Archive | December, 2015

My annual Christmas letter


Dear family and friends,

Life in Switzerland isn’t much different from life anywhere else. I get up in the morning, walk the dog, shower, dress, and leave for work. At the end of the day I come home again.

I used to do all of that in the U.S.

What’s different here, clearly, is that everything is new. New and exciting, mostly, but also new and exhausting, new and puzzling, new and … sometimes I just want to turn on the TV and watch a little Downton Abbey. Well, no, sorry, not that.

After the first year of living here, I realized that I was tired – not because my work is so demanding, but because expat life is by its very nature stressful, especially at the beginning. Do I leave a tip in restaurants? (No, or maybe a little, not always clear.) Why do I need to change from summer to winter tires? (Because driving on narrow mountain roads in winter is a lot different from driving on the flatlands of Illinois, Florida, and Michigan where I have spent much of my life. And also there may be a fine for not having the right tires on the car.) How come even a trip to the grocery store requires careful planning? (Well, first of all, you need to remember a two franc coin to unlock a grocery cart, and then you need to remember your own – reusable – grocery bags. Otherwise, you have to turn around, go home, and start over.) Is there anything at all that is the same? (No, but the trains do run on time, and there is something comforting in that. I look forward to my train rides each day to and from the church office.)

I am learning a new language too, of course, and my work permit requires me to reach a fairly high level of proficiency in a relatively short amount of time. But it’s not the language learning that I find tiring, although maybe I will give a different answer tonight after I get home at 10:00 from my language class. (My kind and patient teacher, Frau Zopfi, teaches the entire hour and 15 minutes in German, so there is no opportunity to check email or browse the Internet.)

I am no longer the class clown I once was, but am still the slow learner I always was.

What’s really and truly tiring is navigating each day in an unfamiliar culture.  Here’s a tiny example: I smile a toothy smile and say a cheery “Guten Morgen!” to my neighbors as I walk the dog in the early dawn, and from the smile and the awful accent and the high German, they size me up pretty quickly as an American, a foreigner, an “Ausländer.”  I learned quickly that addressing people I don’t know requires a certain amount of formality. It’s not that the Swiss are an unfriendly people, it’s that Americans tend to be gregarious by nature. And that, I’m afraid, usually comes off as insincere and superficial.

Last spring I took a break from my blog to give myself some time to get acclimated to this new culture. I even wrote a book about the experience in order to sort out my feelings and reactions, especially as I experience all of this in a multi-cultural church. (Watch the Eerdmans fall list for 2016!) I wouldn’t say Susan and I are now fully integrated into Swiss culture, but we are moving as fast as a couple of old, gray-haired  people from the U.S. can. And most days we enjoy living here, though Susan I’m sure would give her own, slightly nuanced answer. After 38 years of marriage, we still do not think alike on very much. It’s funny how that works.

Susan spends Thursday afternoons painting with an artist-friend at a studio in Zürich. She meets most Fridays with a group of women from our church. She cooked five turkeys in our tiny Swiss oven and fed a bunch of lonely Americans (and others) at our church’s Thanksgiving dinner last month. She has traveled (without me) to London and Provence and Berlin. And together we spent a week in Amsterdam back in July (where I made considerable progress on that book I mentioned) and then last week in Paris for a couple of nights around her birthday. She is getting around – not only on the trains, but in our car as well. We both joined the local gym last fall and now find ourselves exercising with other seniors, something I was sure I would never do.

When Susan goes out, she speaks English with a German accent, thinking that this will help others to understand her. I speak German with a pronounced American accent, and people sometimes burst into laughter when they hear me. Her approach always seems to work better than mine.

My work at the International Protestant Church of Zürich continues to be an extraordinary experience, one I will savor for the rest of my life. I sat in the congregation yesterday and witnessed the most culturally diverse children’s Christmas pageant that I could ever have imagined. English was spoken throughout, true, but in such a wonderful variety of accents. One of the magi was unquestionably from the U.K. Another was from Africa, but a former British colony. The third dropped his microphone on the floor and was hard to hear.

But they all traveled a long distance to get to the manger, as we all have.

Cultural diversity at the church shows up each day in countless other ways and has been a wonderful – and sometimes maddening – experience. I learn and grow and do my best to understand, and in it all I marvel that Christ’s church could have so many, vastly different expressions. In church life people work hard to understand each other, to be patient, and to figure out what it means to be the church at this time and in this place. It’s not easy, but it never was.

Susan and I look back across the ocean with longing, because of course our two daughters and their husbands and one very beautiful granddaughter live there, but we also look back with incredulity. People sometimes ask us if Donald Trump really has a chance. At first we laughed at the question and said, “Nein.” But now the truth is, we don’t know what to say. “It’s a mess,” we say, and it is. And speaking of a mess, we read about the gun violence, and from a country – an entire continent! – with very little, almost none, it is shocking and deeply troubling.

We pray for our country, we pray for our family, and we pray for you. Two thousand years ago a hope was born into the world, and it is to that hope that I cling today – not to politicians or to political parties, but to a baby who was called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.


Doug and Susan (and of course Sammi, who doesn’t know what a good life she has here)

(Photos: That’s from a nice little coffee shop in Paris, and (bottom) the Eiffel Tower was visible from our apartment at the American Church in Paris where we stayed.)



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I updated my CV yesterday


I updated my CV yesterday. I didn’t expect I would have to do it again so soon and, frankly, I had hoped never to do it again. I never did like doing it.

But there I was yesterday staring at the computer screen with all of the accomplishments of my life in front of me.

After 60 years I can somehow fill most of a page.

Beyond a change of address, I wasn’t sure there would be any other editing to do, but I found myself adding international church experience, still-far-from-fluent status in another language, and – oh yes – another book. (Sorry, still too soon for pre-orders.)

Members of the church in Zürich will want to know that I am not looking for another job. As a matter of fact, I would prefer never to have another job interview, which for me is in the same category as standardized tests. I hope I am finished with both.

I updated my CV yesterday because the Swiss are compulsive record keepers. Or they are really nosy. Or they are trying to provide jobs in local government. Or all of the above may be true. My CV was required as part of my application for an extension to my work permit.

Updating my CV of course started me thinking about a lot of things. As a preacher, I can find spiritual meaning just about anywhere, and this little exercise yesterday was almost too easy. A record of one’s personal data, educational accomplishments, and work history is by its very nature a spiritual document, a record of my time on earth.

I looked at it longer than I needed to – certainly longer than the Swiss bureaucrat will – and I’m still not sure what to think. Some of it is good, some of it could be better. I can see my parents looking hard and long at the CV, and I can hear them say, as they used to say quite often, “Doug, if you had only applied yourself, you could have done better.”

Overall I think I have applied myself, but after all these years I find myself wondering what, if anything, I have accomplished with my life. I wonder if it really amounts to anything. Have I made full use of the gifts God has given me?

Please don’t write to reassure me. I plan to answer this question for myself in my own way. I think it’s an important question, maybe more fitting for Lent than for Advent.

What I want to do – and anyone who has ever heard me preach will recognize this end-of-sermon move – what I want to do is ask about you. What counts for you as a good life, as a life well-lived? Have you lived to your potential? Have you applied yourself? Have you used the gifts God has given you?

I suppose I should end with a resounding and inspiring endorsement about God’s grace, about how God loves us in spite of our flaws, our shortcomings, and our chronic laziness.

But I think we should live with the question a bit longer. If we had applied ourselves, could we have done better? I know I could have.

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