Archive for the 'Alaska' Category

Alaska Journal 3–The Power of Weakness

I intended to write this soon after Part 2, which I posted nearly a month ago. But Life intervened, first in the form of my granddaughter’s curiosity about the Frank Schaefer trial. She stimulated me to write “This Is Our Witness?” Impulses that strong usually generate some of my best writing, so I’ve learned to go with them. Life also intervened in the form of family Thanksgiving, including grandchildren, travel, and miscellaneous fun. Life’s apparent interruptions also put me in sync with God’s timing, which always trumps my hyper-scheduling and micro-managing. I think you’ll agree that this last part belongs in the Christmas season.

Two churches, Galena Bible Church (GBC) and St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, serve the 500 people who live in Galena, Alaska, the town where I worked last summer as one of 80+ United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) helping with Yukon River flood recovery. Our team worshiped with GBC both Sundays we were in town. (Some will say we went to church in order to share the potluck feast that followed worship each week.) A few of us built shelves for GBC’s community pantry one day. This church of 21 members facilitated the work of another 220+  volunteers. Their cots, sleeping bags, and luggage were stacked around the edges of GBC’s multipurpose room all week, sometimes even during worship on Sunday. One Sunday a power tool battery sat in its charger on the platform just a few feet from Pastor Chris Kopp as he preached. The Altar Guild didn’t revolt because of the unorthodox liturgical decoration. For me the “functional” décor proclaimed that worship is meaningless if it doesn’t fuel and focus the church’s ongoing involvement in the life of its community—power tools and all!

Battery charging on the platform during worship.

I wanted to know more about GBC’s engagement with its community. But our team was involved with our work and Pastor Chris was rushing madly in all directions much of the time. After returning home, I emailed him and asked him to tell me more about the church and its ministry. He described how the church had called him as their pastor three years earlier. Eighteen months into his ministry he began working with GBC’s leaders to discern the church’s future direction. Study, dialog, prayer, and fasting led them to affirm that “…our gospel goal was that in five years we wanted any long-term resident of Galena to say two things about us: first, those are a group of people that love and care about each other. Second, those are a group of people that love and care about us.”

“Those are a group of people who love and care about each other.” It’s not rocket science, folks! Our life together is our most powerful witness to our immediate neighbors. Pastor Chris led that GBC congregation beyond “liking one another” to loving each other: “Just as I have loved you, Jesus told his disciples, “you also should love one another.” (John 13:34).By the way, Pastor Chris would insist that at most he’d led folks to be open to the Holy Spirit. That in itself is huge.

The quality of a church’s common life speaks powerfully to its neighbors, for better or worse. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus continues, “if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). Tertullian was a bishop in North Africa in the late second and early third centuries. The Christians under his care generously shared food, clothing, jobs, whatever they had that others needed. Love erased boundaries between believers and non-believers. Tertullian wrote that such love moved non-believers to say with amazement, “See how these Christians love one another!”

 GBC has grown (and continues to grow) into a community of people who deeply and truly love each other.  GBC had also unknowingly positioned itself to respond to last May’s disastrous Yukon River flood. Pastor Chris says that when the flood came, “What else could we do but respond according to the burden that God had put on our hearts?”  GBC partnered with parachurch mission agencies, its supporting churches, local, state, and federal government agencies to bring help and hope into the stricken community. How did this church of 21 members, most of whom were coping with flood damage to their own homes and to the church, pull it off?   “It is impossible to explain…,” according to Pastor Chris, “other…than to say it was the power of God made evident in our weakness. “

Sounds like Christmas to me. Peel away the layers of tradition and commercialism and we find two peasants welcoming their first child into the world in a stable far from home and family. We who follow Jesus see in this story God’s limitless, world-creating love going to incredible, unfathomable extremes to heal the brokenness between God and humanity. Love empties itself, sets aside power and privilege, and takes on our human weakness in an out-of-the-way corner of the Roman Empire. Thirty years later this baby grows up and starts traveling through the countryside teaching people a whole new way to understand life, God, and one another. His enemies engineer his execution, but he doesn’t die. Jesus’ followers insist that his life continues in them and beyond them. An early Christian hymn affirms “…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:19) At Christmas “all the fullness of God” chose to enter our world in “…the power of God made evident in…weakness”. “All the fullness of God” focused in one human life lived in very humble circumstances: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG) The people of Galena, Alaska know that as the people of GBC love and serve their neighbors day after day through “the power of God made evident in our weakness”.

“…In five years we wanted any long-term resident…to say two things about us: first, those are a group of people that love and care about each other. Second, those are a group of people that love and care about us.” It’s a worthy mission/vision for churches of all sizes, shapes, styles, and settings. It’s a great way to proclaim Good News without getting too many words in the way. It’s a way to celebrate authentic Christmas: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Your neighborhood. My neighborhood. That neighborhood we’re afraid to drive through, especially after dark. Every neighborhood. Everywhere. For ever and ever. Amen.

IMPRESSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS (Alaska Journal 2)

 “Bush Alaska” refers to communities in the vast state of Alaska that you can’t drive into or out of. Commercial transportation is limited to air or water. OK, we’ll include dogsleds and even “Ice Road Truckers” if you insist. If you read Part 1, you know that I spent two weeks recently in Galena, Alaska working with other volunteers to repair Yukon River Flood damage. The longest excursion possible on Galena’s fourteen miles of roads was to“The Mall”, as the landfill was called. Locals actually did “shop” there. Even in Alaska, my trash just could be your treasure. We visited“The Mall” on Sunday afternoons to look for bears, moose, or other wildlife (not the locals mentioned above) who were “shopping” at “The Mall”.

Here are three impressions (and their implications) from my brief experience of “Bush Alaska”. 

  • Life is hard—just ordinary everyday life. Options are extremely limited. Everything takes longer, costs more, and requires significantly more effort. For example: The store is days or weeks away. One of our team ordered (online!) some caulk from an orange-colored “big box” store so that we could complete a project. It took three days to arrive by air. The shipping cost as much as those few tubes of caulk.  Installing and insulating a floor required far greater care than typical “Lower 48″ construction. Sealing in heated air and sealing out -60 or colder outside air is critical. In addition,moisture cannot be allowed to condense in the insulation. Condensation forms ice balls, which melt when the weather warms and ruin the insulation. Every staple-hole and other opening in the vapor barrier has to be covered with ubiquitous red tape. C) Hunting is about survival, not sport. A moose head complete with antlers greeted us as we arrived for our first day of work. The neighbors had gotten their moose. The family would eat well all winter. They spent much of the next few days in the yard (too cold for flies) butchering and wrapping the meat for the freezer. We’d noticed large screw eyes in the center of the main room of most of the homes. One day someone saw a chunk of meat hanging from one. Folks routinely hang the meat to cure it right in the center of the house as they have for—a long time. Hundreds of families had lost freezers full of meat when the flood had hit last May and power was lost. Those freezers were immediately flown out in order to prevent disease from spreading in the community. As moose season drew to a close in late September, we shared both the joy of families with full freezers and the anxiety of those who hadn’t yet gotten their moose. It was a legitimate and serious subject for prayer during Sunday worship.               

IMPLICATION—[Of course even the hardships in Galena pale in comparison to the Philippines typhoon we’re only now beginning to comprehend.] 1) Let’s appreciate how blessed we are and whine less. 2) Let’s be real. Everybody has hard stuff they’re going through, even though they may be hiding it well. Let’s cut each other some slack.

  • We learned firsthand the agony and the ecstasy of “Your tax dollars at work”.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had been on the scene from the beginning, even though the disastrous flood made very little “Lower 48” news. FEMA paid transportation, food, and housing costs for about one hundred faith-based volunteers who served for at least two weeks. Americorps staff and volunteers were on the scene from the beginning doing the really hard dirty work. At their best, these two agencies and others empowered the recovery process for the community. Every morning our team leaders met with representatives of FEMA, Americorps, the Army Corps of Engineers, and state and local agencies to coordinate the overall scope of work. “When it was good (to paraphrase a nursery rhyme), it was very, very good, but when it was bad, it was horrid.” Some days we heard how synergy flowed as all these folks sat around the same table and discovered how they could work together so the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Other days we heard apparently inexplicable bureaucratic decisions. We understood that everyone had rules to follow, bosses to please, and funds for which to account. Sometimes the rules facilitated  healing and hope. Other times they became roadblocks. Sometimes the bureaucrats and our leaders were equally puzzled or frustrated.

IMPLICATION—Doing away with “government” sounds like a great quick fix, but it’s neither realistic nor humane. Broken as it is, our system serves millions of vulnerable people in important ways. Let’s keep working on it together so that it works more effectively to serve all the people of our great country.

  • Those Baptists weren’t doing evangelism exactly my way, but at least they were doing something! One day we built shelves in the Bible Church’s community pantry. I overheard volunteers from a large Texas Baptist church discuss their church planting mission in Mexico. I heard them asking the right questions! Who lives here? What’s the culture like? What are the needs and the strengths of this village? What language(s) do people speak? What sort of person will relate well to these people? I learned that the mission board through whom their church was working required that in-depth study of a potential new mission field before a missionary was sent out.

 IMPLICATION:  We mainline folk still cover our ears whenever we hear the e(vangelism)-word. Worse yet, we assume that our “target audience” is just like us. If they were, they’d already be members of our church! Reaching the mission field that is our own community requires the same rigorous study as if we were going into a foreign mission field. Do we care enough about our neighbors to do that work, in order to increase the chance that they’ll discover how Loved they are?

NEXT TIME—WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM CHURCHES SERVING IN A DISASTER ZONE?

Where Have You Been, (Not-so-)Young Man? (Alaska Journal 1)

Galena Flood 2

The last two weeks in September I was in Galena, AlaskaWhere? 64°44′26″N 156°53′8″W, to be precise. That’s 270 miles west of Fairbanks and 350 miles north of Anchorage.  It’s a long way from home—or anywhere else. What in God’s name were you doing there? In mid-August my wife and I attended a training event for people who wanted to help with disaster relief sometime, somewhere. Before we left that day, the leader, a long-time friend, told us how this Yukon River community of 500 people was the hardest-hit among the villages caught in last May’s thousand-year-flood(!) during the river’s spring thaw. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) invited faith-based organizations to provide volunteers to help with the cleanup and rebuilding process.  Suddenly my calendar said “Sometime, somewhere!” I served on one of eight teams provided by United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. I’d been nagging/encouraging folks in our church toward “incarnational mission” for a while. Like many congregations, we’re better at donating money and stuff than (our own) bodies to meet needs. “Incarnational mission” means we go in person, as God came to us personally in Jesus. “Put-up or shut-up” time for me and Incarnational Mission had come!  I learned long ago to pay attention to transformational opportunities that appear seemingly out of nowhere. “Coincidence” usually turns out to be a “God-incident”.  Jonah and a bunch of other folks have learned through the centuries: When God says “I want YOU!” you can run but you can’t hide.

What did we do? Whatever it took to get houses safe, sanitary, and secure enough for residents to live through the winter. AmeriCorps volunteers had already done the initial clean-out/muck-out. Thank God for their young, strong bodies which bent in ways to which mine would have objected strenuously, and recovered much faster than mine would have. The thirty-plus UMVIM and other volunteers present during all or part of those two weeks worked on at least sixteen different houses. Our eight-hour days six days a week included hanging and taping drywall, painting, installing new flooring, doing basic electrical work, scrounging for supplies, improvising, and creative re-purposing, and always more debris cleanup. Some of us spent three days under a house installing “belly board”. That’s plywood fastened to the underside of floor joists so that insulation can be laid on top of it before the rest of the floor is completed. This house had standing headroom under the back third or so, but only about three feet of headroom otherwise. Where were those Americorps kids? Two brothers from Michigan (Reformed Church in America members who somehow got connected with us) were skilled finish carpenters who installed trim, molding, cabinets, etc. Our most unusual challenge was raise the level of a large (empty, thank God!) steel fuel tank so that fuel would flow downhill to the family’s newly-installed heater. The challenge was using only what was at hand, which didn’t include a forklift or a crane. That night we gave thanks for the brilliance of Archimedes—“Give me a place to stand and I can move the world.”

Galena has two churches, St. John’s Roman Catholic Church and Galena Community Bible Church. We had very little contact with St. John’s, so I can’t say anything about their ministry in this crisis. We worked closely with the Bible Church. Most churches I know could learn from the way GBC has served its community through this disaster. Their food pantry fed people. They partnered with government agencies and nonprofits. They hosted mission teams from the “lower 48” nonstop. They stretched their modest facility to its limits. During worship on Sunday morning cots and sleeping bags were in evidence around the edges of the room. One Sunday a bright yellow power-tool battery in its bright yellow charger sat on the platform just a few feet from the pastor as he preached.

Our group of volunteers represented a broad cross-section of the Christian community.  GBC hosted mission teams from various evangelical churches. Our “United Methodist” umbrella welcomed  Unitarian Universalists, the two RCA brothers, a team of seven “Baptist Builders” from Arizona, , at least one self-described “half-Catholic”, and assorted Lutherans and Disciples of Christ who’d come in previous groups. Each morning someone shared a brief devotional message before we started our day’s work. These meaningful messages  set the tone for another day in which we  went out and embodied (Incarnated) the unity of the church as we worked together.

What in God’s name were you doing there? A) “Incarnational mission”. See above. B) Letting God love the world through us. You remember that verse everybody loves to quote that’s always showing up at sports events: “God so loved the world [emphasis mine] that he sent his only Son…” (John 3:16). C) Witnessing in the style of St. Francis who said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.”

In his book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, Brian McLaren recalls the words of one of his mentors: “…in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers.”  We understood that active faith at its best and highest reaches out to those who are not part of our United Methodist tribe or even our Christian “tribe”. What we have in common with those we served—which is more than enough to launch us into mission “in God’s name”—is that we,  along with our brothers and sisters in Galena and everywhere else on this planet, are all created in the image of God. In other words, we’re family. When part of your family’s in trouble, you do whatever you can to help.


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