Robert Whitney. At the dinner, five new seminarians were introduced. Previously, only one or two seminarians were studying at any given time. Now, it has become a healthy career choice.

Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church pays for seminarian training. Due to the expanding base of local seminarians, the archdiocese felt a stronger financial foundation for this training needed to be developed. Currently seminarian education costs are funded out of the archdiocese budget. An endowment to fund future seminarian education makes great sense.

To help achieve this, Catholic Extension, (a canonical institution reporting directly to the pope), and their donors awarded a 2-to-1 matching grant of up to $50,000. Through leadership dinners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Andrew’s and St. Benedict’s parishes, private and public parish dinners, and the $79,000 raised at the St. Patrick’s Parish event, the archdiocese achieved its initial goal of $100,000 matching money.

This initial $150,000 provides the seed money for an anticipated $3 million to 5 million endowment. Catholic Extension financially supports missions in the church, because all of Alaska’s archdioceses are considered missions.

“It’s nice we have young men leading in discipleship. What we can do as disciples is to support them by giving back,” said Laurie Dinneen, the archdiocese’s stewardship and development director.

At my table, composed mostly of Holy Family Cathedral members, I was fortunate to be seated next to one of the new seminarians, Ed Burke, from Kenai, and a recent high school graduate. As we talked I gained a sense of his deep commitment to the Catholic faith and comfort in the symbols and work of the church.

The tasty dinner, fundraising activities, mingling of friends of faith, and the Rev. Leo Walsh’s humorous remarks as master of ceremonies produced a unity of support I seldom see in church events.

Holy Family Cathedral unveils stained glass window project

Just last month, the stained glass windows project “The Joyful Mysteries,” culminated with the completion of the windows’ installation. Pastor of Holy Family Cathedral, the Rev. Anthony Patalano, is joyful this project came to fruition in his third and final assignment here.

“Our ‘windows project’ has been in the works for more than two years and is the culmination, along with necessary renovations and improvements, of our centennial celebration as a parish. It couldn’t have happened without the prayers and generosity of many Holy Family parishioners,” Patalano said.

The cathedral itself was dedicated in a ceremony earlier this month, along with the new windows, sconces, and restored stations of the cross. Patalano has been retired by his Dominican order, and will be moving to Los Angeles in July where he’ll serve as Resident Chaplain to the Cloistered Dominican Nuns in LA.

Noting their themes, Patalano continued, “The Joyful Mysteries seemed especially appropriate for Holy Family as the Holy Family is represented in four of the five windows. St. Therese of Lisieux is the patron saint of missions and of the State of Alaska whose dioceses are mission dioceses.”

Holy Family invites the community to a special showing of these windows frpm 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. June 25 at the cathedral. Volunteers will provide tours and explanations of the beautiful windows, their history in Germany, and restoration. A reception will be held in the Parish Hall. A beautiful souvenir book will also be available for a slight charge.

Anchorage Archdiocese announces series of major clergy changes

Recently, Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz, who oversees the archdiocese of Anchorage, announced significant changes affecting Roman Catholic clergy and parishes in Alaska. Statewide, about 15 percent of Alaskans identified as Catholic in a recent survey.

The Anchorage archdiocese has needed a canon lawyer since Rev. Tom Brundage, priest at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Eagle River and also judicial vicar, returned to Milwaukee a year ago. He had been on loan from the archdiocese of Milwaukee for about nine years. In the interim, canon lawyer the Rev. Pat Travers from the Juneau diocese has been filling in. Schwietz announced the Rev. Leo Walsh, parish priest at St. Benedict’s Catholic Parish would be returning to Rome to study canon law for the local archdiocese tribunal. Walsh has previously studied in Rome, receiving a doctorate in sacred theology from the Angelicum, the pontifical university there.

“Our God is the God of surprises,” Walsh said, when asked about the change. “Such was the case a few weeks ago when Archbishop Schwietz asked me if I would consider returning to Rome to get a degree in canon law with the intent of returning to the Archdiocese in three years to be the judicial vicar and run the marriage tribunal. Before then, the thought had never crossed my mind. Yet after reflection it made a lot of sense. So I agreed.”

Walsh also noted it would provide a change in direction for him. “It is indeed a career change,” he said. “While the tribunal is not a parochial ministry, it is most definitely a pastoral ministry, and a delicate one at that. People do not petition for a declaration of nullity until after they have already experienced the pain of a civil divorce. Therefore the process requires a very delicate, pastoral approach. Pope Francis has said as much in recent times in this regard.”

After three years of study, Walsh will receive a license in canon law or Juris Canonici Licentia, which is somewhat comparable to a J.D.

The Rev. Tom Lilly, who has been parish priest at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish for 11 years, will replace Walsh at St. Benedict’s, where he will also serve as priest for the parish and Lumen Christi Catholic High School. Lilly is currently the vicar general of the Anchorage archdiocese and will continue in this administrative role. When the archbishop is outside of the diocese, Lilly acts in his behalf and stands in as the bishop would in administrative matters.

“For me, the coming transfer to St. Benedict’s is another opportunity to serve,” he said. “Same church; different part of the vineyard! I begin there on July 1.” He’s looking forward to encouraging spiritual well-being of the youth there in navigating the challenges of acceptance, faith and reason, career path, low self-esteem and our sex-saturated culture.

He will be replaced at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton by Rev. Steven Moore, who’d recently been appointed as parish priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral — “at no small personal sacrifice,” noted Schwietz, “as Father Moore will have physically moved four times in the last three years.”

The Rev. Andrew Bellisario has succeeded Moore at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Bellisario is a senior Vincentian, who was previously the head of the society’s Los Angeles province, and and his move there represents the beginning of a fresh effort to reach Spanish speakers. With few local Spanish-speaking priests, the archdiocese had long sought better ways to serve Hispanic Catholics, even provided language immersion training for some priests.

Meanwhile, several priests from that society who have served briefly at the co-cathedral have noted a need for more Spanish-speaking priests to serve growing Hispanic population in Anchorage and elsewhere in the state, and forwarded those concerns to the head of their order in Rome. The society now plans to “establish an outreach ministry to the Hispanic community throughout the Archdiocese with the expectation of a third Vincentian priest arriving later this year,” Schwietz said.

When I talked to Bellisario , he told me the Vincentians were founded for the specific mission of evangelizing the poor. Talking about their order founder, Bellisario said, “St. Vincent noted ‘reading the signs of the times,’ he talked about not getting ahead of divine providence.” Noting there were 50,000 Hispanics in Alaska, he said the Vincentians’ mandate was of outreach to Hispanics in the archdiocese.

“The Vincentians are making a major commitment to the development of Hispanic ministry within the Archdiocese,” Rev. Scott Medlock, priest at St. Patrick’s Parish and the Anchorage archdiocese’s vicar for clergy said.

The Archbishop also announced that the Rev.. Scott Garrett, from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Wasilla, would “return to serving the people of Bristol Bay as pastor at Holy Rosary in Dillingham, St. Theresa in Naknek, and the mission in King Salmon where he served prior to going to Sacred Heart five years ago. He is a pilot and will be flying to some of the villages that cannot be reached by commercial airplane.”

Replacing Garrett will be the Rev. Joseph McGilloway who will also serve as canonical pastor for Big Lake, Willow, Talkeetna, and Trapper Creek.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Andrew Lee becomes parochial vicar at Holy Cross Parish, and the Rev. Mark Stronach, a Benedictine monk from Oregon’s Mount Angel Abbey, will move to Our Lady of the Lake, and serve as parochial vicar under McGilloway.

These are significant changes for the archdiocese. which appear to strengthen the Catholic Church in Alaska.

About the Author

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who has been visiting Anchorage and other local area churches for over 15 years. Go to his website, churchvisits.com, or follow him on Twitter  at twitter.com/churchvisits or email at churchvisits@gmail.com.

If you don’t already observe Lent, consider giving traditions a try

Two and a half weeks ago, Lent began for a large portion of Christianity with Ash Wednesday (Orthodox churches begin observing Lent on March 13). Some local Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopal clergy brought “ashes to the people” in downtown Anchorage that day. I applaud this approach because it brings clergy to the people, instead of people expecting to have to go to clergy. This may be Christianity at its best.

“Sharing ashes on the street is an opportunity for Christians to practice very public theology, said participant Nico Romeijn-Stout, pastor of discipleship and social justice at St. John United Methodist Church and one of those clergy. “Our practice was to take a moment with each person asking their name and how we can be in prayer with and for them. Even in a short moment a relationship was formed. What was striking for me was that the only people who received ashes from me were a couple of homeless men. One said that he hadn’t been ‘blessed’ in years. When we take the risk to do ministry with people where they are, we meet Christ in profound ways.”

Taking “ashes to the street” did not substitute for the Ash Wednesday services those clergy later held in their own churches.

Many Catholic clergy feel ashes should be applied in the church as a rite.

“We take ashes to the homebound, but the distribution of ashes is best done in the sacred assembly at Mass,” said St. Benedict’s Rev. Leo Walsh. “Catholics understand Lent, and all the associated rites, as a communal act of penance by the whole believing community. “It’s possible those attitudes may change over time, as I’m noticing an increasing numbers of news stories of Catholic and Episcopal clergy taking ashes to the street.

Regardless of how one receives their ashes, on the street, in bed, or at church, this rite is an awe-inspiring moment in which one can take stock and recognize we’re mortal and will return to dust.

During my personal preparation for Lent I came across an excellent guide prepared by the Society of St. Andrew, which sponsors a gleaning ministry for food rescue and feeding the hungry. The society’s 44-page downloadable PDF guide offers a wealth of Scripture, reflections, and prayers for Lent.

During Lent many churches host extra evening services or other activities.

First Congregational Church is conducting Tuesday evening Taizé-style services at 5:30 p.m. through March 22. The services will include music, chants, times of silence and readings from the Bible and other sources, but no sermons or discussion.

Many more churches’ Lent activities are offered on Wednesday evenings. Central Lutheran Church has soup suppers, study, and a service through March 16. All Saints Episcopal Church offers a soup supper at 6 p.m. followed by a lesson on spiritual gifts. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is having Lenten soup suppers at 6 p.m. followed by a discussion on the intersection of Lenten themes and immigration. First United Methodist Church is serving Lenten suppers through March 30 at 6 p.m. with a Lenten study following. Anchorage Lutheran Church offers Lenten worship at 7 p.m. with supper at 6 p.m. Gloria Dei Lutheran Church provides a soup supper and fellowship at 5:45 p.m. followed by Holden Evening Prayer worship at 6:30 p.m. Joy Lutheran in Eagle River serves a soup supper at 6:15 p.m. followed by Lenten worship at 7 p.m. Much can be learned from partaking of these simple suppers, and the brief services connected with them. It’s a time for personal growth.

Instead of Lenten suppers and services, local Catholics, focus on the exercising what the Rev. Tom Lily calls the three Ts: “Time, talent, and treasure are common terms we use when talking about being good stewards of all God has entrusted to us. How do we generously give a proportionate amount of our time, talent and material resources back to glorify God through serving our neighbor?”

For example, Lent projects in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, where Lily is the pastor, address all three T’s by supporting Catholic Social Services’ St. Francis Food Pantry. Each member is encouraged to participate in the Knights of Columbus’ “40 Cans 4 Lent” campaign, where 40 cans of food, one for each day of Lent, are donated. Members also donate funds for perishable dairy, fruits and vegetables. parish members also provide hands-on assistance at St. Francis house, as well as actively advocate support for the federal SNAP program through after-church letter-writing efforts.

Local pastor, the Rev. Rick Benjamin, raised in a Protestant/Evangelical/Pentecostal tradition that didn’t observe Lent calls himself a non-Lenter but connects with the custom of fasting and prayer as performed as Lenten tradition.

“Many important decisions in our church’s history, and in my own life, came out of times of dedicated prayer and fasting,” he said. Rick’s local relationships made him aware of the liturgical calendar and Lent. He became intrigued, saying, “Lent was similar to fasting, sort of an extended semifast, and a time of self-denial and preparation for Resurrection Sunday.” His experience with Lent has been positive. He points out, “I have benefited from Lent, even though my understanding and observance are admittedly incomplete. And to all the other ‘non-Lenters’ like me out there, I suggest you give Lent a try.”

My tradition was also a non-Lent observing one. Over the years, as I’ve matured in my faith, I’ve been exposed to this meaningful time of the church year dedicated to self-examination and rethinking one’s relationship with God. The music I hear in Lent-observing churches during this time becomes more thoughtful and intense. Like Benjamin, I encourage you to explore Lent, by attending any of the church activities I’ve noted above. I think you’ll be glad you went.

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, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Ash Wednesday and Lent open the door to sustaining spiritual practices

My first Ash Wednesday service was in Chicago, some 45 years ago. In a new career position, I’d just been trained by someone who’d formerly followed my beliefs, but had discovered the joys of being Episcopalian. Jack, who enjoyed shocking me with belief practices foreign to my way of thinking, encouraged me to join him for Ash Wednesday services at a large Episcopal church. I was invited to receive the imposition of ashes, but, overwhelmed by the music, liturgy and unfamiliar practice, declined, unable to grasp it all.

Since then, I’ve received the ashes and over time, this spiritual practice became very important to me. The service marks the beginning of Lent, and focuses worshippers on Lent’s meaning and relationship to  Easter. Ash Wednesday falls 40 days, plus six Sundays (nonfast days) before Easter, a period based in part on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Services draw on Genesis 3:19, God’s statement to Adam and Eve about the consequences of their sin.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words, based on that Scripture verse and traditionally spoken by clergy, as ashes are traced in the form of a cross on one’s forehead. Traditionally ashes were made from the previous year’s Palm Sunday fronds  (now they’re often purchased from religious supply stores). Lent is a time for prayer, meditation, reflection, repentance, redirection and sometimes fasting, which culminates in Easter. It can be a solemn time for refocusing one’s life.

Some churches offer Lenten services during the week; Sunday sermons focus on Lenten topics. If you don’t have a regular church home, a quick Internet search will turn up many local services. Churches offering Ash Wednesday and Lenten services mainly include Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran. Some Baptist churches are adopting Lenten practices. A North Carolina Baptist Convention article, “Why the Baptist Church Should Celebrate Lent,” is useful, offering ideas for making Lent meaningful. Author Kenny Lamm writes, “In my opinion, unless we truly experience Lent, Easter is not nearly as great a celebration, but for many who have never been exposed to the ‘real’ church calendar, the idea may seem somewhat foreign.”

The Rev. Leo Walsh of St. Benedict’s Catholic Church offers a similar perspective on Lent. “There are many ways of looking at Lent. One is to view it as a spiritual journey into the wilderness,” he said. “The image works well here in Alaska; we are very familiar with going into the actual wilderness. We also know the importance of getting prepared. Few people would head into the Alaskan wilderness without a tent or a sleeping bag or bug dope or food, etc. How you prepare will be determined by the terrain where you are going and the length of the trip. It’s the same with Lent. The time to start preparing is now, not on the morning of Ash Wednesday. The two themes or goals of Lent are repentance/conversion and preparation for the celebration of baptism. We prepare to pursue these goals by prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I usually ask folks to plan to do something significant in each of these three areas. It’s also important to remember the essential connection between fasting and almsgiving. Whatever you are abstaining from, you are supposed to take the money you would have spent on that and give it to the poor. Fasting without almsgiving is called a ‘diet’ and is of limited spiritual or practical benefit.”

Consider adopting a practice during Lent to grow as a Christian. Lax in Scripture study? Consider renewing this life-giving habit. Never fed the hungry or visited prisoners? Many church-led opportunities here can help. Need a break from the constancy of your electronic life? One day per week respite, shutting everything down, might be perfect for you. Sound a bit like Sabbath? Maybe it is, i.e. a cessation of all work for an entire 24-hour day. Experts say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Lent could establish some significant change in your life.

As in years past, a group of local Lutheran pastors will be in Town Square Park on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, to impose ashes upon request. One of those pastors, the Rev. Martin Eldred, says, “It gets us out of our comfort zones. Ash Wednesday in church is easier to set up; you wait for people to come. But taking ashes to the people is very visible; it’s good to shake up complacency and bring the Gospel to the people.”

“Taking ashes into Town Square Park and the downtown area reminds everyone we meet that we’re in the same human boat together,” says another Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Julia Seymour. “We are of the same dust and we are destined for the same end. Church buildings (and, sometimes, church leaders) can be barriers. Out in the open, we are there for conversation, for prayers, and for the reminder that we are all dust-made by God, loved by God, returning to God one way or another.”

These pastors aren’t proselytizing, but serving God’s children, reminiscent of the work of Sara Miles, director of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. In her book “City of God: Faith in the Streets,” Sara tells of taking ashes to the people on Ash Wednesday.

“God meets God’s people all over the place: by the side of a lake, in a city square, an upstairs room, a manger, a burning bush, a human body,” she told National Catholic Reporter. “The idea that liturgy should only happen inside church buildings is fairly recent: in fact, faith is practiced everywhere, in homes and public places as well as in temples. Taking ashes outdoors is just one example of contemporary worship beyond the building: you could also look at street churches, unhoused congregations, outdoor processions and vigils.”

I encourage you to explore Lent and its many meanings.

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.

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, 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, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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 adventconspiracy.org) 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, 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.

Re-examining the meaning of Advent

This Sunday, Advent Sunday, signals two significant events in many denominations. First, the church year for many mainline denominations begins. Second, Advent begins: an annual period of about four weeks before Christmas, which for 1,500 years has been marked by fasting, repentance, hoping and prayerfully pondering the first and second Advents. Advent offers real meaning to the season, especially providing teachable moments for children and those new to the Christian faith. While Advent is primarily observed by Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as mainline Protestant denominations such as Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Congregational, other denominations are also slowly adopting its observance.

Sadly, for many Christians, Advent only marks the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when expensive holiday decorations go up in, on and around their houses. Then too, parents ponder, and often agonize over, what they are going to give family members and themselves for Christmas. The National Retail Federation survey for Christmas 2015 finds that holiday shoppers plan to spend an average $463 on family members, up from $458 last year and the highest in survey history. Average spending per person is expected to reach $805, with more than half of shoppers planning to splurge on non-gift items for themselves.

Contrast this with the loving charity embedded in Baxter Road Bible Church’s December giving program, where all church income is donated to those in need in this community. Pastor Bob Mather told me this week that, to date, $300,000 has been donated to “to help the poor, the needy and those going through a hard time.” Members suggest which local organizations receive this aid.

“We have found that the more generous we are, the better off we are financially,” Mather says. “You truly cannot out-give God.” BRBC’s program goes under the title “It’s Not Your Birthday.” That’s such an excellent idea. A few other local churches might designate one Christmas offering for this purpose, but December’s offerings? Incredible!

“The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable,” wrote Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While imprisoned in Germany during World War II, he penned some thoughts to friends reflecting on the Advent season. “It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.” Advent goes much deeper than much of what we see and experience in most churches.

Changing attitudes are slowly being seen in other denominations, such as Southern Baptists, where Advent is not a core tradition. Joe Carter, communications specialist for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in an article titled “Southern Baptists and Advent: Four Things to Know” that acknowledges changing attitudes in that denomination, writes: “With the exception of Christmas and Easter, Southern Baptist congregations in America generally do not observe the days of the Western church calendar. Instead, they tend to follow the pattern of the Puritans, who believed following the liturgical calendar violated their liberty of conscience (many Puritans refused to celebrate any holidays besides the Lord’s Day). Some Baptist churches, however, have begun to incorporate Advent observance in their preparations for Christmas.”

Traditional Advent music looks forward to the coming of the Messiah, and a traditional observance of Advent avoids Christmas carols, which are are reserved for celebrating the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve. The watchful anticipation expressed in these hymns — such as “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” or “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” — is part of the attraction of Advent. From the perspective of one observing a traditional liturgical calendar, singing Christmas songs during Advent would be like a spoiler for a movie you were looking forward to seeing. Nevertheless, many congregations do so. Last year, when I asked a pastor why his congregation was singing carols during Advent, I was told they skipped traditional Advent hymns in favor of more cheerful music.

Advent sermons often address the key themes of each Advent Sunday: hope, love, joy and peace. They’re linked to the four purple Advent candles in a wreath of evergreen, lit in order each Sunday as a new theme is taken up.. On Christmas Eve, a white candle in the center of the wreath is lit to signify Jesus, the light of the world.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in a sermon titled “The What and the When of the Christ Child,” said: “People like us have careful work to do in Advent, to weave our way between two big dangers. On the one hand, there are dangerous people floating around the church who specialize in times and dates and schedules, who know with precision the time of Christ’s coming and who speak confidently of millennia and pre-millennia and post-millennia. … They know too much and reduce God’s freedom to the timetable of their ideology. On the other hand, there are dangerous people floating around the church who are offended by those people, and who in reaction are in love with their comfortable affluence and who imagine that it will not get any better than this, and who expect no gospel arrival at any time ever. People like us live in that awkward place amid those who know too much and those who expect nothing.”

Advent is a wonderful time to challenge and strengthen your faith and can be a useful force for sharing and Christian growth.

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.