Thursday, May 31, 2018

Heroes of the Faith

On Monday, we honored those who gave their lives for our country. Today, I'd like to honor some Heroes of the Faith, my heroes who set a Christian example as godly role models for my life:

  • My parents, grandparents, and uncles and aunts, who were missionaries around the world and introduced me to Christ at my earliest age, modeled godly living, practical Christianity, and Christian service, and taught me how to pray and trust God in all the circumstances of my life.
  • My Sunday school teachers and Christian public schoolteachers who nurtured my Christian life.
  • My pastors who cared for me spiritually as a shepherd cares for  his sheep.
  • My first college dorm mother, Mrs. Hollowell, who challenged us asking, "When are you going to start being what you'd like to become?"
  • Godly mentors like Agnes Rodli, author and missionary to Alaska and the Eskimos, who prayed for me when I suffered repeated nightmares while my husband, Bob, was in Vietnam--and they ceased!
Image result for strait gate: a norse saga - missionAnd I want to tell you a story of a little-known Norwegian couple who are heroes of the faith I have never met, but as I read their story in Strait Gate, by Agnes Rodli, I was challenged and learned lessons I think can benefit all of us.

In 1908, Gustav Nyseter, a young Norwegian Pentecostal, told his mother, "The Lord will send me to the 'ends of the earth.'" To him, that meant Africa or China or India, but gradually, a new scene emerged: ice and snow and Eskimos.

While on an evangelistic tour through Central Norway, he met an attractive blonde, a Bible teacher, who caught his eye as no one else ever had. Laura too sensed an underlying conviction that she would be going to the "ends of the earth." They soon realized they were meant for each other.

In the spring of 1921, the couple left Norway for Alaska. They could only speak Norwegian and had no idea what lay before them or even where they were to end their journey.

Sailing west from Norway to England, across the North Atlantic to Canada, across Canada by train to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, they boarded an Alaska-bound ship and reached Ketchikan, in Southeast Alaska. There, they felt drawn to the Alaskan natives tribes--Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian--and thought that perhaps they had reached their destination. But the Lord led them on.

White Pass & Yukon Route Railway
Following the Inside Passage, they sailed on to Skagway, the Gateway to the Klondike gold fields of the Yukon at the turn of the twentieth century. Interestingly, there they briefly crossed paths with my grandparents, Charles and Florence Personeus, pioneer missionaries to Alaska, as they traveled to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, on the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Railway.

At Whitehorse, the Nyseters boarded a wood-burning stern wheeler, a barge-like vessel with a flat bottom, to traverse Alaska via the Yukon River to Dawson City, to the Alaska border, to Fort Yukon just along the Arctic Circle--where they made their first contact with Alaska Eskimos--to St. Michael near the mouth of the Yukon River on the west coast of Alaska. There, they settled for the winter.

They thought they had reached the "earth's farthest end." But the Lord had said "ends."

In the spring, a stocky Swede arrived and challenged the Nyseters to go with him over to Siberia to preach Christ to the Eskimos there. They would sail to the Diomede Islands--two tiny rocky islands in the Bering Straits between Alaska's Seward Peninsula and Russian Siberia, about 40 miles midway between the U. S. and Siberian coasts. Lying on either side of the International Dateline, where you can look at tomorrow from today, Little Diomede, population less than 100, belonging to the U. S., and two miles away, lies Big Diomede, belonging to Russia, with even fewer people. Yet, the inhabitants had close communication and even intermarried.
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The Diomede Islands in the Bering Strait
Icebound for 9 to 10 months out of the year, cut off from the outside world, accessible only by boat, with no trees, the steep rocky islands did not lend themselves to much vegetation of any kind, only a few wild berries in summer. The food supply came from the fickle ocean--whales, seals, and migratory birds.

Steeped in superstition and witchcraft, the Diomeders needed the gospel. The witch doctor ruled supreme. After a successful whale hunt, the whole village, including the missionaries, was forced to cease from all labor for 4 days in  honor of the spirit of the whale that had been taken.

American Little Diomede was to be the site from which the mission to the Siberian Eskimos would be launched.

Because of the lack of building supplies, Eskimo homes were dug out of the earth, covered over with skins and planks hand-hewn from driftwood. The entire house measured, on average, 10 feet square, smaller than a small living room in one of our homes. To enter, they crawled on all fours. 

A seal or walrus oil lamp provided light as well as heat for cooking. Frozen chunks of whale blubber were burned to heat the tiny dwelling in winter. The entire family lived, cooked, ate, slept, tanned hides, and sewed clothing on the floor.

The largest house served as a gathering place for the village, where the Nyseters could hold services, which were often interrupted when villagers would begin to play cards in the middle of their meetings.

Gustav and Laura built a tiny house above ground, but the cold wind drove the heat from it. When the outside temperature was 34 degrees below zero, the room temperature stood around 4 degrees above zero. During the winter, they added rooms for storage built of ice block bricks, but these melted in the spring. Their house, measuring 12 feet by 15 feet, often  housed at least 6 weather-bound people all winter.

Traveling by small sailing vessels or by native umiaks (large skin boats), Gustav made contacts with the Siberian Eskimos. These were the last missionary contacts before they were cut off by the Iron Curtain.

During the Nyseters' seventh winter on Little Diomede, Laura began to suffer digestive problems, pain, vomiting, difficulty breathing, and weakness. No health care was available on the island, and they were cut off from the mainland by the winter ice floes. After suffering for about 3 months, she died.

Eskimo friends made a coffin and after the funeral, they carried it up the steep, rocky hillside where they wedged it under a pile of small rocks next to the grave of their only child, Ruth, who had died at age 2. Heartbroken, but  with peace only the Lord can give, Gustav returned to Norway that summer when the ice melted sufficiently for the Coast Guard boat to come and take him to the mainland.

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Little Diomede, Alaska, today
A half century later, Agnes Rodli visited Little Diomede to gain a feel for the island as she  translated Gustav and Laura's story. Flying in a three passenger ski plane, they landed in the Bering Strait. Small frame houses looked like boxes stacked in disarray upon the steep ragged hillside. Farther up the hill stood a white cross.

The next day, she and a few villagers climbed the steep, rugged hillside, being careful that their feet didn't slip off the rocks and get wedged in deep crevices cutting into the core of the mountain. Weathered grave markers leaned awkwardly, were broken, or toppled over. But one cross had defied every storm that beat against it.

"Gales up to a 100 miles per hour can make the strongest buildings tremble," she remarked. "Why has this cross stood so long?"

"Because," an old-timer explained, "Mr. Nyseter preserved the wood by first saturating it with oil. It went to the heart, preserving every fiber."

The marker could not be secured in the meager surface layer of soil on the mountainside, but Gustav found a way, He nailed the upright bean to the headboard of the pine coffin and placed huge stones against it for added support.

"When we want to line up something in the village," the local resident added," we can line it up with the cross because it still stand absolutely true."

In winter, its white stands out against the snow; in summer, against the greens; in spring and fall, against the browns and grays. Clearly visible to lonely outposts on Big Diomede too, it has stood through the years of Soviet domination as a silent witness to the faith of those who loved not their lives unto death.

As Agnes Rodli concludes in the Epilogue to Strait Gate: "The message is simple. There stands yet another cross of far greater significance than the one on Diomede, for time can never alter it. Anointed with the oil of the Holy Spirit, anchored in the supreme sacrifice paid at Calvary, that cross holds absolutely true. It stands at the entrance of the strait gate, the gate that leads to salvation and eternal life."

Let us line up our lives with the Cross. Time can never alter its absolute truth. It is the only way to eternal life. Let us anchor our lives to the Cross. It is life's only source of truth and constancy. Let us allow the oil of the Holy Spirit to saturate our lives with His preserving power.

Many have given their lives so that we may live in freedom. God calls us to be a LIVING sacrifice (Romans 12:1)--to pour out our lives so that others may come to spiritual life, just as the Nyseters did, to live a consistent lifestyle that is an effective witness for Jesus, to "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15).

Are we willing to die to ourselves so that others may have freedom in Christ? Will we be heroes of the faith?

NOTE: The above is condensed from the book, Strait Gate, by Agnes Rodli, published by Winepress Publishers, 1999. Agnes Rodli was my longtime friend and mentor. She gave me an autographed copy, which I have read several times because of the impact it has had on me. I highly recommend her books.

Author Agnes Rodli expands on a book originally written in Norwegian by Gustav Nyseter who went with his wife to Alaska in the early 1920's. It is high adventure of two fledgling missionaries learning how to live and minister in the far north.

Agnes Rodli, a daughter of Norwegian immigrants, attended Bethany Bible College in Santa Cruz, California, and the University of Alaska in Fairbanks where she majored in journalism. Her missionary career covered a span of years in close contact with northern native cultures. Besides her experience in manuscript preparation at International Correspondence Institute in Brussels, she has published numerous magazine articles. Both of her books, North of Heaven and Alone in My Kayak, portray village life in Alaska.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Reflections on Memorial Day

Our picture on front page of the Fairbanks newspaper
Tuesday, May 22, my husband, Bob, and I celebrated 51 years since we graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with our bachelor of arts degrees. Since he minored in military science (ROTC), he also received his commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army that day. We got married a few weeks later.

Bob received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the
United States Army on May 22, 1967
The Vietnam War was at its height. Expecting him to be sent immediately to the war zone after additional training, we were thrilled when he received orders to go to Germany. After a year there (1968), the orders I'd been dreading came through. After attending another training school, he was being sent to Vietnam.

I burst into tears at the news. Of course, when I married Bob, I knew he planned to make the Army a career.

"This is what I signed up for," he said.That didn't make me feel better, though. All I  could see was the long, empty year ahead.

My friends told me to pray that he wouldn't have to go, but I couldn't. I knew he had to go.

Six months later, the day before our second wedding anniversary, we kissed goodbye at the airport in Anchorage, Alaska, where I would live while he was gone.

It was a long year! We'd never even dreamed then of the internet, FaceTime, or Skype. All we had was what we now call "snail mail." At least we didn't have to use stamps with APO addresses. Before he left, we'd promised to write to each other every day. And we did. That promise even saved his life. Looking back, we realized that even though we were separated, we grew closer together as we wrote our deepest thoughts and feelings.
Bob in Vietnam in 1969-70
Bob experienced many close calls, which I wrote about in a previous blog post, A Vietnam Veterans Memories. He took satisfaction in knowing I was safe at home while he was gone, but I was nearly killed in a serious car accident in Alaska a few months after he left. I still suffer from damage done to my neck.

We met in Hawaii for R & R in February. Saying goodbye that time was almost harder. Finally, he arrived home safe and sound on May 30, Memorial Day, 1970, the only officer from his advisory unit to come home alive. A year later, Memorial Day was changed from May 30 to the last Monday of May, but we still celebrate his safe return every year.

After his experiences in Vietnam, Bob began to feel the Lord leading him to go into the ministry. After 22 years of pastoring, Bob began having breathing problems. The Friday before Memorial
Day, he had a heart catheterization. He needed a triple bypass surgery, which was scheduled for the  day after Memorial Day--exactly 30 years after returning home safely from Vietnam.

We thank God for the amazing advancements in medical science that saved his life this time. In open heart surgery, they stop your heart and essentially bring you from death back to life over the next few days.

Eventually, he had to have a second open heart surgery to replace his mitral valve and later had a  defibrillator implanted. The VA has determined that his heart disease and diabetes is a direct result of exposure to Agent Orange in the fields of Vietnam, so they now provide his health care. And we now live just two miles from Castle Point VA Hospital. Isn't it amazing how God directs our paths and places us right where we need to be even before we realize it?

NOTE: You may have noticed that I didn't post a blog last week. The mobile home park along the I-84 corridor where we live took a direct hit from a macroburst with wind speeds of 110 mph, part of a huge storm system that spawned several tornadoes too in the Mid-Hudson Valley region of New York State.

Common sight throughout our area since macroburst on May 15.
This is a road near us that we travel frequently.
Courtesy Central Hudson

Common sight in our area since macroburst on May 15
The National Weather Service describes a macroburst as a thunderstorm downdraft affecting an area at least 2.5 miles wide with peak winds lasting 5 to 20 minutes. The macroburst is a straight-line wind phenomena not associated with rotation used to differentiate from tornadic winds. Macrobursts can produce as much if not more damage as tornadoes due to the size and scope of a macroburst.

Our power was knocked out from Tuesday afternoon to Friday night, and we had no internet, cable, or landline telephone until Sunday evening. Schools were closed for the rest of that week. Many homes were damaged by falling trees.

The storm was scary, but all we lost was the contents of our freezer and refrigerator due to the power outage. With so many trees down across roadways and no traffic lights working, traffic just crawled for several days. We read that 191 electric poles were destroyed and had to be replaced. We continue to hear the buzz of chainsaws and tree shredders.

Repairing the storm damage
A power substation very close to the school where our son teaches in the Town of Newburgh was destroyed by a tornado, so Newburgh was without power too. Additional tornadoes touched down in the Town of Wappingers, in Putnam County to our south, and in Saugerties to our north. One man driving home from work in Sullivan County to our west took a photograph of a tornado in the distance only to discover when he arrived home that it had destroyed his house.

Work crews are still cleaning up around the area, removing huge toppled trees. Homes in our park will require thousands of dollars in repairs. God certainly protected us, for which we are truly grateful.

We personally have much to be thankful for this Memorial Day as we remember those who gave their all for their country. And Bob recalls the faces and lives of his comrades in arms who didn't make it back.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Master Sculptor

Every summer, my husband and I go west to visit my now 96-year-old father in Washington State. We usually drive so we can visit other family and friends along the way. Colorado and Utah display amazing scenic land formations.
I-70 runs through San Rafael Swell  Courtesy
In southern Utah the landscape is covered with arches, monoliths, mesas, and mounds--all in various stages of erosion. The rapid recession of the waters of Noah's Flood carved out a spectacular landscape, and the ensuing centuries of wind and water have further sculpted the multi-colored sandstone of the San Rafael Swell  into rock formations with  names such as Joe and His Dog, Double Arch, Balanced Rock, Sheep, Three Gossips, and many more names the images suggested to the imaginative observers.

Joe and His Dog Courtesy
That rugged landscape is characterized by two factors: it is always changing, and each feature is unique. Transformations are occurring because the environment is continually subjected to weathering. The hot summer sun, rushing rivulets from rainstorms, moisture caught in crevices freezing and thawing are important tools in designing these natural rock sculptures.

Here I am at San Rafael Swell 
These awesome natural works of art remind me of the work of God in the lives of people. Patiently, lovingly, He shapes every small detail to give aesthetic worth in His Kingdom. Just like those geographical formations, our lives too are constantly changing. God uses the tools of time and stress and experiences to refine the shape of our lives. As we submit to our Master Sculptor, He molds our attitudes and our wills to His. We can have confidence in Him that He will exert the stresses needed to best sculpt us into vessels of honor.

Even more impressive than all the arches and monoliths of Utah are the hearts and lives shaped by God's loving, skillful, unchanging hand. And like Creation, our lives will declare the glory of God and portray His character. Instead of dwelling on the past, we can look forward to what we are becoming. We have been set apart for God, and His Holy Spirit is transforming each of us into a work of beauty that will reflect His character.

How is God sculpting you today?

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Meet Kristina Michelsen of the Alaska Waters Trilogy

Last week I introduced you to Norman Pedersen. Today, I'd like you to meet the love of his life.

Nordland Bunad such as Kristina would have worn
Hello! I'm Kristina Michelsen. I have been living with my Uncle Jon and Aunt Marta ever since I lost my parents. When my mother died ten years ago, my grief-stricken father, left me with his older brother and joined the Navy. He was lost at sea five years later.

Aunt Marta and Uncle Jon love me like their own daughter. I know having me in their home helps to fill the void left in their hearts and lives by the loss of their only son in a skiing accident. Our shared sorrow and mutual sympathy have welded a strong attachment.

I love to sing and play the piano. My uncle has been so good to provide lessons for me with the best music teacher in Narvik. At parties, my friend Freida, her cousin Henrik, who plays the violin, and I often play and sing together.

When Norman Pedersen moved to Narvik two years ago, we met in church. I was attracted to his rugged good looks and adventure-loving ways. But our mutual sorrow over the loss of both parents at so young an age drew us together in a bond I share with no one else. We also enjoy skiing, ice skating, and boating.

Norman's sister, Alma Kobbevik, has been like a wise big sister to me. Long before I met Norman, she took me under her wing. She is the one who introduced me to our loving Heavenly Father, who, unlike an earthly father, will never leave me and will never die.

When she announced that she and her husband, Tennes, were going to America, I tried to be happy for them. I know they struggle financially in spite of their hard work on their tiny farm. But in reality, I feel like I'm losing another loved one.

Alma told me Norman is sweet on me. If so, he's been too shy to declare it. I worry about him, though. He faces so many dangers at sea. Tennes's father and brother were lost at sea, as was my father. Yet, Norman thinks "religion" is just for women and children. I pray for him continually.

Norman says he wants to stay in Narvik and be a fisherman like Ole Aarstad, who hired him as a deckhand on his boat, the Viking. Having Norman here will make losing Alma more bearable, but I fear that Norman, with his love for adventure, will change his mind and follow Alma to America.

Will Norman go to America? Will Kristina wait for him? Read the rest of their story in A Star to Steer By.