Archive | November, 2013

Black Friday Blog News

Black Friday shoppers

You won’t be surprised to know that I didn’t camp out last night in front of the local Best Buy. I wish retailers all the best, of course, but I’m not a shopper. Ask anyone.

Like retailers, though, I have a strong interest in the numbers, and I’ve been looking at my blog traffic for the last couple of months.

Things are looking good.

There’s nothing like announcing a move to Switzerland (and turning 60) to drive traffic to your blog.

For the month of October I logged nearly 5,000 “unique views,” my best month ever. My best day ever occurred in October too. On October 21, there were 513 visits to my blog. That was the day I published “Saying Goodbye.”

Here’s some new data I found in Google Analytics. Most of my visitors are men. Surprised? I am, a little.

54 percent of you are men, and only 46 percent are women. With church membership skewing decidedly to women these days – 60 to 40, according to recent studies – I would have guessed that more of my readers would be women.

Here’s another surprise. My readers skew to the younger ages. 28 percent of you are between 18 and 24 years of age, while 34 percent are between 25 and 34. That means – whoa, have to be careful with my higher-level math computations here – over half of my readers are younger than 34 years old.

Of course maybe blog readers tend to be younger, on average, too. But I’m still surprised. And pleased. I’ll have to write less about getting older. That can’t be all that interesting to the 20-something set.

One last thing. Members of my new congregation in Zurich seem to have lost interest. In the ranking by city, residents of Zurich ranked second back in September. Today Zurich ranks 15th.

Here is the ranking of the top 20 cities where my readers live:

Fort Lauderdale, FL
Ann Arbor, MI
Wheaton, IL
Plantation, FL
Hialeah, FL
Chicago, IL
Holland, MI
Coral Springs, FL
Pompano Beach, FL
Grand Rapids, MI
Glen Ellyn, IL
Davie, FL
Hollywood, FL
Weston, FL
Zurich, Switzerland
Hallandale Beach, FL
Glasgow, Scotland
Hong Kong, China
Madison, WI
Tallahassee, FL

Interesting, isn’t it? Am grateful to my readers for their interest.  Happy  Black Friday.

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Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!


Sometimes the prayers of those who have lived the faith before us are the prayers we most need to pray. The following is from the Book of Common Prayer.

My favorite line? “We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.” Today I will try to be grateful for my “disappointments and failures” because of the way they have pushed me to acknowledge my utter dependence on the One who loves me.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.


Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have
done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole
creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life,
and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for
the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best
efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy
and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures
that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the
truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast
obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying,
through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life
again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and
make him known; and through him, at all times and in all
places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

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Getting ready for Thanksgiving Day

thank you word cloud
Am I thankful? Sure, I guess.

The truth is, I usually need to be reminded. It’s not as though gratitude happens easily and naturally for me. With all of the good things in my life, with all of the moments of wonder and amazement, with a dream job and a new grandchild and good health, you’d think I would be thankful pretty much all the time.

But that’s not the way it is.

Much of the time – and I’m certainly not proud of this – I find myself thinking about what I don’t have. I’m not alone in this, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. Comparing myself to other people has turned out to be the number one gratitude killer in my life. I can find myself depressed and resentful in no time at all – just by looking around.

Maybe if I had less, I would be more grateful when something good came my way. On mission trips, when I have worked in situations of terrible poverty, I have often been struck by how much gratitude there is. Invariably the poorest of the poor live with so much more gratitude than I do.

Once, in the Philippines, I was with a church group that was building a house. Across the street I noticed a house much like the one we were building, and stenciled in tall letters across the front of the house were the words, “God is good, all the time.”

After a couple of days of reflecting on what that might mean – in a situation where God’s goodness wasn’t all that easy for me to see – I walked over and knocked on the door. I wanted to meet and maybe learn something from these people.

I was dirty and covered in sweat, but I was invited in anyway. And after introductions, after they offered to share with me just about everything they had, which wasn’t much, I mentioned the words on the front of the house.

They seemed surprised. Wasn’t it obvious? They had a place to live, didn’t they? Lots of people didn’t have that much. So, they were thankful. And it showed. The feeling of gratitude in that house was obvious and deeply moving. I left wondering why I didn’t have those same words stenciled across the front of my house.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. It’s my favorite holiday. One of them, anyway. And I think that what I like about Thanksgiving Day is that people like me who ought to be more grateful than we are will take time to name some of the things we’re grateful for. Before we eat, we’ll go around the dinner table, and each person will mention at least one thing. And then we’ll go around again. And again.

I am thankful. I wish I could be more thankful than I am.

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A little quality time with the Apostle Paul and Teddy Roosevelt

sabbatical image 2 I’ve given myself a little time between the end of one ministry and the beginning of another, mainly so that I could do something that I seldom have enough time to do – namely, read and write. I didn’t waste any time getting started – with the reading.

N.T. Wright has been a favorite theologian, and over the years his books have helped to sharpen my mind.  His much-anticipated Paul and the Faithfulness of God has just been published.  It’s not Harry Potter, but it’s surprisingly gripping.  At 1700 pages (and more than $50) reading it is a daunting project, but I can’t seem to put it down.

Here’s his project as he describes it: “For me, as for many people, ‘theology’ used to have a rather dry, abstract sound – arranging ideas in clever patterns but without much linkage to real life. With Paul all that is different. Paul was a man of action, believing that it was his God-given vocation to found and maintain communities loyal to Jesus right across a world owing allegiance to Caesar. But these communities were bound together by no social ties and indeed cut across normal social divisions. How could they be united and holy? Paul’s answer was: through prayerful, scriptural meditation on who God actually is, who God’s people are, and what God’s future is for the world. That is a kind of working definition (though I come at it in the book from several angles). These were essentially Jewish questions, but ‘theology’ in the new way Paul was doing it was something the Jewish people hadn’t needed to do – and something the non-Jewish world (for whom ‘theology’ was simply a branch of ‘physics’, the world of ‘nature’) hadn’t needed to do either. This kind of theology is a never-ending exploration – each generation has to do it afresh in its own context, and Paul gives us the tools for that rather than a set of pat ‘answers’ which mean that people don’t thereafter have to think.”

But it’s not only theology that has my attention.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, best known for her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, has a new book about Teddy Roosevelt, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.  It too is really good.

Favorite sentence so far?  Nellie Taft’s comment to her husband (who could be a bit wordy): “Many a good thing is spoiled by there being too much of it.”

I imagine that observation could apply to much of life.

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So, why travel to Israel?

photo (1)

If you’re a Christian, why go? Why sign up to go with a church group, why race around Israel for nine days in an air-conditioned tour bus listening to a government-licensed tour guide, why sing hymns at holy sites when no one is quite sure that what is supposed to have happened there actually happened there, why wade out into the Jordan to re-affirm a baptism, why sail on a Jesus boat on the Sea of Galilee, why celebrate communion at the Garden Tomb (where, most agree, Jesus did not rise from the dead)?

Why do all of these things and more (see my last post about floating in the Dead Sea)?

I’ve been thinking about these (and related) questions because I just made my fifth pilgrimage in 20 years, involving groups from three churches I’ve served along the way. For what it’s worth, the last trip may have been the best yet, so I’m no longer thinking in terms of diminishing returns as the tour leader. Each tour seems to have its own unique charm (and challenge).

An objective opinion

I’ll admit that I may not be the best person to answer these questions. It’s a little like asking a 10-year veteran of the NFL to reflect on violence and aggression in professional football. I may be too caught up in the phenomenon, too compromised, to think objectively about it.

On the other hand, maybe it’s important to hear from someone who’s been there and has seen first-hand what happens. Just so you know, I’ve done it more than some, but a lot less than others. A few of my colleagues seem to be supplementing their income by leading lots of these tours, going as often as once each year, an issue I’m not going to address in this post, though it’s an issue that’s troubling to me and worth noting.

The religious pilgrimage

Travel to Israel, as I’ve described it so far, might best be thought of as a religious pilgrimage. It’s travel, true, like travel to other parts of the world, but it’s travel with an explicit faith component, travel with faith as the central theme. If you ask most people what happened as a result of their trip to Israel, they will say that their faith was deepened, that they are now better able to visualize the place, that Bible stories have taken on new meaning and depth.

I can attest that those things have happened to me as well. I now read Bible stories with a heightened sense of the place – the geography, the weather, the soil. On my first tour I cried nearly every day as I discovered places I had been hearing about since I was a young boy in Sunday school. Seeing the Sea of Galilee for the first time nearly did me in.

Is it essential?

But is a visit to Israel essential for one’s faith? Clearly not. Not in the way a visit to Mecca would be essential to the faith of any Muslim. Many people over the years have had deep and vibrant faith without ever laying their eyes on Capernaum or the Mount of the Beatitudes. I have known plenty of people for whom a visit to Israel would have added nothing whatsoever to their faith, to their courageous, day-by-day living of the faith.

So, why go?

I’m not altogether sure. I’m conflicted about the subject, as I am (perhaps you’ve noticed if you’re a regular reader) about a number of other subjects. I see the value of such trips, and I’ve experienced that value for myself. I’m glad to have had the experiences I’ve had. But a number of issues trouble me.

From stones to “living stones”

One is the one-dimensional view of Israel that pilgrims often have.

For most tour groups there is very little attempt made to get to know, to worship with, to understand the plight of, Christians who live in the land today. When tour groups visit holy sites and do not get to know Christians in the land, they tend to see the land as frozen in time. Yes, we see ruins from the Byzantine era and we see evidence that the Crusaders passed through, but we often miss the Christians who struggle to survive there today.

If Christians continue to go to Israel – and given the industry that has grown up around these tours, it seems likely that the numbers of tourists will continue to grow – then I hope that the typical one-dimensional experience will expand to include relationships with Christians who live there today – the so-called “living stones.”

This means more than shopping in their souvenir stores; this means listening to them, understanding them, working with them to improve their situation. They are, after all, our brothers and sisters in the faith, are they not?

A return trip?

I don’t know if I’ll be going back. There are certainly other places around the world I would like to see. But if there’s another church group that expresses an interest, I’ll probably go. In fact, I will lead enthusiastically.

But I plan to make every effort to do what I do whenever I go. I plan to meet and get to know the people there who believe what I believe, who live the faith that I attempt to live each day.

They – not the ruins – are the ones who give me joy.

(Photo: Taken with my iPad inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethelem.  Not visible are hundreds of pilgrims, from nations around the world, standing behind me and waiting to descend into the grotto where, it is believed, Jesus was born.)

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The Dead Sea and Me


Anyone who has ever made the pilgrimage knows pretty much how it goes. Not the last day, but towards the end, after Masada and Qumran and En Gedi, the bus stops somewhere along the Dead Sea. Tired pilgrims stumble out of the bus with swim suits and towels in hand, and they head for the changing rooms.

I would call it a “swim,” but no one swims in the Dead Sea, not really.

After wading out farther than you might think necessary – to about hip deep – the strategy is to sit down in the water and – well – float. The mineral-rich water of the Dead Sea does most of the work.

It’s best not to swallow the water – or get any of it in the eyes.

For all of that it’s fun. Floating, paddling, and of course finishing up with the mud treatment. Even though I just returned today from my fifth visit to what American Christians like to call the “holy land,” I went into the water again. I go in every chance I get. Why? Well, did I mention that it was fun? At the lowest point on the face of the earth, I get to do something that has no particular educational value and no intellectual payoff. My preaching has never been enriched by this experience, at least not in ways I’m conscious of. I’m not even sure why it shows up on just about every holy land itinerary.

But here’s the thing: I was struck by how much laughter there was that day at the beach – not just from our group, but from groups up and down the beach. There were hundreds of people, maybe more, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and all of them were laughing, shouting, teasing, posing for pictures (see above), and playing. There were no children in sight, just a lot of adults acting like children, doing everything children do at the seashore.

And I loved it. Something seemed just right about it. After several days of lectures and presentations, learning about layer after layer of tradition (and dirt) in this part of the world, the bus stopped, we changed clothes, and the goal was nothing other than to have a good time. Other people might not have found the sights and sounds remarkable, but I did.

I don’t play much. And I need to do more of it. Play, though, is usually something I have to work at. What once came naturally to me, what I once spent hours and hours doing effortlessly, now requires a great deal of effort. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I’ve lost something precious.

I have friends who seem to know how to play, and over the years I have tended to gravitate to them, people who seem to do naturally what I have to put my mind to do.

Don’t get me wrong. My hard work over the years has paid off in some wonderful ways, but it has also hurt me in some ways too. And so, I would like to play again, like I did last Sunday afternoon. I would like to be able to play without thinking much about it, without having to fly 6000 miles and then take a bus ride to what feels like the end of the earth.

What a lesson to learn at the Dead Sea.

Tomorrow: A slightly more serious, less playful (of course), reflection on why people go the holy land. Hint: the Dead Sea doesn’t have much to do with it.

(Photo: I don’t know the guy on my left, but the two people on my right are members of my Fort Lauderdale church. Now that I’m 60, I’m more comfortable publishing swimsuit shots.)

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The man from Galilee, Elias Chacour

I first met Abuna Elias Chacour 20 years ago on what has turned out to be the first of several trips to Israel.  

I was with a group of 33 pilgrims, most of whom were members of my church in Wheaton, Illinois, and one of whom knew of Abuna and suggested that all of us read his book, Blood Brothers, before making the trip. (I will always be grateful to the person who made the suggestion.)

That first meeting – at the school Abuna founded in the Galilean village of Ibillin – profoundly shaped me in a variety of ways, not the least of which is the way I understand my own ministry. I dedicated most of a chapter to him in my book, What Should I Do With My Life?

Since that first meeting, Abuna has become Archbishop of Galilee for the Melkite Catholic Church, and our relationship has deepened, with more visits to the school and with Abuna preaching for me at my churches in Wheaton and Ann Arbor.

I would call him a dear friend – and he is to me – but the truth is that Abuna has touched the lives of hundreds more just like mine.

As my loyal blog readers may have gathered, I’ve been away for a few days – and therefore not posting. I’m back in Israel, and on the first day of the trip my group met with Abuna for nearly two hours. He told us his story and the story of his school, as he has for countless groups who have passed through over the years. For me, even though I’ve heard the story many times, the two hours passed quickly.

I am grateful that the gospel is alive and well – and being lived so courageously – in the land Jesus called home.

(Photo: Jet lagged as I am, it’s hard to miss just how delighted I am to be with my friend Abuna.)

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A Prayer for Sunday morning

church basement in Zurich

Lord, what most needs to be said this morning?  What is it that you want me to say?  I’ve got a few clever stories, as you know, and I’ve worked hard on them so that people will laugh in all the right places.  I’m pretty sure that what I have is an entertaining sermon.

But now I’m thinking that it isn’t enough, that it’s more about me than about you, just as it usually is.  I’m thinking that there might be a person (or two) in the congregation who came not to say goodbye to me, not even to laugh at my humor, but to listen for a word from you.

I’m sorry to say that it’s too late to change what I’ve got. It’s all typed and printed.  At this point I’m stuck with what I have.  So, I ask you to take my modest, self-serving offering and transform it.  Change it into something that actually sounds like the good news people are hoping to hear.  Charge it with your Spirit too, I pray, so that it’s you they see, so that it’s your words they hear, so that their lives are changed.

I pray this, with gratitude for the opportunity you’ve given me, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

(Photo credit: Thanks, Michael Blank.  Previous visitors to Switzerland may recognize that room as the lower level of the beautiful Fraumunster church in Zurich.)

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