Archive | February, 2015

A ritual I look forward to each week

photo (15)

We have a cool ritual on Sundays at the International Protestant Church of Zurich, something I look forward to each week.

But first a word about that word “ritual.”

Where I grew up, ritual was always a bad thing. For one thing, maybe the most important thing, ritual reeked of Roman Catholicism. Catholics had rituals. We Protestants didn’t. It was that simple.

And when we spoke about ritual, the word was usually preceded by another word – “empty.” Ritual, almost by definition, was empty. In other words, mindlessly going through the motions.

The ritual I am referring to here is neither empty nor mindless. In fact, it’s exciting. I thought I might tire of it, but the fact is I get more and more interested each week. I look forward to it. Which is the best kind of ritual, I suppose.

What happens is that I stand up at the beginning of worship, move to the center of the church in front of the first row of seats, and then – in a non-ritualistic manner – offer a welcome to all in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. I also offer a special welcome to visitors and ask if they wouldn’t mind introducing themselves.

Each week, surprisingly, they do. Introduce themselves, that is.

Where I come from, asking visitors to introduce themselves or say anything at all in worship would probably make visitors feel uncomfortable and not want to come back. But here, in Zurich, something very different happens. As one stands to speak, another will feel more confident about standing, and then still others will pop up, until we have several people, maybe 10-12 of them, waiting their turn.

An usher hurries over with a microphone (and a welcome package) so that all can hear.

I sense that everyone enjoys this moment as much as I do. Even the youth, who sit in the same place each week on one side of the balcony. (Another ritual, but then I’ve probably made my point about that matter.)

What makes this time of worship so interesting?

First, of course, it’s the places people come from. Australia, Greece, Singapore, the U.K., Korea, South Africa, and – yesterday – Princeton, New Jersey. An audible murmur is heard when a far-off and exotic country is mentioned.

Princeton, New Jersey! Can you imagine?

The other reason this moment in worship is so interesting is that it reminds us of the global reach of the Christian church. If we had any doubts whatsoever that the church exists (and thrives) all around the world, this ritual – sorry, not sure what else to call it – reminds us that we do not exist alone, that every Sunday on nearly every continent people of faith are gathering and singing and listening and offering themselves in worship.

Yesterday, much later in the service, as members and visitors came forward to receive the elements of communion, I was aware – as I am nearly every time we do this – that the family of God is far more varied than I sometimes imagine.

For God so loved the world…

(Photo: My Saturday morning hike took me away from the village where I live. This was my view somewhere near St. Moritz. That’s a cell phone photo, regrettably, because I left my fancy new camera at home.)

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One Ash Wednesday several years ago…

burning ash wednesday ashes

In case you missed it the first time, this was posted last year on Ash Wednesday…

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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What would Jesus say about 50 Shades of Grey?


This is the big week, the one we’ve all been waiting for!

In my sad, dark, out-of-touch corner of the world, this is the week that Lent begins, always preceded by the Feast of the Transfiguration, one of my favorite days on the church calendar. I look forward to preaching about the transfiguration every year.

But then that’s me.

The rest of the world has been waiting – breathlessly – for the release of 50 Shades of Grey, a movie based on three novels by E. L. James. I assume there will be at least two more movies, and maybe the last book will be divided in two, which seems to be the trend, resulting in a total of four movies about … a fictional and, from the reports, utterly implausible relationship that I don’t care anything at all about. (Most billionaires I know, unlike the main character in the novel, spend long hours at the office doing actual work.)

But there is always someone in the church wanting me to “take a strong stand” about whatever is happening in popular culture.

I remember back in 2003, when The Da Vinci Code was published, that there was a clamor for me to “say something” about the book “from the pulpit” because those “new to the faith” would be harmed by it.

Ordinarily, a book like The Da Vinci Code would not be on my reading list, but at the time I felt compelled to read it. I don’t usually enjoy reading books I feel compelled to read, but I found The Da Vinci Code to be entertaining, more of a guilty pleasure, though not especially great literature. I ended up offering an adult education class about it anyway. I even bought the curriculum developed by the denomination to refute the book’s main points.

Even after a lot of publicity fewer than 10 people attended.

I feel the same pressure once again to “take a strong stand” about 50 Shades of Grey. And to be honest, I feel more sympathetic than I have in the past because I too am concerned about the topics addressed by the books and the movie. Being a father to two daughters has changed my mind about lots of things.

But is this what a sermon is supposed to be?

In the last community where I served, a pastor started a church that grew almost overnight to several thousand attendees on a weekend, and his sermon titles, published in the local newspaper, were always eye-catching. He once preached a series on “What would Jesus say to…?” LeBron James, Lance Armstrong, Barack Obama, Miley Cyrus, and a host of other sports and popular culture figures.

Maybe he was on to something. Maybe my sermon tomorrow should have been titled “What would Jesus say about 50 Shades of Grey?”

That’s not the title I chose, sadly, but now that I think about it, what I have planned fits that topic.

What Jesus did on that mountain with three of his disciples, what we call the transfiguration, was to offer an alternative, something not based in popular culture, something deeper, richer, more compelling. The glimpse of glory that the disciples saw stayed with them for the rest of their lives and became the focus of their lives.

The transfiguration, I believe, was Jesus’ way of “taking a strong stand.”

If you happen to be in Zurich tomorrow, join us at the International Protestant Church as we all “take a strong stand.”

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Neues aus Absurdistan

Blick am abend

I probably shouldn’t admit to reading it. It’s not The Times of London after all.

Blick am Abend (“look in the evening”) is a small, some might say “trashy,” tabloid available free each evening at the Stadelhofen train station where I catch the train that takes me home. (Anything available free at the train station should probably be considered suspicious.)

I tell myself that I practice my German by reading it. And it’s true that I can understand most of it, which of course means that the stories are not especially challenging. After a year of reading it, I now know a fair amount about the night club scene in Zurich and a lot less about the political situation in Ukraine.

But my favorite column is Neues aus Absurdistan (“new from Absurdistan”).

These are funny – let’s say “painfully funny” – news stories from other parts of the world, but usually from the U.S. The U.S., as it turns out, is an overflowing source of material for this column. This week, for example, I read about “measles parties” in California, where parents are intentionally exposing their children to measles, explaining to news reporters that this was “the way God intended” children to acquire immunity to disease. God is apparently opposed to needles and vaccinations. Who knew? I thought the medical advances of the last century were a gift from God, but apparently not.

“You can’t make this stuff up” might be a better title for the column. There’s no attempt to be funny, though with my beginners’ German I probably miss a snarky comment here and there. Mainly the column exposes, well, the absurdity of life around the world and especially in the U.S.

I should probably stop reading it – not just the column, but the Blick itself – but I’m afraid that the damage has been done. I look back across the ocean and now see life in my home country in a new way. And a lot of it isn’t pretty.

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The village where I live

the village where I live

So, it’s been a year, and I am mostly acclimated and settled in. Thank you for all of the cards, notes, and letters expresssing concern.

I know my way around. I have figured out the trains, trams, buses, ferries, and boats (though not without some early trial and error). I have been to both a Swiss doctor and a Swiss dentist. I can buy groceries and get a haircut. When a letter arrives with words like ‘Achtung!’ on the outside of the envelope, I no longer think that I am in immediate danger of deportation. Those omninous-looking mailings we receive are usually just friendly greetings from the local government, asking why we haven’t done something that EVERY OTHER RESIDENT has already done on time.

And it has been several months since I have been fined for driving too fast.

For all of that I am more grateful can I say. It helps of course that I had several hundred friends to greet me on arrival and ask me about my every need. Not every expat, I realize, can say that. Also, Switzerland is not Somalia. It is a highly-developed western country with one of the best transportation systems in the world. The views are gorgeous in every direction. It is clean and safe. The health care is among the best in the world. And that’s the just the beginning. I don’t want to bore you.

If you move to Switzerland and fail to thrive, then … you are a complete failure as a human being and should never have tried expat life. (See, I am learning to think like a Swiss.)

However, being acclimated and settled in doesn’t mean that I know everything I need to know. My language skills, for example, still leave a lot to be desired. I can read German fairly well, but my conversational skills are sadly lacking. The young woman who cut my hair this morning tried to be helpful by saying, ‘Do you want me to speak German or English?’ I can assure you that Mike at the barbershop back in Fort Lauderdale never posed a question like that. (But I still love you, Mike.)

More important than langauge skills is the matter of living and working, as I do each day, in a multicultural setting. I have mentioned previously that only one member of my church’s Council (or leadership board) was born in the U.S., but the differences are more numerous (and often more subtle) than that. Some days the differences are mind-boggling and overwhelming.

What I take for granted in my preaching and pastoral care, skills I have labored for more than 30 years to perfect and sharpen, can no longer be taken for granted. I am not only learning to speak the language of my village and canton, as I mentioned, but I am also learning to speak the spiritual language of my congregation. When believers come together from so many different continents, when they have been trained and discipled in the faith by such a wide variety of Christian teachers, when their worship experiences are as varied as they are, being a pastor of this congregation has an exceedingly high degree of difficulty.

Some days my head hurts.

I remember saying in the interview process that I know who I am. And that’s still true. My Christian (and pastoral) identity has been shaped and formed over a very long period of time. I have had one of the most thorough Christian educations (beginning with my parents and my Kindergarten Sunday School teacher) it is possible for one person to have, but nothing could have adequately prepared me for this church, this experience, this time in my life.

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus right now, right here, at this moment in history? I will keep you posted.

(Photo: That’s the village of Meilen where I live.)

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