Tag Archives: St John UMC

Church Gardens: Why aren’t more doing them?

 

Lutheran Church of Hope – Hope Garden – 2016                                                  (Don Bladow pictured in garden)

In 2015, at the suggestion of a St. John United Methodist member, I wrote my first column on church gardens. I followed that column up with several others about the fantastic strides some local churches have been making in planting those gardens. (see http://www.churchvisits.com/?s=church+gardens to read those columns).

However, considering that Anchorage has around 400 churches, it’s disturbing to see so few churches devoting space and emphasis to this practical ministry with many spiritual implications. Fewer, if any, of those gardens involve individuals in the community who are given the produce grown in those gardens. Is it possible that a sense of entitlement has grown up among recipients of all of this fresh produce, overriding any real interest in learning how food is grown, where it comes from, and the significant amount of labor to make it happen? Or, are churches struggling with the concept of involving needy recipients in the process of food production?

It’s already planting season, and planning for those gardens should have occurred months ago. While never too late, concerted effort could still be made to make them happen yet this year. If one looks at the average physical church property, many have adequate space surrounding them to make it happen. Just look at the average church property you drive by regularly.

Several churches are making a difference in the community by dedicating the space, putting in the requisite planting beds, and fencing them for protection. One of my favorite church gardens, and largest to my knowledge, is Lutheran Church of Hope on W. Northern Lights. They started last year with around 4,000 sq ft, and have doubled their space to over 9,000 sq ft. Their bountiful harvest goes to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska (LSSA) for distribution through their food pantry.

Master gardener Don Bladow shares that The garden is not free of snow yet so is looks like we won’t be planting ’til the more traditional time near Memorial Day. We did expand it last fall to about 9,000 sq. ft. It’s all fenced. We got that done in October. I have been planting starts and have plans for a couple of new experiments this year. Will try to grow a number of other species of peppers and cucumbers. The cukes will be outside under a lean to type greenhouse that will be open on the ends. Will also plant beans and turnips this year as well as most of the stuff we planted last year.”

Hope Garden (potatoes from one plant)

Don maintains a blog on the garden and expects to start posting to it several times monthly as early as June. His excellent blog is located at http://harvestofhopememorialgarden.blogspot.com/.

Hope Garden (one Friday’s harvest)

Anchorage Lutheran has also taken the plunge into church gardening with 17 – 4×8’ raised beds. They’ll be fencing the garden shortly, a necessity, as church gardens make excellent browsing and forage sources for rabbits and moose. I talked with Lisa Wilkinson, co-coordinator of their garden, who, with member Dick Mikkelsen has been a strong champion. They’re planting potatoes, cabbage, carrots, primarily, along with a mixture of other things. They’ll be donating their product to LSSA and Beans’ Café according to member/gardener wishes. They’ll be planting in compost, and are setting up a composter on site to further this practice. Lisa shares their goal is “to teach and donate”.  That’s the first step in involving a wider community.

St. John United Methodist Church has had a “Jesus Garden” for several years. Coordinator Allison McLain has personal and practical visions for the Jesus Garden. Allison says, “My Jesus Garden vision for this year is one I have followed for as many years there have been Jesus Garden’s in my life: grow fresh vegetables for people in need of food. Growing vegetables is something that I can do to support people in need and happily there are friends at church and a husband and daughter who believe in this idea too!!! I feel called by Jesus to do this…and I wonder sometimes if Jesus called me to do this because it is something reasonably easy for me to do for people in need with a full-time job, family, church, and the other adventures in my life.”

My practical vision for this year is to expand our vegetable growing abilities by asking people in our church to be Potato Nannies – to grow potatoes at home in buckets – all the potatoes would of course be part of our St. John Jesus Food donation to Downtown Soup Kitchen. With potatoes growing elsewhere we will have more space to grow more chard and kale in the garden at St. John. My goal for this year is to grow and donate 300 pounds of food to DSK.”

“Kale and chard are two standard soup ingredients for soups on the weekly menu at Downtown Soup Kitchen (DSK), where all the Jesus Garden produce is donated. Last year we donated 260 pounds of produce (peas, red runner beans, chard, kale, parsley, basil, lovage, and potatoes.). I plan what we grow with Vicki Martin at DSK; we only grow what will be used in soups made by DSK chefs. Often what we deliver early in the week is used later that week in soup.  If our donated vegetables don’t go into soups right away DSK volunteers process them for freezing and later use.”
Other churches with gardens this year include:
Central Lutheran Church
Christ Church Episcopal Church
Joy Lutheran Church
Lutheran Social Services of Alaska
St. Anthony’s Catholic Church
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Turnagain United Methodist Church
Trinity Lutheran Church – Palmer

If I’ve omitted any church from this list, please let me know and I’ll add it to a new tab I’ll be placing on my website ChurchVisits.com.

Blessings to all churches for the coming harvest from these gardens. I’ll provide updates as I receive them. Write me at churchvisits@gmail.com to keep me updated. There is a very practical side of ministry but most local churches seem to be missing the boat in applying that lesson.

Africa is showing Alaska how to do missions

Several weeks ago, I wrote about a large local church youth group going to South Africa for a short-term mission trip. Although I purposely did not name them, they were subsequently identified by a member in a recently published letter to the editor as from St. John United Methodist Church. They and other local churches have participated in a number of such missions the last few years, sending groups to Africa despite widespread information such trips usually do more for the participant than those on the other end. In fact, most of such trips, according to the Africans, do more damage than help.

A popular definition of insanity, often attributed to Albert Einstein is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” George Santayana famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There has to be a better way to conduct missions and this column describes it.

Recently, I had an opportunity to interview a knowledgeable spokesman from Africa representing a network of churches and nongovernmental organizations that understand the limitations of well-intentioned individuals. That person, Dayo Obaweya, is regional coordinator of West Africa Community Health Evangelism covering an area equivalent to the Lower 48, comprised of 17 countries in which more than 300 million people have a per capita income of $1 to $2 dollars a day.

I was intrigued by a talk he gave at Faith Christian Community’s Sunday service last month in which he said WACHE’s goal was “to bring people out of poverty into the love of Christ.” Contrast that with the goal of so many short-term mission trips we know of. My interview with Dayo was the next day.

WACHE is an affiliate of Community Health Evangelism a Christ-centered educational program used by hundreds of churches and organizations across the globe. Obaweya was visiting U.S. members. Faith Christian Community is a CHE member and has trained over 100 individuals in CHE methods.

CHE’s core strength is in training. The organization describes itself as “a plan for individual and community development through physical and spiritual teaching.” Trained CHE members don’t do development but “teach CHE to local trainers, who teach CHE to their own people in some of the poorest places in the world. These people do development for themselves.”

The CHE website describes how this all happens: “Local people do it for themselves by: Choosing their own people to be in charge; Choosing their own priorities of what to change; Choosing their own people to be trained to teach house to house; Finding their own resources; and accomplishing their own goals when and where they choose. Local people own and manage their CHE plans. We just train their teachers. CHE is big on ownership!” That’s empowerment at its best.

Obaweya described one such venture in West Africa where a village was asking for a multipurpose community center and school. Indigenous CHE trainers went to this village and did a simplified planning process. They asked if the village had sand, stones, gravel, land and water? They were told yes. Would they supply labor to build it? Yes! Wood for the roof? Yes, we’ll cut locally.

Asked if they had concrete, they said they had 10 of the 100 bags needed. The village was encouraged to pool bits of money to buy more concrete, acquiring 10 more bags. CHE asked government officials in to see the progress. Astounded by their initiative, and finding them the 80 bags the project required, they immediately authorized delivery of the needed shortfall. Local financial pooling raised funds for the tin to cover the roof.

The project turned out to be an unqualified success, using the CHE strategy to achieve community transformation, a major goal of CHE leadership. Obaweya said the building is now used as a meeting hall, church and clinic when government medical workers come to give children medical examinations, etc. Obaweya, who visited it recently, said other surrounding villages had asked this village for help planning needed projects.

Health work is an essential part of what CHE does. CHE trainers go into people’s homes and villages teaching proper sanitation and hygiene principles. They address family size issues by training through Women’s Circle of Life and Men’s Matters groups. Larger families in impoverished parts of West Africa sometimes struggle to survive. Individual couples receive training and instruction in family planning.

Another CHE program trains children in practical matters of hygiene, nutrition, gardening and Christianity. Children bring these life-saving principles home, sharing them with their parents.

CHE affiliates also support initiatives that include microfinance and group savings programs.

WACHE tackles water projects but shuns Western technology for drilling and water extraction, instead choosing low-tech approaches that can be made and maintained locally, when repairs are needed. Too many water projects fail when well-meaning groups from developed countries go in and overengineer projects with little local buy-in, and without the knowledge and ability to maintain them.

CHE’s process is holistic, empowering individuals to help themselves, tending to their mind, body, and spiritual needs. It’s transformative. It resurrects people’s lives which have often been destroyed by Western do-gooders with handout methods destroying personal initiative and depersonalizing individuals and families.

When I asked Obaweya his view of short-term mission trips, he responded by saying, “We don’t want to call it short-term missions. We’d rather call them evangelists. I see them as evangelists across the border. The word short-term mission can become a hindrance,” noting that people coming with this label are not thinking of something that is going to last. Rather WACHE involves them in initiating a process such as child or community health screening, an entry exercise. The ongoing process can then be initiated by the local community.

WACHE’s model weans people away from a culture of dependence by teaching people to organize, plan, build, grow food and learn about God’s love.

Visiting Anchorage? There’s a plethora of worship services to sample and savor in our diverse city

Alaska receives more than 1 million visitors each summer. If you are a person of faith, you can locate many worship options in our community. All major religions are represented. Our churches meet in places ranging from beautiful cathedrals to school facilities and shopping malls. There are many ways to locate interesting churches here. In this column I’m sharing a few of these ways and offering pointers for enriching your stay in our beautiful city.

Finding a Church:

The internet is usually the easiest way to find a church. Leaning toward a particular denomination? Search for the denomination and Anchorage. You will find many choices. Be cautious about selecting churches where the pastor and church’s pictures are the main pictures shown. Unfortunately, some of those church pastors and members seem to be prouder of themselves and the church building, than of their  members’ hard work exercising their faith in the community. Conversely, pictures of church members at worship, play and community service speak volumes compared to sermons or grand church buildings.

Beware of church websites showing only pictures of the splendors of Alaska’s mountains, lakes, rivers and other vistas. From my extensive church visiting experience, many of these churches have forgotten their mission. Some churches mistakenly believe Facebook is their new webpage. If you encounter one of those listings, move on, as they’re out of touch with the purpose of social media; it’s not intended to replace church websites; both are important.

The Matters of Faith page in Alaska Dispatch News, on which you find this article, contains notices of various church offerings, often not just those pertaining to the Christian faith. You may be able to find a special event or service of note by perusing the listings of this community service. I’ve often found a service there of which I’d not been aware.

On my blog, churchvisits.com I’ve posted a list of 10 local churches I consider to be safe choices for first-time visitors seeking warm, welcoming worship services. In that list, I evaluate various service aspects to help you choose a great church. During many years of visiting churches, I’ve looked for and evaluated churches by four distinct criteria. First, I look for a warm and friendly greeting. Next, I quickly determine if this church was hospitable or not. Was the sermon delivered in a “listenable” manner and did I learn some new truth from it? Finally, was the music a big show or entertainment, or did it appropriately support the sermon theme? Too often, many modern churches present 30-45 minutes of earsplitting, high-decibel music that jangle eardrums and senses. On the other end of the musical spectrum, Alaska’s Orthodox  churches pleasingly incorporate music and liturgy for the entirety of their service.

Churches worthy of visits for outstanding features

All of the churches listed below have an unusual feature or two worth going out of the way for. Check with the church office to inquire if they’re accessible for viewing outside of worship hours; many also have explanatory pamphlets.

Holy Family Cathedral

This downtown Roman Catholic cathedral was the site of a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1989 during his trip to Anchorage. They recently installed six beautiful stained glass windows made in Bavaria in 1889 and rescued from a shuttered church. An instant local treasure, they’re a tribute to congregation and clergy desiring to place beautiful reminders of the Gospel story into their worship space. Newly restored Stations of the Cross are also now in place.

First Presbyterian Church

The modern architecture of this downtown church houses a fantastic wall of stained glass. Composed of dalle, or slab glass panels, this wall of light and color is filled with spiritual themes; a wonder to behold.

All Saints Episcopal Church

Sited among the high-rises of downtown, this small church houses beautiful stained glass panels on three of the four sanctuary walls. Sen. Ted Stevens lay in repose here before his funeral.

Resurrection Chapel – Holy Spirit Center

This upper Hillside Catholic chapel offers 180-degree views of the mountains to the west and north of Anchorage. The view of Denali, North America’s tallest peak, is breathtaking here.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Sweeping vistas of the Chugach and Kenai mountains are offered from their east and south facing sanctuary windows. A wonderful Bach-type organ in the sanctuary is used on Sundays.

St. John United Methodist Church

The Rev. David Fison at United Methodist carved two totems, representing several Christian traditions, during his pastorate in Southeast Alaska. One, a replica erected outside, depicts the Christmas story. The other, also in replica outside, depicts the Easter story, while the original, more than 20 feet tall, is inside the sanctuary of this lower Hillside church.

United Methodist Church of Chugiak

If you’d like to see Denali through a church window, there’s no better place to see it than in this church. With floor to ceiling glass facing Denali, it’s a delightful way to worship God, bringing nature right into the church.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church – Eklutna

A short drive north of Anchorage is the small Alaska Native village of Eklutna where you’ll find an old log Russian Orthodox Church, a graveyard with traditional native spirit houses, and a new Orthodox church. Guided tours are available, and donations are requested for maintenance and upkeep.

St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral

This Russian style cathedral contains beautiful iconography and is a delight to visit.

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church

Housing a diverse congregation, this new basilica style church contains icons that are a part of this ancient faith. If you are here during August, the congregation’s  Alaska Greek Festival, with music, food, and dancing, is not to be missed.

St. John Orthodox Cathedral – Eagle River

Located in a quiet area north of Anchorage, this striking Antiochian Orthodox cathedral is a beautiful site for pictures externally, and internally a feast for the eyes of architecture and icons. While there, look for the small chapel, St. Sergius of Radonezh Chapel, a short hike away from the main cathedral.

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.

Church gardens grow community: It’s time to start planting more assertively.

Last year, I wrote about local initiatives some churches have taken by planting church gardens or allowing church property to be used for community gardens. When I started writing that column, I pre-supposed those gardens would be used primarily for producing fresh food for Bean’s Café, Downtown Soup Kitchen and other community organizations that feed the hungry. And many church organizations do use them for that purpose.  What I didn’t realize was that a growing number of churches allow anyone to use a garden plot on their grounds regardless of where the food goes.

As I wrote that column, I was unaware of the garden at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Northeast Anchorage. It was created through parishioners’ conversations with neighbors. The neighborhoods around the church are heavily populated with immigrants, and many have garden plots at the church. These gardeners are allowed to use their assigned plots for growing produce to feed their families. Many of them also sell produce at various times throughout the season. What a wonderful use of church property. I visited the garden last fall during the AFACT celebration of Medicaid expansion. It’s beautifully tended, containing many vegetables not native to this area; often the gardeners are immigrants from Southeast Asia or the South Pacific.

Many churches have beautiful grounds, often park-like, even without many trees having access to sunlight for growing. This land might be utilized to grow food for food banks, church pantries, feeding programs and church suppers. Entire outreach programs could be constructed around such programs, even to the point of their being utilized year-round. There is much wisdom in Jewish medieval philosopher Maimonides’ saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Many recipients of community feeding services might have a greater appreciation of the gift of food if they understood, through participation, the work that goes into producing food.

In other areas around the Lower 48, churches are seeing the value of community gardens and implementing them. For a church community the size of Anchorage with over 375 houses of worship, there are few churches using their land as God’s gift. Conversely, clergy here frequently dwell on stewardship as a church member responsibility. Why don’t they apply the same stewardship rules and principles to church property?  I realize some church properties are too small, bounded by parking lots, contain too many trees, and meet in schools or mini-malls. But what about the rest? I know of churches adjacent to vacant lots that could be used to promote community gardening.

Practical Christianity is harder to do than theoretical Christianity. We attend church, listen to sermons, study the Bible and intellectualize what Christianity is all about. Matthew 25 shares Jesus’ words about practicing practical Christianity. “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” The chapter continues to detail the unfortunate fate of those who did not practice these virtues.

It’s been my observation that many Christians find it easier to contribute money to churches or go on short-term mission trips than to roll up their sleeves and create meaningful change in the community. Some churches do it better than most, but there is much room for improvement. Millions have been spent in Anchorage to invest in foreign missions in countries where Christianity is predominant, when Alaska is one of least Christian states in the U.S. The mission field is here!

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is an example of what churches can do quickly. Starting last year, they planted seven gardens, with additional potato beds planted for F.I.S.H. They’re planning eight more big raised beds for their new Thomas Center for Senior Leadership later this year. Rector Michael Burke reports they have “lots of gardeners and visitors to the gardens and labyrinth.” Currently all produce grown is donated to organizations that feed the hungry.

Lutheran Church of Hope started small and late last year with five elevated boxes behind the church. Congregation member Don Bladow “has been the primary blood, sweat, tears, and prayer behind the garden,” says Pastor Julia Seymour. Don completed the University of Alaska Extension Program’s Master Gardener class in anticipation of a busy planting season. He plans to have 20,000 square feet under cultivation. Bladow says they’ll plant about one-third of that this year. He’s been raising money for the garden by turning wood bowls from trees that were on the property. All of the proceeds go into the project. Money is still being raised for specific gardening needs. This summer they’ll plant broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, parsnips, radishes and zucchini. All produce will be given to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska (LSSA). Any of our food pantries will say how welcome fresh grown food is to recipients. Don maintains a blog on this project at harvestofhopememorialgarden.blogspot.com. Our community needs many more like Don.

Local churches currently having or developing community food gardens include Lutheran Church of Hope, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, Joy Lutheran Church – Eagle River, St. John United Methodist Church, Turnagain United Methodist Church, Chugiak United Methodist Church, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School, Trinity Lutheran Church – Palmer, River of Life – Chugiak, and Central Lutheran Church.

Something our local church community might consider is what Methodists in Kalamazoo, Michigan are doing. They’ve created a “Summer Christian Camp” for a distressed neighborhood there. They focus on young adults 16-28. This 10-day ministry focuses on food and hunger and includes community gardening, 4-H community projects, ‘Free Store’ ministry, and Loves and Fishes food pantry. They train youth leaders, educators, pastors, and other passionate Christian adults.

Jesus often referred to food, hunger, feeding, planting, sowing and harvest themes in His ministry. I challenge other local ministries to emulate those lessons.

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.

10 ways to make the most of this Christmas

As you read this, the Christmas season is approaching a climax. Before Christmas passes, I’d like to suggest a few activities to help make the most of your observances of this Christmas season.

These practices will, I believe, help make the holiday’s meaning and message more real.

“Christians celebrate Christmas because they see, in the person of Jesus, God’s reign in-breaking amidst the sin, pain, despair and seemingly endless cycles of violence in our world,” says Rector Michael Burke. “The traditional teaching of Advent is threefold: to prepare for the birth of the Messiah, in the form of the tiny Christ child, in a place known only to those for whom the world has no place (or ‘room’).”

Advent observers experiencing a period of watchful waiting for the Messiah may be better prepared than other worshippers to celebrate the birth of Jesus as an eagerly awaited event.

As you celebrate Christmas, use this time to share with those around you the good news of His wonderful gift of love and redemption. Jesus was mostly rejected by his own people, yet much of his brief ministry was directed toward casting out devils, bodily and spiritual healing, kindness to prostitutes, loving the unlovely, and giving hope to the poor. Gandhi is famously quoted as saying, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Those of us who are Christians can remember this by opening our hearts and lives in loving response to the work of Jesus. Let’s share it with our children and everyone around us. Christmas offers many opportunities to do this. Here are 10 ways to restore the true spirit of Christmas in yourself, your family and friends and others.

1. Attend both a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day service.

Both are important. If you have children, look for appropriate Christmas Eve services. Many churches have them. They can be memorable for children and adults alike. A double-page spread in today’s Alaska Dispatch News lists many services offered by area churches. Personally, I’ve enjoyed Christmas services at St. John United Methodist Church, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and Our Lady of Guadalupe co-cathedral, especially the midnight Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

2. Read Luke 1 and 2 together with a group.

It’s a story where both chapters are important. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a wonderful film to watch on Christmas. YouTube has the poignant part where Linus recites the passage from Luke 2 for Charlie Brown to restore his faith in what Christmas is all about. Charles Schulz insisted this be included in the film.

3. Make snow angels outside with someone you love.

In doing so, remember the significant role of the angels of the Christmas narrative in Matthew and Luke.

4. Attend midnight Mass if you’ve never done so.

Like Easter, midnight Mass is one of the highpoints of the Catholic church year. Held at midnight, it rings in the true spirit of Christmas. Regardless of your faith, you’ll appreciate this special event. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church also has a service starting at 11 p.m., which culminates with candles and Eucharist at the stroke of midnight.

5. Invite a friend, regardless of religious persuasion, to join you at a service.

You’d do the same for them if they invited you to a meaningful service in their personal life. It goes both ways.

6. Extend yourself to the ‘beatitudes people.’

You know, the ones Jesus spoke of during his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, revilers and evil speakers. There are ways to reach out to every one of these. For example, there are many examples of the persecuted these days, such as Syrian refugees.

7. Ask any number of charities now if you and your family could help.

The Salvation Army, Bean’s Cafe, Catholic Social Services, Lutheran Social Services, Brother Francis Shelter, Downtown Soup Kitchen, AWAIC, Gospel Rescue Mission, Food Bank of Alaska and many others can make use of your monetary and other assistance at this time of year.

8. Share memories of Christmases past with friends and family.

Many of these memories are stories of hope and meaning that may die unless shared and maybe recorded for posterity. StoryCorps is a wonderful way to record these memories of a friend or loved one, which may otherwise disappear. Storycorps.org has an app available to download to make this easy.

9. Consider a monetary gift to an Alaska-based relief and development project in someone’s name.

Alaska Sudan Medical Project (alaskasudan.org) is one such worthy cause in South Sudan that is saving and changing lives in many ways. So is the Malawi Children’s Village (malawichildrensvillage.org). Both are spearheaded or strongly supported by Alaska physicians.

10. Call a long-lost friend to reach out in love.

Giving the gift of love is a virtually cost-free gift with huge dividends. Using Google or Facebook can facilitate your search.

Here’s my hope that God’s peace rests with you and your family as you celebrate the true experience of Christmas.

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

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.

A visitor’s guide to worshipping in Anchorage (originally published 5/23/15)

If you are visiting Anchorage or moving here, we have many religious worship options. Muslims will find a mosque. Jews can find two synagogues, Reform and Lubavitcher, with Friday and Saturday services. The northernmost Hindu temple in the world is within five minutes of the airport terminal. All major religions in America are represented with convenient and often beautiful worship places, close to major hotels, many within walking distance. Three Orthodox groups in Alaska are very prominent in Anchorage. Formerly called Russian Orthodox — now simply Orthodox — one of our earliest religious groups arrived here 200 years ago. Its bishop lives in Anchorage. Several spectacular churches and a cathedral here are affiliated with them. The Greek Orthodox Church has a beautiful place of worship on the lower Hillside where their Metropolitan performed a Thyranoixia (Opening of the Doors) ceremony last fall. Rounding out the orthodox list is an Eastern Orthodox cathedral in Eagle River just north of town.

Catholics are plentiful in Anchorage. It’s home to many parishes and is the seat of an archdiocese, so the archbishop is very active in the faith community. Recently, Holy Family Cathedral downtown officially shared, with papal approval, co-cathedral status with Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral in West Anchorage. There are many independent churches in town, including Alaska’s largest megachurch, ChangePoint. Baptists have numerous churches in Anchorage, including Alaska’s other megachurch, Anchorage Baptist Temple on the east side of town.

I’ve been writing about Anchorage’s church community in blog posts and newspaper columns for seven years. Those weekly columns, published in each Saturday’s Alaska Dispatch News, are available online at adn.com/churchvisits, stretching back to January 2014. My blogging, current and past, and these columns are available at churchvisits.com. Blog entries on this website are being transferred from ADN and reach back into 2012 at the moment. My writing covers every facet of church life in town. Primarily, I focus on Christian churches. When visiting them, I look for warm greetings, a genuine sense of hospitality, well-delivered biblical sermons, and music that’s not merely for entertainment.

Churches are now shifting to summer service hours, so check service times on the Internet first. It’s also worth calling the church to ensure website details are accurate.

Church stops worth making

Several local churches offer more than services. I suggest including them in your itinerary:

Holy Family Cathedral

Located in downtown Anchorage, this church is nearing its 100th year. It was the scene of a papal visit by Pope John Paul II in 1981, who conducted several papal audiences there and celebrated a huge Mass a few blocks away on the Delaney Park Strip, attended by over 50,000 people.

First Presbyterian Church

This large church is on the south side of the Delaney Park Strip. Inside is a spectacular floor-to-ceiling stained glass wall with embedded religious motifs.

St. John United Methodist Church

On the south side of Anchorage, this large, modern Methodist church contains a large totem pole carved in the Tsimshian tradition by a retired UMC pastor, the Rev. David Frison. Called the Easter Totem, it depicts the last events in the life of Christ. Frison also carved a smaller totem called the Christmas Totem. The large totem is inside the sanctuary and copies of both totems are standing outside.

St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral

This large cathedral in Northeast Anchorage is home to a beautiful congregation. Attending services there is always a joy for me. They have a wonderful choir and inspiring liturgy. It is beautifully decorated and sports the onion domes we associate with Russian Orthodox churches.

St. John Orthodox Cathedral

Found in Eagle River, this large cathedral is a labor of love. Many of its icons were beautifully created by a congregation member. Their choir accompanies all services. I’ve been privileged to sing with them several times.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral

This Roman Catholic cathedral is fairly close to the airport but was selected for co-cathedral status because its size, parking, and interior arrangement lend itself to large gatherings. Its beautiful interior has hosted many significant events in its comparatively brief period of existence.

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church

The northernmost parish of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, this distinctive church is the only Greek Orthodox Church in Alaska. Its striking interior takes you into another realm of worship uncommon in many contemporary houses of worship.

All Saints’ Episcopal Church

A small but beautiful church in the heart of downtown Anchorage, All Saints’ offers beautifully wrought stained glass windows on three sides. Before his death, Sen. Ted Stevens made All Saints’ his church home,when in town.

Resurrection Chapel

Located at Holy Spirit Center, a Catholic retreat center on the Hillside, this beautiful chapel has a 180-degree view of Cook Inlet to the west, the Alaska Range to the north and the nearby Chugach mountains to the east.

Central Lutheran Church

Sited immediately south of downtown, this church has a beautiful sanctuary containing a wonderfully carved wooden altarpiece. I marvel every time I see it.

While churches are used for congregational worship and teaching, underlying the churches I’ve mentioned is a solid sense of caring for others. Many Anchorage churches reach out to the poor, downtrodden, and hungry. There’s more to churches than bricks and mortar. People come to learn more about their faith, and often come away infused with a desire to serve. If you are looking for a church home, email me at churchvisits@gmail.com for a more detailed listing of some churches I recommend for a first visit.

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.

Seminars offer religious training to leaders and laity alike

Over the course of the past year, I’ve written about the slipping status quo of biblical and religious literacy (see tinyurl.com/ozzurcw). Alaska’s remoteness, compared to the Lower 48 where opportunities abound to access Bible and religious education, contributes to this problem, especially for those past high school age. Two major religious communities in Alaska have aggressively been addressing these deficiencies with in-state training opportunities. This column highlights two upcoming programs.

Illiteracy update

In a recent post at “The Exchange” (see tinyurl.com/o36bkgh), church researcher Ed Stetzer writes, “Christians claim to believe the Bible is God’s Word. We claim it’s God’s divinely inspired, inerrant message to us. Yet despite this, we aren’t reading it. A recent LifeWay Research study found only 45 percent of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week. Over 40 percent of the people attending read their Bible occasionally, maybe once or twice a month. Almost one in 5 churchgoers say they never read the Bible — essentially the same number who read it every day.”

Eagle River Institute

Beginning Saturday, Aug. 1, the Eagle River Institute offers five days of religious and biblical instruction at St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River. The Rev. Marc Dunaway, pastor of St. John, sharing a bit of the background of ERI notes, “We realized many years ago that the people in our congregation, being in Alaska, did not have easy access to conferences regularly held in the Lower 48. In 1995 we began the Eagle River Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies as a way of inviting two speakers up each summer to conduct a series of classes intended as general education for Christian lay people. Since then many Orthodox Christian teachers from around the world have addressed a great variety of theological and spiritual issues. The beauty of Alaska also provides an extra draw for speakers. A few years ago one attendee told me that the lectures by Bishop Kallistos Ware ‘reached deep into my heart and reinforced that God is a loving and forgiving God.’Another said it helped her ‘not be quite so judgmental.’ The lectures are usually attended by 50 to 75 people. Orthodox Christianity represents the faith of the ancient churches from Greece, Russia and the Middle East, which in this century is being rediscovered in America and connecting people to a Christian tradition rooted in history yet alive with deep spirituality. Hundreds of people have come to the Eagle River Institute and opened the door to a Christian tradition they previously knew little of.”

I attended ERI last year receiving a significant blessing from associating with people coming to learn more about this faith. One of this year’s speakers is the Rev. George Shalhoub, a teacher at Madonna University and Antiochian House of Studies. His topic will be “Christianity in the Arab World.” The other speaker is the Rev. Andrew Stephen Damick, whose topic is “Key Themes in Saint Ignatius the God-Bearer.” A PDF brochure can be viewed and downloaded at tinyurl.com/q27eh2t. Last year I attended ERI and heard two marvelous Orthodox presentations in a co-presenter format. The Rev. David and Rozanne Rucker, an Orthodox couple doing mission work in Mexico and Guatemala, gave riveting presentations about the challenges in these mission fields. The Rev. Nicholas and Anastasia Molydoko-Harris gave touching presentations about their Russian Orthodox (now Orthodox) service in Alaska, including the establishment of St. Innocent Orthodox Cathedral. I say, come for a blessing; the Rev. Marc Dunaway says, “All are welcome to attend and join us.”

Alaska School of Theology: SMU and Alaska United Methodist Conference

Sept. 18-19 will mark the 19th year that the Alaska United Methodist Conference has teamed with the prestigious Southern Methodist University Perkins School of Theology to present short but in-depth excursions into the Bible. (Descriptive brochure at tinyurl.com/qjo5nn9.)

This seminar brings two SMU faculty members to Alaska for a 1 1/2-day seminar on biblical and faith topics. I’ve attended these conferences several times over the years and found them rewarding. Alyce McKensie, professor of preaching and worship, presented on the parables of Jesus several years ago. Jamie Clark-Soles, a New Testament professor, presented an engaging and contemporary study on the Book of Matthew. Each presenter has authored multiple volumes and articles.

“In 2002 our faculty consisted of Scott Jones, professor of Evangelism, and Jouette Bassler, a giant in the field of New Testament studies,” said Lonnie Brooks, local SMU co-coordinator of the Alaska School of Theology. “Jouette taught a class on the Book of Revelation, and Scott taught in his field. At the end of Jouette’s class, which I myself attended, one of the students said in class, ‘Dr. Bassler, you have given me a whole new way to look at this material. It was primarily because of the way this book has been presented historically in churches that I left the church. But now I’m coming back.’ At dinner that night with the two professors, I said, ‘Scott, you need to hear this story.’ I told what the student had said, and Scott said, ‘You mean to tell me that Jouette is an evangelist?’ Jouette said, ‘Well, by my count it’s Jouette one, and Scott zero.’ Shortly after that, Scott Jones was elected to be a bishop of the UMC, a calling in which he continues to serve.”

This year’s presenters, wife and husband team Heidi Miller, an Anabaptist liturgical scholar, and the Rev. Gary MacDonald, a United Methodist elder studying social ethics, engage and lead a discussion on worship, theology and ethics, and the place of dialogue and action in the life of the church. Their presentation begins Friday evening with a joint presentation, “A Pacifist and a Realist Walk into a Bar: How Can Christians Talk With Each Other?,” and continues with separate tracks on Saturday. Her talk is titled “Transforming Bodies: Reclaiming Worship That Matters”; his is ” ‘God Grant Me the Serenity …’ Exploring Faith and Politics.”

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.

Vivaldi’s Gloria – St. John UMC – Sunday 7 p.m. – Don’t Miss It!

Karen Horton, Choir Director and Organist of St. John UMC has prepared an Advent treat for the Anchorage community this coming Sunday, December 9 @ 7 p.m.

The St. John Choir has been practicing the Vivaldi Gloria (RV 589) for months. This baroque religious musical piece is one of the best known and well loved choral/chamber orchestra pieces in the world. Karen is retiring from her music roles at St. John at the end of this month. Come celebrate with the choir as she moves into her last few weeks concluding a successful and inspired tenure with St. John UMC.[img_assist|nid=163013|title=Antonio Vivaldi|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=340|height=490]

Horton’s choir performed this work four years ago which I commented upon in this blog post. Using the terms Musical Fireworks!!!, I was very impressed with this presentation of the Gloria.

The Gloria has the following movements, and is performed in less than an hour.

Gloria in excelsis Deo (Chorus)
Et in terra pax (Chorus)
Laudamus te (Sopranos I and II)
Gratias agimus tibi (Chorus)
Propter magnam gloriam (Chorus)
Domine Deus (Soprano)
Domine, Fili unigenite (Chorus)
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei (Contralto and Chorus)
Qui tollis peccata mundi (Chorus)
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris (Contralto)
Quoniam tu solus sanctus (Chorus)
Cum Sancto Spiritu (Chorus)

Click here to hear sound samples of each of these movements.

Also being performed are a number of choral pieces for the Advent season. This is the concert of the season and it’s free! A concert flyer is attached for download, below.

Interview – St. John UMC’s Karen Horton: Uncommon Organist & Outstanding Choir Director

This week we focus on another key Anchorage church musician. Karen Horton has been a mainstay in Anchorage’s musical community. She is in her 20th year of teaching music in the Anchorage School District.

Her first ten years with ASD were spent at Williwaw Elementary, while her second ten years were and remain at Rogers Park Elementary. Countless students have had their musical knowledge and skills, shaped and sharpened by this remarkable woman. [img_assist|nid=162209|title=Karen Horton – Lighter Moment at St. John’s Rodgers Organ|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=252]

Church worship music is currently undergoing a drastic change their leaders hope will halt the mass flight of attendees from their churches. I am intrigued by her insights regarding this phenomena.

Karen’s academic background includes a Bachelor’s in Music Education, Major – Organ from University of Central Arkansas, graduate studies at University of Oklahoma concentrating in organ performance, and a Master’s degree from Louisiana State University with a Masters degree in Vocal Pedagogy. I first became aware of her talents when I went to a Christmas program at St. John UMC where she ably led her talented choir through Vivaldi’s Gloria. What a beautiful concert! It was then I determined to find out more about her wonderful talents.

CT – How many years have you played the organ and led the choir at St. John?
KH – My husband Darrell and I started singing in the choir in 1995. I became St. John’s organist in 1996. In January of 2004, I also became the choir director.

CT – In light of the fact that so many church choirs in Anchorage has disbanded, to what do you attribute the long-term success of St. John’s choir?
KH – We have a feeling of purpose and community, the desire to aid in worship and the knowledge that what we do is for the glory of God. The music is one of the big draws. There is always the challenge to stretch the choir musically and to grow toward a closer relationship to God. We perform many different styles and so there is constant variety. We perform everything from chant to Rutter, from Sacred Harp to Handel, from gospel and spiritual to contemporary and traditional hymns. Besides, we just love to sing!

CT – What do you believe the main function of music to be in worship?
KH – Music reaches people on many different levels. It takes the spoken and written word to a new dimension that touches us both mentally and emotionally. As a choir, we are leaders in worship and music should be selected carefully to enhance the worship experience. Music should also be an avenue for the congregation to participate in worship (the work of the people.) Thus, music for congregational singing should be chosen carefully, to encourage people to reach a profound understanding of God and ourselves and as an opportunity to express praise, adoration, humility, service, hope and dedication.

CT – Today’s church music scene is getting louder, more contemporary, and less theological. What is your interpretation about what’s happening?
KH – The contemporary music I hear on the radio seems to be all about the beat and the driving energy of the percussion. The lyrics tend to be superficial and repetitive. I have not listened to much of the contemporary church music but what I have heard seems to fit this pattern. I haven’t figured out why it needs to be so loud. Often the church, in trying to reach the unchurched, has made the music more simplistic and the driving rhythms and loud instruments “yell” at us so that we are overpowered with sound.

We are given no opportunity or inclination to listen to the quiet inner voice that asks us to question what and who we are and what we can contribute in service to God and the world. What good does it do to say “God loves us” and to say “I love God”, and “God is awesome and wonderful” but not take it to the next level of commitment? There are times when we need to shout “Alleluia” but there are times when we also need to reflect and be still. Faith is more than just feeling good about ourselves and praising God. A “childlike faith” is a great beginning but there is more and our music needs to help us journey to the “more.”

When I select music for the choir, the words are my first concern. I ask myself “What is the message? Are these relevant for worship? Do these help in our faith journey?” In our hectic, stress filled lives we are looking for guidance, support, comfort, strength and peace. Don’t misunderstand me. There is good and bad in all styles of music. (Even Bach wrote some doozies!) If we are using contemporary music as our main style, we should be looking for the good. We should find the theologically meaningful music and encourage and support its use.

CT – What has been your greatest challenge as a music leader for a major Anchorage church?
KH – Church choirs perform the most with the least practice of any musical group I know. We are always striving for perfection but have the Sunday deadline of two anthems every week. Our volunteer choir ranges from the “I love to sing but can’t read music” group to people with graduate degrees in music. It is a constant challenge to select music to help them grow musically and spiritually and to keep all of them engaged and excited about what we are doing.

​There is also the balance of performance and ministry. We strive for perfection (it is after all, our offering to God) but must realize that what we do is an expression of faith and that our goal is to create a worship experience that draws both the choir and the congregation closer to God.

CT – What Biblical theme is your personal favorite as a performance theme?
KH – That’s really a tricky question. I tend to select music based on the liturgical year. I also try to coordinate the theme with the pastor’s sermon topic when I know about it far enough in advance. There is good and bad music of every style and in every theme. Whatever liturgical season where the music is relevant and well done always tends to be my favorite. ​If I have to pick a “theme,” I’d say it is that God is among us and in us and that we have the assurance that no matter our struggles and concerns, joys and celebrations, God is always present.

CT – What is your favorite sacred choral piece?
KH – Requiem by Maurice Duruflé reaches to my innermost being and never fails to touch me when I hear it. “Sing My Soul His Wondrous Love” by Ned Rorem and “Set Me As a Seal” by Rene Claussen are two of my favorite anthems.
*During our interview, Karen animatedly shared her story of having the once-in-a-lifetime experience of playing Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain op. 7 (1942) on the organ in a master class for Durufle himself.

CT – What is your favorite sacred organ piece?
KH – The key word here is “sacred.” Of the sacred organ pieces there are two that immediately come to mind. J.S. Bach is the ultimate organ composer for me. His chorale, “Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland” (Savior the the Nations, Come) BWV 659 from the “Eighteen Chorales,” is sublime and is filled with beauty and the mystery of the incarnation. It is unfortunately more than five minutes long (also an Advent piece) so I don’t often have the opportunity to play it for services.

​I seem to be picking two favorites for everything but there is so much good music out there its hard to pick just one! My other favorite to play and hear is “Dieu Parmi Nous” (God Among Us) from the Nativité du Seigneur (the Birth of the Lord) by Olivier Messiaen. I love the symbolism of the descending pedal tones of the toccata showing the descent of Christ to earth. In this piece, Christ doesn’t come quietly but with a mighty sound and there is no missing his birth! And besides, its just plain fun to play!

CT – I understand St. John is going to a more contemporary music format. Do you agree with this approach?
KH – Only one of the three morning services will be using the contemporary music format. The other two will be traditional services. I understand that people worship in different ways and have different needs (which is why I as the choir director always seek to include many different styles within the traditional music format) and hope that people will find the style that best meets their needs. I go back to what I stated earlier about their being good and bad music in all styles. I trust that the planner of this service constantly seeks the “good” and strives to make the music theologically meaningful for the congregation.[img_assist|nid=162210|title=Karen Horton in Familiar Territory|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]

Thanks to you Karen for sharing some of your story in this interview. You are an inspiration to me and many others.