Monthly Archives: September 2016

Remembering Father Norman H.V. Elliott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You will be missed dear friend.

For nearly 40 years, an Anchorage artist — with the help of her church — has used her work to fight world hunger

Marianne Wieland, a well-known Anchorage artist, has been quietly using her art to produce unique, limited-edition prints each year for the past 38 years. The prints are sold through her church, Gloria Dei Lutheran, and 100 percent of the sale price is donated to addressing world hunger.

So far, not including this year’s new print, more than $275,000 has been raised for this project. Proceeds go locally to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, Brother Francis Shelter, Bean’s Cafe and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America world hunger initiatives.

A Gloria Dei member since 1976, Wieland got the idea during an adult Bible class led by the former Rev. Rick Halvorson. In 1979, Halvorson posed a question to the class about which subject to tackle next; a nurse suggested world hunger. Halvorson noted it would be a tough one to tackle due to difficulty of one person making a difference with such a huge and worldwide issue. But Marianne had an idea.

Volunteers are crucial for the success of this project. “When I started this project, I used volunteers to help me produce the prints to keep the production costs down,” Wieland explained. “The volunteers all came from Lutheran Churches and we have become a family of friends. Jo Ann Mueller, from Zion Lutheran, has helped me produce prints since 1982. When a volunteer first comes, they start by soaking and blotting the papers and cranking the plate through the printing press. As they get familiar with the process, they work up into more difficult tasks, the most difficult being the rolling of ink onto the printing plate. The production of the prints is a time consuming process as each print is inked individually and run through the etching press.”

Each print is related to a biblical theme.

“The images and wording usually don’t come together,” Wieland said. “For example, next year’s print image will be the result of an inspiration I received from a small soapstone figurine that Bishop Shelley Wickstrom presented to me last year at the Synod Assembly in Wasilla.

“The theme to go with it came from an inspiration from our pastor Mark Orf, when he shared that, during his Shishmaref village time, the congregation loved the song and dance as part of their religious experience. The print will expand the soapstone figure into three singer/dancers with the addition of much color. The wording was inspired by a song that Jan Whitefield (Gloria Dei member) sang one service: ‘I’ll lead you all in the dance, said He.’ So this print will come from a combination of three sources.”

Each year Marianne Wieland creates a print to fight world hunger. This year’s is titled “Mother and Child.”
Each year Marianne Wieland creates a print to fight world hunger. This year’s is titled “Mother and Child.”

Each year’s print has varied in size. The initial 1979 print, titled “The Christmas Story,” measured 15 by 22 inches, while this year’s print, “Mother and Child,” measures 7.5 by 7.5 inches. Colors are blended to create a harmonious effect in a process that combines relief printing, embossing and intaglio.

This year’s edition is limited to 300 signed and numbered prints. Prints may be purchased after 9:30 a.m. service on Nov. 20 at Gloria Dei at 8427 Jewel Lake Road. The service concludes at about 10:30 a.m. A full-color book displaying all the prints by year was also created this year. The prints and books are $30 each while available.

I purchased a print and companion book of this year’s print last Sunday at Gloria Dei’s 50th anniversary celebration, Wieland will be available after services to personally autograph books. (An order form is available here.)

Gloria Dei celebrates 50th anniversary

Last Sunday I was warmly greeted at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church as I arrived to join with the congregation in celebrating their 50th anniversary. During my past visits I’ve found that ELCA Lutheran churches are friendly and do a much better job of welcoming visitors than most other churches. Their members are never shy and will introduce themselves to newcomers as they would with their regular church friends. The church was packed with many former pastors and friends joining them to celebrate this important anniversary, and to rededicate themselves and their church to the years that lie ahead.

The platform participants included Bishop Shelley Wickstrom of the ELCA Alaska Synod, current pastor Mark Orf and Gloria Dei’s first pastor, Rod Kastelle. A special liturgy had been created for this auspicious day. As the service progressed, I noticed a mix of all ages in the sanctuary. Entire families were present and were quiet and respectful.

Lutheran liturgies, essentially an order of worship, usually incorporate the elements of confession, sharing of the peace, prayers, hymns, choral presentations, a first reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a second reading from the New Testament, a Gospel reading, Communion, blessing, Benediction and a sending hymn.

Beginning his sermon by rereading the second reading, the Rev. Kastelle had much emotion in his voice as the words flowed. The reading, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, has Paul briefly recounting his life before Christ, and afterward when God’s grace was poured out on him abundantly. Kastelle’s remarks were basically confined to the events leading to the placement of Gloria Dei at this site, and its subsequent growth. He also recognized a number of individuals who were instrumental in this process.

A number of former Gloria Dei clergy were recognized by the Rev. Mark Orf, including his immediate predecessor, the Rev. Scott Fuller, interim pastor Al Solmonson and intern Jeff Wile. Kastelle was Gloria Dei’s first pastor and presided from 1965 to 1979. Before Communion, Orf and Wickstrom led the congregation through a rededication liturgy.

Gloria Dei provides a sanctuary designed to enhance worship. From the 1889 stained-glass window in the front of the church featuring Jesus, the good shepherd, to the contemporary wood beams and wooden pews, this church implies reverence.

The music, the warmth and the spirit of Christian hospitality permeated Gloria Dei’s sanctuary this day. I’m glad I was able to be a part of their celebration. I congratulate them on their Christian charity, especially their art project addressing world hunger. Each week approximately 50 churches close across the U.S. This church will certainly not be one of them.

Alaska Dispatch News Story – Fr. Norman Elliott’s Passing – 9/13/16

The Alaska Dispatch News ran a story on Fr. Norman Elliott’s recent death, and brief review of his life.  This link will take you to the story online. There is a factual mistake in that he was awaiting a call to the Philippines rather than India as reported in the story.

I will be addressing Fr. Elliott’s life from a personal perspective, as well as including comments from others who were also impacted in a major way, within the next couple of weeks.

RIP – Fr. Norman Elliott

The much loved senior clergyman in Alaska, Fr. Norman Elliott, passed on Friday.

A Visitation will be held Monday 9/19/2016  from 1:00pm to 4:00pm with the service starting at 4pm.  It will be held at All Saints, with overflow being in the Egan Center.  A reception will follow at the Egan Center. The burial will be the following day (Tuesday)  at 1:00pm at Angelus Memorial Park Cemetery.

Fr Elliott’s passing will be mourned by scores of Alaskan who owe their connection to God to him. I’ve written several columns about him which can be found using the search tool on the right under the word cloud. Use Elliott for your search. I’ll post a detailed column after his services.
RIP dear friend.

Finding welcome at the consecration of an Anchorage Buddhist temple

Buddhists and monks pray to bless each stone ball that was buried around the perimeter of the Thai Buddhist Temple on Sunday, June 19, 2016. There were more than 100 monks from all over the world present at the consecration ceremony. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News)

Buddhists and monks pray to bless each stone ball that was buried around the perimeter of the Thai Buddhist Temple on Sunday, June 19, 2016. There were more than 100 monks from all over the world present at the consecration ceremony. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News)

Buddhism is an ancient religion founded in India in the sixth century A.D. It has since spread worldwide and numbers close to 500 million adherents — about 7 percent of the world’s population. About 4 million Buddhists live in the U.S. and according to the World Buddhist Directory, Alaska is home to 15 groups statewide. Eight are in Anchorage. Fairbanks and Juneau have three each, and there’s one in Valdez.

There are three major Buddhist traditions: Theravada Buddhism, which traces its roots back to the very beginning of the faith; Mahayana Buddhism, which started in the first century A.D.; and Vajrayana Buddhism — closely linked with Tibetan Buddhism. Mahayana is considered to be the largest branch, followed by Theravada and then Vajrayana. There are differences in belief between these three, but those are beyond the scope of this column.

Three Buddhist groups in the Theravada tradition have temples in Anchorage: Wat Alaska Yanna Vararam (Dhammayutti Nikaya in Midtown), Wat Dhamma Bhavana Buddhist Center (Maha Nikaya on O’Malley Road), and Wat Lao of Anchorage (Maha Nikaya in Mountain View).

Temple members meet weekly, usually on Sundays, and for special Buddhist events. Membership in each temple numbers 150 or more. The first two mentioned temples consist of Thai members, while Wat Lao is primarily Lao membership.

I was invited to attend the consecration of Wat Alaska Yanna Vararam held in mid-June. A preliminary event was a dhamma talk on June 15. Dhamma talks, a feature of Buddhism, are where Buddhist teacher give talks on various aspects of Buddhism. They are often connected with weekly meetings at Theravada temples locally.

This particular dhamma talk (known as dharma to other Buddhist groups) was given by Ajaan Geoff of the San Diego area. I was astounded by the number of Westerners in attendance along with many monks.

Geoff Galik of Yanna Vararam told me the “talk on the Wednesday night before the ceremonies was actually intended to be a night for Westerners. Our team put up advertisements online as well as in coffee shops around town.

Ajaan Geoff has a reputation in Buddhist circles as a notable modern Buddhist writer, of the Thai Forest Tradition, and is well known, which may have generated interest.” (Metta Forest Monastery, which Ajaan Geoff directs, is a meditation monastery in the lineage of the Thai Forest Tradition. Its dhamma teachings and more information about Buddhism, meditation and the Thai Forest Tradition can be found at

The talk began with attendees being brought into a relaxed meditative frame of mind by Ajaan Geoff. After about 20 minutes of this progressive relaxation routine, he spoke about the subject of happiness, concluding with audience questions and answers. Ajaan Geoff’s entire presentation that night, which I found useful for a general audience, is on YouTube.

The consecration of Wat Alaska Yanna Vararam was on Sunday afternoon, June 19. The temple was tightly packed with members, their friends, and many monks, a number of whom had traveled from the Lower 48 and abroad to attend.

A major event that afternoon was the placement of nine immense stone balls (loknimit), a practice going back to the time of the Buddha. Two stones were to be placed on each of the four sides of the temple, and one was to be placed in the center of temple. When I arrived each stone was suspended from a scaffolding over the holes, suspended by strong vines.

At the appropriate time during the consecration ceremony, sponsors of each stone used huge knives to cut the vines, releasing the stones into the holes. Each of the exterior stones were marked by a gravestone-like monument. It was an unusual spectacle, and marked the first Buddhist temple to be consecrated in Alaska.

With the temple now consecrated, monks could finally be ordained there. Seven candidates were presented and given the 227 rules which govern their lives as monks. After their acceptance of the rules, each left the room to be garbed with their saffron robes, returning to be presented.

Monks live very simple lives, eating only twice a day, and focus primarily on spirituality.

I discovered one can be a monk for a lifetime, or a portion of one’s life. During my visit I talked to an engaging older monk, Phra Pradit Abhijato from Wat Santi in Landers, California. Speaking earnestly about the importance of having meaning and purpose in one’s life, he shared he’d been a career radiologist, becoming a monk at a later age.

A married teacher friend, Naruepone Paul Maleehuan, startled me by sharing he’d become a monk at age 14, continuing for the next 18 years. “I grew up in Buddhist lands,” he said. “I didn’t know what Buddhism meant. One of my family took me to the temple to show me how to do this if I had a question. I had lots of questions. I had no idea. I just followed them. Soon I went to monastic life, became a novice, and finally a monk. I found out, oh, that’s the way. I could see the world more, what’s the suffering, what’s the happiness. I could pick out my own way in this life. Buddhism helps me every day, every single minute. If I get confused or anxious, mindfulness comes, and I think before I do something.”

Theravada Buddhist services are difficult for me to follow, as they are chanted mostly in Thai or Pali. English/Pali texts were provided, but I find it easy to lose my place.

J. Philip Wogaman, in “What Christians Can Learn from Other Religions” writes of Buddhism, “Some Christians have found it possible to combine aspects of Buddhist teachings with their own faith traditions, without abandoning Christianity as their primary religious home.”

Wogaman points to Buddhist views on tolerance, religious authority, the illusion of permanence, suffering and compassion, as being worthy of consideration. So far, my visits to Buddhist gatherings have impressed me with their sincerity, and I’ve always been treated kindly, with great hospitality and respect at their temples, uncommon for me in my church visits.

A new report reveals America’s complicated relationship with the Bible

As I grew up, I was taught this song at home and in church: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, they are weak, but He is strong.” That’s the first verse; the chorus is: “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”

Over the years I’ve heard this song played and sung in all musical genres, in churches, homes, movies and on television. Its six verses clearly and simply express theologically sound sentiments of the Christian faith.

These days, Bible use is decreasing despite its best-seller status year after year. The recently released report “The Bible in America” from the American Bible Society and the Barna Group gives insights gleaned from six years of the society’s annual “State of the Bible” research. (2016 also marks the 200th anniversary of the society.)

“A majority of Americans, an average of 62 percent, have expressed a desire to read the Bible more,” according to the report. “A two-thirds majority of adults believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to know in order to live a meaningful life. Two-thirds of adults hold an orthodox view of the Bible, believing it is the actual or inspired Word of God. Forty-four percent of Americans read the Bible at least once a month. On average, eight of 10 Americans consider the Bible to be sacred literature or a holy book. Most Americans, 64 percent, believe the Bible has more influence on humanity than any other text according to the 2016 State of the Bible data.”

On the negative side, Bible skeptics, as a group, have increased, while Bible-engaged people have slightly decreased. Interestingly enough, non-Christian millennials seem to be behind these dropping numbers, but Christian millennials have attitudes similar to older generations.

The ABS leadership offered a pragmatic view of the data, and a vision for going forward to address the concerns raised.

“Looking at modern-day America, we see a country moving away—for decades now—from the foundational, biblical values so cherished by those who came before us,” said Roy Peterson, the society’s president and CEO. “As we work together to address the skepticism of our day, now is our time to renew hope in the promises of God’s Word, to open the healing words of Scripture as people are battling extreme violence, poverty, and oppression.”

People offer a variety of reasons as to why they don’t study the Bible. These are some common ones.

Not enough time

We all have the same 24-hour day. It’s a matter of deciding if reading the Bible is really worth it. Television, internet, social networking, movies and other forms of entertainment seem to be more attractive. If you want to get to know God, the Bible will reveal him to you.

It’s a big book

Yes it is. The Protestant Bible contains 39 Old Testament books, and 27 New Testament books. Jews, Orthodox and Catholics have different book counts. A small time investment every day — five to 10 minutes — can make a huge difference. You can read the entire Bible in a year by reading a few chapters a day! Many reading plans are available free on the internet. You can also listen using your smartphone. The website Bible Study Tools offers a variety of reading plans. (

Hard to understand

Many easy-to-read and easy-to-understand translations are available to help you. Online Bible commentaries are available to help decipher some of those strange terms and occasions. Theologian and biblical scholar N.T. Wright has a wonderful series of New Testament volumes that takes readers through the text and then explains further. I have the entire New Testament set. Each book has the same titling scheme, for example: “Luke for Everyone,” for the Gospel of Luke.

I need help

Many work better in a group setting. Support groups are available to help you learn with and from others. This very effective way of learning is practiced in virtually every field; Bible study is no exception. Churches and even online groups can be helpful. So can reading and studying with a friend. A note of caution: While many church and study groups can be useful, often they do not actually study the Bible, but a spiritual or self-help book instead. Seek out a group where the focus is on the Bible.

I’ll let my pastor read and explain

Yes, your pastor may be a good choice, but then your exposure is maybe 20 to 30 minutes a week. Don’t let your Bible study become dependent on someone else.

I may have to change

Many people fear coming into contact with new information. Practiced Bible students have learned the Bible holds words of life that can positively influence it. Just for fun, try taking a quick 10-question Bible quiz from the Washington Post to whet your appetite for learning more about the Bible.

To further challenge your brain, test your overall religious knowledge with this short Pew Forum assessment.

The world’s Bible societies distributed almost 34 million entire Bibles in 2014 (latest year for which data is available) and 428 million Scriptures (portions of the Bible). This is separate from annual U.S. Bible sales of around 40 million.

Journalist Daniel Radosh, speaking to The Washington Post, points out, “The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: The Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year.”

Although my library contains many different Bible versions, I tend to use only one or two on a regular basis. My deceased mother’s Bible is one of those, kept for sentimental value, but never used. I suspect many Americans are in a similar position. Many churches tend to support the use of a single Bible, for example, the King James version. When changing churches, one might acquire a different version that’s primarily used by the new church.

The Bible has had an enormous influence on the literature of the world, and is incorporated in many great literary works. It is literature itself, and is so ingrained in Western culture its influence will continue forever. Those of a religious inclination feel the Bible contains words of life. It has stood the test of time and is the guidebook for the world’s largest religion, Christianity.

I’m convinced it’s easy to start reading and studying the Bible. Take baby steps and it will grow on you. I suggest the Gospel of John and Psalms as great starting places. From the experience of other Bible readers, pray first, asking God to bless your study.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith for Alaska Dispatch News and on his blog, churchvisits. Contact him at, or The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints.