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Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent day 2

Last night we enjoyed an awesome dinner party with 8 special friends gathered around our dining room table. Our good friends, the Grout's who used to live here but now live in France decided that they wanted to come to Sweden to celebrate Marie's 60th birthday. They invited a few people to our home yesterday but they hosted the party! It was a very special treat to be in my own home, but not have to do any hosting! Douglas set a beautiful table, as he so often does, and the meal was delicious. They had brought the wine from France so there was no miss there!
Gathered around the table were 3 Americans (me, Doug and Marie, the guest of honor), 1 woman from Singapore, 2 women from Ghana, 1 man from Zimbabwe, 1 woman from Ukraine, 1 Swede and the darling French man, Marie's husband. I mean, c'mon. This just doesn't happen in a "normal" life! Our lives crossed because of our association with Immanuel International and towards the end of the evening each person told of how their connection to Daniel and Marie was forged. The stories had a common thread. The generous, loving, outgoing spirit of Daniel and Marie drew us all in.
The meal was a feast, but so was the conversation. It served as a wonderful reminder of how hospitality, generosity, and warmth are qualities worth striving for in life. Hospitality, generosity, and warmth: Have you ever considered how the Lord offers us these gifts? Enjoy them this advent and pass them along. The price is right and the return on your investment will be well worth it, I'm sure.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent Begins


Today is the first of advent. We lit the first candle this morning and now wait and prepare with eager anticipation of the Christ child's arrival. I forgot to take a photo of our candles at church so this one from last year will have to do for today.
This is the prayer I prayed in our worship service this morning. May your advent days be filled with a heightened awareness of the light of Christ that surrounds us.

Our loving and gracious God,

We now begin the advent season with eager anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Christ. Lord, we are always aware of the presence of Christ that surrounds us but during this time of year we are reminded in specific ways of the light that Christ has brought to the world through his coming to dwell among us. As we celebrate the coming light of Christ, may we be mindful of the ways in which we too can be lights to our dark world, people of hope who bring the good news of salvation to those who so desperately need to hear it.

Lord, the advent season is a season that is filled with waiting and preparation. Our lives are filled with a range of emotions and sometimes we worry that the stressors that we face will be too much. In the midst of the demands of the next several weeks Lord, alert us to what you want to be doing in our lives. Help us to intentionally seek out quiet places where we will allow you to speak to us. Empower us to be open to the ways in which you want your light to shine in our lives that we might make a impact on the world around us. Lord, help us to be more attuned to your presence even in the midst of all that will clamor for our attention in the coming weeks.

Lord, we know that for some, this season represents hardship and pain. We pray particularly for those in our midst who are suffering from loss and perhaps wondering how they will face this advent and Christmas season without their loved one.

. We ask dear God that you send a special measure of comfort to those who are suffering from grief. Give them your hope that is rooted not in the things of this world, but rather in love and grace of Jesus Christ, a love that extends beyond the grave.

Lord, we ask that you help us all to be good stewards during this season, careful with our money, willing to spend within our means. Make us mindful of senseless consumerism that doesn’t feed our spirits and instead instill within each of us a desire to be generous and to give in tangible and servant filled ways.

Lord, for those who are ill and struggling to feel good enough to even enjoy the gifts of each new day, we ask for your healing touch. Bring encouragement where there is discouragement. Grant patience and peace where frustration boils over.

Lord, for those who feel lonely and out of sorts, we ask that you bring them comfort and companionship. May we as a church be aware of the ways in which people are isolated and seek to be a warm and welcoming presence for them. God we ask that the light of Christ shine brightly in our lives that we might be used by you to draw others to the body of Christ and find hope, healing, and friendship instead of suffering alone.

Lord, the hopes and expectations of the season are many. But the disappointments and fears of the season also abound. In the midst of all that we face in life, we pray that the promise of the Christ child will be our strong center. As we light candles and prepare for Christmas, may we be ever mindful of the ways in which Jesus is coming to us through the ordinary events of each new day. Lord, may we wait with eager anticipation our celebration of Christ’s birth, even while we celebrate the joy we have in knowing that Jesus dwells among us each and every day. We pray these things in name of Jesus, the light of the world whose presence among us we celebrate. Amen.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day in Sweden

Actually, a better title would've been Thanksgiving Day while living in Sweden as it is not Thanksgiving day in Sweden. Nope, it is just a regular Thursday and for some reason Thanksgiving day always makes me feel a little homesick. I should be better able to predict this after 11.5 years of living abroad. Even during my two years living in Colombia, South America Thanksgiving was the hardest. I think it's because it's the only place in the world where it is celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November. And it's this grand holiday in the States and you get Friday off too and now I have Facebook to let me in on what everyone's doing in order to get ready for Thanksgiving and it just reminds me that I'm not there.
My American friends here in Stockholm are very empathetic. Most of us are doing something on Saturday with other Americans to eat the food and enjoy the cheer. But for some reason, missing the actual 4 day holiday just leaves me with feelings of homesickness and longing.
For me, Thanksgiving was often centered on football. My father was a high school football coach and Thanksgiving weekend was the second round of the high school championships and once his teams started going to the play-offs, he never once lost a first round game, so that meant that almost every Thanksgiving was shrouded with football! Thanksgiving morning found many in the community at the high school, attending the last practice of the week before the big game, waiting with freshly baked pies to serve the coaches and players after practice. We had a lot of pies. Each person got 1/4 of a pie! The guys always had a field goal kicking contest as well and it was always the perfect start to a fun day. Friday was full of excitement and anticipation as we awaited the big game. It was terrible to lose on Thanksgiving week-end. Good thing his teams didn't do that very often!
As for what our families are up to today...My mom is actually making Thanksgiving dinner and inviting some folks who don't have such an easy life to be with them. I'm so happy that my mom and dad are at a place where they feel up to opening up their home again. Doug's family will be gathered at one of his sister's houses and we'll think of that large group and wish we could be in on the laughter and fun. I wish I could watch the parade although admittedly last time we were home for Thanksgiving the number of commercials cut down on the enjoyability factor. The shopping frenzy that unfolds is both amusing and sickening. Admittedly, I like to go online to my favorite stores and check out what's for sale. I only "window" shop however!
Complicating matters is my health. I'm still not doing real well. After feeling a bit more normal Tuesday and Wednesday this week, today has been another set back. I just cannot get back to full health. It is discouraging and it contributes to my longings.
On the bright side however, we have dear friends coming to visit this weekend. It will be great to see them and they've even promised to take care of me if I'm still not feeling well. And the truth of the matter is that I have so much to be thankful for. My mom is doing well and my folks are enjoying life. Things with Doug's family are good. I have an amazing husband who truly cares for me and has shown that he's willing to fulfill the vows of In sickness and In health even when the sickness part goes on and on. I have a church that is loving and fulfilling. The advent season is upon us and that gives me a chance to consider with even greater intention what it means that Jesus came down to earth to dwell among us. And his dwelling presence remains with us. So in spite of whatever it is I'm feeling today, I am fundamentally thankful for the many blessings with which my life overflows.
So, I hope everyone has a Happy Thanksgiving and in the words of a British friend who is in America for her first Thanksgiving..."And even if you're somewhere where they don't celebrate Thanksgiving, why not still take a few minutes today to stop and be thankful." I am thankful and I want to live my life in gratitude for the many gifts I feel that God bestows upon me. May it be so for you as well.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Help

Our last book club selection was book entitled The Help. It tells the story of white women from Mississippi and their "help", the black maids who raised their kids and cleaned their houses. The book is well-written and deeply engaging. I was actually sad when I finished it as I had gotten so involved in the characters' lives, I almost felt that some good friends had moved away when I didn't have their story to retreat to day after day. The book is startling in its portrayal of white racist behavior towards the black women who serve them day after day. Your jaw remains open as you consider how these privileged women entrusted their children to these folks, yet would not allow them to use the same bathroom as they did. Little thought was ever given in the minds of the white women as to the sacrifices their servants were making towards their own children in order to provide for the white kids. The story is complex and told from a variety of points of view. There are 3 main heroines in the story: a young white woman not willing to buy into the lifestyle that her mother is dying for her to embrace, that of wife to an elite and influential young white man. Instead, she decides to get to know the maids and ventures out to help them tell their story. 2 of the black maids figure prominently in the story and their own journeys are deeply moving and often heart wrenching. The role of their church in the midst of the oppressed lives is deeply powerful.
I was deeply moved by this book. The story format made me want to interview some of the folks from our church who likely have a pretty amazing story to tell about how they ended up here in Sweden and where along the way oppression has been part of their journey. I was aware that the behavior of the white women was shaped by their culture...in a sense, it was all they knew, but I was forced to consider how we learn to move away from the aspects of our culture or upbringing that are fundamentally harmful to another or just plain wrong. Racism is not right and should never be excused with a simple, "That's just the way it is." Very sad to see was how unhappy these rich, privileged white folks could be. The friendships of the white women had a flavor that was quite different from the deep bond of friendship and loyalty that the black women shared.
I was challenged to consider where in my life I might be carrying blind spots towards others. How do we learn to know our blind spots, the attitudes that are shaped by our upbringing, culture and surroundings but might still have a deeply racist, or sexist, or oppressive bent to them? We all learn prejudicial behavior somewhere and rare is the person who is exempt from any prejudice. I was challenged to think about the privileges that I have in my life, where I have power and prestige and perhaps don't use them to the best end. Where do we find the fortitude to go against the grain of our peers, family, culture and speak out against something that we know will create an uproar or bring on conflict? I don't have all the answers, but I'm working on it. I don't want to be silent because it's easier. I want to be able to stand up for what I believe in and advocate for those who are being oppressed.
This is a great book. It challenges us on many different levels. The lives of the white women are almost caricatures in nature and yet they are so deeply real that you cannot simply dismiss them either. The book is set in the 60's and we are certainly living in a different era and yet...how far have we really come? It continues to fascinate me that on the whole, whites tend to think we've come such a long way while minorities are wondering when a real break through will happen. I'm mostly trying to listen to the voices of those who are less privileged than I, more deeply wounded by society's attitudes and allow them to sharpen my own sense of what is really going on in our world.
SIDE NOTE: I recommend viewing the film 'Glory Road' for a look at how tough it was for African American athletes to break into the world of Division I college athletics. The film is based on a true story and tells the story of an amazing and courageous coach who went against the tide of his times and opened up doors for athletes of color to participate at the highest level in college sports.

A Joyous Occasion

This is my friend Barbro. She turned 80 a few days ago! This was taken at our book club meeting where we celebrated her. She is a remarkable person and my life in Sweden has been greatly enhanced through knowing her. A week ago last Saturday, Doug and I were invited to her birthday gala. It was a real treat. I don't know Barbro's children or grandchild. She became my friend through the American Women's Club here in Stockholm so I don't see her in her family context. She was married to a Swede, Ingvar, who passed away before Doug and I moved here so we never got to meet him. This evening of celebration was a true treat for us. Her 4 kids and spouses, along with her grandchild as well as friends she's known for years put on a great party. But before I get to the details of the party, there's a bit of a tale to tell about the adventure we had just getting there.
We had arranged to take public transportation to the party as the directions seemed quite easy. Take the train, then the bus, and restaurant is "mittemot". I did not check with great detail about the exact whereabouts of this fine restaurant thinking that when we got off the bus, we'd see it immediately, since I know that mittemot means opposite or across from. We had also arranged to meet some good friends at the train station and head out with them. Except that I had the wrong train stop in my head. And of course, I forgot my mobile phone for the first time, like, ever, so we had no way of communicating with one another. Fortunately they were waiting for us at the stop where the bus was so we joined hands and found the bus. Then as we were traversing along, our bus stop came up. I said, "Good, this is our stop." I rarely take the bus, and even when I do, it's usually in the city so the bus stops at all stops regardless. Not so in the "countryside." Next time I looked, a new stop was posted. We drove past our stop because I forgot to push the STOP button. Ugh. We were already a bit late and I was starting to get a little bit stressed. So, we got off the bus, crossed the street and caught the next one back to our stop. Problem was, it dropped us in the middle of no where and there was nothing "mittemot" from the bus stop. There was scarcely a soul around to even ask and once we did ask for directions, it just didn't seem right. So we wandered around...aimlessly, for about 30 minutes. It was awful. We knew we were within shouting distance of the party and could not find it. Finally, in a moment of desperation, we flagged down a car. This is not done in Sweden, not because it's dangerous, but because talking to strangers just isn't really an acceptable thing to do! Fortunately we found Mr. Good Samaritan himself because not only did he know where the restaurant was...about 500 meters from where we were...he offered to drive the 4 of us there! We were elated! Once in the car, our dear friend proceeds to tell the driver that this will come back to bless him many times over because he's just offered kindness to 2 ministers! The man was delighted, proceeding to explain to us that he is a Christian and actually knew something about Immanuel Church! He could not have been more delightful and kind to the 4 Americans who were woefully unprepared to find the site of this fine party that awaited us.
We were now almost an hour late and were trying to sneak in under the radar but no...it was announced that the latecomers had finally arrived. UGH again. At that moment however Barbro had asked all in attendance to line up in order of how many years we've known her! We were near the end as most in attendance had known Barbro for many, many years. From there we made our way to the dinner tables and her neice Karen, was our table hostess. She is an American who also married a Swede and is now making her life in Uppsala, Sweden. We had met briefly before but it was a delight to get to know her a bit better. In traditional Svensk style, the evening began with a song and a toast and continued with many more toasts, songs, speeches, and tributes. It was a joy to get to see Barbro's kids and spouses honoring her with humor and love, to experience the obvious deep joy the grandkids have in her, to listen to friends speak of the amazing person Barbro has been in their life. What a treat to enjoy all of this in the company of good friends, around a beautiful table filled with delicious food and drink.
I was deeply touched to be a part of celebrating such a special person. Barbro has lived in Sweden for many years. She has been a great example to many of how to navigate the sometimes difficult road of being in American living in Sweden. She has fully embraced her life in Sweden and inspires me to do the same.
It is hard for me to believe that Barbro really turned 80. She looks fabulous, always dressed in style. She is sharp as ever, offering thoughtful and bold opinions about any and all topics at our book club meetings, and she has a heart of gold that all who encounter her are lucky enough to experience. She is a great inspiration to me, and I know to many others, and I am grateful for the opportunity she gave us to share her joy in turning 80. I loved seeing her kids and their spouses and their kids embrace and celebrate her. It was indeed a joyous occasion, one to be savored for all time.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

International Festival of Cultures

Saturday night we had a great event at church: The International Festival of Cultures. As we have over 50 nations represented in our congregation and as we've figured out how to enjoy our diversity while being rooted in the unity of Christ, we decided to have an event where people could showcase their culture through their food and dress. We were also motivated in part by wanting to have a celebration this autumn as a way of giving thanks to God for the gift of our new facility. This was our first big event in the newly renovated space and it was a wonderful success!Children from Ethiopia, Indonesia and Uganda
Our Jubilee choir getting ready to sing!

People bring the most amazing food to our potlucks. No lime jello or tater tot hot dish on this table! The sights, the smells, the smak (taste in Swedish! I needed an 's' word!) truly represented the bounty of the earth and the amazing palette of flavor that God has given us to enjoy. Our folks know how to cook and over 250 hungry people couldn't wait to dig in to the delights.
It's always a joy to see people dressed in clothes that come from their homelands. Some wear native dress on Sundays, but most find that they have conformed to the western world in which they live and work. I can always see a special gleam in people's eyes when they are dressed in finery from their country. A sense of pride and joy emerges when they are invited to show off the beauty that comes uniquely from their homeland.Incredible India
Two youth took the request to wear clothes from their homeland to heart. The young woman is half Korean/half Danish. She's wearing a dress from Korea that belongs to her mother. Jack, the half Australian/half Swede, showed up in a wet suit! It was hilarious and quite the hit of the evening! The range of fabric and color from all of the corners of the world are a delight to behold.The Eritreans displaying their lovely clothing.
Two Americans!
We had planned to have a variety of music throughout the night but early on in the evening, our choir director hijacked the night! He asked the pastors to come forward and sit in three chairs that had been placed in front of the choir. From there, the chair of our church proceeded to invite a couple of people to come and honor us with a custom from their country. A man from India approached holding 3 beautiful shawls. He then shared how the practice of garlanding someone is used to honor people in India. He then asked each one of us to stand and proceeded to drape the fabric over our shoulders while utterly words of thanksgiving for our ministry. I have no photographs of this moment as I was living it! It was deeply moving and very humbling. Then a fellow American approached and also said incredibly kind words to all 3 of us as we sat there in front of our beloved congregation. He then offered beautiful baskets full of amazing goodies that had been assembled by his dear wife. Her thoughtful handprint was written all over the items. We were blown away by this expression of love and gratitude. We were utterly surprised, which was very fun to begin with, and then deeply touched by the deep sense of joy and gratitude our congregation showed us. We all felt so humbled. We feel so deeply that the gift is ours that we actually get to pastor this bunch. To think that they love us as much a we love them is indeed a sweet gift.
We did manage to get control of the program again! The singing, dancing and laughter that ensued warmed my soul. Our youth group singing a song they learned at a recent youth conference they attended in Berlin, Germany
A group of women leading us in a hilarious hands on song!

The International Festival of Cultures was actually a festival of God's love and grace being poured into our lives. May the blessing continue. Amen.