As I sat down to begin writing this, the final of my blog reflections on my time seeking the Lord and serving on mission in Southeast Alaska, the grumble of thunder rolls about the groggy summer air back home in Virginia Beach. It’s been quite a while since my most recent update. In the span of time since that last post, a lot has been true – there’s been challenge, frustration, reflection, peace, uncertainty, and much, much rain. I stepped off the final of three connecting flights last evening, picked up at Norfolk International airport by one of my closest friends and brought back home to surprise my parents with a late-night return (a homecoming that involved a good bit of confusion as I had to convince my dad and dog that, no, I really was not a burglar). And, suddenly, like the ending of a symphony before an empty theater, one rhythm decrescendos into the drumbeat of the familiar – home, with silences cool and calming and built of remembered things.
The final few weeks of my time in Juneau were among the richest of my life. They have been days spent marveling at mountains’ reflections on mirror-slick lake faces, with whispers of fogs singing secrets of things unseen amid the fingertips of ancient spruce trees and the mosaic of berry bushes at their wooden feet. They were days of learning the verse of wet repose composing the never-ceasing summertime rain shower that is the soul of the rainforests of Southeast Alaska. They were days of being swept away by the green and grey and greatness of a land so very much alive.
These, too, have been days of learning to abide in my own weakness and in the illogical forgiveness and strength of a perfect and holy God. They have been days of longing for the fruit I felt my own weakness in ministry was stunting on the vine – and realizing anew that God’s faithfulness supersedes that weakness in ways my spirit can hardly comprehend. They’ve brought chances here and there to witness with blood and breath to friends old and new how perfect a love and redemption is to be found at the feet of Jesus – all while learning anew how to depend on that cross for the truest and fullest of peace. They’ve challenged me to keep talking at times and at others to just shut up, to walk forward on some occasions and just be still at others. They’ve been days of finding out just how completely lost in love for a place you can become without even really knowing it, and how sadly sweet a thing it can be to kiss a place and a people goodbye. They were days of coming into a new vocabulary of self-identification – a language of fuller belonging not to my particular place and time, but to the beautiful and boundless epic that is Christ’s story. These were days that, if nothing else, taught me to just love people better, that just grew my heart for this sea of being that is the human family. And how vast and wide and wild that sea is – but even more so the love of God that permeates the space between every drop of that great ocean.
I want to use this final update to provide kind of a recap of what my personal ministry looked like this past summer in Juneau. I would ask that in those situations where we didn’t see any great conclusion to our efforts, that you’d be continuing to shower those areas of Juneau and those individuals with the deepest of loving prayer, prayer that Jesus would use the humble interactions they had with our team to build great stories of awakening faith and reintroductions to grace. But first, I’d like to share a bit more fully about a very specific instance of how Jesus made himself known in my own life this summer. It involves a mysterious book, a leather couch, and life change.
First, the background. The story of my walk with Christ has been one of learning to let go of the many false narratives I hold about myself. High school was a season of my life where I learned how widespread my shortcomings were. My desire to be something was too much for me to carry – my strength, too thin. I could not seem to do anything that would allow me to earn my own self-respect. I was racing always to do, achieve, or be something that would allow me to finally make friends with myself.
I began to truly trust Christ as Lord of my life just about midway through high school. I saw my need for some one beyond myself to step in to pay for and make right all the imperfection, sin, and spiritual brokenness in my life. And Jesus entered in to bring that healing, that joy, that peace, that life. Over the years following, though, a mindset began to grow in me: a striving towards some new and higher standard, a fear that I might miss some piece of significance I knew I wanted to be true of my life – and had convinced myself God desired for me, too. And so I continued to run even harder to get where I thought God wanted me to be.
In that spiritual calculus, I never could measure up. Every day seemed like one more story of squandering time and opportunities. The beautiful story I wanted my life to be? Well, the very ordinary and still-broken parts of me thwarted that story’s writing. I was never quite the hero I wished I could be – or the hero I thought God wanted me to be. You see, I had this view of who I thought God was waiting for me to become – and every day I lived short of that mark seemed like a day’s more worth of distance between Him and some place waiting for my arrival.
The radical truth, though, about the Gospel is that the moment we trust Jesus to be the healer and payment for our sin, there is nothing more we need to do – or possibly could do – to earn God’s favor. There is no great achievement lingering somewhere in my tomorrow to be realized and make me worth my salt. There is no 12-step program of self-improvement or self-enlightenment or self-spiritualization I need to buy into in order to be found more worthy or more useful or more desirable in the eyes of God. There just isn’t.
The price Jesus paid for me? Because of that price, God looks my way and sees something beautiful. He looks my way and He is delighted. Every burden I’ve placed on myself to somehow muscle up and “be more”? All along, God has been reaching out and trying to break me into just being His. The love of God is not frustrated by my failure like I often am. The love of God cannot be outrun, and I had been running hard to prove something.
You see, I’ve learned Jesus is not just a vision of some palatable morality upon which “productive” lives can be built. He is more than a symbol of positive thinking to compel us into some holy otherworld of blissful self-awareness. No, he is the one who sees through the broken glass of my heart’s windows and into the rooms where I’ve hoarded regrets and escape plans for years, rooms whose floors hide under mounds of forgotten treasures and photos I wish were never taken. And you know what? He isn’t offended by the mess inside. He walks deep inside those rooms, not just lingering beyond the doorframe like everyone else. He comes inside and sits right down in the center of the room, and begins telling me stories of wide open seas and dreams called stars.
I tell him the house is falling apart around me. The rafters show signs of strain, the windows make way for the cold to roll inside these rooms, and I’d long forgotten the colors the house’s builder had chosen for the walls. I tell him I planned long ago to get busy and fix it all, but I just didn’t have the budget – I just didn’t have the tools, or even the title to the property. It got lost long ago.
And then he reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a folded paper – a deed. He smiles, and tells me he’s bought that big, old house. He paid a great price for it, but now I need not fear the emptiness, the decay, the debt, the cold anymore. Because the moment I invited him inside, he made that house a home – a place to come alive, to rest, to invite others in, today and tomorrow and forever. And he will own that home forever.
It was on the afternoon of July 23 – a Thursday – that I was reading a book sent anonymously to me on the university campus we were staying at in Juneau. The book, called The Cure, aimed to do one thing: take the reader a step back to lay down the narratives we’ve written about ourselves so we might see what it is God sees when He looks at us. As I read through one particular chapter of that book, I came across this line: “YOUR VIEW OF YOU IS THE GREATEST COMMENTARY ON YOUR VIEW OF GOD.”
In the moments following, as I prayed, things shifted inside that I didn’t even know were in need of rearrangement. The incredible pressure I been putting on myself for months, years to “be more” showed itself as the distrust it truly is. The book went on to describe a God who “has shown all of His cards,” a God whose provision of grace through Christ leaves no reason for His children to have to wonder about their worth – or His acceptance. God knows the ins and outs of my (and your) history and my (and your) disappointments, more deeply than I (or you) even feel them – and His love floods into that space all the same. All the aching I had ever felt to be more, to improve, to somehow redeem the shortcomings or lack of productivity I just could not seem to lay down – God just took me aside in that moment and whispered for me to trust Him anew with it all. My first, my truest significance, was not in the fruit we were or were not seeing from our mission work, nor was it in any other sense of productivity in any other arena of life. My first, my truest significance, is this: to be found at the feet of Jesus.
And then, I just buckled under the weight of this grace, this invitation to drop this burden and this lie that I need to “be more” or strive always to “be useful” enough – this invitation to open up my eyes to see God’s arms could never hold me more tightly than they did in that moment. His favor could never cover me more purely or completely. His love could never burn for me more fiercely. Be more? Jesus whispers. No, just be mine. Where once I ran, Jesus bid me rest. So, that afternoon, I sat on the old leather couch in the campus lodge for some 15 minutes, crying like a baby (no joke) as the face of love and the promise of peace, joy, rest, and life abundant came into focus again after my eyes had been fixed elsewhere, fixed downward, for too long.
It was like meeting Jesus for the first time – again.
The book I was reading meant nothing in all this – the Jesus its words pointed to meant everything. And it’s this Jesus who sees in me – and in us all – a very real need to be made right, to be made clean, to find rest. And it’s this Jesus who died, rose, and reaches out to bring that very thing.
So, if you’re looking for fruit from this summer, at the very least find it in my falling deeper into this truth, in God working the crazy story of His breaking and beautiful love into the substance of who I am. Let the telling of this story be my worship.
As promised, here is a brief rundown of what my personal ministry looked like this summer, and how Jesus moved in those areas.
- Relational ministry: One beautiful facet about Christ’s ministry, if you look at it, is how he simply came alongside others and went about life among them. He knew what it was to enter people’s lives in an everyday kind of way, to build common ground with others and construct bridges of mutual connection. As summer residents of Juneau, our team sought to imitate that very humble mode of ministry, investing at deep levels in new relationships with our neighbors and coworkers – and loving them with the Gospel love of Jesus Christ. Consider, too, the life and ministry of Paul. He entered into new areas of ministry as both a teacher and a tentmaker, continuing to live out the very secular role of the craftsman in ways informed by the lordship of Jesus over his life and ways that invited others in very real ways to encounter the Gospel love of Christ. With all of our missionaries participating in some form of weekday employment or other volunteer opportunities, I believe there’s a beautiful sense as well of our team seeking to grow a tangible ministry as “tentmakers” among the community of Juneau. We simply sought to bring Gospel truths and Gospel love into places where they hadn’t been encountered before, and for us that meant bringing a life-restoring love for Jesus and an honest love for others into the workplace. As I said in a previous post, I had the amazing privilege of working at a true Juneau gem, Glacier Gardens. In the friendships I made there and in how I went about my work, my prayer and hope was to live out and vocalize how the saving power of Jesus can change real people’s lives. The Lord was so extravagantly generous in bringing me a number of beautiful new friends there. And the even more beautiful thing is that these are friendships I hope will continue, and that’s something I’m truly thankful for. I can’t tell you how much I miss that family and that place. If you’re ever in Juneau, be sure to stop by and pay them a visit.
- Serving Juneau: Every week I volunteered at a homeless shelter in downtown Juneau called The Glory Hole, after a famous abandoned mine shaft nearby filled with water. I helped with meal preparation and worked in the rooftop garden they run to supply the shelter’s clients with fresh produce at every meal. In trying to get to know the stories of some of the clients, I encountered one gentleman from St. Joseph, Missouri – one of the most gentle, beautiful souls I’ve ever had the chance to come alongside. We developed a very real friendship over the summer, he sharing his love of Jesus with me and me being able to step in and hopefully be an open ear and source of encouragement for him. We were able to arrange for him to begin attending Sunday services at Douglas Island Bible Church with me and a group of our missionaries. I’ve asked for the church family there to be looking for a way to continue driving him to services and draw him lovingly deeper into the church family there. I also had the chance to get to know and testify with another client at the shelter, as well as just be an open ear to her experiences with faith and life. The realest fruit from my involvement there, though, as with much of my summer, I feel, will be in how the Lord just widened my heart through the people I was able to learn from and encounter there.
- Witnessing: Every Saturday we had the opportunity to step out into various parts of Juneau and engage locals, be they passersby on the streets of downtown Juneau or families enjoying one of the city’s many recreational areas, in spiritual conversations and share our witness. Whether it meant simply scratching the surface of spiritual topics with others or encouraging people to look anew at the claims of Jesus, we simply tried to get conversations started, love others well through listening, and testify to the truth we’ve found about Jesus. Were there opportunities that I missed? Were there times where I simply chose to give in to fear and discouragement? Did I often fall short in accessibly communicating Gospel truths with clarity? Certainly so, to all three – and because of that, one of the biggest areas of growth for me this summer came in learning how to lean on God’s grace and forgiveness in light of my very real imperfection in attempting to engage others in these kinds of conversations. The biggest offering I could bring into these spaces, I often found, was just sharing my personal experience with Christ – just speaking about him in a real way, and communicating that love with rawness and brokenness. The most real thing I could communicate about Jesus was just loving like him.
- Community Events: We hosted a number of different outreach events and projects, some regularly hosted and some only one-time. Some of those events included:
- Independence Day Salmon Bake: We hosted a free salmon bake on the UAS campus, inviting our neighbors in the student housing apartments as well as dozens of locals in the Auke Lake community immediately surrounding campus.
- Oceans Wide: A beachside service featuring acoustic worship, devotional and prayer time, and Gospel presentation
- “Life is ____.” : One Saturday morning, we set up a small canopy tent in a wharfside park downtown and gave out free hot chocolate, lemonade, and cookies. We asked passersby how they would answer the question, “Life is ___”, and we shared small booklets our team produced telling the stories of how two locals and one Cru member have found their answer to that question in God’s provision of grace through Christ.
- Weekly Meetings: Our team put on a weekly worship service at the beautiful Chapel by the Lake. Good teaching, spaces for intense prayer, worship and fellowship – we worked to create a space where local believers could come in and be refreshed by the truth of God’s love and where new friends could have a chance to encounter that love, as well. Weekly Bible studies also provided a space to invite new friends into to simply experience love and hang out.
- Other: A hodgepodge of other opportunities came to our mission team, as well. Here’s a taste:
- We distributed invitation fliers for a local church’s foodbank ministry in a local neighborhood.
- I had the opportunity to meet some cool folks at two local poetry slams around town, and I got to share two spoken word pieces I wrote to celebrate clearly and earnestly the power of the Gospel.
- A number of our missionaries got to help out with two local youth ministry events. In short, lots of fun opportunities came our way.
I hope you’ve enjoyed connecting through these blog updates at numerous points throughout the summer. Needless to say, there is much from my time in Alaska that just can’t be fit into a blog like this, but thank you all for stepping into my summer and walking that road with me. If you have any questions or comments concerning our experiences or work this summer, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear from you!
Thank you for your faithful prayer support and partnership with our mission team. I can’t tell you how much you are appreciated, and I hope something true of Jesus has come through in the experiences I’ve shared in these updates. I’m considering starting up a more consistent blog, too, in the coming months. So, possibly keep your eyes peeled for that.
As you know, the title of this blog has been “Finding the Great Land,” a reference to the intriguing meaning of the word Alaska. Alaska presents itself as a great frontier, a place where adventures are to be had and something precious, exotic, wild is to be found. I hope we all will keep pressing into that search, and be willing to follow that thirst down to the destination where we can really look back one day and know we’ve seen something worth chasing. And that greatest place, I’ve found, is the top of a hill called Calvary.