Rolling out the Welcome Mat

Sign welcoming us to the City of Fairbanks

Sign welcoming us to the City of Fairbanks

We arrived into Fairbanks via train.  As we were coming into Fairbanks, I saw something I had never seen before.  A family had pulled on to the side of the highway as our train passed by, pulled out a homemade “Welcome to Fairbanks” sign, and waved as we passed.  As far as I could tell, they were just a regular family, not tourist professionals, but they seemed excited that we had traveled to their city.  Not just in Fairbanks, but all across Alaska, the people seemed to really appreciate and welcome us to their state.  In almost every store the clerks said “thank you for visiting” even when we didn’t buy anything.  It was as if the people of Alaska realized that their state wasn’t “just around the corner” for many of their visitors and they really appreciated the time, effort and money that the visitors (like us) put in to visit Alaska.

Now I’m not saying that there aren’t crabby and obstinate people in Alaska (though I don’t recall meeting any), but I couldn’t help but wonder how we receive people here in Louisiana.  Like Alaska, the Louisiana tourist industry is a big part of our state.  This commercial by Louisiana Tourism that I have seen on television recently, states that we have over 25 million visitors to  Louisiana, and 1 in 11 jobs in our state is related to tourism.  Tourism brings in over $10.4 billion dollars to our state.  And there are great things to see in our state- Audubon Zoo, D-Day Museum, Aquarium of the Americas, Superdome, Poverty Point, Antebellum homes, state parks, and so much more.  Who wouldn’t want to come and see these great things?  But for those of us who are “home folks”, I sure hope we say “Welcome to Louisiana” and “Thank you for visiting Louisiana.”

If we welcome visitors to our state and businesses, shouldn’t we welcome them to our church?  After all church is where we gather to worship the living God, to remember God’s grace, mercy and love, as well as how faith has made a difference in our lives.  The first step, of course, is to invite people to church (see blog post “Fishing for People” from June 26, 2014), but once they come to church we must also welcome them like they are loved and appreciated children of God.  And we don’t have a lot of time to welcome them.  This article by Rick Ezell states that guests make up their minds about a church in the first ten minutes of their visit.  He also states that most church members aren’t friendly.  He writes “Churches claim to be friendly. In fact, many churches put that expression in their logo or tag line. But my experience in visiting churches as a first-time guest proves otherwise. The truth is that most church members are friendly to the people they already know, but not to guests.”  When we are not friendly to guests, then the guests remember that we aren’t the only game in town and may go down the street to the next church, just as we might choose to shop at another store if the one we usually shop at doesn’t have what we need or want.  Rick reminds churches that they are (or should be) in the hospitality business. “Though our ultimate purpose is spiritual, one of our first steps in the Kingdom business is attention to hospitality. Imagine the service that would be given to you in a first-class hotel or a five-star restaurant. Should the church offer anything less to those who have made the great effort to be our guests?”  United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase has even listed Radical Hospitality as one of the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (source:  The wonderful and scary thing is that how we treat and welcome others not only reflects on our church, our denomination, but on God.  If we don’t treat welcome guests with the love and respect they deserve, they could decide that God wouldn’t welcome them either or that God doesn’t love them.

So what can we do?  We can make a concerted effort to welcome those who we don’t know, even if we are not ushers, or the pastor, or if it is not our “job.” (Remember that homemade welcome sign to Fairbanks?)  Maybe one way to do this would be to follow the rule of ten, meaning that we greet anyone within ten feet of us, whether we know them or not.  Or we could follow the rule of three, which encourages us to spend the first three minutes after the service ends to welcome and greet those we don’t know, since most guests leave within three minutes after the service is over.  These are only a few ways to welcome and greet others, maybe you know of others.  Whoever we are and whatever we do, let us make an effort to roll out the welcome mat and greet others in church, in our businesses, and even visitors to our state.

Questions to consider:  When were you welcomed well to a city/state/business/church and how did it make you feel?  When were you not welcomed to a city/state/business/church and how did it make you feel?  What is God calling you to do to welcome others to your church and business?


Working Together for the Common Good

A group of Humpback Whales swims in the waters near Juneau, Alaska

A group of Humpback Whales swims in the waters near Juneau, Alaska

In Juneau, we went on a whale watching tour.  We saw eagles, sea lions, and the group of Humpback whales pictured above.  While we were watching we saw the whales dive, and a few minutes later they surfaced at the same time, mouth open wide.  We were amazed and even the marine biology students that were our guides were excited to see this behavior, which they saw only rarely even though they were on the water daily.  Scientists call this behavior “Bubble Net Feeding”.  The Juneau Humpback Whale Catalog describes Bubble Net Feeding this way;  “To summarize the bubble net technique; a group of humpbacks will dive down to herring schools where one whale (the bubble-blower) will release a ring of bubbles from its blowhole as it spirals beneath the prey. As this air rises to the surface, it creates a curtain of bubbles that acts as a physical barrier to frighten and retain the school of herring. Simultaneously, another whale in the

A group of Humpback Whales surface while Bubble Net Feeding.  (Photo credit- Fay Schaller)

A group of Humpback Whales surface while Bubble Net Feeding. (Photo credit- Fay Schaller)

group will produce resonating vocalizations, which also act to frighten the prey and trigger them to school up in tight balls within the bubble net. The whales then orient below the schooled fish and lunge, mouths open, to the surface through the center of the bubble ring, or bubble net. This motion drives the fish to the surface, where they are trapped from all sides (the surface of the water above, the bubble curtain on the sides and the open mouths of whales below). The whales will break the surface of the water in unison with mouths wide open, and then close their mouths while roll at the surface as they force the water from their throat cavity out through their baleen plates; the sieving process which allows them to swallow their catch without having to swallow excess saltwater.” Juneau Humpback Whale Catalog

It was amazing to witness this behavior.  Unfortunately, since we never knew where the whales would surface, I didn’t get a picture of it, even though we witnessed it several times.  The photo of Bubble Net Feeding is from a thumb drive of pictures purchased at Glacier Bay National Park and was taken by Fay Schaller.  But the most interesting thing I learned about Bubble Net Feeding is that the group of whales is unrelated and that it is passed from one generation to another.  “Most incredible of all, this behavior seems to be passed on from generation to generation, and between unrelated groups of humpback whales. The only other mammal known to pass on collaborative feeding behavior among unrelated groups? Humans.” (source:  The group of whales we witnessed included a Humpback Whale calf following behind the adults by about 100 yards witnessing and, presumably, learning this behavior.

I thought that if unrelated whales could come together for the common good, why can’t humans?  But in congress, the democrats blame the republicans and the republicans blame the democrats and little is accomplished to move our country forward.  In the church, one group threatens to leave and split the church over one issue.  Where is the common good in these things?  Why can a group of unrelated whales work together for the common good and yet humans cannot?

But when we do work together great things can be accomplished.  One of the churches I serve hosts a monthly breakfast on the fourth Sunday of the month and collects donations to help with local, state and global mission needs.  Yearly over $10,000 is collected to help others!  Just from breakfast!  When we work together, great things can be accomplished.  If Humpback Whales can work together for the common good, there should be no limits to what humans can accomplish when we work together to make a difference in the lives of others.

Questions to consider:  When have you seen people come together to make a difference in your church, community, and nation?  What is God calling you to do to work with others to make a difference in your church, community, and nation?


Telling the Story

Sign welcoming us to Totem Bight State Park

Sign welcoming us to Totem Bight State Park

One of our stops in Alaska was Ketchikan, where we visited the Totem Bight State Park.  At Totem Bight, we had the opportunity to view many replica native totem poles on a rare non-rainy day in Ketchikan.  It was interesting to discover how the totem poles were made (we saw one being carved by a native carver atop Mt. Roberts in Juneau), the kind of wood that was used, and that they would usually last about 100 years, even in that rainy climate.  But the most interesting thing I discovered was that many of the totem poles told a story about the beliefs of the native people.

Thunderbird totem at Totem Bight State Park in Ketchikan

Thunderbird totem at Totem Bight State Park in Ketchikan

Take this totem pole for instance.  “The intent of the carving is to illustrate the mythological conception of thunder. Thunder is created by the beating of the bird’s wings, and lightning by the blink of its eyes. This huge bird lives high on the mountaintop. The whale at the base of the pole symbolizes the mountaintop where the bird rests before devouring his prey. It is said that whale bones may be found on many mountain tops that have been carried there from ages past.”  (source Totem Poles at Totem Bight State Historical Park)  This totem pole describes the native people’s explanation of thunder.  To a people without a written language, this totem pole would be an immediate and constant reminder of how they perceived the world around them.  (By the way, you can find descriptions of all 14 totem poles at Totem Bight State Park in the above website.) 

The sad thing is that some of the stories and totems have been lost over time.  Our guide told us that when missionaries first arrived in Alaska and begin to work among the native people, the missionaries made the native people tear down the totem poles, thinking that they were graven idols.  They didn’t realize that the poles were simply telling the stories of the people.  Many poles and many stories were lost because of misunderstanding.

Viewing the totem poles and the stories that they told, I started thinking about story telling and how we tell our stories of culture, family, and faith.  It was not too many years ago that people would gather around a camp fire or on a porch and tell stories.  Today, much of that culture is gone.  Today, we go inside our own homes, turn on the television and allow the TV to tell us the story.  Or we sit at our computer and write our story on facebook or on a blog (like this one) or maybe “tweet” out a story (as long as it is 240 characters or less.)  It seems that it is becoming more and more rare to sit down together and talk face to face in our modern culture.

Telling the stories of our family is important, too.  In 2010, NBC produced a TV show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” that traced the family history of celebrities, with some very emotional results.  NBC cancelled the show in 2012, but it has been picked up by TLC.  This show reminds us that it is important to know the history of your family.  In my family, we would gather at

Cover of my Grandmother and her sister's memoirs of their move from Georgia to Louisiana

Cover of my Grandmother and her sister’s memoirs of their move from Georgia to Louisiana

the cemetery the Saturday before Easter and grandmother would take us to all the headstones of our deceased family members, tell us about them and how we were related to them.  One of my most treasured family items is a memoir written by my grandmother titled “It’s a Long Way to Georgia”, telling of her family’s move from Georgia to Louisiana when she was a little girl. I never met my mother-in-law, Sharon Kaye Rousseau (she passed away about a month before I met Jana), but I feel as if I know her through the stories that Jana and others have told me of her.  I hope and pray that we never forget to tell these family stories to one another and to our children.

Maybe the most important story to tell is one of faith.  As a pastor, I think I have the greatest job in the world to tell the true story of God’s love, grace, mercy and faithfulness each day.  But isn’t telling God’s story and the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, a job for each and every one of us?  If we don’t tell the story, who will?  It has been said that the church is only one generation away from extinction.  With the decline of many mainline denominations, church attendance, and the cultural influence of the church, that statement may be more true today than it has been since the very beginning of the church.  Maybe the story needs to be told in a new way, but God have mercy on us if we fail to tell the story!  

In the United Methodist Hymnal there is a hymn titled “I Love to Tell the Story”, written  by Katherin Hankey (find the history of this hymn here:  It is one of my favorite hymns to sing and the chorus says “I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory, to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”  It is a great hymn, with a great message but sometimes I wonder if we have not told the story of Jesus as well as this hymn challenges us to do.  I hope and pray that you and I will tell the story of family and faith through spoken words, facebook, twitter, even totem poles, but, by whatever means necessary, tell the story!  

Questions to consider:  How do we pass down the stories and histories of previous generations in our modern technological culture?  Who passed down the stories of faith and family to you?  To whom do you need to pass down your story of faith and family?

Feeling Small?

A view of the Portage Glacier with reflection in Portage Lake near Whittier, Alaska.

A view of the Portage Glacier with reflection in Portage Lake near Whittier, Alaska.

I haven’t written for a few weeks because we took a 12 day cruisetour to Alaska aboard the Norwegian Sun. It was a great trip, but I felt small when I was in Alaska.

It’s not often that I feel small. At over 6 feet tall and upwards of 250 pounds, I consider myself a pretty good sized fellow. I was almost always on the back row of the photographs because of my height, and, when I was younger, played goal keeper for our soccer team because I was so long and lanky.


The US Marshals’ Service, District of Alaska, has a great graphic available that provides an Alaska size and distance comparison with the lower states.

Maybe it is the sheer size of Alaska that made me feel small. Alaska is the largest state in the United States in land area at 586,412 square miles, over twice the size of Texas, the next largest state. It is larger than the combined area of the 22 smallest U.S. States. Alaska is even larger than all but 18 sovereign countries. The United States purchased Alaska from Russia on March 30, 1867, for $7.2 million ($121 million adjusted for inflation) at approximately two cents per acre! (source  We spent almost 10 days in Alaska and visited several of its largest cities and one of the largest US National Parks (Denali) and still feel like we only saw a small portion of this gigantic state! Alaska is a big place!

An iceberg in Portage Lake from the Portage Glacier dwarfs tour buses near Whittier, Alaska.

An iceberg in Portage Lake from the Portage Glacier dwarfs tour buses near Whittier, Alaska.

Maybe it is the vistas of Alaska that made me feel small. It was amazing to look out from our hotel on the side of a mountain near Denali National park and to see snow on mountains that were miles and miles away. Mt. McKinley was over 80 miles from our hotel, and yet could be seen on a clear day, though the hotel admitted they could only see Mt. McKinley about 2% of the time. We saw glaciers that were 25 stories tall (Marjorie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park) and even 40 stories tall (Hubbard Glacier- North America’s largest glacier)! You get an idea of how big the icebergs glaciers like these can produce by noticing how the iceberg dwarfs the tour buses in the picture. We even went so high up in Denali National Park that we went above the timber line on a Tundra Wilderness Tour and could see for miles and miles (though it was bit disconcerting to look over the edge of the road and consider how far off the ground we were)! Alaska has some beautiful and large vistas!

A Grizzly Bear at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center naps in the morning sun.    Notice the size of his mouth and claws!

A Grizzly Bear at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center naps in the morning sun. Notice the size of his mouth and claws!

Maybe it is the wildlife of the Alaska that made me feel small. We saw Bald Eagles, Humpback Whales, Sea Lions, Seals, Otters, Moose, Grizzly Bears, Elk, Yaks, Wood Bison, Dall Sheep, Caribou, and many other kinds of Alaskan wildlife. Many of them are BIG. At the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center, we got up an up close and personal view of a Grizzly Bear. The huge size of his claws and paws were astounding and frightening at the same time. We were fortunate to see Moose, Grizzly Bears, and Caribou in the wild in Denali National Park. While there are some smaller animals, Alaska has many large animals, some of the largest in the world. Alaska has some amazing and large wildlife!

Experiencing the grandeur and size of Alaska made me feel a little small and I thought of these verses from Psalm 8: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” (Pslam 8:3-5 NRSV) It is an amazing thought that such a BIG God, who created so many wonderful and beautiful places like Alaska, Louisiana, and all points in between, could be mindful of us and care for us!

The truth is that we don’t have to go to Alaska to feel small. Maybe you are small in stature and are constantly looking up to others. Remember to look up to God and follow God. Some of the smallest people in stature I have known have been spiritual giants. Maybe you feel small because of an illness or a disease. God is bigger than any ailment that we face. Maybe you feel small because of humanity’s greatest enemy, death. God has defeated even death through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. And the good news for us is that when we feel small, let us remember that there is a BIG God who loves and cares for us. No matter your size or how you see yourself, God is bigger than any challenge or problem we could ever face. And that is good news, whether you are short or tall, healthy or ill, having a good day or a bad day. We may feel small, but we have a BIG God!