>Image via WikipediaThis is my 11th year in Girdwood. We’ve loved it here. The church has been challenging and fun. The construction project has been long and a valuable learning experience. I think I’ve grown a lot here…as a person and a pastor. We know this is the place that our kids (at least the three older ones) have grown up. I often say that, as persons grow older, I think there’s always some place that they think of as “home” to themselves…even if they may have lived in several different towns or states. I may have been born in Massachusetts, I may have graduated high school in Indiana, I may have gone to seminary in North Carolina, and I may have lived in Alaska for the last 13 years, but I’m always clear that I “grew up in New York.” That’s where I had my formative childhood years, from age 5-15, Well, my kids will, maybe forever, say they grew up in Girdwood, Alaska. How awesome is that?
Plus, Girdwood is just strikingly beautiful. The mountains creep right in on you. You can ski and watch the tide roll in. And while we get a lot of rain, being that we’re in the most northern temperate rain forest in the world, the beautiful days make up for it. I still remember the first visit my parents made to Girdwood after our three years in Kenai. I stood with my dad on the porch of our new home we were renting and he said, “You know, Jim, don’t take this for granted. You may never live in a more beautiful place than this.” And he’s right. There are a lot of beautiful places in the world and I’ve seen several of them. But, I may never live in a more beautiful place than this.
I know that faith up in Alaska, in the realm of “rugged individualism,” can be a difficult thing. Persons here tend not to be “joiners” and many of them have been burned by churches in the Lower-48 where they used to live and are really hoping to stay as far away from church as they can. Therefore, I have worked very hard to carry myself in such a way that I’d be seen as non-threatening in the community. I’ve participated in the life of the community. I’ve served on boards and attended meetings. I’ve raised my kids, fully engaging the activities of the community for them. And our congregation has worked very hard at being seen as a source of good in the community…we’ve painted and cleaned and shoveled and given and helped etc. We want to be seen as a place that emanates the love of God, but in a way that works alongside those not in the church to bring about change for the common good. The difference, we hope, between us and the non-Christians, is that we do it all out of a response to the justification by faith offered by Christ. We live out out faith by being a people working on behalf of others in the community. And it’s made a difference. It is easier to be me…a pastor…today than it was ten years ago. I’ve been around long enough that persons, I don’t think, feel like they have to be on their guard when they see me.
I’ve been surprised, along the way, by the level of animosity expressed by some (not all) members of the community. And sometimes I have to catch myself, recognizing that it’s not about me but about the church. And it’s really probably not about Jesus, but about the experiences some have had of the church.
My first, sort of, tangible expression of the “us/them” mentality was early on as our congregation’s event flyers were taken down from the post office. Girdwood is a community that communicates through posted notices at the Post Office. If you want to find out what band is playing where, who has skis for sale, who’s hiring, and what meeting is coming up, that’s the place to look. It’s also the place you’d look to find out what the times of Christmas worship services are. However, more frequently in my early years here, it was the Girdwood Chapel posters that kept getting taken down. I’d put up a flyer. The next day it was gone. I’d keep extra flyers in my car just so I could keep replacing the ones that had been removed. At one point I had congregational members with flyers so they could put them up as well…just to keep up with those who were removing the flyers.
Another expression of this animosity really hit me on on a spiritual level. One day as I showed up to our new construction, probably in 2007 and opened up the construction door only to find feces…yes, poop…on the handle. Someone had deliberately put poop on the door so that a person going in would grab on to it. There was also garbage and beer bottles left at the front door that day as well. I remember, looking back, the feelings of anger…I’ll go so far to say “righteous anger”…welling up inside of me. I felt violated. I felt that the Holy Ground of our church had been violated, that there was a spiritual offense launched against it. I didn’t know what to do and I ran off to the home of one of our members to pray. I needed someone to pray for me. I wanted to pray for the community…perhaps for “the horrible sinners who did this”…even if the prayer ended up being mostly for me.
There have been others. But the latest comes just a couple of weeks ago as we’re getting ready for our big Building Consecration. Every week we have about 70-100 persons come to the church to pick up boxes of organic vegetables. We’ve been doing this for a few years, providing space and leaving the church unlocked for 2.5 days a week. Plus, we’re left to work around the vegetables every once in a while and donate unclaimed boxes after a couple days. This has been a service to the community…just because we love the community and believe that, even if we don’t agree on many spiritual issues, we can agree that eating organic, more locally-produced, food is a good thing for the world and for the world’s peoples. I wanted to make sure that all these good folks who picked up vegetable boxes knew about our Consecration and I wanted to let them know that, as we’ve been helping them for a couple years with the vegetable pick-up, it would be helpful to our church if they came to our Consecration. It would help us celebrate and would help the conversation we were planning to have about ways our new building could be used in the future. It might be a little crass to call it a “quid pro quo” arrangement, but I was hoping that the gift of presence and space that we had been offering could come back to us a gift of their presence at our Consecration. That was my hope. So, to encourage this, I put what I thought was a very non-threatening and non-religious note on the vegetable boxes, inviting those who picked them up to attend our Consecration.
Perhaps my note wasn’t non-threatening enough. A couple days later I got a call from the distributor of the boxes saying that they had receive a call from on of the recipients who was extremely upset at the note from the church and I received a verbal hand-slap for trying to mix anything remotely churchy with the boxes. My emotions were already running high because of the build up to the dedication. Here I was trying to do something that would further our participation in the life of the community and I had someone from the community who was “extremely upset” with the church. I don’t do well when I have people extremely upset we me.
My emotions welled up inside of me again and what I wanted to say to the person on the phone is that…OK, I wouldn’t put anything on the boxes anymore but they need to realize the gift that I/We have been giving their company over these past years and put that into perspective. And I wanted to get the name of the person who complained and tell him or her that they can certainly make arrangements to pick up their box in Anchorage at one of the non-church sites.
I didn’t do either of these.
I kept my mouth shut.
And I realized that this was just one person in the grand scheme of things and the majority of the community around us, I think, appreciates how we try to love them…whether or not they appreciate that we try to love them with the love of God.
It can be hard to love when you’re not loved back. That’s just the way it is. I think the animosity has subsided some over the last several years as we’ve tried to embrace our role as a Good Samaritan in the community. But the answer when faced with this is never to withhold your love, to lessen your grace, to stop doing good works…no matter how little love you are shown in return.
All you can do is keep on loving with the love of Jesus.
After all, that’s what Jesus did.
And it got far worse for him.