Learning to survive

On Sunday afternoon the House of Bishops and our spouses were invited to a Potlatch in Nenana, a town about an hour outside of Fairbanks. The Potlatch was held to honor our visit by the people of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Nenana and the native people of the forty plus villages found in the interior of Alaska. Most of the folks in the lodge were Episcopalian, most were native people, but because everyone in the area was invited, it was a mixture of folk that welcomed us.

I sat across from a man in his mid-eighties who spent the afternoon gently teasing me and the bishops sitting with me while helping us navigate the customs and the unfamiliar food. He showed me how to get the marrow out of the moose bones. He showed me where the seasoning packets were for the Moose-head soup. He warned me not to eat the fish ice-cream. He had some tall tales to share too – and kept laughing at us when we fell for them.

In my conversations with folks afterwards, there lots of people like him in the room, welcoming us into their community, telling us stories and enjoying the warmth and the laughter of the gathered community. It was a moving experience of community – a community that was defining itself by acts of generosity and welcoming. It was a day filled with extravagant gestures. My guide that day told me that the hosts had been up since 3 AM that day cooking the soup and preparing the meat. He said the man who shot the moose we shared had taken a small fat one. Which was good because apparently that sort of moose tasted better than a big one.

What struck me was what he said next. The man who took the moose could have fed his entire family all through the winter with that food. But instead of giving it to his family, he gave it to the visiting strangers and anyone else in the community who came inside.

Which sort of puts most of our normal acts of hospitality in the lower 48 into perspective. We are generous, but we’re not generous that way. And I’ve grumbled occasionally when I think folks who are just coming for the meal are taking advantage of a community’s hospitality without giving anything in return. (I’m not proud of that, but I recognize that in myself and after this experience in Alaska, I see it in bold distinction with the lavish welcome we received from the native people. Perhaps I can learn to be more like them more often in my own life.)

At the end of the meal and its many courses, after the chiefs who were present who wished to speak had done so, and after the Presiding Bishop had spoken on our behalf, we were presented with necklaces from the village. The young people had made them for us as sign of their desire to honor us and to thank us for visiting.

(I had dinner with a local High School teacher the next evening in Fairbanks. I asked him if the giving of the necklaces by that community was significant. He nodded his head in a silent yes.)

I leave Alaska with memories and that necklace. I pray that it will be a reminder to me of a different way of being community – one that truly and extravagantly welcomes the visitor and the pilgrim. One that literally competes with its neighbors to honor the strangers in their midst. I can understand why a people who live a hard subsistence life in a forbidding place developed that sort of custom. Their ability to survive the winters depended on their being able to rely on each other.

But I’m reminded too of how important it is for us who have more resources and live in less challenging places to learn this lesson. Because there often come moments when we need to depend on each other – and more often than not these days, we don’t even know our neighbor’s names much less shared meals with them in the town halls…

Maybe this is a different way of being a “prep-per” – the sort of person who prepares for natural disasters or emergencies by laying in stocks and weapons. The Alaskan way does that – but also lays in acts of friendship and community so as to build a community that can withstand the sorts of disaster events we all fear.

Pay attention – your life depends upon it.

Yesterday bishops and spouses from around North and Central America went to visit with the native congregations of the Diocese of Alaska. As part of our day, we joined with the people who live in this beautiful and majestic place to bless the land and thank God for the gift of it.

(Arriving at St. Matthew’s in Fairbanks)

I was part of a group that stayed in Fairbanks. We walked along the Chena River, saw the beaver dams beside water treatment plants and worshiped and ate at St. Matthews – one of the oldest congregations in this region. We heard the stories of the elders about how the community worked together to survive the winters and celebrate the everyday events of their lives: baptisms, weddings, confirmations and more. The recently retired, long serving rector addressed us all. “Fifty odd bishops” he named us. (He has no idea how accurate that is.)

(Beaver Dam)

He spoke to us on a pedestrian bridge as we pronounced the blessing along with others spread out across the state. He told us of how people in Alaska have learned to pay attention to what was happening around them. They learned to that or they died. They learned to speak of the wind and its direction, because if the direction changed, and you were out on the ice, you’d be carried out to sea – or in danger of being crushed as the ice piled up on the land. He told of how important it was to pay attention to the temperature – and whether it was rising or falling. He talked of noticing the ice as you walked – if it was suddenly thinner than thought, you would fall through and die.

Paying attention in the wilderness is life or death business.

It strikes me that paying attention to Creation in a era of climate change is life or death business whether you are in the wilderness or not. And paying attention to the spirit of the age is life or death business as we increasingly encounter voices that gain more power be creating division – rather than dying to self to draw all people toward the One on Whom We All Depend.

Jesus told us about this need. He told his disciples to be awake in the night and to watch for the coming of God – and the breaking of the dawn light. He too told us that paying attention to the signs of the time was so important that our lives depend upon it. (Mark 13:32ff or Luke 12:40ff or Luke 21:36 or…)

Maybe we should listen the wisdom of the elders of Church as they point us to the Wisdom of Only Begotten One. Our lives depend on it – in this wilderness time.

The stories of the elders

Yesterday, in our meeting of the House of Bishops here in Alaska, we were treated to two conversations with elders of the Athabaskan people. One, a 96 year old woman who told us of her life in the seasonal Fish Camps and sang to us songs she had composed to mark important moments in her life. The other was an Episcopal priest and tribal chief who had served a community for years and now in his mid-eighties was an institution in the diocesan and the region.

As we listened the elders tell their stories, we were also taught by younger leaders from the villages how to listen to what they were saying. We were reminded that sometimes the elder will pause before answering a question – often because the elder’s first language is not English and they need to work out an answer and then translate it for us. And we were told to recognize that the elders often answered a question with a story – a story that might not seem to be related to the question that was asked. When that happened, it was important to listen carefully because the story answered the question in a way, and sometime carried with it a gentle critique of the question itself.

I was struck by the deep respect and reverence that native people we met had for the elders in their community. They had learned to depend on the elders to keep the community’s history and traditions, to pass along it common wisdom, and most importantly to allow it to survive in the harsh climate. The elder’s stories and songs teach the people about how to care for the environment that they depend on for their subsistence lifestyle. (A lifestyle that, as the older elder said to us was “hard” but not a “hardship”.) The stories taught the people how to manage the harvest, how to care for the herd, and how to respect the rivers. It is the accumulated wisdom of the nearly ten thousand years of experience. The stories are truly the life and death wisdom and knowledge of the Athabaskan people.

I’m reminded of the Church’s stories too. We have thousands and thousands of years of history and wisdom. We have stories that are told in response to questions asked that don’t seem, at first blush, to answer the question either but upon reflection contain incredible richness of thought. We have stories that contain the experience of God’s people with the God they worship and follow – and these stories are just as critical for our survival as are the stories of the elders to the native people of the Arctic.

And I’m quite taken by the reverence the community has for the elders – and the way the elders live selflessly for the community. We prioritize things differently in most Episcopal congregations these days. I’m not sure we’re doing that right.

The blessing of kindred people

Yesterday morning, as we began our House of Bishops meeting, we were greeted by two representatives of the native communities on whose ancestral lands we have gathered. The speakers began by telling us that this was the common custom of the native people’s of Alaska – that when people came for a visit, it was proper to be greeted by the people who lived in the place.

One of the speakers was a the leader of consortium of tribes and native communities in the Fairbanks area. He talked at length of the challenges facing his people, how they were trying to balance the resources of the modern world with the wisdom and traditions of their people. He talked specifically about an issue that had arise regarding the foster care for a village child. The state system wanted to take the child out of the village and place the child with state certified foster parents. But the community insisted that the child stay with the village and in their extended family so that the child would know their customs and would learn how to live according to the traditions. The chief who spoke to us said that they had been successful, that the child was now a young man who was doing well and starting a family – and because he had stayed in the community and learned the traditional ways – had not fallen into habits of drinking, etc that are such a challenge for the native communities right now.

It’s a reminder that there is a great deal of wisdom already in communities with which the missionaries engage – and we learn as much as we share when we go to talk with them about the work that God is doing in the person of Jesus.

The second speaker was also a former chief – but it was clear that he was a minister and spoke as a theologian. He spoke in particular about the ways that the native people had encountered God in their lives and had understood God before the missionaries came. He mentioned in particular that while there were stories about multiple spirits, the Great Spirit, who was named “The One on Whom We All Depend”, was singular – and a natural revelation of God. He spoke about the joy with which his people had received the news of the particular expression of God in the person of Jesus, and the particular revelation of the Truth that they had encountered in the Gospel.

He then went on to point out something that I found quite striking – he drew our attention to the encounter of Abram and Melchizedek described in Genesis – the encounter where the two men greet each other as brothers and Abram is blessed by Melchizedek. He pointed out that Melchizedek, a native to the land in which Abram had journeyed had blessed the father of the Chosen people of God – and called him brother.

It’s quite an arresting thought – that rather than Abram supplanting the native people, Abram is blessed by them, and welcomed to live beside them.

(And according to the speaker, it’s the first instance of such an encounter in the biblical narrative.)

It’s something that I’ve been thinking about and upon which I’ll be reflecting for the week that we’re here in Alaska.

Two pictures from later in the day. We were visiting the Alaskan Heritage and Cultural Center. The first is the Antler Arch that welcomes you to the bank of the river in the center of the city.

The second is Bishop Gordon’s plane – sometimes called the “Blue Box” after the UTO fundraisers that allowed the church in Alaska to purchase it for his use. It’s the plane he used to visit the communities he served across the state. (No need for a plane in Rhode Island – but I’m told some of the earlier bishops did have boats that they used instead.)

Fairbanks via Seattle

The Fall 2017 House of Bishops meeting is being held in Fairbanks Alaska this year. Held in Fairbanks is sort of a misnomer. We’re spending part of our time in Fairbanks, and the main meeting site is in Fairbanks, but Alaska being Alaska, we’ll be spending time away from the city – far away – too. Some of the bishops are going to be loaded on to mail planes I’m told, to fly out to villages along the Yukon that are only accessible by air, and will visit small Episcopal congregations to worship and talk with the communities they serve.

We’ll be talking about climate change and how it is creating pressures for the people in Alaska. We talk about the same topic in Rhode Island, and are even thinking about which church building will be imperiled over the next few decades, but what we’re facing in RI is nothing like the major dislocating changes that are coming the Artic region and the people who live around the Artic Sea.

The Episcopal Café has some pretty good background published on their site if you’re looking for more information.

I’ve never been to Alaska – and never imagined that my first visit would be as far north as Fairbanks. I admit to hoping for clear skies and an active solar magnetosphere. (I’ve never seen the Aurora Borealis.) I wish I had found space to bring my good camera with me. (I’ll try to make do with the camera in my cell phone.) Keep us all in your prayers this week as we listen and learn and pray.

I’ll post pictures as I get them – and impressions as I receive them.

A New Season

It’s been half a year since I’ve posted anything here. With the rise of Facebook and Twitter, I found that most of what I wanted to say was easier to say on those platforms, and because of that I spent most of time there. But after a few weeks of vacation this summer and a chance to think about what was next for this blog, I’m planning on returning to it.

I’ve been reading with increasing alarm about the way that Facebook’s newsfeed was able to be manipulated by advertisers – both the sort you’d typically imagine and now various nation states using the feed to spread false news stories and to inflame already difficult situations. Given my desire to find a way to demonstrate that, if we are serious about the Gospel and about our relationship to God, we must be in the strongest relationship possible with our neighbor, it’s hard to see how the way social media and micro-blogging services work today are helping.

Actually – it’s worse. There are multiple studies that are showing that people who are over-consuming social media tend to struggle with a sense of alienation and their own self-worth more than people who try to stay away.

So, it’s back to the past for me. Back to using my own blog. It will still post automatically to Twitter and Facebook, it will still be automatically linked to our diocesan website, but the content will be here… in all its wonderful glory. Heh.

I’m heading out mid-week to the 2017 Fall House of Bishop’s meeting in Fairbanks Alaska. I’m planning on posting reflections, pictures, etc. here. Hopefully that will be enough to invite me back into a regular discipline of posting again.

Episcopal Migration Ministries: why it matters so much

We had a power presentation made to the bishops of the Episcopal Church earlier this week during our annual Spring meeting. The travel ban and the associated complications in the refugee resettlement process are affecting all of the nine organizations in the US that manage the resettlement process. Of the nine agencies that work in refugee resettlement, five are faith based.

I’m hoping to have more to say about this all soon – especially here in Rhode Island. But for the moment I hope you’ll take a minute or two to watch this latest video from EMM:

If you’d like to make a donation to support EMM, and they really could use your help, you can find out how to do that here: http://episcopalmigrationministries.org/

The Lamb replaces the Scapegoat

For those who are preaching this weekend on John the Baptist’s proclamation of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the World”, this ancient song is worth reading:

The Lamb Replaces the Scapegoat. Romanus Melodus:

Now the the garment of mourning is rent; we have put on the white robe
Which the spirit has woven for us from the lamb’s fleece of our Lamb and our God;
Sin is taken away, and immortality is given us, our restoration is clear.
The Forerunner has proclaimed it.…

O, the message of the Baptist, and the mystery in it!
He calls the shepherd lamb, and not only a lamb, but one to free from mistakes.
He showed the lawless that the goat which they sent into the desert was ineffective.
“Lo,” he said, “the lamb; there is no longer need of the goat;

Put your hands on him,
All of you who confess your sins,
For He has come to take them away, those of the people, and of the whole world.
For lo, the One whom the Father has sent to us is the One who carries away evil,
Who appeared and illumined all things.”

Kontakion on the Epiphany 6.12–13.

Elowsky, J. C. (2006). John 1-10 (pp. 70–71). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.