Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Never Alone

Taking-off from Mile 6 - Photo by: West Gateway Trails
So I ran the Winter Solstice Marathon in Willow this past weekend. And like I said in my previous post, I was doing it as a prayer run. I was "running for those who can't." On the solstice, the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, I was running for those who are in the darkest times of their lives and longest nights of their souls.

A colleague of mine said she felt the prayers. She even mentioned a specific time of the day when she felt it! I have also been getting emails and messages from friends, thanking me for running the dark path with them. 

On the eve of the race, I sent a text message to a friend with a link to my blogpost and the words: "I'll be running for you tomorrow." My friend texted back with a heartfelt message expressing thanks and ending with, "Now I know... I will never be alone." 

Now I know I will never be alone. Isn't that the good news of Christmas. Emmanuel. God is with us. We will never be alone.

I ran on Saturday with my running buddy, Stephen, his wife Marie who did the 5K and our friend Clare who ran the Half Marathon. It was a fun day with these three. I was not alone.

At Mile 22 - Photo by: David Johnston
It has been a year since I last ran a race with Stephen. In fact the 2013 version of this marathon was our last. And because my family and I have moved to another part of town, we haven't been running together as much as we did when we lived in Chugiak. Honestly, I've missed running with him and it's been lonely training alone. It was so great to run with Stephen again. And I sure was thankful he was there to pace me through those 28 snowy miles. I was not alone.

As we celebrate the birth of the Christchild, I pray that Emmanuel be a continuing reality for you. God is with us. God is with you. You will never be alone. Go forth and be a tangible expression of Emmanuel to everyone you meet.

Merry Christmas!


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Running For Those Who Can't

I am running the Willow Winter Solstice Marathon this Saturday. It will be another prayer run for me. This time, I'm running for those who can't.

Let me explain. From its name, the Willow Marathon is held on a Saturday closest to the winter solstice, the day when the darkness is longest. In some churches, a Longest Night or Blue Christmas service is held and is specifically planned to minister to those who are in the midst of darkness during this season of joy and cheer. It is for those to whom Christmas is a burden because of certain life situations they are in.

For those of you who are in the longest nights of your souls, for you who are living in the darkness of your life situations, I dedicate this run to you.

This is for you who have lost loved ones, and you who are going through difficult times.

This is for you who are going through painful divorces, you who are worn-out trying to work it out and you who are going through stressful life transitions.

This is for you who have been diagnosed with sicknesses, you who are going through treatment and you who are in recovery.

This is for you who are lost and you who are struggling for direction.

This for you to whom Christmas will never be merry and bright because it is a painful reminder of tragedy, abuse and conflict.

I run in solidarity with your darkness and pain. I will be praying for you through the dark night. I know that the suffering I will go through in running those 26.2 cold, snowy miles will be nothing compared to the pain you are in right now.

I will pray with the hope and assurance that the next day would be longer and the night would be shorter. I will pray with the hope of increasing light for you and your situation.

For those of you who don't feel any compelling reason anymore to continue running the race of life, I will run the race for you and with you. There is hope, my friend. That is the real good news of Christmas.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bridging the Disconnect

There is no other time I feel more disconnected from the Philippines, than at Christmas time. It's just not the same! Now don't get me wrong. Celebrating Christmas here in Alaska over the past 6 years has been meaningful. But there are certain nuances, certain traditions and ways of celebrating that are unique to my homeland that I truly miss and crave. And the disconnect from friends and loved ones back home is truly magnified during this season. Listening to Filipino Christmas carols in my car or from my computer usually brings tears to my eyes as my soul acknowledges this disconnect. Thankfully, the wonders of technology allow me and my family to connect with our loved ones across the seas.

Being disconnected is a reality we have to deal with as residents of Alaska. In my traveling to the different ministry contexts around the state, the reality of isolation became very evident, more so in the contexts like Nome and Unalaska. Yet even in churches on the road system, it can get pretty isolating.

It is not unusual for our churches to feel disconnected from each other and from the Conference. I am hoping to be a bridge for the latter and we are working to find links for the former. One of the common responses I've gotten from my church visits was a sincere thankfulness for joining them in worship, meals and holy conference, for taking time to listen, or for just being there and being fully present.

It is also not unusual for our pastors to feel isolated. This became very evident at the recent Clergy and Professional Church Workers retreat. A thirst for genuine connectedness was expressed and was quenched by the time together in fellowship, prayer and conversation.

Fr. Richard Rohr characterizes our disconnect in this way: "Each of us replicates the Wholeness of God and has a certain wholeness within ourselves—but we are never entirely whole apart from our connection with the larger Whole and the other parts." He goes on to say that, "Religion's main and final goal is to reconnect us (re-ligio) to the Whole, to ourselves, and to one another—and thus heal us."

We are called to bridge the disconnect. One way we can easily do this is through prayer. Beginning in January of 2015, aside from the weekly e-newsletter, people will be receiving an email before the weekend, calling them to pray for specific concerns of a local church or ministry setting. The idea is to have the whole conference connected in prayer for a specific context every week. These can be lifted up during the worship service and during individual and small group prayer times. A schedule is being developed and churches and institutions will be asked a week or two in advance for specific things that need to be lifted up in their contexts. We thank Pastor Gary Grundman of Chugiak for this idea. It is my sincere hope that all would take this seriously as a step towards being better connected.

There are other ways that we can respond to the call of bridging the disconnect. Make an effort to reach out. Make an effort to stay in touch. Call each other. Send an email, a text, a Facebook message, a card or a letter. The United Methodist Church is a connectional system. We thrive on our connections. When we are disconnected, we falter. We need to nurture and take care of our connections and make sure that no one feels isolated. I encourage our clergy to build networks of support with each other. I encourage our churches to reach out to one another and build partnerships in prayer and ministry.

I believe that the time we spend connecting is time well spent.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Why Advent?

A couple of years ago, I was asked to write an article about Advent on the Faith Blog of the ADN (then Anchorage Daily News). I was asked to reflect on the theme: Advent as an Antidote for Acquisition or Consumerism. I thought I'd share that with you today as we begin our Advent waiting.

Advent provides an alternative to the commercialism that has come to define the holidays. It calls us to a time of waiting. It is a time of preparation, calling us to focus on what we truly celebrate during Christmas – the birth of Christ.

More than just a countdown to Christmas, the progressive lighting of candles on an Advent wreath give us themes meant to light our way through the season.

We are called to HOPE. And it’s not just hoping for gifts under the tree. Advent calls us to dig deep within and name what it is our hearts are truly hoping for.

We are also called to find PEACE, which is an antithesis to the hustle and bustle of the season. As my mind grapples for answers to senseless acts of war and violence around the world, my heart looks to God for peace.

Advent calls us to LOVE, not just to give but to love, realizing that the gift of Christmas is not a shiny new car or the latest phone model, but the love of God wrapped in our own flesh. 

And we are called to JOY. Advent prepares us, not just for the momentary happiness that comes from material gifts, but to rejoice in celebrating God’s wondrous gift – Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.

The season of Advent not only calls people to say no to the consumerism of the holidays, it also offers a different way of celebrating. Think of the Advent themes as adverbs. Instead of busily, stressfully, expensively and commercially, Advent prepares us to celebrate Christmas hopefully, peacefully, lovingly and joyfully.

May you have a meaningful Advent season as we all prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Immigrants and the Table of Thanksgiving

I am a first generation immigrant from the Philippines. My wife and I, together with our older son, came to America in 2008 when I was appointed to serve the United Methodist Church of Chugiak here in Alaska. Our younger son was born here.

As an immigrant family, adjusting to life and ministry in a foreign land had its challenges. Transitioning to ministry here was the easy part, almost seamless, thanks to the United Methodist connectional system which makes us do things in distinct, almost similar or at least recognizable ways wherever we are in the world.

It was adjusting to American culture and lifestyle that was a little more difficult. When we first got here, we had to apply for social security numbers, driver's licenses and other documents that established our identity and our residency. It felt like starting from scratch, that we never existed prior to coming here. Coming from a cash-based economy, we had to apply for credit cards and learn how to use them. We had to establish credit before we could own property. We couldn't even own a cellphone with a line and monthly bill without paying an insane amount of money because we didn't have any credit. So, for the longest time, we used cellphones with prepaid cards.

We also had to understand the tax system which was made complicated by the fact that I am clergy. Thankfully, I am married to a financial genius who read the books and figured it all out, to the utter amazement of the employees of a popular tax-preparation office. They were so impressed that they offered her a job, which at that time she couldn't take, because of our immigration status. You see, we came on Temporary Religious Worker visas. I had an R1 as the primary religious worker and my wife and son had R2s- dependents of the religious worker. One of the stipulations of the R2 visa is that my wife is not allowed to work and that my compensation should be enough to support the whole family. Three years after, our visas expired and we had to navigate the complicated (and expensive) immigration process, to become green card holders or permanent residents.

I could go on about the challenges but I think you get - it's hard being an immigrant. And our's was even a relatively easy, straight-forward process. I know of others whose journeys have been more circuitous. It's one thing to visit and be a tourist in a foreign land. It's another thing to decide to live there for good, or at least for a season or for the foreseeable future.

Around this time of the year, we feel another tension, this time cultural. In the Philippines, we do not celebrate Thanksgiving, at least not in the traditional sense that Americans celebrate it as a national holiday. Filipinos give thanks, of course, and in numerous settings, but we do not connect our thanksgiving to the Pilgrims at Plymouth. We just couldn't. It is not part of our story. And so it is not a national holiday for us. 

So how have we managed the tension these past 6 years? There is an aspect of the first thanksgiving, or at least the one we attribute this national holiday to, that strikes me as relevant, even for us immigrants:

The original Table of Thanksgiving was a table of immigrants and natives coming together around a common meal. It was a celebration of diversity. The menu was a combination of immigrant dishes and recipes cooked with ingredients harvested in the new land using agricultural techniques taught to them by the natives. It was a celebration of their shared life in the shared land!

For the past two years, we have celebrated Thanksgiving with dear friends whom we very much consider family. They are a younger American couple who are godparents to one of our sons. Our thanksgiving table is definitely non-traditional but is a wonderful coming together of two cultures. One year we had turkey, stuffings and cookies with pancit, lumpia and leche flan. The next year we had ribs, oven-roasted veggies, pasta and pumpkin pie. Both years, we had a great time and we are looking forward to Thursday!

It is not so much how perfect the turkey turns out, or how the spread looks like, or how all the elements should be there. Thanksgiving was and always should be a celebration of diversity. That as people of different color, race or tribe, we can come together to lay aside our pride, celebrate the things we have in common as well as our differences, and sincerely give thanks to the God who loves us all.

It is my prayer that this diverse table of thanksgiving extend to the table of daily life. May each day be a day of laying aside our hatred and pride, a day of celebrating our diversity and a day of living the truth that God's love is for all.

From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving!

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Special Breed

Bishop Hagiya commissioning new Alaska Clergy in 2013
It takes a special breed of person to live in Alaska and call it home. It also takes a special breed of person to serve as a pastor here. It is a beautiful land with unique ministry settings, each with its own set of joys and challenges.

In my role as Superintendent, I have received and continue to receive applications to serve here in Alaska. Some of them are legit and worth considering. But some of them, I feel, are for the wrong reasons. Some say they love to fish & hunt and so Alaska would be a great fit for them. Some say they love the outdoors. Some say they love to hike and ski. Some say they want to be away, to live in extreme, isolated settings. While these are good skills and interests to have for one who is serving in Alaska, these, in my opinion, shouldn't be the primary reasons to come here. One has to feel called to serve in any of our settings.

Here are two stories of two such people I am honored to call colleagues. Charley is an Alaska Native from Barrow belonging to the Inupiaq tribe. Jenny is, in the truest sense, a Native Alaskan because while she wasn't born in Alaska, she has spent most of her life here (except for time away in college and seminary). Both of them have a deep love for Christ and a passion for ministry with and among the people of Alaska. These are the kinds of pastors we are looking for.

(If your device or browser is not showing the video on this page, click here: Charley's video and Jenny's video)
If you are applying to serve up here for all the wrong reasons, don't bother. You'll just be wasting your time (and mine).
However, if you are sensing that God is calling you to serve in Alaska, that you are wired and have a passion for ministry here, then let's talk!

And if you are from Alaska or now living here and are feeling a call to pastoral ministry, I would like to talk to you as well!

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Anchorage is Not Alaska

One of my biggest learnings so far in this new role is this: "Anchorage is not Alaska." Its part of it, but its not the whole of it. The more I travel to our different ministry settings around the state, the more my eyes are opened to the reality that there is more to life and ministry in Alaska than my experience of it as pastor of a bedroom community of Anchorage has given me.

There are different ministry contexts with unique opportunities and challenges. When I visited Southeast Alaska a couple of months ago, my mind was opened to the realities of air travel in that part of the state. I became acquainted with terms such as "fly over" and "milk run". A "fly over" happens when it is too stormy, or too windy, or too foggy for an airplane to land and so it flies over and goes on to the next destination in the "milk run" which is a chain of airport stops a airline flight needs to make to pick-up and unload passengers and cargo before it reaches its final destination.

When I was in Ketchikan, the flight I was going to be on was a milk run flight that went from Seattle to Ketchikan to Sitka to Juneau to Anchorage. I was going to Juneau and had scheduled a meeting an hour and a half after my plane was scheduled to land and yet another meeting after that. "I have enough time," I thought to myself. But it was stormy and visibility was less than a mile. The plane tried to land three times (we could hear it approaching only to pull back up at the last minute). After the third attempt it flew over and went on to Sitka. Needless to say, I had to rebook and catch the later flight and reschedule all my meetings. What was I thinking! I was scheduling meetings like I was in Anchorage. Anchorage is not Alaska. Its part of it, but its not all of it.

It is easy to get myopic about our ministry settings, thinking that the only way of doing things is the way we do it, that the only great things that are happening in ministry are the stuff that's happening in our own backyards, that there is no greater ministry challenge than that of our own. But the reality is, no ministry context, even a mega church, can claim a monopoly of ministry processes, successes and challenges. Every context is unique and has a story to tell. Every context is different and deserves to be celebrated. Every context has its set of challenges and has to be supported.

On a personal level, it is also easy to get myopic about ourselves and our concerns, as if the world and life itself revolved around us. But it doesn't. Life is not all about us. We are part of a greater whole, a bigger fabric called humanity. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us of this, warning us against believing that we alone are the whole body and encouraging us to consider others who are also part of the same body.

The Alaska United Methodist Conference is a beautiful tapestry of different ministry contexts with their own unique ways of doing ministry. I invite us to an openness to know what is happening in our other settings and a willingness to be in partnership with each other. I invite us to find ways of celebrating each others successes and supporting each other in our challenges and times of failure.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Let Your Voice be Heard

East Anchorage UMC, where the Conference office is housed, is a polling place and so as I write this post today, I am watching people from all walks of life coming in and out of the building to vote. It's been a steady stream of people since I came in! And this is a good thing! I am not a U.S. Citizen (at least not yet) but if I were, I would be part of this exodus.

As I sit here, I am also witnessing how folks from East Anchorage UMC are engaging the voters, offering them coffee and treats. There is so much negativity and mudslinging clouding every election season that this simple act of hospitality comes as a breath of fresh air. No, they are not campaigning for any candidate or advocating for a certain cause. They are merely saying "Thank you for voting." What a great witness! And what a great way to engage their neighbors! They are certainly making great connections.

If you have already voted, I thank you for doing so! If you haven't, I encourage you to do so and let your voice be heard! Here are John Wesley's words for voters during his time and us today:


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Balcony Time

One of the things we enjoy in our new house is the front balcony on the second floor. From there we watch the rain or the snow fall, wait for the northern lights, admire the views and observe what's going on in the neighborhood. Our older son loves how he can wave and say "hi" to friends who are passing by.

For those who have started following this blog, last week I said that I was not posting but was spending time in the balcony. "Going up to the balcony" has been used as a metaphor for stepping back to assess an issue or a situation from an "unengaged" position. It means taking time to reflect, think and process before acting or reacting to the issue or situation at hand. Because most of the time, our emotions get the better of us and cloud our judgement. Many times, we act and react poorly because we were impulsive.

It's like giving yourself a timeout. When you're in a heated discussion that's going nowhere at a meeting, it may be as simple as leaning back from the table for a moment and observing. When you get an email that really agitates you, it may mean resisting the urge to respond and letting it sit for a while. I've sometimes done this and its amazing what details I find when I re-read an email with a clearer mind and calmer spirit. After balcony time, a nasty email doesn't sound so bad.

I love running because it allows me to spend time in the balcony. When I am out on the trails, I am forced to "disengage". And when I am alone with my thoughts, I am able to process things and see issues clearly. After a long day at work, it is helpful for me to lace up my shoes and go for a run, not so much to clear my mind than to organize them in a way that's not chaotic and overwhelming. Many times, after a run, I am able to work through a conflict situation and able to come up with a course of action. I am able to understand the other person's point of view. I am able to flesh-out disjointed ideas and concepts into an organized plan. Many sermons I've preached came together while I was running. Many times, I've gone out on a run all stressed out and overwhelmed but have come back calm and composed. The time in the balcony helps me see things as they are, not as I initially perceived them to be.

In the gospels, we read of Jesus' habit of going to a solitary place regularly. Yes, he was praying. But I believe he was also spending time in the balcony, reflecting on and assessing the situation from an "unengaged" position. In Mark 1:35-39, we read of Jesus' change of plans after stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.

It pays to be decisive. But decisive does not mean impulsive. May we take time to sit or stand in the balcony more often. There are many concerns and issues that confront us today as the body of Christ. We need to respond and respond in a way that God would have us respond. And for that we need to spend time in the balcony so that we are not impulsive but decisive.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sharing our Stories

AK Professional Church Workers' retreat at Birchwood Camp
October is supposedly (at least according to social media) Pastor Appreciation month. So, let me take this time to say: I appreciate all my colleagues in the Alaska United Methodist Conference and I celebrate the wonderful variety of gifts and graces that they offer!

Last week, we got together for our annual Professional Church Workers' retreat at Birchwood Camp. Our schedule this year was a departure from the "learning retreats" we've had in previous years. It was a time to share, reflect, hang out, play, rest and simply be. There were inputs from a Spiritual Director and a couple of our colleagues but these, too, were geared towards community building and spiritual reflection. Many said it was renewing, refreshing, what a retreat should be.

One of the things I really appreciated about the retreat were the offline sharing of stories. Conversations were not programmed. They just happened organically- during meals, on the walking trails, in the cabins, while knitting or hanging-out. Of course there were programmed small group discussions, but these only led to deeper conversations outside of the sessions. Relationships were definitely forged and strengthened among colleagues.

Sharing our stories- sharing how God has been working in, through and inspite of us. This is and has always been an important component of faith development. The Hebrews passed on stories of their culture and their faith to the next generations through feasts like the Passover.

When I visited our UM churches in Southeast Alaska a couple of weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the great stuff happening in those churches. They are engaging their mission fields big time! Ketchikan has a day shelter for the homeless. Sitka has become a spiritual refuge for those disillusioned by church politics. Northern Light has a thriving native ministry and food pantry. Aldersgate has a feeding program for children in their neighborhood elementary school. Douglas had just received a grant and was getting ready to do the same thing (they started last week!). The cooperative youth ministry among our three Juneau churches is thriving. These are definitely stories to share!

Kids at Aldersgate packing food for the neighborhood school
My heart was warmed in seeing and experiencing these ministries. And I am sure there are more in our other churches around the state. I cannot wait to see them!

One thing I vow to do as I hear and experience these wonderful stories is to be a vessel by which they can be shared all around the conference and across the connection. I offer my passion in photography and my interest and experience in video production to capture images and short clips about the great things happening in our Alaska UM churches. My vision is to have a page on our website where these stories are told in images, articles and videos. These will be offered, not to brag but to celebrate, to inspire, and to offer something for others to learn from or copy. Ultimately, it is to build each other up.

Growing in faith is ultimately a matter of sharing our stories with each other. As David Kinnaman said in his book, You Lost Me, "...disciples cannot be mass-produced. Disciples are handmade, one relationship at a time." As we go about our "business" of making disciples, may we be about the business of sharing our stories with each other, building relationships and faith.

your fellow disciple, 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Seasons ARE Changing!

Snow on the mountain peaks after the rain
The leaves are all yellow now here in the Anchorage area. Some are still hanging on the branches but most of them are on the ground. The overnight temperatures are dipping. For the past week or so, I've had to scrape frost off my windshield in the morning. A quick squall yesterday left snow on the mountain tops. Its only a matter of time before that snowline finds its way down. 

I hate to say this friends but the seasons are changing and winter is coming.

Many people who find out that I am serving in Alaska after living most of my life in the Philippines, cannot wrap their heads around the fact that my family and I are loving it here. "How do you do it?", they ask. "You must be be miserable.", they say. But we say, "No. We love it here. Alaska is home for us now, or at least for the foreseeable future. So we have to adapt." And I feel that we have adapted well.

Running in layers
Adapt is what we do when seasons change. I employ this principle in my running since I run outdoors all year long. When seasons change, I adapt and dress appropriately. I ran in shorts and a short sleeved shirt all summer. Now that the temperatures have dipped, I've added long-sleeved shirt that I can still shed when I get hot. Pretty soon, I'll be busting out my tights and gloves and having my shoes "re-studded" for traction. Never run in cotton, though. Cotton holds water. It'll drench you in the summer and freeze you in the winter. I go for the synthetic fabrics that wick-out moisture, keeping me mostly dry in any condition. Wool is great for winter running. If you're interested, here's a helpful online guide to running wear for different conditions: http://www.runnersworld.com/what-to-wear

Adapt is what we do when seasons change. Now the seasons are definitely changing in our life as a denomination and as the church, the body of Christ. There are many challenges to ministry and being the church today that call us to change the way we think and do things in order to thrive and keep fulfilling our mission. There are many pressing issues that we need to deal with head-on. The world we live in and the circumstances of mission and ministry are ever changing. We can choose to be miserable and complain about our situation. Or we can choose to adapt and thrive in these changing circumstances.

Our call is to be adaptive leaders. Here's a link to an article summarizing the work of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky on Adaptive Leadership. This article has been helpful for me in this new role. It might just be helpful for you too.

What are changes in your own context that are calling you and your church to adapt? My prayer is that you would be able to adapt well and continue being the hands and feet of Christ in the community where you are planted.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Learning from Spawning Salmon

I just got back from a trip to visit our churches in Southeast Alaska. What a great experience it was to connect with folks from the UMC of Sitka, First UMC of Ketchikan, and Juneau churches: Aldersgate UMC, Douglas Community UMC and Northern Light United Church (Methodist-Presbyterian). My heart has been warmed to hear and witness the wonderful things God is doing in and through these churches as they engage their mission field for Christ! I am inspired by the dreams and visions they have to change the world starting with their communities. I am encouraged by their sense of hope in the midst of difficulties that each of their faith communities is facing. I am humbled by and truly grateful for the radical hospitality shown to me in all of these places.

The trip was also filled with deep lessons for life and ministry. I will be writing about these in the next couple of blog posts. Let me start with this one today:

When I was in Sitka, Pastor Ferdie Llenado and two of his sons brought me to a creek where salmon were spawning. I had never seen salmon spawning before so this was a treat for me and I made sure to capture it on video. And then the reality struck me: What a powerful metaphor for what we are called to do and be as a church!

In order to spawn, thousands of adult salmon need to swim upstream to be able to deposit their eggs where they would be safe. This is an older generation of salmon willing to swim against the current (I'm assuming it is easier to swim with the current than it is against it!) just to make sure that the next generation would be safe.

And then it gets more powerful. After they lay their eggs in the gravel of the creek bed, these older salmon die. In the video you will see grayish, decomposing carcasses. How I wish there was a way to capture the stench on video to make the experience more complete for you. With the smell and the visual, it hit me that these "salmon of today" were willing to make the long, hard journey upstream, knowing that it would lead to their death, because they wanted to make sure that their species would survive, thrive and continue playing their role in the continued balance of the Eco-system.

What are the ways that God is calling us "salmon of today" to swim upstream, against the normal current, the normal ways of doing church that we've gotten used to, in order for a new generation of Christians to not only survive but thrive? What are the ways that God is calling us to "die to ourselves" so that new life can happen in our churches and in our denomination? Can we be selfless, like these spawning salmon, not thinking of themselves, but of those coming after them and ultimately the mission of their species? Are we willing to put to death practices and structures that are no longer relevant, even if we love them so much and they are our comfort zones? Are we willing to be uncomfortable, to be inconvenienced, to exert the extra effort to swim upstream, to live with the stench of decay for a while, in order to make more disciples of Jesus Christ who would continue in our mission of transforming the world?

Shall we swim upstream together?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Quiet Center

Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead,
Find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed:
Clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes, that we can see
All the things that really matter, be at peace, and simply be.

I love these words from the hymn "Come and Find the Quiet Center" by Shirley Erena Murray. They remind me of my constant need to center myself in God before I engage the busyness and the business of the day. It is so easy to get caught up with the demands of our to-do lists and our chores, places to go to, people to meet and schedules to keep. With the continuing advancement of information technology, the temptation is stronger than ever to dive into our work first thing in the morning. And that just dictates how the rest of our day would go, doesn't it? It doesn't slow down from there. We continue on that dizzying pace until we are ready for bed. And even from bed, we find ourselves checking that last email, that last text message, that last post.

When I said yes to taking this new role, one of the first things I did was contact people I knew who were either former or current Superintendents. I asked them for tips, pointers and general words of wisdom. There was a variety of responses, ranging from the technical, the practical, to the spiritual. Yet one common piece of advice I got that resonated among all their messages was this: Pay attention to your soul. Do not neglect your spiritual life. Be disciplined in your spiritual practices.

I am thankful for those words of advice and have taken them seriously. I begin my day with God in scripture and prayer. Some days are easier than others. But I try. Sometimes I falter and I reap the consequences of an "un-centered" start throughout the day. And so I try my best to take time for God daily. My devotions today reminded me of how God provided manna daily to the Israelites in the wilderness and everyday they had to go out and gather this flaky substance from the ground for their food. In a practical sense, it was for food to satisfy their hunger. But in a deeper sense, it cultivated a habit of depending on God daily. It was meant to center them daily on the wonderful truth of God's grace. "Give us this day our daily bread."

Running is another practice that takes care of not only my body but also my soul. It has become, for me, a spiritual discipline. I do not use headphones and listen to music when I run and so I am able to listen to my breathing, my heartbeat and the pounding of my feet on the ground. I find it soothing when those three seem to be in sync, following a certain rhythm. Running allows me to process things, to think through a difficult situation or marinate on a sermon. It also relieves stress. When I am not able to run, I am cranky and out of sync.

Friend, I know that you, too, lead a very busy life. Amidst the busyness, may you find time to take care of your soul. I pray the words of this hymn as a blessing for you: May you find the quiet center in the crowded life you lead. May you find room for hope to enter and the frame where you are freed. May you find time and space to clear the chaos and the clutter. May your eyes be cleared to see the things that really matter. May you find peace and simply be. Amen.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Studying the Map

Map of the last race I ran
I used to never study the map of a course before a race. It's because I knew my running buddy Stephen did that. And since I ran my first three marathons with him, I never bothered. I would maybe look at the map a couple of times, just to have a sense of where the course would take us. But I seldom paid attention to the details.

That changed during my last race, which I ran without Stephen. I felt that I had to have a better grasp of the courses' intricacies. And because it was a longer distance than I had ever ran before, I paid close attention to where the climbs were, where the aid stations were located and where the flats and downhills were situated. I had to plan for these. I had to know where the inclines and declines were, and how long they were so I could pace myself. I had to know where the drink stations were so I could regulate may liquid intake. I had to know what food and drink was available at the aid stations so that I knew what to bring.

Studying the map paid off! It helped me plan and strategize. Knowing that there was an aid station every 2 miles helped me manage my hydration. I used to get cramps after mile 20 because dehydrated. Learning the map kept me cramp-free.

Panoramic view of Lake Junaluska
Last week, I attended the Training of New District Superintendents and Directors of Connectional Ministry in Lake Junaluska, NC. It was great time of learning and of connecting with fellow "newbies". It was also a renewing time of retreat and reflection on this new role that I am now two months into.

Aside from gaining friends and meaningful connections with colleagues, my greatest takeaway from my time at Lake J was that it allowed me to "study the map" of what it means to be superintendent in the Alaska Conference. The training gave me a better sense of the scope of the job. It gave me a better understanding of my role as "chief missional strategist" for our conference. It helped me plot when the busy "uphill" times would be in the calendar as well as the easy "flats" where I can relax and restore. It also helped me take stock of the "aid stations"- resources I have available, people I can contact for help and guidance, and agencies I can tap into for resourcing.

In Luke 14, Jesus talks about "studying the map", when it comes to being a disciple. He challenges everyone who wants to follow him to count the cost of discipleship. "For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'"(Luke 14:28-30, NRSV).

My week at Lake J certainly led me to "study the map" and "count the cost" of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in this role. What about you? What maps for the different races of life do you need to study right now?

Whatever race of life you're in right now, may God lead you to study your maps diligently, allowing you to count the cost, run the race and finish strong.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Finishing Strong

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." 2 Timothy 4:7, NRSV

Finishing strong. This is what every runner hopes to do at every race and run. For long distance runners, it means running all those miles but leaving enough in the tank for that final push.

My running buddy Stephen uses a very Alaskan metaphor of a woodstove or fireplace. At the start of a marathon, he would remind me to pace myself, to time the "feeding of logs into the fire" strategically so that the flame keeps going. He also reminds me to leave enough for the final push. Then in the last mile, he goes, "Alright, Carlo, whatever logs you've got left, this is the time to throw it all in the fire! Time to go all out!" One time, I actually told him, "I don't think I have any logs left." I just didn't have enough in the tank to finish strong.

I've since learned to pace myself better and in the last race I did, I actually had enough left in me to sprint to the finish line!

Jim Truitt & Rev. David Valera
Last week, I had the chance to travel to Galena, Alaska with Jim Truitt and David Valera of the Pacific Northwest Conference (PNW). Jim is PNW's Disaster Response Coordinator and is in charge of the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) efforts to rehabilitate the homes in Galena which were either severely damaged or totally demolished by the recent flooding disasters due to ice damming. David is PNW's Executive Director of Connectional Ministries and a very gifted communicator. They invited me to join them and witness, first hand, the work that our United Methodist volunteers have been doing in helping this Alaska village recover from the disaster.

David taking a video of the morning devotion and briefing
David was there to capture the work in video because there is a story to tell. In fact there are many heartwarming stories of service, sharing, servanthood, cooperation, connections and grace. I was fortunate to witness those stories firsthand. I look forward to David's videos and when they are available, I will let you know. I, too, took photos and will share them later when I get home (I am writing this from DS Training in Lake Junaluska, NC).

Jim talking with Lou, his chief of building operations
Jim was there to coordinate the final push. When we were there, they had two weeks to complete what they had started: finishing up 4 new houses which they built from scratch and 7 remodels. FEMA, the government agency they were working with  and who had paid for the volunteers' airfare to be there, had set September 2nd as their deadline. They were on their last mile of this marathon that started in May of last year. 200+ volunteers have come and gone. Many of them have come back more than once because they believed in the mission. When we were there, they had just said goodbye to team 10 and had teams 11 and 12 on the ground working. Because of the urgency of the "last mile" and the availability of two teams, they had doubled the shifts in order to meet the deadline.

It was a blessing to be there and connect with our volunteers from all across the US. I was honored to lead them in devotions and personally thank them for their work in our state. It was heart warming to hear their stories.

Friends, as you read this, our volunteers have one week left to finish what they have started. They are on their last mile and would like to finish strong. Whatever is not done by the 2nd of September will remain undone. I commend them to you that you may join me in holding them in prayer as they make that final push and finish strong.

And what about you? Are you near the end of a project, a tenure or a journey? Know that you are in my prayers. May God grant you the grace to finish strong!



Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Prayer Run

I did it! This past weekend, I ran my first ultramarathon, the inaugural 49K Ultra here in Anchorage. And thanks to your help, I made it, running it in 6 hours, 12 minutes and 18 seconds.

I say "thanks to your help" because I know that you were with me. In my last post, Come Run With Me, I shared that I was going to do this race as a prayer run, dedicating a mile to praying for each of the churches in the Alaska Conference. And I invited you to join me in praying for at least one church. For those who were able, I invited you to run, walk, jog, or bike a mile as they prayed.

I am thankful to all of you who joined me on this prayer run. I certainly felt your presence! And it definitely was helpful, especially at the points when I wanted to quit. Prayerfully thinking about the congregations, pastors and lay people helped keep my mind off the pain in my tired legs. And it motivated me to finish.

The prayer run took on a whole new meaning for me with a woman I met during the race. One thing I love about running is that you get to know people and because of the long hours and miles that you share, you develop a certain bond. I met Irina at mile 5 of the race. She was casually chatting with a couple of runners and since they were keeping a good pace, I decided to run along. We chatted about random things: the weather, the coastal trail we were on, Anchorage, running.

At mile 6, after water and Gatorade at an aid station, our two companions decided to dial down the pace a little but Irina wanted to keep pushing. I was still feeling good and so I joined her. We continued chatting, getting a little bit more personal. We shared our names, where we're from, where we live. Like me, she is an immigrant and now lives in Minnesota with her husband. She was in town just for the race. And like me, she was doing her first ultra (although unlike me, who signed up for this race months ago, she decided just that morning to switch from the regular marathon which she originally signed-up for to the ultra. I guess she was feeling really good that morning!)

Then we got to talking about why we ran. She said she loves the freedom that running gives, and how it clears her mind. I agreed. I asked her if she had always been a runner. She said no. She only started running to cope with the death of her son 9 years ago. She was running races as a way of honoring her late son who died in his youth. I said I was sorry and that I was joining her in honoring her son that day.

Then she asked me why I ran and I said it was mainly to stay fit but, like her, it was also a spiritual thing and a stress-reliever for my job. Then she asked me what I did and I said I was a pastor and that I was doing the race that day as a prayer run for UM churches in Alaska. Her eyes brightened and she said, "Would you pray for my son?!" With tears in her eyes, she went on to share that her son committed suicide at 25. And to make things worse, when she went to ask the clergyperson of her church to bless her son and do a memorial service for him, she was denied because of the way in which he died. They wouldn't even let her light candles at the church in his honor. That is why she asked me if I would pray for her son! All these years, she was bearing all that pain of loss and rejection and trying to cope with it through running.

I said "Yes, I will pray for your son." I reminded her of God's grace and love that was available for everyone. She thanked me and said, "Now I know why I switched to the ultra. If I had stuck with the marathon, I wouldn't have met you because it starts an hour later." I couldn't agree more (although I think even if she did the marathon and started an hour later, she would have still caught up to me.)

Soon we lost each other in the crowd of other racers. Irina picked up a fast-paced pack and stayed with them. I settled down to a more manageable pace and got back to praying for the churches. The course had a couple of turnarounds, so I had a few more chances to exchange high-fives with her later in the race. But I was sure she would already be gone when I finished, lost in the crowd of runners and spectators at finish line. I was just thankful for the chance to meet her and share a few, grace-filled miles.

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw her after I crossed the line. She had waited for me to congratulate me for finishing and to thank me for praying for her son. The picture here was taken right as I finished. I introduced her to my wife Radie and the boys. After the photo-ops, we exchanged email addresses, congratulated each other and said goodbye.

There are many among us like Irina, in our schools, places  of work, communities and churches. With the death of Robin Williams, the spotlight has been trained yet again on those who have taken their own lives because it seemed to be the only choice left. We focus on the victims almost forgetting that in the wake of such tragic deaths are loved ones and families who are left with burdens of grief and rejection. Yes, there is work to be done to prevent suicides from happening. But there is also work to be done in reaching out to those who have been left behind. You and I can walk with them. You and I can run with them.

Friend, if you know of someone who is struggling with the loss of a loved one due to suicide, I invite you to walk with them and remind them of God's grace. And if you are struggling with the painful death of a loved one who committed suicide, please know that I and many others are willing to walk with you. You are not alone. We are with you. And more importantly, God is with you.

Irina, thank you for sharing your story with me and for giving me permission to write about you. You will be in my prayers. It was an honor sharing a prayer run with you.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Come Run With Me

I will be running my first ultramarathon on Sunday, August 17. An ultra, as it is fondly called, is any race longer than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles or 42.1648 kilometers. I will be testing my limits in the inaugural 49K Ultra of the Big Wild Life Runs here in Anchorage. And while it is "short" compared to the standard ultra distances (50K, 50 miles, 100 miles and beyond), it is probably the longest I am willing to run, for now...

What makes this race different from other races I've done in the past, aside from the longer distance, is my plan to do it as a prayer run. 49 kilometers is equivalent to 30.44860 miles. There are 28 United Methodist Churches in my area of responsibility. I would like to dedicate a mile for each of these churches. As I run each mile, I will prayerfully hold the church assigned to that mile, their pastor/s, lay people, missions and ministries. I will bring the following list with me:
Now here's the kicker: I invite you to run the race with me. No, I am not asking you to physically run 30+ miles (unless you're up to it, of course. I'd definitely love the company). What I'm asking you to do is to join me in praying for the churches of the Alaska United Methodist Conference on Sunday. I invite you to pick a church (or two) from the list and promise to set aside time to hold these ministries in prayer. Each church name above is a live link to their website or Facebook page to give you more information about them.

On race day, I may average anywhere from 10-12 minutes per mile. Can I ask you for 10-12 minutes of your time on Sunday to pray for a church in the AUMC? Or perhaps your are a walker, a jogger or a biker. Can I ask you to find time on Sunday to walk, jog or bike a mile as you pray for the church you pick?

Will you come run (and pray) with me?