Tag Archives: Lent

Good Friday has Arrived

For many Christians, Lent has been a lengthy time of reflection as the season of Lent annually provides. Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, I visited Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church for their 11 a.m. contemporary service.  The service, which I’ll recount in a future article, was attended by warm greetings, beautiful music, and inspiring preaching. Although there was not palm waving, there were palms. For me, it ushered in Holy Week beautifully.

Good Friday is a solemn day for many Christians, in that it commemorates the death of Jesus. Many churches will be conducting Good Friday services, traditionally at noon, but often in the late afternoon or early evening to accommodate workers.

I’ll be attending Good Friday services at First Christian Church of Anchorage (Disciples of Christ). They’ve asked me to present my versions of two older hymns but set to new music. Their service commences at 6 p.m. if you have no church option. This is a warm and friendly church. I enjoy their fellowship.

Blessings to you as this important weekend begins.

Lent Drawing to a Close

As Lent draws to a close, I’ve had a chance to reflect on its value to the Christian life. For me it has offered a time of personal introspection, something I don’t do enough of.  Ash Wednesday’s reminder of “Remember that dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” based on Genesis 3:19, are sobering words, not easily ignored. Ongoing events in my life are constantly reminding me of my mortality. Lent provided the proper framework to let it all sink in.  Maybe the same is true for you.

I’ve been blessed, as I wrote last week, by participating in a single church’s Lenten soup suppers and talks on Wednesday evening. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church offered great soup, incredible Christian fellowship, and meaningful talks. Last night, Rector Michael Burke concluded these Lenten evenings with a history-based talk about the meaning of Holy Week and the various days observed during it.  He began with a discussion centering around a handout relating to the liturgical calendar of the church year.  The various cleansing ceremonies in the early church were then explained including full immersion baptism after one learned more about the faith for three years.  Candidates renounced their sin, fears, and the evil powers of this world, and were immersed three times. This was done once a year at the time our current Easter falls. Rector Michael mentioned he tries to do the same at St. Mary’s each year, and if possible to lead the congregation in a renewal of their baptismal vows.

Burke concluded this informative time with the Eucharist. Using the rudimentary service contained in the didache, a brief anonymous early Christian treatise dated to the first century, we shared the bread and wine around the circle, a most meaningful experience.

A pastor friend introduced me to Rev Dr Jill F Bradway, First American Baptist Church’s new pastor, explaining she introduced her congregation to Lent starting with Ash Wednesday. She describes her experience with it at her church.

“I’ve been in Anchorage for 5 weeks. I came right at the beginning of the Lenten season. It has been a new experience for the congregation. I hope more will choose to make the journey next year.

“Lent isn’t something that most Baptists observe. We wake up to the season around Holy Week, celebrating Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter! And as wonderful as that is, it misses the opportunity to enter more intentionally into the disciplines of prayer, self-reflection, and repentance.

“While a Master of Divinity student at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, I saw my Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal counterparts participating in Lenten exercises. It made ask myself the question, “What do they know that I don’t?” And so, I began to ask questions of them, to observe their special services, and finally to look at Baptist polity to see if there was anything to keep me from adopting these practices into my own life and ministry. Expanding my understanding to include the significance of Lent has added an unexpected richness to my spiritual journey.

Many more Baptists and other evangelicals are exploring Lent and its meaning in the Christian walk. I wish Rev. Bradway and her congregation well as they do their own personal exploration. This year, Ash Wednesday at St. John United Methodist Church was my Lenten beginning. Many Anchorage churches have ushered this poor soul into the meaning of Lent for which I am truly grateful.

 

Lenten Wednesday Night Soup Suppers – St Mary’s Episcopal

I’ve been enjoying St. Mary’s Episcopal’s Wednesday night soup suppers and talks. Starting at 6 p.m., they feature a simple soup supper prepared by a parishioner. At 7 p.m. Heidi Marlowe, St. Mary’s member, has been presenting an excellent series of talks on “Monastic Practices for Lay Life“.

Drawing on her personal experience as a modern day contemplative, Heidi’s presented a picture of monasticism going back to the dawn of Christianity.  She’s guided by St. Benedicts Rule, as are many monastics. Marlowe also created a short form of the Rule called “A Smaller Rule”, which she made available to all who wished a copy. An example from it reads:

“embrace life, whatever that may cost,
whatever that may mean,
and however that may appear.”

Another volume she created was a Psalter to be used for Lent, drawn from the Rule of Benedict, and the Office of Vespers for Wednesdays in Lent.  It is used for group recitation at the conclusion of her talks.

These Lenten suppers end on April 5.  I’ve enjoyed each presentation as they have evolved, starting with Heidi’s talk first Sunday of Lent.

Last Wednesday, The Rev. Kacei Conyers–Associate Rector, gave a fascinating talk about the origins and use of the Common Book of Prayer.  It certainly added to my store of knowledge of this central document used in the Episcopal Church.

Lent is a time of self-examination prior to Holy Week.  St. Mary’s is excelling in presenting Lenten fare that aids in that process. I highly commend this series to anyone seeking to know more about contemplation, and a more structured practice of practical monasticism for the daily life. Thank you St Mary’s for this gift to the community. You are feeding the body and the soul through this series.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is located on the SW corner of Tudor Rd, and Lake Otis Parkway.

Ashes Signal Lent’s Beginning Tomorrow

It’s difficult for me to believe that Lent commences tomorrow. Part of that difficulty is wrapped up in my lack of understanding of how quickly the church year whizzes by. My evangelical upbringing did not honor the church year, as observed in so many mainline, orthodox, and Catholic churches. That, of course, extended to Lent.

Over time, I’ve become very involved in observing the various waypoints of the church year, discovering the various ways many Lent observing faith traditions journey through Lent. In the process Lent, Advent, and other similar traditions provide comfort and spiritual centering for my life. Over time these various faith traditions have sunk in and nourish my soul.

Ash Wednesday is one of those waypoints.  In this age-old simple ritual of accepting ashes on my forehead, and being reminded by the ash imposing clergy of my mortality with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, I’m annually reminded that, as the old spiritual says, ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.”

Orthodox Lent has already with Forgiveness Sunday services last Sunday. I’ve observed this healing practice at St. John Orthodox – Eagle River, and Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox – Anchorage.  What a wonderful healing practice which should be emulated by many more churches.

Often, Lent observing Christians are asked about what they are giving up for Lent, with somewhat humorous tongue-in-cheek replies.  In fact, the annual Twitter Lent Tracker for 2017 (see https://www.openbible.info/labs/lent-tracker/2017) indicates the top 10 Lenten give-ups seem to have little to do with drawing closer to God at this season.

Rank What Number of Tweets
1. social networking 1,076
2. twitter 933
3. alcohol 771
4. chocolate 664
5. chips 554
6. sweets 321
7. fast food 319
8. school 298
9. soda 295
10. swearing 288

Lifeway Research started its own poll Lenten poll this year and discovered these were the top ways Christians said they would be observing Lent: Fast from a favorite food or beverage (57%), Attend church services (57%), Pray more (39%), Give to others (38%), Fast from a bad habit (35%), Fast from a favorite activity (23%). (see http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2017/february/what-to-give-up-for-lent-2017-twitter-top-100-ideas.html)

I’m impressed with people who resolve to do something for others or take up a useful habit during Lent. The Christianity Today article, noted above, stated “LifeWay found that nearly 3 in 10 evangelical believers (28%) now observe the Lenten season before Easter, while Catholics remain most likely to do so (61%).”  To me that is a startling but growing number.

Another Orthodox practice that impresses me is their rigorous fasting during Lent, primarily to keep their heads and bodies clean and clear to fully participate in the joys and sorrows of what the Lenten season brings.

If you do not observe Lent or haven’t been exposed to its practices and significance, I urge you give it a try starting with Ash Wednesday tomorrow.

Lenten blessings to each of you.

Monday marks start of Orthodox Lent

It’s been more than a month since Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent at many local churches. Easter will be celebrated March 27, yet Orthodox churches won’t start observing Great Lent until March 14. Orthodox Easter, Pascha (Pah-ska), is celebrated May 1, more than a month later than other Christian faiths. Why so late?

Blame it on Julius Caesar and the astronomically based Julian calendar. Some Orthodox follow the Gregorian calendar for certain portions of the church year such as Christmas. Others follow the Julian calendar for the entire year. A detailed discussion of the calendar and connected issues would consume this and subsequent columns. The three strains of Orthodox in Alaska: Antiochian, Greek and OCA (formerly Russian Orthodox), all use the Julian calendar for Lent and Pascha (Easter).

Part of Orthodox tradition is the use of fasts and feasts to mark their passage through the church year and their lives. This is not something most other Christian groups normally do.

In many other faith traditions, Lent starts Ash Wednesday; but not Orthodox. Preceding Lent, all three Orthodox groups practice a beautiful tradition you’ll rarely see elsewhere: Forgiveness Sunday. All Orthodox churches in Alaska precede Great Lent tomorrow with Forgiveness Sunday services. These services are usually conducted at the close of vespers recalling humankind’s original sin.

Describing this concluding portion of the service, Orthodox writer Wesley J. Smith, writing in “First Things,” says, “At the service’s end, our first Lenten act is to ask from and offer forgiveness to everyone present — not collectively, but individually from person, to person, to person. This is one of the most powerful moments of the Church year. One by one, each parishioner bows or prostrates, first before the priest, and then each other, asking, ‘Forgive me, a sinner.’ Each responds with a bow or prostration, asking also for forgiveness and assuring, ‘God forgives.’ Each then exchanges the kiss of peace. The service is a healing balm. It is hard to bear grudges when all have shared such an intimate mutual humbling. Indeed, Forgiveness Vespers is emotionally intense, tears often flow and hugs of true reconciliation are common.”

The Rev. Vasili Hillhouse, pastor of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox, shared that members approach each other on Forgiveness Sunday with formal greetings like “please forgive me.” A typical response is “God forgive us both” with prostration or bowing.

The week before Forgiveness Sunday is known as Cheesefare Week. Fasting, a Great Lent tradition, is already under way. Dairy and eggs are permitted, but not meat. This modified diet helps believers transition into Lenten fasting. Until the Easter resurrection celebration, Pascha, they fast. Fasting is a means to facilitate focus on spiritual things, and not celebrating one’s body. For most, no meat is allowed during Lent. Monday, Lent starts with no animal products. For Greek Orthodox, it’s vegan with just a couple of days declared as fish days. No wine or oil is allowed on weekdays, just weekends.

“When a Roman Catholic fasts (as well as many Protestants), he is making a ‘sacrifice’ for the cause of Lent,” says OCA Bishop David Mahaffey, explaining how Orthodox conceptions of fasting differ from those in other Christian churches “So you find people who stop eating chocolate, or stop drinking pop or wine; they are ‘giving it up for Lent’ in honor of our Lord’s sacrifice for us. In Orthodoxy, we understand that the human will and its related passions are a hard thing to control. Therefore, for us, it is not ‘giving up’ anything, it is redirecting our will to respond to our guided control and a ‘resisting’ of pleasures our passions want to enjoy. So the real prohibition is not only foods, it is entertainment, movies, dances, television, and other forms of enjoyment that typically allow our passions to rise and seek pleasure.”

Most Orthodox Christians are used to fasts, and regularly practice what are known as Eucharistic fasts.

“The Eucharistic fast refers to the brief time (usually Sunday mornings) that an Orthodox Christian observes a total fast from all food and drink in preparation to receive Holy Communion,” says the Rev. Marc Dunaway, pastor of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River. “The idea behind this is that on the day that I will receive Holy Communion, the Bread of Eternal Life, or the ‘medicine of immortality,’ as St. Ignatius called it — on this day I will not eat anything simply for the sustenance of this earthly body until I have first received the Body and Blood of Christ. We fast in reverence and preparation for this Communion.” Both the Eucharist fast and the Lent fast can be modified, if necessary, as needed for children, the elderly, and those suffering illness, Dunaway says.

Great Lent is observed with various services throughout the 40-plus days until Pascha. Local Orthodox churches holding Forgiveness Sunday services include: St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral (after Divine Liturgy at about noon); St. Tikhon Orthodox Church (Lenten vespers, 6 p.m.); Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church (after 10 a.m. Divine Liturgy) and St. John Orthodox Cathedral (after 6:15 p.m. vespers)

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.

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.

Holy Week: The End Approaches

The Anchorage area is well into Holy Week, the culmination of Lent, which leads up to Easter Sunday. Many churches, Protestant and Catholic tradition alike, celebrate the various ritual days of Holy Week. The most important observed days, are today and ahead. In Anchorage Daily News’ Thursday paper, a double center section highlighted all the various services available, noted below, with their times.

Thursday, today, is known as Maundy Thursday. It commemorates the last supper and the institution of the Eucharist or Communion.

Friday, tomorrow, is known as Good Friday and commemorates the day of Christ’s death. A mournful day, it is a time of reflection on the mysterious nature of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity.

Saturday, known as Holy Saturday, commemorates Christ’s time in the tomb. Generally, it is observed with silence, prayer and vigils.

Sunday, known as Easter Sunday, often starts with sunrise services to commemorate Christ’s morning resurrection. In many churches, Easter Sunday services are the most attended services of the year. These services are joyful and filled with praises to God and much hope.

However, some churches do not recognize Easter by special observances. In these churches, they attempt to emphasize all aspects of Easter throughout the year as they are so integral to Christian belief. Wikipedia has a thorough discussion of Holy Week observances here. Our Christian traditions are full of meaning and hope. Please take an opportunity to learn of a new tradition of which you may be unfamiliar.

Twitter users say what they’re giving up for Lent – 2/28/15

Since 2009, Stephen Smith of OpenBible.info has been tracking what Twitter users say they are giving up for Lent. It makes for interesting reading but also suggests that Lent “give-ups” are somewhat superficial.

Smith’s 2015 list had a few surprising results. Based on 125,303 tweets, Smith compiled a top 100 list of things people said they were giving up. The top 20 items, in order, were: school, chocolate, Twitter, alcohol, social networking, swearing, soda, sweets, fast food, coffee, college, you, Lent, meat, homework, sex, junk food, pizza, bread, and chips. The top 100 sacrifices — sorted into the most frequently recurring 20 categories, looked like this: food, school/work, technology, habits, smoking/drugs/alcohol, relationship, irony, sex, health/hygiene, religion, entertainment, weather, shopping, sports, money, politics, clothes, celebrity, and possessions.

One would be foolish to presume these are only Christians giving something up for Lent. If they were, we would be justified in presuming they would resume these give-ups after Easter. Now, I can see value in giving up various things in these categories. Food-related items like junk food are for the most part worthy of giving up altogether. Technology items include social networking, which is a huge time-suck with relatively little value.

In fact, researchers often point the finger at social networking preoccupation as a trait of a narcissistic, self-absorbed culture. Susan Greenfield, of the University of Oxford, said in a speech before the United Kingdom’s House of Lords, “Social networking sites might tap into the basic brain systems for delivering pleasurable experience. However, these experiences are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.”

Michael Bugeja, a journalism professor at Iowa State University said: “To rebut examples of proactive use of social networks, I could counter with tragic ones, including a recent hoax by an adult ‘neighbour’ that triggered the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier.”

Christianity Today, commenting on the Twitter list of give-ups made an interesting observation: “One thing people don’t give up: Bible verses. Bible Gateway told CT that Lent is its busiest season of the year, with traffic between Ash Wednesday and Easter clocking in at 15 percent higher than the rest of 2014. Searches relating to dust and fasting increased 1,000 percent and 500 percent respectively on the days surrounding Ash Wednesday. Searches for repentance increased by 50 percent on Ash Wednesday.”

Adopt Positive Practices During Lent

More and more Christians are using Lent as a period to adopt one or more positive practices. I was particularly taken with an article released earlier this month by the United Methodist Church describing positive practices to take up during Lent. Titled “40 Days of Lent: Find Your Own Spiritual Path” Joe Iovino detailed some useful practices one would not discontinue after Lent. Fasting, Bible reading, and prayer headed the list. Many medical authorities attest to the value of periodic fasting. Bible reading, as shared in previous articles, is lacking. The Bible is the source of the Christian faith and worthy of study. There are many versions available, and great resources and apps to facilitate better Bible reading. Prayer is a wonderful way to connect with the Almighty. It can be done anywhere, and anytime. Prayer is not posturing, but a reaching out of the soul to God.

Iovino next suggests service: “Another way to observe a holy Lent is to take on a new way of serving. Throughout the forty days of the season you can adopt a new habit of volunteering in the community, making special financial gifts to service organizations, singing in the choir, or participating in a small group.” These are just a few of the myriad ways one could serve. Locally, call Bean’s Café, Brother Francis Shelter, Downtown Soup Kitchen, or Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission and volunteer to help. You’ll be surprised how quickly they’ll accept your offer, and how rewarding it can be.

Rest, taking a daily Lent quiz, exposing your children to Lent, and learning more about Lent and Easter are meaningful activities concluding Iovino’s list. Following these or similar ideas during Lent could go far in transforming our faith community. In sharing these Lenten activities, I do not imply Christians are not observing Lent properly; many do and are changed by their conscientious observation of Lent.

Ashes to the People

In my column two weeks ago, I mentioned a dedicated group of Lutheran pastors were going to be taking ashes to the people in Town Square on Ash Wednesday. I went downtown to see them doing so. It was a stunning sight to see a group of five white-robed priests standing in front of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts offering ashes to those wanting them. Lutheran Church of Hope’s pastor, the Rev. Julia Seymour applied my ashes in the sign of the cross on my forehead intoning the “dust” phrase, a clear reminder of my mortality. The group told me that many more people this year, than last, asked for ashes, and that many others had questions for them. Christ Our Savior Lutheran’s pastor the Rev. Dan Bollerud told me a group from his church went for dinner at a local restaurant after their Ash Wednesday choir practice. Some restaurant staff inquired about the smudges on their foreheads, and ended up requesting ashes as well.

Personally, I find Lent meaningful as do many other Christians. I enjoy Lenten services at a wide range of churches. I urge you to consider observing Lent, if not already doing so, to obtain new meaning in your spiritual life.

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

Ash Wednesday, Lent are growing more popular – 2/14/15

Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, has traditionally been observed by mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. Other churches have now begun to observe this ancient practice. Many scholars and biblical historians trace Ash Wednesday and Lent to the 10th century. While it is not biblically designated, neither are Easter and Christmas, though most Christian traditions observe those holidays.

On Ash Wednesday — which falls on Feb. 18 this year — clergy apply ashes in the shape of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful, intoning “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” from Genesis 3:19, or something similar. This reminds us of man’s ultimate fate without forgiveness. The 40-day period of Lent then begins, ending on Holy Saturday (April 4 this year). Lent is observed as a time for reflecting on our spiritual condition, foreshadowing Easter, which signifies forgiveness.

Many local churches offer Ash Wednesday services to observe the beginning of Lent. ADN’s Matters of Faith notices (below) mention some, while a simple Google search reveals many others. Use search terms “2015 Anchorage Ash Wednesday.”

Ash Wednesday innovations

Some local pastors have begun a wonderful practice of taking the ashes to the people. Several Lutheran pastors will be in Town Square Park to apply ashes to the foreheads of those who desire them. Other clergy take ashes to the people, notably the Rev. Sara Miles, an Episcopal priest in San Francisco, whose experiences are described in her book “City of God.” (You can see an interview here at tinyurl.com/mwdgx2y.)

Christ United Methodist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, offers drive-thru ashes with “Ashes to Go,” moving an activity of the church to where the people are. This is a most basic Christian concept. Didn’t Christ minister to the people where they were? I encourage this concept for Anchorage.

I was intrigued by an account by Richard Beck, chair of Abilene Christian University’s Psychology Department, of an initial celebration of Ash Wednesday last year. ACU is a conservative school of the Church of Christ, a fundamentalist denomination. In response to my amazement, Beck said, “There are a lot of CoC congregations that are exploring Lent and the liturgical calendar. It’s an increasingly common thing in our denomination.”

Rabbit Creek Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation, will celebrate Ash Wednesday for the first time with services at 6:30 p.m. They join a growing number of Baptist churches embracing this meaningful practice.

Muldoon Community Assembly, an Assemblies of God Church, will be imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday. Pastor Kent Redfearn said, “Very few AG churches give Ash Wednesday and Lent any consideration. I like the symbolism and practice of repentance, abstinence, fasting and prayer, so we dabble in both Ash Wednesday and Lent.”

Traditionally, Lent has been seen as a time of giving up certain things. Some pastors now encourage congregations to adopt something new during this period of reflection, such as volunteering, spending more time with family, or renewing prayer life.

Orthodox Lenten practices differ from Western Christianity

The three Orthodox traditions in Alaska follow Eastern Christianity practices. For example, the Rev. Vasili of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox advises they do not observe Ash Wednesday but that Great Lent begins on Monday, Feb. 23 or Sunday evening with “Vespers of Forgiveness — in which all the members of the parish greet each other to ask, and to grant, forgiveness for all the ways that we have ‘missed the mark’ (Greek word for ‘sin’ means to miss the mark) in the previous year. We ask for forgiveness not only for the things that have directly affected others, but also for our sins that indirectly affect the entire cosmos.”

Orthodox Bishop David Mahaffey said, “Great Lent in the Orthodox tradition has six weeks and five Sundays, and Holy Week is in addition to this fast and is considered a separate fast of its own. Since there are 42 days in the six weeks, we drop off the first Sunday, which is called forgiveness Sunday and all the faithful gather to begin Lent in the afternoon by asking each other for mutual forgiveness. We greet each other with the phrase, ‘Forgive me, a sinner.’ and we reply, ‘God forgives, and so do I.’ Or something similar. (Actually the phrase ‘God forgives’ is sufficient). We also drop off the Saturday before Palm Sunday, which is observed as ‘Lazarus Saturday’ in the Orthodox Church, a precursor to Christ’s own resurrection, and the fasting is relaxed on this day.”

The Rev. Marc Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River says they follow the same basic practices described above.

Local Catholic practices support the faith

Archbishop Roger Schwietz offered his insights about Ash Wednesday. “The imposition of ashes on the forehead seems to speak powerfully to people today and is very popular. It reminds all of the temporary nature of our life on this earth and is perhaps more relevant in a world filled with insecurity. This is true even for young adults. We have a group of students at UAA who are organizing a service on campus, at which I will preside at 2 p.m. on Ash Wednesday.”

The Rev. Leo Walsh, of St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, says his parish has embraced the “New Evangelization” movement by focusing on “whole community catechesis” “to evangelize and form disciples for witness in the community.” He further notes Ash Wednesday and Lent provide opportunities “to educate and celebrate this holy season of 40 days so that we will be prepared for the celebration of the Resurrection.”

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his book “Remember You Are Dust,” writes, “Our life is a gift from God. We are dust, we are creatures. And God remembers that. We need to be humble, and yet at the same time remember that God remembers our creatureliness and gives us grace and love and forgiveness. We are dust, our lives are not our own, we serve a greater power.”

I strongly believe Ash Wednesday and Lent can help to focus our minds on a deeper understanding of the riches that culminate in Easter’s celebration.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits. Contact him at churchvisits@gmail.com.