Friday, March 27, 2015

Lessons from an Alaskan Wildflower

Growing up in Alaska, I was often struck by the beauty and abundance of wildflowers. Recently, I needed to do some research about Alaska's wildflowers for Beside Still Waters, Book Three in my Alaskan Waters series. I discovered that more delicate species than I realized survive Alaska's harsh winters to blossom each summer against extreme odds.

While I enjoyed the many varieties of wildflowers, one certain specie is so flamboyant it has stuck in my memory--my favorite, Alaskan fireweed. It grows in a variety of  temperate to Arctic ecosystems all over the state, which is larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined. From early June to late August fireweed dominates the landscape with its flaming magenta.

Do I, like fireweed, flourish and bring beauty wherever the Lord plants me?

Fireweed  Photo by Mike Lehmann/CC-BY-SA-3.0
Tall, smooth stems with scattered leaves and a spire filled with flowers stand erect and grow to 1 1/2 to 8 feet in height. The individual flowers have four petals that resemble tiny wild roses.

Flowers appear in early June. All of the buds are present on the stem in the spring and open from the bottom tier first. Alaskans say that when the top bud opens, summer is over.

The leaves look similar to a bay leaf. They are unique in that the veins are circular, forming loops that join together, a feature that makes it easy to distinguish from highly toxic plants it resembles before it flowers.

A single plant can bear as many as 80,000 seeds that are easily spread by the wind. Once established, the plant puts out extensive underground roots and can form a large patch.

Native peoples used the leaves, stems and roots for food and medicine. Today, candies, syrups, jellies, and even ice cream are made from fireweed flowers. Honey made primarily from fireweed nectar has a distinctive, spiced flavor.

Do I, like fireweed, nourish others in the kingdom of God? Am I dedicating my time, treasure, and talents to usefulness in His service? Am I scattering the seeds of God's Word? Am I rooted and grounded in Christ?

Fireweed after boreal fire in sub-Arctic Credit: Feng Sheng Hu
Fireweed grows in open fields, meadows, and particularly in burned-over lands. In fact, it derives its name from its tendency to quickly colonize burned sites after a forest fire. It can even reestablish vegetation following an oil spill.

When faced with devastating circumstances in my life, do I allow new growth to flourish in its aftermath, or do I wallow in the ugliness?

The plants flourish as long as there is ample open space and plenty of light. As trees and bushes grow larger, the plants die out. The seeds, however, remain dormant and quickly germinate whenever a new fire or other disturbance opens up the ground to the light again.

Fireweed reminds me that "to everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven:" (Ecclesiastes 22:1. There is a time for fireweed, and it fills its purpose in abundance. When its purpose is accomplished,.it remains dormant until it is needed again.

When my purpose is accomplished, do I graciously make way for another as fireweed does? Do I decrease so Christ can increase?

Jesus used many parables from nature to teach His truths. "Consider the lilies of the field," He said in Matthew 6:28-34 to teach us that the God who clothes and feeds the flowers and grass will surely take care of us so we need not worry. What has God taught you from His creation?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Forgotten Promise

While I was growing up in Southeast, Alaska, in the fifties, my grandparents pastored the community church in the tiny fishing village of Pelican, about 90 miles from Juneau. This item appeared in the Daily Alaska Empire about a man we knew who lived in Pelican.

The headline read: "Mayor of Pelican, his son missing in shipwreck. Helvig Christinson, lone survivor, badly frozen, is flown to Juneau."

The article related the man's account of what had happened:

Reefs on the Pacific side of Yakobi Island  Courtesy
"A man learns to pray when he's sure there's no hope for him," Helvig Christinson, survivor of the shipwrecked Dixie, said through blackened and swollen lips this morning from his bed at St. Ann's Hospital. He is suffering with frozen feet and hands.

Christinson, a machine shop operator at Pelican, left a week ago today with Fred Wetche and 14-year-old Fred Junior, who are still missing, to go on a hunting trip to Bingham Cove on [Yakobi Island off] the northwest end of Chichagof Island. They planned to return last Wednesday.

"We were underway in heavy seas when the boat gave a lurch and the motor stopped," Christinson explained. "We found that a battery had been thrown against the carburetor and broke it. The anchor wouldn't hold, and we started to drift toward Yakobi Rock at about 15 miles an hour. Then we struck a reef. It took only about 25 minutes for the seas to wreck the boat.

"We took to the skiff. It swamped, and we struck out for the rock. I made it and thought I saw the boy, but evidently he didn't make it. The wind was high, and the waves pounded. It was cold."

The storm raged for several days. With each rising tide, the rock, which was completely surrounded by ocean, was submerged in the swirling, near-freezing salt water, soaking Christinson's legs. As the tide ebbed, exposing the rock, his legs became encrusted in ice. For 3 days he clung tenaciously to that rock. For 3 days he prayed, "God, if you will get me off this rock alive, I'll serve You."

After 3 days, the storm abated. He heard a motor and started to yell. Betty and Marie Mork and Tom Allaine in their troller heard him and rescued him.

Both of Christinson's feet and parts of his fingers and ears had to be amputated as a result of the freezing. The rest of the crew were never found.

He had promised God, "If You save me from dying, I'll serve You the rest of my life."

God answered his prayer for rescue, but Mr. Christinson didn't keep his promise. The people of Pelican cheered when he learned to dance on his artificial feet, but he didn't go to church. As far as we know, although he lived many more years, he never did keep his promise to serve God.

We mustn't cluck our tongues over this story. How many times do we get in a pinch and make promises to God, but when the crisis is over, we forget all about our promises? Have you ever made a promise you didn't keep? Maybe it's not too late to make good on it now.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Never Give Up!

Anyone who has planted a church from zero knows how difficult it is to start a church. Gloversville was no exception. We knew beyond a doubt that God had called us to that particular city in 1977.

When we first arrived in Gloversville, we learned of a large charismatic church in the area. We almost wondered why God had sent us there to start another church. After our first two years, though, that church imploded when unbiblical practices that damaged many people came to light. A few of those families joined our church at that time, but most began attending another church. A few years later, it too closed its doors leaving many stranded with no place to go to church. Many gave up on church altogether.

After three years of meeting in the YMCA, the historical Kingsboro church became available to us. The Sunday we moved into our new location, three of our families decided to leave. That was quite a blow. We struggled for more than a year to rebuild the congregation.

A grandmother named Sara began attending services about that time. We will never forget the Sunday morning she became a member.

After nearly five years, only 14 people were present that hot summer day--the smallest attendance since the earliest days in the history of our young church. As church planters, we were very discouraged.

But Sara stood at the front trembling with anticipation as she joined our church.

Her excitement was infectious. The Holy Spirit moved on my husband, and he prophesied that the church would grow.

And it did!

The next Sunday, 50 people were present; the following Sunday, 75; the next week, 90. Soon, we became a self-supporting, self-governing church with the General Council of the Assemblies of God.

A few weeks prior to Sara joining the church, Bob had been asked to share his testimony at a Full Gospel Businessmen's dinner. Many of the displaced church people were present--some we'd only heard about; others we already knew. They all greeted Bob and me cordially.

We'd heard about Arch and Marion, who had belonged to the two churches that had folded, but we had not met them until that night. Marion had a warm, bubbly personality and mothered everyone. Arch was quiet but blunt. "I'll never set foot in church again," he told Bob.

A week or so later, out of the blue, Bob, who had a God-given sense of timing, told me, "It's time! I'm going to visit Arch and Marion."

They had a wonderful visit, Bob told me, but no promises were made. They were among the first new people to spontaneously show up that Sunday, along with others from the twice-dispersed congregation. Marion became a true "mother in Zion," an early Pentecostal term for a motherly leader in the church. Arch became a board member.

Personal Evangelism class in church fellowship hall in 1984
The funny thing was that everyone who came that Sunday thought everyone else was already a member of our church, so they felt right at home. Apparently, the word spread. The next week more came. Soon, new converts came and became regulars. The attendance never dropped below 150-200 the rest of our time in Gloversville.

We realized that what Gloversville needed was a stable church people could trust. It takes a long time to prove to people that you are stable and trustworthy.

When you construct a building, the work on the foundation below ground takes the longest. Without a firm foundation, the structure would soon collapse. There can be no shortcuts. And so it is in building a strong congregation. Those five years, while often discouraging to us, were necessary! Knowing we were there because God had called us to that city and with His help, we didn't give up.

Christ had been building His Church, just as he promised (Matthew 16:18). And He was building us as pastors too.

God doesn't call His children to do the easy things. Abraham had to leave everything familiar for a land God would show him. Moses faced an impossible challenge in his own strength when God asked him to lead the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and form them into a strong nation. Think of the difficult task David faced. And Elijah, Daniel, Nehemiah, the disciples, just to name a few.

When you know God has called you to do something, never give up. It's been said that the darkest hour is just before dawn.

What is God asking you to do for Him? Go in God's strength and never give up!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

How Alaska Inspires My Writing

My twenty plus years in Alaska from 1948-1970 provide the setting for much of what I write. There's a good reason Alaska is called "the Great Land." I've been in forty-six states and several foreign countries. I've seen many beautiful sights. But in Alaska, everywhere you look is grand and big and and beautiful with plentiful and varied wildlife! I have lived most of my adult life in beautiful New York State, but I'll always be an Alaskan at heart.

Growing up in Alaska, surrounded by the beauties of creation, I was very aware of God. The Psalmist wrote, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork" (19:1), and I was constantly reminded of His presence, no matter where I went in Alaska. I was never much for organized sports, but I loved to hike, climb mountains, row a boat, ride my bike, and enjoy God's handiwork.

Pelican, Alaska, in 1953
We walked a lot in Alaska. Walking home at night, I loved to study the sky with the Bear, the Dipper, the great North Star, undimmed by glaring lights that wash them out in big cities. The heavens portrayed a God bigger than His vast domain. Often, the aurora borealis flowed across the winter sky with its mighty swags of glowing, colorful bands as though God was painting with sweeping freestyle strokes, inspiring awe that the great Creator would care about me.

My parents operated a children's home during my early years in Juneau. We had a dog we named Taku. She was part wolf, Malamute, and German shepherd. On cold winter nights she would howl to the wolves in the woods, but with us children she was as gentle as a lamb. The little children would climb all over her, even stick their fingers in her eyes, and she never snapped or growled at any of us. One day she disappeared. We suspected the neighbors did away with her. They were afraid of her because she was part wolf. They didn't know her like we did. 

Big dogs sometimes ran loose in Alaskan towns. My grandma told stories of their early days in Alaska when they lived in Klukwan. The Tlingits allowed their sled dogs to run loose to forage for their own food when they were not needed for travel. They always carried big sticks and shouted, "Chook!(the Tlingit word meaning "go away"). I was afraid of big dogs, so I always carried a large purse in case one came at me. I would swing it between the dog's muzzle and me, and trying not to act afraid, I'd shout, "Chook! Chook!" And I'd pray!

A highlight of my childhood was the times spent on boats. When I was two and a half, I arrived in Alaska on my uncle's mission boat. My earliest memory is of that trip. (That memory shows up in my book, Till the Storm Passes By.) While we lived in Juneau, my uncle often stopped by to visit us on his way to some village or cannery to hold church services. Gastineau Channel was too shallow on one end, so he would sail the mission boat down the channel and around Douglas Island to (or from) Auke Bay, on the other side of the shallow part. It took a half day. We jumped at every opportunity to sail with him. Often, we spotted whales, orcas, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and bald eagles. Sometimes we'd throw out a line, but I never caught a fish. But people often gave us fresh salmon or halibut. That was one way God supplied our needs.

When my father became the pastor of the church in the tiny fishing village of Pelican on Chichagof Island, one of the large Islands that formed the Alexander Archipelago and the Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska, we owned a dinghy. The town was strung out above the water along the cliffs on a boardwalk that stretched a mile or more from end to end. Rugged mountains that stood regal in their ermine capes rose on either side of Lizianski Inlet. When they reflected in the still waters at their feet, my foster sister and I would take the dinghy out and take turns rowing on the inlet in front of the combination church and parsonage where we lived on the hill above. When ferocious winds blew off icy blue glaciers, whipped up frothy whitecaps, and sent clouds racing, rowing would be folly. One time we were out rowing when the wind suddenly whipped up whitecaps all around us. We had some frightful moments rowing against the wind and waves back to the neighbor's dock. Again, I prayed!

One summer my dad worked on a salmon troller. The owner had to have a spinal fusion mid-fishing season, and his eighteen-year-old son needed a fishing partner. They would leave Monday morning and return on Saturday so my dad could preach the Sunday services. My dad took me along as chief cook and bottle washer one week. We sailed out Lizianski Inlet into Cross Sound, and the weather was cross! Again and again, the boat rose high on the crest of a wave and dove deep into a trough. (This experience informs incidents in several of my books.) Even though the seals robbed the lines of every salmon, I had a great time--and made memories I'll never forget and inspiration for novels I write.

In high school I began writing about the sights I'd seen and the experiences I'd had. When I began writing short stories for Sunday school curriculum, It wasn't hard to fictionalize stories of faith set in Alaska, stories that are carriers of truth about God's love, forgiveness, grace, and mercy, because I learned to know God in Alaska.