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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.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Our Friend Died on Tuesday

Last Christmas, the husband of our Children's Director from church was diagnosed with a blood lymphoma after the discovery of a tumor in his stomach. Thus began a miserable, painful, difficult road of medicine, chemotherapy, and hospital stays that ultimately ended last Tuesday in death. Not only is this man the wife of our colleague, their entire family is dear to us. This is the family that looks after our dog when we go on vacation. These are the folks that have been our friends from the beginning of our life in Sweden. We have known them for the entire 10 years and have enjoyed many significant moments of joy and sorrow together. We have tried to care for the entire family throughout the year but it has been a long, difficult, discouraging journey. Losing him last Tuesday night was sorrow and blessing mixed together. His road of suffering is over and we can rejoice in that. But the rest of us, his wife and kids in particular, are left to figure out life without their beloved spouse, father and friend. The sorrow is great and yet too, the hope is real.
For us, this is a deeply personal loss. We loved him as a church member but also as a friend and so the loss is pastoral yet also personal. Sorting through all of those feelings has been heavy and challenging. We know that we will walk the road ahead together, that we are not alone, that Ken is in a better place. And yet, we miss him and we long for his joy-filled presence to bless us once again.
Peace to his memory. May God grant us all the strength and the hope that we need to rebuild our world without him.

Is It OK for the Pastor to Cry?

A few Sundays ago a young woman approached me after the service and asked if I would do a baby dedication in the hospital. Turns out her 4 month old baby was seriously ill due to complications related to a lung infection. The following Tuesday I arrived at Astrid Lindgren’s Children’s Hospital and found my way to the children’s intensive care unit. I met the father and some extended family and then we gathered around the baby where I proclaimed the reality that Jesus said to let the little children come to Him, for to such belong the kingdom of God. I said the benediction over this tiny child, perhaps not fully realizing how near death she really was. It was moving and profound. I felt privileged and honored to enter this family’s life at such a critical point.

I was also secretly relieved that I didn’t break down and cry during the dedication. I wanted to be strong for the family, to be able to proclaim the love of God in Christ without tears or emotional struggle lacing my voice.

Later that night I received a text message from the mother that said that I was welcome back to the hospital the next day to say m final farewells to the baby. It had become clear that she would not recover and that they would need to take her off the life support system and allow her to gently and peacefully succumb to death. I felt devastated and yet I also knew that I needed to go back.

The next afternoon I headed back to the hospital to assure the parents that God knows a parent's grief, seeking to connect their anguish with the anguish that God must’ve felt when Jesus died even in the midst of the cries of their heart, Why God Why? This is so unfair. Because the truth of the matter is plain and do you lose a 4 month old and not wonder a bit about the goodness and providence of God? Yes, we can be thankful that she doesn't stay alive with a deformed and diminished life ahead of her. There's grace in that reality. And still, we wonder. Why did she get sick to begin with? As deep and as powerful as the promises of God are, the reality of losing a 4 month old child left me largely speechless and this time aching with tears.

As I handed the dedication papers to the mother, lamely explaining that it might be a helpful reminder that her child is safe in the Father’s arms, I broke down and cried. The void that this child’s death was creating in her parent’s lives was too much for me to bear. As I gathered the parents and the doctors around the baby for a final prayer and blessing, my own sense of anguish and grief overcame me. I didn’t lose it and I was able to continue to provide a pastoral presence, and yet, it never feels good to create a scenario where the one hurting feels forced to comfort the one supposedly bringing comfort.

We shared a tender time and then it was time for the parents to join the Dr. and walk through the steps that would lead to their daughter’s death. I left with a wet face and a heavy heart.

I do not hold my emotions back easily. Tears come pretty easily for me, which often is a gift. And yet, when considering the pastoral role, I struggle with my inability to keep it together emotionally. I know that God’s grace covers me. And I know that in II Corinthians 1:3-7, Paul speaks of our being comforted with the same spirit that will comfort another. In Romans we are called to laugh with those who laugh and to cry with those who cry. But still, I struggle with emotional displays when in the role of pastor. And yet, I am who I am and that means emotional obviousness, and so I guess I will always wrestle with the question, is it OK for a pastor to cry?

My Side Trip to Italy

In a previous entry, I spoke of a visit with 3 college students. The mother of one of them is one of my closest friends from college and she decided to catch up with her daughter on the Italy leg of their journey. She asked me if I’d like to meet her in Rome and then spend two days in Sorrento. It was a little hard to resist, especially with the bargain airfare I was able to find. (See former entry on travel!) At any rate…On Monday, November 3 I landed in Rome, Italy and hooked up with my friend. Not long after that I was staring at the Coliseum, walking beside the forum, wandering up capital hill, marveling at the Trevi Fountain and admiring the beautiful Spanish Steps. It was really warm in Rome…quite a contrast to the icy chill I’d left in Stockholm that morning. Rome is awesome. I love it, but it beats you up a bit. You have to be vigilant about your belongings as theft is rampant, and it’s just a huge, busy, crowded, heavily trafficked kind of place. Still…I love it.
The next morning we hopped on a train to Sorrento via Naples (Napoli). In order to get to Sorrento from Naples you have to catch the Circumvensuviana train which is a local version of hell. Packed to the gills with likely pickpockets, the first 15 minutes of the journey involved a bit too much local flavor. Wedged between armpits and bellies, we held on for dear life to our belongings and stood our ground when likely thieves began to work their system. We survived in tact and were happy to arrive in beautiful Sorrento in spite of dodgy weather. The town’s shops, narrow cobbled streets, and welcoming coastline made the train journey worth it. We loved our beautiful room with a balcony overlooking the main drag and happily settled in. Good food, good company, good people and good shopping awaited us. It was a relaxing and soothing couple of days out of the bustle of Rome. Authentic wood fired pizza was invented in Napoli and I have to admit, the pizza I ate at Franco’s was quite delicious. Perhaps it was the added treat of watching my pizza being cooked by an actual wood fire that provided added inspiration to my culinary pleasure.
Our last day in Rome was a treat as well. We ventured over to the Vatican City and while my friend made her way to the Sistine Chapel, I decided to spend the afternoon in St. Peter’s by myself. (I had previously been to the chapel.) Wandering around that huge basilica was such a great experience. I entered the sacramental chapel and prayed for our sick friend. I pondered the unbelievable height of the dome and prayed for my mom. I considered that Peter might well be buried on that site and felt a profound sense of the worldwide church. I was lucky enough to get in on a mass, to enjoy the organ and the lovely voices of the priestly choir, and to enjoy the sacrament of communion. Between the Italian being enough like Spanish, and the liturgy being familiar, I could follow what the priests were saying and doing and it was a beautiful respite from the demands of life…to be fed with the broken, redemptive, healing body of Christ in the midst of life’s difficulties was a restorative experience.
Michelangelo’s Pieta, which graces St. Peter, is quite possibly the most beautiful piece of art I have ever seen. The way in which he provoked the marble to limply display the dead Christ lying helplessly on Mary’s lap is nothing short of miraculous. The pain a mother feels in the loss of her son brings you to tears. I loved seeing it again. I bought a post card of it, again. I could look at it for hours and was so happy and blessed to be there again, alone this time, to ponder its beauty. I am not going to post a photo of it. Quite frankly, the only way to truly experience the wonder of the Pieta is to go to St. Peter's and let it move you to tears, like it does everyone else.
We ended our last night in Rome in a great restaurant near the Spanish Steps. I feasted on bread smothered in olive oil and Parmesan and the delights of an anti pasta platter filled with olives, vegetables, cheeses and meats. YUM.
I love Italy. I enjoyed being with my friend and for the unique opportunity that was ours to share in this experience. But I was also glad to get home to my beloved Doug and my dear dog Tanner. Traveling is fun, but going home is awesome. And besides, it was time for us to toast our new President-elect face to face!


I cannot believe that Barack Obama has been President-elect for 10 days and I haven’t written about my experience of election night. Other significant events have prevented me from writing, and yet, I would be remiss if I didn’t write about my wonderful and unique experience of watching the Obama presidency unfold in Sorrento, Italy.
Of course, Italy was behind Obama and that was very fun. To be an American in Europe for the past 8 years has not always been such a wonderful thing. It was great to finally have Europeans excited about the candidate that I loved and wistfully supported. The election came up in almost every conversation where nationality was mentioned. When we checked into our beautiful room in Sorrento, the first thing I did was to make sure that the TV had CNN! I was afraid that the landlady would think I was crazy to be so interested in the television when I was on the Amalfi coast of Italy and so I made a shy mention of the election and she immediately lit up with shouts of Obama! We shared a wonderfully bonding moment and wished each other luck for the night ahead.
Italy is 6 hours ahead of East Coast time in the United States so the reality for me was that it wasn’t going to be until the wee hours of Wednesday that I would fully understand what was unfolding. So Tuesday afternoon, I wandered around the charming town of Sorrento, talking to shop keepers and enjoying the warmth and beauty of the Italian culture. One shop was especially lovely, Antonio’s. He made these amazing chocolate covered almonds that were infused with lemon. Lemons are grown all over the Amalfi coast and the delicious liquor Limoncello is produced by the vat here. Antonio was also a maker of such and along with numerous candy samples, he poured us a Limoncello and tonic to enjoy with him. Inevitably, the conversation turned to politics and we too bonded over our love and support for Obama!
I left the television on CNN all night long and through the night tried to discern what was going on through a fog of sleep and disorientation. Finally at 5.00 my phone beeped with an SMS text from good friends in Texas. All it said was OBAMA ROCKS! I immediately got up and sat down in front of the television and realized that Obama had won the presidency! I started sending texts to my friends in Sweden and was very sad to be separated from my husband during this historic moment. We exchanged texts and knew that a celebration would await us…a celebration that would now last for at least 4 years! Like so much of the world, I was just overwhelmed with joy and awe. McCain’s concession speech was classy. Palin looked visible shook up. Obama’s acceptance speech was historic, moving and amazing. His words about his wife…”my best friend, the rock of our family, the love of my life, the next first lady of the United States”…wow. It’s the stuff of legends. To see the tears and relief on the faces of the diverse crowd gathered in Grant Park moved me to tears. I sat there in the quiet dark of my little room in Sorrento, Italy and just wept tears of absolute joy. I finally went to sleep about 6.30 and woke up a couple of hours later with a huge grin on my face!
It was great to taste the mood of the Italians the next day. Jubilation filled the newspapers and coverage of other European nations expressed the solid support that America’s choice was receiving. It was quite a contrast to 4 and 8 years ago when the mood was surly and disappointing.
I couldn’t wait to return to Antonio’s shop to raise another glass in celebration! He popped open a brand new bottle of Limoncello and we cheered wildly! Upon returning to my room Wednesday afternoon, I discovered that our landlady had left us two little bottles of Italian champagne, little plastic champagne glasses and the most amazing note…Best Wishes for your new President, B. Obama. Kind regards, Mrs. Giovanna.
I uncorked the bubbly and started dancing around my hotel room! It was a great moment of celebration.
I really missed being with my husband on the night and the morning of the election. We have been so engaged in the electoral process and we were so expectant of a great, new change for America that I would’ve loved to have kissed him right when we realized that Obama had won. But even though we didn’t get to share the moment side by side, we will both always remember exactly when we realized that Obama would be our next President, I in Sorrento, Italy and he in Stockholm, Sweden. And while I missed being with Doug, the Italians were worthy co-celebrants.
It’s been over a week since Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. The thrill has not diminished. The hope burns bright.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Traveling...or not

Here in Europe we love to boast about our low-cost flyers...airlines that allow you to somehow fly from place to place for ridiculously low fares. Yes, there are restrictions and head-aches, but once you figure it out, you really can spend quite a bit less on your airfare, hence leaving more money in your pocket for the destination.
I am going to Rome, Italy on Monday. One of my best friends from college is going to be there and she asked me awhile back if I would like to meet her. The timing was perfect so I began to search for good fares. Two airlines fly to Rome for reasonably good rates: Sterling, a Danish outfit, and Ryan Air, an Irish company. Ryan Air offers silly low deals on flights but you often have to fly at silly times and land in out of the way airports that often take up to 2 hours by bus to get you to your final destination. Their flight to Rome left at 6.40 a.m. which meant that I would have to leave the house at 3.30 and I wasn't all that crazy about getting to the bus station in downtown Stockholm at 3.30 by myself. Sterling was offering a pretty good deal from the closer airport so I jumped on it. I decided to take the Ryan Air flight home as it was a much better option. I have had my tickets settled for a few weeks now and was starting to get pretty excited about the trip. That's when the fun began...
Saturday evening I dragged the ironing board out and casually mentioned to my husband, who was, by the way, making a delicious chili supper at the time, "I think I'll figure out what I'm taking to Italy." In an even more casual manner, he replies, "Oh, by the way. What airline are you flying?" "Sterling." Silence. "I hate to break the news to you honey, but they went bankrupt last Thursday." Explosions, disruptions and disbelief ensued. Incredulous, I cried, "Why didn't you say anything?" His very male reply, "I had no idea that you were flying on Sterling." (Female editorial comment...and you would never think to initiate conversation by simply asking after hearing about a bankrupt airline that he knows flies out of Stockholm, often with good deals with the backdrop of having a wife who is always super obsessed with getting the best deal on flights, what airline are you flying next week honey?) I know...terrible run on, but you get the gist.
I dashed to my computer and sure enough on the Sterling website there were no flights to books, no good deals flashing in my face, no fancy graphics. Instead, there was a letter that started, Dear customer. (It actually started in Danish Kære kunder, and ten words later said, keep scrolling, you'll find the English you cheap suckers who used our website to book your tickets.) Their basic position is we lose, you lose. We won't refund your ticket going, and if you've already gone, good luck getting home.
How did I miss this? Oh yeah, I was in bed Thursday afternoon through Saturday morning with a sore throat/sinus congestion/felt like crap bug.
So, after the initial shock of knowing that I had no ride to Rome, I began to think about my options since my return flight home was secure. Now, having no other option I jumped on the Ryan Air website and luckily, was still able to purchase a ticket for about 1100 sek! ($150.00) Not bad for two days before I was scheduled to depart. I told Doug his penance for not telling me sooner was driving me to central station at 3.30 on Monday a.m. He muttered something about a taxi and then realized that it would be his pleasure to accompany me down to the bus early on Monday! He's off that day anyway. I'm not so opposed to taking a cab, I just feel creeped out being out there alone at that time of day. Too bad it's not Wednesday a.m. The city would be crawling with Americans drunk with joy or just drunk depending on what happens in the election Tuesday night in the United States!
So at least I'm still getting to go, actually quite a few hours earlier than I had thought! With luck, my credit card will refund my Sterling ticket. I'm pretty sure we have travel insurance on the card I used. At any rate, the irony is how much time I spent searching out the very best deal, skipping Ryan air because of the time of the flight, buying on Sterling, then watching the Sterling price drop way down after I had purchased (which really kills me) and then ending up with Ryan after all for a higher price! It's amazing how good that higher price looked to me last night! But at least I'm still going, I'm still going, I'm still going! And I am very happy to not leave my friend stranded in Rome alone.
So, if any of you have a trip on Sterling, say bye bye to it. They are officially, bankrupt.
I'll let you know how the trip goes after I return on November 7.