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Friday, March 25, 2011

Remembering

My brother died 4 years ago.  It was shocking that he died on this day but not a surprise that he died an untimely death as he was an unwell person.  Shortly thereafter my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer and the long, difficult road of fighting cancer began.  2007 was a wilderness year for our family, likely the hardest months I've ever lived through.
During this season of Lent I am reading a Lenten Devotional on the net each day.  It is called Journey to the Cross and it is excellent.  Today's entry is timely on a number of levels.   
The verses are from Nehemiah 9:19-21
"You in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness; the pillar of cloud that led them in the way did not leave them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night that gave them light on the way by which they should go. You gave your good spirit to instruct them, and did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and gave them water for their thirst. Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness so that they lacked nothing; their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell."
Last Sunday I preached on Jesus the light of the world and recalled his light now being the same light that God provided the Israelites in the desert through the cloud and the fire.  We are never left to completely wander in the wilderness alone or in the dark, even if it seems so.
After the verse came this reflection on the website:

Ella Jenkins’ Songs Children Love to Sing concludes with this African American spiritual: "I looked at my hands, and my hands looked new. I looked at my feet, and they did too. I started to walk--I had a brand new walk. I started to talk--had a brand new talk. I started to sing--had a brand new song. Everybody wondered just what was wrong."
As the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, God’s mercy did not forsake them. They were instructed by God’s spirit. They were fed by manna and lacked nothing. Their feet did not swell. Good feet may not be first in our thoughts, but...what a gift to a weary, wandering people. They left the wilderness transformed.
As we wander in God, may we be transformed as we sing the spiritual refrain: "'Cause my soul was new when I came out the wilderness. My heart was too when I came out the wilderness. I loved everybody when I came out the wilderness. A leanin’ on the Lord."
One of the difficult side affects my mom has suffered is neuropathy, a condition where you experience numbness in your limbs.  It is a major drag as it impacts your ability to walk, drive, and have balance.  Plus it's royally uncomfortable.  So while the promise that God made to the Israelites that their feet would not swell may seem ridiculous, I have a greater understanding of why this is actually a great gift.  In some ways it points to how hard it is to keep walking when you have swollen feet. But we have to remember that God is moving in our lives even when we feel we aren't.
I realize that over the past 4 years I've been in the wilderness a few times.  4 years ago today was a shattering day of grief and sorrow as my parents discovered that Bill had died of a heart attack in his apartment.  The early Monday morning phone call alerted me to the news and I flew out the next day.  Then weeks later, mom was diagnosed and our lives changed in even more profound ways.  But today, 4 years later, my mom is miraculously healthy and while we miss Bill, the raw grief of losing him has healed and we can all be thankful on some level that he is at peace.  God really does see us through our wilderness times...when we're in them, it all seems very dark and hopeless.  But, given the chance to look back, we can see the light, the guidance, the sustenance.  I am thankful for where my life is today...even though I am far away from my parents, our visits are rich and fruitful and for that I am thankful.  I am happy that they are enjoying a season of hope and joy beyond the hardships of the past 4 years.  That was something I prayed for...that my parents would find joy again after Bill's death.  When my mom was sick, it was tough...now, life is a bit easier and a lot more fun.
I know that the light of Christ has seen us through these wilderness years.  There are other wildernesses right now that we experience, places where the light of Christ is dim and our spirits are waning.  Still, the hope that burns eternally because of who Jesus is in our world brings sustenance and guidance and eventually even healing.  I am thankful.
Peace to the memory of my brother.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

En Mycket Svenskt Dag

Or in plain English...A Very Swedish Day!
We've had a wonderfully Swedish day!  I realized that I had a present card for a brunch at a restaurant near our house.  (Another 50th bday present.  I really am going to celebrate this for an entire year!)  The expiration date was approaching and as we could only use it on a Saturday I thought that today would be a good day to give it a go.  So Doug and I walked to Bankomat on Odengatan.  Bankomat is a cute play on words in Swedish.  A bankomat is a cash machine here.  Mat also means food in Swedish so it's like going to the food bank for a meal!  Cute.  The place looked like a bank from the outside.  In fact, we almost walked past it!  Once inside we were delighted by the cozy atmosphere.  We got there right at 11.00, when they opened.  I know Americans...can you imagine an eating establishment not opening until 11.00 on a Saturday?!  Normal for here.  Apparently, Swedes do not eat out before 11.00 a.m.  But I digress.  Now, brunch in Sweden is different than Brunch in America but to our great delight we were pleasantly pleased with what was on offer.  Coffee and various kinds of juices were on offer along with a great spread of typical European breakfast items: breads, cheeses, deli meats, scrambled eggs, and bacon.  What made this brunch typically Swedish were also the various salads on offer, many that included shrimp.  One of my favorites was a delicious bowl full of olives, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and feta.  Of course, there was also herring which I gladly let the other guests partake of and naturally, meatballs and prinskorv, the traditional mini-hot dog that shows up on most Swedish buffets.  After awhile, delicious Swedish pancakes arrived with strawberries and whipped cream for toppers and also short little spare ribs that were delicious. I had eaten too much of the deli meat and cheese to really enjoy the ribs so we made a mental note for the next time we eat brunch here!  Come at 11.30 when all the food on the buffet will be out.  Skip the stuff you get all the time like the deli meats and gorge on spare ribs, cheese, bread and pancakes!  All in all it was a tasty brunch and we would definitely go here again.  On our walk home, we stopped by a florist to buy tulips and ducked into a bakery to get a strawberry/raspberry torte for a newcomer gathering we're hosting after church tomorrow.  This was all done on foot in our neighborhood and it was great fun to be out.
The last obligation on this beautiful day was to take Tanner for a walk so we ventured down to the park where we all like to swim in the summer.  The ice is receding but still frozen enough to walk on so we had a beautiful walk on a dazzling day filled with sunshine.  Even though it was beautiful, I must admit that my thoughts were wandering to the day when we could be in the very same spot, in our boat, actually getting tan from the sunshine!  The thickness of the ice made me realize why the water is so darn cold even in the middle of the summer!
It's been a wonderful Saturday in Stockholm.  I hope you can say the same!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Opportunity to Learn

We had a wonderful day yesterday.  Dr. Rajkumar Boaz Johnson,. biblical Studies professor from North Park University was in Sweden and we had the opportunity to share in an afternoon with him.  Boaz is an amazing teacher of the Old Testament, fluent in many languages and engaging in his biblical perspective on human trafficking and modern day slavery, a subject which is a deep passion for him.  Through his whimsical personality and incredible knowledge, he is able to pass onto his audience his passion and desire for us to go deeper into the scriptures and to understand the vital role that Christianity can play in eradicating these terrible injustices that affect small children in significant and profound ways.  He helped us understand that translations of the Bible include language and cultural bias and urged us to understand the limits and to perhaps do deeper work to more fully understand exactly what a text is saying, especially in cases where our interpretation is leading us to oppress a certain people group, most significantly, women.  He told us about the work of Pandita Ramabai, an Indian woman who devoted her life to helping young girls have a brighter future.  Part of her mission in life included translating the Bible into sanskrit so that girls could read the text.  Her work revealed a male bias in translation that often kept women below men, even in Christian practice.  
Boaz also enlightened us about the layers and layers of problems with the modern day slave practice.  He spoke of needing "thin" solutions, like laws and jailing perpetrators, but he also helped us wrestle with the "thick" solutions, changing people's view of humanity so that no one will dehumanize any human being.  If we help people understand what dehumanizing others leads to, then we can perhaps have hope that abhorrent practices such as child slave labor and child prostitution will cease.  Until people have a change of heart, a real reason to value every human being on earth, then these practices will continue.  Because, in my mind, the only reason a 40 year old man would want to have sex with a 14 year old girl, against her will, is because he does not see the young girl as human.  
Boaz spoke of how important education is for the children of India and really world-wide.  His own story of getting out of the slums of Delhi begins with his own father helping him and his sister get to a school set aside for kids from higher castes.  It was there that his keen mind was sharpened and he began to develop his own thoughts about why the world was the way it was.  Through studying world religions, he discovered Jesus Christ and felt that the gospel of Jesus Christ was truly the key to life.
Boaz spoke of how the transforming message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that which will help us find a "thick" response to these issues.  He encouraged us to be aware on a local level of what we can do to prevent the thriving practice of slave labor.  One of the ways we can do this is by learning more about where our food and clothing come from.  This is challenging, I'll be the first to admit it.  But it's worth giving some thought.  He also said that visiting countries like India is really important so that we can see first hand what is happening but also to see what amazing mission work is happening there.  He spoke of the Hindustani Covenant Church as doing wonderful work and urged us to get down and experience it first hand.  
I came away from the afternoon inspired and troubled.   I was deeply troubled by the people in our world who think slavery and trafficking is a valid way of living.  Greed seems to lie at the heart of it all.  And yet too, I am deeply troubled to understand why men use prostitutes, especially children to satisfy their sexual or psychological needs.  Unless the desire for such depravity gets nipped, I am afraid these horrible practices will always lurk in our world.   
At the end of our time together, he gave the benediction in Hebrew.  He sang it out loud and clear in a beautiful voice.  As I stood there with tears brimming in my eyes I was awed.  Here I was, standing in my church in Stockholm, Sweden, amidst people from 50 different nations, listening to an Indian man from the slums of Delhi, sing a beautiful Hebrew benediction over us.  It was a "glimpse of heaven" moment and I feel so grateful to have this opportunity to interact with Dr. Boaz Johnson.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ashes

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday which marks the season of Lent.  Christians all over the world went to services yesterday and marked the beginning of Lent with an ash cross on their forehead.

  
I think symbols and visual reminders are often helpful in bringing us to a place of greater understanding.  For me, the symbol of the ashes was powerful.  Over the past year, the threat of death has hovered around us.  Sick family members with uncertain futures cause us to experience anxiety and loss.  Additionally, I have two friends who have kids fighting cancer.  You have hope and you pray for strength and healing, but the threat of death hovers.  So last night when I went forward to receive the ashes during our Ash Wednesday service as I looked into the bowl of ashes and heard my colleague say to me, "From the dust you have come and to the dust you will return, but through Jesus Christ we are given life and hope" it was pretty moving for me.  I just realized that the hope that I have that in Jesus' ultimate victory over death is something that truly sustains me.  The sting of death is harsh.  The earthly realities of living without loved ones is too much to bear.  But there is a greater hope that lies beyond the grave.  We will be ushered into the place where there will be no more sorrow and no more tears.  It is to this promise that I cling when the ashes seem to be drowning me.
And so begins my Lenten journey. 
The Lenten season, the 40 days before Easter not including the Sundays,  is a season marked by introspection, self-reflection and repentance.  It can be a heavy time and our tendency is to often want to skip over Lent and get to Easter.  After all, the themes and purposes of Lent are centered on self-reflection, repentance, acknowledging our need for Christ’s death on the cross because of our sins.  What fun is there in that?
Perhaps there isn’t much fun to it, but maybe that’s not the point either.  Perhaps it is a gift to us that during the season of Lent we are actually given space to own it as a truly spiritual time of year.  Our lives are not filled with the secular distractions that other holidays often have to contend with so that we are actually freed to truly see this season as a time when God wants to do some transforming work in our lives. He does want our attention and focus.  He does want us to know that we are headed towards the cross and he wants us to embrace what that truly means for all of us.  Lent is a time when we are invited into the quiet places of God’s transforming power.  It is a season when we look carefully at the ministry of Jesus and make the important and profound connections to our everyday lives.  It is a time when God, through the message of Christ, truly wants to transform our daily lives and create in us something new and wonderful because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that triumphantly awaits us when the season comes to a close.  What joy to celebrate how Christ has transformed our lives through his death on the cross while celebrating the new life that Christ literally takes on at Easter.  This celebration takes on deeper and more profound meaning if we take the time to journey through Lent first, allowing ourselves to be more acutely aware of the ways in which Christ is at work in our daily lives.
Sometimes people give something up for Lent as a reminder of all that Christ gave.  Giving something up requires discipline and sometimes it helps us to remain focused on the reality that we are in the midst of a special season.  Others add something to their lives...a daily reading, a more focused time of prayer, the giving of gifts to causes that are important to them.  Others do nothing and that is fine as well.  The point is this: What is it that you are doing to cause Lent to become a time of singular importance in your life, not so you can focus on yourself, but rather so you can focus on what God may be doing in your life during these weeks that precede Easter?
I guess for me the purpose of an intentional Lenten season is summed up in this verse from Philippians 3:10: I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.
We don't really say merry Lent or Happy New Lenten season.  Instead perhaps we could just pray for one another, that the transforming power of Christ will be at work in our lives.  And if your Lenten season is marked by the pain of the ashes, then we can pray that the peace of Christ and the hope that is ours through His transforming work will be your close companion during these weeks.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fat Tuesday

Here we are, celebrating Mardi Gras once again.  I'm working late so it's not too wild of a time.  Here in Sweden, Mardi Gras (fettisdagen, literally, the fat day) is celebrated by eating Semla.  Semla is a lovely pastry bun made with cardemom, split open, spread with almond paste and filled with cream.  Some people even put them in a bowl and pour warm milk over the top.  That feels like dairy overload to me.  Some people love them, others not so much.  I enjoy a good semla.  Getting one from a high quality bakery is key because then the bread part is yumalicious.
I am kind of bummed that I have not had one today or even one this year yet.  The good thing is, is that they keep making them throughout Lent even though they are supposed to be your last big treat until Easter.  It seems unlikely to me that I will not have one more big treat until Easter.  We'll see.
Fat Tuesday is a day to let it all hang out in preparation to reign it in during the 40 days of Lent that begin tomorrow.  Two friends have posted comments on Facebook today that have made me laugh about today being such a special day to indulge in fat things.  One said, "Today is Mardi Gras, a day to enjoy a little excess before Lent begins tomorrow.  In my case however, I've treated all days as though they are Fat Tuesdays!"  The other memorable quote was this, "I'm fat every Tuesday!"
So, I guess I'm concluding that for the rest of today, which isn't much for me since it's now 19.00 in Sweden, I will try to indulge in excessively fat treats as much as possible so that when I strap on the mantle of discipline tomorrow I'll be good and ready to do so!  If only it worked that way...
Blessings and Happy Mardi Gras.

Brush with Fame

Someone left a comment on my last blog and as I re-reading the entry I laughed when I realized that I had written, "The flight to London was uneventful."  Little did I know that I was having a brush with fame.  When I got off the plane, the paparazzi were swarming the jetway.  I thought it was weird because usually they do not allow photographs to be taken before you clear customs.  I wondered who in the world they were shooting.  Then I realized the young, very short teenage boy who was walking 3 feet in front of me was who they were shooting.  I was right behind him, sure I was in the picture frame.  I thought to myself, I should smile in case I'm in this photo.  Then I forgot about it.  Until the next day when I thought...oh, I should google, "who arrived at Heathrow on March 3" and find out what all the hullabaloo was about.  So I did.  And this came up.
Justin Bieber.  Who knew?  Not me.  Turns out I was splashed all over the sites who follow Justin Bieber.  If only I was not getting off a plane after a 10 hour flight.  And if only it wasn't the worst photo of me ever.  Oh well.  It'll work as a good trivia question at parties...who has appeared in a photograph with Justin Bieber?  Uh, yeah, that would be me.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Home Again in Sweden

The long haul across the ocean is behind me once again and while it is 5.10 a.m.and I am awake from the inevitable jet lag, I am sleeping in my own bed with my cuddly little buddy Tanner happily snoozing along side of me.  We await Doug's return on Saturday.
There are many constants in my transition now from the US back to Sweden and Wednesday into Thursday's journey was no different.  I have several zones of anxiety that circle around me when I'm heading back to Sweden.. 
1.  Will the luggage be under the weight limit?
2.  Will check-in go smoothly or will it be a hassle? 
3. Will we get through security in enough time to catch the flight. 
4. Will I have enough time to make my connection in LAX for the overseas flight. 
5.  Will I be able to say good-bye to my loved ones without a total melt down?
Perhaps it's clear that departure day is not my favorite day.  And no matter how hard I try to manage my time well and be organized about luggage and weight restrictions, it seems like the hour before departure turns into one big stress match to beat both the clock and the scale.  After dropping Doug off at the airport for his 5.00 flight back to Minneapolis, I got back to my parent's house with 6 glorious hours to finish my details and depart.  And then it was 1.00 and I was running last minute errands with my dad and wrestling with luggage that was two-three pounds over weigh and feeling very stressed, frustrated and nervous about everything going smoothly.  Finally, the bags were zipped, I had some  lunch and said good-bye to my mom who was not going to the airport. 
I hate saying good-bye.  I'm terrible at it and no matter what state of mind  I'm in, I get teary.  Which is fine but it's also awkward to utter the words you really want to say when departing when your throat is all choked up and you have tears rolling down your face and your stomach is in knots because you aren't checked in.  My nervousness about checking in and getting everything settled before the flight contributes to the anxiety I often feel when saying good-bye those I last see before I travel back to Sweden from the US.   It's always hard.  When it's my parents, it's really hard.
Check-in went fairly well.  Had to carry my winter coat as it was putting my bag over the 50 pound limit.  I feel my consumer, hoarder worst when I fly back to Sweden.  For some reason, I just end up with all kinds  of creature comforts, clothes and other bits and bobs, no matter how committed I (think) I am to a more simple way of life.  I get crazy thinking about not being able to get certain items and so a little bit of this and a little bit of that turns into 50 pounds of gosh why am I bringing so much stuff back to Sweden.  The United agent at the Palm Springs airport could not have been a nicer person.  She really helped calm me down and get everything settled.  After the beastly bags were checked, I ran back outside to say good-bye to my dad and grab my carry on.  After successfully saying good-bye to him, the next big hurdle was security.  So, who knew that peanut butter is not allowed to be carried onto a plane?  What a pain, but again, the security agent was so lovely.  I explained, because you kind of feel like a dope when you've violated one of the rules about liquids, that I lived in Sweden and you couldn't buy it there, blah, blah, blah.  She was lovely.  She asked me what I did, I said I was a minister and she thought that was great.  She helped me return to the United check-in counter where the lovely first agent graciously took the offending peanut butter and put it in my checked luggage.  I was happy I was at a small airport at that point.  While I was waiting for the agent to put the peanut butter in my checked bags, two big flamboyant men were wrestling with their luggage.  I think they ended up wearing three layers of clothes in order to make the weight limit.  They were very funny.  At one point they pulled out these gorgeous luxury towels and I told them to wear them as turbans on their heads.  At least it got a laugh.  Finally, back through security once again, I was ready to roll.  As I had some coins in my pocket, I decided to give my folks one last call and when I approached the pay phone (yes, they still do exist), it said all local calls free!  What a crack up.  A free pay phone.  Anyway...always lovely to be able to chat with them one more time once the anxiety of checking in and getting through security are behind me.
The first leg of this journey was a 30 minute hop to Los Angeles in a 30 seat prop jet.  I was happy I wasn't on this plane for long, but heading straight west with the gorgeous mountain views surrounding me was lovely.  I literally had about 15 minutes in LA to make my connecting flight so I wasted no time hustling down to the other gate.  Now, on the long haul getting a good seat is very important.  So I walked up to the ticket agent and simply asked if there were any seats with an empty seat next to them. She scored me an aisle with an empty.  Bliss.  Always ask for a seat with an empty next to it.  Even up to the last minute.  It is totally worth it.
As I was getting on the plane I saw two kids who were traveling unaccompanied finalizing their plans and saying good-bye to their parents.  They were doing fine, but I got weepy.  Which is horrible in the ticket line.  But the kids were cute and the parents had some anxiety and they were hugging and talking and looking back at each other and I was having a moment.  It was kind of funny too and I was just laughing at myself.  If I could bottle the tears I've shed at the airport...oj.
The guy sitting in the window seat in my row was a young man from London who had been on a 5 week trip around California.  He was lovely and I was finally relaxed knowing that I would be comfortable on the long flight ahead.  The plane for the long haul was beautiful.  It was brand new, had personal video machines at every seat where you could start, stop, rewind, and pause the films you watching.  I had dinner, watched True Grit and sacked out.  The 10 hour flight literally flew by, always a good sign.  The transfer in London was uneventful.  I talked to a friend in London, got a sandwich at a store I like there and waited for the Stockholm flight.  That flight was very uncrowded so I had an empty seat next to me then as well and mostly I just slept anticipating getting home.
As we flew over the greater Stockholm area, the snowy landscape came into view. Black and white and shades of gray had replaced the green hills and blue skies of Palm Springs.  And yet, there was a calming beauty in all of it.  I was home again and that felt good.  I saw one of the big ferries heading to Finland breaking a path through the ice.  I saw skating ovals that had been plowed on lakes and best of all, as my flight descended at dusk, I watched a very bright and beautiful sun drop below the horizon as late as 17.30.  While winter was still surrounding us, the daylight is making its way back up north.
I got reasonably unpacked and did some tidying up.  I enjoyed Tanner's enthusiastic greeting and love having him here with me.  Now, I just need to get my video camera working on my computer so I can use skype and dig into writing my sermon for Sunday. 
It's good to be home.  All of the things that I worry about came off without a hitch.  But I do need to clean out some closets to make room for all of the new things that I have that in some bizarre and silly way keep me connected to my other homeland, the USA.