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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Up With People

Immanuel church was contacted a few weeks ago by the touring group Up With People.  Doug and I couldn't believe that this ultimate show choir and spreaders of goodwill among humanity were still going strong.  They needed some meeting space and we were able to accommodate them.  Consequently, we were given tickets to the show, Immanuel was publicly thanked and our name appeared on a 'Thanks To' slide that ran before and after the show. (camera fail or I would've had the thanks slide!) We didn't know what to expect but thought that they would still put on a pretty good show.
Throughout the day, as I was thinking about going to the concert, I found myself muttering the words to the catchy theme song: Up, Up, with People, you meet 'em wherever you go.  Then I'd hum because I couldn't remember what lines followed.  Whilst waiting for the subway train to take us to the theater, Doug breaks into song and had the entire chorus in his pocket: Up, up with people, you meet 'em wherever you go.  Up, up with people, they're the best kind of folks we know.  If more people, were for people, all people everywhere.  There'd be a lot less people to worry about and a lot more people who care.  His little history of being in show choirs really does pop up now and again!  So with the theme song in our hearts, we were ready to join the fun.
I have say...it was quite the uplifting and joy-filled experience!  Over 120 kids, from 21 different countries, singing, dancing and spreading a message of peace and harmony.  That is not the worst way for young people to spend their days!  The stage was simple but they used lighting and the large screen quite effectively.  At the beginning of the show, they kids were grouped in their countries and they did a cute introduction of each land.  Then they introduced the theme, A Song for the World.  They took us through the world via music and we were smiling throughout.  The nod to Americana was quite fun with a good 'ol country hoe down and some square dancing thrown in.  
Of course, how could you be in Sweden and not feature a song by ABBA?!  The finale was great with many of the performers coming out on stage in their national dress.  The message of Up With People remains the same...promote peace, harmony and understanding between people groups and do so with song and dance.  It was pretty great to think about this amazing experience that these young people are having as they travel with Up With People.  Immanuel is proud to have a small role in supporting them.  
At the end of the show, they offer the opportunity for kids to come and speak with them about joining the fun in the future.  Their tag line was Travel, Perform, Inspire.  I thought it was fresh and fun.
I was thinking about our church throughout, about how privileged I've been to be a part of multi-cultural congregation and just how enriching that experience is.  I also realized that when we have our own fellowship nights, where we lift up food, music, dance, dress and customs from each group, everyone just loves it.  I believe that if we do expose ourselves to those who are different than we, then we will learn something, we will increase our understanding and a more peaceful society will emerge.  I think by nature we are curious people and if we can break through the barriers that prevent us from entering another's world, then our lives will be greatly enriched.  If you ever happen to meet someone who toured with Up With People, I am sure they would say that it remains one of the most treasured experiences in their life.  If you get a chance to see a show, go.  It's good fun...like show choir on speed!  And sing along when they bust out their theme song.  You know you know it...it lurks in the back of minds everywhere.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Spring Psychosis

I walked into my kitchen early on Saturday to make coffee, as I do every morning, to be met with this scene outside of my window.  I thought, I better make it a double! It was April 14 and I could not believe that I was seeing snow.  Big, heavy, wet snowflakes were coming down in rapid succession and I do not think that blizzard like conditions was an inaccurate description.  Alas, Tanner needed to be walked so I resigned myself to the weather and took him out.  He had so much fun in the snow that it improved my mood.  And I knew it couldn't last, right?  I did feel a bit sorry for the wildflowers and daffodils who did not appreciate being wrapped in a blanket of white.  But I guess they've been growing in Sweden long enough to know that snow in April is just not all that uncommon.
Then I went to a long meeting at church in a basement room with no windows to the outside.  When I emerged at 5.00 p.m. I could not believe the beautiful evening that had been brewing whilst I was cloistered below ground.  While a bit chilly, the sun was bright, the snow was melting and hints of spring were back in the air.  We took another walk with Tanner, this one decidedly more lovely and dry and soaked in the beauty of the spring light that shines on Stockholm.  It was a three season day with the snow indicating winter, the temperature feeling like autumn, and the wildflowers indicating spring!  Summer is still lurking somewhere...we hope.  By Monday all the snow was gone from this pier.
 We walked out to Skeppsholmen and Kastelholmen.  The spring light grabbed our attention once again.  Most of the snow was completely gone and it was a lovely day to be out.   I had heard rumors that the cherry blossoms were thinking about blooming. With the snow over the weekend I feared that the blossoms would all be on the ground.  As we turned into Kungsträdsgården, I could see that they weren't in full bloom yet, but there was a definite effort going on!  The cherry blossom bloom is one of my favorite things here in Stockholm so I will be wandering down there regularly this week.  It is beautiful, of course, but definitely the most assuring sign that spring is here and summer will soon follow. There is a cherry blossom festival Saturday. If there is anything blowing around, I hope it's just loose flower petals!   
I do wonder however, how many more 2, 3, or even 4 season days we have ahead of us.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Easter Celebration 2012

After the sorrow of the Good Friday service and the sadness at the Rwandan Remembrance, we were good and ready for a joyous celebration of the Resurrection.  What fun to decorate the church with bright flowers, sing songs that truly put a new song in one's heart, and gather with our church family to rejoice.  An added bonus was the dedication of a little baby girl at the one of the services.  Her dad is Swedish and her mom Nigerian and she was too cute for words.  I had the privilege of preaching and enjoyed bringing a word of hope and promise, that because the tomb is empty our lives are not.  What follows is my sermon text.  May the hope of Christ's victory over death be that which sustains us as we walk life's journey.  

Near the end of the musical rendition of Victor Hugo's epic masterpiece, Les Miserables, one of the young men sings a haunting song that reflects the incredible sense of loss he's feeling in light of the number of friends he's lost to death in the revolution. Here are some of the words: There's a grief that can't be spoken, There's a pain goes on and on, Empty chairs at empty tables, Now my friends are dead and gone. Phantom faces at the window, Phantom shadows on the floor, Empty chairs at empty tables, Where my friends will meet no more. Oh my friends, my friends, don't ask me, What your sacrifice was for, Empty chairs at empty tables, Where my friends will sing no more. There's a pain goes on and on, empty chairs and empty tables.
Do you know a pain that goes on and on? Are you aware of the places in your life that feel loaded with empty chairs and empty tables? I think of those with the empty chair around the table that reminds them of the loved one who has passed and is no longer with them. Or the empty bank account that reveals the loss of a job. What about the empty crib that reminds some that they have no children or perhaps it is the empty cupboard that signifies a lack of nourishment or an inability to provide for loved ones. These symbols of emptiness point to the deep and lonely places in our lives where we feel stripped, barren, or devoid of meaning. I'm sure we can all name an empty place in our life, for the pain of loss and longing cuts deep into our lives and awakens that aching sense of emptiness that can haunt each one of us. Maybe even today you are struggling with the reality that your dreams can no longer be pursued, or feeling that the hopes you've carried are now dashed, or that what you thought would bring satisfaction has only driven you to a deeper longing and so at the end of the day, even after all your striving and seeking, you feel empty. The hollow places in our lives lead us to despair, and we wonder, what, if anything could fill our cup to satisfaction.
The irony in these emotions, however, as one author so eloquently expressed, is this, “God made us this way. He made us to yearn—to be hungry for something we can't get, to be missing something we can't find, to be disappointed with what we receive, to have an insatiable emptiness that no thing can fill, and an untamable restlessness that no discovery can still. Yearning itself is healthy—a kind of compass inside us pointing to True North. It's not the wanting that corrupts us. What corrupts us is the wanting that's misplaced, set on the wrong thing.” The seeking of fulfillment in that which will only create more longing rather than lasting satisfaction.
In so many ways everything God has done is embedded with unexpected twists so why should we be surprised that he wants to use our emptiness as a means for us to experience the greatest fulfillment that we could ever know? Think about how “backward” the ways of God seem to be: Scripture tells us that strength is made perfect in weakness, that it is the meek who shall inherit the earth, that the quickest way to being first is to be last, and that in losing your life, you gain it. And when we look at Jesus, we see not a mighty warrior, but instead a servant king. And as we have looked at the last 24 hours of Jesus' life during this Lenten season we see that while we fail, Jesus does not. While we grow weary, Jesus does not. We have discovered that there is nothing we can do or say that will ever cause Jesus to extend himself to us with anything but love, grace and forgiveness. So why should we be surprised that God decided that the best way to save the world would be through the death of his son? And why should we surprised that God decided that it would an empty tomb that would become the symbol of that which fills us up to overflowing, for it is in the empty tomb that we are able to overcome the sorrow of death and discover a future that if filled with infinite hope.
The genius in this plan is simply this: That on those days when we feel hollowed out and broken—half-dead, when our emptiness has reached the deepest place of longing and need we could ever experience, because of the empty tomb, even these moments are full of promise. Perhaps our greatest challenge lies in this profound question: Do you believe that if you leave your empty spaces, empty instead of filling them with the world's goods, that God will truly come and fill you up?
Because in the end it isn't really emptiness, per se, that is the problem because when seen from a totally different perspective, emptiness can actually become quite attractive. Think about how an empty page holds the promise of fresh ideas pouring forth from a pen, an empty in-box signifies a job well done, an empty suitcase cries out to be filled and an empty room bursts forth with decorating possibilities. Even an empty chair can signal that there is room for you at the table. The joy of emptiness is that it does hold the promise being filled with something fresh and unexpected, perhaps even something wonderful, if we can begin to see the ways in which God wants to fill us up instead of looking to the world to do the same. I think it is absolutely spot on to say that God made us this way. He made us to yearn—to always be hungry for something we can't get on our own for it is in this way that we learn to turn to God, with open, empty hands and ask him to fill us up with his love and grace. But, we must humbly come to a place where we allow our empty lives to be opened to the possibility of being filled with the fruit that come forth from the empty tomb.
One woman proclaimed that Life is full of empty promises but Easter offers emptiness that is full of promise. Why is that? Author Walter Wangerin explains it like this: “We have a faith that does not shrink from death. The fundamental concern of our faith is both to reveal with fearsome accuracy the nature of death, and to draw the sting from it by the victory of the resurrected Christ.”
The fruit that comes forth from the empty tomb points to the promise that that which we experience here on earth does not have the final word. Christ's death on the cross took our sin away and his victory over that death reveals that no earthly thing can ultimately defeat us. And we need that encouragement because many earthly things will try to bring us down. The challenge of what Christ offers us through his death and resurrection is again rooted in the reality that it is so counterintuitive to what the world has on offer. The promise of victory over death doesn't remove the sting of death from our lives. The promise of forgiveness of sin does not remove the sorrow of sin from our lives. The hope of a brand new day where weeping will be no more does not remove the horrible things in our world that bring us to tears. And yet, we do not believe in vain for Jesus Christ is indeed alive and well, working in and through all situations to ultimately turn the whole of creation towards him. Is it not through being filled with the holy spirit, Christ's enduring gift to us after he left this world in physical form, that allows us to go with God no matter where the world is heading?
As I think about life, I have considered the Easter weekend. Good Friday is a day to contemplate Christ's death but we do so with the backdrop that we know that Easter Sunday is coming and we often can't wait to get there. But what about Saturday, the day in between, the empty day, the day of no service, the day of the sealed tomb, the day of waiting.  We sit with the reality of Christ's death and wait with longing for the resurrection to renew and restore our sanctuary, our lives and our world.
And yet I can't help but think that maybe it is Saturday of Easter weekend that reveals the most important truths to us. Philip Yancey observes that “in a real sense we live on Saturday, the day with no name. Human history grinds on, between the time of promise and fulfillment. Can we trust that God can make something holy and beautiful and good out of a world that includes genocide and war and inner-city ghettos and jammed prisons? Yes, it can be said that it is Saturday on planet earth. And in so many ways we do live out our days on Saturday, the empty, in-between day with no name. And yet, we are assured that we don't have to wonder if Sunday will ever come. Christ's resurrection offers us the promise of a new life not only beyond the grave but beyond the grave circumstances that often dot our live. Christ's resurrection does not offer us a free ticket away from life's disasters, however, it does provide the knowledge that Christ can and will transform all of our darkness into a shining light that will eventually be filled with a joy that no one or no thing can ever diminish.
I realize that for many of you, you want to believe that our Christ really can change our lives in that way but you wonder how to make it personal. You long for Jesus to touch the empty places of your life and fill it with his love and grace. Your deepest need is be transformed by a living savior and you wonder how to bring it home. Perhaps you wonder if your circumstances are beyond transformation. But consider those closet to Jesus, they had to live through a Saturday of wondering as well. Think about Mary Magdalene, who was devastated by Christ's death. The emptiness that Mary carried with her to the tomb is hard to imagine. And initially the emptiness of the tomb exacerbated her grief even further. But then, when Jesus called her by name she realized that the the empty tomb meant that she will never experience the empty places in her life in quite the same way. Because in the early light of Sunday morning, the resurrected Christ appeared to her first, assured her that he knew her and then commissioned her to go and tell. Imagine the change in her life...from being woman of the street, to becoming a first hand witness of the resurrected Christ, to being called to be an evangelist of all she has seen and heard. And we cannot overlook Peter. Saturday had to be the emptiest day of Peter's life. In the previous days, he had been zealous around the table, professing his faithfulness to the death, yet sleeping in the garden, then angrily choosing violence toward a soldier, and ultimately displaying his cowardice late at night when he could not admit to knowing Jesus. Finally, he was scared and absent when Jesus was crucified. But upon hearing of the empty tomb, he ran to it, perhaps understanding that its empty state, might mean that things are turning out better than he had ever thought they could. Days later, he has breakfast by the sea with the Lord he so deeply loved yet so bitterly disappointed, and yet, Jesud pours redeeming love into those empty places that has so overwhelmed Peter. On top of everything else, he is then commissioned to build Christ's church. Peter and Mary experienced first hand how Jesus transformed their emptiness into fullness beyond comprehension through the power of the empty tomb. And so can you.
I proclaim this with confidence because Jesus himself embodied transformative change. He predicted the betrayal of his closest friends, was failed by those he loved the most, and then took on the deepest sorrow one could ever know by emptying himself on a cross in order to be filled with sins of the world. And yet, what we celebrate today is that after experiencing the deep pain and anguish of being alone on that cross, he burst forth with the greatest transformation history has ever known...breaking free from the sin that brought him to his death and rising again proving that death and sorrow and sin will absolutely never have the last word. And that empty tomb promises that you can know the power of his transforming love today.
And so my friends, on this Easter Sunday, do you understand that what's happening today, what lies at the very center of our faith, is that God is ensuring that no amount of emptiness is too deep to be filled with his love? Do you believe that your life can indeed be transformed through the power of the resurrection because God's love for us through his Son Jesus Christ has conquered death? One of the great outcomes of the resurrection is that it took what seemed irreversible, that is death, and made it reversible. That gives us the assurance that nothing in our lives is irreversible. What feels interminable in your life will indeed end. What feels utterly hopeless will indeed one day become hopeful. What screams of hollow emptiness will indeed be filled and filled to overflowing. Jesus' impossible reversal of death on the cross makes it possible for him to reverse all things in our lives as well. What is empty will be filled if we have the faith to believe that God really can fill our lives with that which will retain lasting satisfaction...forgiveness from sin, freedom in Christ, the joy of being a child of God.
Friends, the final 24 hours of Christ's life should change us forever. We no longer need fear punishment, for we have found that no matter how deep or grave or heinous our behavior, Christ's love only grows stronger. We have seen that God responds to humanity's sin and torturous behavior by emptying his son's life in order to fill it with our sin. And we know that God emptied the tomb by raising Jesus from the dead in order to fill our world with the hope of eternal life. So on this blessed Easter Sunday, be filled with the love of God, who loves us even when we are unloveable. Be filled with the grace of God which pours forth forgiveness and healing into the deep holes in our lives. Be filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit who ensures us that we need never know the emptiness of isolation or loneliness for Christ is alive today and here in our midst. The tomb is empty and therefore our lives are not. Know beyond a shadow of doubt that Christ's unfailing love is the most wonderful thing you can experience.
Be filled with Christ's love and celebrate the beauty that is our through our resurrected Lord. Amen.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Remembering Rwanda

Saturday, April 7 was a day of commemoration and remembrance of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.  18 years have passed since that horrible period in Rwanda's history and they are continuing to seek to heal and move forward as a nation.  Many Rwandans live in Sweden and are a part of our church so we are privileged to assist them in holding this commemorative event at Immanuel.  The Ambassador of Rwanda to Sweden was present and she gave a moving and beautiful speech regarding the hopes and dreams of a future filled with peace and harmony among her fellow countrymen.  At the beginning of the service, various children lit candles for different groups of people who had been killed in the genocide.  They recited texts in English, Swedish and Kinyarwanda.  Of course, these children were not alive when the genocide unfolded, but it is important to their families that they come to an understanding of what took place in their home nation and how some of their family members perished as well.
The congregation was then invited to come forward and light candles as well. 
We must remember so that we never forget.
Songs were sung, speeches were given, films were shown, and a survivor of the genocide shared her story.  It is hard to imagine how one survives something like this and yet the hope that burns for a brighter future is truly inspiring.  The slogan for the day was simply and eloquently this: "Let's learn from history in order to shape a brighter future."  Those are words that all nations of our world need to embrace and work hard at fulfilling.

Good Friday

We shared Good Friday with our congregation through the use of a dramatic reading that six different people participated in.  The Passion narrative speaks for itself so we simply allowed the scriptures to tell the story of Jesus' death.  The readers brought their own voice and accent to the scene.  Again, it was incredible to have people from these nations reading Christ's passion in dramatic fashion: India, Sweden, Zimbabwe, Switzerland, Great Britain, and Malawi.
This is a somber service, with minimal decoration.  A dark cloth and black candles along with a single red rose dot the altar and the candles are extinguished one by one as we grow closer to Christ's death.  The music is reflective and quiet.  The sanctuary grows dim as we move towards the crucifixion.  The service ends in total darkness with only this slide on the walls.  We allow the silence to hang in the air, feeling the deep impact of death.  Jesus does indeed rise again from the dead, but it's also good to know that he died a horrible death on our behalf.  And so we sit with darkness and with death and in silence.  Some tears are shed.  We depart in silence.  It is the one day all year that no fellowship time is offered after the service.  It leaves you hungry to return to on Easter Sunday, eager for the good news that death has been defeated.
We had some close friends over for dinner after the service.  The one family that was with us are among the very first friends we made after we moved to Sweden.  The kids were little then and now they are grown women.  Expressions of how much the church has meant to all of us were shared around the table.  We recalled meeting one another for the first time and feel so grateful that Immanuel International brings people together from around the world to share our common faith and rejoice in the gift of friendship.  Even the snow on Good Friday could not destroy the warmth that we shared around the table! 
Much good food was shared including this pavlova for dessert.  When the dishes were cleared and the guests had left, a beautiful glow lingered in the dining room.  The joy of salvation and the warmth of friendship were celebrated on this very Good Friday.

The Joyful Feast of the People of God

We had a full and beauty-filled Easter weekend.  It began on Thursday night when we made our way to our Pakistani friends home for our annual Passover/Communion celebration.  It has become a lovely tradition to gather with friends from around the globe, to make the connection between Passover and Easter, to celebrate Holy Communion together and to remember.  On this occasion I was struck by the beautiful diversity that emerged throughout the evening.  People from all over the world had gathered to remember what Jesus had shared with his disciples on the night before he was crucified.  It was on that night that Jesus left us with the command to remember him in the Lord's Supper until he came again in glory.  As we passed the bread and cup to one another, I was amazed to hear the words of institution repeated in at least 3 different languages: English, Urdu, and Swedish.  It was a living picture of the liturgy that we share when we celebrate communion together: Many will come from East and West and sit at table with our Lord.
Yasin and Rozina Farhat, our fine hosts
After communion, we feasted on an amazing spread of delicious food.  The Indians and Pakistanis know how to cook with unparalleled flavor!  We ended the evening with a Passover quiz that Doug had prepared.  We laughed as we learned, all of us taking in a new piece of knowledge regarding the passover seder that our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate at this time of year.  Rich in symbolism, we would do well to reinstitute some of the traditions in our Christian practices.
The evening started my Easter weekend in fine fashion.  The hospitality of our hosts touches me deeply.  Sitting at table with those I so deeply love and respect is such a gift.  Thank you Yasin and Rozina, Lalit and Sujata for sharing your gifts of hospitality, generosity and joy in such a gracious and wonderful manner.  (These photos are Yasin's)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Palm Sunday: From Cheers to Jeers

We had a wonderful Palm Sunday worship service yesterday.  So much joy, anticipation and excitement contrasted with what the week ahead involves for Christians worldwide.  Doug led the kids in a wonderful Hosanna celebration during our children's time, the sanctuary looked great with the added decorations and the hymns and songs that enabled us to shout Hosanna helped us grow closer to the reality of what we were lifting up on this Sunday.  
Sometimes it's hard to know what note to hit on Palm Sunday.  We've been in the season of Lent, where we've been trying to help people reflect more intentionally on the ways in which we miss the mark when it comes to serving God yet also draping everything against the backdrop of Christ's incredible gift of forgiveness and redemption.  So here comes Palm Sunday with its parade and palm branches and hosannas.  For a brief moment we cast aside the heaviness of the season and rejoice in our savior king.  But the donkey upon which Jesus rode reminds us of his humility and perhaps points to the further humiliation he will receive in just a few short days.  The way in which the crowd turned their cheers into jeers points to how fickle humanity really can be.
And so the final leg of our journey toward the Easter weekend commenced with a day of a worship which celebrated our Lord's entry into Jerusalem, but gathered us around the communion table where we considered the sacrifice where it all culminates.  Here's my prayer from yesterday.  May your journey through this holy week be one of humility, awe, and thankfulness.  

Loving and Gracious God,
We are here today, singing our praise, shouting Hosanna, giving you all glory, laud, and honor. We rejoice in our ability to proclaim you as the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We love to recreate the energy and emotion of that first Palm Sunday, when you entered into Jerusalem, on a humble donkey, surrounded by the joy and exaltation of a people who were thrilled to be in your presence. We long to taste the palpable conviction that even the rocks and trees were going to praise you that day, regardless of the disappointment this brought to the authorities. And so today we join the throngs that shout out to you, lifting you high, offering you our praise, giving you the glory that is deserving as the Son of God, our Savior and redeemer.
And yet, it is also here that we come to grips with the duplicity of our praise. Even as we praise your name as Savior and redeemer we subtly admit that we need to be saved from our sin, redeemed from our ungodliness. We cannot deny the reality that the joy of your parade into Jerusalem turned so quickly to pain that signaled the sacrifice of your own self.  And so let this day also remind us that while our expressions can quickly go from cheers to jeers, your faithfulness and love remain true.  When we bring you our highest praise, you humbly serve us. When we turn away from you, and cast stones, or deny your existence, and hurt you with our less than Christ-like actions, your action remains the same: unconditional love coupled with unrelenting forgiveness for our sin. Lord, this humbles us. And so dear God, as we head into this holiest of weeks, may we be mindful of the things in our lives that need to change. May we confess with humility those areas where we hold tightly to what we want and offer our lives to you as readily as we offer our shouts of Hosanna today. Lord, may we see in the giving of your life the power to give ourselves to others in love.  When life’s struggles sear our souls or sacrifice strips us of hope, strengthen us with your spirit that strode into Jerusalem to face death even as palm branches were strewn before your path and the crowd cried “Hosanna in the highest.”
Lord, today we offer you our humble praise and ask that by the power of your spirit we be led through a meaningful holy week ahead, where we honestly grasp what you have done for us on the cross and seek to yield our lives to you, knowing that the power of your love and redemption can indeed transform our very being. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.