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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Habakkuk and Psalm 40

The preaching schedule had been set for weeks but the timing of preaching on Habakkuk as part of our minor prophets series was divinely appointed.  With the passing of Doug's sister on Friday coupled with the tragic events that unfolded in Norway, a word of hope and promise was necessary.  But perhaps permission to cry out in anguish was necessary as well.  I was privileged to bring this message to our church community this morning.  There were tears on my part...how could there not have been?  And yet, there was grace, incredible grace as well.  I stand firm in my resolve to love and trust God.  Habakkuk and the Psalmist help me to do so.  What follows is the text of my sermon.  Should you be inclined to listen to the podcast, here is the link.  The front end of the message is cut off.  http://inter.immanuel.se/media/sermon-podcast
Thanks for your interest and for your prayers during the past week especially.  If you are hurting, may you find solace and comfort in the arms of our loving God, who promises to pull us up from the muck and mire and put our feet on solid ground once again.

     The news was not good this week.  Susana’s father has cancer.  David’s father has passed.  A small child struggles with pain and the prognosis remains uncertain.  A 4 year old is diagnosed with kidney cancer, has surgery, begins chemotherapy and radiation.  A beloved 56 year old sister died of cancer after a valiant struggle, a peaceful European Nordic capital was bombed and kids at a camp were open fired upon.  The global economic situation is very precarious right now.  People are lonely, in need of work, searching for a place to call home.  How Long O Lord is an easy cry today. 
     On January 30, 1972, British troops opened fire on unarmed and peaceful civilians in Derry, Ireland during a civil rights march.  This is what the band had to U2 had to say about those events in their song Sunday Bloody Sunday. 
I can't believe the news today,
Oh, I can't close my eyes And make it go away,
How long...How long must we sing this song
How long, how long...'cause tonight...we can be as one, Tonight...
     Longing, regret, sadness, frustration, anger, weariness…you hear it in these words and you hear it from the prophet Habakkuk as well.  Back in 1980 I attended a global mission conference where I encountered the book of Habakkuk in the most amazingly creative and beautiful way imaginable.  Now it is 31 years later and the impressions from the film Koyaanisqatsi have left a lasting impression on me.  Koyaanisqatsi is a word that comes from the Native American tribe called Hopi and means crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living.  This sums up perfectly what the prophet Habukkuk is perceiving his world to be and what our world today is as well.  Koyaanisqatsi, life out of balance.  Our resonance with Habakkuk is quite easy.  Habakkuk is wrestling with how to make sense of the senselessness that surrounds him and wonders aloud where in the world God’s presence is in the midst of the anguish.  Perhaps you hear echoes of your own voice within these cries.
     In many ways, Habakkuk is a welcome companion for us.  Habakkuk differs from the other prophets in that his prophecy is uniquely a conversation with God rather than an indictment against the people.  Habakkuk was utterly disturbed that God could see the injustice going on among his people and not act.  And so he enters into a dialogue with God and naturally, begins with a complaint!  Are we not more prone to enter into a dialogue with God when we’ve got something to take up with him than when we are just looking for a simple chat?  And so it is with Habakkuk.  His complaint begins with the age old question of why.  Why would God not act?  Surely you’ve wondered that yourself.
     Anyone who experiences terrible difficulties in life will benefit from studying this book.  Habakkuk offers us an opportunity to be honest with God while at the same time encouraging us to stand firm.  Through his extended dialogue with God, we hear Habakkuk’s vibrant faith and deep humanity, learning and growing in relation to God.  He asks healthy questions and is persistent in his questioning.  He doesn’t end his story with deeper understanding but comes to a place of trusting resignation.  The word YET figures broadly in our journey today.  Life is hard, and violence abounds, and injustice surrounds us and many do not have food, YET I will rejoice in the Lord.  Even devastated by the grief of exile, starvation and slavery, Habakkuk believes that he will continue to believe.  And that’s where we are going to try to land ourselves today.  We are not going to get an answer to our why cries.  We will not leave today knowing How Long…but we can be encouraged and uplifted by the reality that God is God and therefore reasons do abound for why we should continue to trust him. 
     I’ll the first to admit that sustaining faith is a hard thing sometimes.  Someone asked me earlier this summer what I would say to someone who claims that having faith reveals a weakness in one’s character.  I paused and thought about it for a minute and then realized that in my mind, having faith actually requires more courage and more resolve than not believing anything.  It’s hard to trust God when things are out of control.  It is perhaps easier to simply say that there is no powerful hope on the horizon, this world is what this world is and we must simply find a way to live in it.  But how hopeless and empty is that?  Having faith is not a weak way of doing life.  It requires trusting in a loving God when so many things around us are not loving at all. 
     So while we may not fully understanding and while we are required to trust in things that are unseen and unknown, what Habakkuk’s message invites us to is a honest, open dialogue with the creator of the universe.  One form of communication that we are invited to in scripture is the cry of lament.  A lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. Habakkuk affirms that questions and laments are part of a believer’s burden, and honest dialogue with God is a necessary form of relationship with him.  The second verse of the prophecy is a lament: How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Lament and questioning are God’s gift to the believer.  They provide a pathway of honest faith and faithful conversation with him in horrible times.  One-third of the Psalms are Psalms of Lament and an entire book of the Old Testament is devoted to Lament…Lamentations.  We are invited to ask the questions, but we must also accept that we may not get answers…can we maintain our relationship with God under those arrangements? 
     And that’s really what lies at the center of Habukkuk’s lament.  He doesn’t like how God works in the world, he doesn’t understand it.  He thinks that God gives the wicked and the violent too much freedom, allows them to thrive in a way that is contrary to his sovereignty as a loving God.  And God doesn’t answer the questions Habakkuk poses but instead acknowledges that pain and evil and suffering and pain will be present on this earth.  He promised to enter into it, even taking on the form of humanity in the life of Jesus Christ, and because of his great love for our broken world, allow that beloved son to be killed in order to redeem all of the heartache this world sees.  So perhaps God does not give us a satisfactory answer about why evil prospers and the wicked seemingly flourish, but he demonstrates his great love for us for providing hope that lies beyond the broken places of our world.  The key question for us is this: Can we hold fast to a faith that will often leave painful questions lingering in the air?  Habakkuk reveals to us a faith that is steadfast and sure even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty.  Habakkuk shows us a faith that honors God in all things.  Habakkuk’s faith inspires us to hold fast to our faith, worshipping the true God and honoring him through both good and bad experiences.  After all, what good would it do me to walk away from a loving and compassionate God in the face of disaster and pain?  Does that not leave me with even more questions and no hope beyond the circumstances that plague me?
     As you read through Habakkuk’s prophecy in its entirety, which I do encourage you to do, you can’t help but notice that Habakkuk did not receive all of the answers he was searching for.  But throughout the process of his questions, he did come to a new conclusion that empowered him to move on in spite of not having answers.  In 3:19 he writes, “The Sovereign Lord is my strength!  He makes my feet like the feet of the deer, he enable me to go on to the heights.”  Something changed in Habakkuk’s perspective and allowed him to return to a voice of confidence in God in the midst of his questions…not because he received answers.  Why is that?
     In chapter 2 we see that Habakkuk realizes that the righteous will live by faith, faith that God is truly in control and knows more than we do.  Now, there’s an two-fold challenge that is not so easy for most of us: Let go of control and admit that we don’t everything!  And God affirms this in the second chapter.  He tells Habakkuk that there is so much more going on in this world than he can see or comprehend and that the only way people of faith can survive in this world is to live by faith and not by sight.  And this is where accepting who we are in light of who God is can help us cultivate a deeper trust when our foundations are shaken.  We are finite beings…limited knowledge, limited vision.  God is an infinite, unlimited knowledge, unlimited vision…can we trust that what he sees and we don’t will ultimately be of benefit to those who trust him?  In my mind, this is the only way to make sense of the senselessness that surrounds us in this world.  But we don’t have to do this like lemmings, mindlessly accepting without ever thoughtfully wrestling.  Habakkuk calls us to trust, but he also calls us to question and wait and listen to hear something God might want to say to us.  Embedded within that invitation however is also a request that we bring a fresh listening ear and not only listen for what we want to hear.  In verse 18 of Chapter 3 Habakkuk says, “Yet I will rejoice.”  Although he does not like what he has heard (his heart pounds, his lips quiver, his legs tremble), he comes to accept and trust not in his own preferences, but in the word of the One he has heard and believed.       
     There is no way that I can make sense of today’s world.  Why would someone bomb Oslo and shoot down a group of innocent teenagers at a summer camp?  Why do some people get better yet others die untimely and horrible deaths?  Why do evil people prosper and good people suffer?  If my faith in God depended upon solid answers to those questions, I can honestly say that my faith in God would not be too strong.  But my faith in God does not depend on answering those questions.  My faith in God depends on me trusting that in the midst of the all of the pain and evil and sorrow that our world faces, God loves me, God loves you and he is at work seeking to bring the whole of creation back into a right relationship with him.  He will never cease to open pathways for us to know his compassion, be touched by grace, to revel in his goodness.  I will not walk away from the loving presence of my God in heaven simply because I do no understand how he works in this world.  No, I will trust God even when I feel he does not care, understanding that he is a loving and compassionate God.  I will trust in God even when I feel he is not at work in my life or the lives of those around me because he works in ways that unseen and unknown to me.  I will trust in God even when I feel he is inconsistent because he consistently reveals himself to me in surprising and delightful ways.  I will trust in God even when injustice and a lack of fairness surround me because I know that our God is a just God, readying this world to realign with his plans and purposes.  No, I will not walk away from the loving presence of my God in heaven simply because I do not understand how he works in this world.  What earthly good could that possibly do?
     Eugene Peterson comments that Habakkuk is an important book for us because Habakkuk speaks our word to God.  He gives voice to our bewilderment, articulates our puzzled attempts to make sense of things, faces God with our disappointment with God.  Habakkuk insists that God pay attention to us.  But Habakkuk does so much more than just shout at God.  He waits.  He listens.  And while waiting and listening he turns to prayer and came afresh into the presence of God and returned to a place where he could see that God is trustworthy in spite of his questions.
     How long must we sing this song?  I have no idea.  We can join with U2 in their lament from Sunday Bloody Sunday but also turn our hearts toward Psalm 40 as they did in another song that speaks of how we will sing a new song.  Psalm 40 is the perfect companion to Habakkuk because it reinforces the pattern that Habakkuk sets forth.  Here is Psalm 40 according to Jodi: I waited, sometimes patiently, O lord, and, admittedly, after quite some time, I realized that you do hear my cries.  You picked me up out of the muck and mire that I was stuck in, you stabilized my footing and allowed me to move forward with new words coming out of my mouth…songs of joy instead of rants of complaints.  I give you thanks and praise Oh God for your steadfast love and unending mercy.  Maybe you need to write your own version of Psalm 40 today.  I encourage you to do so, after you’ve had a long chat with God, pouring out your anguished heart, singing the song of sorrow, to turn again towards him and offer your song of praise, even in the midst of your questions.
Habakkuk cries out: How Long O Lord?  The Psalmist declares, you have put a new song in my mouth, how long shall we sing that song?  Lament and the praise will perhaps always walk side by side in this life.  But speaking of walking…I love that both Habakkuk and the psalmist speak of God putting our lives back on sure footing.  Even after Habakkuk has expressed the deepest disequilibrium with life, he declares that the Lord has given him the sure-footedness of a mountain deer.  And as the praise utters from the Psalmist’s lips, he rejoices that he has been pulled from the miry clay where one sinks and struggle and now has his feet planted firmly on the ground once again thanks to the Lord answering his cry. 
     Yes, it is undeniable that when we look around our world, it is easy to only see Koyaanisqatsi: life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living.  And YET, in the midst of all that is wrong in our world, God is indeed at work, pulling us back into balance with him, busily writing the words to a new song, the song of joy that will certainly be ours to sing one day.  So shout with honesty your cries of lament and sing with joy your shouts of praise.  God is there to receive both, to make you path steady, to ensure that you will stand on solid ground again one day.  How long?  Only God knows.  But God does know.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Loss

Late last night we received word that Debbie, Doug's oldest sister, was not doing well.  Doug was able to connect with his family via telephone and even speak a few words to Debbie as she lay fighting for her life in the hospital.  We got word this morning via the Caring Bridge site that the Dr.s have said that it is likely she only has hours to live.  Her fragile lungs have been valiant in their fight against this horrible disease and yet in the end, the cancer has become too much.  Our earthly lives will never, ever be the same without Debbie in them, but I know that I stand among the myriad of people who are so thankful that they got to know Debbie.  We rejoice in the hope that is ours through our faith in Jesus Christ that we will all be reunited one day.  We are grateful to see Deb's earthly suffering end and yet we are all so devastated by losing her that it's a bit surreal at the moment.  Of course the miles that separate us at this time are excruciating. 
It is the middle of the night in Minnesota right now (7.30 a.m. in Stockholm) so we likely won't talk to anyone until early afternoon today.  Our hearts are heavy and sad.  Please continue to pray for Debbie's peace and comfort, for Doug's parents who are facing an unspeakable loss, and for the entire family as we let a beloved sister go into the arms of her eternal home.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Refreshment

So the weather forecast was not fabulous, but I guess after living here for 13 years, we've realized that if you wait for the weather to be just right in Sweden, you could wait for a long time to do anything.  It's been a demanding time since Doug returned from the US.  A wedding, an all night guard night at the marina, the launch of our summer program, other headaches at work, and the ongoing health concerns in Doug's family have kept us at a busy clip without much down time.  Getting out on the water and being able to get away from the city via the Stockholm waterways and the trusty Finnmaster is the best remedy for stress for us.  So we planned to have a new adventure today, finding our way to Ekskär, an island in the archipelago that our boat club owns!
This little vessel has provided us with more joy than we could ever have thought.
We arrived at the marina to grayish skies and a few droplets of rain.  But we know that the weather in the archipelago is often much better than in town so we decided to give it a go.
He's like his mama, loves the comfy spot in the sun!
We have good rain gear and good protection against rain in the boat, we had packed loads of food so we figured, why not have an adventure!
Am I ever glad we did!  Although the ride was a bit choppy, when we passed Vaxholm and headed into the northern archipelago, I remembered how much I loved this area! We haven't been out this far yet this season and something just happens in my spirit when I get out in the wildness of the archipelago.  All of the sudden this beautiful place that is totally untethered to urban needs unfolds before you in wild and wonderful beauty. 
Tanner is a great scout!
Islands, rocks, trees, cottages, and sea sprawling before you. And you can pretty much tie up anywhere you like as long as you don't disturb the locals.  The weather was better than expected.  A bit windy, but not too chilly.  The sun broke through now and again.  After about 1.5 hours, Ekskär came into view.  We docked with great ease I might add! 
The symbol of our boat club
Tanner was a happy camper.  He was quick in the water but we soon followed!  It was actually warm and we were hot so we jumped into the chilly waters of the archipelago.  What a refreshing treat.  We explored the island, discovering the little community cabin that any and all can use.  Grills abound and there are places for tent camping.  Outhouses were plentiful and amazingly clean.  We might try to come back for an overnight sometime.  We ventured back to the dock, swam, and then enjoyed the warm sunshine that the afternoon gave us. 
I L-O-V-E this dog!
We ate our picnic, slept a bit, relaxed and took in the quiet beauty.  We felt our insides relax and our spirits lift.  Soon it was time to head back to Stockholm.  Gray clouds were threatening and the ride in was about 2 hours.  Some of the properties that line the archipelago are so spectacular.  I can fully understand why those who own these places do not work at all in the summer.  What a way to spend July. 
As we were pulling into the marina, a light rain began to fall.  Before too long it was coming down pretty hard.  I didn't care.  We had enjoyed one of the most refreshing, beautiful days of summer.  It's been a long time since the three of us had a chance to just take in the raw beauty of Stockholm's island world.  I feel like a different person tonight.  Nothing has changed.  Life still has stress and many questions loom.  But what a treat to get out and about and enjoy God's amazing and creative creation...the Stockholm archipelago is such a gift and I am thankful every day that I get to take it in.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Special Place for Special Couples

One of the great joys of being a pastor is marrying people.  I take couples through a fairly in depth pre-marriage counseling program and thus get to know them quite well.  Most are eager to learn more about their relationship, are transparent about who they are, and show interest in building a solid foundation upon which to build their marital lives.  Participating in one of the most important days of their lives as the officiant is indeed an honor and a privilege.  When I was campus pastor at a small liberal arts college in Chicago, I was always surprised and moved when couples came to me wanting me to marry them.  I often assumed that they would want the pastor from their home church or a man to marry them.  So when asked to participate in their lives in this way, it meant a great deal to me.  Perhaps that is why I feel a special closeness with those couples and feel tied to them in a unique way even as the years go by.  I rarely see many of them anymore as our life in Sweden has taken us out of the same circles, but through the emergence of Facebook, I have become re-connected with many of them.  While I cannot be 100% sure of this statistic, (because my memory is slipping a bit!), I am quite sure that all of the couples that I have married are still together.  Now they are thriving professionals, interestingly enough, many are either pastors or teachers!  Most are actively involved in church leadership and that makes me feel quite proud.  I'm allowed a few moments of being a proud mama, right?!
Recently, one of the couples learned that their 4 year old has cancer.  It's been a difficult week for the family that has included emergency surgery to remove a kidney, waiting for a pathology report that revealed the sad news, and adjusting to a whole new way of life.  The upside is that the cure rate for this type of cancer in young kids is high.  The downside is that in order to get well from cancer you have to get really sick first.  So now they are on the chemo road and adjusting their lives to fight this battle.  I have only been in touch with them via email but they are on mind, in my heart and in my prayers often.  I just want to be nearby, give 'em a hug, provide space for them to vent and grieve and walk beside them.  Since I can't do that, I will pray for them and try to stay in touch as I can.
This whole experience has caused me to realize how much I care about those with whom I share a history, no matter how far back we go.  The connection through their being married is unique and means something to me.  I feel invested in the well-being of their family life and so I guess I just wanted to express that through my blog.  Having the privilege of marrying people is not something I take lightly.  The wedding ceremony is a holy moment.  I have the power to pronounce them husband and wife, forever linking their lives.  It makes perfect sense to me that I would stay invested in their journey over time and space.
I am appreciative of the ways the college students I was close to when I worked at the university continue to include me in their lives.  Those were amazing years in my life.  And I will always treasure the journey I took with those who chose one another as their beloved and then included me in that process.  And so this is a shout out to the couples I have stood with at the altar...May God bless and keep you in your marriage...I said those words to you on your wedding day and I say them again today.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Wacky Wednesdays

Every summer we run an American style Vacation Bible School at Immanuel International.  Instead of a week long blitz however we run it across 5 Wednesday evenings and call it Wacky Wonderful Wednesdays.  For many in our community, they have never experienced a program like this which incorporates music, skits, Bible stories, crafts and games.  When we moved it to the evenings, we added an adult bible study time and a teen component.  It's great because it's a program that involves every age level in the church and it offers us a great chance to have a different kind of fun and fellowship than the school year affords.
We launched our SunSurf Beach Bash last night.  It's amazing to see all of the moving parts come together for a unified whole.  At 3.00 yesterday afternoon there were many questions about being able to pull off the opener but by 6.00 p.m. the set looked great, the musicians were in place, the technical stuff was working, the costumes were pulled together and the beach bash began!
My alter ego this year is Stella Starfish, CEO and General Manger of Stella Starfish Shipping Services. I have a propensity for pronouncing my s's with a hissing sound and am hoping to control the Seven Seas by the end of our time together!  Doug is the ever-wise one, this time around Tropicana Sam who is an ancient surfing legend and now head life guard on SunSurf beach.  
I am in charge of the actions for the songs and while I love every minute of getting kids to sing and encouraging them to join in the movements with me, it gets harder and harder as the years go by!  But I was pumped up by the energy of the kids and the crowd and while I'm a bit tired this morning, I am excited about watching how fast the kids learn the songs and by how much fun they have learning the actions.
My clever husband writes these silly skits every year and we have such a great time weaving outlandish stories together to demonstrate various biblical points we are seeking to make each week.  The kids eat up the slapstick humor and let's just say among the adults involved, there is no holding back on hamming it up! This year we're searching for the Big Kahuna.  Tropicana Sam and Baywatch Betty are the only ones who really know what that's all about, but Stella Starfish and Surf and Turf (twin brothers from Liechtenstein) have their own ideas about what they are after!  
Sunny Delight runs the Crab Cooker Cafe and serves up disgusting smoothies containing seaweed and sand!
So stay tuned for more fun and games every Wednesday until August 10th.  And if you are in Stockholm, drop on by Immanuel church at 18.00 where the Surf's Up every Wednesday night.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Night Watch 2011

One night each summer every member of the Lidingö Boat Club has to spend the night at the marina making sure no tomfoolery is going on.  Last night, 10 July, was our night.  I put the time and date stamp on my photos so you could watch the progression of daylight.
We arrived at 23.40 to a beautifully eerie sky.  The way the clouds reflected off the glassy water top was stunning.Tanner was in the water 5 minutes after we let him out of the car.  This is Tanner's favorite night of the year.  He gets to run freely around the marina, chase herring and other creatures that lurk about, play in the tall grass and generally enjoy a canine paradise all night long. 
Our little sentinel at the ready!
For us, it's a matter of getting through the 6 hours we need to be "on guard."  We spend the night doing "the rounds."  Basically that means you walk the perimeter of the boat yard and walk down every pier making sure that all is well.  It's rather interesting because it's never really dark and by 3.00 it's as broad daylight as 12.00 noon so if you were going to "sneak" in and steal something, you'd have to be pretty bold!  Even so, watching the sky change from twilight to dawn to full daylight in a matter of 3 hours is always pretty special.  Doug threw a fishing line in the water at about 2.00 a.m. and at 2.20 hauled a pretty good size fish out of the water!  Too bad it slipped off the hook before I could capture it on film.  I know, sounds fishy, but he really did catch a good one!  The night sky was an artist's palette of color, ever changing by the minute.  I was totally fascinated by it, but even so managed to grab a snooze along the way!
In fact, all three of us managed naps at some point throughout the night.  The bright daylight definitely makes enduring the night much easier.When we were preparing to leave at 6.00 a.m. the beauty that surrounded us was stunning.  A gorgeous morning had broken through. The water was glassy and beckoned, but alas, the cry of our beds was louder.Another quiet, beautiful night watch had come to close without incident.  Good night or should I say, "good day?"