Tag Archives: Lutheran

500th Anniversary of Luther Nailing 95 Theses to Church Door in Wittenburg is Today

On this day 500 years ago, Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar in Wittenburg, Saxony nailed 95 Theses, or arguments, against the sale of indulgences to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg. Indulgences were being sold in the area. The purchase of indulgences essentially granted sinners forgiveness of sins, freeing them from purgatory. Luther pressed the argument that salvation is free to all as a result of the sacrifice of Christ.

Luther’s action, influenced by reformers John Wycliff and Jan Hus, created a Reformation movement that rapidly spread across Europe. This gave rise to Protestants, or those who protested against certain practices of the Catholic church.  Luther wanted to reform the church, but created a separate religion, Lutheranism, when he found that to be impossible. Many other reformers rose up after this period, creating other main religions of today.

Luther’s movement and others in the reformation emphasized the key essentials of Christianity: faith alone (soia fides), grace alone (sola gratia), Christ alone (solus Christus).

Luther from painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Modern Protestantism is deeply in debt to the early church, Catholic and Orthodox, especially with regard to the teaching and writings of early church fathers which helped to develop the essential doctrines most Christian religions observe today.  It’s all too easy to be impelled to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Luther first wanted to reform the Catholic church, but when that became impossible, he created a purer religion than was being observed at the time.

A modern day heresy, the prosperity gospel, is being called out for the error that it is by too few. In my opinion, it is just as dangerous as the sale of indulgences was during the time of the reformers.

My heart was warmed by the joint service between Catholics and Lutherans last Sunday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral.  I’m planning to share some of the aspects of that service in an upcoming column.  The main takeaway was that Christians need to emphasize their unity rather than where they disagree.

Chris Thompson
churchvisits@gmail.com

 

 

Beer and Hymns – Fun and Successful!!!

Pastor Dan Bollerud leading and Jamie Berge playing piano at Beer and Hymns

Last Sunday night featured fellowship, conversation, tasty food, and wonderful hymn singing. Oh, and the best part, over $11,000 was raised in two hours by this cheerful crowd of Christians from multiple churches and denominations.  The proceeds of the fundraising went to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska (LSSA) whose executive director, Alan Budahl, made the round of tables with an iPad collecting donations of those present.  Alan mentioned how great the need was at this time and how helpful these contributions were in meeting that need.

It was a capacity crowd in Mo’s O’Brady’s restaurant. Empty seats were in short supply as the evening progressed. Pastor Dan Bollerud led the singing using a new song-sheet compilation of hymns old and new.  Jamie kept up the tempo at the piano, while John filled in with guitar and harmonica.  I feel like a broken record when I say it just keeps getting better and better, but it’s true. Trust me, you won’t hear hymn singing like this in most churches.

Pastor Dan told me the next Beer and Hymns will likely be in the spring, and many of us can’t wait. While many local evangelicals concentrate on getting people saved and baptized, our friends the Lutherans fill our community with love, grace, and a social gospel which reaches out to the poor and those in hunger. Thank you Lutherans for this expression of love for the Other.

Chris Thompson
churchvisits.com

Ready to Sing Hymns? Beer and Hymns Coming on Sunday – 10/8/17

One of my favorite events, Beer and Hymns, is coming back, this Sunday, October 8. It benefits Lutheran Social Services of Alaska (LSSA). It’s held at Mo’s O’Brady’s Restaurant in the Carr’s Huffman Business Plaza. Google Map  Things get rolling promptly at 6 p.m. so be sure to arrive early to grab a table and seat; they go fast!

Pastor Dan Bollerud, retired pastor of Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, leads the singing with his marvelous baritone voice. Jamie Berge, pianist extraordinaire, will tickle the ivories in a delightful manner. I hear John Klapproth will play along with guitar & harmonica. Attendees choose from over 60 hymns in a special hymnbook. It’s all about requests!

Lutheran Social Services of Alaska provides a variety of services to Alaska families including a local food pantry. Alan Budahl, LSSA executive director will be on hand to answer questions regarding their activities, and accept your donation. No fees charged for this wonderful event, and attendees end up donating a respectable sum of money between 6 and 8 p.m. Recent Beer and Hymns events have seen $7,000-$10,000 donated during this brief time.  I find it very interesting how singing praises opens the purse strings.  Meeting new friends and greeting old friends is a key part of the charm of this worthy get-together.

Pastor Dan usually asks for a roll call of the various churches represented. I’m continue to be amazed by the great diversity of faiths there. It’s common to hear Catholic, Episcopal, Pentecostal, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, to name a few, chiming in to register their faith community.

If your heart needs an uplift, I urge you give this event a try. A few people are put off by the juxtaposition of beer and hymns., Martin Luther is famously quoted as saying, “It is better to think of church in the ale-house than to think of the ale-house in church.”  Mo also has plenty of non-alcoholic beverages, and O’Brady’s tasty dinner entrees.  I’ll be there and would love to meet you if you choose to come.

Chris Thompson
churchvisits@gmail.com

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Ash Wednesday and Lent open the door to sustaining spiritual practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I encourage you to explore Lent and its many meanings.

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

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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.

Faith community giving offers local helping opportunities during the holidays – 12/6/14

It’s an amazing time of year, one in which various members of the faith community collect money to support various local charitable causes. These actions form the basis of what I term “living faith” or faith that “practices what it preaches.” Yet not all faith communities support local needs during this time of year. Some are preoccupied with staging elaborate productions of pageants created to support perceptions of what people need to see during this season. Others are collecting money for causes in other areas of the world, while Alaska itself remains one of the greatest mission field opportunities in the world. I’m puzzled that Alaska faith communities often show more concern with far-flung world areas than the neighbor in need in their own backyard.

Additionally, I’m absolutely amazed with parents who go in debt up to their eyeballs to show their children they love them and want to give them their heart’s desire for Christmas. The Gallup spending forecast estimates that the average Christmas spending this year in the U.S. will be $781, up from $704 last year. Overall, the National Retail Federation projects this spending will top $600 billion this year.

Christmas has become a worldwide phenomenon. Even though its roots are Christian, it’s become largely secular, altering a wonderful religious tradition. And our children, what are they to think? Who hasn’t seen a child opening a vast array of presents, only to see them sad and dejected minutes later because they didn’t bring the happiness they hoped and wished for?

I believe faith communities can foster false expectations by vast toy drives for children going into the holidays. What many of these families need is food and shelter security. Children can’t eat toys. It’s ludicrous that this is not better understood from the get-go. Faith communities could do more to help people during this season by providing basic foodstuffs and de-emphasizing toy giving programs. Food and shelter are critical to families in need. A sleeping bag might be a much higher priority than a toy. Toy giving indicates, for the most part, that Christmas is identified with consumerism and things we like, as opposed to things that are basic to life. It’s the wrong lesson to teach.

Jewish Community Initiative

I’m impressed with several local faith-based organizations that are bending over backwards to help at this time of year. One that caught my eye recently is the Mitzvah Mall, a project of the local Jewish community at Congregation Beth Sholom. Mitzvah means a command to do good deeds and is very ancient in practice. Mitzvah is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah, the five books of Moses. When at the Simchat Torah dinner and ceremony at Congregation Beth Sholom recently, I learned about this unique fundraiser, but Congregation Beth Sholom’s website says it best. “Think about a bizarre bazaar: an alternative gift fair. There are rooms filled with booths, but the ‘vendors’ are nonprofit organizations and charities. Instead of buying more material gifts and stuff, shoppers can donate to local nonprofits on behalf of friends, family or others on their holiday gift list. Give a gift that keeps on giving. The ‘gifts’ are in various price ranges beginning at $5. Shoppers receive decorative gift cards to present to the person in whose honor the gift was purchased. What a mitzvah: resisting holiday consumerism, doing good deeds, bestowing a wonderful gift and having fun doing it.”

Mitzvah Mall is happening Sunday, Dec. 7, from 12 to 3 p.m. at Congregation Beth Sholom, 7525 E. Northern Lights Blvd. Come prepared to donate to one or more of the 25 nonprofits that will be present. Congregation Beth Sholom has had fantastic success with this brief event, raising over $14,000 in three hours last year. I’ll be there to observe this event in person.

ChangePoint Giving Programs

ChangePoint, Alaska largest church, has a number of life-giving programs it supports with holiday giving by its members. The congregation uses three avenues of giving during the holiday season.

1. Participation in partnership with Cornerstone Church to provide hundreds of Christmas shoe boxes to Samaritan’s Purse and its effort to bless children, particularly in the villages of Alaska.

2. Participation in two “Angel Tree” projects to benefit both the students of Alaska Christian College and the residents of the McKinnell House here in Anchorage.

3. The primary fundraiser is what they call the uncommon gift offering. This is collected the last Sunday before Christmas and always goes to support or advance a local charity. Over the years, they have done many things with it. Examples include raising around $120,000 for Alaska Christian College to graduate all its seniors without debt and giving over $130,000 one year as the launching gift for the Downtown Soup Kitchen’s new facility.

Lutheran Giving Initiatives

Lutheran Social Services of Alaska provides food and shelter for thousands of recipients in our local community. Last Sunday’s Beer and Hymns fundraiser by Christ Our Savior Lutheran raised close to $5,000 for LSSA. Other Lutheran congregations are involved with a series of local giving initiatives touching local lives.

The holiday season is a wonderful time to plant the right seed about the proper use of money. Jesus talked about money more than any other topic. Churches can effectively use the holidays as ways to draw attention away from the individual and place the emphasis where it belongs.

I’d love to hear your stories about your church’s holiday giving efforts. Please send them to churchvisits@gmail.com so they can be shared with other readers of this column.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at 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.

Baptism is alive and well in Anchorage – 10/18/14

Last Sunday I witnessed a full-immersion water baptism when attending Chugach Covenant Church’s service at Begich Middle School. CCCis a relatively new church using convenient but inexpensive meeting places. Although this article won’t describe their service, I will comment on the baptism. Early in the service, a CCC pastor announced the baptism — a “dunking” as he termed it. Two younger men had each indicated a desire to be baptized. A stock tank filled with water awaited in front of the audience. Coming out, one by one, the men were baptized by a pastor. One man, it was explained, was wearing an ankle monitor needing to be kept out of the water, an unusual juxtaposition for any pastor. The congregation was encouraged to whoop and holler after each of these men were baptized. Personally, I felt that part was a little scripted. Full-immersion baptism is symbolic of a washing away of sin, and the commencement of a new life. I congratulated each man after the service for their baptisms

Baptism Background

In the New Testament, Matthew 3:13-17 recounts John the Baptist’s ministry of preaching and baptizing in the name of repentance to prepare the way of the Lord. Theologian David F. Wells, in his recently revised book, “Turning to God,” writes, “Although there is much debate over the possible antecedents of John’s baptism, proselyte baptism probably was the only comparable rite known to his Jewish audience. When a Gentile wanted to become a Jew, he was baptized once to prepare him for his ‘new life.’”

Many were baptized during John’s ministry. Jesus came to John the Baptist asking to be baptized, but John wanted Jesus to baptize him. Jesus said his baptism by John was necessary “to fulfil all righteousness.” After John immersed Jesus in the Jordan, scripture records the heavens opened and the spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove, and a voice from the heavens declared, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Later, when the disciples were sent out by Jesus, he said, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15-16, KJV, describe the disciples being given this injunction, “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Numerous other references are found in the New Testament regarding baptism.

Purpose of Baptism

Baptism is symbolic of our death to sin and our old life. Coming out of the water, one is resurrected into a new life made possible by Christ’s sacrifice. Death, burial, and resurrection are prefigured by the act of baptism. A new birth into a life in Christ is demonstrated. In many, but not all, religions, the sacrament of baptism is also accompanied by acceptance into fellowship with the baptizing religious body. A “call to service” — i.e. serving God — is the other result of baptism. Many churches miss this and do not put newly baptized members into service.

Denominational Baptismal Practices

Various styles of baptism are practiced throughout the world. Some denominations baptize everyone, even infants. Others insist baptism is only for those who are able to make conscious decisions about accepting a life in Christ. Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches sprinkle or pour water on infants and others to baptize them. Many evangelical churches such as Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Church of Christ, and Pentecostals practice full-immersion baptism for those who’ve attained an age of accountability, and understand the rite of baptism.

Catholics actually practiced immersion baptism from early church times until 1311 A.D. when the Council of Ravenna changed the practice to pouring.

Lutherans practice sprinkling or pouring. Martin Luther initially expressed beliefs in baptism by immersion, but was somewhat conflicted about it, also advocating sprinkling or pouring.

Presbyterians, following the direction of Protestant reformer John Calvin, believe and practice sprinkling of infants and others joining the church. Calvin was resolute about these practices from the very beginning.

Methodists inherited traditions and teachings passed down by John Wesley who was adamant about baptizing infants, a practice still followed.

Mormons practice full immersion water baptism, but not for infants and children under eight years of age, believing they are under the age of accountability. However, Mormons adhere to a controversial belief of proxy baptisms for the dead, harking back to Joseph Smith. They’ve come under fire for this practice, especially for those not of the Mormon religion.

This list is not intended to be exhaustive, but representative of many traditions and practices surrounding baptism. Not all Christians view baptism as a necessity. Examples of churches not practicing baptism are Christian Scientists, Quakers, The Salvation Army, and Unitarians.

Films portray poignant examples of baptism. I think of Robert Duvall’s depiction of self-baptism in “The Apostle,” or his baptism in “Tender Mercies” as being powerful. “O Brother, Where Art Thou” showed a moving baptism scene accompanied by Allison Krauss’ haunting “As I Went Down to the River to Pray.”

Baptism is not a guarantee of salvation; only God’s grace does that. My full-immersion baptism at age 12 is still a strong memory. It was a huge moment in my life and a momentous decision. No one asked for “whooping and hollering” for me. Instead a chorus of “amens” rang through the hall — a solemn moment indeed. Although not all churches practice baptism the same way, it remains a powerful, divinely-inspired sacrament, full of rich symbolism. If you’ve never attended a full-immersion baptism, I urge you to do so.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at 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.

Pastors mark start of Lent by taking ashes to the people – 3/8/14

Lent commenced this week with Ash Wednesday and ends with Holy Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday, which marks the start of Holy Week. An early church tradition, Lent is credibly traceable back to the Apostle John through early church fathers Polycarp and Irenaeus, and recorded by early church historian Eusebius.

Originally celebrated as a severe fast leading up to Easter, Lent’s purpose was to prepare the mind and body for symbolically experiencing the last days of the life of Christ. Over time, Lent has become less sacrificial and more connected with what Christians give up. Lent can be powerful, reminding adherents of the power of sacrifice and their own mortality.

Today Lent is observed by most liturgical churches, including Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and Congregationalists. Recently a groundswell of support for observing Lent has developed among a growing number of evangelicals. Many evangelicals previously avoided observing Lent because of its origin in the early church and ties to the papacy. They counter that the ideals of Lent are held high throughout the church year, yet Lent observance is growing year by year because of its hold on the imagination.

Ash Wednesday, an ancient church practice of placing ashes on the forehead in the sign of the cross, requires people to seek out a church and clergy who perform this rite. Lately, perceptive churchmen are starting to take ashes to the people. In San Francisco, Sara Miles, director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, has been doing this for three years in the Mission District. A recent Christian Century article by Miles, “Witness to the Dark: Ashes in the Streets,” was an excerpt from her latest book, “City of God: Faith in the Streets,” which describes how this practice of taking ashes to the streets began.

This effort symbolizes taking the gospel to the people, as opposed to expecting people to come to church to receive the gospel. The hallmarks of the gospel, visiting the sick and those in prison, caring for widows, and taking the “Good News” to the world, as commanded by Jesus, were never intended to be a church-bound imperative.

Local Lutheran pastors Martin Eldred (Joy Lutheran), Dan Bollerud (Christ Our Savior Lutheran) and Julia Seymour (Lutheran Church of Hope) followed Sara Miles’ example on Ash Wednesday by distributing ashes at Town Square and the Downtown Transit Center. Although takers were few, it clearly caught the public’s attention. Those accepting ashes were exceeding grateful. Interestingly, the pastors saw no people with ash on their foreheads during their visit.

Pastor Julia, who first suggested their outing, offered several observations.

“Ash Wednesday is a church institution, not something instructed by God or done by Jesus. It is a day the Church decided that people should reflect on their mortality and humanity before entering a season of fasting and penitence. When I think about those three things, I think:

“1. Church isn’t limited to a building or to the people who show up in a building.

“2. Plenty of people are very aware of their mortality.

 “3. Fasting and feasting are not always things we choose. Sometimes they are put upon us by the choices of others.

“We came as people from on high with answers. We also came as fellow human beings, seeking life and fearing death. We brought ashes as a reminder of our connection to one another, our connection to dust, and our connection (acknowledged or unacknowledged) with God. The ashes remind us of the brokenness in those relationships — with each other, creation and God. Only God knows what will result from our presence. We trust the Holy Spirit to make and keep us ready for it.”

 Pastor Dan added: “Ashes distribution in public is a way to take the gospel to the world and remind people they are loved where they are at, not for any great spiritual accomplishment on their own. The 40 days of Lent should be used as an opportunity to give up ingratitude, replacing it with gratitude. It takes 40 days to establish a new habit. Aim to recognize one thing you’re grateful for each day. Lent speaks to God’s presence in the dark times of life. Christianity is getting more real.”

 I believe Anchorage is better for this selfless outreach. These three have started a new Lenten tradition here. Thank you, pastors, for leading the way.

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. Emailchurchvisits@gmail.com.

Original ADN Article
http://www.adn.com/article/20140307/chris-thompson-pastors-mark-start-lent-taking-ashes-people

Beer & Hymns: Great Fun & Successful Fundraiser

From the opening notes of I Love to Tell the Story, to the closing notes of We Are Marching in the Light of God, Beer & Hymns this past Sunday proved to be a wonderful experience of singing, dining, and raising funds for LSSA.

Over $5,000 was raised with additional funds yet to be counted. According to my calculations, around 100 people attended this inaugural event at Mo’s O’Brady’s. Sponsored by Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, Beer & Hymns was widely attended with representatives from many Anchorage congregations. Entire families enjoyed the food, fun, and fellowship at Beer & Hymns. O’Brady’s staff, and owner Mo, clearly outdid themselves with fast service, excellent food, and great humor.

COSLC’s keyboardist Jamie Berge did an awesome job of playing each hymn on the church’s Clavinova. Playing for the majority of two hours, she nailed it while Pastor Dan Bollerud sang and directed the group assembled the entire two hours. Pastor Dan has a pleasing bass voice which kept us all on track. If you love good, old-fashioned hymn singing, this event was for you (and can be in the future)!

LSSA Director Allan Budahl shared how the need for food aid in our community has outstripped the supply. Underscoring this need, LSSAalso sent food and funds East after hurricane Sandy. I’m so impressed with what LSSA does in our local community.

Moneywise, as a frame of reference, the amount of contributions donated to LSSA Sunday night equals the cost of one person going overseas on the average short-term mission trip. Many short-term missioners essentially are taking a mission’s tourism trip and not significantly helping solve the true needs of their target trips. It’s reassuring the funds collected Sunday night will be distributed in direct aid, mostly for food, to help those in our community in desperate need of assistance.

COSLC’s pastor, Dan Bollerud, shared three reasons for the success of this event.
1. Beer and hymns…How can you go wrong?
2. It is a way to be the church out in the world, and to show a different side of the church to the world.
3. It is a fun way to have a fundraiser for a great organization like Lutheran Social Services Food Bank.

My congratulations to a solid church and community-spirited attendees for a job well done! I can’t wait until the next Beer & Hymns.