A pastor shares what he is thankful for as he serves people scattered throughout the remote areas of Alaska.
Fred M. Voss
“Bravo Zulu” is a Navy and Coast Guard phrase that is used to denote a job well done. It may be used following an especially harrowing rescue effort that involved the coordination of men and women employing C-130s, helicopters, ships, rescue swimmers, and other support personnel.
I can’t help but think of that phrase when I reflect on Jesus’ work in Alaska, the Great Land*. Alaska provides some unique challenges to gospel ministry. It is over twice the size of Texas, and yet less than a million people inhabit this vast land of tundra, taiga, glaciers, mountains, fiords, and volcanoes. Travel is as modern as 737s to dogsleds, ferries to float planes, snow machines in the winter to skiffs in the summer. Alaska is a place where modern technology is being harnessed for the good of his kingdom.
Today as I ponder Thanksgiving, the slideshow of God’s love in Word and sacrament among his children brings these faces and places into focus.
WORD AND SACRAMENTS
For many years the saints of Grace, Sitka, provided a lay-led Bible study that was heard over the phone lines by long-distance members in Ketchikan, Skagway, and even Kodiak, where members were known by voice but not necessarily by face. It was a weekly gathering to feast on the bounty of God’s Word and to enjoy the fellowship of those tied together by faith. Many would then join in worship together over the same phone lines, tying in to a church far to the north. Modern technology today in some areas allows for streaming of the worship services. Thank God for our IT person!
Click on the video of God’s grace in action. Watch the miracle of Baptism on the tide line of Kodiak Island in the vast Pacific Ocean. View with wonder as the simple salt water and the powerful Word of God washed away sin, planted faith, and started spiritual life. Thank Jesus for his promises attached to the “washing of water by the word” (Ephesians 5:26). This child now has forgiveness full and free, the peace that passes all understanding, and a new life here and one waiting in heaven.
Gaze at the tintype picture of an aged couple whose kitchen table was their family altar. Out the kitchen window, towering Sitka spruce trees and a raging storm, but inside a crackling fire. On the table, a worn communion set, a speaker phone, and the latest Meditations booklet. Gnarled hands are folded in prayer, then humbly accept the Sacrament of the Altar. Thankful and grateful hearts, privileged to receive his body and his blood poured out for the forgiveness of their sins. The couple knows that in spite of the distances they are not alone but tied together with other WELS members all over the world.
STILL SIN AND GRACE
So much of Alaska is trackless wilderness. Believers are few and far between and so are the churches. These remote believers see God’s hand daily. He provides the power, the food, a daily show of his wonders. Here the supply line of life is signaled by the throbbing drone of a small plane or a barge that comes only twice a year if the river doesn’t freeze up before it arrives.
But even here in paradise one still sees the effects of sin. There is sickness, the touch of cancer, the hurts of unforgiveness, the temptations and sins of the big city, and most certainly the need to see God’s unending love in Christ and feel his guiding, healing hand.
Stand here with me for a moment as I peer into the grieving faces of those whose loved one is being lowered into a dark grave on the windswept tundra; whose ashes are being scattered by a floatplane; or whose body is entombed under towering stands of spruce or birch, watered by gurgling streams, now hidden by stately snow-capped mountains and touched only by an occasional rainbow. Or it may be guarded by the silent, saluting, gleaming, headstones of our national cemeteries.
No matter, the promises of Jesus are still the same. The Almighty God who created this beautiful place will raise these bodies to eternal life in a Paradise even more grand than Alaska! They stand on the same promises of our risen, living Lord Jesus who says, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). Give thanks with me that from birth, through spring, summer, fall, and even the winter of our life, he is with us. Bravo Zulu, Jesus!
FACES OF ALASKA
St. Paul exclaimed, “I thank my God every time I remember you” (Philippians 1:3). I too thank God for the laypeople I am privileged to serve. They have opened their hearts and their homes. The question of “where can we worship?” often brings some very creative answers—maybe in their homes, on a boat, on a beach, or even an upper room at an electric company that was close to a fish processing plant. Close your eyes, and you just might be able to imagine that you were on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with Peter and the other disciples unloading a cargo of fresh fish. The aroma during the worship service could be that strong!
Thank God for distant members, children on the floor working on Sunday school lessons, Mom and Dad worshiping, and even a “Lutheran” dog who would sing with the pastor! I thank God for a member who loved to exclaim, “It’s ‘Take your pastor to work’ tomorrow! Are you coming?” I remember the semi-retired seminary professor and his wife who unselfishly shared their lives. They cast the net of the gospel in Kodiak as they rubbed shoulders with the fishers, the crabbers, the fish processors, and the Coast Guard men and women. What a difference they made as they passed on hope, love, and the forgiveness of Jesus.
Thank God for our urban teachers, but especially thank God for those teachers who daily face the isolation and sometimes harsh life of the remote outposts in bush Alaska. For generations, rivers of water bring food. Rivers are a road in summer and winter, but in many cases the Water of Life, Jesus, may not even be a trickle. These teachers bring the Light of God’s love in Jesus by their faith in word and actions.
Thank God for the protectors of our freedom, of the peace, of our health and well-being. Twenty-four hours a day as we sleep and carry on our lives they are on duty, watching, waiting, running to emergencies, rescuing the lost whether they are near or far, responding at a moment’s notice, and willingly submitting to the harsh environment of sea and land.
Thank God too for those whom you have specifically called to preach, teach, and be your shepherds to lead the flock and rescue the lost. They have left mother, father, and family and have found family and purpose here.
Close your eyes. Bow your heads and thank God. Can you see them in your mind’s eyes? Can you hear them? Can you feel the rhythm of God’s creation in a land that so resembles the love of God, a love that is higher than the heavens above and deeper than the depths below?
Yes, rejoice with me. “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1).
With thanksgiving, exclaim, “Bravo Zulu, Jesus!”
Fred Voss is a pastor at Holy Trinity, Kodiak, Alaska.
*The word Alaska comes from the Aleut word Alyeska, which means “The Great Land.”
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Author: Fred M. Voss
Volume 102, Number 11
Issue: November 2015
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