Hi, my name is Doug.
I write little essays about faith and life.
I also laugh at my own jokes and correct other people's grammar.
I'm far from perfect.
This is my blog.

My first Christmas sermon

I was 24 years old when I preached my first Christmas morning sermon. I was not the congregation’s first choice, but they had few options.

Between my second and third years of seminary, I took some time to get married and to test drive this thing called ministry. I became what was called then a “student pastor” in a university town in Iowa, where I hoped to learn the ropes from a seasoned pastor.

That seasoned pastor took one look at me and decided to pursue a call to a church in Colorado which, according to his tearful congregation in Iowa, would be a whole lot closer to the ski slopes which he loved. That left me as the best – and perhaps the only – choice for Christmas morning 1977.

With my shoulder-length hair, aviator glasses, and an ill-fitting, three-piece corduroy suit, I must have been quite a sight, standing at the front of that church. Photos from the era confirm that I was tall, disturbingly skinny, and not exactly a charismatic presence in the pulpit.

It was my first Christmas away from home, and it was to be the first of nearly 40 – and still counting – Christmases away from home.

I hope I had the good sense to throw away that first Christmas sermon, but more than likely it is in a box in a damp basement, along with a lot of other old sermons, waiting to be recycled.

The sermon I preached that Christmas morning nearly 40 years ago was titled “The Gleam That is Christmas,” and my main point, rooted nowhere in the biblical text, was that we should be childlike in our approach to the Christmas story. It was best, I remember saying, to read the story and sing the carols and lose ourselves in the wonder and mystery of it all. My congregation was probably relieved that I did not plan to make my sermon the main point of worship that day.

Looking back, I was probably grieving the loss of my own childhood and trying my best to hold on to some part of it, especially the childlike wonder and mystery of it all.

I will be preaching the Christmas morning sermon once again this year – in Zurich, Switzerland, of all places – and I already know what I am going to say. My sermon will be, as I hope all of my sermons over the years have been, something about Jesus. I am glad he was born.

(Photo: That’s my backyard in Holland, Michigan.)

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The annual Christmas letter

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Dear family and friends,

I just googled “annual Christmas letter” for some good ideas about what to write this year and – I am not making this up – two of my most recent Christmas letters appeared on the first page of search results.

So, obviously, no help there, but my blog is getting good SEO (search engine optimization).

For those of you who are wondering, Susan and I are still living in Switzerland. Our third anniversary is almost here, and we are finally beginning to adapt and fit in and find our rhythm in this strange country.

“Strange” may not seem like the right adjective to use for one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but if you’re new and don’t speak the language and don’t know the metric system, starting up here can be quite a challenge. It was for us, and it is for most newcomers. Now, though, as veterans of the expat life, we sometimes give advice of questionable value to other newcomers, exactly what others so generously did for us.

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Every season is a beautiful season for Switzerland, but Christmas time, as you can imagine, is especially wonderful. The Christmas lights are nice, of course, as are the Christmas markets, which seem to spring up in every empty space in the city. And though it’s hard to believe that anyone buys the junk they sell at these markets, sorry, I do like the smell of Glühwein and Raclette and other delicacies of the season as I walk through.

The hard part of winter – and this is as true in the U.S. as it is in Switzerland – starts in January when the Christmas lights come down and the markets are put away for another year. March and April can’t come soon enough. At least in this country you can drive 10 minutes and be on one of the best ski slopes in the world.

In case you’re wondering, I have not yet tried downhill skiing. On the other hand, my bones and joints appear to be intact, and I plan to do my best to keep them that way. Snowshoeing will have to be the extent of my winter sports.

Many of you have been asking me about my progress with language learning – okay, the truth is that not a single person so far has shown the least bit of interest – so I wanted to let you know anyway that I am making the big leap this month from A2 to B1. And if that sounds impressive, it isn’t. Let me just say that no one will EVER mistake me for a native German speaker, the level known as C2.

I spent much of my study leave in Berlin last summer at the Goethe Institut, where they seem to speak an entirely different language from the one I hear on the streets here each day, because it is, in fact, an entirely different language. Everyone here prefers to speak Züridüütsch, and that’s not even one of the four official languages of Switzerland (which, for trivia enthusiasts, are German, French, Italian, and Romansh). I can get by with my beginners’ German in restaurants and most stores, and I can even call to make a haircut appointment (Guten Tag! Ich würde gerne einen Termin machen … am Freitag?), but even after three years of study I am quickly lost in most conversations.

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Susan is keeping herself busy not with language learning, but with reading, painting, traveling, being a grandmother, and tending to our vast real estate holdings in the U.S. And by vast real estate holdings I mean, of course, our summer cottage in Holland, Michigan. But keeping track of a property on another continent requires a surprising amount of effort, as we have discovered. I am always pleased – and a bit surprised – to drive up and see the house still standing where I left it.

Last year’s travels took Susan to London, Amsterdam, and the Alsace region in France, and this year found her traveling (without me) to Tuscany, Barcelona, and Hanoi. Tuscany and Barcelona are easier to explain than Hanoi. Tuscany and Barcelona were for pleasure, and Hanoi was church and mission related. Ask her sometime about sightseeing in Hanoi on the back of a motorcycle.

Since we’re not going to the U.S. for Christmas this year, we’re headed to London after Christmas morning worship for a few days of sightseeing and theater. Unfortunately, Hamilton hasn’t made its way to the London stage, though we both recommend the biography on which the musical was apparently based.

Our kids seem to be doing well, for which we are more grateful than you can imagine. We talk regularly via FaceTime, though not often enough for me. We spent a wonderful week together at the family compound in Edgewood Beach last summer, enjoyed all of our favorite foods, and went to all of our favorite Holland restaurants, including Boatwerks, the Windmill, and of course (my favorite) de Boer Bakkerij. Who says Dutch cuisine is nothing special? And on the lake we used for the first time an enormous raft which was the talk of the beach association (we had to use a leaf blower to inflate the thing). Those memories, and of course time with our grand-daughter, will keep me going until next August.

My new book now has a publication date. I wish it could be ready for Christmas giving this year, but unfortunately it won’t be available until next June. The working title – Journey into the Multicultural Church – seems like a mouthful. Am still at work on a brilliant one- or two-word alternative. Suggestions welcome.

We have the birth of a baby on our minds right about now – two of them, actually – one in Bethlehem (the Savior of the world) and the other in Minneapolis (our second grandchild, a boy). It’s surprising in a way how excited we can get over the birth of a baby. After all, it’s something that happens every day and has been happening every day for a few thousand years. But there is something about the birth of a baby – “for to you a son is given,” Isaiah said – that is indescribably good. I think God knew that something so ordinary and so prosaic could create quite a lot of joy and hope, the most I have ever felt about anything in my life. A baby is born, and then, well, life is never quite the same again.

May the joy and hope of this season fill your lives as well.

Love,

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Photos: 1) Windmill Island in Holland, Michigan, where we went for a family wedding in August; 2) the view of Lake Lugano from the Art Deco Dellago Hotel one morning recently; and 3) our 22 year old Volvo died, after taking us through much of Western Europe, and we replaced it with the older but still charming (like me!) Opel shown here. All shot with an iPhone, not my fancy new camera.

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I still think Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday

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In this country, unfortunately, today is a work day like any other.

I live in a small village near Zürich, Switzerland, with my wife and dog, and on Thursday morning I will be getting on the train, as I do every morning, and will be heading to my office.

The train will be filled, as it is every morning, except Sunday, and so I will stand for the twelve or so minutes that it takes to reach Stadelhofen station, which is a short walk from my office. I will read the tabloid-sized newspaper, 20 Minuten, which is available free on the train platform, or I will listen to German-language podcasts on my iPod. Either way, it is a pleasant enough ride, and I enjoy it.

There’s no need to feel sorry for me for missing Thanksgiving in the U.S. this year. I live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and it is especially beautiful at this time of year, with Christmas lights and markets and something called Glühwein (look it up). Every day from the windows of my top-floor flat I can see Lake Zürich below and the snow-covered mountains beyond. Some days, when I am tempted to take that view for granted, I have to remind myself that living here has been for me a dream come true.

So, am I thankful this year? You bet I am. I am thankful for being able to live here, I am thankful for meaningful and challenging work to do, work I believe in and feel passionate about, and I am thankful for the people with whom I get to do this work.

Beyond that, I am thankful for my family. I look forward to talking with a few of them later today through the technological miracle known as FaceTime (thank you, Apple). And I will study the faces of my daughters, and they will pretend not to notice if I cry when I see them. They are both married and live too far away, but we talk regularly, share photos about our lives on Instagram, and commiserate about election results. I love them more than I can say.

I will also be seeing my three-year-old grand-daughter, via Facetime, and if she’s in the mood, she will sing me a song – maybe “Jesus Loves Me” (which she is learning in the Cherub Choir at her church). I love her too, more than I can say.

And then there is the grandson, who will make his debut into the world early in the new year. I am thankful for him already. (No, the truth is, I am coming out of my skin with excitement.)

I have people in my life who love me and care for me and keep me honest. I am especially thankful this year that we were all in agreement about the election and who should win.

Is there more? Yes, too much to include here, though I will mention my health because older people tend to do that. And you should know that I am thankful for my faith too. I don’t see how I could have made it through the last year without it.

Happy Thanksgiving to all! It’s a good holiday, whether you’re a U.S. passport holder or not. It’s a good idea to start the day by remembering what there is to be thankful for.

(Photo: On Thursday night at 6:00 the Christmas lights on Bahnhofstrasse – called “Lucy” for some reason – are switched on, and that’s pretty cool.)

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What in the world is God up to?

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If I were standing in a pulpit in the United States today, I would know exactly what to say.

I would say something about the U.S. presidential election, of course, which took place last week, and I would not be alone in that. I am guessing that some very fine sermons are going to be preached today all across the U.S.

In times of national crisis, America’s preachers have searched their souls and found wisdom that many of us didn’t know they had. Preachers who don’t sound eloquent most Sundays of the year somehow manage to be profound and memorable when it counts.

If you want to know the truth, I have thought about little else in the days and hours since last Tuesday. I have been searching my own soul about that election, wondering what it means, looking for divine wisdom and guidance.

But I do not serve an American church, not these days.

A small group of people came together more than 50 years ago and founded the church I now serve, and with an astonishing amount of foresight they called it an “international” church – not an “American” church.

The church I serve today is a church for people of all nationalities: no matter what passport you hold, you will find a welcome here. That was the vision, and it was a good one. It still is.

I don’t know – because we don’t keep these records – but I’m almost certain that U.S. passport holders in the congregation are not in a majority. When I first arrived, only one member of the church’s Council was a U.S. citizen. More than two dozen nationalities are represented in worship every single Sunday. It is a congregation that is staggering in its racial and ethnic diversity.

So, many people in my congregation have been sleeping just fine these last few days. They have been more than a little curious about what is happening in the U.S., but with the exception of a few from the U.S. most of them seem to be sleeping just fine.

On the other hand, we do have several members who are from Hong Kong, and I saw in the news – in the midst of all the coverage about Donald and Hillary – that the Peoples Republic of China has prevented two pro-democracy legislators from taking their seats in Hong Kong’s legislative council. That number may grow to 10. Why? China decided to make clear who was in charge.

I know several people who lie awake at night thinking about that.

We also have at least one member from Ethiopia, and because I have come to know him well I have been paying attention to nationwide protests in his country against the government. Government security forces killed 55 people one day last month in the Oromo region, where my friend is from, as part of an ongoing campaign of violence and terror.

My friend was able to bring his wife and children to Switzerland in the last year after being separated from them for several years, but he worries about others he knows who are still there.

And finally, we have members from Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon, which is where another wave of refugees is headed, though the West is not all that interested in receiving them.

When I think about all of this, I realize that a presidential election in the U.S. is only one news story among many. Don’t get me wrong. When a country with the world’s largest economy and military elects a new president, that’s news. But it is only one news story among many.

And so, what I have in mind for tomorrow is not a sermon about a U.S. presidential election or Hong Kong’s grievances with the Chinese government or even Ethiopia’s repressive and brutal regime. I have had a fair amount to say about refugees in the last couple of years too, and I don’t plan to revisit that subject tomorrow either. What I have in mind is a sermon about God’s providence, which involves all the nations of the world, all races, all ethnic groups.

What in the world is God up to these days? Is God still caring for and preserving the world he made? Now those are questions that more than a few believers around the world might wonder about.

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Becoming the (multicultural) church Jesus has in mind for us to be

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Within the last month I caught up with an old friend, and as is always the case with an old friend, time and distance are never factors in renewing the friendship. When we spoke, the conversation picked up where it left off more than 25 years ago.

I knew Jack Wald when I was pastor of the Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, NJ. Jack was a seminary graduate and an ordained pastor who had come home to New Jersey to take over the family business. Because he knew the unique demands of parish ministry, however, he made it his ministry to be a friend and source of support to me. I valued the friendship more than I can say. We went for long runs two or three times a week, during the lunch hour, and we would talk the entire time, which is not easy to do when you’re running up and down New Jersey hills.

And then I moved, and he and I lost touch, and I hadn’t heard from him until last month.

I discovered that Jack sold the family business and returned to ministry, and for the last 17 years he has been pastor of the Rabat International Church in Rabat, Morocco.

As you can imagine, we had a great deal to talk about.

After catching up on our lives, and our families, we talked ministry – the unique challenges (and the occasional great joys) of serving an international church. Jack told me, “The last 17 years have been the best of my life.” Which is not what you might expect to hear from a Christian man who is living in a predominantly Muslim country, where proselytizing is against the law, and where up to 60 percent of the congregation turns over each year. But I knew what he was talking about.

Jack pursued a doctoral degree in the U.S. while serving the church in Rabat, and he recently turned his dissertation into a book called A Guide to International Church Ministry: Pastoring a Parade (available on Amazon). When I finished reading the book a week or so ago, my first thought was, “He and I are pastors of the same church.”

Not literally, of course, but our experiences are very, very similar. To serve a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multicultural church in a setting that is not familiar, where the customs and habits are vastly different from everything we once knew, requires a high level of pastoral skill (and energy). I thought I served challenging churches in the U.S., but that was only because those churches in the U.S. were bigger than the International Protestant Church of Zürich – with larger staffs and budgets.

What made them far easier to lead – in retrospect – was that they were homogeneous, mono-cultural. We looked alike and thought alike and almost always knew what to expect from each other. To be fair, there is something to be said for serving a church like that. To serve a church like IPC, in contrast, requires a huge reservoir of patience and discernment and a determination to listen and understand. Our different backgrounds mean that we think differently about most things, even though we serve the same Lord, even though we speak the same language. Over two dozen nationalities are represented on any given Sunday.

That was the subject Jack and I talked about most – namely, finding common ground in a situation of so much diversity, so much theological diversity.  I don’t want to diminish or understate either the importance or the difficulty of this work. Some days I still find it overwhelming. I was so taken with the experience during my first year here that I wrote a book about it, and that book will appear, I hope, early in the new year.

In Revelation 7:9, John is permitted a glimpse into heaven, and he reports seeing “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

All tribes, peoples, and languages.

Everyone who is part of IPC, the church I now serve, or part of one of the dozens of other international churches around the world, has been permitted this same glimpse. It is most visible and most remarkable on communion Sundays when we stream forward to receive the elements of communion, but of course it is visible on other occasions as well. It is a remarkable and precious thing. We take it for granted occasionally, and for that reason we may need to be reminded that we are privileged to be part of something so rare and so beautiful.

In Luke 13:29 Jesus taught his followers that “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” This is the future reality to which Jesus points us and calls us. It is not an option. It is where history is headed. This is God’s plan for us. A great banquet awaits us, and not only for people who look like us.

After my (nearly) three years at IPC, I no longer think of our life together as nice but optional, interesting but voluntary. The church, if it is faithful, must move in this direction. This is what God desires for us, his children.

But of course a church like this one is not easy. To keep moving requires generous amounts of God’s grace, steady infusions of his tender mercy. I keep praying for both.

(Note: I wrote something like this for the November-December edition of the IPC newsletter called The Update. The photo is the reading desk from St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin’s church.)

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A day in the life of an international church

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Serving an international church is endlessly interesting.

I really wish I had started at the beginning to list and catalog all of the many curious, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing events in the life of a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-national congregation. With more than two dozen nationalities in worship on any given Sunday, a great deal can happen, often memorable.

Like what happened yesterday.

Some newcomers – we have a lot, which is nice – arrived at the church for worship and noticed that there was a “coffee hour” taking place on the patio in front of the church.

Odd, they thought, that the “coffee hour” would be taking place before church, so being curious or eager to fit in or whatever it was, they approached – only to discover that everyone was speaking French and drinking wine. Even odder – to them – was the fact that worship seemed to be starting inside. They could hear the organ playing, and they could hear people singing. So, what were all of these people doing outside and drinking – at mid-day for heaven’s sake?

At that point, the newcomers did what seemed to them to be the right and decent thing to do. They found someone with a name tag and complained.

They found it “just plain rude,” they said, that everyone was speaking French, and they found it “most unusual” – a slightly judgmental use of those words – that people would stand around and drink wine before Sunday morning worship.

They did not have to supply the question, “What kind of a church is this?”

The person with the name tag turned out to be our “safety officer” for the day, and he patiently explained that the French people out on the patio were most likely members of the French Reformed Church. It was their building, after all, he said. The English-speaking congregation rents the space from them. And, he added, the French speakers were allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted on their patio, as long as the English speakers were allowed to enter the church by 11:00.

Can you imagine the conversation that these newcomers had later in the day?

(Photo: That’s the front of the French Church where all of the rude behavior takes place.)

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“Hey, I’m sending you my thoughts and prayers!”

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If you’re anything like me, your outrage has pretty much exhausted itself. Most days, what with the presidential election and all, I feel spent, outrage now in dangerously short supply. I know I’m not alone.

But I can still get worked up about a few things if I try hard enough.

Take prayer.

Surprised? You wouldn’t think that prayer would be high on my list of concerns, but it is. I’m more than a little concerned about the way people pray. And in my line of work, as you can imagine, I hear a lot of prayer – some of it touching and heartfelt, but much of it, frankly, shallow and empty.

My concern isn’t posture or whether or not people should close their eyes or fold their hands when they pray, though to be honest I wish someone would take Donald Trump aside and tell him what to do when he’s surrounded by evangelical pastors who want to lay their hands on him and anoint him with their prayers. I don’t expect him to get on his knees, but a facial expression that says he’s in the presence of a power greater than himself would be a nice start.

No, my concern is actually with the content of the prayers I hear – what people pray for and what those prayers sound like to me.

Whenever there’s a tragedy in the world – a mass shooting or bombing, let’s say – I will invariably hear that my friends are sending their “thoughts and prayers.” Politicians like to send a lot of “thoughts and prayers” these days, have you noticed? But here’s my question: Does anyone know what in the world that means? I haven’t figured it out. Can I actually send my thoughts to you? I assume they would be happy thoughts.  Or maybe supportive, comforting thoughts. Look out, here they come.

To be blunt about it, that’s not how I learned to pray. And I don’t recall that Jesus sent “thoughts and prayers” either, though I might have missed a situation in the gospels where he did just that. I’ll keep looking.

And then, since I’m venting my spleen about this subject, I can’t believe all the complaints I get about printed prayers in our order of worship. A few weeks ago someone told me that she had a problem with our church’s use of printed prayers – like the prayer of confession which we pray in unison every week in morning worship. She told me that prayers should be “spoken and spontaneous.” I tried to appear understanding, with my best pastoral expression, but I was thinking, “Lady, have you heard of the psalms? They sure look like printed prayers to me, all 150 of them.”

But I’ve saved the big one for last.

As a pastor I find myself on a lot of prayer chains. People are always asking me to pray – for that upcoming surgery, for the biopsy report, for the job interview, even for a parking space. And most of the time, I pray. I don’t send anyone “thought and prayers,” but I do let God know what I’m thinking and feeling. A family member was taken to the hospital a couple of Saturday mornings ago, and you’d better believe I was praying for her, for the ambulance driver, for little or no traffic on the way to the hospital, for the doctors who would be waiting for her, even for the person who would take down the insurance information in the ER. I think God probably noticed the  note of desperation in my voice. That was my hope.

I don’t have a problem with those prayers, and I offer my share of them. I ask God for stuff all the time. But I think there’s a different, higher purpose for our prayers. I think that when we pray we are conforming ourselves to the person of Christ.

When Jesus taught the disciples what we like to call the “Lord’s Prayer,” he wasn’t giving them tips on prayer. He was saying, “Pray these things until they become the desire of your hearts.”

Frankly, I’m not much interested in “daily bread.” I would prefer to have a comfortable retirement and the finer things in life.  “Daily bread” has never been high on my list of prayer points. But I think Jesus was hoping that I would pray that particular prayer until it became what I truly wanted.

Same with temptations. I kind of like temptations, don’t you? I would like to enjoy my temptations, without actually falling into them. But I think Jesus was hoping that I would change my attitude about temptation, by learning to pray differently.

Read the rest of the Lord’s Prayer. It works pretty much the same way. Prayer is asking God for stuff – I get that – but prayer has a way of changing us too, if we let it, if we start to think about what we’re praying for, if we can only learn to let God’s will be done here on earth as it is in heaven. And don’t be afraid to use a printed prayer. I know a 150 of them that might help.

So, there. I got it off my chest. Thanks for reading.

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(Photo: Above, my grand daughter strolling along Lake Michigan near Holland. Below, the cozy cottage at the lake.)

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Your words need more melody

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It’s funny, isn’t it, how certain comments will stay with us and gnaw at us and maybe grow more irritating the longer we think about them?

Or maybe it’s just me. I work in the world of words, after all, and I like to string them together in what I hope are interesting ways. And so when I hear a curious comment, or a word that hits my ear at an odd angle, I think about what it might mean.

I don’t know if investment bankers or stock analysts do this, but I do.

“Your German needs more melody” is what my German teacher, Frau Proksch, said to me a couple of weeks ago in Berlin. I was officiating at a wedding at the end of the week, in nearby Potsdam, and so after several wearying days of intensive language classes, I asked her if she would coach me a little in the lines I planned to speak at the wedding.

After we practiced a few times, she said unexpectedly: “Your German needs more melody.”

When I have dared to use a German word in a sermon (not such an odd thing to do in a mostly German-speaking congregation), the typical reaction has been laughter. Like the time I used the word ankommen to make the idea of Advent a little clearer, there was laughter, which was a bit disconcerting because laughter was not the response I was going for at that particular moment. And ankommen is not an especially funny word. What was funny was that I dared to speak it at all.

Anyway, I’ve thought about the melody of my spoken words lately and have decided that my words are not the only ones that could use more melody. I have been listening to a few of the speeches at the political conventions in the U.S. these last two weeks, and I have to say, there isn’t a lot of melody. A lot of shouting, maybe, a lot of anger, but not much melody.

Could it be that my problem is really the whole world’s problem right now, or at least the part of the world I come from? Could it be that there is so much anger and cynicism and (at least in my case) despair right now that melody is in short supply?

The psalms have become my favorite devotional reading in the last weeks and months – mainly the laments. I need someone to express for me, in spiritual language, what I am no longer able to express, in spite of that love of language I mentioned earlier. In Psalm 137, a psalm filled with anger and cynicism and despair, if there ever was one, the writer reflects on the exile to Babylon and states that his words too have lost their melody: “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”

The idea is that the circumstances are so wretched, so hopeless, that it has become impossible to sing. I know that foreign land. I am there now – not Switzerland, but a spiritual place, a land of fear. My words have lost their melody.

“By the waters of Babylon –

                there we sat down and there we wept

                when we remembered Zion.”

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Stumbling upon the Stolpersteine

index (25)During my intensive language learning last week at the Goethe Institut in Berlin, I went for walks at the lunch break – Mittagspause! – to rest my weary brain and to learn a little about where I was.

As it turned out, I was in an interesting place – near Alexanderplatz and the Hackescher Markt in what was (until 1989) East Berlin.

Not far from the door of the Institut I stumbled upon three Stolpersteine (pictured above), a word which literally means “stumbling stones.” Stolpersteine, a word my exceptionally patient teacher Frau Proksch taught me to pronounce, are part of an art project by the German artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate victims of National Socialism at their last place of residence.

The stones are actually concrete cubes, 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters (3.9 inches by 3.9 inches) fitted with a brass plate and inscribed with the name and life dates of the victims. As you walk along Neuer Schönhauser Strasse, where the Institut is located, you see several of these Stolpersteine, and then you realize that people who once lived here were taken from their homes and deported to extermination camps.

The project started fairly small – in the German city of Cologne – but has expanded to 50,000 Stolpersteine in more than 280 cities in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and others, for a total of 18 European countries.

I confess that I had never heard of the project before, and now that I have seen it (or a very small part of it) I can’t get it out of my thoughts. It’s a deeply moving sight.

The majority of those commemorated of course were Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but other Stolpersteine have been placed for Sinti and Romani people (then called “gypsies”), homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, black people, members of the Christian opposition (both Catholic and Protestant), the Communist Party, military deserters, as well as the physically and mentally handicapped.

The German people I know are not proud of their history, but to their credit they seem determined to remember it, acknowledge it, and learn from it. I hope other people – let’s say, American people – will take a look at this project and learn something from it as well. Too many other people could make it to the list of victims.

stolpersteine auf Deutsch

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(Photos: At the top are three Stolpersteine, located just steps from the main entrance to the Goethe Institut. The other photos were taken along Neuer Schönhauser Strasse. By the way, there really was “free cold beer” at Pepe Jeans London. I went inside to find out. Also, the dessert was crème brûlée, and it was very good.)


 

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A prayer for Sunday morning

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Lord, it gets harder to pray these prayers.

You must have noticed how I struggle. How could you miss it?

I stand on Sunday morning, I face my congregation, I do my best to look strong and confident, and I say, “Let us pray.”

And then I wonder what I should say. What is there to say?

Sometimes I think of the week just ended. Do I begin with Istanbul? But then I think people must be tired of hearing about that. And besides, it’s so depressing. Forty-one more deaths? We come to worship to have our spirits lifted, not to be reminded of the latest bombing, shooting, attack, massacre, disaster, or whatever. Frankly, I lose track of them. Weren’t we just talking about Orlando, or Brussels, or Paris, or Baghdad, or Kabul, or was it Mogadishu?

There are so many, Lord. We are no longer shocked. We have become numb. We hear the news and think, “Not again.” It’s hard to feel anything anymore.

Forgive us.

Other times – and I know this should happen more often than it does – I suddenly remember where I am. I remember that I am standing in your presence, your holy and majestic presence. I am speaking to you, the one who created everything out of nothing. And I am leading your people in prayer. I am praying on their behalf, and I know they are counting on me to get it right, to say what needs to be said, to express what is on their minds and in their hearts.

When I remember where I am, and who is listening, it’s then that I can’t go on. It’s then that I realize how inadequate I am to the task, how pathetic my words must sound. They certainly sound pathetic to me.

Forgive me.

Almost as an afterthought I remember to thank you for what you have given to me – to all of us – and I even name a few things, but the truth is, everything we have is a gift from you, all of it, every last thing. We are blessed people.

When I have said everything I can think to say, I say, “Thank you.”

Because I am thankful.

Most of the time.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

And hear my prayer.

(Photo: Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem)

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