Archive | March, 2014

A prayer for Saturday morning


Lord, it’s Saturday morning, and I’m working on my sermon. You know the one – about the man born blind, one of my favorites, but then I have so many.

What am I thinking? You were there!

I’m not sure why I feel the need to tell you what you already know – what day it is, what I’m working on, or even what I’m thinking.

Are Saturdays much different for you than Mondays? I’m thinking, as I sit here, that there’s a great deal I don’t know about you.

I don’t even know if you listen to prayers like this, but I keep offering them, trusting that you do, trusting that what I do and how I spend my time and what brings me joy are of interest to you.

So here I am, as I mentioned, working on my sermon for tomorrow, something that brings me a great deal of joy. I used to tell my family, when they asked me what I was doing on Saturday morning, that I was “tweaking” my sermon.

But the truth is, I’m doing more than that. I’m polishing it, learning it, weighing the value of each word I plan to say, and praying that my congregation will enjoy the hearing of it as much as I enjoy the preparation of it.

More than anything this is a prayer of thanks – for the opportunity to do this thing that I love to do.

In Jesus’ name.

(Photo: where I now live.)

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Don’t mess with Switzerland

swiss bomb shelter

My new Swiss friends probably wondered how long it would be before I blogged about bomb shelters.

Yes, bomb shelters.

Switzerland hasn’t fought a war in 500 years and has no enemies (it’s true that the European Union isn’t happy with Switzerland at the moment, because of a recent referendum on limiting immigration, but so far as I know is not unhappy enough to go to war), so why would this country require require bomb shelters (stocked with ample provisions) for all of its citizens?

According to Swiss law, every dwelling built in the country since 1968 must have a bomb shelter able to withstand the blast of a 50 megaton explosion at the distance of 700 meters (nearly a half mile). By way of comparison, the Fat Man bomb detonated 600 meters above Nagasaki measured only 21 kilotons.

For those of you who are concerned about me, there is a shelter in the basement of our apartment building with some very serious-looking doors. If a missile comes our way, the Swiss are determined that I survive, along with everyone in our apartment building, most of whom I haven’t met yet.

Interestingly – I did not know this before my move – neutrality does not mean the absence of a military or the lack of willingness to fight. Military service is compulsory in Switzerland (I am just beyond the age when I should be concerned about being drafted), and the Swiss participate in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Maybe even more surprising, the Swiss are well-armed. Nearly a third of all households have guns, compared to 43 percent of all households in the U.S., which is the most heavily armed country in the world.

And then, as if all of that were not enough, Switzerland is a country where the national hero is William Tell. He’s bigger than George Washington, at least in terms of how the national psyche has been formed. Never mind that his life and adventures are most likely a legend, it’s the spirit that lives on. And it’s a spirit to be reckoned with.

You’ve heard of the ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ slogan? I think it’s fair to say that you shouldn’t mess with Switzerland either.

These people are in it to win it – or at least to survive it.

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A prayer for Sunday morning

first reformed church

Lord, it’s hard for me, as you know, to sleep on Sunday mornings. Almost as soon as I open my eyes, my mind goes to work – the adult ed class I will teach, the sermon I’ve prepared, the people I am hoping to see.

So, I sit at my desk – half-awake, in the early light – and I contemplate the day, this day, the day you have made. (I’m not quite ready to rejoice and be glad in it, though that will come.)

I like the sermon I’ve prepared. It’s got a couple of good laugh lines and also what my father-in-law used to call “meat-and-potatoes.”

It’s not unusual for me to feel good about the sermon at this point in the morning. What happens is that I probably won’t like it so much in a few hours, but then we’ve been all through that, haven’t we, Lord?

I promise to give it my best, and then I’ll try not to spend the rest of the day criticizing it and thinking of all the ways it could have been better.

As for the people, I’m grateful for them.

I’m amazed, frankly, that any of them will show up. It’s such a gloomy, rainy, chilly day that I wonder if I would take a shower, get dressed, and go to church, if I didn’t have to be there. I’d be tempted to tell the preacher later in the week how I can contemplate you just by looking out of my window with a cup of coffee in my hand, which is pretty much what I’m doing right now.

But that’s just the thing: not many of them do that – stay home, I mean. The church, I know from experience, will be mostly full. And there will be lots of children too, a couple hundred of them, thinking that it’s the most natural thing in the world to go to church on Sunday morning. Little do they know.

I am grateful for this day, Lord, for this gift you have given me to do what I love to do. May it be a good day – for you and for us.

In Jesus’ name, I pray.

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Westboro Baptist and me

westboro baptist church

I remember the Sunday morning. We knew they were coming. My church was picketed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

A group at the University of Michigan was premiering “The Matthew Shepard Story” on Saturday night (that’s the movie based on a true story about a gay college student killed in an act of cruel and senseless violence), and the Westboro Baptist folks were going to show up and protest the premiere with their infamous signs.

Having nothing better to do the next morning, they were coming to my church. Why? Presumably not because of anything we had done, or stands we had taken, because my church had been mostly silent on the one subject that Westboro Baptist seemed to be narrowly fixated on.  It was, we were told, because my church was the biggest, most visible one in town. For a movement or crusade or whatever they are that thrives on publicity, my church was the best option available for a protest on that particular Sunday morning.

I talked with the leadership about what to do. At first I argued in favor of kindness. I wanted to bring hot chocolate and doughnuts to the protesters, even inviting them in for worship. “Won’t work,” we were told by police. “These are skilled demonstrators who do what they’ve come to do and then leave.”

So, in the end, we didn’t do much. We had a larger crowd than usual, a sign that we wouldn’t be intimidated, although maybe some people came just to see for themselves. Nothing like a spectacle to draw a crowd.

I liked it, though, that my congregation was cordial and welcoming. They did not return hate for hate. They said, “Good morning” to the protestors and then entered the church. Some even tried, as I did, to engage them in conversation.

From my study window I could see the protesters and the signs that have come to be identified with the Westboro Baptist Church. “God hates fags” was the one I knew best. “Your pastor is a whore” was one I hadn’t seen before, and – yes – it stung a bit.

This week we learned that Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist, has died. My first thought, I’m ashamed to admit, was that I wanted to picket his funeral. But I let go of that thought as quickly as I could.

What I’m thinking now, as I type this blog, is that I hope God deals mercifully with him. Not because he deserves mercy – none of us does – but because I believe in a merciful God, a God who will one day deal mercifully with me (I hope).

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Tina Turner and me

Tina Turner newly swissed

No, I haven’t met Tina Turner. I’m hoping to, of course, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Other people I know say that they have spotted her at the grocery store, and since she lives just two train stops away from where I live, it’s only a matter of time.

What will I say when we finally meet? That’s the thing, isn’t it? What do you say to someone like Tina Turner, who probably moved to Switzerland to avoid people like me, people who get all star-struck and then say dumb things around celebrities.

My track record is not good.

On a short vacation a few years ago to Ixtapa, Mexico, Susan and I stayed at a resort hotel that was host to a celebrity golf tournament, and you’ll never guess who I met at the elevator one day. Give up? It was Dick Van Patten. Yes, him! Remember his role as family patriarch Tom Bradford on the TV sitcom Eight is Enough?

Anyway, I smiled and put out my hand to press the up button on the elevator, and Mr. Van Patten thought I was reaching out to shake his hand, so he took my hand graciously and shook it. We said “hi,” a moment that I’m sure he still cherishes deeply.

That was my brush with celebrity.

But Tina Turner is different. She grew up in the American South, was raised by grandparents in a strict Baptist church, and in adulthood has rather publicly embraced Buddhism, even saying that this new faith helped her through difficult times, of which she seems to have had more than her share. Actually, she has called herself a “Buddhist-Baptist” and says that, when she prays, she prays in both a Baptist and Buddhist style which, I have to say, makes me all the more curious. Pastors are attuned to statements like that.

So, I would very much enjoy meeting Ms. Turner, and if I could manage to avoid the awkwardness I experienced with my dear friend Dick Van Patten, I would enjoy having a conversation with her about her spiritual life.

She has one – a spiritual life, that is – for which I’m grateful.  And I would love to know more, if she would be willing to talk.

And then, because I can’t help myself in situations like that, I would probably ask her if she would consider singing at my church – not a concert, but a gospel song, in worship, just one Sunday morning, please. You can’t blame me for dreaming.

(Note: For other posts like this one, click on the “historical figures” tag. You’ll find posts about George Washington, Picasso, Pope Francis, and others.)

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People have been asking me for more blog posts about life in Switzerland.

Well, actually one person said recently, ‘How is it going?’ And with that kind of clamoring for information about my Swiss adventure, I decided to write about a uniquely Swiss concept for which the people here have their very own word – überpünktlich.

Don’t worry about the pronunciation. As with most Swiss German words, I’ve discovered, there is no accepted pronunciation. Every canton – and probably every village within the canton – will have its own distinct pronunciation of the word. (And all of the many variations will sound exactly the same to the untrained ear, by which I mean my own untrained ear.)

But back to überpünktlich.

Literally, the word means ‘over punctual,’ as you might have guessed, but strangely this is not an insult to most Swiss Germans. The word might even be a compliment, except that most Swiss can’t conceive of another way of living their lives. How can you compliment someone for something that is so deeply ingrained that they no longer notice it?

I now live among a people who have an obsession with time, though to mention this to someone here would be like saying to a fish, ‘You have an obsession with water.’

I think it’s telling that the Swiss do not ask, ‘What time is it?’ Instead, they ask, ‘How late is it?’ And with that question, you can begin to understand a little of my new life.

Most days I take the 5:15 train from the Zürich train station to the village where I now live (except that we like to think of it as the 17:15 train here). Most days that train arrives precisely at 5:15. If, as happened earlier in the week, the train has not appeared by 5:16, the people around me begin to look at their watches and exchange worried looks. Life as we know it seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos, until the 5:15 train arrives seconds later, and life can once again proceed.

Swiss church steeples typically have giant clocks on them, and the churches toll their bells at 15-minute intervals – day and night. It’s hard to conceive of this happening anywhere in the U.S., even in the most religous parts of the country, and that’s because the ringing bells, I believe, have less to do with religion than they do with life itself.

‘Time is everything’ was once the advertising slogan for the national airline, Swissair (which exists today with a new name and different ownership), but the slogan is really the description for an entire culture, an entire way of life.

Excuse me, I have a train to catch. And I’m reasonably certain that it won’t be late. Tschüss!

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The selfie comes to church!

Remember this…from the Academy Awards broadcast a week ago?

academy awards selfie

Well, how about this…from my installation last Sunday at the International Protestant Church of Zurich? No Brad, Angelina, Meryl, Jennifer, and others, but some fine people nonetheless.

academy awards response selfie

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Will Pope Francis get a performance review?

Vatican Pope New Car

As Pope Francis approaches the first anniversary of his election as Bishop of Rome (a title he prefers), I was wondering if the Vatican’s personnel committee was planning a performance review – you know, a little helpful feedback on how he’s doing, some praise points as well as areas that need improvement.

I’m not volunteering for the assignment, but I had a few thoughts to pass along.  Sorry, they’re in English, not in Latin.

First, people have paid a lot of attention to where the Pope lives.   Apparently he’s chosen not to occupy the sumptuous papal apartments, but has chosen instead to stay in the same dormitory room where he was quartered during the conclave last year. At first I wondered why it mattered so much where he lived, and then I remembered that a lot of people have paid attention over the years to where I live too. A nice house (but not too nice) seems to be the preference. So, high marks here for his holiness.

Second, the car he drives. Pope Francis has famously ditched the old pope mobile (provided by Mercedes) and has opted instead for a less ostentatious vehicle (a Renault), more moderately priced, but still sturdy. Again, the holy father should be commended. Transportation choice says a lot about a pastor’s character, though I’ve never been able to figure out what exactly. Red convertible? No, no, no. Black sedan? Perfect! (Preferably used, but still in good working order.)

Third, the shoes he wears. I don’t remember this, but the Pope’s predecessor (I forget his name) apparently preferred to wear an expensive brand of slippers, with showy red soles. Many people were put off by this, and the new Pope – to his credit – has opted for a simple black shoe, probably found on the shelf at Target. And then I can’t help but add here that the Pope frequently leaves the Vatican in the simple black attire of a parish priest, so he has noticeably dialed back the fashion forward look of the now-retired Benedict.  (I knew his name would come to me. How quickly we forget the last guy.)

Once again I say, good move! We don’t want our popes to be too concerned about their appearance. Neat, well-groomed, but modest.  Certainly no GQ covers.

And fourth – but, really, what else is there?

What about that first sermon he preached titled “The Joy of the Gospel”? I know a lot of people didn’t like it – Rush Limbaugh, for example – but I say it had good content and was passionately delivered. So, mixed reviews on this. He needs to step it up with his preaching – content and delivery.

Overall grade? The usual advice for new pastors is to make no dramatic changes during the first year. And the new pope has done nothing dramatic. No doctrines have been changed. No scriptural interpretation altered. Most of what the new pope has done has been … what, symbolic?

Yes, but strangely refreshing nonetheless.

(Photo: a sturdy used car for the new pope. Easy to park, gets good mileage. Just right!)

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Prayer for the First Sunday in Lent

It's Lent - try the perch

Lord, at the beginning of Lent, I confess to you that I’ve never really liked this season. I’ve never really liked the fasting, the giving up of stuff I like, the somber feeling I get when I come to worship, or actually anything about it, except maybe for the color purple. I’ve got some great Lenten stoles.

Rather than just admitting that I like to eat and that I hate to give up stuff I like, I’ve pretended over the years to be a little put off by the season. In my preaching I’ve reminded people that Jesus wanted people to do their praying and so forth in private, not showing off about their piety and Lenten observance, but then you heard that, didn’t you?

I never know if you listen to my sermons or not. You do, don’t you?

And I’ve been very enthusiastic – as you know, Lord – about encouraging people to “take something on” instead of “giving something up.” I’m pretty sure you saw through that little ploy, but my people loved it and asked for more. What was I to do?

So, here I am, Lord, before heading off to church on the First Sunday in Lent, feeling just the tiniest bit unsettled. I haven’t given anything up, and I don’t think I can really take on anything more.

I’ve mentioned how busy I am, haven’t I? It’s really tough right about now, with so many meetings to go to. I don’t have time for some silly spiritual discipline. (Sorry, but a few of them do seem silly to me. Giving up chocolate? Really?) My plan is to do what I do every year. I’ll go through the motions, trusting that you’ll overlook my half-hearted attempts to observe this season.

I will do one other thing, though, Lord. I promise to think long and hard about this season and what it means and why we bother to observe it at all, because on Easter morning I so look forward to the big, happy crowds, and the joyful singing, and the brass instruments, and the smell of lilies. I just want to get through all of this unpleasantness as quickly as possible. You can understand that, can’t you?

Lord? Are you still there?

Your humble (and very busy) servant,


(Art credit: so far as I know, no one is complaining about the commercialization of the Lenten season, but here’s an ad that might be irritating, if it weren’t so funny. It’s Lent, so go out to eat? At Butch’s? And try the perch? I don’t know what to say.)

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One Ash Wednesday several years ago…

burning ash wednesday ashes

One Ash Wednesday several years ago, I headed to the church kitchen with an armful of very dry palm fronds.

You can buy very nice, pre-moistened ashes from Catholic church supply stores in the United States, and my church did that for several years, until I decided to try the ancient custom of creating my own, using the palm fronds I had saved from the previous Palm Sunday.

I had stashed them away in my office, hoping that the cleaning service wouldn’t throw them away. The cleaning service treated just about everything in my office, including the overflowing wastebasket, as sacred, and so the fronds survived undisturbed for nearly a year.

What I imagined as I headed for the kitchen that morning was a truly holy moment, filled with deep spiritual meaning, the wonder of palms being turned into ashes for the Ash Wednesday service that evening.

What happened was something very different. The palm fronds immediately burst into flames, setting off the church’s smoke detectors and releasing quite an unexpected, pungent odor throughout the church.

After the smoke detector stopped screeching, what was left was the smell, which we couldn’t seem to get rid of, and so all afternoon people came to the church and commented on the strange smell. Our receptionist couldn’t keep from laughing each time she told the story.

My attempts to create holy moments often go like that. What I intend as holy and meaningful often turns out to be comical and forgettable. On the other hand, when I am least expecting an encounter with the holy, it’s then that something truly remarkable and mysterious is likely to happen.

That night, as I was applying the ashes to the foreheads of members as they came forward, I realized that the meaning was not in the kitchen ritual, but in the touch and in saying the words, ‘Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.’

I touched the foreheads of at least a couple hundred people that night. I gripped their arms, I looked them in the eyes, and I realized that those people were God’s faithful, entrusted to my sometimes-clumsy care. Now that was a holy moment.

I hope your Ash Wednesday this year is a holy one. You probably won’t have to work as hard as I did to make it that way.

(Photo: I don’t know who that is, but I’m guessing that’s the right way to burn palm fronds.)

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