Dear family and friends,
I first started writing these things about 30 years ago. They were smart, funny, and irreverent. Just like me, or the person I imagined myself to be.
At the beginning my Christmas letters were the opposite of most Christmas letters you receive, the ones describing incredible promotions and fabulous vacations and over-achieving children. My Christmas letters had an ironic tone, a slightly amused look at the year just ended.
My favorite Christmas letter, now apparently lost from the historical record, described Susan’s courtroom theatrics in New Jersey when we and all of our neighbors were cited by an over-zealous police officer for failure to shovel the snow from our sidewalks within 24 hours after a particularly bad snowstorm. The charges were dropped because the police officer couldn’t say for sure if there was, in fact, a sidewalk under all of that snow. Susan got him to admit, under oath, that he didn’t actually get out of his car to check.
After reading that particular letter, my mother said, “You don’t send that to church members, do you?”
So, over the years, as the mailing list expanded, my annual Christmas letter became less smart, less funny, and more reverent. Just like me, middle-aged Doug.
The lowest blow of all came from Susan a few years ago when she said, “You’re getting to be just like Woody Allen, not nearly as funny anymore.”
Now, my Christmas letter is even available on-line, and whatever was exciting about this annual event is gone. A dear friend once wrote that he saved my letter for Christmas afternoon, after all of the parties were over. He sat in his leather recliner, he told me, with a glass of eggnog and bourbon, so that he could enjoy it.
It’s been a long time since anyone has said such a sweet thing. So, let’s get this over with. For this you can skip the eggnog.
Early last year Susan and I moved to Switzerland.
Take a few seconds, as I did, to absorb that sentence. We sold our house and car and most of my Tommy Bahama shirts, which I never really liked anyway, and we loaded a few of our remaining possessions into a shipping container for the trans-Atlantic voyage. The rest of what we own, including the other car, went into storage, somewhere near Holland, Michigan.
I moved to a country that is almost unimaginably beautiful. Not just on postcards, but everywhere, all the time. Sometimes the beauty is overwhelming. I’ll drive over a mountain ridge and see my village below, with Lake Zurich and snow-covered mountains in the distance, and I’ll be at a loss for words, mouth gaping.
I bought a camera last summer, partly so that I could observe the beauty more closely, so that I could capture a small part of it, as though beauty is something that can be recorded and catalogued.
I serve a church that is unlike any I have ever served before. It has elders and youth group and Sunday School and children’s choir, so it’s a little like other churches I have served before. Not surprisingly I lead worship pretty much the way I always have. And my sermons sound similar too. But in many ways this church is very different, delightfully different, and occasionally maddeningly different.
One time – it was my first Sunday at the church, and I didn’t have anything to do that day but sit in the congregation – we had just finished communion, and Susan leaned over and said, “That was awesome.” And I had to agree. It was. It had been a long time since she and I both felt that way.
I now stand behind the communion table on Sunday mornings, saying, “People will come from east and west, from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom that is coming.” And after saying it, I now think, “It’s already here.”
Here, but not yet here.
We have our problems too. Finding a way to get along with so many different cultural (and spiritual) expectations is a challenge. Extra grace is often required, and grace, like gold, always seems to be in short supply.
I am learning a new language . After ten months I know a lot of German grammar and vocabulary. I can even make sense of the little tabloid – 20 Minuten – which commuters read on the train. But I am lost in most conversations with German-speaking people, and I have a hard time telling my barber how to cut my hair (not that barbers ever listen).
I live on the top floor of an apartment building with views of Lake Zurich and the mountains, a 12-minute train ride from Zurich. I can see the traffic on the Seestrasse below, and I can hear the church bells at all hours, every fifteen minutes. I walk the dog through the village every morning, in the dark, whispering “grüezi” to other dog walkers. I try not to smile, because Americans do that too much, I’m told, and it feels insincere to the indigenous population.
It is a good life. I am content (most days). I write blog posts. I have an idea for a book about multicultural congregations which my editor and publisher seem to find interesting. I hike the mountain ridge behind my village. I take pictures. I love my new congregation.
The downside, of course, is that I miss my children. They live (and work) a half a world away. They are married to good men. They have good jobs. And I am proud of them, more than I can adequately express. But I miss them. Occasional FaceTime chats are not enough. I watch their faces on the tiny screen. They are not the little girls I remember. And that’s good. But I miss those days. Those were good days too.
I miss my grand-daughter. I had the thrill of seeing her take her first steps last August. She waited, I like to think, just so that I could be a witness. Or maybe her parents held her back a few days. Whatever it was, I was moved, as I was with my own daughters, about the powerful life force within us that wants to get up and get moving. She did and she is. She walks with ease now. There’s no stopping her. But last August those first tentative steps were – how do I describe it? – like grace. What can you do but savor it?
I can’t wait for Christmas this year. Partly because Christmas is so beautiful here, of course, and partly because I always look forward to Christmas Eve and the service of lessons and carols in a darkened sanctuary, filling up once again on that wonderful message of hope and joy. But mostly because, after a long flight on Christmas Day, I will be with family, my family.
I hope you have a good Christmas too. Fröhliche Weihnachten.