Looking back across the ocean

fourth sunday of advent

It’s been an interesting time to be an American looking back across the ocean.

Yesterday I left my apartment building with the dog, and one of my neighbors walked over and began speaking to me in a rather animated way. I reminded him – in English – that I am still a beginner with my language study, but he kept going.

Most of my German conversation skills, by the way, have been learned here in the building with neighbors who speak little or no English. With a combination of sign language, smiling, Google translator, and my growing vocabulary, we are now able to communicate surprisingly well, though usually about friendlier topics, like dogs, for example.

“You’re American, right?” my neighbor asked, not in English and not in a friendly manner.

I said, “Ja,” sensing that this was not going to be pleasant.

“New York,” he said. And then he put his hands to his throat in a choking gesture. Finally, he waved his arm dismissively and said, “Better to live in Russia,” before walking away.

The shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, the choking death of a man selling single cigarettes in New York, the release of the torture report, together with the former Vice President’s comments that he would “do it again in a minute”  – these news items are all reported here with a mixture of fascination and revulsion.

The Swiss are frequently curious about Americans, and they speak proudly of having traveled to the U.S., but they can also be very critical. In fact, they are usually quite critical of American behavior, which in their view never measures up to the ideals we Americans loudly proclaim.

When I sat down to write out my sermon last week, I was tempted, as I am more and more these days, to preach from the headlines. It was Karl Barth – no stranger to Switzerland – who once (allegedly) said that the preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Then I opened my Bible to Luke 1 and the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, and I decided that I only get to preach on this story once each year. I was not going to waste the opportunity. I needed the message of hope and joy as much as anyone.

But even here, even at this time of year, I cannot escape the headlines.

Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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13 Responses to Looking back across the ocean

  1. Lizzy December 16, 2014 at 2:38 am #

    I hear ya. It is frustrating. I feel helpless to change US foreign policy (torture), US police behavior, etc, and yet I feel as though I bear some responsibility for these actions when I travel abroad. I’m glad you are talking about the american reputation abroad, if not from the pulpit, at least from other platforms. It is important.

  2. Mike December 16, 2014 at 3:50 am #

    Fascinating, you will let us know when your friends over there share with you when they let their radical Muslim friends know how displeased they are with the beheadings, because we hear over here that plenty of radical Muslims now call Europe home. They do realize that eventually those beheadings will be happening on their soil? Then ask how much aid they have sent around the world to all victims of natural disaster, etc. Obama is loved outside the country for all his “apologies”, but it is precisely this weakness that has undermined our ability to be good in the world.

    • Doug December 16, 2014 at 4:07 am #

      Hi, Mike. You’re up early – or going to bed late. Good to hear from you. I don’t hear all that much “Obama love” around here, and generally speaking the people here wish Americans wouldn’t do quite so much “good in the world.” And as you might imagine, the Swiss are struggling mightily with immigration and its implications, just like everyone else. Thanks for reading my blog!

  3. Mary Ninow-Thomaere December 16, 2014 at 4:59 am #

    After living in Europe with my husband for three years, including Zurich, I also deal with USA headlines (or movies for that fact) that are generalized by European’s as main stream American culture. We are a massive country– one headline in NYC or Ohio does not reflect American values. I was proud to relay during a presentation on American Christmas traditions that 85% of American’s give to charity –335 Billion dollars annually or 3% of annual incomes. Another little known fact is we turn to families & neighbors in time of need, unlike most Europeans who turn to government. We reach out to neighbors & friends, and as a country looked down upon for having no social welfare programs, the USA opens it borders to more immigrants/asylum seekers than any other country in the world. Yes, it’s big, and with that comes social problems, but those who visit the USA quickly see how we really live and the opportunity, freedom and liberties we have!

    • Doug December 16, 2014 at 2:59 pm #

      Hi, Mary. The giving culture in the U.S. is certainly something to be proud of. The social contract in the U.S. is very different, no doubt about that, not necessarily better, but certainly different. I haven’t given up my U.S. passport, but I think it’s important to listen. We Americans do too little of that.

  4. Lisa December 16, 2014 at 8:16 am #


    This is a very important topic. I feel like the rest of the world views us as a bossy sibling who thinks they know what is best for everyone,when really we need to be helping and fixing our own country’s problems. I’m praying that our politicians will finally do what they are charged to do and work for the good of the people, rather than worrying about the next election and what their “party” thinks is right.

    • Doug December 16, 2014 at 2:54 pm #

      Hi, Lisa. It’s good to hear from you! It’s an interesting situation to be in…looking at my country through the eyes of a different culture.

  5. blairblog1 December 16, 2014 at 8:21 am #

    HI Doug-

    The Swiss allow immigrants- at all??? ( Just joking- but they may be the most insular people in the world, or so it seems from those I’ve gotten to know…)

    It’s good to share Gabriel’s message of love- for all- whenever you get the chance!

    thanks for sharing.

    • Doug December 16, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

      The Swiss are concerned about immigration, as are all European countries. They let me in, but have second thoughts. Immigration is changing all of the cultures here, and there is understandable anxiety about what that might mean. I will continue to proclaim the message of Gabriel – and am honored to stand in his lineage.

  6. Matthew Friedman December 16, 2014 at 10:23 am #

    No one has commented on your final paragraph, and couple sentences!

    I am going to miss having your sermon this Christmas, here in S. Florida (can I stream the sermon from your church?). We all need the message of hope and joy, far more than we allow ourselves to be diligent enough to put down the newspaper, and read the bible.

    1 Thessalonians 5

    • Doug December 16, 2014 at 11:13 pm #

      Thanks, Matt. Will miss you and your family this Christmas as well.

  7. Marion Robbins December 16, 2014 at 8:54 pm #

    I could not ‘pass’ on the issue of torture so I recently wrote: For those who seek to justify “enhanced interrogation,” I was reminded of the classic film, Judgment at Nuremburg, which was based on the 1948 trials of four Nazi judges in Nuremburg, Germany.
    In the last scene the actor Spencer Tracy faces one of the judges who had been found guilty of crimes against humanity and spoke these words: “Before the people of the world, let it be noted that here in our decision, this is what we (the American people) stand for: justice, truth and the value of a single human being.”
    My concern now is how as a nation do we move forward to regain our humanity?

    • Doug December 16, 2014 at 11:06 pm #

      Hi, Marion. It’s good to hear from you. When half of the American people support the use of EITs, as recent polling data seemed to indicate, then we’ve got a tall mountain to climb to regain our humanity. Thanks for the reminder about a fine movie.