Tag Archives: Episcopal

Remembering Father Norman H.V. Elliott

As the hearse pulled away from All Saints Episcopal Church Sept. 19, I finally realized I’d no longer be seeing my friend the Rev. Norman Elliott; I’d seen him for the last time. His service was attended by a wide range of friends and family. All Saints Rector David Terwilliger, the Rev. Katherine Hunt of Christ Church Episcopal, the Rev. Susan Halvorson,  a Providence Alaska Medical Center chaplain, and Bishop Mark Lattime led the service with Catholic Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz in attendance on the platform. The entire service, which included the Eucharist, was a wondrous blend of music, liturgy and reminiscences.

During his homily, Terwilliger talked of Elliott’s passing on the morning of Sept. 9. For this column, he recounted that time to me: “I went into pray the prayers of the Ministration at the Time of Death,” he said. “The title of the rite sounds more solemn than it is in form — at least to my mind.

The words are words of comfort and mercy but given under the sober petition for God’s grace for the dying and for their spirit to be received into heaven. Like Roman Catholics, Episcopalians are instructed to call a priest for the dying and the prayers are meant to commit the dying person into God’s hands. Often, Episcopalians call these prayers at the time of death ‘Last Rites.'”

The Rev. Norman Elliott delivers the invocation at a ceremony honoring 50 heroes for their efforts to rescue victims from a June 1, 2010 plane crash in Fairview Thursday evening September 9, 2010 at Central Middle School. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)
The Rev. Norman Elliott delivers the invocation at a ceremony honoring 50 heroes for their efforts to rescue victims from a June 1, 2010 plane crash in Fairview Thursday evening September 9, 2010 at Central Middle School. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

With Halvorson at his side, Terwilliger continued: He “announced to Norm that I was there to ‘pray the Litany’ and Norm motioned with his hand, touched his fingers to his forehead as if to say — I took it to mean — ‘OK, let’s do it.'” During the litany, Terwilliger observed, “Father Elliott became very peaceful, calm and relaxed, which up to that point he had not been; due to coughing and physical discomfort.” Elliott passed within minutes.

For more than 26 years after his retirement in 1990, Elliott had been visiting patients at Providence. Stories of those visits are the stuff of legend. The Rev. Michael Burke of St. Mary’s, recalling one humorous moment, said, “Once a man called me to tell me he had just been admitted to the hospital, and I rushed right over. Upon entering his hospital room, I went right up to the bedside to pray. I said, ‘I’m so pleased that I made it here before Father Elliott. That might be a historic first.’ ‘Ah, you only beat me by 30 seconds,’ he said, appearing in the doorway behind me.”

The Rev. Scott Medlock of St. Patrick’s Parish calls him “a living saint” who, when his son was seriously injured in a plane crash in which another person died, was attended by Elliott on a daily basis. His presence in hospitals will be missed by patients and staff.

Elliott joined many Alaskans in marriage. Julie Fate Sullivan, wife of Sen. Dan Sullivan, shared the heartwarming story of her parents and Elliott. “In 1954, my mother – Mary Jane Evans, a Koyukon Athabaskan from the Yukon River village of Rampart, and my father, Hugh Fate, a cowboy from Eastern Oregon who had worked the first oil rig in Umiat in 1950 – fell deeply in love. They wanted to get married, and according to my Mom, that was the time in our country when some clergy didn’t encourage ‘mixed-marriages.’ Father Elliott was not one of those clergy.”

“When my parents asked him to officiate their wedding, he welcomed them with open arms. At their first meeting, Father Elliott saw the deep love, respect and substance between them, and he blessed their union. My dad always says from that moment on, he knew Father Elliott was a “truly and deeply caring” individual, and they became friends after that.

“Father Elliott married my parents 62 years ago, on Oct. 29, 1954 at the little log cabin church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Fairbanks. They are still married today. Forty years later in August 1994, Dan and I were married at the same church in Fairbanks, with the same wonderful Father Norman Elliott as the priest who blessed our union.

“We were so honored to have him officiate. He was always considered a hero in our family because of the kind way he accepted my parents so long ago. In typical Father Elliott style, I remember some good-natured ribbing between Dan and Father Elliott – Dan was on active duty and wore his Marine Corps uniform at the wedding, and with Father Elliott being a WWII Army veteran, they had a lot of fun interservice rivalry joking going around.”

Elliott was ecumenical to the core. He treasured his friendship with recently deceased Archbishop Francis Hurley. His story of the two waters, recounted in a previous column, was one symbol of that all-embracing character.

Art Goldberg, Congregation Beth Sholom member, recounts how Father Elliott offered them the use of All Saints as a meeting place for about a year. Previously, the congregation had met in Goldberg’s parents’ home. Father Elliott felt the Jewish community needed to be represented in Anchorage and helped make that possible until they could build their own synagogue. Goldberg said, “Father Elliott was one of those people who helped the religious community in Anchorage.”

The same attitude extended to Russian Orthodox congregations. The Rev. Nicholas-Molodyko Harris, a retired Russian Orthodox (now simply Orthodox) priest, told me of being sent to Anchorage in September 1967 for the purpose of organizing a mission to develop into a parish.

That mission ultimately became Saint Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which was consecrated in 1994. He tells of meeting Elliott in 1967. Having no suitable place to hold their first diocesan assembly in 1968, he asked Elliott if it would be possible to hold it at All Saints. Elliott said, “Of course!” The assembly was presided over by Bishop Theodosius, the Orthodox bishop of Alaska, who later became the Orthodox Church of America’s Metropolitan.

Harris and his wife Matushka Anastasia continued their friendship with Elliott during the remainder of his life.

Harris remembered Elliott’s tremendous love for his wife Stella, saying “She was comical with a sense of humor. They blended together.” He offered a tribute to Elliott saying, “In being a clergy brother of Father Elliott, he was an inspiration to me in the love and caring to everyone he met. His legacy is that he was never absent from someone who was ill as long as it was in his power, especially at Providence Hospital.”

At the funeral, lines were read from Elliott’s favorite poet, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, a WWI British army chaplain. Later, retired Juneau Episcopal priest, the Rev. Mark Boesser a former Virginia Theological Seminary classmate of Elliott’s, shared with me the commendation that accompanied  the awarding of the Military Cross to Studdert Kennedy:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, he showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front-line trenches which he constantly visited.”

Those lines remind me so strongly of the Rev. Norman H.V. Elliott too: friend, husband, father, pastor, and humanitarian. The stories of marriages, funerals, connecting and reconnecting with God, and hospital memories will continue to be shared. There are so many.

You will be missed dear friend.

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.

What makes a church welcoming to new visitors? Answers to some common questions

From time to time, readers write with questions or observations about this column. This week I’m devoting this space to a sampling of questions I’ve received. Many relate to the columns devoted to church visits, so a little context is in order before turning to those questions. My church-specific columns are usually intended to focus on the perspective of a first-time visitor — someone hopefully regarded by that church as a “guest,” and my visit descriptions are intended to document the way any visitor might be treated at that church.

How many visits have you made to any one church without being warmly greeted and becoming aware of a sense of hospitality?

I’ve visited several local churches at least three times without being greeted by anyone, or at least being handed a bulletin or worship guide. At one prominent Hillside church in particular, I was even invited back by a member sure I would receive a warm greeting next time. Unfortunately, it never happened, even though I stretched myself to endure three visits. I could never recommend that church or any other unfriendly church to a potential first-time guest or in my columns. Unfortunately, something in that church’s DNA prevents it from changing.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to determine if you’re welcome at someone’s home. The same is true at church.

I remember a woman from a local Episcopal church approaching me after her service saying she’d recently put on her “visitor” mentality and persona when she visited her hometown church. She said she was astounded at what she noticed; it wasn’t all guest-friendly.

As a church consultant, I’ve recommended for years that multiple teams from a specific church need to visit other churches, every Sunday, to see how they are treated, and look for encouraging practices worthy of emulation. By and large, churches refuse to do this, plain and simple.

Frequently I’m asked about my local “home church.” Do I have one?

I write about congregations representing a variety of religions, though most are Christian. According to Pew Research Center religious demographic data, 62 percent of adults in Alaska profess Christianity. However, as a self-professed religion scholar, I’m also vitally interested in other faith groups in our community. Many non-Christian religions that are represented in Alaska make up fewer  than 1 percent of adherents to any faith, according to the Pew data., Together, faiths including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-Christian religions make up another 6 percent of the state’s population.  (31 percent are unaffiliated — the religious “nones.”)

I’m constantly in motion, visiting congregations from a variety of faiths on any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday. To maintain my impartiality I claim membership in none, but clearly have certain congregations to which I return regularly.

My church is not listed on your list of churches to visit; why is that?

I maintain lists of good “first-time” churches on my website, churchvisits.com, as I consider them to represent safe choices for people seeking church homes or looking for a solid faith community.

Your church might be one that makes first-time guests uncomfortable. Maybe you do not welcome them in a friendly manner, possibly ignore them altogether, or give them the 20-question test upon arrival. (Example: What is your name?, How did you hear about us?, What is your home church?, Who do you know in our church?, How did you find us?, etc., ad nauseum.) My column two weeks ago gave a real-life example of how one friendly church treats guests with honor and great hospitality.

Your church might be one of the many that insist on having guests stand up and identify themselves, telling the group where they’re from, etc., which by the way, is the No. 1 reason people do not return to a church. Possibly your music may have been 30-45 minutes of insulting, ear-pounding noise where congregants are “told,” not “invited,” to stand, to spend the entire time enduring songs many don’t know. Maybe your pastor preached a really great sermon, at least in his mind, while mostly reading it without inflection. Worse yet, he may have used his main remarks from a popular writer whose book was on the best-seller lists.

But first-time guests usually make a decision about whether to return to a church within the first five to 10 minutes after they arrive. Forget the music, and sermon. It’s already too late. They’ve decided.

Why do you draw attention to beautiful features of some local churches, while ignoring Gospel content or social justice ministries?

For Christians, a theology of beauty is represented in Scripture going back to the creation itself. In the exodus of the children of Israel, God ordained a theology of beauty in the construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle of Moses. These symbols were deliberately established to be constant reminders of God’s greatness, love and physical presence.

In an edited monograph, “Toward a Theology of Beauty,” systematic theologian Jo Davidson writes, “God pointedly established an elaborate, lavish system of corporate worship in the Old Testament. Yet, over and over again He censured through His prophets the glorious worship that He Himself designed and implemented but that was now being used to disguise a degenerate life. The internal condition of the participant is critical: “‘Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ (Amos 5:23, 24).”

Beauty is not a final solution; it must touch and heal the heart as well. Many religions believe in a theology of beauty, and express a God-given appreciation of that beauty in their symbols.

As a religion scholar, I’ve made field trips to many religious edifices in various areas of the world. Invariably I’ve been drawn to God through my viewing of the symbolism represented by various features. At Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Philadelphia, “The Prophetic Quest,” a series of 10 stained glass windows by artist Jacob Landau, brought entire books and chapters of Old Testament prophets leaping to mind.

But social justice initiatives are also an ongoing feature of this column. Many churches ignore their importance. I do not.

I appreciate the dialogue this column offers in the religious community. Not everything I write will be appreciated, nor do I expect it to be. However, I enjoy hearing back from readers. More questions are welcome either in the comments  or by email, at churchvisits@gmail.com. As time allows, I try respond personally to each. Happy questing!

About the Author

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.

Longtime Alaska priest Norman Elliott turns 97

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

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

Elliott regularly visits patients at Anchorage hospitals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,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 to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any Web browser.

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.

A spiritual oasis at St. Mary’s Episcopal in Anchorage

A gentle knoll at Lake Otis Parkway and Tudor Road, one of Anchorage’s busiest intersections, houses a beautiful sanctuary overlooking the Chugach Mountains. It’s also home for a remarkable congregation dedicated to common worship, earnest study and being a caring presence for God in our community.

This uncommon Episcopal congregation, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, has attracted my attention for many years. Although I’m not a member, I’m always treated as one, something I rarely experience among other Anchorage churches.

Before I started visiting churches and writing about those visits, I had an opportunity to attend this church almost 15 years ago. The occasion was the wedding of a couple I knew. That first visit awakened in me a curiosity about the church and its people.

The view of the Chugach Mountains from the church’s long section of windows was breathtaking then and remains so to this day.  Last Sunday, St. Mary’s rector, Michael Burke, looking out over the view, commented on the perspective folks on the Hillside and East Anchorage were seeing; they were in the clouds but worshipers saw a clear view of the mountains and the beautiful sky beyond.

It may be coincidental, but I like the church’s choice of its web address, godsview.org. The website really explains what the church embodies. “We are a vibrant, multigenerational and inclusive faith community, centered in Jesus and committed to spiritual growth, service and social justice.”

St. Mary’s offers four Sunday services, each unique and attended by worshipers drawn for specific reasons. All services offer a sermon and the Eucharist. The 8 a.m. service is quiet, without music, and follows Rite I, using the old Elizabethan language in the Book of Common Prayer. The 9 a.m. service features choral music and pipe organ accompaniment for hymns; Karen Bretz plays and directs the choir. The 11:30 a.m. service music is led by Wade Hampton Miller and the St. Mary’s Praise Singers, adding lively folk, gospel and gospel bluegrass renditions. Finally, the 4 p.m. service is quiet and refreshing, providing a much-needed respite.

But wait, there’s more. There is also a 7 a.m. Eucharistic service Wednesday mornings. Lasting about 20 minutes, it brings together those desiring a midweek taste of Eucharistic fellowship. Rector Burke tells me attendees are not all of his faith but children of God desiring this special experience.

Burke said that 90 percent of people coming to St. Mary’s have no previous relationship with the Episcopal Church. He’s quick to tell newcomers that if they’re looking for a perfect church, they won’t find it at St. Mary’s; it’s a work in progress.

Burke has been at St. Mary’s for 15 years as rector, and it was his sponsoring congregation for ordination many years ago. It recently lost several clergy to another congregation and will lose aoter clergy after the first of the year. Knowing St. Mary’s, it’s seeking new clergy with demonstrated passion for its unique mission.

Opportunities abound for study at St. Mary’s. One study group meets in Cay’s Room (the library) between the 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. services to read and discuss significant contemporary spiritual books. Most recently, Nadia Bolz-Weber’s groundbreaking work, “Accidental Saints” was used as its focus.

Burke recommended this wonderful book to me, which I purchased, devoured quickly and now highly recommend. Written by a unique ELCA woman pastor, it is reminiscent of the character of St. Mary’s mission: full of grace and caring. Another group meets at the same time in Waldron Hall to hear provocative and informative speakers. Known as CAFÉ (Christian Adult Formation and Education), these meetings are delightful.  Recent presentations included authors William Kamkwamba (“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope”), Mark Osler (“Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment”) and Robin Meyer (“The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus”).

These are not light topics for most audiences, but they tend to be standard fare at St. Mary’s. Thursday morning men’s Bible study and Thursday evening Bible workbench study are additional examples of the study character of St. Mary’s.

I talked with Burke about St. Mary’s social justice focus. “In these things we call social justice, I believe all we are trying to do is to follow in the way of Jesus,” he said. “All the ‘isms’: racism, sexism, heterosexism, they are just different ways of talking about how we are all broken; broken by our past, broken by the abuse and misuse of power, broken by the choices others have made and, often, broken by our own choices. Sometimes I think all we have in common is our brokenness and our shared experience of being instruments of God’s grace and healing to one another.”

Finally, St. Mary’s is preparing to open the Thomas Center for Senior Leadership, a new 15-unit senior housing complex nearing completion and located close to the campus of St. Mary’s at Tudor and Lake Otis. Originally the vision of church members Tay and Lowell Thomas, the dream project has been accomplished with support from the Thomas family along with assistance from the St. Mary’s community.

According to board chair Mike McCormick, the center was “conceived as a way to help meet a growing need for senior housing in Anchorage. It’s designated for independent residents aged 62 and above. (However, the facilities are ADA compliant to enable aging in place by long-term residents). The Thomas Center was formed with the belief that healthy senior leadership is a gift to all with resident elders serving as role models for the greater community rather than becoming patients or ‘objects of care.’ It’s built around the idea that we are ‘members of one another,’ we each have both gifts and needs and we are all called to support one another in an interdependent community.”

He said the faith-based center has a primary relationship with St. Mary’s Episcopal Church but will welcome residents of many faith traditions as well as those with none at all.

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.

The Rev. Norman Elliott, an Alaska clergy legend, turns 96 on Monday – 1/31/15

National data indicate the average tenure of a pastor is between three and four years. Many pastors retire in their 60s and 70s. One local pastor clearly beats these norms. The Rev. Norman Elliott, who is still going strong, turns 96 on Monday.

During my first 10 years in Anchorage, I didn’t know of Elliott. This changed in 2010, when Mark Lattime was consecrated as the eighth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska. A clergy friend invited me to the post-consecration banquet that evening. The Rev. Norman Elliott was the master of ceremonies, regaling attendees with humor, narratives of the history and growth of the Episcopal Church in Alaska and many introductions. Since then, I’ve talked with him after services at All Saints Episcopal Church in downtown Anchorage. Each time, he shared thoughts about religion and insights into the history of this wonderful church. Recently he gave insights about the wonderful Kimura-designed stained glass in All Saints.

In 2013, 25 years after his official retirement from All Saints, he was thrust back into a leadership role when their rector abruptly left. Currently he serves as priest-in-charge until a new rector is selected. But that’s not all. He is a volunteer chaplain, making almost daily visits to all local hospitals, some resulting in long stints through the night. Elliott is regularly asked to speak to civic groups about his life and experiences in Alaska.

Born in England, he and his family moved to Detroit when he was four. A lifelong Anglican, he made a momentous decision when a middle school teacher pressed him to make a career choice so he could guided into the appropriate high, commercial or technical school. Indecisive, but pressured to decide quickly, he decided one night to choose the ministry. At once he was at peace. After serving as a commissioned officer during World War II, another source of marvelous stories, Elliott finished college. Then it was on to Virginia Theological Seminary, an Episcopal institution, whose primary focus then was training missionaries.

During his final year, his VTS homiletics professor assigned a project researching the life of a famous preacher. Uncharacteristically, for that professor, he suggested Elliott write about World War I English chaplain Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy. Elliott feels this was a life-changing experience, especially Studdert-Kennedy’s poetry, which he often recites while telling this story and in his homilies. Elliott is especially taken with “Indifference,” “Woodbine Willie” and “The Sorrow of God.” He credits Studdert-Kennedy with shaping his theology and approaches to people. Graduating in 1951 from VTS with a master of divinity degree, Elliott was ordained a deacon of the Episcopal faith.

Elliott had a burning desire to go to India to serve as a missionary, but no positions were open. Consequently, he accepted a position to go to Alaska, arriving in 1951. Initially serving at St. Mark’s Church in Nenana, he was ordained a priest in 1952, and has served as a priest, rector or archdeacon since.

Dr. Loren Jensen, a longtime member of All Saints, gives the Rev. Elliott this tribute: “I am more than a little biased toward the guy. He is as unique as Alaska itself. Where else would you find a priest that used to fly his bush plane and run a dog sled team to minister to congregations in the villages? He then settled down in Anchorage to be the rector of the oldest Episcopal church in Anchorage, and served his congregation for 27 years until he reached mandatory retirement at age 70. That was 25 years ago.

“Unable to do something as quotidian as retirement, he felt the call to step back into the pulpit when an interim leader was needed for All Saints. That was a year and a half ago. He has been our full-time pastor since then.”

One cannot talk about Elliott’s ministry long without hearing flying stories. In order to get around in the territory he served, he learned to fly and flew until he was transferred to Ketchikan in 1958. The airplane was a tremendous asset to his work. Elliott has pastored at St. Mark’s Church in Nenana, St. Stephen’s Church in Fort Yukon, St. Matthew’s Church in Fairbanks, St. John’s Church in Ketchikan and All Saints Church in Anchorage. He also served as archdeacon of the Interior Deanery in Fairbanks, and currently serves as archdeacon of the South Central Alaska Deanery.

As he is a volunteer hospital chaplain, I was curious as to his experience with death. Elliott says dying people he’s been with have settled faiths and are ready for the next phase of their journey. Deathbed confessions? No, he’s never heard one.

Asked about major village issues, Elliott feels key ones are suicide, alcohol and bringing people to faith. He recounted a village story in which a wife shot her husband. He was taken to the airport to be medevacked to Fairbanks. The Wien plane was in, unloading a major shipment of alcohol. It wouldn’t leave until the alcohol was all unloaded. The man died on the runway.

Asked when Jesus will return, he responded, “Jesus talked of an immediate return. So did the apostle Paul. All I know, it’s in God’s hands.” Asked about changes he’d like to see in religion, he said, “I’d like to see more witness of the faith by clergy and parishioners.”

The Rev. Leo Walsh, pastor of St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, offered an explanation of Elliott’s secret. “Father Elliott is one of those unique pastoral personalities that, when he speaks to you, makes you feel like you are the most important person in the world at that time. He gives you all of his attention, not just part of it. In this way, he is a perfect reflection of the God who calls us each by name and loves us individually. You don’t just know Father Elliott, you are known by him, and that makes all the difference.”

Elliott is a major spiritual force in our community. The Episcopal Church today has its critics, but All Saints’ members and its leaders, Elliott and the Rev. David Terwilliger, are jewels in our community. I praise God for Elliott’s service. If you’re a person of faith, pray that God will strengthen him and keep him in the palm of His hand. Thank you for your 64 years of godly service, Elliott.

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