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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Gott Slut: 2011 (A Good End to 2011)

Dickens had it right about 2011 when in A Tale of Two Cities he wrote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  Doug and I continued to have some memorable and wonderful experiences together but the pain of death and grief definitely took their toll.  Here is a quick review of our year:
January: Doug took me to New York City for the first time in my life in celebration of being 50 years old!  Dear friends met up with us and this photo of me and Deb at the "Friends" TV show fountain is one of my favorites from the whole year.
February: Celebrated Doug's birthday whale watching in Cabo San Lucas in the midst of a lovely week long cruise with Jodi's parents along the Mexican Riviera.
March: On my way back to Sweden from LA, I had a brush with fame.  Surrounded by Paparazzi without knowing why, I cracked up when I ended up in this photo with The Biebs! 
April: Easter celebrations at church were filled with celebrating the joy of the resurrection.  Afterwards, we had a great time with friends and even took part in an old fashioned egg toss in our back yard.
May: We attended the International Pastors Conference in Paris, France and loved being in that beautiful city of lights once again.
June: A wonderfully relaxing trip to Ibiza, Spain followed by memorable midsommar celebrations with dear friends unfolded in the midst of Doug's sister's failing health.  We thank God that Doug took an unplanned trip to Minnesota in June to spend some precious days with dear sister Debbie.
July: The devastating passing of Doug's beloved sister Debbie took us both back to the US.  Time with family was so precious and her memory lingers on in our hearts and minds.  She is dearly missed.
August and September: The Stockholm archipelago provided rest and respite in the midst of the hardship of grief.  We were thankful for every moment our little boat gave us on the open sea, under sunny skies, in peaceful surroundings.
October: Dear friends, who also happened to know Doug's sister from the US, invited us to come and enjoy a retreat with them in Lugano, Switzerland and the Alps.  What a healing, life-giving, memorable trip this was for us.  We treasured this time in beautiful surroundings, a train ride to the top of Europe and heartfelt conversation around a roaring fire with good friends.
November: We enjoyed a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner with both Americans and Swedes.  Delicious food and fine company. 
December: A busy advent and Christmas season culminated in Doug's sister Beth and her husband Chuck joining us for Christmas.  We had beautiful services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, memorable meals on both days and then had about 95 people through our home during our Open House on the day after Christmas.  
It is 4.45 p.m. on New Year's Eve as I finish this.  This photograph was taken at about 3.15. p.m. on this last day of 2011.In the midst of the joy and the sorrow of the past year, a few common threads run through it all...the comfort of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the blessing of the ministry we share in at Immanuel International, the love of family and friends across this vast globe.
A new year is soon ours.  Just as one year ago we had no idea what 2011 would hold, the same is true for 2012.  But the above mentioned gifts do remain...the comfort of Christ, the joy of our church, the love of those we love, both near and far.  For this I am grateful.  
May 2012 be full of the same for you.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Day 29: A Sermon for Christmas Day

     The power of a promise is a profound thing. To be able to count on something that is important to you without the anxiety of wondering if it'll be there or not is a wonderful gift. Sadly, promises cannot always be kept. A close friend of mine had her marriage fall apart after several years of unhappiness and unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation. Her daughter was pretty shattered by the split and said to her parents at one point, “But you made a promise to one another. How can you just break your promise?” It was pretty heartbreaking for all involved and reveals the deep pain and disappointment that an unfulfilled promise creates. But the sad human reality is that parents promise to be there for their kids and then they end up working late. Kids promise to come home on time but then the party is too good to leave. Bosses promise that we'll get a raise if we just keep working hard but then the economy takes a downturn and not only is there no raise, but in some cases, there is no job. Broken promises are hard. Promises, by their very nature, are intended to be fulfilled and counted on.
    In contrast to broken promises, however, is the joy of promises that are lived into. This past Wednesday my parents celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary. Last spring, Doug's parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Wow! That is more than 3 times the years that Doug and I have been together! We feel very lucky to have parents who have been faithful examples of people who made promises to one another a very long time ago and are still keeping them today.
     Promises made a long time ago which are still being kept today. For me, this lies at the core of what we celebrate on this Christmas morning: The Joy of God keeping his promises to us. And so on this beautiful Christmas morning, we are invited to draw near to the Christ-child, the one who God promised to send to us, to receive the gifts that God gives us through the birth of Christ.
      In Isaiah 9, God promises that those of us who have been shrouded in darkness will now be flooded with light and this will happen through the giving of a child who will be called wonderful, counselor, everlasting father, the prince of peace. We are told that we WILL rejoice and that our burdens Will be lifted. Perhaps these words ring a bit hollow for you this year. Maybe you've had the kind of year that has been shrouded in darkness and you feel that the floodlights of hope have not reached the circle of your life yet. You feel weighted down by the burden of grief, joblessness, uncertainty in the future, illness, relationships that are broken or troubled. You long for the heavy burdens to be lifted and the yoke of whatever enslaves you to be broken. I suppose my thoughts turn to the the shepherds when I consider this. I realize that because we meet the shepherds in the midst of the glorious events that unfolded on the night of Christ's birth, we can easily forget that they have lives that they must tend to apart from the heavenly host that they meet on the night of Christ's birth. Surely life was not easy for them. Shepherds were poor, dirty, marginal characters who lived on the edge of society. It is likely that their lives were laced with darkness, and heavy burdens. And they went back to those lives after encountering Christ. But I believe that they had been forever changed after being greeted by the angel and summoned to Bethlehem. It is unlikely that every problem in their lives disappeared after their journey to the stable but it is quite likely that their encounter with the Christ-child surely gave rise to a different perspective on life for them. After seeing the babe lying in a manger, they had the knowledge that a light had come into the world that would erase all heartbreak and injustice. They now knew that a child, the chosen one, was the one who could heal their wounds and make light their burden. For they had seen the Emmanuel, the God with Us and they now understood that they whatever journey they were on, they would never walk alone again. Do you know that this Christmas day? That God is with us and that means that we need never walk alone again?
       Of course, it's always hard to tell hurting people that there is a hope that is theirs beyond their pain because it requires faith in something that they cannot see or feel in the moment. But I do believe with all my heart that an encounter with the Christ-child does create change for us. That's why God promised us a child for in that child we are showered with love, forgiven of our sin, redeemed to live as a new person. We are invited to draw near to a God who opens the door for us to draw near to him. The God who takes on a human form through the birth of his son Jesus is a God who wants to turn our darkness into light, our conflict into peace, our loss into abundance, our despair into joy. The fact that our God wants to do that for us is truly good news of great joy. The deep reality of Christmas is this: The son of God came into the world to meet us on our terms. He experienced the broken condition of humanity and took on sin even though he himself was sinless. Instead of remaining transcendent he became the created, the infinite became finite, the immortal became mortal so that we could know a not a celestial being who keeps a respectable distance but rather a God who longs for his creation to know him and therefore reaches out to by becoming one of us! The deeper promise that lurks in the child is that his wooden stable in Bethlehem gives way to a wooden cross in Jerusalem. And the baby who brings hope and light to the world, later takes on the sin and oppression of the world in order to give back to us righteousness and freedom, hope and fulfillment. And this is why we can endure our heartache, burdens, and grief...because the child we celebrate is with us and his promise to us is to restore us. The Psalms tell us that weeping may last for the night, but shouts of joy come in the morning. Trust the reality of this excellent promise, that a child has been given, and he peels back the shadow of darkness that at times threatens to hover and most of all, he is worthy to be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
     A second promise revealed in Isaiah 61 reveals a slightly different perspective. The first thing we note is that we are gifted with the spirit of the Lord. Verse 1 says, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me.” Because of this, we are enabled to live righteous lives which in turn means that we are now called upon to announce the promises that God is making available for all people. We read, “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.” It is interesting for me to note that while the promise of comfort and healing is embedded within both texts from Isaiah, in this text, after having encountered the Christ-child and receiving the Spirit of the Lord, we are now called to deliver that message to others as part of the fulfillment of the promise.
This past week, one of my friends was going through a rough time. She's has a rough year and knew that Christmas was going to invoke feelings of sadness and despair. She asked in her status update on Facebook...what can I do to beat the blues? A variety of answers came through from the ridiculous to the serious, but one stood out for me. It said this: “Give something to those less fortunate than you. Giving always makes you feel better.” My friend responded by saying, “Yes, when in doubt, it is always better to do something for someone else. No matter what, it shifts your view.”
     There is so much truth embedded in that reality and I fully believe this is why Isaiah is now encouraging us to share with others this great thing we have experienced. If we have been fortunate enough to meet the Christ child then what better gift could we pass along to another than the reality that they too can meet him? Part of the promise in Isaiah is that if we do share this amazing message with others, wonderful and astonishing gifts await us: crowns of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of despair. And we will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. This is a beautiful list of things that God can make happen in our lives. He can do that which we cannot! God's promise to us is that he is active and alive in our lives, making something lovely and new even out of our sadness and despair. What an encouragement that word is. God sees light when we see only dark. God sees hope when we see only despair. God sees beauty when all we can discern is ugliness. This notion is so beautiful it almost overwhelms me. What a promise this is for those of us who meet Christ, receive the spirit and are then blessed to share the good news: That God will do in our lives what we cannot do for ourselves and that God will turn our sorrow upside down and create goodness where only sadness has lurked. Now that's a promise and God has kept it! What a gift!
     Reading from Isaiah at Christmas reminds us that deeply embedded within the coming of the Christ are the gifts of comfort and release. This is what Jesus' entire mission was about...healing our broken hearts through the brokenness of his body, releasing us from our sins through the shedding of his blood. At Christmas, when we celebrate the tenderness of a new born babe, it's hard to get our hands around Christ's ultimate life purpose. And yet, the promises of God are centered on our salvation and our salvation is only made possible through the babe, who eventually gives up his life on a cross for the love of us.
Friends...promises kept is a wonderful way of looking at what unfolds at Christmas. God has kept his promise of giving a child who is the wonderful counselor, everlasting father, the prince of peace. Receive this gift. Revel in his joy. Embrace the spirit of the Lord that dwells deeply within you and pass this great news along to another who is need of hearing a word of hope, of counting on a promise that will not be broken.
     A devotional I followed throughout this Advent season made this observation: The promises of God are outrageous in what they offer to us. Salvation for all? The end of pain and sorrow? God living right here with us? Who could believe it?  People of faith believe. People of faith believe that Christmas is a season of outrageous hope and unfathomable joy. We believe this because our God is a God of outrageous faithfulness and unfathomable love.
I close today with a word from another prophet, the prophet Jeremiah who gives us this word of encouragement: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness."
And so he is. 
     Friends, God keeps his promises, so let us now keep ours as well. Let us be a people of hope who will be the ones who keep announcing the arrival of the Christ child, spreading the news of great joy, giving others the gifts that we receive, not only today, but every day, from our loving, faithful and promise keeping God.
Merry Christmas to you all. May you celebrate well the promise that is our through Emmanuel, the Christ-child, the God among us. Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Day 28: A Prayer for Christmas Eve

Loving and Gracious God,
Today we have gathered to celebrate Christ’s birth and it is with joy and thanksgiving that we have moved through the wondrous events that have led us here.  We come before you at this holy time, grateful for the arrival of Jesus Christ.  Out of the busyness of our worlds and out of the darkness of our lives, we have seen a great light. We feel humbled and awed that you came to us not with great signs and wonders but as a babe who became a humble carpenter.  You took on human form, not with the trappings of power and might, but among common, lowly people, simply seeking to follow your leading.  Lord, may we be inspired this Christmas to do the same.  May we set aside our desire for power and might and instead humbly seek to serve others, to give back, with joy, a portion of all that we’ve received from you. 
     Lord, at Christmas the gift of our salvation is renewed in our hearts and in our minds.  May we embrace your amazing gift of grace by honouring you with our whole lives and seeking to live out the message of Christmas in all that we do and say.  And when we fall short of being the people that you long for us to be, we thank you for your willingness to forgive us.  May we too share that spirit of forgiveness by offering another who has offended us that same gift of grace.
     Lord, at Christmas sometimes our worries and concerns come into greater focus and so on this day we ask that the peace that has been promised to us through Jesus Christ be especially real to those who feel particularly overwhelmed by life’s challenges.  For those who face financial worries, we ask that you would provide.  For those who are suffering from grief due the loss of loved ones, we ask that you would provide comfort.  For those who are mired in conflict, we ask that you would provide a pathway to resolution.  And for those who are sick, either with physical illness or emotional pain, Lord, we do ask that you would send your healing touch.  For those of us who are enjoying comfort and peace, may we be inspired to reach out to another who is suffering during this season.
     Lord, even in the midst of our joy, we are aware that our globe is mired with sadness and unrest.  We know that even today, in the midst of Christmas celebrations, wars are raging, people are sick and hungry, and there is great sadness in many lands.  We are more acutely aware of the people in our world who lack basic human needs and ask that somehow in the midst of their hardship, they might still feel the love that we know you have for the whole of humanity. God, we do ask that you redeem our world that all might enjoy the fullness life that you have promised us. We bring these concerns before you and ask that the peace of Christ, which is our hope at Christmas time, permeate these regions.  May the love of Christ which flows out of the Christmas event, make an impact in even the places of our world in which we think there is little hope.  We pray Lord Jesus that your light, the light of the world, be that which illuminates the darkness which dominates so many corners of our earth.
God, our hearts are full of joy and celebration.  May our lives be a reflection of that joy in the world around us which hungers so deeply for your love.  May we rejoice with the angels and the shepherds and acknowledge with them that unto us is born in Bethlehem, Christ our Savior.  This is indeed good news of a great joy which has come to all people.  Glory be to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and good will to all.  In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Day 27: Excitement

Our journey is almost over!  It is the evening before Christmas Eve!  When I finished my sermon for Sunday I felt excitement.  Yes, I was excited that the writing task for the week was behind me, but even more than that, I was excited that what I had written and what I will say on Sunday is really good news! In listening to some wonderful music today, Michael Card's The Promise and City on a Hill Christmas Collection, I was reminded through some lyrics as well that God is with us, he has sent his Son to bring peace and righteousness and salvation to a dark and broken world.  The message of Christmas is good news of great joy and we are on the brink of celebrating this reality in all its glorious fullness once again!  I am excited!  Excited for the services we'll share in on Saturday and Sunday.  Excited to have Doug's sister Beth and her husband Chuck with us.  Excited to enjoy time with close friends over the next couple of days.  Excited that our advent journey has delivered us to the stable, where the Son of God enters our world and abides with us.  I hope you are excited too.  Good news of great joy awaits us.  The journey through advent is almost complete.  But so much still awaits us!  I am anticipating it all with eager expectation and excitement!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Day 26: The Darkness Does Not Overcome

It seems inevitable that my blog would turn to Isaiah 9, verse 2: The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.  Today was the shortest day of the year and from henceforth we begin to gain light.  It makes my heart sing a little to know that we are now on the upward ascent to daylight.  Of course, for about 6 weeks there is not much noticeable difference.  The days will still be very short, with dark mornings and dusky middays and early sunsets, but the knowledge that the season of light awaits us certainly makes me hopeful that I will survive another nordic winter.
I am reminded that sometimes life is pretty dark and at times, we do wonder if we will keep descending further and further into the pit of despair, or if, like the seasons of the year, there will come a turning point when we feel ourselves ascending again.  This verse from Isaiah reminds us that as painful as life may be at times, the promise that we have received is that we will not walk in darkness for eternity.  No, even for those who have lived in great darkness, a light will shine.  This brings me hope.  It is what we hang onto when the waves of grief, sadness, depression, separation, isolation, loneliness, whatever it is that causes you darkness, threaten to overwhelm.  So be of good cheer even if you are surrounded by darkness this Christmas.  A light is shining in your dark corner of the world and will illuminate your pathway to brighter in the promise that was given so many years ago...we will see a great light and his name will be Jesus. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Day 25: Abiding Faithfulness

My parents are celebrating their 54th wedding anniversary today!  Amazing, abiding love and faithfulness is displayed through their relationship.  And what is even more amazing is that they aren't ready for their journey to be over.  They still want more time together, even after 54 years!  What a gift!  I am reminded that at Christmas we celebrate God's abiding presence among us.  Jesus Christ in a manger is God's sign of abiding faithfulness, a reminder that promises are kept, love endures.  I am grateful for the legacy of love and faithfulness that my parents have passed onto me.  In a small way, it is a reminder of God's faithfulness, love that does not end, promises that are not broken.  Isaiah foretold that that 'A Child is born to us, a son is given to us.  The government will rest on his shoulders and he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.'  And so it is that in the coming days we will celebrate the child that HAS been given and we will call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace because God kept his promise and faithfully sent his son Jesus to dwell among us.  May you enjoy the abiding presence and faithfulness of God that comes to us through the Christ child.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Day 24: On Being Clergy at Christmas

Sometimes it's not the easiest thing to be a pastor at Christmas.  It's busy.  It's a time of high expectations.  People sometimes go to church at Christmas but no other time of the year so you can feel pressure to make sure you have something really meaningful to say that might possibly spark their interest to stop back before another 365 days go by.  And I've always kind of wondered how the "one time a year folks" feel about hearing the same part of the Bible read and singing the same familiar songs all the time.  And truth be told, at times it's hard to find a "fresh" word for this time of year.  This is a story that has been told for over 2,000 years and countless books and commentaries and sermons have been written on the amazing and awe inspiring event of the birth of Christ.  At times I wonder what in the world I could possibly have to say that would be meaningful to those who come to our church at Christmas.  And this year there's a double whammy because Christmas eve is a Saturday and we have our regularly scheduled candlelight service which means that Christmas day is Sunday so we'll have our regularly scheduled Sunday worship service as well.  Two sermons, back to back, on the most familiar aspects of the Christian faith.  Yes, I'll admit to struggling a bit with my Christmas Day message.  (Doug has Christmas Eve and we've had a few "discussions" about who is using which texts, themes, illustrations, etc!)  But then as I sit here and ponder the days ahead, 3 full days til Christmas Eve to be exact, I realize that it's not really up to me to be dazzling because the fact that God came down from heaven above in the form of a baby, to be born into our world, to later grow up and bring us salvation is dazzling enough in and of itself.  People come to church at Christmas because they like the "same old story."  It's a story that does not grow old.  It's a story that does not wear out.  And it's God's story not mine.  When I think about it in those terms, then I just feel lucky that I get the privilege of telling the story once again.  And perhaps I'll tell it in some fresh ways, and perhaps I'l tell it in some ways that everyone has already heard but that doesn't really matter because what does matter is that the story gets told...over and over again.  So while there is some stress in being a pastor at Christmas, mostly it's actually pretty great because we get to be among those chosen to tell the story this weekend.  And people will come with eager anticipation to listen to what we have to say.  May the glory of God shine through whatever words we use to tell God's amazing story of how he sent his Son into this world to show us how much he truly loves us.  

Monday, December 19, 2011

Day 23: Our Focus Turns to the Child

We are in the week of Christmas!  THIS Saturday is Christmas Eve. THIS Sunday is Christmas.  Time to pull our focus towards the main event, the coming Christ child.  What genius it was on the part of God to send his son into the world as a child.  Children have a way of seeing the world and giving expression to their thoughts quite unlike adults.  Children are disarming, curious, and adorable when seeking to tell the story of Christmas.  
Our annual Children's Christmas program was yesterday.  
The kids were great as they always are.  
They learned their lines and learned the songs.  Some learned a dance and everyone enjoyed wearing their costumes.  

The premise of the play was cute.  Three kings, along with wives who like things that sparkle, spot the star in the east and the women want to get their hands on the bedazzling jewel in the sky.  Along the way the kings are tempted by Herod's army to pursue power and riches but an assortment of characters steer them in the right follow the star and find the real gem awaiting them...the Christ child.  Cute and funny.  A reminder of how important it is to allow this age old story to be told afresh through the eyes of a child.   This week, look for ways to see the world through the eyes of a child.  Perhaps you will discover afresh why God deemed it right to send his son into the world as a child.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Day 22: The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Today hope, peace, joy and love joined us in our worship service.  All four candles shining brightly, heralding the coming Christ child.  I love seeing all the candles lit.  I love the progression that we've been following, the first candle of advent now a small stub, but still bringing forth light, heartened by the other candles that shine brightly.  Now only the Christ candle remains unlit and soon that light will brighten up even the darkest of places.  May your journey this week be one of hope even if you are despairing.  May you find peace in the midst of your unrest.  May joy be yours even if gladness escapes you and may you know in real and tangible ways that the love of God is surrounding you, always seeking to draw near to you with each passing day.  Amen.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Day 21: O Christmas Tree

Oh, the Christmas tree.  A mixed tradition for me.  I love a beautiful tree but I am not the greatest at making a tree look fabulous.  We have a fake tree because neither one of us want to work at keeping a real one alive plus Tanner likes to chew on the branches of a real tree so our artificial one will do.  And, the tree sometimes reminds me of my childless state.  The tree is something the whole family should do together, right?  Isn't that the fantasy of Christmas?  Everyone grabs a hot drink and gushes over the memories that every ornament that is pulled from the box ignites.  Bah Humbug.  Doug will set up the tree and put on the lights but that's about it.  He is not nostalgic about the decorations and truth be told, we don't have many ornaments that are dear to us.  So, sometimes I don't even set the tree up. Our house is decorated and we have big trees that we keep white lights on year round so what's the big deal?  But this year with our sister and brother-in-law coming, well, we decided to put it up.  And while I was less than excited about getting it decorated with my less than exciting ornaments, a surprisingly wonderful thing happened whilst I was at my task.  I found an old collection of ornaments that I had had since college, a collection of Eskimos!  I had spent the summer of 1980 in Unalakleet, Alaska and the following Christmas got this ornament...from a couple of people!  Lo and behold for the next decade Hallmark, the company that made the ornament, ran a special Eskimo ornament every year and one of my parent's friends made sure that I got it...every year.  I have kept them all these years and sometimes I put them up, other times not.  But this year they were even made special because of the amazing video I saw on youtube of the kids in a small village in Alaska who made this amazing video of the Hallelujah Chorus.  If you have not seen it, click THIS LINK and watch it NOW.  Your heart will sing and your spirit will soar...which is the extraordinary thing that happened whilst I was puttering about our extra ordinary tree.  While I dug out these ornaments that are very old now, my heart was warmed.  And I realized that even without kids, I do have a treasure trove of memories that surround me, at Christmas and beyond.  To top it all off, I found this miniature authentic Alaskan Mukluk, the boots that are worn by the Eskimo people.  It was given to me by a woman from Unalakleet who was here in Sweden several years ago and celebrated Christmas with Immanuel.  It's a small world after all.  I lived on the shore of the Bering Sea for a summer a long, long time ago and I now make my home in a beautiful city on the shores of the Baltic Sea, and in between I have forged friendships that span the globe and seen worlds that I thought I would only read about.  And who would've thought that it could be an Eskimo who would comfort my heart today and bring joy to a task that is often laced with the pain of loss?  God still surprises me and I'm glad.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Day 20: White Elephants and Other Assorted Joy

Last night I hosted our annual book club white elephant gift exchange. Initiated years ago when we decided that we wanted to meet in December but not have the pressure of reading a book, it has become a fan favorite.  I have taken to making an attempt at writing a parody of the past year to the tune of a popular Christmas song and well, it's entertaining for me if no one else!  I don our famous Santa Suit as I read the missive each year.  This year's poem was set to 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and included references to many bizarre and wonderful things that took place over the past year in our group.  What fun it was for me to recount these monthly gatherings and savor the books we read.  For the record, our 2011 list included: Sarah's Key, Little Bee, Winter's Bones, Middlesex, Jane Eyre, Room, Stones from the River, and The Space Between Us.  A very good, albeit rather sad, year!  But, I digress.  The good part of the evening comes when we begin the gift exchange.  There's always one thing or another that gets a lot of attention and this year was no exception.  A rare and treasured Little House on the Prairie DVD made the rounds a few times along with a weird looking angel-like ornament.  My bowling and racing nuns were most avoided, having been recycled from a previous year!  I ended up with what I wanted but cannot reveal what it was because Doug might get it in his stocking this year!  There was a moment of tension when in the end, the last person to grab a gift pondered whether or not she would take my treasured acquisition.  She was kind and settled for the nuns, hoping for points in heaven!  
This evening exudes joy.  We laugh...hard.  And we joke...a lot.  And we remember that sometimes life is not as serious as the themes our books set forth.  But sometimes it is.  And when life is hard, we try to be there for one another.  I don't know what it is that brings out such silliness when we do a White Elephant gift exchange. (A white elephant, for those of you not in the know...are things in our house that we no longer want or use, usually of the outrageous quality and one wonders why we have them to begin with!  It is amazing what will appear at these gift exchanges!).  But these silly moments in our lives help us to break down barriers that open wide the doors when we are in real pain.  I guess this reminds me in small part why Christ came into the world as a draw us near, to help us feel OK about being in the presence of the almighty.  We can all cuddle a baby...but to stand before the Lord of the universe?  Well, that's harder.  As it is with friends, the moments we spend in laughter give us the courage to call during the moments of tears.  God's intention for us as humans is to be available to one another so that we never have to walk life's road alone.  That's why he came to us, as one of we'd know that our God is always with us.
At Christmas we are drawn afresh to the baby...the easily approachable God in a manger. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day 19: Converting

I have been baking a bit lately and many of the recipes I have from the US call for things like "a stick of butter" or a small package of cream cheese.  I find all of this frustrating when I no longer live in a country with standard insider measurements!  I have to figure out how much the American measure is referring to and then convert it to metric measurements.  I'm good with temperature (although I still double check oven temps), I get kilos and pounds (kilos are 2.2 pounds so you always sound lighter in kilos!), and I'm pretty good with liters and gallons.  But even after living here for 13 years, I find the ounces to grams and inches to centimeters the most difficult of all conversions.  I just cannot get a point of reference for those.  I have finally learned that 200 grams is almost 8 ounces so at least when something calls for a cup, I can get close!  None of it would've ever have been possible without using a metric conversion chart.  I just had no point of reference for understanding what 200 grams is.
It's funny to me how after all these years, metric still feels foreign.  It is really hard to deviate from something that is so ingrained in your mind.  It got me thinking about how hard converting is and why in other more significant areas of our lives we often need an outside force to bring about change in our lives...something that will help to establish new ways of being and doing.  I suppose our entire Advent journey is a slow road to conversion.  Daily we seek to turn towards Jesus, but without the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, we won't be able to keep turning in Christ's direction.  But that's in part why our Christian lives are a journey, not a one time event that we have and are then done.  Instead, it requires that we intentionally make decisions to walk away from ourself and turn towards God.  We can meet Christ in a moment, and our sins are forgiven through Christ's once and for all decisive act on the cross, but to really know Christ, well, we have to keep choosing to allow ourselves to be changed.  Is your advent journey creating conversion in your life?  What has changed for you?  What still needs to change?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Day 18: Cozy Traditions

Today we had our staff Christmas breakfast.  We all gather for a morning devotion followed by Julgröt...a rice porridge type of dish that I love.  Part of why I love it is because I don't make at home so when someone else makes it and serves it to me, it's a real treat.  The table is also filled with breads, cheese and ham.  The whole thing is finished off with pepparkakor and coffee, of course!  The chair of the church thanks us for a good year and we receive a nice gift from the church as well.  It's a cozy and pleasant way to end a busy autumn and advent season before many scatter for Christmas.  It's a lovely thing that the administration of our church does for the staff.  The effort, thoughtfulness and care given to gather us together, to pause in the midst of the crush of Christmas, and to give thanks to us for the year that has gone by is heartwarming and encouraging.  I feel thankful for being thanked today.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Day 17: Chasing Away the Darkness with Candles of Joy

December 13th, Lucia Day.  The oldest girl in the house, adorns her head with candles and goes room to room in the dark house, chasing the early morning shadows away and illuminating a new day for her loved ones.  She carries with her coffee and Lussekattar, saffron laced buns that many love and others hate.  It's a beautiful and charming tradition as we near the darkest time of the year...celebrations took place all over the city today and I wore my Lucia necklace in tribute to this special day.  The gleaming candlelight breaking through the dark morning is an encouragement and today several things helped chase my shadows away.
**A friend posted his wife's recipe for mint brownies on Facebook.  They sounded delicious and then I saw a key ingredient was peppermint extract...I commented that I was sad that I couldn't get that.  He came right back with, "How can we ship some of that to you?"  Wow...what thoughtfulness.
**Called our dear friends in Connecticut at 7.00 a.m. their time to sing the Lucia song in Swedish to them!  The church that we served together in Chicago did a big Lucia celebration every year and Doug and I did a funny Lucia skit when they moved on to another ministry. What a good morning savoring memories of a warm time in life with loved ones.
**While proofreading the slides for Sunday, realized afresh that this Sunday is going to be an awesome service!  Now we are close to the Christ event and my favorite tunes are coming into focus.  Love the music of this treasured season.
**Wrote a very silly poem for my book club's annual White Elephant gathering on Thursday.  What joy to re-trace some of our outrageous conversations and remember some of the treasured stories we read together throughout this past year.
**Sent my little wish list to my sister and brother in law who arrive from the US next Wednesday!  What joy to have some family in town this Christmas.  Hey, I guess I can add peppermint extract to my list!  Yeah!
The darkness is thick right now, but like Lucia's candles, there were moments of joy that illuminated my day.  I am thankful tonight for God's love that spreads through friends and family that are scattered across this globe but very near and dear to my heart tonight.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Day 16: Just for Today

We're more than half way through our Advent journey.  How are you doing? Some of the poinsettias in my home are drooping a bit and maybe I am too.   Fatigue is setting in.  The excitement and wonder of the season is wearing off just a bit.  The dazzling light isn't quite as dazzling today.  One more Sunday in Advent, then Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship celebrations this year with the high holy days falling on the weekend.  Will I have the energy and creativity to produce another good sermon?  Will I have the energy and excitement to host three more holiday gatherings?  Can I overcome some of the stress of daily life in order to find the quiet spot in each day where I savor the devotional reading that I'm seeking to accomplish each day during this journey?  Do I have enough ideas in me to keep writing this blog every day?
I don't know if I have two more weeks of this in me, but I do know that I have another day and that's all that really matters.  Just for today, I can find time to read, write, and savor the moment.  Just for today, I can appreciate the wonder of the Christ child's coming into our world once again.  
When we pray the Lord's prayer, we ask that God give us THIS day our daily bread and He does.  We can feel nervous if we want more than what we need just for today, but that's our problem not God's.  So just for today, find a moment, and it may be just a moment, to consider that in the midst of all that you are doing, God is busy readying the world for the celebration of the birth of his Son once again.  Just for today, know that our journey is not in vain, for as we wait for Christmas to be upon us, God is waiting to shower us with his love.  So even if the holiday lights are no longer dazzling, the light that is Christ is beckoning us to take just one more step in our advent journey.  I have another step in me.  How 'bout you?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Day 15: A Prayer for the 3rd of Advent

Our loving and gracious God,
We can think of no greater gift than the love that you show us through the birth of your son Jesus Christ and this brings us incredible joy. We are thankful that our advent journey is bringing us closer and closer to the day when we will celebrate anew the birth of Christ and we continue to wait with eager anticipation the joy that this occasion will bring us. Lord, we know that the joy that comes from knowing you is much deeper than a passing happiness. There are many things in our world that create fear, anger, sadness, and concern but even in the midst of these difficult and troubling times we look to the redemption that is ours through Christ and long for the whole world to know this.
Lord, we live in a world that is marked by conflict, war, racism, prejudicial attitudes, disease, and poverty. And so dear God, we pray for Congo as they seek a peaceful way ahead after a contentious election and ask that peaceful measures can be taken for justice and democracy to prevail. Protect the innocent people who get caught in the crossfire of political maneuvering and may the emergent leaders have a vision for providing a safe, peaceful place for the people to live. Lord, we pray for Russia and the city of Moscow, also caught up in election turmoil and again, ask for peaceful solutions and productive outcomes from these demonstrations. Lord, we pray for all nations seeking to hold peaceful and fair elections, that violent outbreaks will be avoided, that fair and good leaders might be elected to lead these nations to a better future.
Lord, we know that here in our own city the foment of hatred and prejudice against the immigrant community was alive yesterday and we pray dear God that through your love, we can help all people see the value and worth of each human being, that all might come to embrace the reality that we have been created to live in peace with one another, to care for one another, to treat one another with respect and dignity rather than tear one another down. Lord, our spirits are weary and troubled by these issues that seem to continually plague our world and we wonder in the midst of the conflict if any truly lasting, healthy solution can come. And yet, we continue to cry out to you to intervene...we ask that you work in each of our lives that we might be agents of change, a presence of love, compassion and tolerance, that through us, your chosen ones, we can represent Christ well in our places of work, in our schools, in our city.
Lord, in light of these realities, joy seems a bit far off. And yet we are reminded once again that our joy comes not from anything the world brings, but instead, comes from your steady, faithful presence in our lives. Our joy comes from knowing Jesus, whose love is incomprehensible yet fully available, whose death and resurrection brings salvation from our darkness and ushers us into a life that is filled with light and hope. Lord, may our joy be rooted in who you are, a God who cares deeply for his creation. May we not lose hope but instead be empowered to give witness to the joy that is ours even in the face of difficult circumstances.
Lord, we continue to ask that you Come, Come Lord Jesus, Come into our world, Come into our lives, Come into every heart bringing comfort, peace, joy and hope. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Day 14: Sushi and Sundaes

Last night we hosted the Christmas party for our 12-14 year old youth group.  We have not spent much time with this group so we were happy for the chance to connect more personally with them.  We were unsure how many would come but in the end, we had a very good group.  When the kids first arrived, they were a bit quiet, keeping to themselves, politely taking one potato chip at a time, not wanting to be appear overly interested in much of anything!  But we got things started by having them create a living Christmas tree...each group was given a bag full of ribbon, bows, wrapping paper, colored paper, ornaments, tape and scissors and had about 20 minutes to create a tree.  The only rule was that a person had to be the trunk!  We split them into boys and girls, sent one of the male leaders with the girls and off they went.  It didn't take long to begin hearing laughter throughout our house.  In the end, one tree looked like a tree and the other one was an abstract interpretation!  To get them even further mixed, we played this silly mixer whereby you simply make statements and if it applies to you, you move a designated number of seats in the direction the leader tells you to...if the seat is empty, you sit on the seat.  If someone is in the seat, you sit on them, etc.  Silly mixers like this get the kids more and more comfortable with one another and you learn a bit about them along the way as you listen to how they respond to the statements.  By this time they were inhaling the food that was set out on the tables! Handfuls of potato chips and popcorn were disappearing by the minute, homemade chocolate chip cookies didn't last, and they devoured every last pepparkakor cookie as well!  Once we ended the mixer, we pulled out the ice cream and had them make their own sundaes.  At this point, two of the kids said that their mom had sent some treats along.  One had cookie bars, the other kid, a boy from South Korean, pulled out a huge container of homemade sushi!  It too disappeared!  What a sight to see these kids eating their ice cream piled high with sauces, sprinkles and whipped cream with a side of sushi to go along with it!  The whole scene just reminded me of how unique and special our setting is, where we get to see the cultures of the world come together in our little corner of the world.
We ended the evening with Christmas pictionary and again, the kids did great.  One team was called The Elves, the other, Team Sushi!  Team Sushi prevailed I'm sure inspired by the delicious Asian treat we all enjoyed thanks to E-Joon's mom!
We ended the night with a short talk about how we want them to feel at home in our home and in our church.  We reminded them that in the midst of all the Christmas happenings, it's God's love that remains the central point.  Isn't that mostly what kids, and well adults, need to hear...that they are loved unconditionally...there is a place for them in this world where they will be valued, cared for and loved?  As they know this in a concrete way through our church, our hope is that they will experience it in a spiritual way by meeting Christ.
Doug and I both have backgrounds in youth ministry, and we have fond, beautiful memories of the years spent pouring into kids lives.  We are grateful for our youth pastor and the team of volunteer leaders who give so generously of their time to our youth.  While I don't want to do youth ministry full time anymore, I have to say, it was a real pleasure to connect with these kids last night.  I think it is a big mistake for pastors in churches to separate themselves from the youth and children's ministry entirely.  Kids need to know their pastors and be able to connect with them on some level...their level. From my perspective, if you throw a lot of food a kids, open your home, relax and be a bit silly with them, you open doors for them to connect with your church in a much more significant way.  Plus, it's fun for us oldtimers to be with the kids once in awhile!
Everything we did was old school youth ministry.  No bells, no whistles, no technology...just loads of food and pathways to creating connections, friendships, and a sense of belonging.  My prayer is that these kids will know how deeply they are loved.