Tag Archives | pastoral

I used to play with guns

AR-15 affordable and effective

The funny thing is, I used to play with guns.

They were toy guns, of course, but guns nevertheless. Playing “army” was my favorite thing. I remember adding the sound track for all of our battles, making noises resembling explosions or machine gun fire (my specialty). I seem to have had a vivid imagination for fighting, killing, and war.

And I have no idea why.

My parents never bought me a gun, not even a BB gun, and there were never guns around the house, except for my toy guns. My father, a World War II veteran, was not a hunter and showed no interest in weapons of any kind, and so he never taught me to shoot or thought it was his duty as a father to do so. He seemed more interested in teaching me how to throw a curveball.

But for some reason, when I was younger, I nevertheless had a fascination with guns.

I find this funny, I suppose, because I grew up to be a decidedly non-confrontational sort of person. I did play high school football, if that counts for anything, and I enjoyed the contact and the tackling, especially what my coaches liked to call “hard tackles.” And even today when I am threatened, I can easily assert myself, but the truth is that I have been more or less a pacifist. I feel somewhat odd writing those words, but most people, I have found, are content knowing that their pastor has a preference for peace not war.

I write all of this to say, I have no idea anymore what to think about the gun situation in the U.S., except that I find it deeply disturbing. With every mass shooting (the recent one in Orlando, the largest one in U.S. history, was the 133rd of the year, according to my reading), I find myself even more troubled and confused. Is it really such an important matter of personal liberty that anyone – even someone the FBI has interviewed twice for possibly radical views and violent behavior – should be able to purchase a weapon, even an AR-15 assault rifle?

As I type that question, I can think of several friends who will have their responses ready. So, before you write, you should know that I am familiar with all of the arguments. In fact, most people who follow the news know the arguments on both sides.

On one side, for example, there is Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, warning that “jack-booted government thugs” might come one day to take away the guns of decent, law-abiding citizens. This might be described as the fear of an authoritarian government.

On the other side, there is Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, a former congresswoman from New Mexico, who was shot in the head at a campaign rally in 2011, along with 12 other people, including a nine year old child and a federal judge who were both killed in the shooting. Giffords now understandably urges legislation to keep “guns out of the hands of dangerous people like criminals, terrorists, and the mentally ill.”

Maybe for obvious reasons these positions have been impossible to reconcile.

In keeping with the Swiss theme of my blog, I should mention that I have seen several Internet memes recently about the relatively high rate of gun ownership in Switzerland and the low rate of mass shootings here. The argument is that there is little correlation between gun ownership and mass shootings. However, the real story, which doesn’t fit a typical Facebook post, is a bit more complicated.

Switzerland does indeed have a high rate of gun ownership, one of the highest in the world, and though mass shootings occur, they are rare. But there is a high rate of gun ownership mainly because the vast majority of men in Switzerland are conscripted into military service and receive military training, including weapons training. Their personal weapons may be kept at home, but – and this is a fact not often reported – it is generally not permitted to keep army-issued ammunition at home. Further, there is in this country a blanket ban on automatic weapons.

To me the two situations – the U.S. and Switzerland – are not really comparable. A better example, to my mind, might be Australia, which has dramatically reduced gun violence and mass shootings through legislation. But this argument, I know, does little to persuade. Our minds on both sides are already made up.

I am weary at this point and don’t know what more to say, except this: I find it inconceivable that a follower of Jesus Christ, one who reads the gospels and attempts to apply the teachings found there, could support the situation as it exists.

(Photo: That’s the AR-15 … “effective and affordable.”)

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Learning from midlife

Doug leanig on BMW

Midlife is a stern, unforgiving teacher. Other than that I liked it a lot.

I am teaching a class at my church right now about midlife, and as every teacher knows I am learning far more about the subject than my students. We are using a fine book, but I am freely supplementing the book with some of my own reading, research, and commentary. I am, after all, a midlife survivor, with scars to prove it. (The scars are real, not metaphorical, and have been left by a series of dermatologists.)

While getting ready to teach the class I learned that most people like to attach the word “crisis” to the word “midlife,” as though the only conversation we can have about midlife is about the crisis that sometimes goes with it.

Far more helpful than the word “crisis,” I think, is the so-called U-curve hypothesis, which rather nicely summarizes what many of us face. We go from young adulthood to midlife filled with anticipation and high hopes about what life will bring, believing what our parents and teachers have foolishly told us about following our bliss, only to run into obstacles, some of our own making and others that are inevitable as we age.

When I graduated from seminary, for example, I imagined that I might become a superstar preacher with my own television network (and satellite). To tell the truth, I have had a deeply satisfying ministry over the years, but the television part of it has, sadly, eluded me. I once appeared on an AM-radio talk show, but that was only for an hour, less commercial breaks (and news on the half hour). And my appearance was to talk about the church and social media, not to present the gospel. I would be surprised if we had more than five listeners. And yet, I spoke that Saturday evening as though to a stadium with 50,000 people. (I was not invited back.)

Doug's brief radio career on WJR

The bottom of the U-curve varies among countries, but the global average seems to be age 46. In case you’re interested, the Swiss reach the bottom part of the curve at the startlingly early age of 35. In any case, the late 40s and early 50s seem to be the age where disappointment, dissatisfaction, and discouragement can add up and become for some a full-blown crisis.

But the good news, I was happy to discover, is that there is life after the dip.

In fact, the 60s, 70s, and even 80s can be (according to the research) wonderful years. Older people tend to be happier, even though we don’t always look like it. This is counter-intuitive, I suppose, and income and education are factors too (as they are at every age), but generally speaking it’s not so bad to grow older. My yearning to be a superstar preacher, for example, has mostly disappeared, and I find myself deeply grateful for the few people who show up each Sunday morning to hear me preach.

All of this happiness in old age assumes, of course, that you can escape midlife with relatively few bone-headed decisions, the kind all of us are tempted to make when we’re feeling disappointment, dissatisfaction, and discouragement. If you are contemplating one of those decisions right now, give me a call. I will do my best to talk you out of it. You don’t really need a convertible.

As a pastor, I tried of course to put all of this midlife talk in faith perspective, and in the class I even presented some impressive-looking charts and graphs about faith stages. Along with everything else, faith begins to look and feel different at midlife, a bit thicker around the middle. And then, as it ages, it tends to grow into something wonderful.

Earlier in my life, for example, it was important to me to be right – and to convince other people of the rightness of my thinking about most things. It was tiring to be right all the time, but I thought I was called to that important ministry. I forget now when it happened, but I seem to have let go of that need or whatever it was. I still know what I believe, but I am far more relaxed when I talk about it. I can listen to other people, even when I don’t agree. I can even change my mind. What’s different is that my faith has become part of me, not something I admire or debate or throw at other people. It’s who I am.

Next month I will be heading down to Lake Zürich after morning worship for a few baptisms by immersion. Since I agreed to do my first one, a few more requests have come along. I’m not sure that “midlife Doug” would have agreed so easily, but “older Doug” is surprisingly accommodating and willing to get wet, to wade out into the water with his clothes on.

There’s no telling what “older Doug” might do or say (or write) next. This next stage of life might even be fun.

(Top photo: Yes, that’s my convertible, the stereotypical midlife decision, purchased at age 44 and sold nine years later. Lots of fun, but very expensive. Next photo: Yes, that’s me, trying out a career in AM-radio at WJR in Detroit.)

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“I want to be baptized”

Frantisek's church photo

After morning worship last Sunday, standing outside in the early Spring sunshine, an 18 year old man I did not know very well approached me and said, “I want to be baptized.”

This was no April Fool’s joke, I quickly realized, and not a prank, as I half-expected, this was the real thing. It was written all over his face – the fear and joy of saying those words aloud. Plus, there was a small group of people – family members? – standing maybe five or 10 feet behind him, watching the whole conversation.

I think my first words were, “So, you’ve never been baptized,” as though this were an administrative or scheduling problem that needed my full attention.

The young man and I talked for quite a long time and then agreed to meet in a couple of days so that I could hear more about this decision, but I still think about what happened there that day and what the situation reveals about me and my training and where I find myself at this point in my ministry.

Frankly, what the situation reveals is not good.

I was ordained on September 20, 1980 – as some of you know, since I insist on observing the anniversary each year – and the ordination occurred after lengthy training and evaluation and psychological testing and even the learning of biblical languages. No one was better trained and equipped for a life of service to the church than I was. That’s not bragging. That’s a statement about how people like me have been prepared for the work of ministry over the last generation or two. And now, thanks be to God, I have been doing this work – without interruption – for more than 36 years.

So, what exactly is the problem?

I’ll tell you. A young man approached me after worship, asked to be baptized, and I forgot for a moment that that is the purpose of my life’s work – to lead people like him to just that moment in their lives and then to nurture and grow their new faith. Over the years I have forgotten (or neglected) this calling. In most of the churches I served over the years I was expected to be the executive director or chief executive officer of a legal entity known as the church. I supervised staff, raised money, built endowments, maintained buildings (and parking lots), managed a board, and responded to customer complaints. I came to think of all of that as ministry.

Coming to this particular church at this particular point in my life has had the transforming effect of reminding me of the call that brought me to this work a long, long time ago. I think it’s been the greatest gift I could have received.

Here’s my job description in its entirety: “The Senior Pastor is in charge of the spiritual welfare [my emphasis] of the congregation, including, but not limited to, conducting worship and preaching the gospel, pastoral counseling and visits, education of adults, youth and children, and the administration of the Sacraments (Ordinances) of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

I think that’s what I’ve always wanted to do!

(Photo: That’s a photo of my church by František Janák who suggests that we call him “Frank.”)

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Under the Meilener Sun

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“Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.”

Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun

As you read this, I hope you are imagining me right now in my quaint Swiss chalet, situated charmingly on the side of a mountain, with cowbells faintly audible and towering Swiss peaks visible in the distance. I have just returned, of course, from walking my dog along a winding dirt path and breathing deeply of fresh mountain air. Along the way, I waved to my neighbors, Urs and Jürg, who may come over later to enjoy a hearty lager and soulful conversation by the crackling fire.

I don’t know how to break this news to you, faithful readers, but that is not where I live and that is most certainly not my life. I’m not even sure that place exists – outside my fantasy life which, I confess, has been really, really active over the years.

I would read books like Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun and Peter Mayles’ A Year in Provence, and then I would imagine myself moving to a place like that, and in my imagination I would meet charming, slightly eccentric people who loved life in tiny villages, and I would renovate an old farmhouse (never mind that I can’t change a light bulb without checking a YouTube video first to find out how it’s done), and I would master a new language, and I would discover the meaning of life – or at least important truths about life that were somehow inaccessible to me in my humdrum, American suburban life.

None of this has happened. I did not move to Tuscany or Provence, it’s true, but I did move to Switzerland, which has all of the charm of those other two places (and much more besides). I have not (so far) renovated an old farmhouse and do not see that happening any time soon (unless the movie rights to my new book bring in a tidy sum, and then I will probably hire someone who knows what to do with a hammer).

I have met wonderful people here, also true, but they are not always charming, and they are sometimes more than just a little eccentric. A better word might be “irritating.” Not all the time, certainly, but often enough. For heaven’s sake, they are human beings, and I knew plenty of them where I came from.

And as for the language, I have two comments to make. The first is that there is nothing all that romantic about speaking Swiss German. To be honest, it frightens me to hear it spoken. And the second is that learning a language is hard work. After two years of study I am still far from fluent. In fact, people usually laugh when I work up the courage to say something in German.

I think this idea that moving someplace new to discover the meaning of life is … well, a sham, a fraud. Book publishers and movie producers like the idea, of course, but mostly because people like me buy the books and watch the movies. Eat, Pray, Love, anyone?

I can truthfully say that there is no secret to life that cannot be found closer to home.

Francis Mayes writes well about her experience, but she is wrong. And not just wrong, she is dangerous. She could have stayed home to find out what she needed to know. And lots of other people who have set off for exotic-sounding places could have stayed home too. They could have saved themselves from a lot of headaches (and heartaches).

If discovering the meaning of life is what you want to do, I recommend that you stay where you are, even if it’s a crummy little town, find a comfortable place, close your eyes, and then wait for the voice that will eventually come to you. It’s the voice of God, and don’t ask me how I know. Everyone else who has heard it over the centuries has also recognized it immediately. And there have been large numbers of women and men who have heard the same voice I have.

And then of course listen to it, really listen, as you have never listened before, as if your life depended on it.

The voice sounds pretty much the same whether you are in Tuscany or Provence or my little village of Meilen, which is twelve minutes by train from Zürich. I get up early, while it is still dark outside, and I sit in my living room, always the same place, and listen, knowing that I could be anywhere in the world at that particular moment. It doesn’t matter. Because the voice I am listening for speaks to me of truths deeper than charming village life or mountain views. The voice I am listening for speaks to me of truths worth knowing, truths that are worthy of me. The voice I am listening for asks me how I’m doing, how my week has been, and how I plan to live my life for the people around me. The voice I am listening for tells me that I am loved with a love that is beyond description.

If adventure is what you seek, it’s closer than you know.

(Note: I’ve been away – for a few days in Israel and then for a few days in the U.S. Lots of travel seems to mean less blogging. But we’re coming up on the holiest week of the year for Christians, and I should have something to say about that. Plus, there’s the presidential election in the U.S. Thanks for being patient. Please stay tuned.)

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My last pilgrimage

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I returned last night from my seventh pilgrimage to Israel.

Except for the people who stayed behind for a visit to Petra (across the border in Jordan), everyone returned safely and in good health. I always breathe a big sigh of relief when everyone finds their luggage and waves goodbye at the airport.

I also resolve never to go again. “This is definitely the last pilgrimage for me,” I told myself last night. Frankly, I’m not sure how excited I can get about one more boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, or one more visit to the souvenir shops in Bethlehem. I have had my fill of olive wood trinkets, long lines at holy sites, and 6:30 wake-up calls from the front desk – “Please have your bags outside your door by 7:00!”

But then, a few years will pass, and another group will convince me that it’s time to go again. I have given in each time.

During my first visit I cried pretty much every day for the first three or four days. Maybe it was the jet lag, but something about seeing the Sea of Galilee for the first time brought waves of tears. Members of that tour group probably wondered how much blubbering they would have to tolerate from their pastor. A lot, as it turned out. Every new site brought more tears.

And I still cry, more than 20 years after that first visit.

Last week I found myself for the first time at the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus preached for the hometown folks and nearly got himself tossed over a cliff outside of town. The structure has been rebuilt several times, but the floor, we were told, was the original. I had my doubts about that, as I did with the authenticity of many of the sites we visited, but still … I found myself there last week, reading the story from Luke’s gospel for members of my tour group who were seated in small plastic chairs, and I was weeping over the thought of it – that Jesus had once stood somewhere near there and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The scene has never been more vivid in my imagination.

This, I have come to realize, is the meaning of pilgrimage. No one knows anymore where Jesus preached that sermon in Nazareth – or where exactly he was buried – but none of that matters. We go to breathe the air, smell the smells, hear the sounds, see the rocks (they are everywhere), and then remember the stories. We go to have our faith deepened and renewed, to see for ourselves where all of it happened, to have old stories come alive.

My only souvenir this year was a little twig from an olive tree at the Garden of Gethsemane. I tucked it into my travel Bible where it will stay until the next time I go. Can you imagine how many pilgrims over the years have pulled on the branches of those trees?

I am glad I was there … again.

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A little something for Ash Wednesday

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I prefer my spiritual experiences to be as tame as possible. I like to decide when and where they are going to happen. If possible, I prefer to pray when it suits me, when it is not an interruption to my busy schedule.

Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness were anything but tame. In Mark’s account of the experience, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, suggesting to me that he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Mark’s gospel, with all of its stories about demons and exorcisms, takes the spiritual life very seriously, more seriously than I usually do.

For Jesus, his time in the wilderness was not a time to contemplate a beautiful sunset or to remark about God’s majesty in creation, which is what usually counts as a religious experience for most people I know. Instead, it was a difficult and heart-wrenching time.

Not eating for 40 days must have heightened his other senses, and when Jesus encountered the devil in the wilderness, he needed to be alert. He needed every bit of strength he could muster. He was challenged, I assume, as he had never been challenged before, a young man coming face to face with nothing less than the meaning and purpose of his life.

As Diogenes Allen, my seminary teacher, puts it in his classic book about the temptations (a parent who names a child Diogenes should not be surprised when he grows up to be philosopher), Jesus was challenged specifically on the issues of material comfort, personal security, and prestige, and in all three areas Jesus – rather remarkably to me – chose faithfulness to God.

I must say, I have never been quite as courageous as Jesus was in these areas. I like material comfort, personal security, and more than a sprinkling of prestige.

My own wilderness experiences have never been times of my own choosing. When they happen, I always want to be anywhere but in the wilderness, but there – more than once in my life – is where I found myself. And believe me, there is nothing pretty about the wilderness. Jesus, we are told, faced wild animals, but the wild animals in my own life have not been wolves and hyenas. More typically they have been my own thoughts, my awful habit of making excuses for my behavior, my eagerness to confuse my own will with God’s will for me.

As I enter this season of the year known as Lent, I am aware that the seasons of our lives are seldom the ones we choose. They do not start and stop based on church calendars. They almost never begin with a pancake supper at church. I usually find myself in the wilderness when I least expect it.

Even so, I invite you to join me during this Lenten season in following Jesus who showed the way for us, who demonstrated courage we will never equal, and whose victory over sin and death makes our own victory possible.

(Note: I submitted something like this to my church’s Lenten devotional guide this year.)

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Have I learned anything?

sankofa bird

Can I help it that I am looking back quite a bit these days? Older men tend to do that.

I look back partly because the tread on my tires is showing some wear, and it’s interesting to think about where I’ve been.

Also, I wonder if there’s anything that I’ve learned along the way.

A few years ago some seminary classmates and I applied for a Lilly Endowment grant. Our project sounded important, and the grant application was apparently quite convincing. We said we wanted look back over our decades of church experience and discover if there was anything worth passing along, perhaps to a new generation of pastors.

We even adopted the African word “sankofa” as the name for our group and the title of our project. But that decision may have exhausted our supply of creative energy. (Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates – roughly – to “go back and get it.” The symbol is a bird turning around to find an egg and creating a heart shape.)

Don’t get me wrong. We certainly had fun with the grant money. We traveled around – Montreal, Pittsburgh, Austin, and I may have forgotten a place or two. We enjoyed good meals, and we played cards late into the night. I seem to remember that a good bourbon was a part of our research as well.

We somehow convinced well-known theologians in each of those cities to spend a week with us. In the mornings, we would crowd into their book-lined offices, ask serious questions, and then listen as we remembered how much fun it was to be a theological student. In some ways, I now realize, we were reliving our student days.

When our money ran out three years later, we hadn’t published anything, and frankly we hadn’t thought of anything that our vast experience of church service had taught us, nothing that a newer generation of pastors might find worth knowing.

We worked and worked and came up empty.

In the years since the grant ended I have thought often of our project, but haven’t thought of anything that we missed. Ministry has changed so much since I started that I find myself wondering if I really know anything that a new pastor might want to know.

On the way to the train station yesterday morning, I found myself walking with a neighbor who was on his way to a card game with some other pensioners in our village. Our conversation turned out to be unexpected gift.

After a few minutes of German, which he gladly indulges me whenever we meet, we switched to English, and I asked him what he did before he retired. He was an engineer, he told me, at work on ways to store energy. Energy from the wind and sun isn’t worth much, as it turns out, if you can’t save it for those times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Unfortunately, he said, research today is almost entirely in batteries, not in the interesting methods he spent his life exploring and perfecting. I asked him how it felt to have devoted his life to something that no one today considered valuable.

He didn’t hesitate with his reply. He told me that the enjoyment was in the work – the endless fascination of it, the sense of discovery, the joy of progress. He seemed to have no regrets.

We reached the train station too soon, I thought, and so I headed up the steps to Track 3, and he kept going to his card game.

I think I would enjoy playing cards with him and learning from him. He has something to teach me.

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Is ministry a career?

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I started with the best of intentions. We all did.

My seminary classmates and I absorbed a great deal of advice from – where else? – an older generation of pastors, and then we did our best to follow that advice, working long hours, honing our pastoral skills, sometimes even receiving additional and impressive-sounding degrees.

Today I look back and realize that we got a lot wrong.  So, what follows is a confession  – not the titillating sort you half-expect to hear these days from pastors and hypocritical religious leaders, but in a way more serious, more devastating.

When I was ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament – going on four decades ago – I signed up for a career. I wasn’t aware of that at the time, and would have denied it, if you had pointed it out to me, but looking back that’s what it was. Was it “naked careerism”? I’m not altogether sure what that is, but it sounds really bad, doesn’t it? No, I’m certain it was not naked careerism. We thought we were doing God’s work, laboring in the vineyard, building the kingdom, and even winning the occasional soul for Christ.

But the truth is, we were building careers and trying to be professionals – not doctors or lawyers or accountants, but professional clergy.

On my first day I was enrolled in a medical plan and, even better, a pension plan and what was called “a supplemental retirement account.” I had a title and a parking place. I had an automobile allowance and four weeks of vacation. I thought of myself as a professional, even if I didn’t look like one.

What was missing on the first day was a wardrobe so, as quickly as I could, I added suits and dress shirts and ties and of course a better haircut. I even bought myself a pair of black, size 13 Florsheim wingtips, which I polished every week to a nice, bright shine. It now seems clear, looking at the old photographs, that the off-the-rack suits looked silly on my tall, skinny frame but, no matter, I was on my way to what I hoped would be a good, long career.

Lately, though, I have become aware of a radically new way of thinking about ordained ministry – okay, not new, but definitely a change from the previous generation.

I had lunch last week with a young pastor whose church in the U.S. has sent him and his wife to “plant” a church in Zürich, where I currently serve what we like to call an “established church.” I’m not altogether sure what that is either, but it’s definitely not a church plant. When my new friend emailed me to ask about the possibility of renting space from us, I responded and suggested that we meet for coffee.

A few days later I listened – convicted – as he explained to me what he is attempting to do.

He started the very first Sunday – jet-lagged and nervous – with worship in his small apartment, more of a Bible study, really, but there was singing and prayer and even an offering. As he explained it to me (the vastly more experienced pastor in this conversation), “There’s no better time to start than the first Sunday.” I nodded as though I knew this to be true, but really I was marveling at his courage – to move to a new city, a new country, and a new continent, and on the very first Sunday to hold worship, not knowing if or when an actual congregation might emerge from this small gathering.

The group, he tells me honestly, is still quite small, though it has outgrown his apartment, which is why he turned to me. Weren’t the numbers small at the beginning in Ephesus, he asks, and Philippi and Corinth and Thessalonica, for that matter?

I noticed that he neglected to mention a retirement plan or how much vacation he would receive. There is no parking place, apparently, not even an automobile allowance. He has no fancy degree, not even the basic seminary degree, and right now does not see the need for one. The Bible, he tells me, is the only textbook he needs.

My new friend is not alone, of course. Church planting seems to be very popular right now, and maybe, as much as anything, it’s a much-needed correction after a generation of pastors who have grown comfortable and career-oriented and entitled.

As Rick Warren tells the story in one of his books, he graduated from seminary one day and then took a map of the U.S., closed his eyes, and pointed his finger at … yes, Orange County, California. The cynic in me wonders why the finger didn’t point to western North Dakota, instead of the most affluent county in the U.S., but my cynicism misses the point.

The point is that he planted a church in the living room of his first apartment in Orange County, not knowing if or when anything would come of it. He trusted God in a way that I never did. And today his tiny “church plant” is of course known as Saddleback Church.

One reason I do not despair about the future of the church is that there are many others like my new friend who have listened to God’s call in their lives and then set out, like Abraham and Sarah, to a land that God promised to show them.

As long as there are pastors like my new friend, there will be a church, and thanks be to God for that.

(Photo: That’s from a recent hike. It’s a view from the mountain behind my village. If you look carefully, you can see Sammi at the lower right, photobombing as always.)

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My annual Christmas letter

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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.

Love,

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

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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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