Monday, December 30, 2013

An Unwelcome Christmas Visitor

I have a gun I take with me when I am out in the Alaska backcountry for wildlife protection.  I never thought I would load it to possibly use it against a human being.  Late last Christmas the peace of our home was shattered literally by a man forcing his way into our home.  At the loud sound Kim retreated with the phone and locked herself into the bedroom where our 2 year old granddaughter was sleeping.  I  investigated the sound and was stunned to see a young man climbing into our living room through a broken window.  I did not know if he had a weapon so I ran back to the bedroom to load my revolver.  I'm not a gun enthusiast at all but it appeared that the most feared scenario was unfolding before my eyes.  I would do anything to protect my family.

But I am a person of faith and have had training in alternatives to violence.  So I hid the gun behind my back as I crept down the hall.  When I reached the kitchen I saw the young man laying on the floor in a pool of blood, his head moving back and forth.  Seeing no threat I put the gun away.

The police and ambulance arrived quickly and he was transported to the hospital and then jail.  Kim and I along with our daughter and son-in-law and a helpful officer cleaned up the mess.  We prayed to claim God's peace in our home and tried to sleep.  I took Kim into my arms and we looked into each others' watery eyes.  I said, "We are not immune from the world's brokenness entering our home.  We are going to be okay.  God is our Rock."  It is true.  We are okay and do not appear to suffer any of the effects of this trauma.

So now it is time for some theologizing.  I shudder to think that if I had a loaded gun in my hand when he was entering our home I could have shot and killed him and been justified in the eyes of the law.  What is a Christian response to such an incident?  Where was God in these seconds of terror?  What about the millions of people, especially children who live under a constant threat of danger?  Where is our sense of security?

I suppose the point is that our views on the hot button topics of our day are often argued in a vacuum.  When you are forced out of the vacuum and feel the rush of blowing air slamming into your face it gives you a new perspective.  My perspective is one of gratitude to God that my family is safe.  I pray for families who are subjected to danger.  And I pray that our solutions to violence will have more to do with God than guns.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christmas and Vulnerability

Christmas is for me always about the vulnerability of God.  God choosing to be bound by the same limitations all humans experience, which begins at birth as fragile, vulnerable babies.

Father Richard Rohr writes about this in one of his daily meditations found at  
For the Christian, spiritual power is always hidden inside of powerlessness, just as God was hidden and yet revealed in a defenseless baby. If God is ever to be loved and shared, God had to risk both human embodiment and human vulnerability. This is the only thing that enchants and evokes the human heart. We do not properly fall in love with concepts or theological ideas (although some do try); persons fall in love with other persons.  In a weak little child, God is both perfectly hidden and perfectly revealed—and fully lovable.

Our Christmas challenge is to push beyond the Christmas card scenes and sentimentalism to this notion that our spiritual power as Christians is found in the powerlessness of the Christ child.  Our spiritual strength begins here, and in our own confession that we cannot control our lives, and that we need God.  This makes Christmas more than a season, but a way of life.

Grace Always,


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mandela's Legacy

I am not a political commentator.  But I am an observer of the natural and human world.  On this day when the world bids farewell to Nelson Mandela and celebrates his legacy I am thinking about the moment when he realized that hating his white oppressors would not be helpful for him or his cause.  I think about that moment of transformation when forgiveness seemed to him a better path.  It makes me wonder about his years at a Methodist boarding school and the ministry of the chaplain at Robben Island prison.  Were these influences part of Mandela's inner transformation?

We United Methodists have a mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  The forgiveness Mandela chose to offer his captors replacing the hate in his heart was truly a God moment.  It was a God moment that changed history and offered real hope of liberation to people enslaved by oppressive regimes.

This was not simply an idea.  It was a very real, personal transformation in the soul of Nelson Mandela.  And this personal transformation led to a political one in South Africa.  Mandela's legacy is certainly about his rise to the presidency of South Africa.  But I like his legacy of forgiveness...his personal salvation...his soul transformation.  As a person of faith this is always the starting point of any revolution, personal or political, where the kingdom of God breaks forth into our world.

Grace and Forgiveness,


To read about Peter Storey's reflection on serving as Mandela's prison chaplain and their friendship click on this link.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Worship Language Matters

I enjoy all kinds of worship.  I really do.  But I do not easily say or sing some of the language we use in worship.  For example, I prefer to use language to describe God as non-male.  I believe that God is much deeper than gender.  The Bible was written by men in a culture when women were subjugated and often oppressed by men.  No one would say today in the UMC that women should keep silent in church.  And so I often translate and say "God" when a unison prayer mentions "Him."  But I feel more connected with God and the church when I don't have to do the work of translation.

In worship I cannot sing the blood hymns because I don't believe Jesus had to die in order to satisfy God's need for a sacrifice.  The point is that the language we use to talk about our faith matters.  It teaches.  This can be a problem when I really like the melody of a song or hymn.  I think most of us go along and sing the words without much thought because we like the tune.

This happens in many of our praise services.  People listen to Christian radio and music leaders like to sing in worship the songs they hear on the radio.  The issue I am raising is that some of the language of these songs are teaching concepts that are not receiving a full measure of our study and discernment.

I would simply encourage us all to pay attention to the language of our faith.  It would be good to do some spiritual and biblical digging to see what concepts we are promoting when we talk, sing, and pray our faith.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Bible and Sexuality

It is clear to me that the current ongoing debate over homosexuality is more about the authority of the Bible than sexual orientation.  Those who still feel strongly that homosexuality is sinful point to Paul and the Old Testament scriptures.  To those who feel this way I have a question.  If you believe this way simply because it is written in these scriptures, do you feel the same way with regards to all other teachings?  There are not many United Methodists who believe women should be silent in church.  Why don't we hear anyone railing against gluttony, yet the Old Testament warns against it.

From my perspective this debate about whether UM pastors can officiate gay weddings or if gay people can marry needs to be about how we view scripture.  Furthermore, I observe that most Christians already give more authority to certain parts of scripture than others.  I certainly do.  I give more weight to the words and actions of Jesus than obscure admonitions in Leviticus.  For me the authority of scripture does not rest in the words themselves.  They are just words on a page.  But they have power to shape and transform my life when I insert myself into the scripture, when I see myself in the biblical story.  The power comes when I bring my humbled spirit to the narrative that God speaks to me and changes me!

We United Methodists are guided not only by scripture, but by tradition, reason, and experience.  For me this principle really does help me discern truth in our complex world today.  Obedience to scripture needs to be checked and balanced by tradition, reason, and experience.

So my two cents is that this debate needs to be re-framed because it is not about sexuality, but about the authority of the Bible.

Grace and peace,

Monday, November 11, 2013

Visit to North Pole

This is not a post about Santa.  It is about my visit to New Hope Methodist/Presbyterian Church in North Pole, Alaska, last weekend.  My friend and colleague, Rev. Curt Karns, executive with the Yukon Presbytery, and I were on the same plane to Fairbanks.  We try to show up together at our union churches.  It helps that we have been friends for over 20 years so our union churches appreciate our ecumenical connections. 

It is possible that this congregation is like yours...struggling with how to be an attractional church in a culture that is not easily attracted to church programs and buildings.  One woman talked about their way of being church as the "New Hope way."  It was a confession of sorts as they struggle to face their reality and contemplate change. 

The "New Hope way" is not unique to New Hope church.  I have witnessed the same phenomenon in other congregations across Alaska.  There is almost a sense of pride in the voices of some of our leaders when they talk about how they have done church for many years.  It is as if new people have to demonstrate that they can swim against the current and navigate obstacles to prove themselves worthy to be members of the club. 

I could see the bulbs light up as Curt and I talked with them about ways to be Church in new ways:  moving beyond welcoming to becoming an inviting church; giving from our abundance, not our scarcity; helping others in North Pole, not to get butts in the pews, but simply to share God's grace; taking an honest look at our worship practices and how they appear to new people. 

Curt and I left New Hope feeling hopeful.  Trent and Linda Baggett are doing great work as interim pastors.  They have much promise for a bright future.  The bottom line is that this is God's work and our work is to imagine what God can do, cooperate as fully as possible, and retool ourselves as we move forward.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Alaska Leadership Solution?

Most Alaska Conference lay and clergy leaders know that we are facing a pastoral leadership dilemma.  Eight of our 28 churches were served by full time pastors four years ago.  Due to cut backs from GBGM, membership decline, and an up and down economy, these churches are now served by pastors willing to work part time.  Most are retired which means we face a long term problem.  Let me share with you a development that just may work in Alaska.

Pastor Janice Carlton of Kenai and North Star UMC has 10-12 lay adults who want more training as leaders.  In September Janice and Marti Slater, retired pastor in Kenai, attended the Certified Lay Minister (CLM) training in Washington.  I arranged for this training to be videotaped.  Janice and Marti plan to use the video to teach these classes on various aspects of pastoral ministry to the dozen adults.

I've asked our Professional Ministries Unit to look at the curriculum and certify some of these adults as CLM's.  They will be available as a resource in their churches.  But wait, there's more!  The Book of Discipline gives the authority to bishops to appoint CLM's to pastor local churches.  This could be a possible solution to providing leadership to our churches served by part time pastors.  Churches are being asked to consider raising up their own pastors!

I shared this idea with the people at Community UMC in Nome.  They are very enthusiastic about it.  It is no surprise that Nome has a strong contingent of lay speakers (Lay Servants as they are called now). 

So keep this in mind as pastors and lay leaders ponder how to strengthen your leadership base.  It just could be a great solution to our leadership issue in Alaska.

Grace Always,

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mission Insite

I am jazzed!  This morning Crystal and Carlo and I received online orientation about Mission Insite, a resource that provides churches with valuable demographic information about their mission fields.  It is available today at for all Alaska Conference clergy and laity.  Anyone in any of our church has free access to data that is designed to fit your community. 

Do you want to know how many preschoolers live within a 3 mile radius of your church building?
Do you want to know how many Samoans live in a specific area near your building?
Do you want to know the average income levels of people living in your neighborhood?

Mission Insite can give you this information today.  It is FREE to Alaska thanks to Mission Insite and the Pacific Northwest Conference.  Another example of how our big sister conference is helping us. 

Each pastor or layperson from any UM or union church in Alaska can log on and set up their own account.  That way each search or report you generate will be saved.  The amount of information and detail will amaze you.  Carlo Rapanut, as chair of our Board of Congregational Development, and Crystal Feaster, our conference assistant, will be learning the capabilities of this system.  They will be available to show others how it words via webinars or perhaps the clergy retreat.  We hope to present it to our annual conference next year. 

The goal  is to bring a major focus on our mission fields.  We simply need to know more about the people we are trying to serve.  We hope that Mission Insite will become part of our conference vocabulary as we experiment with ways to reach out with the love of God.

You will be hearing more each week in the E-Aurora about this new resource.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

New Day Alaska

New Day Alaska is the name we are giving to a new missional community in Anchorage.  We are six lay and clergy, UM's and ELCA at the moment, who comprise the lead team.  This is a fruit of the Academy for Missional Wisdom I experienced for two years.  Now is the time to implement what we are learning about how to create new places for new people at the edge.

On Friday, Oct. 25 we will welcome Rev. Kirimi Ikiugu, a Methodist pastor from Kenya.  For the next year he will help us assess the need, network, and begin a new faith community somewhere in Anchorage.  This is a grassroots effort.  We are receiving no institutional funds from any denomination.  But it is ecumenical and we are close to naming four anchor churches from the UMC, ELCA, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches.
I invite you to pray for us as we launch this new initiative.  We have already seen how God is blessing us with offers of help and funding.  We anticipate some bumps along the way, but we are convinced this is a God-inspired movement.  It is already spreading around the country as the Christian Church tries to retool itself to present a meaningful model of faith to a world in need.

Thanks be to God!


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Indigenous People Day

 I am not a fan of celebrating Columbus Day.  I just have an issue with a holiday touting the achievement of a European "discovering" a land that was home to people who had lived here for thousands of years. 
I was talking with Rev. Charles Brower, pastor of Nome Community United Methodist Church, and native Alaskan last week.  He was talking about his contact with a Canadian native woman who is concerned about the effects of colonialism on indigenous people today.  It made me think of the trauma caused to a congregation by a pastor who violates a sacred trust in some way.  Experts talk about the amount of time it requires for a congregation to recover and heal.  They refer to them as "after pastor" congregations.
I wonder if the same thing would apply to entire nations of native people.  Is Alaska an "after colonialist" state?  How deep is the trauma caused by well-intentioned but misguided missionaries and territorial officials when Charlie and other native youth were removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools? 
One thing I believe to be true is that no one can fully comprehend or evaluate the pain of another.  As United Methodist Christians we need to be willing to listen deeply to the hurt of native Alaskans.  People have a deep desire to be known, and part of knowing another is a willingness to hear their pain.
Grace and peace,

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Body Age vs. Mind Age

Today is my birthday.  I have walked this earth for 61 years.  It is weird because I have in my mind an image of a 61 year old man, and I do not fit that image!  Perhaps I am caught up with my baby boomer peers who have always been reluctant to accept the script on how we were to act.  Maybe I am in some form of denial, or immaturity.

As a young pastor I remember visiting Mildred who was 92 and living in a retirement home.  She remarked, "In my mind's eye I am eleven years old romping around my grandfather's farm."  I have always appreciated Mildred's attitude.  She has helped me to have a child like spirit even as my body ages.

There is a difference between childishness and childlikeness.  Jesus teaches us to come to God's kingdom like a child.  I take this to mean expanding our sense of wonder, being grateful for the gifts of life and breath and community, living in the present moment, and asking amazing questions. 

Yes my body is getting older.  But I try to live an active and healthy life.  And my mind age is way younger than my body age.  Thank God for role models like Mildred who show us all how to live as a child of God.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Bigger Part of the Story

None of us fully comprehend the bigger story of peoples' lives.  As pastors and laity we get snapshots.  The advantage laity have over clergy is that if they live in one community for a long time they are privileged to see and know a larger part of the history of their friends and neighbors.  Itinerant UM pastors promise to go where they are sent.  So it is a special gift when we get to be in one place for a long time.  Kim and I have lived in the same house for the past 14 years.  Our four children all graduated from Service High School.

This may be a stretch but today nature presented me with a rare look at a bigger part of one story.  A bull moose was following a cow moose with the drama unfolding in our yard.  First up was the cow eating from our crab apple tree.  Then a bull showed up and laid down ten feet from our front door.  Eventually they got fairly close with the cow whining at him.  It was evident that the bull wanted this cow, but I could not tell if the cow was rejecting him or playing hard to get!

Later I watched a large leafy branch get stuck in the bull's antlers.  I laughed as I imagined him trying to camouflage himself as he sneaked up on the cow. 

Anyway the point is that mother nature gave me a bigger view of this story being played out in my yard in Anchorage, Alaska.  It made me grateful to have witnessed it, even as I realized I would not see the full story as they meandered down the street.

God knows the full story of our lives.  May God grant us the vision, the heart, and the patience to listen to the stories of others. 

Grace Always,

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Necessary Dissatisfaction

"How does one transition from the survival dance to the sacred dance? Let me tell you how it starts. Did you know the first half of life has to fail you? In fact, if you do not recognize an eventual and necessary dissatisfaction (in the form of sadness, restlessness, emptiness, intellectual conflict, spiritual boredom, or even loss of faith, etc.), you will not move on to maturity. You see, faith really is about moving outside your comfort zone, trusting God’s lead, instead of just forever shoring up home base. Too often, early religious conditioning largely substitutes for any real faith." 
   -Richard Rohr, Loving the Two Halves of Life: The Further Journey

A necessary dissatisfaction!  This gets my attention.  Rohr is proclaiming that this necessary dissatisfaction that comes to us in our times of sadness, restlessness, spiritual boredom, and loss of faith are necessary if we are to mature in our faith.  In the midst of your emptiness, sadness, and doubt have you ever thought these were necessary steps leading you to a deeper and stronger faith?  In the middle of such experiences we pray for God to remove these burdens.  Perhaps our prayer should be to move through them!  To embrace them.  To learn from them.  To be transformed by them. 

This really speaks to me for I have experienced all these realities that make up what Rohr calls "necessary dissatisfaction."  I am reading a book by Margaret Johnston called "Faith Beyond Belief."  She writes that feelings of the absence of God or even doubting God's existence are simply important stages on the way to a more mature and grounded faith.  I love it when what I am hearing and reading dovetails together to speak to my soul.

So it may be possible that the lousy feelings you are experiencing just might be part of your necessary dissatisfaction.  And rather than removing them or escaping them God may be urging you to move through them to a new kind of faith on the other side of our discomfort zone!

Grace Always,

Monday, September 16, 2013

How Would You Describe "Fun"?

A couple of weeks ago I was alone at our cabin in the woods north of Willow working on a building project.  I really enjoy looking at space and designing something creative that improves functionality with minimal cost.  For example, my son, Ryan and I, cut dead spruce trees, debarked them, and built a couple of small shelters at the cabin this summer.  I have to say that such projects are "fun" for me.  So this got me thinking about the difference between fun and happiness and joy.

Even though I was working in pouring rain for 5 hours I was having fun!  And I was happy!  And when I connected these feelings to God I experienced pure joy.  And that joy led to gratitude to God for a mind that creates and a body that still works to bring a design to completion.

So, can adults have "fun"?  What is work to one person may be fun to another.  It seems to me that fun, happiness, and joy are interconnected.  For me, though, joy runs deep within my soul.  God is a fun God whose joyful heart delights in seeing us use our God-given gifts in creative and playful ways.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Praying for Peace in Syria

I have a prayer list on my smart phone.  As crises arise such as earthquakes, wars, famines, fires these terrible events that cause human suffering have come and gone from my prayer list.  But one thing has remained on my list for the past 40 years...peace in the Middle East.

Last Saturday I joined Pope Francis' and Bishop Grant's call to fast and pray for peace in Syria.  Each hunger pang was a reminder to think and pray for the people of Syria.  I was working on a building project at our cabin in the rain.  When I thought about my physical hunger I redirected that thought to the many refugees who fled the civil war to the many camps across the border.  My discomfort paled in comparison to theirs.

While I don't agree with President Obama's desire for a limited military strike on Syria I do appreciate his courage to have this debate.  Today it appears that through a candid answer to a reporter's question Secretary Kerry may have unknowingly started us down a path towards a peaceful resolution to the immediate crisis. 

Was this apparent change of course the result of millions of people fasting and praying for peace?  I can't answer that.  But I believe that the course of history can be changed when God's people join together praying and voicing their deep desire for all people to live in peace.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Asking Questions in Church

I spoke at length today with an old UM pastor-friend.  We talked theology, societal needs, and ministry in the Church.  We have some of the same questions about God and the Church.  Together we wondered how safe people feel in our churches to ask certain questions. 

For example, I envision a safety continuum something like this.

           1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9          10

How safe would it be in your church if someone asked, "What's wrong with a non-literal view of the Bible?"  Would this be a 1 or 2?

How about this one?  "Is Jesus really the only way to God?"  In your church would this rate a 2, 6, or 9? 

I suppose what I am raising here is not only questions, but statements about our faith that appear to contradict orthodox Christianity.  I recall a time in seminary when I questioned the virgin birth of Jesus.  A family member was deeply concerned that I was losing my faith. 

I have always contended that any question should be honored and faced within the Church.  One of the reasons that the Church is declining is exactly because people have not felt the freedom and safety to ask their questions within the Church.  It is possible that some questions are viewed as a threat to mainstream Christianity?

If the message of our faith is going to speak to new generations we need to not fear the questions.  For it is in the dialogue that historical truth begins to make sense to those who doubt.  It is in the holy conversations that the traditionalists among us can include a new insight here and there.

I, for one, pray for our churches to be safe places where questions can be honored and respectful debate can take place.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Worshiping with Alaska Lutherans

Last Sunday I had a rare treat...the opportunity to lead worship at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wasilla.  The ELCA and UMC have a full communion agreement which means that clergy can be shared between the two denominations.  Pastor Duane Hanson who has served this congregation for 24 years retired last month.  Not only was I needed to preach and preside over communion, but I baptized a baby.

Here are a few of my observations.  I cannot say how many of them are unique to Good Shepherd or present in most ELCA congregations.
1. The very first part of worship was confession.
2. The baptism was done in the back of the sanctuary at the font.
3. Children were invited to sit on the floor next to the font to witness and participate in the baptism.
4. The Lord's Prayer is virtually identical to the UM version.
5. They use wine, juice, leavened bread, and offer gluten free wafers for communion.
6. They all come to the table with open hands to receive the bread.
7. During the offering the children walk forward to place their offerings in a large barn bank.
8. They love to laugh.
9. They do announcements at the very end of the worship.

I was most struck by how they received communion with open hands.  Every one made eye contact with me to listen to the words, "The body of Christ given for you."  It was a holy time for me.

I can't help but think that worshiping with Christians from other traditions now and then helps advance the kingdom of God in this world.  I give thanks to God, to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, and Bishop Shelley Wickstrom for the grace shown me in recognizing my leadership.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Different Frames

Being a systems person I am always asking bigger questions when confronted with an issue or conflict.  For example, in one church conflict I kept asking, "Is it possible that the Alaskan climate, especially during our long, cold, dark winters is contributing in significant ways to this conflict?" 
I do the same thing with theology.  All of our beliefs about God come from somewhere.  We can say they come from the Bible, but it is our interpretation that has been shaped by how we have been raised or what we are reading.  We can say they come from our experiences, but these often have meanings we and others impose on them.  We can say they come from our own thinking, but our thoughts about God are never pure, having been shaped by other forces. 

So I find myself backing up when I have thoughts about God.  What is the larger picture or frame I am looking through to think this way about God?  Maybe, just maybe, my frame needs adjusting.  Or perhaps I need to peer through a totally different frame.
Marcus Borg in his book, "Speaking Christian," talks about two frames of Christianity.  The predominant and historic one he calls "Heaven and Hell" and the other "Historical-Metaphorical".  I don't think Borg uses this example but a good one is the flat earth view that existed centuries ago.  We become attached to our big picture frameworks and don't give them up easily.  Think about Christians today who refuse to believe in evolution despite the evidence and cling to a literal view of the Bible.  How about Peter's dream in Acts 10 where he was persuaded to change a long standing belief and tradition of circumcision?  What did it feel like for Peter to look at new Christians through a different frame? 

What would it be like if you looked at God or the world through a frame other than the one you are currently using?  Frightening?  Unsettling?  Freeing?  Giving up our frames is not easy.  But perhaps God is not calling us to give them up completely.  Perhaps it would benefit God's purposes if we considered another frame for awhile, just for the experience of it.  We would return to our comfortable frames.  But somehow we would be transformed a bit, even looking at the world and God slightly differently than before.
Grace Always,

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Church is NOT a Building!!

I confess one of my biggest pet peeves about Christians is how we perpetuate the myth that Church = Buildings.  We know the world does it all the time.  They talk about that lovely church on Main Street.  The reason they do it is because WE do it.  I have a meeting at church tonight.  We go to First Church.  Are you going to have a church wedding?

In some annual conference sessions of the United Methodist Church appointments are announced by displaying a photo of the pastor and one of the church BUILDING.  I thought pastors were appointed to communities and churches consisting of PEOPLE. 

Perhaps one of the consequences of hundreds of years of such references is the current decline in attendance across all Christian denominations.  We are losing our identity as a living, breathing, body of Christ.  And over the course of centuries we have replaced it with the notion of nice buildings with members. 

In reality the Church of Jesus Christ lives in the hearts and minds of people who confess to be followers of Jesus who seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  It is not a physical building.  If the building where your church meets burns down today, your church would still exist to carry out the mission of God in the world.  

So let's use our language in ways that reflect our theology.  When referring to our buildings let's say buildings.  But when we are talking about the body of Christ let's use Church.  As many of us learned in Sunday School...

The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people. I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church together. All who follow Jesus all around the world, yes, we’re the Church together.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Dog Faith

Last Sunday after preaching on forgiveness at Willow UMC one person suggested that we should be like dogs when it comes to truly forgiving ourselves and others.  So today I offer Christianity 101, the dog version.

If we were only taught by dogs, we would learn stuff like:

**When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.

**Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joyride.

**When it's in your best interest -- practice obedience.

**Let others know when they've invaded your territory.

**Take naps and stretch before rising.

**Run, romp and play daily.

**Thrive on attention and let people touch you.

**Avoid biting, when a simple growl will do.

**On warm days, stop to lie on your back on the grass.

**On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree.

**When you're happy, dance around and wag your entire body.

**No matter how often you're scolded, don't buy into the guilt thing and right back and make friends.

**Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.

**Eat with gusto and enthusiasm.  Stop when you've had enough.

**Be loyal.

**Never pretend to be something you're not.

**If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.

**When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by and nuzzle them gently.


Grace Always,


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Racism in America

The media coverage of the George Zimmerman trial in Florida was non-stop.  Everyone it seemed had an opinion.  A few minutes before the verdict was read Kim asked me what I thought it would be.  "Guilty," I said.  So I was surprised when the "not guilty" verdict was prounounced.

My guess is that a vast majority of Americans, especially African-Americans, were not surprised, but angered by the verdict.  Here is another example of laws that appear to benefit the majority to the detriment of the minority.

I have been listening to the national debate about racial profiling and stand your ground laws.  What I hear, especially from our president, is that I have no idea what it feels like to be pre-judged based only on the color of my skin.  So I have tried to get a sense what it must feel like to have brown skin and walk into an elevator and notice a white woman clutching her purse more tightly.  I try to imagine the experience of people avoiding walking
too closely to me on a sidewalk.

Listen to black America and they are telling their stories of being profiled.  Parents feel the need to tell their children the subtleties of how to get along in this country as African-Americans with a long history of oppression by European-Americans.

As people of faith God calls us to work for justice which is nothing more than removing  barriers that keep people unequal and undervalued.  God's love is given in equal measure to all of us.  I encourage those who have experienced the privileges that come with being part of the majority to walk a mile in the shoes of someone who has not.  Now is the time for compassion and understanding.  Listen to your African-American friends, neighbors, and coworkers as well as other ethnic groups.  One of the greatest gifts we can offer is the ability to truly listen to the heart of another.  May their stories be told in ways that lead us to witness the glory of God's kingdom coming on earth!

Grace Always,

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Changing Expectations

I have lived in Alaska for over 21 years and until last Friday have never gone dip netting for salmon!  This, of course, is where biologists have counted a sufficient number of salmon entering rivers to spawn, so they open a fishery for a period of time for Alaskans to fill their freezers for the winter.  It was with this expectation that my son, Ryan, and I embarked on the journey to the mouth of the Kenai River last week.  He has dip netted and so it was a special experience for him to take the lead. 

He said that the daily count of fish entering the river had been increasing significantly.  There was every reason to believe we were going to catch dozens of fish.  This was what we expected, that we would dip our nets into the frigid water and bam, fish would be caught!  I even talked about catching more than one fish at a time!

But reality does not always match our expectations.  We did not catch a single salmon all day!  But what a glorious day it was to be outside in God's creation.  75 degrees, sunny.  Mt Redoubt was directly across Cook Inlet providing a feast for our eyes.  Chatting with a neighbor about our Alaska outdoor experiences.  Snoozing in the sun.  Talking about Ryan's future.  But we did not accomplish what we had come to do.

How well do you adjust your attitude when life expectations do not match your reality?  I would not have driven 6 hours in one day on a busy highway just to experience the views.  We went there to fish.  But I believe in doing what I can to accept the reality of my life situation whatever it may be.  I don't see the value in rejecting what cannot be changed.  As people of faith we know that God is always present in every life circumstance.  When our lives do not happen the way we expect we can always experience the presence of God.  Sometimes these experiences will mean more than what we expected to happen.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Forget the Trinity!

I am aware that the title of this post may stir up the emotions of faithful Christians.  I am not suggesting we forget the trinity.  I want to tell you a true story.

I was preaching and leading worship at our Willow UMC last Sunday.  Because Kim and I have a cabin north of Willow we have worshipped with the congregation on several occasions.  So I was familiar with their worship style.  Although I must say that it is very different worshipping as a congregant from leading worship as a pastor.  As a worshipper I am free to encounter God and do not have to remember the structural details of worship.

All went well until it came to the benediction.  I pronounced this benediction or something similar, "May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, (pause), and I forgot the other part.  So God's peace be with you!"  Everyone laughed, not at me, but with me.  Our Alaska UM churches are filled with people who give you the freedom to be yourself.  We are not people who put up with pretense or showmanship.  We are real people served by real leaders who make mistakes and sometimes forget the trinity.

Thanks be to God!  Now let's get out into the world and offer this same grace to others!

Grace Always,


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Entertainment Bar Is Rising

Christian psychologist, priest, and spiritual father Henri Nouwen wrote, “When our good plans are interrupted by poor weather, our peace of mind by inner turmoil, our hope for peace by a new war, our desire for a stable government by a constant changing of the guards, and our desire for immortality by real death, we are tempted to give in to a paralyzing boredom or to strike back in destructive bitterness.”

            I must admit that I dislike the word boredom.  I especially disliked it coming from my children when they were teenagers.  I have observed that what would have excited me to no end when I was a teen can be very boring to today’s teenager.  I remember being thrilled to get a wrecked 1962 Ford Falcon in my senior year in high school!  I fixed it up and it became my pride and joy.  Have you seen the nice cars and trucks in our high school parking lots?

           Nowadays, parents feel pressure to provide lots of experiences for their kids.  There are so many good activities and things from which to choose today!  But in exposing our children to so many options, we may be inadvertently creating a kind of immunity in our kids, thereby raising the level of excitement needed to conquer their boredom.  Today it simply takes more novelty and excitement to keep kids interested.  The entertainment bar keeps going up. 

          How do you think this is affecting the spiritual lives of our children?  I think about the negative effects of our consumeristic, entertainment-driven culture on our children.  Recently a TV ad featured several young people following their dreams to play sports, dance, or sing on a stage.  In every case the passions people followed were about entertaining others.  I guess it is hard to pitch an ad to get people to join the Peace Corps or build a Habitat for Humanity home.

          And this is why the world needs to hear the voice of God through us, the Church!  But this voice must be heard by each would-be-disciple of Jesus and ACTED if the gospel message is going to be welcomed by others. 

          What can you do to keep the entertainment bar from rising in your life? 

Grace Always,

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Online Church?

Last week I attended the Oregon/Idaho annual conference in Boise, Idaho.  I met Sophia Agtarap who is the daughter of Fred Agtarap who served as interim pastor of our Homer UMC this past year.  Sophia works for United Methodist Communications in a new position that resources churches interested in developing online faith communities. 

Some interesting questions arise over how we do church in a virtual internet arena.  How do we "count" people?  We United Methodists are obsessed with counting things!  How are the sacraments celebrated?  Are ordained elders needed to consecrate virtual bread and juice?  What is the nature of Christian community with people who may never meet in person?

I don't know the answers.  But I do know that our churches need to be thinking about ways to engage others via the internet.  So here's what I am going to do.  I plan to lead a book study of an amazing book I am reading now:  "Speaking Christian," by Marcus Borg.  I am aware that many young people are turned off by organized religion and they will not come to our church buildings even if the programs we offer peaks their interest.  So I will plan this study and advertise on Facebook.  I'll ask young people I know to share it with their Facebook friends.  I suspect there may be people from various parts of the country and perhaps the world.

I have this thought that if we Christians are willing to engage young people and their honest questions about God, that real spiritual growth will happen, and perhaps even Christian community.  So I encourage us all to think of ways we can use social media to create new places for new people for Christ.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Value of Spiritual Disciplines

I don't always keep up with my daily spiritual disciplines.  What I have learned over the years is that I seem to need variety.  I can't always do the same routine day after day.  This doesn't mean that I don't try to maintain a spiritual discipline routine.  But I can't keep it up for a long period of time before I need a change of some kind.

The problem is that during that change mode I am tempted to abandon or lessen my daily routine.  For the moment there is a freedom that comes with changing my rule of life.  But as with any void something will get sucked into that space...people, things, ideas.  And God gets squeezed out.

The reason why maintaining spiritual disciplines is a good thing is that they mystically place me in the best possible position to listen to the voice of God and receive the grace of God.  I think of the times when I am not centered and in a moment of distraction, temptation, or willfulness, I miss a beautiful God moment.

It is entirely possible that the God moment awaiting us tomorrow may be linked to our decision to place ourselves in a prayerful position today.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Family Joy

My heart is full of joy for two reasons today.  I am still feeling the afterglow of the Alaska annual conference.  Celebrations of our leaders, meaningful worship, capable episcopal leadership, sad farewells, truth telling, and the most raucous reading of appointments ever!  I do hope we as an annual conference will become more than the fun we experience together.  I'm talking about the hard work of holding a mirror to our congregations so we can face our current reality.  In doing so we need to not allow the anxiety of our people deter us from our mission of disciple making.

The other reason for my joy is the news that one hour ago at this writing on Monday, June 3, our grandson, Camden Robert Keller, was born to Rob and Lauren Keller in Idaho Falls.  8.5 lb and 20.5".

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Engaging People in Our Communities

Whenever we speak about evangelism we inevitably have to talk about how we relate with people.  One of the criticisms of United Methodists today is that we are very nice people who are generally friendly with neighbors, store clerks, and co-workers.  But we have not done a good job of talking with them about our Christian faith.  It is almost as if we are riding the pendulum swing to the other side of "Are you saved?" conversation.  We have a strong distaste for manipulative, Bible thumping questions that will not guide a person towards faith in Christ.  And this is a good thing.

But we live in a time when the pendulum needs to swing back to the center.  And United Methodist Christians need to ponder the kinds of questions we ask the new people we encounter each day.  We are okay with weather questions, natural disasters, sports teams, and construction delays.  But how are we with God questions?

If you tell a neighbor that you are part of Alaska United Methodist Church down the road and that neighbor responds, "I used to go to church, but I don't believe in God anymore," ask them this question.  "Tell me about the God you don't believe in."  Chances are you don't believe in that God either! 

Part of what we are doing in such encounters is honest theology.  People have so many misconceptions about God and the Church.  They have an understanding about Christians that we are all alike and that we draw distinct lines between good and evil.  Some of what we are doing with such honest conversation is helping people know they can trust us with their questions.  And the door is always open for future conversation.  It is possible that such a conversation will be the one that removes the final barrier for another to come to faith in Christ.

Consider this an encouragement to you to think about a couple of God questions you could be prepared to ask someone in your mission field.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Devastation in Oklahoma

I do not believe the Bible was intended to be interpreted literally.  If the authority does not lie in the actual, literal words where does it lie?  For me scripture is authoritative when I place myself into the narrative.  When I see my failings, my sin in the story of Moses, or Jonah, or Paul that is precisely when I am ready to hear the word of God speak to my heart.

Yesterday as I watched the horrific scenes of tornado destruction in Oklahoma I began to place myself in the shoes of those who endured the violence.  The outcome of such an exercise?  Compassion.  I searched the UMCOR site to see if they had posted a number for donations, but it had only been an hour since the tornado left the ground.

I am quite sure that my heart cannot make room for all the suffering people in our world.  In our world of instant news technology we can be overwhelmed with human need.  Do you know why some tragic events touch your heart while others to not?  When our world view enlarges we often feel some of the hurt of people wherever it happens on our planet.  God gives us more of God's heart to share the pain of others.  Perhaps we think it is up to us.  Our hearts are simply not big enough to take in all the hurts of the world.  During such moments of human suffering wherever it happens on a large or small scale our role is to imagine the heart of God opening to others and to be the hands and feet of God.

If you feel compassion for the people of Moore, Oklahoma, and want to do something concrete to help please consider a donation to UMCOR at  The number is 901679.

Grace Always,

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Listen to your Body

I spent an hour with a spiritual director this week to help me discern a decision.  One of the things she said to me was, "Listen to your body.  What is your body telling you about this?"

I appreciated the physicality of her question.  We tend to think of prayer as a mental or still activity.  We all have been told as children to bow our head, close our eyes, and fold our hands.  Be quiet when you pray.

The Alaska ecumenical leaders met recently for a retreat and I was struck by how these bishops and executives and pastors talked about their need to move when they pray.  How do you pray?  And do you need to move when you pray?  And what do you think about the idea of listening to your body during prayerful discernment?

Grace Always,

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mission vs Missional

While leading a workshop in Sitka a few weeks ago one woman posed a question.  What is the difference between mission events and missional?  And then she answered it herself.  It would seem that in some churches mission events are planned where Christians are given an opportunity to do good...serve in a soup kitchen, conduct a food drive, go on a mission trip, etc.  These are very good things for churches to do.

However they should not mean they can ease our guilt for a few months until the next big church mission event.  The world needs missional Christians today.  This is an orientation towards those pushed to the margins of society.  Being missional means that we believe God can use us to be the incarnational love that people need from God's people.  It is a way of looking at people with lenses that does not allow prejudice and judgment to reach our minds, but rather a child of God who needs love. 

I fully support mission events in the life of the church.  We need to be doing all the good we can.  But let's also remember to encourage our people to be missional.  This means we activate our spiritual radar while we are going about the business of our daily lives so the Spirit can help us truly see people and their needs.  Sometimes being missional is offering a simple smile to someone who appears unhappy, or offering to help an exhausted young mother while waiting in the grocery line, or stopping to get to know the man on the corner with a cardboard sign.

The world is hungry for God.  And many people will have a hard time seeing the fullness of God unless we become the lens that helps them see the living Christ.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sitka, Alaska

This may sound like a travelogue but it is important especially for new UM clergy and laity to get a broader picture of our conference.  In January I conducted a charge conference with Sitka UMC by Skype.  This enabled me to spend last weekend in Sitka.  Pastor Ferdie Llenado put me to work!  I led  three workshops on spiritual type, healthy church, and missional church.  And he had me preach and do the children's sermon.  I enjoyed walking around town during three gorgeous sunny spring days.  Saturday evening was a community dinner honoring Marcia Hirai, one of the very involved leaders at Sitka UMC.

I stayed in the parsonage enjoying Filipino food and playing with Ferdie and Louie's three boys, J.D., Hiram, and Theo.  Ferdie and I had several deep spiritual and ministry conversations.  He gave me a copy of his book, "Home, I Am" A minister's metaphorical memoir on midlife meaningless. At the end of the weekend Ferdie shared with me that he feels very connected with the conference and the denomination.  Living and ministering on an island can be isolating.

I invite us all to send a note to a fellow pastor or lay leader in our isolated regions.  Strengthening our connection is especially important to us in Alaska.

Grace Always,


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Granddaughter Time

I love my granddaughter, Isabella Smith.  I also love my grandson who does not yet have a name and will take his first breath by the end of May in Idaho.  For the past five days while her parents vacationed in California 15 month old Isabella stayed with us.  There is something about being responsible for someone that makes you think about their needs and desires.  Does she need her diaper changed?  Is she eating healthy?  How is she sleeping? 

Spending time with her helps me to know her more deeply.  It's not just a family tie that binds us together, but a love that grows from knowing each other.  And for me it was helpful to know that Isabella needed me during these past five days.  I experienced her smile when I picked her up at day care.  I know that holding her by the window watching falling snow helps distract her from whatever was causing her to cry. 

Scripture tells us that God knows us inside and out, our yearnings, our temptations, our struggles.  God is more in tune with my needs and hopes that I was with Isabella.  Do we know this?  Are we aware that God is able to spend time with each of us 24 hours a day?  If this is to be a relationship then we need to spend some of this time with God.  Living in the present moment.  Time together leads to knowing each other. 

I will build on my time with Isabella this past weekend and our relationship will grow.  The more we come to know one another the more we will want to deepen our relationship.  Thank you, God, for the gift of knowing and loving Isabella.  You offer yourself to each one of us with the dream of being in relationship with us.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Where Do Clergy Rank in List of Best/Worst Jobs?

Okay, pastors.  What is your best guess as to where our profession is ranked in a list of 200 jobs in America?  Towards the top?  Middle?  The bottom? ranked 200 jobs from best to worst based on five criteria: physical demands, work environment, income, stress and hiring outlook. To compile its list, the firm primarily used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other government agencies.

The best job?  Software engineer.  Worst?  Coming in at 200 is lumberjack.  Clergy come in near the middle at 92, right behind funeral director at 90.  But we're ahead of security guard at 117 and flight attendant at 175.  

In another report I read that clergy have the fourth toughest job.  President of the U.S. was the toughest. 

All this is to say that pastors are very aware of the difficult parts of our jobs.  Let me invite the pastors reading this to comment on the toughest parts of their jobs.  Pastors have a hard time talking openly about this because for us it is a calling from God, affirmed by the Church.  Some of us have embraced this calling without question from day one.  Others of us have struggled with the calling like Jacob wrestling with the angel.  Sometimes this calling can mask inner feelings of inadequacy, hidden resentments, or being unappreciated.

Let me also invite the laity to comment on your perceptions of the hardest parts of the job done by clergy.  Perhaps you might send your pastor a note of encouragement acknowledging the difficulties your pastor faces.

If you want to see the full list check out this link.

Grace and peace,

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Is March a Rough Month for Alaskans?

Last week was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week for me.  I am so glad Holy Week is here!  How I need to see my fragile life in the larger context of our salvation story of Jesus' final days on earth and resurrection.

Being a systems person and a visionary I am always tempted to look at the bigger picture.  After 21 winters in Alaska I feel qualified somewhat to speak on the effects of these long winters.  I am wondering if March isn't one of the hardest months for Alaskans.  The cumulative effect of months of cold, darkness, snow, and ice is wearing us down.  The increased light is awakening our internal seasonal rhythms and drawing us outside with new energy to tackle projects, dig into the earth, and become more active.  But alas, this is what lurks outside my house today!

It clearly is not spring here.  All this is to say that I wonder how much of a factor this reality is for our churches in Alaska.  I have been here long enough to see significant conflict in just about all of our churches.  One thing I learned while serving our Soldotna UMC is not to engage in soul searching visioning during the winter.  With lower amounts of energy, seasonal affective disorder, and isolation from family we seem destined to become crabbier at this time.

My ultimate point is this.  Whenever our lay and clergy leaders face increased stress, anxiety, or conflict, think about the environmental effects that Alaska may contribute to our dis-ease.  Seeing the bigger picture may help us realize that we're in this Great Land together, the amazing beauty as well as the tough challenges.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


As we approach another Choose Respect rally season in Alaska our thoughts turn to the thousands of Alaskan families who regularly experience anger and violence.  Gordon MacDonald* tells this story.
   A Nigerian woman who is a physician at a great teaching hospital in the United States came out of the crowd to say something kind about the lecture I had just given. She introduced herself using an American name. "What's your African name" I asked. She immediately gave it to me, several syllables long with a musical sound to it. "What does the name mean?" I wondered. 

   She answered, "It means 'Child who takes the anger away.'"

 When I inquired as to why she would have been given this name, she said, "My parents had been forbidden by their parents to marry. But they loved each other so much that they defied the family opinions and married anyway. For several years they were ostracized from both their families. Then my mother became pregnant with me. And when the grandparents held me in their arms for the first time, the walls of hostility came down. I became the one who swept the anger away. And that's the name my mother and father gave me."

This could be another name for Jesus.  Oh, how our world thirsts for an end to the anger that does violence to women, children, and men.  Many families in our communities and even in our churches need to learn new ways of being family together.   

O God, how we yearn for those holy moments, like when holding a baby for the first time, you soften our hearts and melt away the anger.  

Grace and peace,


   * Citation: Gordon MacDonald, author, speaker, Leadership      editor-at-large, Leadership Weekly (11-6-02)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Spiritual Discipline

Lent is traditionally a time for Christians to focus on their spiritual disciplines.  Some choose to give up something for Lent.  Others like to add something.  Dr. Elaine Heath, professor of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, and director of the Academy for Missional Wisdom, talks about the discipline for disciples with four steps.





Which one of these actions come naturally to you?  Which one does not?  With so much competition for our attention many of us have trouble showing up and giving God our undivided attention.  Once we know what God expects of us do we have the fortitude to follow through and cooperate with what God is doing in the world?  And then we often struggle with control.  We can't seem to let go and realize that this is God's work.

My prayer this Lent is that I could live these simple four steps each day as I act on my desire to follow Christ.

Grace Always,