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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Highlights of Week 1 and 2

We've been in the US almost 2 weeks now and I'm beginning to feel like we're really on vacation. The first week was spent with Doug's family and it was a good time seeing everyone. Highlights included the surprise party we threw for Doug and his best friend John as they anticipate turning 50, Doug in February, John in March. The boys were totally surprised and it was great fun welcoming old friends and family to the gathering. I gave Doug his gift, which is a trip to the Masters golf tournament in April and all in all, the surprises of the night yielded great joy all around! The low light of being in MN was when the Minnesota Vikings American Football team totally gave away their opportunity to get to the Super Bowl, one of the biggest games in sport. Even though they made numerous mistakes throughout the game, with just seconds to go in regulation, they were still poised to win. A penalty and a bad pass led to their demise and there was much anguish from Minnesota sport's fans worldwide. That would've been the perfect ending to a good week in MN but it was not to be. We enjoyed shopping amidst the ridiculous selection and low prices of American retail, felt a bit of reverse culture shock and had a good time with Doug's family.
The next week took us to Denver, Colorado for a pastors conference sponsored by our denomination, The Evangelical Covenant Church of America. Downtown Denver is a wonderful spot with a pedestrian mall that sports great restaurants and shopping establishments. It was fun to stroll up and down to get a little air and enjoy the atmosphere of a city with a wide variety of people who live there. You could tell that Denver draws a fairly bohemian crowd and sports an anything goes attitude. As charming as this was, the signs of poverty and hardship were evidenced by the homeless dotting the street and the many folks who were digging in garbage cans in order to find something to eat. The conference itself was awesome. Meeting up with old friends and having the chance to be theologically challenged is a winning combination. Two of the speakers, John and Nancy Ortberg, were as good as I've heard in recent years and I really enjoyed my workshop on being an emotionally healthy leader. All in all it was a refreshing and fun experience that has renewed my spirit. Two of my closest friends were present at this conference and we shared deeply on the transparent level that we've enjoyed for years. One woman was our intern in Stockholm for a year and the other is the wife of the pastor that Doug served with in Chicago before our move to Stockholm so the shared history that I enjoy with these women is invaluable. Also present was a young woman from our church in Stockholm who is now living in Chicago going to seminary. It was fun to be with her in our home country and to hear about her on-going journey towards becoming a minister. It is fun to be with people who know your past and your present.
Now we're in Palm Springs, California and if I'm totally honest with myself, I have to admit that I love this place more than any other place in the world. It is just beautiful here and I love the climate and the culture. My full indulgence in this place will have to wait a week as we depart on a 7 cruise of the Mexican Riviera today! I'm hoping for bright, warm sunshine, but Mr. Rain is scheduled to make an appearance now and again. Let's hope he decides to go elsewhere.
I don't think I've fully grasped yet that we are really on vacation for another 5 weeks! When I speak of returning to Sweden on March 10, and today is only January 30 it is a bit mind-blowing. Still...I'm beginning to relax and allow the concerns of work drift away. I feel very thankful for this chance to renew myself professionally and personally and look forward to a week of adventures on the Pacific Ocean.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sabbath, Sabbatical, and Semester

Doug and I are about to embark on a journey of a different kind. Yes, it involves traveling, but more importantly, it involves rest. For the first time ever, we are going to take a mini-sabbatical, 7.5 weeks of time away from church. It will sabbath, in the best sense of the word. We need rest and by taking so many weeks in a row, we will actually have time to rest and relax and find out what it means to really leave the pressures of life behind. It will be sabbatical in the sense that we are seeking renewal through changing our rhythm and pattern of life for a significant amount of time. We will not be studying during this time or seek to accomplish something in the form of a book or a paper. But we look forward to the renewal that will be ours as we spend time together as only a married couple and not as colleagues. It will be semester...the Swedish word for vacation. Sweden is a generous country when it comes to time off and we finally realized that we are fools to not take advantage of this opportunity to be away, on paid vacation, for an extended period of time. Amazingly, every person from church has responded with tremendous enthusiasm and joy for us. They express how they will miss us, and yet, affirm how wonderful it will be for us to have this time away.
We knew that we wanted to provide for our church even in our absence and as we considered the kind of support that our associate pastor might need during this time, we began to think about a retired pastor and spouse who might like the chance to live in downtown Stockholm and lend a hand with the ministry, on a voluntary basis. We could offer flights over and our house but little else. We are happy to report that we welcomed Steve and Janet Armfield to Sweden today and they are now sleeping happily in our extra bedroom after a jet-lagged first day here. Steve just retired from active ministry in August. He planted a church and the spent 30 years with them. What a great servant and leader! His wife Janet is a wonderfully creative artist and they both offer warm gifts of hospitality. Their daughter was our intern 10 years ago and when their names came across our radar, it seemed perfect. We are excited for the church to come to know these folks and excited for them to get to know our church. It is such a great community and we have such a love for them that we feel very blessed to see how this has unfolded.
So, what, you may be asking, are we going to be doing on our sabbath, sabbatical, semester? A bit of everything. We will spend time visiting family in both Minneapolis, Minnesota and Palm Springs, California and catch Doug's folks again in their winter place in Pensacola, Florida. We will do some fun stuff, in sunny spots along the way. We will drive the coast of California and take in the unique beauty of my home state, spending significant time in San Francisco and Napa Valley. We will enjoy being away and being with one another. We will celebrate a significant birthday for Douglas while in San Francisco and I look forward to exploring this beautiful area with my beloved husband.
With only two more days before our January 18 departure I am exhausted and excited. I have a women's brunch at church tomorrow and the services on Sunday. Hopefully the Vikings will beat the Cowboys on Sunday night and we leave for MN on Monday at 9.00 a.m.
As the reality of our break has set in, I have realized what a gift this season will be for us. I feel a bit uncertain about how it will feel as the weeks go by and I wonder what changes it might create within me, but I am certain that it will fruitful and that we will enjoy it all. My only sadness at this point is that Tanner is staying behind. He's staying with the family that always cares for him and who love him dearly and that brings great comfort, but still...almost 8 weeks without our boy...feels a bit sad.
We will miss our congregation and the rhythm of church life here. We will miss our friends and our life here, but I know that new things await us, new discoveries, new experiences, new thoughts, new feelings and that feels very renewing indeed.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Epiphany

Today, January 6, is Epiphany, one of those weird church related holidays that Sweden has a day off to celebrate. Trouble is, hardly anyone knows what the day is about. In some traditions, it commemorates the visitation of the Magi to the Christ-child and is actually a big celebration. In my tradition, when Epiphany is celebrated, (usually the Sunday prior to the 6th), it is focused on the light of Christ that now continues among us throughout the year. The word itself means to show or to reveal and thus also reaffirms the revelation of Jesus through his incarnation. In my own memory, Epiphany is associated with light, revelation and the Magi.
In Sweden, it is called Trettondag, the 13th day as the 12 days of Christmas ended yesterday. Shakespeare's play, the Twelfth Night is set on Epiphany eve. Many Swedes will begin taking down their Christmas decorations after today but many will wait until tjugondag knut, the 13th of January to "dance Christmas away." Tradition here is to toss your dry and brittle Christmas tree out the window of your home and some how the trees all get picked up somewhere along the way. I could never wait until January 13th to take down my Christmas decorations. I had them down before new year this year. To be fair, most Swedes don't put their tree up until just before Christmas eve while I had the whole house decorated by first of Advent. But the main thing about Trettondag here is this bonus holiday that falls after the new year has been rung in.
Swedes are notorious for stretching their holidays. For some reason, the eve of a holiday has great importance here, as well as the day after. I suppose you need a day to prepare, a day to celebrate and a day to recover. Still, it gets a bit ridiculous and one wonders how any thing gets done during certain times of the year.
Take this year for example. We were given a half day before Christmas eve (so many just take a whole day), Christmas eve, Christmas day and the day after Christmas as holidays. Then we were given New Year's Eve and New Year's Day as holidays and a half day on January 5th (to prepare for trettondag) and a whole day today. So since Tuesday was a half day, most took Monday as a holiday, stretched the half given day into a whole given day and enjoyed today as well. Tomorrow really marks the return of Sweden to the work force but some will take 2 extra vacation days and return on Monday. All in all, if you took 7 vacation days, you could've had 3 weeks off from December 21-January 6. Not bad. And since we get like 35 days off in a year, taking 7 is not a big deal because you will still have 28 more days to enjoy throughout the rest of year and that does not include other holidays, half days and "squeeze" days...when, for example, the holiday is a Thursday, they just throw in Friday as well. It's really remarkable.
Now of course, since we are clergy and had a full schedule of activities over the holidays, we didn't take the traditional days off, but I can say, that not logging very many hours in the office over the past two weeks has been wonderful. I feel like I can face the new year with good energy and excitement and that feels great. Of course, the fact that we are going on an 8 week vacation that starts on January 18 certainly makes a difference as well! More on that later. For now, I'm going to enjoy the rest of my trettondag holiday and get ready for the 2 day work week that remains. Although to be fair, I have to write a sermon and be ready to preach on Sunday so it's likely that I'll work a bit on Saturday as well. Don't you feel sorry for me?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Sermon for a New Year

I wrote this sermon for the Sunday before the New Year dawned.
The text was Revelation 21: 1-5.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.”

And here is the message. I wrote it as much for me as anyone. I believe in God's ability to make all things new and look forward to what He wants to renew in me in the coming year.

It is likely that most gathered here today are in the possession of something new. Maybe it’s a new book, or a new article of clothing. Perhaps it’s a new game or a new piece of cookware for your kitchen. Whatever it is, I hope you are enjoying the new addition to your life.

It’s great to get new things. It’s nice to wear clothes that still look fresh and crisp, shoes that are shiny and un-scuffed. It’s fun to try your hand at a new game, hoping to master it with enough hours of practice. New things are special. They bring us a different kind of joy and satisfaction than the old and familiar. But the newness doesn’t last forever. And new things don’t erase old things. New things do not magically make the old things disappear and sadly, sometimes we run to new things in order to avoid dealing with the old things.

As is often the case with Christmas, the excitement and anticipation and joy of giving and receiving new things often gives way to old worries and concerns. Even spiritually, the fervor with which we welcomed the new born baby Jesus once again often dims in the light of the reality of our lives. We want hope and peace and love and joy to be reflected in our daily lives and yet…when we stop to consider our the reality of our situations, perhaps we find that discouragement and unrest, hatred and sadness play a larger part in our day to day existence than do the gifts that we so longed for throughout advent.

And while so much of our attention has been wrapped up in our Christmas celebrations, perhaps we are now realizing that we are also on the brink of a new year dawning. For some of you, you are happy to see 2009 fall into the category of history. It’s been a hard year with many unforeseen and difficult roads to walk. You have set your sights on the New Year and yet, perhaps you feel a bit nervous about whether or not your hopes and dreams for the New Year will unfold into reality. Maybe others of you feel a great sense of satisfaction in the year that has gone by and wonder with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety about the year ahead. What will the New Year bring? One thing is for certain…whether you are looking forward to a new year or not, none of us can predict what new things we will each face in the coming year. What will the New Year bring? Isn’t that the question that perhaps lurks in the back of all of all our minds?

It is true…that while the New year is filled with possibility it is also full of uncertainty and that is why we need the assurance of God’s willingness to meet us wherever we are, helping us to face any new thing that comes our way in order to welcome the different realities that 2010 will bring into each of our lives.

That is why I believe that during this time when we are on the brink of yet another new year, it is a good and proper time to affirm that God longs to make all things new. Everything that God is about is intended to usher us into a new way of life. He brought his son Jesus into this world so that we might know the unconditional love of a savior. He sent that same son to the cross that we might experience unmerited yet unending grace. He gives us his Holy Spirit that we might always know that we are never alone. God’s intention for us as his children is to show us a whole new way of life that allows us to face each day with joy and hope in spite of the deep sorrows, painful disappointment, and stark loneliness that eventually invade all of our lives at one time or another. God’s intention for our lives is to wipe away the tears and the disappointments of our old way of life and usher us into a new reality where his love and grace are made manifest in the most obvious ways.

The text from Revelation that we read earlier is such an important text for us. It’s a text that points to renewal and how God longs to be in right relationship with his people and give us hope that we can indeed overcome all of the difficult circumstances that life brings.

The first encouragement that this text reveals to us is that we will be renewed. Have you ever been in a situation where you’d like to have “do over?” I used to play a lot of volleyball and the symbol for replay in volleyball is this: two thumbs up. There were times when it was a welcome gesture by the referee. A chance to do it again. Have you ever been playing a game on a computer and decided that you just didn’t like the way things were unfolding, so you just turned it off? The ultimate replay button is the on/off on a computer game! Doug doesn’t like it much when I do this in the middle of a game we’re playing, but sometimes he’s beating me too badly and I can’t bear to finish! I need a do over. If only we could signal with our thumbs or push the on/off button in life. Fight with your spouse or kids: Replay please. Finances gone bad: Replay please. Untimely death: Replay. Unhappy at work: Replay. Wouldn’t that be great if could control life in that way? Well, of course, the reality is, that we cannot simply press a button and get a do over and yet here in God’s word, we are assured that we will get another chance…God is in the business of renewal…taking the old tired way of life and making it new. Maybe you can’t conjure up an instant replay when life deals you a bad hand, but you can turn to God and know that you will find redemption and restoration. That’s what’s God’s grace is all about…reaching for us when we are at our lowest, and giving us a do over. God deeply desires us to know that in him we can find redemption from mistakes and hurts. We don’t have to simply live with them forever in an unhealed, unredeemed state. No, he wants us to know the renewal that awaits us if we will give our lives over to him, confess our sin and failings and live into the light of his Son Jesus Christ. The first thing that God is seeking to communicate to us through this text is that when we step into a life that has him at the center, we are saying good-bye to our old way of life. That may be very hard to do in many cases, but he promises to renew us…to wash the old away and welcome in the new. Can you trust him enough to do a new work in your life by allowing him to get rid of some of your old habits and ways of life and instead usher in a new reality where you will live at peace with Him?

The second thing that God is promising us through this text is that he longs to be in right relationship with us…that is why he promises renewal in the first place. Verse ­­­ 3: “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.” Throughout Advent we looked at the various places that God longs to meet us and what becomes clear from this text is that God longs to meet us and be with us…no matter where we find ourselves. God wants us to know that our ultimate place of belonging, our perfect sense of being home, is with Him. This is so important for us as we embark upon a new year because none of us know what the year ahead will bring. Our lives will be on the move…some of us will physically move from Stockholm, others will simply move and grow in other ways. No matter where we end up physically, God wants to affirm that our home is with him and he promises to be there to create that sense of belonging. So when loneliness and displacement threaten to define your way of life, turn your heart towards God’s and know that in his hands, you are home.

Finally friends, we end with one of the great encouragements in all of scripture, verse 4: He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” This is a text that proves to us that we can overcome anything that life brings our way. God knows that in this New Year there will be tears and there will death and sorrow and crying and pain, but he is also saying that those things will not have the last word. No, his love has the power to overcome all of those other things. His promise to us is that one day he will do away with all that pain…he is making all things new and that includes us.

The promise to us is this: To those of you who are overworked and underpaid, to those who are raising a family as a single person, to those whose heart is deeply broken and wounded. For those who long for their homeland and wonder when they will ever feel a sense of home again. For you…insert your pain or disappointment here…we have this, God’s love that will prevail over anything life brings. I wish I could promise you that all of us will be exempt from pain in the year ahead, but that is not my promise to make nor is it the one that God makes to us. Instead, God says hang in there…you will overcome. Trust in my ability to see you through because what awaits you on the other side is indeed paradise. God says to us, “Have confidence that you can indeed be vulnerable with me concerning your pain because you know that I share your pain and desire to bear your burdens with you. And you know that I will make good on my promise because I sent you my son…to save you, to raise you up, to give you a future that is filled with hope.”

Friends…I don’t fully understand how we can trust in God’s promise to make all things new when all things old bear down on us. It’s a bit of a mystery to understand that our present pain isn’t our forever pain, that God really will cause a new day to dawn for us all…a day where tears and sadness and disappointment disappear. I know that for those of you whose present realities are mired in such pain, you wonder how long you will have to wait or if you will know God’s peace and prosperity this side of heaven. I wonder that too when I see the broken world that we live in. I wonder why some have to suffer so much when others have so much. I sometimes feel inadequate seeking to encourage those who are struggling with the promise that awaits them perhaps not now, but in the future. But in some ways isn’t that the core of our faith…to trust in that which we cannot see, to put our hope in that which we cannot understand but that which we long for? What I can proclaim with a deep and abiding confidence is that our God is trustworthy. I see the ways in which God has transformed my life…renewing areas that I thought were past changing, grafting my identity more deeply into His, and helping me to overcome the things in life that at times I thought would plow me under.

As I stand before you on the brink of a new year, I do so with this chorus in my heart: Behold, he makes all things new. Can you join me in that chorus, trusting that the old ways that have burdened you can be renewed into that which God wants to use for his glory? Are you willing to allow God to do some new things in your life so that you can live your life more fully aligned to his dreams and desires for you?

Friends…we have a new year spreading out before us. I invite you to look forward to the new things that this New Year will bring to you. Face the challenges knowing that God faces them with you. Rejoice in the joys knowing that God sustains us with the victories. Allow God to change you and mold you into the new person he wants you to be in Jesus Christ. Know that God’s deepest desire for you is that you know the deep joy of seeing your life renewed after a failure, or disappointment or sorrow. Understand that God longs for you to have your deepest sense of belonging not in the physical realities of our world but rather with him who longs for you to know home as being at peace with him. And finally friends, embrace the hope that comes with knowing that all of the things in this life that cause us pain will eventually disappear and we will return to the state of paradise, being at one with the father and one another. May the hope of that new day give you the sustenance that you need to face the new challenges that the New Year will inevitably bring to us all.

Behold, I make all things new and that includes you and that includes me. Amen.



Happy New Year

Today is 01/01/10.
We rang in the new year outside in a snow covered landscape beside an open fire. It was a beautiful night with the full blue moon shining brightly over the night sky. A blue moon is when a full moon occurs for the second time in a month. It's very rare and now won't happen again until 2028 so I hope y'all enjoyed it!We began the new year with a beautiful walk in the woods. We stayed the night out in Saltsjöbaden at our friends', Judy and Olle's place. It made for a relaxing and fun night and morning. Tanner loves being out there. He gets to run free through the woods and there are 3 other dogs running around so he's one happy canine.
We got up and went for a beautiful walk. It was absolutely gorgeous out with the sun shining down on the snow and the water. The walk was cut short when Judy stepped through the ice and got a boot full of icy water! Fortunately, it was just her foot that went in but it encouraged us to get off the ice!
We enjoyed an tasty brunch and a lingering time around the table. Afterwards we came home and enjoyed some American College Football that we had taped. I took a nap and loved just drifting off.
It's the first day of a new year, a new decade. Always fun to think about what the year ahead will hold for us. I'm not one for making hard and fast resolutions but I am thinking about what I"d like to accomplish or see changed in my life in the year ahead. It's always fun to think about the possibilities that a new situation brings for us.
I like the sound of 2010. I am sure the new year will bring laughter and tears. I look forward to seeing how it all unfolds.