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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bye Bye 2008

It's New Year's Eve. I have a bad cold so am not in a festive mood. The stuffiness in my brain makes it hard to be reflective but I figure I should summarize a bit of the past year. We began the year in Berlin, Germany with good friends who pastor one of the International Churches there. What a great city Berlin is...recovering from the hard years, vibrant and busy.
Unfortunately our trip to Kenya and Uganda, scheduled for February was canceled due to the civil war in Kenya. Thanks be to God that things have settled down there and they seem to be on back on the road towards political stability. March took us to the Canary Island of Lanzarote...the photo from my title page is taken there. The sun and the sea and the sand were just amazing and we enjoyed this holiday immensely.
In May, we got to celebrate my parent's 50th wedding anniversary with a cruise on the Adriatic. I won't include photos here as an earlier blog is devoted to that amazing celebration. It was great fun and we are so thankful for the fun memories and experiences of that trip.
Summer brought us our last outings on the Sea Dog, our old boat that we were ready to sell, and fortunately we did! We are now on the look out for a new and improved model.
The autumn took us to the US for family visits. We returned to Sweden to pursue a full schedule at church.
Our year ended with our Christmas celebrations of a beautiful Christmas eve dinner with close friends and the Christmas Day open house which set a record for more than 100 attendees.
All in all, 2008 has been a good year even though some sorrow and heart ache have also been a part of it. I feel ready to start a new year and look forward to the adventures that await us. We know for sure that an Irish adventure awaits Doug and a hot air balloon ride is on the horizon for us so we look forward to the other surprises that will surely unfold.
Have a wonderful New Year. Swedish tradition is to blow off loads and loads of fireworks! It is legal to blow off fireworks exactly one night a year and it's amazing what they allow you to self-light here. So we'll join the masses on our street corner and enjoy the blaze. It's cold and clear so should be a great time for us all.
Oh yeah...I almost forgot! One of the best things about 2008 was starting my blog! Thanks for checking in! See you in 2009!

You Just Never Know

I had an amazing thing happen to me this morning. Facebook has become a fun thing in our lives, opening up doors of re-connection with people that we haven't been in contact with for ages. My Facebook "Friends" include everyone from kids at church to high school and college friends and all in between! Every once in awhile a truly random connection comes through and that's what happened this morning. A young woman whom I met about 13 years ago when I was speaking at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California wrote me a note. She mentioned the circumstances under which we met and alluded to the fact that our encounter was important in her life at that point. Of course, there was no way for me to remember exactly who this young student was, but I was touched that she would remember me.
While I don't remember the specific student, I do clearly remember my time at Westmont. I was invited to the campus to speak in chapel, do a seminar on women in ministry and give a talk on Christian Feminism. On the whole, these topics were not popular on a conservative campus such as Westmont and so it was a bit of a lion's den. I remember feeling so challenged as the young students got in my face with their Biblical interpretation of why they felt it was so wrong for women to be ordained pastors. I remember at one point the majority of the group actually confessed to believing that being a stay at home mom was a more Godly life choice than a career. It was TOUGH. Doug was not with me and I just remember feeling so torn when it was over. I was glad to be an ambassador for a new point of view. I do believe this is part of my essential calling in help people see things from a totally different perspective. And yet, to be so challenged is never easy. The fact that this young woman was alluding to a conversation we had shared in the midst of that hot bed of discussion had me intrigued.
I decided to write her an email and ask if she wouldn't mind telling me more about the conversation we shared all those long years ago. This is a portion of the email I received back from her:
"Don't worry, I didn't expect you to remember me personally - that was a really long time ago!! I actually had forgotten your name but then when I was moving last month I came across a tape that I had bought when you spoke at chapel, and so I looked you up here (on Facebook). But I do recall our conversation well, because I had never met anyone like you before. When you were there you hosted a forum on Christian feminism, do you remember? That really blew me away .... I guess it's not so controversial now, but where I grew up in southern california there were such conservative overtones; I mean it was really pervasive... and most kids just spouted their parents' ideologies without giving it much thought of their own. And I hate to say it, but Westmont was even more of the same. It was a great school academically, and the campus is gorgeous, but I really did feel like it was a bit of a stepford wife factory in many respects.
Anyway, I'm sure you can imagine, after growing up in a world where feminism is seen in a pejorative light, it was really refreshing to hear your viewpoints, and I was impressed by your knowledge on the subject, so I asked if I could meet with you.
The stuff that I talked with you about was a little different. Hard, definitely... I knew then that I was probably gay, but was scared to admit it, so I asked you questions about a gay "friend of mine" who was really me. Sorry for the cover-up; I guess I had a lot of internalized homophobia and I wasn't ready to say it out loud. What I really wanted was a glimpse into a world where there might be acceptance of gay people on the part of Christians, wasn't sure at that point if such a thing was possible. I knew that Jesus had never really mentioned it - not that I knew of at least. But I wanted to thank you for your time that morning - it really meant a lot to me - because I walked away from our meeting with a new sense of self-acceptance... that maybe it's okay for me to be who I am.
I've done a bit of reading and a lot of living since then, but I am still not sure what to do with the remnants of my childhood faith. I am still floored when I read the words of Jesus - he was so ahead of his time! To answer your question, I don't know what I believe these days.... I think I have more questions than answers... but Christianity will always be a part of my life journey, I can't help it - because it is a part of me. I do want to thank you though, for taking the time to talk to me that day. It got me started on a very important journey. And it also gave me a glimpse into a part of the church that had not succumbed to hatred, greed, and judgment. it's been a long time since I felt marginalized, or worse, ostracized. I don't think about it as much these days. Haven't really been searching for a church to go to. But when I came across your tape I really wanted to thank you. It was a hard time; I really didn't know what I was going to do, and it was nice in the midst of it to see a Christ-like, human face. Really meant a lot to me."
WOW. How do I respond to that? With humility and gratitude. I feel that I make so many mistakes in life and I put my foot in my mouth so often that I'm surprised half of my foot isn't gone from me chewing on it so much. And then out of the blue comes a person who I really don't even know, thanking me for showing her a bit of grace and taste of acceptance and love, revealing to her a different view of the kingdom of God, that has contributed to her own self development. What a gift that she would take time to write me and let me know who I was to her a long time ago.
It reminds me of a couple of things. First, we should go back through our lives and thank the people who contributed to our lives in significant ways. I suppose if I were to list the 7 most influential people in my life it would have to include the following. (I was going to choose 5, but I have to include my parents or the list would be sorely lacking.) So 1 and 2 are my mom and dad. 3 is my husband Doug. 4 is a woman named Kerry Shield Olson. (When I was in high school Kerry drove at least one hour every week from Los Angeles to my home town of Orange, California to share in Bible study and prayer. She helped lay the strong foundations of the Christan faith that I have today.) 5. Brenda Salter McNeil. (An African American female preacher who taught me a lot about preaching and racial reconciliation. I'm going to get to see her again at a conference in February.) 6. David Scholer (Seminary professor whose teaching did much to advance the case for women in ministry, now deceased.) 7. John Weborg (Seminary professor. One of the world's greatest thinkers. Such a privilege that I got study under him.) There are many others who have shaped my life. I feel privileged that I might appear on some people's list of people who have been influenced by my life and teaching.
The second thing that I take from this whole experience is to never underestimate where you might be making a difference. I had no idea that I had impacted this young woman's life in the manner that I had all those years ago. That she would find an old chapel tape with my name on it and connect that with a warm and affirming conversation from so many years ago, really moves me. It encourages me to stay the course, to keep faithfully pursuing the road that God has set me on and to know that my labor is not in vain.
What a gift from God that is.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Day

It is 11.45 p.m. on Christmas day. We've had a great one. It all started with Swedish pancakes at our associate pastor's house with his was great. Then a fun and wonderful gift exchange. Doug received a trip to Ireland from me. He and Chris (our associate pastor) will go together in March, something they've been wanting to do for awhile. My adorable and thoughtful husband gave me a hot air balloon ride over Stockholm! Can't wait until next summer when we'll get to do that. I've always wanted to do it and now I will get to! Then we needed to kick it into high gear to get ready for our Open House. When all was said and done, a mountain of food had been consumed by over 100 guests! It was a full on mob scene this year and such great fun! People just kept streaming in and it was so neat to hear the chatter and laughter radiating throughout our home.
We are tired, but happy. The gift of Christmas is how great it is to give! Thanks for checking in on a daily basis. It's been a good journey for me and I hope for you too, dear reader.
I hope you have had a very Merry Christmas and that the extraordinary love of God has been revealed to you in a clear manner this Christmas.
Only 10 more minutes and Christmas day ends. I'm ready for bed now but I am happy and thankful for the good news of great joy, that a child has been given and his name is Christ is Lord. Hallelujah and Amen.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Day 25: Christmas Eve

Here we the end of our Advent journey. My advent candle is all gone now and we are ready to celebrate the birth of Christ. I'm including here a portion of the sermon I will give at our service this evening. My theme for tonight is how God took ordinary people like Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth and Zachariah along with the innkeeper and the shepherds and used them to accomplish extraordinary things because they were willing to follow God's lead. I hope the same can be true for you. We are so happy to celebrate with our church but we miss our loved ones who aren't here among us. We are blessed by the joy that we feel this Christmas and hope the same will be true for you. Here's to finding the extraordinary in the midst of our ordinary lives because we love and serve an extraordinary God.

Friends, what made the folks in the original Christmas story extraordinary had nothing to do with their social status or prior accomplishments. To the contrary, it was their willingness to do something risky and unknown, totally out of step with their ordinary routines. In other words, their yes to God, their quiet, humble acts of obedience led them to a place of honor as the greatest event in the history of life was unfolding right before their very eyes. Their ordinary lives had become extraordinary because of what God was doing in their midst.

This Christmas, are you feeling a bit down? Are you wondering what your imprint on this world might be? Do you hunger after being extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary course of human events? Then say yes. Say yes, Lord, use little ordinary me to accomplish your extraordinary will in my life and in the world around me. Because dear friends, in words of Henri Nouwen, “Christmas is saying yes to something beyond all emotion and feeling. Christmas is saying yes to a hope based on God’s initiative which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work and not mine.”

Extraordinary, isn’t it? That God loved us so much that he showed us his great love through the birth of his son in a stable filled with hay surrounded by lowly yet faithful ordinary people. Perhaps even more extraordinary is that he wants to use the ordinary people gathered here tonight to keep telling the story of Jesus and the good news of a great joy that is availed to us all. So say yes. Say yes to whatever God is up to in your life and in our world. In doing so, your ordinary life will never be same.

May the warmth, the hope and the blessing of the Christ Child take root in your life and bring you peace and joy this Christmas. Amen.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Day 24: Traditions

The Swedish tradition is to celebrate the fullness of Christmas on Christmas eve so tomorrow is Christmas for the Swedes. While grocery stores will be open in the morning tomorrow, by noon, much of the outdoor activity will have ceased and people will be gathered together waiting to start their celebrations. Oddly enough, Donald Duck cartoons are shown on television at 3.00 p.m. and this marks the start of the Christmas celebrations for most Swedes! You'd be hard pressed to find a television in Sweden that isn't tuned into "Kalle Anka" which is what Donald Duck is in Swedish. Once Kalle Anka has been watched, the rest of their Christmas traditions can unfold. Most Swedes eat the classic Swedish Jul Bord, or Christmas Table, for their main meal. The center piece is the Christmas Ham surrounded by meat balls and loads of herring. Not my thing, but I'm happy for someone else to eat all of the herring in the world! Presents are finally opened later in the evening which is tortuous to most children. Many Swedes end their Christmas eve celebrations by attending Midnight Mass at a local church. Christmas day is for resting and eating leftovers and playing with the toys and gifts received the night before.
We are not too Swedish when it comes to our own traditions. We will have church at 6.00 p.m. Our service is a beautiful candlelight service where we hear the traditional story of Christ's birth told through scripture and sing beautiful, favorite, traditional Christmas carols. Then we come home to a delicious beef tenderloin dinner. My tradition has always been to eat beef on Christmas eve and while my husband's family is much more Swedish in their celebration, Doug has happily adopted my menu! We'll enjoy our associate pastor and his parents around our Christmas eve table this year. After dinner we'll play a game or relax while watching something on television. Doug and I love to stay up late enough to catch some of the midnight mass from St. Peter's in Rome on Christmas eve. It's a cozy family time. We miss our parents and siblings and long for them to be near to us. We go to bed waiting for Christmas morning when we will rise to open our gifts. The rest of Christmas day is spent preparing food and getting ready for the Open House that evening.
Traditions are great as they add rhythm and structure to our lives. They give us things that we can count on happening and events that we can eagerly look forward to. Traditions are special celebrations that don't happen all that often but when they do, they are treasured and savored.
One thing we know for sure...Jesus came into the world in the traditional manner...through birth. Because he humbled himself and joined us here on earth, we can count on his love, depend on his grace and live in his peace. I hope your traditions include savoring that wonderful truth.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Day 23: Finding the Balance

The hours to prepare for Christmas Eve and Christmas day are dwindling now. My schedule is charted pretty carefully in terms of the list of things to do. I jokingly say that I'm working from dawn to dusk now! (That's only like 4 hours!) I'm half finished with my homily for Christmas Eve, I've purchased the food for our Christmas Eve dinner as well as our Christmas Day Open House where we usually have about 75 people through the house. The house is reasonably clean! My shopping is done. I still have gifts that need to be wrapped. Have to work tomorrow. Need to bake some more cookies. Have resigned myself to sending New Year's cards.
But in the midst of all the stuff on my to do lists, I also want to relax and enjoy the events as they unfold. So it's not just a matter of completing all of the tasks. It's also about intentionally experiencing and enjoying the special moments in this activity packed season.
My husband and I took our dog for a walk through the city on Sunday afternoon. The sun actually came out for a few hours and the afternoon was beautiful. The early afternoon light was truly stunning even though nightfall came in a hurry. The waterfront is quiet now with only a few Christmas lights dotting the shore. This photo was taken at about 2.45 p.m. The way the evening light danced off the coagulating water was quite a sight.
The quiet that comes in the midst of the frenzy is a welcome treat. There are many things to do, but there are many moments to savor as well. Christmas isn't centrally about ticking off things on a list. It's good to get ready for our holiday celebrations but not at the expense of enjoying it. Don't forget to add "enjoy the moment" to your list of things to do over the next several days.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Day 22: Fourth Sunday in Advent

Here we are, days before Christmas. All four candles burning brightly now as we eagerly anticipate the fullness of the Light of the world drawing near once again. How has your season of preparation been? Are you ready to embrace the Christ child once again and allow Him to do His will in your life? Will these last few days before Christmas be hectic and full of making a list and checking it twice? Whatever the days ahead hold for you, I hope the light that dazzles the world will grab your attention and lead the way for you as we shift our focus to the new year that awaits us.
Today is special in many ways. It is the winter solstice...the shortest day of the year. That is good news for those us who live way up here. The sun is now beginning its journey towards us instead of away from us. We sit with the dark days for about 6 more weeks, but then suddenly, in February, we begin to notice that each day we really are gaining light and by early spring the night has disappeared all together. Christ's coming is like that. Sometimes we feel that we cannot go on, that life is too hard. The burdens too great. And then, we realize that we are being buoyed by something far greater than our own strength. The sustaining hope of something beyond this present pain spurs us on. The calming peace that comes only from knowing that God does indeed have His hand on the whole wide world settles us down. The joy that is ours, not because of life circumstances, but because of who God is yesterday, today and tomorrow brings us contentment even if happiness eludes us for a season. And finally the love that is poured into our lives through Christ's willingness to step down into darkness and dwell among us is worth pondering and embracing. We are loved, without condition, because we are God's created children. Yes, the growing light of Christ is ever present, hovering around us with hope, peace, joy and love...the truths that the 4 candles of advent often represent.
Today is also special because it is my parent's 51st wedding anniversary. Talk about faithfulness and steadfastness and love that never ends. Both Doug and I have parents who have long, fulfilling, sustained marriages. It is a gift to be a part of families that have this kind of commitment at its core. A year ago we celebrated my parent's 50th with a party filled with the tapestry of relationships from their lives. My mom was quite sick then and we were unsure what the year ahead would bring so it is with a special kind of joy and a deep sense of gratitude that we celebrate another anniversary with them. Our lives take on a special meaning when we show faithfulness to one another. We have learned it well from our God whose faithfulness is great...whose mercies are new every morning.
As you rush through these last days before Christmas, take a moment to ponder the ways in which hope, joy, peace and love have been manifest in your life. Consider the coming light of Christ and how that illuminates your dark path. And finally, thank God for His sustaining faithfulness and ponder your own faithfulness, in your human relationships and with God. Ask God to instill within you a spirit of faithfulness that stays the course over the long haul.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Day 21: Expect the Unexpected

While wandering around our lovely city the other day, I stumbled upon a new outdoor international food market. It was awesome! I mean, the Swedish Christmas markets are beautiful and nice but after 11 Christmases they aren't so special any more. Plus, Sweden's contribution to world cuisine isn't so spectacular so to see something new like this in our city, with food from all over the world was very unexpected and also very exciting. The most wonderful aspect of the whole market is the authentic Thuringer German bratwurst, cooked on an outdoor grill. They are simply, delicious. I'm not a big fan of Swedish hot dogs or sausages. They lack a certain something. But the Germans...they know how to make a sausage. And the Thuringer white brat is one of my favorites. I've been back there 3 times in the past week. I have actually walked out of my way home from somewhere so I could stop and get a brat! And each time it comes piping hot wrapped in delicious crusty bread, smothered in strong mustard. YUM. Other treats that have delighted include French bread, Italian pastries (seriously good) and olives from Iran that are quite frankly the most delcious olives I have ever tasted. OK, so that country's government has some issues, but they know how to grow olives and the vendor gave me a discount yesterday since I've also been to his booth numerous times throughout the past week as well! Part of what charms me about this international gathering of tasty treats is that it is new and different and we didn't know it was coming and discovering that is it a mere 10 minute walk from our house has been such a delightful treat this Christmas. Unexpected pleasures are real gifts in the midst of the routine of life. When something delightfully unexpected happens, it brings great joy into our lives. We feel surprised and awakened, almost refreshed because of the newness of the encounter.
Are we still surprised with unspeakable joy at the unexpected nature of God coming to earth as tiny little baby to grow to be the Savior of all? Do we still experience the wonder and sacrifice that Christ's birth is for us? God did something totally unexpected to be sure that He got our attention. Does He still have your attention? In what ways can you prepare yourself to expect the unexpected from God? Do you have a sense that God is still active and alive, hovering around your life, waiting to surprise you with hope and joy? Anticipate it. Expect it. Because God loves to get our attention by doing something amazing amidst the ordinary.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Day 20: God's Mercy

Has it ever dawned on you that God's mercy is made manifest through the way in which He chooses to use us? Remarkable, really, that the God of heaven and earth would trust His work on earth to us. We can be quite unreliable, self-centered, and not so focused on the things of heaven. And yet, God has determined that because of His great love for us, He would send Jesus into the world to save us from our own sin, and eventually empower us for ministry. Have you ever considered the ways in which God wanting to use you as acts of mercy on behalf of an omnipotent God?
What's key here is our response. Are we reluctant to be called upon, seeing God's desire to use as a burden? Or are we eager, understanding that even though some of what we are called to might involve a tough road, but even so, we understand the higher goal than our own mere comfort?
We gladly accept God's mercy in our failures. Can we also welcome God's mercy when being called upon to serve?

Day 19: Preparing on the inside as well

My photo is of Santa and a "julbocka", a Swedish goat made from straw that has somehow become a popular Christmas decoration here. The legend goes that long ago, when farmers were poor, the only thing they had available to them for decorating was straw so they began to fashion ornaments and decorations from straw. There's a story behind the goat as well but I don't know what it is! The Santa is Nordic. You can tell by his cross country skis! These three decorations, the large julbocka and the small one, alongside of the Santa sit high above our living room, keeping watch over the festivities. It is fun to have a bit of Sweden mixed in with our traditional American decorations. I love the way our house looks now. I spent the night cleaning so it's really nice right now! I am ready for the onslaught of my to do list! Plenty of things on my list between now and Christmas Eve. But the house is ready. Santa is in place. The julbocker are keeping an eye on things!
Externally, things look good. Internally, I need to slow down again. There have been some things at work that bug me. I don't want them to dominate my thinking over these next several days. Instead, I want the joy of Christmas...the real joy of Christmas...the fact that Christ came into this world to save me from all of the pain and trauma that I would have if not for Him. He was born in straw, in surroundings that weren't so clean or lovely. The simplistic nature of the manger is a good reminder to remember the simple things in life.
I am happy to have a beautiful home. I am thrilled to be having close friends for dinner on Saturday, and plans for a fun Christmas Eve dinner with our associate pastor and his parents who arrive from America on Tuesday. I look forward to the 75-90 person Open House we will host on Christmas day. When it's all over, my house will be a mess. But hopefully the warmth and joy of Christ's birth, the whole reason we decorate and gather, will linger.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Day 18: The Songs of Christmas

Christmas music is one of my all the time favorite traditions. I love pulling out my Christmas music and just letting it fill the house all season long. My favorites include A City on A Hill: Christmas edition, The Nutcracker, Frank and Bing's Christmas (as in Sinatra and Crosby), The Promise by Michael Card, and The Ultimate Carol Collection from King's College Cambridge, England. Swedish Christmas is also very beautiful and I've come to greatly enjoy the favorite hymns of Advent and Christmas here as well. I am not a great singer, but I love to sing and when the song is in my range, and I know it well, I can make a fairly joyful noise that others around me don't mind hearing! My husband has a beautiful voice and I love, love, love to hear him sing. He doesn't think so however so he's a bit more reserved when it comes to just breaking out into song!
The songs of Christmas. We all have our favorites. Most truly love to crank it up during the holidays. Perhaps our songs of Christmas have been inspired by the original songs of Christmas, the ones that Mary and Zachariah and Simeon sang. Their songs were in response to the amazing, miraculous events surrounding the birth of Christ. Their songs were filled with praise to God for not only for what He was doing in the world, but also for the way in which God was choosing each of them to fulfill an aspect of His divine purpose in this world. Take a moment and read the songs of Christmas from the scriptures. Mary's Song, the Magnificat is located at Luke 1:46-55, Zachariah's at Luke 1:68-79, and Simeon's at Luke 2:29-32. As you read their responses to God's amazing work in the world in and in their lives, consider what your own song would look like. Why not take a moment and write out a few lines, thanking God for who He in your life and in our world and then praising Him for wanting to use you to accomplish His divine purpose. Are you ready to sing a song of availability? Mary and Zachariah and Simeon show us that while challenging, great blessing follows as well. Joy to theWorld!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Day 17: God's Gifts of Mercy

The account of Elizabeth in Luke's gospel is quite remarkable. Elizabeth and Zachariah conceive a baby the "normal way" but what is remarkable about their pregnancy is that they are old and have not previously succeeded in this area. The scriptures refers to this event as an act of mercy on the part of God. This is a very interesting perspective because what Elizabeth was being asked to do, bear a child in her older years, actually sound more like a burden than an act of mercy. And yet, in Luke 1:57 we see that the friends and neighbors who surrounded her acknowledged that the Lord had indeed shown great mercy to Zachariah and Elizabeth.
The unexpected, the "impossible". What is in your life that you believe to be impossible? Perhaps God in his great mercy can make it happen. Maybe a relationship that has been riddled with tension will soften and the soreness of the wound will heal. Maybe a young person will come to you and express how much you've mattered in their lives through the years. Maybe someone you love will get engaged and begin the exciting journey towards marriage as did happen to our nephew this past week. Maybe your entire family will gather for Christmas this year, or if not, maybe the Spirit of the Lord will bind your hearts together until you can meet again, as will be the case for us. We have to wait until January to see our families and yet the mercy and grace in that is that we get to go in January. We miss being together at Christmas and yet, we know a reunion awaits us. For many, they never get to return "home." They have left family and friends in their homeland and will likely not return because it's not safe or they can't afford it. Neither is true for us. God has shown us his mercy through providing financial means to travel to the US at least once a year. God has shown us his mercy by allowing us to share in the reunion of family and friends even if it's not quite on the same day that we celebrate Christmas. These are acts of mercy for which I am truly grateful.
Where in your heart do you see God moving, pouring out his mercy? Don't look only for the large ways, but notice the small ways that God, in His great love for you, has poured out His grace in your world and surrounded you with a brand new reason to rejoice.

side note: I changed the photo on The Good and The Bad from Day 13. It's a better shot of Doug and dog and more in keeping with the Christmas theme!

Day 16: Christmas Fears

I think Christmas is a time of year when fears can emerge. Yes, our hearts are filled with hope, the kind of hope that only the Christ child can bring into our troubled world. And yet, our world is troubled and thus we also have fear. But even as we consider our fears, we must recall that each key person in the original Christmas story was also initially quite afraid when they first encountered the news of Christ's birth. Remember Zachariah? Luke’s gospel tells us that he was terrified and that fear overwhelmed him. He was forced into silence because of his fears. Consider Mary and how terrified she must have been. A virgin, being visited by an angel who tells her that she will bear the son of God? Yeah, there’s a few things embedded in that reality that would make me afraid. And then there’s Joseph, a humble, hard working carpenter who just wants to go about his life in a peaceful and uninterrupted manner. But suddenly an angel of the Lord crashes his world with the news that his betrothed shall bear a son, and while Joseph will be his earthly father, the baby has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph must’ve spent at least a few sleepless nights pondering that message. And remember the shepherds in the field? Picture them sitting quietly in the idyllic fields, enjoying the quiet isolation of the countryside when all of the sudden their world bursts with light and a great multitude of angels surrounded them. I see them hopping to their feet and running to look for a place to hide. Yes, there is much fear embedded in the events of Jesus’ birth. And yet too there is much hope. For to Zachariah the angel said, “Do not be afraid Zachariah for your prayers have been heard.” And Gabriel assured Mary by saying “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Joseph too was comforted by the message the angel brought to him saying do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife for the child she will bear has been conceived by the Holy Spirit and you will name him Jesus and he shall be our Savior. And those shepherds, whose silent night became filled with a joy-filled chorus, were told, “Fear not, for we bring you good news of a great joy for all the people. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Fear not. That's one of the core messages of Christmas. What is ii that you are fearing most about the approaching Christmas holiday? Remember the words angels to the shepherds. “Fear not, for we bring you good news of a great joy for all the people. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Day 15: Third Sunday in Advent

The movement towards the revelation of the full light of Christ passes the midway point today. The intensity of the pace is quickening. I find myself rushed, pressed, sometimes thinking about what else needs to happen instead of remaining in the moment and enjoying it. I am ready for a calender without deadlines. I am in need of some quiet moments in which I am not bombarded by thoughts of what I should be doing. And interestingly enough, I feel I may steal some of those in the week ahead. Fewer events to attend. Fewer services to prepare for. Space in my week to ponder. My eye notices the empty spots in my calendar and I intend to keep them commitment and obligation free. I'd like to bake some cookies and make a grocery list for Christmas week. I'd like to sit with my dog and lit candles and listen to Michael Card's The Promise from start to finish. I might even stay in bed until noon one of those days. Ah, the sweetness of a calendar that isn't jam packed! Well, for a few days anyway. 4th of Advent, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day await me the following week, but for this sermon to prepare. No party to attend. No event to host. The quiet freedom from the pace of the Advent season awaits me for a few days in the week ahead.
But today is a busy day. Church with communion. A farewell in the afternoon for the American Ambassador and his wife, and finally our choir concert. The pace is rapid. The demands both mentally and physically are numerous. And yet, the burning flames of the advent candles sooth and bring peace and harmony to my otherwise chaotic world. I will find some time to sit with them and enjoy the gift that they are. I will find some time in the week ahead to consider the peace that God has promised...that unto us a child is born and his name shall be called Emmanuel which means God With Us. God with us when it's busy. God with us when it's hectic. God with us when it's exhausting. God with us. Restoring, renewing, rejoicing. Where will you find God with you in the week ahead? Be sure to pause and give thanks to God that He is indeed with us.

Day 14: Santa Lucia

Today is Lucia Day in Sweden, December 13. These are the two Lucias that I display in my home. One is our "Lucy Lucia", a photograph of our former dog, Lucy. We sent that as a Christmas card one year. The other is one of our Carolers, the full collection which you will see later on. The celebration of Lucia is a big deal in Sweden with schools, churches and public organizations all having some kind of celebration or another. The story originates in Italy, with Lucia, a young woman who felt compelled to visit prisoners in their dark and dank cells. In order to carry more goods in her arms for the prisoners, she wore a crown of lights on her head to light the way. Eventually Lucia was martyred for her faith and good works towards those who were less desirable in society. The red sash around her waist signifies the blood that was shed at her death. Sweden has adopted this story and made it their own. The darkness of the Swedish winter lends itself well to the celebration. Here in Sweden, on December 13, the oldest daughter in the family arises early in the morning and delivers freshly brewed coffee and Lucia buns, soft pastries infused with saffron, to all of the members of the family. The public celebrations include beautiful Swedish Christmas music often sung by talented children's choirs with hundreds of living candles illuminating the scene. It is truly a stunning and beautiful celebration, especially when you see it live for the first time.
The story has no real roots in a life of faith, but the parallels are not hard to draw. We are called to reflect the light that is Christ in our own lives and how much better to do that than to serve those who live on the margins of our society...not only the prisoners, but also the poor, the lost, the hungry. The light of Christ can easily be shone to the immigrants and refugees who surround us in our daily lives, mainly through serving us by cleaning up after us. Let us remember that these are folks who have left their homelands most often for difficult and complex reasons and are seeking to find their way in an often hostile foreign environment. Instead of being angry that they don't speak your language perfectly or questioning whether or not they should be present among us, why not give them a break, show some kindness and offer them patience. What better way for the light of Christ to shine brightly towards them.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Day 13: The Good and The Bad

The Good: Doug and dog: A constant good. In addition to those two wonderful gifts I can add that today was good because we had an awesome dinner with dear friends tonight. I also enjoyed a beautiful Lucia concert at 8.00 a.m. this morning at church. I have a great home with a wonderful dog, dear husband.
The Bad: Weather is awful in Stockholm. About 4o Fahrenheit and rainy. Drives me crazy. Why can't it be a little bit colder and snow?
Life is good and bad isn't it? Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes it's a breeze.
The only constant is God. He's always good. He always loves.
I guess the rain is good for the earth even though I don't like it much. But I have a warm house and a cozy bed and Doug and dog by my side.
God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.
And for me, that's good enough.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Day 12: Diversions

Look at the candy cane with those adorable kids riding upon it! Doesn't that look like a positively marvelous activity? This ceramic piece has been in my family since the early 60's. It was one of my favorite Christmas decorations that adorned our house while I was growing up. The leader used to have a golden star wand. That disappeared years ago through the many moves. It is also glued together in several places, but I love the wonderful whimsy of the idea of a candy cane flying through the air with cherubs enjoying the ride!
I would love to fly away on a candy cane right now. A little escapism sounds pretty good. Tonight we had our church board meeting. We had it here at the house in a much more informal setting to simply create a different mood and have more of a round table discussion than an actual board meeting There is no major business that is pressing down on us, just the simple, every day work of the church and all of its myriad challenges! Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the day to day tasks of my life. I said to someone tonight, "What I really want is a month off work to be at home and get everything in order. Then, I want a month at work without Sunday responsibilities so I can get my office whipped into shape." Neither is probably going to happen as life moves along at a fairly rapid pace these days. The core meaning of my desire for some undemanded time at home and at work is rooted in a deep felt need I have to get my house in order, both literally and figuratively. I feel like my schedule has me by the tail at this point and I lack a sense of intention and control over my time and tasks. Much of what I do is fruitful and fulfilling. And I don't feel overworked, per se. But I do feel over demanded and sometimes I wonder how to choose to go about meeting the various demands, some important, some pressing, some not either but in my face making it hard to get to the critical core stuff. And I also know that in the midst of all of the demands, I can still waste time, messing around on Facebook, beating my friends at Scrabble, (getting beat as well) and trying to get a higher score on Geo Challenge. All non-worthy pursuits in the midst of life's real demands. But I feel challenged to know what is truly wasting time and what is doing something that ultimately provides rest and restoration? Is it ever OK to just escape into a world where you spend your time doing stuff that has no eternal value? Perhaps sometimes we have to do the mindless in order to do the mindful really well.
Perhaps Mary and Joseph, in the midst of the demands they felt while waiting to become parents to the incarnate God of the universe also needed mindless diversions. Maybe they played cards, maybe they counted sheep. Maybe they found silly ways to release the pressure they felt in their situation in order to be more fully present when the Son of God arrived in their midst.
We all need diversions and times of mindless rest. We just need to be sure that our end game is to be restored so that we are rested and ready when God calls upon us to take part in a demanding task that requires our full obedience and willingness or decides to reveal something to us that will require a certain mental capacity to fully take in. If the mindless helps you create space for the mindful, then hop on a candy cane and let her fly. Just be sure you know how to return to a place of quiet rest, ready to hear and obey God's calling.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Day 11: Nobel Day

Today is Nobel Dagen (Nobel Day, pronounced, No-Bell) in Sweden...the day that the Nobel prizes are awarded to the recipients. The ceremony takes place not too far from our house and it would be a dream to get a ticket to this event. However, it is nearly impossible to get a ticket unless you are A) the ambassador to Sweden from a country from which a winner hails or B) you win the prize. Hence, it is highly unlikely that we will ever get to go since there is no Nobel Prize in theology.
The best and brightest in Physics, Economics, Literature, Medicine and Chemistry are all gathered in Stockholm's City Hall tonight. The thousands of dollars that have been spent on the food, wine and clothing is staggering. The entire Royal family are in attendance and the prize winners themselves are likely content with their huge money prize and the satisfaction of being a Nobel Laureate for the duration of their lives.
This is a big deal in Sweden. I would guess that most televisions are tuned to the public broadcast station that airs the ceremony and banquet in its entirety. Not entirely riviting television but certainly a cultural event for which the Swedes are terribly proud. Only the Peace prize is given out in Oslo, Norway but all of the money for the prize originates with Alfred Nobel, a Swede who invented dynamite. In spite of Americans winning a number of prizes each year, (this year 3 Americans won), very few Americans fully understand or appreciate what a rarity it is to have this prestigious honor bestowed upon someone from their home land.
I suppose today I think of the humble circumstances of Christ's birth in contrast to the pomp and circumstance of the Nobel Prize ceremony and following banquet. When the brilliant minds of our world are honored for their achievements it takes place in Stockholm's concert house followed by an elaborate banquet in the overwhelmingly gorgeous City Hall. However, when the incarnation of God took place, it was in a stable surrounded by donkeys and camels. Don't you wonder even a little bit what they ate? It surely didn't cost $250.00 per person.
Greatness isn't always recognized by its apparent surroundings. The humble circumstances of the stable perhaps, ironically, help us understand the greatness of Christ's birth. I would love to attend the Nobel Prize Ceremony and Banquet one day. Regretfully, that invitation shall likely not arrive on my doorstep. I am however eternally grateful for the invitation to the attend the Great Banquet set by Christ himself in another heavenly place. I am happy to say yes to that invitation and look forward to enjoying it with great joy. And besides, I don't have to buy a new dress for the occasion.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Day 10: Lighting the Way

I took my dog for an evening walk around our neighborhood this evening. As I wandered through the beautiful, towering apartment buildings that surrounded me, I began to notice all of the lovely things that people have put in their windows...signs of the season. It's very common for people in Sweden to put "light trees" (ljusstakar) in every window. Today's photo is one of these typical light trees that adorn our apartment windows. (Yes, that's plastic behind our window. Plastic that has been there for 18 months due to a facade renovation. It's soon over. We can't wait.)
It's fun to see all of the shapes and sizes of ljustakar that people use to light up the neighborhood. In addition to the numerous forms of lighting, balconies were adorned with garland, wreaths hung on doors and windows, and Christmas trees were displayed in all their glory through large picture windows. It's actually soothing to wander around in the evening now as there is so much to look at.

It's dark in Sweden now. It's dusky the entire day, not really light until 8.30 in the morning and dark by 3.15. The twinkling lights of Christmas are not only beautiful, they also provide necessary relief from the darkness that surrounds us. The soft hue of candle light, the twinkling lights of the Christmas trees and the constantly burning "ljustakar" in the windows all help to illuminate our homes, offices and neighborhoods.
We have almost 3 more weeks of plunging into darkness before we reach the winter solstice on December 21. The long Swedish winter needs piercing light that breaks through the hovering darkness. All of the lights are wonderful reminders of the light of the world that came to pierce the dark that hovers in our lives.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Day 9: A Little Child Shall Lead Us

Yesterday in church we had our children's Christmas pageant. There was much stress and worrying on my part about whether or not we could pull this off. I had a wonderful young woman working with the kids on the music and she had chosen an ambitious program. The script involved many kids and lots of movement. We were only able to practice in the main sanctuary once and even then, it wasn't set up exactly like it would be and the main character wasn't there are that rehearsal. At one minute before the service started on Sunday, I had tears in my eyes and wondered why in the world we do this to ourselves year after year. And then the play started and I remembered why. The kids are awesome. They work hard, they love performing, they revel in wearing the costumes. The story this year involved a bully who was giving the shepherds a hard time. She didn't want her little brother mixing with "those types." And of course, we know that God made sure the shepherds were in the middle of everything, the ones highly chosen to receive the Good News of a Great Joy before anyone else. The microphones worked, they were in the right place at the right time, they sang like cherubs and all hearts were gladdened. It was a wonderful morning and left me wondering why I stress so much!
One of the awesome things about our church is all of the different nationalities that are represented. Just to give you a taste here is a list of the nations from where our cast come:
The shepherds were from France, Kenya, China and The United Kingdom. The bully was half Korean, half Danish. The angels were from Uganda and Pakistan. The innkeeper was Pakstani and his wife was from the Philippines. Joseph was from Uganda and Mary was half Ugandan and half American. The donkey was half Swedish, half American. And those are just the kids who made us the speaking parts!
We fully embody the old Sunday School tune, "Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world."
Children's pageants help us to understand why God chose a child to lead us. Our children were worthy leaders in our worship service yesterday. Is there childlike wonder in your advent journey? Do something childlike if you need to be reminded of a child's perspective.

A side note: Today would've been my brother's 50th birthday. We honor him today.

Day 8: The Second Sunday in Advent

Today we lit the second candle, often known as the candle of peace. There is much longing in our world today for peace. Iraq, Congo, and Zimbabwe are some of major conflict centers of our world. On a smaller scale, perhaps there are people in you life with whom you lack peace. Where is the conflict in the center of your world this Christmas? Is this not a good time to think about your personal peace accord? It's worth pondering. Jesus was called the Prince of Peace. We are urged in God's word to live at peace with one another, as far as we are able. What this means is that each one of us needs to do our part to actively promote peace, not simply wait around for those we find contrary to make themselves lovable. That is unlikely to happen anyway.
So why not think for a moment where there may be a remnant of conflict brewing in your soul and why not use this advent journey to help you make peace with that aspect of your life? The Prince of Peace would be pleased, oh, and by the will you.

Side note: The reason that this blog didn't get up on time is because we buried our good friend yesterday. His funeral was difficult, quite possibly the most difficult we've ever done. And yet, the hope, the love, and the outpouring of grace was also evident. We thank God for who Ken was in our lives. Our heart aches for his wife and kids and yet they too are trusting in the peace of Christ to see them through. Peace to the memory of Kenneth Lindberg.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Day 7: Using our gifts

Gifts are such an integral aspect of Christmas that sometimes we forget that it was God Himself who gave the ultimate gift in sending Jesus Christ to us. But beyond the physical exchange of gifts that is obviously a part of Christmas, we should also think about the ways in which we ourselves are gifted and furthermore, the manner in which we are using those gifts to serve others and the church. We are gifted so that we ourselves can reflect the light of God's glory to the world around us.
Today I had the privilege of spending a few hours with an amazingly gifted woman of God. Victoria is from the Philippines and has quite possible the purest heart for God of anyone I've ever met. She is an amazing servant and she consistently serves because she loves God. She gets embarrassed when I thank her, humbly claiming that it is a gift from God that she is able to serve. And she does it all with absolute joy and unending energy. Victoria always has a huge hug for me. She is often spotted giggling. She loves to be in on a joke or take part in a funny game. She is the embodiment of the light that is Christ.
And she does all this in spite of being married to someone who doesn't share her passion for ministry. All this in spite of the fact that her teenage son isn't quite as interested in going to church as she is. All this in spite of the fact that she works long and demanding hours at the residence of the American Ambassador. All this in spite of her longing to be nearer to the rest of her family in the Philippines as they face countless challenges and obstacles.
Victoria teaches Sunday School. Victoria helps serve at potlucks, weddings, newcomer lunches, and funerals. She is the sort of artist who can take a pineapple and turn it into a beautiful bouquet of flowers. And she can take a bouquet of flowers and transform them into an arrangement so beautiful you can hardly believe that it was done with human hands. That's what we did today...we walked to the outdoor flower market, choose white roses and lilies, returned to church and created the most beautiful arrangement to adorn the coffin at the funeral tomorrow. OK, she created it and I looked on in awe. And all the while she kept saying what a privilege it is to serve the Lord.
Victoria is a multi-gifted person and she willfully, even eagerly, looks for opportunities to give glory to God in the highest with all of the gifts that she embodies.
And so as you are out Christmas shopping or pondering what to get for all of the folks on your list, take a moment in the midst of all of the buying to consider what gifts lie within you. And be sure to use them this Christmas as well.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Day 6: Preparing

It's Friday and I have a full week-end ahead so I am up early trying to sort it all out. First, I am preparing the house because we have guests coming to stay with us. Three university students from North Park University, (our alma mater, where we went to seminary and college as well as where I was Campus Pastor for 5 years before we moved to Sweden) who are studying in Sweden this semester are coming to Stockholm. We know their parents because we went to college with them. I remember when I went to college and many of my classmates knew my mom, who also attended the same school. It's a weird and wonderful aspect of attending a small, liberal arts university with strong church ties. So, they are coming and I am looking forward to hearing about their experiences while they've been on this side of the pond. One of the girl's mother is one of my closest fact, she, along with the woman I went to Rome with are my two closest friends from college and the 3 of us have kept up pretty well. I love to have people into our home because I feel so blessed that we have such a lovely place. The photograph today shows the table in our entry. Hopefully it represents warmth and welcoming. Gud Jul, by the way, means Merry Christmas in Swedish.
The second thing I am preparing for is our Children's Christmas Pageant. We have a rehearsal tomorrow morning with the microphones and well, you can imagine how excited 8 year old kids get when they get their hands on a microphone. We have three wireless microphones as well, that you wear on your ear and you feel very much like a rock star and there is much jockeying regarding who gets to wear those. These are the big decisions I have to make. Additionally, the angel Gabriel is tiny in stature so I have to figure out how to best make him seen. Sometimes this program is stressful. I have to remind myself that it's not about the performance, it's about the magic and wonder of children pointing us to the Christ child. I am excited about it and think it will be adorable...our children are a very fine looking bunch.
The final thing I am preparing for is Ken's funeral on Sunday. It's weird to think that in the midst of Christmas we are going to bury someone we have dearly loved for 10 years. The kids will have to say good-bye to the physical evidence of their dad and Geri will have to publicly mourn her new found status as a single woman. I can prepare for the worship service but preparing for the new way of life that awaits our church and the family will definitely be a work in progress.
But again I reminded of what a mixture of emotions those involved in the first Christmas went through. Fear was a common thread. Zachariah was afraid, Mary was afraid, Joseph too. The shepherds were positively terrified and in each instance God sent an angel to comfort them, to utter these wonderful words: "Fear Not for I bring you good news of a great joy." It is indeed that good news that sustains us as we prepare for both the joy of little children leading us to Christ and the sorrow of losing a loved one who is now with Christ. May the good news of great joy follow you throughout your preparations in the days ahead.

Day 5: A Day of Grace

So it's 10.07 p.m. I never did my readings for today. I never burned the day 5 portion of my candle and now I am tired. So rather than do these things out of obligation, I will allow the grace of Jesus to pour over me tonight and double up tomorrow. Maybe it's a cop out, but Christ's coming into the world is indeed an act of grace. God anticipated our needs before we even knew them and then provided a way of escape from our sins before we even we asked for it. I realize this tonight when I've had a busy day and a crazy meeting at church and have guests coming for the week-end and the beds aren't made and the bathroom isn't yet clean. Yes, tonight I'm glad for grace.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Day 4: God's own Son, the Incarnate One

This photo is of my hand carved nativity made from Swedish glass. I love it.

So, to build on my notion of yesterday...Today I was out walking my dog listening to Michael Card's The Promise, which is really one of my all time favorite Christmas collections. Card tells the story of Christ's birth in wonderful and surprising ways. I know most of the songs by heart and sing them heartily. I listen to this CD to a sickeningly repetitive extent at Christmas and of course it's on my iPod as well. So naturally, today as I was walking Tanner, I had Michael Card in my ears. And because our God is a God of wonder and surprise, a song that I've heard a million times before took on a new and significant meaning to me today because of where I am in my own journey. That's one thing I love about God...He meets us where we are in surprising and wonderful ways. And the intentional advent journey opens us up to all of the unique and interesting ways that God wants to meet us. Today, the song that touched me is called 'Immanuel'. So I'm in the park and I'm singing away in my head because outloud doesn't sound all that great and when you have your iPod on you sound really loud and off key anyway, and I get to the second verse of this beautiful song: "For those who live in the shadow of death, a glorious light has dawned. For all those who stumble in the darkness, behold your light has come! Immanuel, Our God is with us. And if God is with us, who could stand against us? Our God is with us, Immanuel. So what will be your answer? Oh will you hear the call? Of Him who did not spare His son but gave Him for us all. On earth there is no power, there is no depth or height that could ever separate us from the love of God in Christ. IMMANUEL, OUR GOD IS WITH US! And if God is with us who could stand against us? Our God is with us, Immanuel.

Of course I was so moved by these words as I thought about our friend Geri and her three kids who are facing Ken's funeral on Sunday and beyond that, Christmas without their beloved husband and father. And the words of the 23rd Psalm...for those who live in the shadow of death, just moved me to tears all over again. To think, that Jesus' coming into this world can comfort the great sorrow that they feel and provide them with hope that lasts beyond their immediate loss just revealed to me in such clear ways why Christmas without the incarnation at the center truly misses everything that God intends for us. In joy and in sorrow, Our God is with us, our Immanuel.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Day 3: The Secular and the Spiritual

Sweden is a beautiful place and a Swedish Christmas is lovely. Lights and wreaths and ribbons and candles adorn the city and throughout the city are various Christmas markets where you can buy everything from traditional Swedish Christmas ornaments to reindeer meat. The markets are dotted with little red stalls, often with a candle burning brightly in the open window. It's all very lovely and charming. The photo for today is of the Old Town (Gamla Stan) Christmas market. But after being here for 10 years, the newness of the Swedish style of Christmas has worn off a bit and I've noticed an important flaw in the way in which Stockholm illuminates Christmas. I can't think of one public place that I've seen a nativity. You can hardly even purchase a Christmas card with a religious theme. And while I love Christmas decorations, both secular and spiritual, when the situation is totally void of the spiritual, the secular loses its luster rather quickly. Yes, the candles are beautiful and the white lights on the trees dazzle, and I love the wreaths and the Lucias (more on this on December 13th!) and the market stalls with all of their adorable tomtar (Swedish Santas) and fine woolen goods, and odd tasting meats and beautiful table cloths. And yet, in the midst of that beauty, I long for the Christ child. Keep the Christ in Christmas is a bit too cliche for my taste, but in the end, if there is no Christ, then really, there is no Christmas. And so for me, all of the traditions, and all of the beauty and all of the dazzling splendor dims a bit when the light of Christ isn't shining brightly through it all.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Advent Calendar, Day 1, but day 2 of Advent

This is a picture of my daily advent "calendar." It is a candle with the numbers 1-24 on them. The numbers are seen on the gold stars. Each morning I will light this candle and let is burn through the gold star that reminds me where we are on our advent journey. Today is a bonus as Day 1 also includes the very top part of the candle. As the candle burns I will read from my favorite Advent Devotional, "Preparing for Jesus" by Walter Wangerin Jr. It is my all time favorite daily reader and I am never surprised when something new bursts onto the pages for me. I've been reading it through advent now for many years. My new daily reading is by Henri Nouwen, also a favorite author. His reader has a tip for each day. Today's was to look for a sign that God is present in our daily lives. Our daily lives. For me, it is the daily walk that makes advent such a special time. Lent too, but lent is so heavy. Advent is full of joy and preparation...anticipation of the one for whom we wait. Jesus.
My little red advent calendar candle serves as a reminder of the season as well as a prompter for taking my moments to pause and consider His coming. Truth be told, I am not so good at the "daily disciplines" so during the seasons of the year that make it a bit easier to maintain, I treasure the moments that enrich my life through a daily practice.
The daily candle, the Sunday candles, the readings...they all help to remind me that the birth of Christ is coming and that everything else in the season, the events, the food, the decorations, are mere sideshows to the main event. And that main event my friends, has changed everything for me. It's worth pondering throughout these next 24 days.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

First of Advent

Today is the first of Advent, a very special Sunday in Sweden. Some religious traditions observe Advent in an intentional way, others do not even acknowledge it. I have always been a part of churches that do observe Advent and I can honestly say that I am very happy about that. Advent is the season of preparation that precedes the birth of Christ. It begins with the 4th Sunday before Christmas and culminates in Christmas Eve. Churches that observe Advent light one candle each Sunday leading up to Christmas Eve as a symbol of drawing closer and closer to time when Jesus Christ, the light of the world, illuminates the world with peace and grace. The photo in this blog shows our very own Advent candles that we have in our house. The first candle of advent is now lit. On the following three Sundays we will light the subsequent candles as we journey towards the birth event.
I love Advent. I believe in the intentional time of preparation that Advent allows us. We need to think clearly about what the birth of Christ means for us and if we are not intentional, the hullabaloo of the season will swallow us up and we'll only view the birth event as one more thing in a series of things rather than as the main thing.
Another tradition of Advent is to open a window or a box for each day in Advent leading up to Christmas Eve. Often the "windows" are filled with candy or a small toy, something to entice the participants, often children, to stay with the practice throughout the month. While often secular in nature, it is still a strong reminder of how each passing day draws us closer to Christ's birth.
I have set as a goal for myself to have an "Advent Blog". I hope to post something every day in Advent, along with a photo of something in our house that reminds us of the Christmas season. I hope my readers will enjoy my daily reminders of our journey towards Christ and even more so, I hope it will help me to really focus on the season, giving myself an opportunity to truly enjoy the anticipation and hope that Christ's birth represents for me.
I preached today on Mary and Joseph and how surprising the news of being Jesus' earthly parents must've been for them. My main points were these: Joseph, who as a carpenter is used to being a builder, in the instance of being called to be Jesus' earthly father, will not be the builder, but rather the tool...a tool in God's hand as God fulfills his will through him. Mary on the other hand has been called to create space in her life to be the dwelling place for the baby Jesus so that he can be born and eventually dwell among us on the earth. My conclusion was that we are called to be tools in God's hands, dwelling places of the Holy Spirit, available to God to accomplish his will.
I hope that your advent preparations will help you create the space in your life that allows God to use you in the way He longs to.
I wish you all a Glad Advent!

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Grief Journey

Many thanks to my readers who responded to the blog regarding the death of our friend. It has been two weeks now and in some ways it still doesn't seem real and yet the raw loss and his lack of presence in our midst confirms his absence. It is hard to imagine that we are not going to see Ken again, that Geri and the kids have an entirely new way of life to get used to. It is easy to understand why grief is a journey...these unwelcome realities take time to fully understand and we perhaps don't even have the capacity to embrace the full impact all at once.
As the days go by, my friend is beginning to grasp the deep reality of her loss. She said to me last week, "Jodi, I am not married anymore. I can't get my hands around that. When will I know to take off my rings?" These are ground of being issues, realities that cause our core identities to be shaken. Geri is no longer a wife. How do we move forward through the losses of our lives and begin to carve out the new identity with which we are left? In her case, she has 3 kids who she's still mother to. They are seeking to figure out what it means to no longer have dad around. There will be more losses to contend with...they will no longer have a father present at hockey games, soccer games, school programs, or Christmas. And there will be sacrifices as mom won't be able to do it all. And there will be anger because none of it is fair and all of it is painful. I told Geri the first time someone asks her if she's married will likely be a very difficult moment. I know this because recently someone asked me if I had siblings and I quickly answered, "yes, one brother." It was the first time in a long while that I had been asked that, and as I gave the answer that I had for 46 years, I realized, no, that's not entirely true anymore. I had a brother, but he died 18 months ago. I am no longer a sister. It is still hard to grasp my new identity as the only child. It is not the family portrait that I grew up with and yet, I have had to embrace the new picture of my family, one that includes the memory of my brother's life, but not his physical presence among us.
That is why grief is a journey. You have to keep moving and face each phase. We move forward, feel like we're doing well, then a set back. It's all part of the process, but you have to keep moving, no matter how slow the progress, how small the steps.
For the first time since Ken died, I felt almost normal yesterday. My own acute sadness is ebbing a bit even while my heart aches for Geri and the kids. I feel deeply for the pain and loss she faces with each new day. Selfishly, I feel thankful that my own personal journey is not currently laced with so much pain. I know my day will come and so I am savoring the calm joy of a lack of crisis for now.
The funeral is December 7. Christmas and New Year's will be tough. We'll get through this together, step by step, on the grief journey.
Prayers appreciated. Thanks.

Stockholm is Covered in Snow

Over the past three days we have gotten more snow than we did for the entire winter last year. Most are pretty excited about it as it is absolutely gorgeous and makes the landscape a whole lot brighter. Now I know for those of you who live in a place with two seasons, warm and warmer, it is easy to assume that you believe "enjoyable winter" to be the ultimate oxymoron. I cannot say that I necessarily disagree with of my main goals in life, and I am actively praying that God's will corresponds to such, is to move further south and return to that warm and warmer climate. However, for the time, I live in a place where temperature is measured by "it wasn't that cold today," so having snow on the ground is a welcome respite from the slate gray that winter can bring along. And is truly beautiful. Snow dampens urban noise. Snow makes the city feel and sound cleaner. Running through woods on a snowy evening is truly one of life's little pleasures. ( "evening" begins about 2.00 in the afternoon here, but still...the snow gives you the impression that it is a lot lighter than it really is. In case you are wondering...we're pretty much pitch black night by 3.30 now.) So, with Tanner in tow, I have taken the opportunity to explore the Liljan Skogan, (the little forest) which is about a 10 minute walk from our house. I'll let the visual speak for itself. We are truly surrounded by a vast winter wonderful and I am savoring every second. Soon it will warm up above freezing and the beauty will melt into mud puddles and one thing that I know for sure is that I will be complaining about winter, often. But for today...I'll let the loveliness calm my spirit and bring out the child in me.