Monthly Archives: May 2014

Cardinal Dolan discusses the pastoral challenges facing Pope Francis – 5/31/14

A rare event happened for Anchorage Catholics on March 24. Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York appeared at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to address local Catholics and the public on “Three Challenges Facing Pope Francis and the Church.” The church was packed with a crowd of about 700 people.

Cardinal Dolan said there were three challenges Pope Francis needs to address: Marriage and family, restoring the credibility and luster of the church and the relationship of the church and culture.

Early in his remarks, Cardinal Dolan humorously recounted Pope Francis’ statement, made 11 days before in Rome, after a dinner celebrating his first year as Pope. Raising a glass of spumante in toast he said, with a twinkle of humor, “May God forgive you for what you did.”

Reflecting on the gift to the church Pope Francis represents, Dolan pointed out the acclaim Francis has received: he’s been featured in Time, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Fortune magazines named him “Most Influential Man of the Year,” President Obama traveled to see him and President Putin quoted him — without Francis’ asking for any of this. Dolan said that Francis exemplifies humility, saying that his stature continues to increase, even as he tries to downsize the papacy. Dolan noted Jesus’ example of putting the gospel first, and said “if we come to serve and not to be served, then we’re going to captivate people.”

Marriage and family 

Dolan recalled, post-Vatican II, there has been only a couple of bishop synods. One is scheduled this fall and Francis has made marriage and family a high priority by designating it as a key topic. Why? Marriage and family are in trouble in the Catholic Church. There are few marriages, and even fewer are going to the orders. Marriage is a reflection of how God loves us. Marriage is life-giving and comes from God. Sexual love ties to marriage. “We’re the only credible voice that stands up for chastity,” Dolan said, “but we’re not making much headway.”

Dolan cited studies from the Pew Research Center and the Center for the Applied Research of the Center for the Apostolate at Georgetown University. He said 51 percent of Catholic young people are approaching the sacred sacrament of marriage. At the same time, he said, state is trying to redefine marriage, while TV makes fun of it and dumbs it down. Dolan repeated Pope Francis’ statement that, “If the church is going to reclaim her role as teacher of the nations as Jesus intended. If we’re going to revive ourselves internally, and if we’re going to teach outside, we had better reclaim the beauty, the dignity of married love.” Recovering the sacredness of marriage will be a major focus of Pope Francis.

Restoring Church’s luster, credibility

Cardinal Dolan noted this restoration “is one big, fat, heavy chore.” Establishing that Jesus and the church are one, Dolan asserted more and more members were saying, “I don’t need the church.” “People today want to believe, but they don’t want to belong. They’re OK with spirituality; it’s religion they don’t like,” Dolan said. He mentioned Pope Francis’ assertion that one can’t have Christ without his church. Dolan said research shows more and more Catholics leaving the church, for all kinds of reasons. But research also shows “that over 80 percent of Catholics that are born Catholic remain loyal to the faith.” Francis wants to address this challenge. Alluding to Francis’ name selection, Dolan told the story of St. Francis of Assisi, who while in seclusion, heard the voice of Jesus saying “rebuild my church.” Pope Francis took his name due to its association with his sincerity for simplicity, and love for the poor.

Relationship of church and culture

Cardinal Dolan said traditionally culture — that is, values, traditions and mores — used to be an ally of the church. It was the engine of Catholic values in many traditional Catholic cultures, for example Italy, Spain, France, Holland, Poland, Germany, Ireland and Latin America. He said America was beneficial for Catholic culture in several ways, including its friendliness to religion and tolerance for religion. But that is changing. The U.S. now has less tolerance for religion, and increasingly is against religion. Catholics created an internal Catholic culture, especially notable if you’re 55 years or older. Young people, affected by our culture, are rejecting and not tolerating religion. Vatican II used the phrase to “engage culture.” This is their goal.

In closing, Dolan recounted Pope Francis’ homily last year at the Feast of St. Joseph. Pope Francis asked attendees to picture Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, tenderly embracing his virgin wife and tenderly holding Jesus. He then asked those present to be tender with each another, let God be tender with them, and be tender to God’s creation. This was a challenge for those present.

During the question and answer session, Cardinal Dolan observed that his New York City office building has an entire floor devoted to annulments. He said he’d like to see it replaced with a full floor of marriage rebuilders.

An excellent communicator, Dolan’s remarks were frank, and deeply personal for many in attendance. I was pleased to have heard them. Video of his remarks are available on the Internet (search for “Cardinal Dolan Anchorage 2014”).

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

Original ADN Article

Beast Feast: Great Food and Conversation

Recently Bob Mather, Sr. Pastor of Baxter Road Bible Church, invited me to an event for men called Beast Feast. Held at the church on a Saturday afternoon, it featured wild game dishes and other tasty food brought by the men of this church.

The focus was on manly conversation, food, and a guest speaker. It was a beautiful sunny spring day, and we ate outdoors. I sat with Pastor John Carpenter, and several other members. We had a great discussion, and a comfortable time. Pastor John, former Channel 2 sportscaster, has made a marvelous transition to BRBC. He has quickly become an essential part of the fabric of this delightful church. He and Pastor Bob share preaching and other ministerial responsibilities.

Our state bird, the mosquito, was out for an early romp. We had a delightful time keeping them at bay before they carried us away. After lunch, we were invited back inside to hear member Gene Moe regale us with stories of his adventures in the great outdoors in Alaska.

Yes, Gene did tell us the marvellous story of his bear encounter. Just Google “gene moe bear attack” to find a number accounts of his bear adventures. Gene is clearly in love with God’s country, nature in Alaska, and has a healthy regard for God himself. It was a pleasure to meet him and hear his stories.

This was my second invitation to BRBC’s Beast Feast and each time it has been most enjoyable. I sincerely appreciate their emphasis on activities for men, something that few Anchorage churches have.

35 of BRBC’s men have planned a float fishing trip on the Gulkana River later next week, with a definite spiritual emphasis during the trip. It promises to be a great experience, and will be led by Pastor Carpenter.

I hope to share highlights of this trip in the future as I’ll be joining this fine group of men. My thanks to Pastor Bob and Pastor John for showing me exceptional Christian hospitality.

Are Christians too content with just being comfortable? – 5/24/14

Are the days of acceptable Christianity really over?

A truly remarkable speech was delivered at the 10th Annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on May 13. Robert P. George, McCormack professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, spoke to a mainly Catholic audience but his remarks could easily apply to other Christians, regardless of faith.

George got to the heart of the matter from his first words: “The days of socially acceptable Christianity are over. The days of comfortable Catholicism are past. It is no longer easy to be a faithful Christian, a good Catholic, an authentic witness to the truths of the Gospel. A price is demanded and must be paid. There are costs of discipleship — heavy costs, costs that are burdensome and painful to bear.”

He further posited that while one could identify with being a Catholic, attending Mass and being seen as politically correct, it does not mean that one “actually believes” the church’s teachings on marriage, sexual morality or the sanctity of human life. In doing so, even if one believes in those teachings but “is prepared to be completely silent about them, one is safe — one can still be a comfortable Catholic.”

George’s most searing indictment was reserved for those who are ashamed of the Gospel. “In other words, a tame Catholic, a Catholic who is ashamed of the Gospel — or who is willing to act publicly as if he or she were ashamed — is still socially acceptable. But a Catholic who makes it clear that he or she is not ashamed is in for a rough go — he or she must be prepared to take risks and make sacrifices. ‘If,’ Jesus said, ‘anyone wants to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me.’ We American Catholics, having become comfortable, had forgotten, or ignored, that timeless Gospel truth. There will be no ignoring it now.” He compared this situation to Peter’s denial in the Garden of Gethsemane that he was one of Christ’s followers.

The issues George raises are being raised in mainline and other churches. One need not hear many Catholic services before hearing these themes espoused. Being a witness to the Gospel today has a price.

“To be a witness to the Gospel today is to make oneself a marked man or woman. It is to expose oneself to scorn and reproach,” George continued. “To unashamedly proclaim the Gospel in its fullness is to place in jeopardy one’s security, one’s personal aspirations and ambitions, the peace and tranquility one enjoys, one’s standing in polite society. One may in consequence of one’s public witness be discriminated against and denied educational opportunities and the prestigious credentials they may offer; one may lose valuable opportunities for employment and professional advancement; one may be excluded from worldly recognition and honors of various sorts; one’s witness may even cost one treasured friendships. It may produce familial discord and even alienation from family members. Yes, there are costs of discipleship — heavy costs.” Around the world, Christians who stand up for the Gospel are currently exposing themselves to grave risks. I think of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a pregnant mother in Sudan, a Christian and the wife of an American, who has been condemned to be flogged, and has been sentenced to be put to death after she delivers her child. She was offered the chance to renounce her faith but refused to do so.

Last year, Christianity Today reported that persecution of Christians is on the rise in eight African countries, citing the 2013 WorldWatch Open Doors USA list of religious freedom violators. Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Niger were new entrants to the list last year. “Africa, where Christianity spread fastest during the past century, now is the region where oppression of Christians is spreading fastest,” Open Doors noted. Twelve of the top 50 persecuting countries in the world on the 2014 Open Doors list are African.

Nigeria and the U.S. are currently trying to locate and rescue more than 200 schoolgirls, many of them Christian, who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom reported in 2013 that more than 12,000 people were killed by the Islamists in their anti-Christian attacks.

Although the speech Robert George made was primarily to draw attention to several specific issues prominent in Catholicism and other denominations, I cite the African examples as they represent the reality that there are places today where Christians who are not afraid to stand and be counted suffer sever consequences, including death. In a recent Anchorage speech, Timothy Cardinal Dolan noted a whole floor was devoted to annulments in their New York City office building. His dream was to replace it with marriage rebuilders.

George ended on a note of challenge. “We would much rather be acceptable Christians, comfortable Catholics. But our trust in him, our hope in his resurrection, our faith in the sovereignty of his heavenly Father can conquer fear. By the grace of Almighty God, Easter is indeed coming. Do not be ashamed of the Gospel. Never be ashamed of the Gospel.” Whatever you get out of his speech, I think the message is clear. The easy days of Christianity are over.

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

Original ADN Article Post


At Seder, a community reflects on liberation from slavery – 5/17/14

Passover was celebrated by local Jews last month, just before Christian Easter. I attended a Seder this year at Temple Beth Shalom. Each year they conduct a community Seder at their synagogue on East Northern Lights for Jews and non-Jews. A modest fee is charged to partake of their Seder, but no different than dining in a local restaurant. In fact, the food was prepared and served by a well-known local restaurant, Aladdin’s.

Seder marks a special time of remembrance for religious Jews where Passover, and Israel’s ultimate deliverance as a people from Egyptian bondage under Pharaoh, is commemorated. It’s held in homes on the first night of Passover, and communally in synagogues on the second night of Passover. I’ve been told home celebrations of Seder can be relatively brief or last 4-6 hours, or even longer.

The overarching importance of Passover is its recognition of the beginning of Israel’s identity as a separate unique people, via their exodus from Egypt.

Seder is performed using a Haggada — huh-gah-da — as a guide. The Haggada, printed and in the hands of celebrants, outlines the various rituals, and the connecting story. There are many different Haggada’s available, based on the various traditions Jewish people represent, such Morrocan, Separdic, Yemeni, Ashkenazi and others. The earliest Haggada dates to CE 170. Usually a Rabbi leads the Seder, reading from the Haggada. The Haggada reads from back to front, an unusual twist for me considering my non-Jewish orientation. Rabbi Michael Oblath led the Seder.

Unlike many religious celebrations I’ve attended, Seder is very family-oriented. A wide range of ages was represented, with many children. I often write about aging churches having few children and youth. I was overwhelmed by the youthful vibrancy represented by the attendees.

Seder starts with a series of readings and rituals, followed by the full Seder meal.

To begin, candles are lit and a solemn prayer to God is said, ending with “May your light surround us always.” A blessing for the children is invoked. Miriam’s cup is then filled with water by the women present, a reminder of the Exodus. During the Seder, four cups of wine are consumed, one for each of God’s promises regarding Israel’s promised freedom.

• I will bring you out …

• I will deliver you …

• I will redeem you …

• I will take you to be my people … (Exodus 6:6-7)

The order of the Seder speaks to the themes of slavery and freedom. Kadesh: The first cup of wine is drunk remembering the first promise. “I am Adonai, and I will free you from the slavery of Egypt.” Urchatz: Hand-washing without a blessing. Karpas: Greens (parsley) are dipped in salt water to remember the tears of the Israelites in slavery. Yachats: The middle matzot of three is broken in half. The Seder leader takes the largest of the two pieces and saves it as the “afikoman” to be hidden for the children to find later. Magid: The story of the Exodus is told and invitations are extended to partake in the Seder. Four questions are then posed which must be answered. 1. Why do we eat matzah on Passover? 2. Why do we eat maror at the Seder? 3. Why do we dip foods twice? 4. Why do we lean in our chairs at the Seder? These questions are ritually answered, after which an object lesson called “The Four Sons” or “The Four Children” is recited to teach children the Exodus story from four vantage points: The Wise Child, The Wicked Child, The Simple Child, and The Child Who Does Not Think to Question. The Exodus and deliverance is further expounded upon, including the 10 plagues, where a drop of wine is placed upon one’s plate from the wineglass as each is recited. In rapid succession blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the slaying of the first born are signified. Then the second glass of wine is consumed. Rachtzah: Another ritual washing of hands, this time with a blessing. Motzi Matzah: Blessings over the matzah is given, after which a small portion is consumed. Moror: The moror (bitter herbs) is blessed and eaten along with charoset, a sweet filling. Korekh: Placing moror between two pieces of matzah and eating like a sandwich. Shulhan Orekh: The Passover meal is eaten beginning with a charred egg. Tzafun: The hidden matzoh is sought by the children, found, and consumed. Barech: An after-meal blessing is given, followed by the third cup of wine. Hallel: Songs of praise are sung. Nirtzah: Concluding prayer for the acceptance of the night’s service, expression of hope for the Messiah, and drinking the fourth cup of wine.

The entire Seder teaches about God’s leading Israel out of Egyptian slavery, done in a spirit of joy and celebration. I enjoyed the unique items various participants brought and shared with their tables. A woman at my table brought a wonderful Yemeni cheroset, while others brought special wines. It was a beautiful time of reflection and joy. If you’ve never tried a Jewish Seder, I urge you to try this one. I appreciated the warmth the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom extended to me that night.

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

Original ADN Article

Remembering childhood raised in grace of prayerful mother – 5/10/14

Mother’s Day brings pleasant thoughts of my Christian mother.

Sunday is Mother’s Day in the United States.  As far as national holiday spending goes, Mother’s Day ranks third.  There will be many commemorations of mothers in the churches with special presentations, flowers and sermons devoted to the topic. In 2013, Americans spent almost $170 per mother making moms feel wanted, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. This year should be similar

Lately I’ve been reminiscing about the impact my mother had in my life, and it was significant.  She passed several years ago. I was with her when she died.  The many days and nights preceding her painful death gave me an opportunity to reflect on her life and her influence on mine. Though I did not always agree with her, I have to admit, in the final analysis, she was passionate about her religion, religious beliefs and love for her children.

Her mother grew up in a fine Christian home, but having a bit of a wild streak in her, she married a soldier at the start of World War I. She was 13.

My grandfather was not a religious man initially and did not appreciate my grandmother’s–and later, my mother’s–desire to worship. He continued to resist Christianity until the 1950’s, when he finally joined Grandma in affiliating with her faith. His attitudes and behaviors to my Grandma changed, making her life much more tolerable.

By this time my mom had married and moved away, but was experiencing somewhat similar circumstances in her marriage and faith practice. My dad ultimately allowed faith to become a dividing wedge between them.

My mom’s faith was strong and she raised her four children in it.  A sincere follower of Christ, she was a leader in her church, years ahead of her time. All of us were included in her every religious activity, including church music, youth activities, Bible studies, and Christian Education.

Because she was extremely talented, many local churches competed for her services as choir director and organist. I was expected to sing in her choirs and often pressed into providing special music. I felt as though I was a member of several churches when I grew up.

That proved to be a problem at one point when I began dating a girl from the “other church,” and Mom moved swiftly to disrupt the relationship

Providing a Christian education for her children was automatic, something she worked hard for by earning cash to provide the money to pay for it. It didn’t end there. Most of us also attended Christian colleges, gaining a respectable faith-based education. She was intent on having one of her boys become a minister, and it was almost me.

Ultimately, several life choices propelled me away from fulfilling that desire, but I’ve always wondered about the “what if.” THis was a bitter disappointment to my mom, but she rarely showed or mentioned it.

Mom’s Bible was well-marked but not the only one she had.  That last Bible, given to her more than 30 years before she passed, had seen significant use. Of all the books, Revelation was the one most heavily marked. Clearly she looked forward to a better land, free from pain, heartache and death. She had her eyes firmly fixed on Jesus and relied on His promises.

She direct youth choirs and played church organ into her 80’s.  In her late 80’s, she was forced to give up playing for church services due to her arthritis. Hundreds of school-age youths received their training in art and music through her patient attention.

Mom loved God’s creation and was a distinguished horticulturist, experienced in growing perennials and herbs. She always gave the glory to God for His splendid creation. Her passion for growing flowers extended into her art, and her dry brush-technique watercolors were painted by the hundreds. She executed 500 to 600 paintings in her lifetime. Most were sold through galleries or given as exquisite gifts to well-loved friends.

I know she knew how much I loved her, even in those last trying days. It was a time for reflection, made  more bearable knowing I’d tried to see her as often as I could, especially over the final 30 years of her life. She shared that wonderful trait of loving her children as did her mother, who preceded her in death by only 15 years.

One night, shortly before my grandmother died, as I was sitting with her in her hospital room, I asked her if I could read to her from the Bible. “Oh no, it’s all in here,” she said, pointing to her head. She then proceeded to quote me Psalms short and long, telling me they were of comfort to her through the long nights.

My mod was like my grandmother regarding scripture, taking comfort in her faith and having faith in the promises of Jesus. I miss my mom, but I can only commend her way to parents who waver about providing a strong faith bases for their children. It continues to work for me, thanks to Mom and my grandmother. I’m thinking of Mom as Mother’s Day approaches.

Church B Revealed

Last month I wrote about my visits to two different churches in Anchorage, churches of differing faith traditions. I used my column to draw a contrast between them. As usual, some of those posting comments took the opportunity to poke fun at me and the words I wrote describing the differences between the services, and Christianity or religion in general. If you’ve not read this particular column, you can read it HERE.

Church B was Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. My visit to their fine church was a high point of my Anchorage Church visits. They were welcoming and friendly to a fault. Their music was sheer joy, and so Spirit led. No one could dare call it entertainment. It spoke of their journey and where they were going.

The messaging delivered by the ministers and singers was clear, not cloaked in some unintelligible “churchese”. I was clearly left with the impression this church loves and respects their clergy, their musicians, and each other. Sunday morning is sacred time to them and they spend it with gratitude and joy.

What I do has no similarity to restaurant reviews. People in Anchorage are seeking churches that feed the soul, and help them grow spiritually. So many churches these days are splitting up over fractious social and spiritual issues. It’s such a joy for me to visit a church that seems to have it all.

Thanks to the fine people of Shiloh for a wonderful visit! God bless you as you shepherd your members and guests in their faith journey. Thank you too for showing me Genesis 18 hospitality!

Bible unlocks understanding, but few are reading it – 5/3/14

When I was a kid, I remember taking a Bible to church for services. I also recall studying the Bible intensively using a variety of tools, including Bible-marking programs, personal reading and study, and classes. Much of my biblical knowledge stems from those days. Back then, we never heard about biblical illiteracy. During this time, I did discover that a clear understanding of the Bible is paramount to accurately and convincingly sharing my faith.

These days, it seems like scarcely a week goes by without a new study being released about how Christian Americans have become biblically illiterate. A recent study by the Barna Group (which conducts research and training for churches and nonprofits) uncovered “some disturbing revelations about our nation’s grasp of Bible content and Americans’ changing perception of the Bible.”

Couple this with regular releases of study results flagging biblical illiteracy and genuine concerns growing out of it. Some recent examples:

• 60 percent of Americans cannot name even five of the Ten Commandments.

• 82 percent of Americans believe “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse.

• 12 percent of adults believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

• More than 50 percent of graduating high school seniors thought Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.

• A large number of respondents to one survey indicated the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham.

• Four out of 10 people believe the same spiritual truths are simply expressed differently in the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon.”

In its 2010 study of the religious environment in the U.S., the Barna Group further noted that “while most people regard Easter as a religious holiday, only a minority of adults associate Easter with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

In a recent column, I wrote that Easter has unfortunately become America’s fifth largest holiday spending occasion, with the bulk of the money being spent on clothing, candy and food. Little wonder people are not interested in reading the Bible, when popular culture, advertisers and retailers have been allowed to define the terms and conditions of former religious holidays gone secular, such as Christmas and Easter.

According to the 2013 American Bible Society survey “The State of the Bible,” conducted by the Barna Group, 57 percent of respondents indicated they read their Bible four times a year or less. Worse yet, only 26 percent of Americans indicated they read their Bible on a regular basis (four or more times a week). Within a key target group, millennials (18- to 28-year-olds), 57 percent said they read their Bibles fewer than three times a year, if at all.

In their book “The People’s Religion,” George Gallup, Jr. and Jim Castelli observe that “Americans revere the Bible, but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”

In my travels among the local churches, it’s rare I hear thoroughly biblical-based sermons. In some local churches I’ve waited as long as 45 minutes before I heard an allusion to a single quote of Scripture. What are pastors saying? Sometimes it’s long-winded stories, massive references to the flavor-of-the-month book, or deep dives into a pet project such as social justice ministries, guest speakers of many flavors, or short-term mission trips. Liturgical churches tend to use more Scripture than most, but often it’s read by congregation members unfamiliar with the passages of Scripture, who are unable to read them with meaningful conviction.

The cultural impact of our advancing biblical illiteracy is dramatic. The Bible is the key that unlocks our understanding of many cultural waypoints in society. Did you know that Shakespeare’s works have more than 1,300 allusions to the Bible? How can some of the greatest literature in the world be fully understood without biblical knowledge? Many authors have steeped their works in biblical references, authors such as Steinbeck, Tolkien, Lewis, Hemingway and Golding.

C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the biblical references and allusions running throughout. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” are full of biblical references and imagery.

Martin Luther’s speeches oozed scriptural allusions at every turn, as did Abraham Lincoln’s. A 2005 study, commissioned by the Bible Literacy Project, surveyed high school English teachers and teens. This question was asked: “Considering the literature you are teaching, how does it advantage or disadvantage a student to know about the Bible?” Forty out of 41 high school English teachers said Bible knowledge confers a distinct educational advantage on students and that “Western literature was steeped in biblical references.”

“The biggest gap in education,” one Chicago public high school English teacher told us, “is lack of Bible knowledge.” He said American students have an “inability to understand literature, and even the underlying meanings of literature, to figure out the philosophical bent or message of an author by the way they use biblical or non-biblical allusions.”

In a future column I’ll delve into more of the serious challenges posed by biblical illiteracy, and some potential strategies to combat it.

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

Original ADN Article