Thoughts From the Edge
by Bret Moser
Bret Moser (M.Div., 1999) is a pastor of Metlakatla Presbyterian Church, on Annette Island, 15 miles south of Ketchikan in Alaska. He ministers to Tsimpshian Native Alaskans on the only Federal Indian Reservation in Alaska. Bret is writing a book about his experiences at this isolated community. He and his wife, Bethany, have three children.
My stole flapped in the biting cold breeze as we stood on the back of the MV Selma. We all tried to keep our feet under us as the “seiner” rocked gently in the waves while Henry’s cousin worked to open the can that held his ashes. Much to our surprise Henry was sealed in a plastic bag within the can; several eyes looked to me for help. I carefully broke the seal and opened the bag, giving Henry’s cousin gentle instructions concerning wind direction and the scattering of the ashes.
The winter wind was making our fingers stiff and our faces numb but the lee of Gravina Island afforded us some protection. As I spoke the words to commit Henry Dayton to the deep, his cousin scattered the ashes and the matriarchs tossed artificial flowers onto the waters. To the west the sun was setting and turning the sky a warm orange; to the east the moon had already risen and was in full splendor. It was neither day nor night, but somewhere in between.
We all wanted to give Henry the moment of respect he deserved, but the temperature was 28 degrees even without the wind chill. He would understand. Henry’s cousin shook the last of Henry from the plastic bag that had lined the can and quickly we all hurried back into the cabin and to the warmth of the stove.
The Selma, built in 1951, is a sturdy wood vessel that is showing her age. Rot is evident everywhere and her days are numbered. To lose this boat would be a blow to our community, like losing an old friend and certainly a provider.
I stood next to the stove. The matriarchs sat close around the galley to keep warm, laughing and recalling Henry and all his kin still living and passed on. One of the ladies shared that a friend of hers, after she dies, wants to have ashes mixed with a can of blue interior house paint and applied to the inside walls of her house. This way she can keep an eye on her husband even after her death. We laughed so hard tears came to our eyes. We do a lot of laughing and crying here.
I marvel at the face of the oldest woman, her eyes squint with years of hardship and heartache, but twinkle now with joy as she talks of her grandson. I think to myself, how beautiful her face is; it is hard not to stare. She is a source of strength for our community, her family, and myself.
In the shadow of her years of experience and life, I am reminded that I am the least valuable person in our town, yet even she looks to me for spiritual direction. I know that I am here, not because of what I can do or have done, but because others like her choose me. It is that simple. It is that humbling.
My ego would have wanted to share with all of you great words of theological wisdom, or spiritual insight that would reflect my theological training at Fuller. But most of you get plenty of that already. Besides, living up to those expectations are for the great souls of our time, not for me.
Rather I wanted you to see, smell, and feel a day in my life in parish ministry. It is not typical, but neither is it unusual. Henri Nouwen once said that he used to get irritated at the constant interruptions in his ministry, until he realized that those interruptions were his ministry.
Here I have learned that the greatest theological moments I have had have not been while standing behind a pulpit or conducting a meeting. The moments that have affected my heart the most, and the hearts of others, have been in the places I least expected them.