Moravians

Last week I attended the annual meeting of the Alaska Province of the Moravian Church.  The Moravian Church was founded by John Hus an early reformer in 1447.  The Moravians started mission work in SW Alaska about 1885.

The meeting room was filled with Native pastors.  They spoke in their Yup'ik language.  The pastors prayed, read Scripture, and discussed the work of building the Faith among their people.  The Spirit of God was evident.  I wondered if the early missionaries, who built the first houses on the tundra, could have imagined what I was experiencing.  Those missionaries preached and served out of a calling and love for the Native people.  Most of them did not see the full results of their work.  It's like that with us.  We live in obedience to the Word of God, and show love toward our neighbor.  And, we trust God for the results of our humble efforts.

Sharing in Grief

Winter in Bush Alaska is difficult and dangerous.  There have already been several deaths in two villages we serve in SW Alaska.  All of these deaths have been tragic.  One involved a six year old boy.

The death of a family member or friend in the Bush is experienced a bit differently than we experience it in urban society.  In a remote village there is no funeral industry that provides the services we are accustomed to. And, importantly the person who has passed away has lived their entire life in the local community.  They have been known from birth.  When a member of a remote community dies the family prepares the body for burial.  The body remains in the home for two days.  People sit with the body and speak in whispered tones.  Curious children come to see what is happening.  A coffin is build by local people of local materials.  Life in the village essentially stops for about three days.  At the funeral, the wooden church will be filled.  Often many will be standing outside regardless of the weather.  The burial will take place in a grave  chipped from frozen ground. Afterward,  the entire village is invited to a fellowship meal of traditional food.

Grief in the bush seems to linger.  It is very likely that those who have died this winter will be talked about this coming summer when our VBS teams arrive.  This provides an opportunity to listen and share in the grief.  It is also an opportunity to offer the hope we have in Jesus.  Pray that this will happen.   

How Deep are Your Roots?

I was down in Oregon a few weeks ago visiting churches.  I drove though an area of the state where I had worked as a forester.  I spent quite a bit of time measuring the size of trees and making notes on their health.  Many of the trees measured over one-hundred feet high.  It was amazing to see something stand that tall without the use of ropes like the rigging on a ship mast.  Some of these trees had withstood the storms for more than a century without falling.  Often I would see much younger trees toppled over.  The difference was in the roots.  The older trees had grown up in places exposed to the wind, and had experienced drought.  These adverse forces had stressed the tree and stimulated the formation of a strong root system.  The younger trees had grown up fast in protected stands.  Their roots were shallow and weak.  A strong wind or even a heavy snow load would up-root them.

If you guessed that I was going to draw a parallel between our lives as Christians and those trees you were right!  As Christians we can look young and strong until we become exposed to adversities of life.  It is then that the strength of our roots will show.  Our roots become strong amid the stresses of life.  It is those times when we feel overwhelmed and we simply groan God help me...God have mercy that we become more strongly rooted in Him.  Of course strong roots need to draw nutrients from the soil.  Our soil is prayer, Scripture, and...those examples of holy living we see around us.

I'm heading to Arizona this month to invite Christians to come to Alaska.  I'm going to ask them to expose themselves to the test of wind and storm.  Many have come in the past, and they do leave more strongly rooted in Christ.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power together with all the saints. to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge -- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  Eph. 7:17-21.

Attitude Check!

How are you doing with your new-year resolutions?  I know I've seen several new faces at the gym.  This year I've decided to work on only one thing:  my attitude.  There is so much that is going to happen to me this year. Most of these things I won't be able to change or escape from.  The only thing I really have control over is my attitude.  The frame of mind that I choose to meet the challenges in my life will define how sucessful I will be in loving God and my neighbor.  The power of a positive attiude is something often talked about.  It is hard to go into a place of work and not see a poster encouraging the proper attitude.  However, we Chrisitans have someone special.  Someone who we can rest upon, and base our attitude on -- Jesus.  To remind me to keep a positive attitude this year I'm going to use a physical reminder -- water.  When I start to judge myself by worldly standards; I'm going to remember that through the water of baptism I'm a child of God.  When I lack courage to do the right thing; I'm going to remember that Jesus walked on water and asks us to do the same.  When I am tempted to withhold generosity from those in need; I'm going to remember that Jesus promises a reward to those who offer even a cup of cold water.  When my life becomes chaotic; I'm going to remember that Jesus calms the storms on the water.  I don't want simply a positive attitude this year; I want the attitude of Jesus in my heart.water

May God bless you this year! 

Are You a Christmas Person?

What is Christmas for you?  Are you caught up in the rush of events and preparations?  Do you carry a slight irritation that the world exploits Christmas, and at the same time is critical of Christians? Are you left with only an abstraction of Christmas as you light candels or breath-in the fragrance of the tree.  Or, do you smell the hay,  feel the warmth of the animals, and  hear the scurry of mice in a stable in Bethlehem.  Can you see the child, who is fully God and fully man.  All of this is real.  This is not an idea, momentary feeling, pleasant fragrance, or warm glow.  A Christmas person is grounded in the reality that God became humanity at a certain place and time.  And, because of this their lives are changed...heart, mind, and body.  Changed how?  Are they more conscious of sin...more penitent?  Do they become more obedient?  Perhaps, but only in response to the joy of knowing a loving God that reaches out to them.  Christmas people experience real joy, because of a real event, about a real person our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Dear Father, I give you thanks for your Son Jesus. For His days on earth; For the record of His deeds of love; For the words He spoke for my guidance and help; For His obedience unto death; For His triumph over death; For the presence of His Spirit with me now; I thank you God. Amen.

Soldier-Soul

Amy Charmicheal was an Irish missionary who served  in India during British rule.  Despite faults she lived a life of obedience.  She avoided any luxury that would distract her from her unconditional sevice to her Master.  Amy had a soldier's heart of obedience, commitment,and sacrifice.  She once said, "Pray that we who are His sworn soldiers abroad may throw our kid gloves to the winds and FIGHT!"  Amy Charmicheal is an example to all of us who wish to stand with Christ against the evil that robs people of their peace and joy now and for eternity.

We are familiar with the passage in Ephesians where Paul encourages us to pick up the whole armor of God.  It sounds triumphant, but after a while that armor starts to chafe our skin.  The sword and shield become heavy making our arms ache.  However, as Amy said we are in a "fight".  The early Christians recognized this. They depicted Christ as a warrior-king with a sword over his shoulder.

Pray for those volunteers who are coming to Alaska to enter the battle here next summer.  Even now they are re-arming and refitting.  Many continue to  communicate with the people they met this past  summer.  They work to gather funding and new materials.  They recruit and encourage.  Your prayers and support for them make you part of the fight!

Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.  2Timothy 2:3 

Giving Life

I could see the rain hitting the sidewalk as a collegue and I sat in a hotel cafe.  We were visiting with a wonderful Christian couple visiting Alaska who were interested in supporting mission work.  They were bubbling with with honest and insightful questions.  The couple shared how Christ had changed their lives.  They were "alive", and they wanted to share this life in Christ with others.  Their desire was to give in a way that would change hearts forever.  It was a blessing for us to share how AMC desires richness of relationship with Christ among Alaskans, and in our supporters as well.

 You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.  2 Cor. 9:11

God Sightings

I've just returned from four weeks of travel in SW Alaska.  It was a time of flying in small planes, sleeping on the floor, eating peanutbutter and crackers, and working with lots of servant-volunteers with a heart for the people of Alaska.  It was also a time of marvel at the workings of Jesus.

This summer 13 villages on the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers, and on the Bearing Sea were touched by the Gospel message.  These remote communities experienced Jesus in the form of volunteers who came as servants offering a message of salvation, and acts of careing.  

One team of volunteers used the expression of, "God sightings" to describe experiences of seeing  God at work.  This summer there were many God sightings:

  • Villages offered new places for teams to lodge and to hold programs.  School gyms were offered for programs.
  • Local Native pastors appeared at children's events to guide and encourage.
  • Village churches collaborated to support the programs for children.  Young Christians from the village appeared, and said "we are here to help".
  • Discussions were held long into the night on how to best disciple and train new Christians in the Faith.
  • Plans were made for collaboration around youth events to take place later this fall.
  • New opportunties for Christian professional to live work and minister in the villages emerged in the areas of health and education.  Volunteer nurses are needed.  Summer schools need volunteer teachers.
  • Finally, a volunteer said she asked a little girl what she learned at VBS.  The little girl looked up and said, "Jesus loves me, he will forgive me when I am sorry, and someday I will live with him forever".  Did you see Jesus?  He is right there looking up at you!

...no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.  1 Cor. 12:3b

The Simplehearted

"The LORD is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion.  The LORD protects the simplehearted..."  Psalm 116: 5-6a 

I was given a moment of pause and reflection by the little girl in the picture.  She walked in wide-eyed on the first day of vacation bible school (VBS) in Akiachak.    Her hair was done in a single braid, and her clothes were simple but adequate.  She sat apart .  Despite the activity by the other children in the room she gave her total attention to the songs and bible stories.  What could she be thinking?  What stirred in her spirit?  Was she really alone, or was Jesus holding her close in this moment?  All I knew was that she was the picture of serenity.

The VBS team from Nebraska had traveled far to reach this small community located near the Kuskoquim River that flows into Bristol Bay.  They had spent weeks preparing bible stories, crafts, and skits for the children.  Once in the village they lived with cold showers, mosquitoes, and long long days.  However, each and everyone of them gave generously of themselves. The afternoon VBS was followed by an evening of activities with the children and young adults.  There were countless games of jump-rope, piggy-back rides, and basket ball games until late in the evening.  

Village life at this time of the year is centered around fishing.  Many people pack-up boats and travel to their fish camps.  These are usually small clearings along the river away from the village where they live for weeks at a time.  In these camps they catch, clean, and dry fish for the winter.    Some children were taken from the VBS to join their families in this work.

The team members admitted that they were changed by the week in the village.  Even the "veterans", those who had been to Akiachak in prior years, had been given new in-sights.  Some realized that they may never visit this community again, others vowed to come back.  A few felt a stirring to seek a deeper ministry to the souls in this remote place.

As I watch teams climbing into small planes, I pray that the Holy Spirit would bring the faces of these simplehearted children into their minds in their moments of quiet.  And, that they would pray for the Lord's protection on them.

Nunapitchuk

The summer ministry season in SW Alaska started in Nunapitchuk, a tundra village of about 500 people.  The river we needed to cross to get to the village was still frozen over, but the ice was too soft to go by snow machine.  The village was waiting and the kids were excited.  So, what to do? The resourceful team from Anchorage Lutheran secured the services of a helicopter to ferry the team across the river.  The team was able to quickly and safely arrive in the village.

The week spent in the village provided wonderful opportunities to share the love of God through the VBS program, community nights in the school gym, bible study, providing a church service, and sharing holy communion.  

The team members dedicated themselves to very long days.  Relationships were formed, prayers were said, the name of Jesus was exclaimed over and over. They left tired but with a good deal of joy and peace.  

Graduation

My wife Cathy, and our girls Hannah and Esther recently attended our oldest son's graduation.  It was an inspiring affair with music, colorful academic regalia, and speeches.  The best part was to see the smiles and lighthearted antics of the graduates.  They were reveling in freedom from the late nights of study, exams, and term papers.  They had run their race with perseverance and now they were receiving the promised reward.  As I sat in the audience it was hard not to reflect upon our graduation into eternity with God.  Will our names be read aloud from the Book of Life?  Will we be given robes which honor us as  children of our Creator?  Will we frolic in joyful anticipation of an eternity of joyful anticipation?  Yes!  

This summer as we work with the children and youth in many small villages, we want them to also live their lives in expectation of a glorious graduation from this life into the presence of a loving LORD.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord , the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day -- and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
2Timothy 4: 7,8

God and $Money$

It is humbling for me to talk about money.  I wish I was in a position where my ministry in SW Alaska was blessed with an abundance of financial resources.  If this were the case then I could say we must be doing God's will; look at how He is blessing us!  This is not the case however.  Financial giving for SW Alaska is down.  In a few months, if nothing changes, cuts in the ministry will need to be made.

Before coming to Alaska, I worked for an organization that raised money using highly developed marketing techniques implimented by highly paid people.  And, these techiques were successful.  You are exposed to them everyday.  AMC has intentionally chosen not to use these marketing tools to work on our supporters and friends.  Instead our approach has been that of Saint Paul.  He was not afraid to talk about money, or even ask for it.  But, he would not manipulate emotions, or otherwise pressure Christians to give (Cor.16:1-4). Paul simply stated the need, and let the Holy Spirit work.  The result was to God's glory and not man's cleverness.  

Paul asked the Corinthians  to help the church in Jerusalem that was suffering from a famine.  The AMC ministry in SW Alaska is asking for  funding to continue work in child evangelism, Christ centered healing for victims of abuse and addiction, and bible teaching for local Native Alaskan church leaders.

God bless you! 

Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. Philippians 4:20

A New Era in Missions

This past week I was out in SW Alaska attending the Moravian Synodical meetings.  The Moravian church is a pre-reformation protestant church founded in 1457.  They administer the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.  They started work in SW Alaska just before 1900.  As I stood looking out over the frozen Kuskokwim River, I had to reflect on how different mission work has become in most areas of the world.  When I first started doing mission work we were still ministering to groups of people who had never heard about Jesus Christ in a meaningful way. Some  had never even heard the name, Jesus Christ.  The people living in the hills of the small Asian country where I worked had no access to the gospel.  Now I am doing missions in an area where the gospel has been preached for over 100 years.  Does this mean that mission work is no longer needed?  No.  However, the role of the missionary has changed from that of pioneer to facilitator.  The late Paul Hiebert wrote that, " missionaries are now 'in betweeners'. They are bridge persons and culture brokers who stand between worlds and help them to understand one another".  What does this new role look like?  How is it actually accomplished?  Many missionaries train local church leadership, provide theological education, and write contextualized bible study and children's materials.  Here in Alaska where there are acute social issues, missionaries bring healing by bringing Christ. For me this will mean returning to this place next fall to teach Alaskan Native pastors in the bible seminary.

Some may think that this new role is less difficlut from that of the original pioneers.  This is true in some ways.  Yes, the church has structure.  The bible has been translated into the local language.  Native leadership has been trained.  However, there are also the challenges of a relativly new church being engulfed in social change, and learning to live as Christians and as Native people.  

Thankfully, the hearts of the Native Alaskan people are not has hard as this frozen river.  Despite the dramatic changes in their lives over the past 150 years or so, they are patient and open.  I have been truly blessed by the people in SW Alaska.  They say the land forms the character of the people who live in it.  I would agree it is a strong element of formation.  It certainly has made me  appreciate community, simplicity, patience, and being who you are in the moment without pretence.  

Weather Permitting

Weather is an important feature of life in bush Alaska.  It is a feature of life over which there is no control for good or bad.  A bright day on the river fishing can be inspiring.  A day of snow and strong winds can defeat your best plans.  So, it was earlier this week in SW Alaska.  I flew to Bethel for a meeting of pastors and church workers living in scattered villages on the tundra.   The weather closed in behind me; bringing blizzard conditions and a wind chill of 45 below zero.  The flights from villages on the tundra were grounded before they could take-off.  Pilots in parkas were sitting at the airport drinking coffee hoping for a break in the weather that did not come.   What about the meeting that had been planned for months?  Well, we will try to meet again in April.  We were reminded once again that all flights in bush Alaska are scheduled…weather permitting.

So much of the ministry of AMC is dependent upon things we cannot control, weather being only one of them.  We are dependent upon the generosity of faithful people, the commitment of volunteers, and primarily upon the Holy Spirit to open people’s hearts to Jesus Christ.  We do not command resources, or have all of the answers for the needs we face.  Therefore, I am learning to make prayer  the foundation of our work.  Sometimes amid a seemingly desperate situation a prayer emerges in the space of a breath…Lord have mercy!

Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.
Psalm 127:1-3 

The following is a poem that is posted on the wall of many small airports in Alaska.
 

Way up in Alaska wherever you are
If you’re headed out close or you’re headed out far
When you go to the airport, you may need your knitting
For you’ll only be flying, weather permitting

There’s no use in fuming or fussing or snitting
You always face this, it’s weather permitting
So don’t get disheartened in the far golden North
Just learn to relax without fretting or quitting

And when the grim reaper comes I can see it all clear
I’m alone in my shroud, Happy Heaven is near
I’m coming, St. Peter, this old world I’m quitting
And I’ll be along soon...weather permitting.

So, How was your Christmas?

I am sure many of you have been asked how your Christmas was.  People are curious to know where you went, who you were with, or about that special gift.  When people ask me, I say I had a good Christmas.  This is the short answer, and allows the conversation to move on.  But, if I was to be really honest I would say that this Christmas lacked the normal warmth and emotional glow that I usually feel. I suppose many of these feelings are caused by the preparations, decorations, music, and special food during the Christmas season.  Never the less I felt robbed of these good feelings by the event that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  As the details of the event unfolded, it was so hard to greet people with the usual, "Merry Christmas".  The realities of the world had "crashed" the Christmas party.  In a real way,  I was robbed of the Christmas experience I was expecting.  As I attended school Christmas programs, and watched my own children, I could not help but grieve with the parents in Newtown.  Despair seemed to permiate the atmosphere.  How could such an evil attack on children take place so close to Christmas?  In a season where we sing "glory to God"; God appeared so powerless to protect the innocent.  In the words of the Psalmist:

Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you?  Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfullness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?  Psalm 88

Thankfully, I did not remain in a place of darkness, or in the land of oblivion.  The tragic event helped me to gain a deeper understanding of who Jesus Christ is.  No we do not serve a cruel Lord and master.  He does not stand at a comfortable distance from the suffering and evil in this world.  He came into this world were innocents is no safeguard against evil, and were children are special targets of destruction.  Jesus suffered all of the evil that was present at Sandy Hook Elementary School and more.  Our Lord not only suffed evil he overcame it.  What would it be like to live in a world where there was no alternative to evil; no one to turn to except ourselves for any comfort?  As we ponder the meaning of the incarnation, and realize what the world would be like without it, we want to shout "glory to God"!

Much of the ministry of the Alaska Mission for Christ occurs among children.  Close to 5,000 children heard about Jesus through our 2012 summer programs. My Christmas journey this year made me so greatful for the AMC focus on young people, and children...it must be the wisdom of God. 

I will sing of the LORD'S great love forever: with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.  I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you established your faithfulness in heaven itself.  Psalm 89

Winter in Rural Alaska

Many volunteers come to Alaska and serve in villages during the summer months.  The weather is warm.  The children are out of school. Adults are busy at fish camp, or gathering berries  People are travelling up and down the rivers by boat.

In the winter village life changes.  There is the secure feeling of having enough fish, moose and caribou meat for the winter.  Boats are pulled up on the beach.  Their motors are stored away. Four-wheelers are exchanged for snow machines.  Frozen rivers become super-highways.  Families on snow machines visit other villages up and down the river.  The children are in school with opportunities to play basketball.  It is a special time of , " no bugs and no bears".

The cold and short day light hours encourage people to spend more time indoors.  Many of the traditional crafts, now practiced as art forms, were once essential skills.  For example, snowshoes made of birch and laced with moose or caribou sinew (babiche) now are sold for hanging over fireplaces.  In times past, snowshoes were an essential way of travel.  Even mushers used snowshoes for breaking trail for their dog teams in deep snow.  Wonderful carvings, and items of beadwork are created during this time.  It is amazing what delights to the eye can be made using simple items and human creativity!

For those of robust health and winter outdoor skills, trapping animals for fur is a winter activity.  Trapping fur-bearing animals is not the large-scale enterprise it once was in Alaska, but it still is done in many places.  Martin is the most commonly trapped  animal.  It's fur is known as sable.

Finally, winter is a time of gathering together in native Alaskan villages.  Along with the Christmas celebration, traditional potlatches are also held.  One village will invite another village to a feasvillage wintert and dancing.  These uniquely native activities are especially appreciated in remote communities.

So, even in the stillness of winter life goes on.  It is a wonderful testament to the character of rural Alaskans that winter is not just endured, it is embraced as a time with unique opportunties for living.

First Snow

Well it finally happened. Last night without a sound, or flash of light our world changed. The first snowfall moved us from a brown landscape of dried grass and plants to a scene of white. This change, really a small one, had an immediate effect on our family this morning. There was the sigh of acceptance that winter was finally here. Our girls put on their snow boots for the first time and trekked off to the school bus. The cat initially curious about the snow came in the back door with a meow, shaking its paws. The snow absorbed the normal sounds of the neighborhood providing a peaceful quiet.

I think that when the Spirit of God fills the heart of a person. It is a bit like a first snowfall. God comes in silence.   We don’t know when He will come. The heart, dried and brown with sin is changed to white. We change the way we act and think. Our ability to love others increases. The word of God becomes more alive. And, of course there is greater peace as we step back from the noise of the world.

Cleans me with Hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Psalm 51:7, 8

Of Moose and Men

The AMC staff takes a few days each year just to talk about where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.  Many work teams do this.  They find a nice place and stay in comfortable lodgings.  However, in Alaska we do things a bit differently.  We still find a nice place, but we sleep under canvas.  We meet sitting in camp chairs with our notebooks in our laps.  There is the smell of wood smoke in the air, and the sound of wind in the trees.  Even in our remote setting the discussions are serious, and focused on the ministry God has set before us. 

The meetings are broken by long periods of time spent in silence and solitude.  Before first light and just before dark we individually head off to a forest pond to sit silently, watching for a bull moose to appear.  This time of stillness provides a time for prayer and reflective thought.  As we sit with our back against a tree, allowing the silence to cover us, we may slip a small bible or devotional from our pocket. 

Moose do not always come to our ponds to feed, or to find other moose.  However,  as we make the trek back to camp we know in our spirits that Jesus was there watching with us in silence...guiding our thoughts and prayers. 

At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. Luke 4:42