Reflection begins as group of clergy returns from Alaskan parks pilgrimage

By Gennie Bowles

Organized by the Rev. Meredith McNabb and the Rev. Tim Ward, a group of clergy set out for Alaska, Aug. 1-8. This Alaska Parks Pilgrimage allowed the clergy to explore “the unknown frontier” of Alaska and see the real effects of climate change firsthand in the area and to have conversation about the unknown territory of The United Methodist Church’s current climate.
Participants read "While Glaciers Slept" by M Jackson prior to arriving and each individual prepared a podcast for the group to listen to and led discussion. The group met with the Alaska Missionary Conference district superintendent, toured glaciers and Denali National Park, visited the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and the Native Museum in Anchorage.

I have always enjoyed a good museum. I am a chronic sign reader, bringing up the rear on hikes to stop and read about local ecology or history. I expect to be surprised by new information; you never know what kind of trivia you may stumble upon. I found the Parks Pilgrimage trip to Alaska to be an incredible opportunity to learn. But it is in the coming home, the telling of stories and sharing of pictures, that the reflection begins. I am delighted to do some of this reflecting with you.

Our team of 12 clergy colleagues and friends set out for Denali driving through fog and clouds with hopes of seeing caribou, moose, and grizzly bears. We took in the mountains and scenery, some choosing to climb 1,000 ft. straight up to do so. We snuggled with sled dogs before leaving for Fairbanks to learn about Alaskan history and the effects of extreme weather due to climate change. We hiked to Exit Glacier and saw signs of the glaciers increasing retreat. At the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage we learned about the history and culture of the native people of Alaska through music, dance, and architecture. It was a whirlwind of sights and experiences shared with an incredible group of pastors brought together for faithful reflection.

The day of our trip that has most caused me to pause and reflect was our last full day in Alaska, the day we spent on a boat exploring Kenai Fjords National Park. We saw two glaciers so large I could hardly wrap my head around their scale. Yet, I was also painfully aware of the evidence we had seen and heard that these glaciers were retreating far too quickly. Standing on a boat in a fjord in Alaska, taking in the water, mountains, and glaciers, I was in awe of all that we had seen and done. We saw wildlife in their natural habitat, from puffins and sea otters to three species of whale. Having already seen fin whales and a pod of orcas we set off, our captain sharing that there had been a report of a baby humpback in a nearby cove. It was in this moment that the absurdity of whale watching hit me with full force.

The idea that we had started the day with the audacity to think that we would board a boat and wander about the ocean with the intention of randomly bumping into a whale struck me as outrageous, preposterous, laughable even! And yet, that is precisely what we did.

It brought to mind a story in Luke 11. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, so he gave them a prayer and a parable about knocking on a neighbor’s door at midnight. Luke 11:8 in the NIV translation reads, “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.”

Practicing shameless audacity was exactly what we were doing in the fjord looking for whales that day, and it may have been the reminder I needed the most. I don’t often practice shameless audacity, particularly in my prayers. Perhaps it has been years of being taught that God is not a vending machine, or a fear of disappointment if a prayer is too big or asks too much. But I try to keep things simple and not make large requests. But that day on that boat I was reminded that not only are we allowed to pray with shameless audacity, Jesus himself encourages us to do so.

Watching the fluke of a humpback whale breaking the surface of the water as he dove into the depths I found God reminding me to pray with shameless audacity. To pray that we might as a world have a greater respect for the land and sea and sky that God has given us, to pray that someday the news won’t be filled with stories of gun violence, acts of terror, and human rights abuses, and even to pray that in the midst of the changing climate of The United Methodist Church, that the winds of change may guide us towards inclusion and love. Amen.

-The Rev. Genevieve (Gennie) Bowles is pastor of Prince of Peace UMC in Manassas, Va.

 

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Background photos courtesy of VDOT.

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