Church in Alaska

I have now been in Alaska for over 4 and a half years. It seems every time I talk to someone in the lower 48 they have a thousand questions about living in Alaska and Church in Alaska and anything related to life here. So I thought for a couple of days I would share my insights about life and Church in Alaska. Some of it you might expect, but some might be surprising.

1. In Alaska, your concept of distance changes. I often quote a T-shirt that says, “If we cut Alaska in half, then we would just have two states bigger than Texas.” With a state this big and so few people you find yourself always going a great distance to do anything. For example: We have a local grocery store and a hardware store that has everything, but a Wal-mart is about two hours away. A visit to a mall requires a 4 hour drive to Anchorage. Simple purchases like jeans, shoes and groceries require a long distance trip. For sports, my son recently had a 4 hour bus ride followed by an hour and a half flight to get to a tournament. All games are a minimum of an hour and a half away.

For Church – that means people are gone from town a great deal for the time. They fly south to visit family, they go to Anchorage for a weekend to stock up on everything, they travel all across the state for sports which require whole day trips or entire weekends. While here the Church has gone from 25 in attendance to 50 each weekend, but we now have about 80 people who call the Church home. Most weekends we have families all over the state.

2. In Alaska, your concept of money changes. Everything in Alaska is expensive – I mean everything. Because of shipping costs to get items to Alaska everything costs a little more. For example – our local McDonald’s does not have a “Dollar Menu.” Instead it has a “Value Menu” where prices start at $1.80 and go up. We have no $5 foot-longs at Subway, instead we have $7 foot-longs. Take that concept and add it to every item you can imagine.

For Church – There are several layers of implications. One, a pastor’s salary has to be higher than most places. This is true in every Church I know. Two – giving needs to be higher to pay the inflated bills we face. For years our heating bill has been killing our budget. Third – I rely heavily on the internet for all resources and materials. Thank the Lord for Amazon’s free shipping. Finally – Churches work together to share resources. Since having an outside speaker for any topic is costly, we openly promote the Churches working together to maximize resources.

I know these are simple, but this is life in Alaska. I will give you a couple more tomorrow.

Real Leadership

All of my children are very active in sports. They really enjoy playing football and especially basketball. The longer they are involved with sports, and as they start to get into high school sports, the more they hear about the need for leadership. Their coaches are constantly talking about how their teams are in need of leaders and leadership.

The problem comes when they try to define a quality leader. The coaches seem to convey to my children that leadership is about what you say. One coach really applauds a boy who likes to shout cheers and is loud and overly vocal. Another coach allows an older student to lecture the younger players. He allows him to give speeches and talk about what other players should do.

This is a problem for me because I believe real leadership is about your actions. A real leader makes the plays. A real leader makes the players around him better. A real leader stands up for a weaker player. To me a real leader does the right thing.

I do believe that there is a vocal aspect to leadership, but you only speak after your actions have proven you to be a leader. A leader expresses himself in his words but his actions are what makes him a leader.

I have to agree with the coaches, our teens are definitely in need of some leaders. I just hope they are really leaders.

Just Another Day

Today is Valentine’s Day. It is a day of love and roses and chocolates and gifts. But for my wife and I it is just another day. I don’t say that in an angry way and I do not mean it in a frustrated tone. I mean that for us it is simply another day to love one another.

Early on in my ministry my wife and I noticed couples who spent very little time together. They had separate lives with different friends and they spent much of their time apart. Then a holiday or anniversary would come and they would take a big trip or buy a big gift for one another. It appeared as if every special occasion was just a chance for the one to remind the other that they existed. So we determined that the best thing we could do for our marriage was to treat everyday as special.

We have tried to make a habit of telling each other “I love you” everyday. We try to do everything together besides work. We try to enjoy fun activities together that we each enjoy. She enjoys shopping and I go along. I enjoy fishing and she goes along. While we do not always enjoy what the other person enjoys we do love being together.

That is not to say that we do not buy any gifts or cards for each other. We simply have decided that true love is expressed everyday in time together, in kind words, in listening to each other and being friends. It is only accentuated by special days. The times we have had problems have not come from missing a special day, they have come from missing the everyday. Honestly, I would bet the same is true for you.

So today – Tell your spouse that you love them and show it to them some special way. But I also propose that you do that tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the …

Attendance Opens Doors

Here in Homer Alaska the Churches have a unique bond. The leaders of the Churches here meet together each week in a Pastor’s group we call the Homer Ministerial Alliance (HMA). This group of pastors lead a couple of community events together. One is a joint Halloween carnival for young children. The other is a community wide worship service that we call “One Lord Sunday.” Through the years we have done several other projects, but these are the regular ones. Because we have organized events our weekly meetings have a president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer.

I have been a part of the HMA every since I moved to town 5 years ago. I have attended a meeting here and there, but I could not say that I have been at every meeting – not even close. I have attended once or twice a month depending on the time of year and the topic for discussion.

This last year everything changed. I volunteered to be the president of the HMA for the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014. Knowing that we had events to plan and that I was the primary person responsible motivated me to commit to attending every meeting this year. While I have missed a couple of meetings for various ministry reasons I have not missed a meeting this calendar year.

Yesterday we were meeting together and the conversation was good. We have been praying for one another and that continued. We joked and laughed and enjoyed ministry together. After the meeting I told my wife that this is the closest I have ever felt to the other preachers in town. I feel like they are my friends and I can share openly and honestly with them. I feel as though they care about me and I know I care about them.

Last night I was reflecting on my feelings about the other pastors and I wondered what had made the difference in my relationship with them. Here are my conclusions: One, we are praying for each other. This definitely breaks down barriers. Two, I have known them longer. With time many walls come down. Finally, I have been attending every week.

One of the biggest reasons that my relationship with other Christian leaders has changed is because of my regular attendance at meetings. I now understand the “inside jokes.” I know the ups and downs of their lives. They now view me as a part of their lives. Every dynamic of our relationship changed simply because I attend every meeting.

I think the same is true for every Christian. If you attend a large group or a small group meeting once in a while, you will feel little connection. But when you attend every week and participate in conversations then a world of new relationships open up to you. Yes, we can be Christians without attending Church functions every week, but the dynamics change when we do.

In Praise of Teachers

Recently an elderly lady donated old Sunday School material to our Church. This lady has only been attending our Church for a little while now, but has been a part of The Church as a whole almost all of her life. She moved to Homer in 1951 and apparently began serving as a Sunday School teacher not too long after. Now she struggles to get around and a nice woman in our Church drives her to worship with us each week.

A couple of weeks ago she asked about donating some old Sunday School material to the Church. I told her it would be great and I made arrangements for her to call me when it was ready to pick up. About two weeks later she finally gave me a call and this last Sunday my son and I went to pick it up. Honestly I was expecting a couple of boxes of old “purchased” lesson material from David Cook or Gospel Light publishing. We arrived to find 7 boxes of materials and 2 medium-sized trash bags full.

For the last three days I have been going through the material. Much of it was craft material. She had construction paper, stencil, glitter, glue, etc. Two or three of the boxes of material simply went straight into our supply boxes. A couple of the boxes contained file after file of magazine pictures. Through the years she had taken magazines and cut out pictures and filed them under: Adult Men, Easter, Christmas, Animals and a few other titles. Apparently she took these files and when she taught a lesson. For example, when she taught on Noah’s ark she took out the animal file. When she taught about Father’s Day she took out the appropriate file. One file of pictures for every Bible story, holiday and craft project you can imagine.

As I went through the files I found a few useful items, but most of it was just very dated magazine pictures. Honestly, it was not much more than trash to me. (Although I did laugh at some of the styles and haircuts in the pictures) But this project had me thinking of two things.

1. I am impressed by how much time and effort was put into making these files. These boxes represented hours and hours of work and prep time for the classes she taught.

2. Did any of her students know how much effort she put into the classes she taught? I imagine that most of them had no idea that she had spent hours gathering material so she could be prepared for any lesson on any day at any time.

All of this has me thinking about the teachers in my Church and the effort that they put in each week. It also has me thinking about all the teachers I have known though the Churches I have served. Finally it has me thinking about those people who taught me. I have no idea how many hours were spent on lessons that influenced me and the people around me.

So today I want to praise all of you out there who teach children’s classes so selflessly. Thank your for your hard work and many hours of service for a group of kids who probably do not appreciate it enough. Thank you for spending time getting everything ready so that others can learn. I, for one, am glad you serve. I just hope I don’t ever have to go through your files one day:-)

Relationship Risk

A couple of weeks ago I preached a sermon about “Providential Relationships.” The idea was simple – God brings people into our lives who help mold and shape us. That sermon has generated a couple of good conversations and quite a bit of reflection.

Throughout my life I have had a few close relationships other than my wife. Sadly, I am not close to many of those people anymore. One of them died many years ago, one of them I lost contact with as our lives moved different directions, one I still have contact with although we are not close anymore. And on and on it goes. My wife and I have been together for 20 years and during that time I have had a few relationships with other men that I would call my friends. Some of those relationships go on in a different way and others are gone.

I say all of this to underline the fact that relationships have risks. People die. People leave. People change. We change. We move. Life is constantly evolving and so are our relationships. But I firmly believe that we need to continue forming relationships no matter what the future holds.

I am reminded of the song by Garth Brook entitled “The Dance.” There is this powerful line in the chorus, “I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.” Relationships involve risk, but the rewards are far greater than the risk.

So head out today and make a friend. It may not have a happy ending, but it may bring some good times. You never know.