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Monday, November 30, 2015

A Little Christmas

On Thanksgiving evening, after our yummy pub lunch and lovely nap, we headed down to Leicester Square to take in a show. The square had been transformed into a winter holiday park complete with a large ferris wheel and other mini-carnival rides. Little booths were set up with food and games and it was our first real encounter with the unfolding Christmas scene in London. While very different than the markets in Stockholm, it was fun to see people enjoying all that was on offer. Decorative lights had begun to adorn the streets as well.
On Saturday, we were joined by a fantastic group of volunteers to get the church decorated for Christmas and ready for Advent. The crew was fantastic and in the end the church looked truly beautiful. 
Sunday we celebrated the first of Advent. We continued our tradition from Stockholm of having a family light the candle along with a small explanation and it was great to begin our journey to Christmas in this way. There were definitely some longings for our traditions in Sweden. This is our first Christmas away from Stockholm so that isn't all together surprising. It's nice to be sharing the season with our current congregation but of course, those long standing traditions linger in our hearts.
Sunday evening, after a full and wonderful day celebrating the First of Advent at church, we took a little stroll up to Hampstead, about a 20 minute walk from our house where I had heard a Christmas market was taking place. There were loads of people on the street and booth after booth of goods on offer! Another ferris wheel was the centerpiece along with mini-carnival rides and a fun house! I guess these carnival rides are an essential aspect of what constitutes an English Christmas market. 
The mood was festive even if the local band were playing ABBA hits as opposed to Christmas carols. Admittedly, it is hard to listen to ABBA and stay in a bad mood so perhaps it was appropriate even if not seasonally correct. A cute German booth had mulled wine and bratwurst and the booth with the real, live reindeer was a real hit. Made me realize how common these quaint nordic Christmas scenes had become in my mind's eye after 17 Christmases in Sweden! But for the little British children, seeing a real live reindeer was quite a treat. I felt for the poor animal. It could not have been much fun for him given the noise and crowded conditions. We wandered up the street, taking in the festivities. I was amazed how many people were there! But it was fun seeing people enjoying the festivities and so nice for us to just be able to wander up there in the evening. I was impressed by the butcher shop and these huge cuts of beef but at £28.95 per kilo, we won't be tasting any soon! I also couldn't resist this basket given the name of the cheese!
I don't have any of my Christmas decorations with me here in London but felt the need to have a little something around so we spent today cozying up our place.I do love having this great fireplace mantle. I've always wanted a mantle and never had one in Stockholm. I love the garland and with the candles burning below, it's really quite lovely. Hanging lights in the front window along with a couple of wreaths has really helped too! And isn't that tiny fiber-optic tree just fetching?!
So Christmas is popping out all over London now! There are loads of things to look at, great activities to consider, and lights all over the place! It really does help to brighten up the landscape and propels us into the Christmas spirit.
We'll miss some of the traditions that meant so much to us in Sweden, but we are also excited to share new ones with our new church family and to savor the joy of being in London for the holidays. 

Thanksgiving in London

The past two weeks have been a blur of activity. We've shared in many new and exciting experiences for which I will always be grateful. The Sunday before Thanksgiving, our church traditionally hosts a Thanksgiving potluck lunch after church. I spearheaded the event alongside of a wonderful and dedicated group of volunteers who spent Saturday and Sunday making this a wonderful occasion. On Saturday, we cooked turkeys and hams, made potatoes, chopped vegetables for stuffing, decorated tables and all in all had a great time preparing for the Sunday feast. And a feast it was! Loads of food, great fellowship and a good time was had by all. Because I had cooked one of the 18 pound turkeys on Friday night, I had decided that we would have a mini-Thanksgiving feast that night instead of the following Thursday! It was delicious and I was super pleased with how good my gravy turned out! After eating turkey and all the fixings on Sunday as well, I felt well sated with Thanksgiving food!
So when Thanksgiving day rolled around, I had decided not to cook, especially because the real highlight of Thanksgiving day this year was participating in the worship service that the American community hosts at St. Paul's cathedral.
Before the service...
 This is an annual event that highlights a wonderful partnership between the US and the UK.
Photo: Graham Lacdao, St. Paul's
St. Paul's is such an iconic London place and the beauty that Christopher Wren created is a joy to experience.
Photo Credit: Graham Lacdao, St. Paul's
Doug and I had minor roles in the service with me reading a piece of scripture and Doug sharing about the charity that the offering would support, London churches refugee fund. But to participate in the processional, to have a place on the podium, to be front and center for this grand tradition was indeed a thrill.
Photo: Graham Lacdao, St. Paul's
The current Ambassador in London, Matthew Barzun, was the ambassador in Stockholm for some of the years that we were there so it was fun to connect with him again. 
Perhaps you did not know that St. Paul's has an American chapel that commemorates the deaths of Americans who gave their lives in WWII. This is part of the deep partnership that St. Paul's has shared with the American community through the years. 
We had a good friend in town for the week. He's an International pastor in the Methodist church in Vienna, Austria, so after the service we ventured up to the local pub for our Thanksgiving dinner! We enjoyed beef pies and sticky toffee pudding. It was a great way to relax and enjoy a day dedicated to being thankful. A long nap ensued after we stuffed ourselves.
Thanksgiving was really different this year and in some ways I was glad it was totally different than it had been in year's past. It was often important to make the meal on Thanksgiving day and fill our table with guests but this year, celebrating with our church family and enjoying the worship at St. Paul's was great. I am thankful for this opportunity and will treasure it always.

Friday, November 20, 2015

London Life 4

Most of the time, living in London is much like living anywhere else. We sleep, we grocery shop, we clean the house, we do laundry, we tend to the dog, we make food, we go to work, and we watch TV. The "grind" is similar to most people's, well, daily grind. But living in London also means that we have a wealth of world class entertainment options at our finger tips. Our church is literally 2 tube stops from Leicester Square, where when you pop up from the underground you find yourself in the heart of the west end, surrounded by theaters and shops and lights and full on excitement. And most importantly, the half price ticket booth for west end shows! So yesterday afternoon Doug called me and said, "Hey, there's a show on that's offering tickets for £10 at Leicester. Why don't you go down and see if we can grab a couple." So off I went. And it was such fun to be in the midst of the what makes London, London! And our whole evening served as a reminder to break from the grind and remember to take advantage of this incredible city that we are privileged to enjoy right now. It takes effort and money but it's worth it every time.
So, there were indeed £10 tickets available for Close to You, which was billed as Burt Bacharach re-imagined. Now Bacharach is one of those amazing musicians who has written so many songs you forget what a deep impact he has had on the music scene. And remarkably, so many of the songs are songs that people of a certain era (yes, us) happen to know all of the words to! So while we knew little about this show, we figured for £10 it had to be worth our while!
So, I had some time to kill before Doug joined me so I popped into a restaurant and had a nice glass of wine whilst talking to the young bartender. She was very sweet and told me that I was a nice person before I left. Warmed my heart. Doug showed up and we needed food. We happened upon Jamie Oliver's Diner, which seemed promising but was just OK. It was easy to get a table and not noisy but a bit overpriced (as many things are in London) for just average food. 
I chose the chicken in a basket. It was just OK
Still, it was nice to share a meal together in a new place. 
We still had a bit of time to kill so we ventured into the M&M's store! 4 levels of M&M marketing genius. On a Thursday night in November this place was buzzing. Crazy. Many cute M&M road...with the candies re-creating their own version of Abbey Road! The way you got candy was to take a baggie and dispense from these giant holders. The price is by the gram so it's very hard to know what you are talking about. In honor of France, we tried to layer blue, white, red peanut M&M's to enjoy during the show! 
The most expensive bag of M&M's ever...were they gold-plated?
We almost had a heart attack when we checked out and this tiny bag of average candy was £6! Good thing our theater tickets were only £10! 
It was then show time! Now, our tickets were so cheap because they had a "restricted view". Turns out the view was barely restricted and we scored a great seat without paying a premium price. 
That tiny little pole reduced our ticket price by a ton
Plus, the row we were in and the row behind us were empty so we could spread out and lounge throughout the show!
The show was fantastic! A group of very talented young musicians wove a seamless montage of Bacharach songs together with clever staging and simple choreography. Many of the songs had been re-arranged but it was such a delight to hear the familiar lyrics and recognize the under tones of the original song. Some of it was simply beautiful and moving. It was quite romantic and a real joy to share this with Doug. Every relationship needs to be transported to another place once in awhile!
The set was quite cool, with guitars and couches and ladders and other items all set on the back wall. The way they used a variety of lamps on the stage for lighting and special effects was particularly clever. The lead guitarist and singer was a hugely talented musician and his guitar playing was mesmerizing at times. All in all, it was just pure fun and heart-warming entertainment.
The show ended with the cast coming together with ukeleles and leading a sweet sing-along version of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. It was somewhat amazing that I knew every word, along with everyone else in the theater. When was the last time I'd heard that song? It reminded me that raindrops are no cause for a bad mood, which is a very good thing to remember here in London. I would absolutely recommend this experience to anyone able to take advantage of it. This show is not on the big scale of Wicked or Lion King but for a great night of beautiful music, you can't really beat the price. That's also part of the fun of living here...we have the time to venture into some of these "second tier" shows and be pleasantly surprised by what unfolds.
The show ended, we jumped on the tube and were home a half hour later. Lucky us. We just have to remember to step away from the grind now and again and step into the amazing world that is London.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Love and Friendship

There are no words for the fantastic weekend I had in Chicago. I stayed with a best friend from University days, a friend with whom we have shared joy and sorrow along life's road. We laughed, we shared, we took a long walk around a beautiful lake near their house, taking in the fresh air and the autumn color. We ate good food at a restaurant that didn't allow guns while being waited upon by one of her beautiful daughters. I went to her church and watched her play the keyboard. It's a friendship that has endured and we laugh about living together in California in our old age.
I connected with old family friends, people who were important to me because they were such close friends of my parents. I had a longing to connect with these relationships who knew me when I was little...people with whom I have a treasured past. Folks who have helped shaped and formed me into the person I am today. One woman was the Maid of Honor at my parent's wedding. She was also my speech professor in college and I owe her a debt of gratitude for the preacher I am today. Another couple are the ones my parents bought their first house from in CA. How we laughed together when our families got together. The joy of these relationships that date well over 50 years is profound and moving.
I had coffee with a woman I first met in Stockholm and spent an hour with my roommate from seminary. I had not seen Wendy in years so it was fun to have a brief albeit meaningful catch up. I shared an afternoon with a couple whose kids were in my first youth group when I was an intern. I talked them into shepherding a group of students on a mission trip one summer and we put the final nail in our friendship forever box on that crazy and memorable trip. I spent some heartfelt time with a friend I worked with when I was an intern who also lost her parents just 11 months apart, a year after I had lost mine. We shared the joy of memories and the sorrow of loss. And as has become a bit of a tradition when possible, I ate Lou Malnati's pizza at the home of our former neighbors in Northbrook. We loved living next door to this sweet family and the memories of those years are rich with joy.
But clearly, the centerpiece of the weekend were the two weddings I was privileged to attend. The first was of a woman I had worked with when I was chaplain at NPU. We spent every Monday morning carefully debriefing our weekends, laughing our heads off, commiserating over students, and just generally having a fantastic time in the office together. She had waited a long time to find the man of her dreams and I do believe that she has done so now in Alex. Their wedding was in a Greek Orthodox church and it was fascinating and beautiful. Elizabeth was so happy! It was such a joy to see her radiate. Other former colleagues attended the wedding so it gave us a chance to have a much appreciated catch up with one another.
Wedding #2 was of a man who was a student when I first met him. He was a freshman in my first year of being chaplain and we hit it off right away. He was a key student leader for me in campus ministry, so much so that when he graduated I hired him to assist me in campus ministry. I left for Sweden and he stayed on at NPU for 10 more years! Through the years we've had an abiding connection even though we don't communicate often. Paul is a man of few words. But when he met Rhianna he shared some things with me that made me think that this really was the one for him. Paul had flown out to CA for my mom's funeral, and that was such a meaningful gesture that I always felt that if he got married, I wanted to figure out a way to be there. I was not disappointed to have made the effort. To see him so happy and content, to meet Rhianna and just know in the depths of my heart that they are a great match has been a great blessing for me. Their wedding was held in a unique restaurant downtown that actually has an area fashioned to look like a church. The reception was great fun as my table included the other "boys" (and their wives) from Paul's college posse with whom I have also stayed quite close. It is a deep and satisfying blessing for me that these students of old remain interested in keeping in touch with their now very old chaplain. We have shared much joy and sorrow together and I feel so proud when I see them all happily married, with a pile of children around them, engaged in responsible, successful careers, 3 of them in ministry, all of them church leaders. It really is a gift of inexpressible joy. Icing on the cake was seeing Paul's parents who have been a source of encouragement and leadership for me and Doug. They are among the most remarkable folks in the world and it was great to share this special time with them as well.
The days in the desert have been good too. I met up with a couple who have recently moved here who we first met in Europe. He was the pastor of the International church in Zurich and we've shared many a good moment together. Their stuff hadn't arrived so we enjoyed a glass of wine and some snacks using a coffee pot box for our table. They showed me around their cool place and we look forward to hanging with them in the palatial tv room of their club when we return.  Hanging with my cousins, eating good food, taking care of house business, doing a little shopping caused the time to fly by. Now it's time to fly back across the pond where I am ready to rejoin Doug and Dog.
There are so many ways my life is a blessing but for sure, these deep and abiding friendships provide the sustenance of life and I'm deeply grateful for the abiding heartfelt connection I feel with these loved ones even when the years and geography have separated us. Thank you God for the love you have shown me through these dear folks.