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.

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?

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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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The stranger within our gates

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Europe, like the U.S., is struggling mightily with the refugee crisis.

Even knowing what to call the Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, and others who are pouring across our borders in large numbers is a complicated matter, with each term betraying one’s political – and sometimes religious – viewpoint.

Are they political refugees, Flüchtlingen, as my German-language newspaper prefers to call them? Or, are they Muslim invaders, as some members of my church believe?

Raised on the parables of Jesus, like the Good Samaritan, my first response to the refugee crisis was that my church should do something. In fact, I said as much. ‘We should adopt a family,’ I said early on, ‘as the pope himself suggested – one family per parish.’

One of my church members called and told me of his plans to drive a family from a refugee camp in southern Europe to Germany, perhaps in a rental car so as to avoid easy identification. His small act would help only one family, he acknowledged, but at least that one family would be safe. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about his plan, and told him so, but I found it difficult to do nothing, except for watching the news photos of squalid camps and overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean.

I was quickly informed, of course, that I was naive, that I did not understand how grave the situation was. ‘Muslims do not integrate,’ a few people helpfully explained to me. And news that at least one of the attackers in the Paris massacre last Friday night was a Syrian who had entered Europe posing as a refugee seemed to confirm that I was, in fact, naive, that I do not understand the situation we are facing.

Right now, the more conservative position represented by the SVP (Swiss People’s Party) seems to be the preferred position in this country. The SVP rode an anti-immigration platform to victory in the most recent election, and in a land of direct democracy that was a powerful message.

Even the pope, who isn’t reluctant to voice an opinion, seems to have gone silent on the issue.

I try to remember that I am a guest in this country, very much an immigrant myself. I am still learning the languange and the culture, after all, and it would be presumptuous of me to tell the Swiss how to run their country, especially when they seem to have done a remarkably good job of it for many years.

But I am a Christian pastor. I can and do read the Bible, and I know what it says about ‘the stranger within our gates.’ Republican presidential candidates in the U.S. do not hesitate to quote scripture about other topics, but they are noticeably reluctant to seek out the Bible’s clear teaching on this issue, have you noticed?

What about Exodus 23:9, to take just one example? ‘Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.’ That argument – you should understand because you too were foreigners – is repeated over and over in the Old Testament.

Naive or not, I continue to believe that my faith compels me to look with compassion on the strangers who are appearing among us. The Muslims I have spoken to (a very small number) are deeply disillusioned with their faith, but their faith in many cases is all they have. I would like to think that they would be especially receptive right about now to the Gospel message, the story of a God who welcomes us all, a God who brings shalom to a sin-ravaged world.

I will continue to struggle with this issue and with my naivete. I will continue to search scripture for the appropriate response (though the testimony already seems clear). I will continue to recommend to my members that we show compassion and not act out of fear. I will do my best, in it all, to be the follower of Christ I was raised to be – always concerned for the ‘least of these.’

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The hopes and fears of all the years

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Christmas is coming, though you would never know that from the weather around here, which has felt more like September than December. Hasn’t the fall been lovely?

Christmas comes each year, and we look forward to it with a mixture of anticipation and dread – anticipation mostly because we get to see family and loved ones, and dread, well, let’s just say there are lots of reasons. Many people I know do their best to avoid the holiday altogether, feeling enormous relief in January when the tree becomes compost and the decorations are put away again for another year. Marriage and family problems, to say nothing of employment and financial worries, can exaggerate the awful feelings we sometimes have at this time of year.

All of which is interesting (and sad) when you remember what Christmas is and what it means to tell us. Christmas, more than anything, is a story of origins. It’s like the creation story in that way because it tells us where we came from. Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with geneaologies and stories of angels and proclamations, as if to say, ‘Let’s remember how all of this started.’ Mary says, ‘Let it be to me according to your word,’ and ever since we have been people who look for the unexpected from God and then struggle to keep up. His plans are never quite our plans!

I’m one of those people who comes to the season with more anticipation than dread. I can remember Christmases of course that were unspeakably sad, mainly because of someone who had died the previous year and wouldn’t be with us for the first time, but mainly I remember Christmases that have been full of joy and love and even surprise.

Most years since my ordination the season has been a busy one, culminating in a kind of happy exhaustion at midnight on Christmas Eve. With three or four services on Christmas Eve, beginning with a family service in the afternoon and concluding with candelight communion at 11:00, the day has always been a long one. And then, for several years, there were toys or other things to assemble and wrap and place under the tree before heading off to bed in the wee hours of the morning. All I wanted for Christmas during those years was a nice, long nap in the afternoon.

Not surprisingly I am excited to be celebrating my second Christmas in Switzerland this year. This might be the only country on the planet where Christmas lights and decorations are really unnecessary. With a little snow on the ground, the village where I live comes to life and is transformed into the postcard view that most people imagine when they think of Switzerland, though the real thing is more beautiful than any painting. Walking the dog in the early morning, before anyone else is stirring, has been a gift, even though I complain about having to do it. I tug at the dog, or she tugs at me, and together we enjoy a land of surpassing beauty. I think she notices it too. How could she not?

But Christmas of course is about more than snow and beautiful Swiss villages and services that end at midnight. As much as I enjoy singing ‘Joy to the World’ each year in a darkened church, while clutching my tiny candle with its wavering light, I know that the story is way more powerful than all of the rituals I employ each year. I know for example that the savior of the world has been born, that the long wait is over, that the promise has at long last been fulfilled, that (as the carol puts it) ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’

To be honest about it, the underlying meaning of the season has always made the inevitable sadness and disappointment seem bearable. I think, ‘God is at work in the world, quietly, of course, but unmistakably. All creation has been groaning for this, and now it has happened.’ And it’s then that I take my nap.

(Photo: Christmas lights on Bahnhofstrasse.)

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The blog is back

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When you are as excited as I was about living and working in Europe, you tend to underestimate the size of the challenge.

Emotions can and often do trump logic.

But moving is difficult. Even moving, as I once did, from one Midwestern state to another was very, very difficult. I was excited about that move too and thought it would be no problem. As soon as the house was sold, I figured everything else would quickly fall into place. I was wrong about that, as I have been about a lot of things in my life.

And then, two years ago, I made the decision to move across an ocean. Not from Illinois to Michigan this time, but from the U.S. to Europe, to a tiny country called Switzerland, with its beautiful scenery and quaint villages and of course cheese. I had been to Europe. I knew people there. I have an adventurous spirit. So, once again, I thought, “No problem.”

But moving from one place to another, one country to another, is – may I use this word a third time? – difficult. Frankly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I should say at this point that I thought I was following God’s call in my life. But of course all pastors say that. Pastors say a lot of things, and they can justify just about any decision or behavior, maybe you’ve noticed, by using a lot of clever religious language. “God placed this call on my heart” is always a good one. “God decided to have his way with me” is another one I like. We pastors are good at making every decision seem like part of God’s eternal plan. It’s a required course at seminary.

Here’s the thing, though: I still believe this was God’s call in my life. Have never been more certain, as a matter of fact. But somewhere I got the idea that God’s call in my life would be to something better or easier – like a nicer climate, or a higher salary, or a better job description. I must have missed all of the biblical fine print about taking up one’s cross.

Not long ago a member of my church’s youth group said to me, “I thought following Jesus would make life easier.” Let me tell you, kid: I used to think that too. A lot of people do. And then we’re surprised when following turns out to be a lot harder than we ever imagined.

Switzerland usually ranks at the top of the list of countries for expats. It also ranks right up there on the “happiest” places to live in the world. If you’re going to move or be transferred somewhere, you could do a lot worse than Switzerland. I heard presidential candidate Bobby Jindal say in the last Republican debate that “the left is trying to turn the American dream into the European nightmare.” These words sound strange to anyone living here. Swiss life is hardly a nightmare. A lot of expats I know have decided to stay.

I suppose that what makes the move so difficult is leaving behind everything that is familiar. I forgot how utterly immersed I was in American culture. And then to find myself suddenly in a brand-new culture, as splendid as it is, in spite of what Bobby Jindal thinks, is a lot harder than I imagined it would be. Looking back I realize that the first year was exhausting – emotionally, physically, and even spiritually. I was starting a new job, for one thing, and even though people here welcomed me with open arms, starting a new job is nearly always demanding and stressful.

And then there was learning a new language. If I were five years old, I’m pretty sure I would be a fluent German speaker by now, but I am a bit older than five, and learning a language is tough, especially for Americans who think that English is God’s mother tongue. I still struggle with it.

Even going to the grocery store was a challenge at the beginning. Going to any kind of store required careful planning. Setting up the cable TV box (with instructions in German, French, and Italian) took the better part of an afternoon.

The list goes on and on. Every day there was something. I stopped writing this blog six months ago at least in part because I needed time to focus on living, settling in, finding my way.

I wrote a book last summer mostly to make sense of this country and of my new church. (Though the manuscript was submitted last week, the publication date has been set for the fall of next year.) I write, as many people do, to sort out my thoughts, to figure out what I really think, and I hoped that a book about serving a multicultural, international church with almost mind-boggling diversity would help me to understand what in the world I was doing here. Mostly it did. I was proud of the result.

So, the blog is back, which is another way of saying I am far more comfortable now in my new home, my new country. I can get around easily on trains and trams. I have carried on entire conversations in banks and restaurants and even at the salon where I get my hair cut in a language that is still new and strange to me. I am not nearly as tired at the end of the day.

But I will never again underestimate the degree of difficulty in moving.

(Photo: I took that on a Saturday morning hike a few weeks ago. It’s further evidence, I believe, of the “European nightmare.”)

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A tribute to a mentor, colleague, friend, and fine pastor

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Fred Anderson is one of a kind. And everyone who knows him knows what I mean.

I can’t quite believe that the day has arrived when I would write a tribute to him, but I am honored to do so. In fact, I feel compelled to do so. Few people have had a greater impact on my life and work.

When news came to me that Fred’s farewell celebration would be held in May – at a time when I would not be able to travel to New York City – I was deeply disappointed, more so than you can possibly imagine. I write these words in lieu of being present. I hope you sense in them the genuine affection I have for him.

I first met Fred when I, along with a few dozen other graduating Princeton Seminary seniors, interviewed for church positions. I have no idea how the process works now, but back then pastors came to Princeton, usually along with an elder or two, and they would interview seminary students like me who were hoping to find work in the church.

We were coached to say that we were “looking for a call,” but we knew better. This was the job market, and jobs were scarce. We were coached, further, to sign up for as many interviews as possible, mostly to get interview experience.

As it turned out, I need not have signed up for as many as I did.

Fred was the first person I interviewed with. I liked him immediately. And I eagerly accepted his invitation to be his “assistant pastor,” which is what we were in those days, a kind of a two-year audition before becoming an “associate pastor,” a title which carried with it a bit more job security. I was the first in what has become a long list of associates whom Fred has invited to serve and learn with him.

To be honest, I had never dreamed of living and working in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, few people do, but as some wise person once told me (it was probably Fred), “If you get along with the senior pastor, you can live just about anywhere.” Fred presented Harrisburg to me in a way that Harrisburg has never been presented before. After riding around town with Fred in his tiny Chevy Chevette, and hearing him extol the virtues of life in Harrisburg, I would easily have chosen to live there over, say, Zurich, Switzerland. Such were his powers of persuasion, finely tuned during one of his previous careers – no kidding – as a Fuller Brush salesman. Fred could sell sand to Saudis.

My wife and I stayed at Fred’s home for our first visit to Harrisburg because, as he put it, it was important to know “if we could live together.” I am reasonably certain that Fred does not give this advice concerning other areas of life, but his reasoning made sense to me and I went along with it. Fred and Questa warmly welcomed us, and looking back I think one of the key tests during that visit was whether or not I could stay up late talking about the church and still function reasonably well the next day. We were to have many of those late-into-the-night conversations about the church over the years.

Fred told me early on that he had learned his administrative skills in the Air Force, and that piece of information should have set off an alarm in me. And when it didn’t, he added that “when I tell you to jump, you should ask me how high on the way up.” I had never before heard authority claimed so easily and comfortably. I half expected him to be joking, but it turned out that he wasn’t.

And curiously, you may find this hard to believe, that’s why I trusted him. Fred knew who he was, and he always challenged other people to figure out who they were.

As comfortable as Fred was in his role as senior pastor, I don’t recall that he ever felt threatened by my own achievements, accomplishments, and successes. In fact, Fred repeatedly looked for ways for me to succeed. He opened doors. He introduced me to people I should know. He sincerely wanted me to do well – expected me to do well. And since I was never a threat to him, I could find success every day of the week as far he was concerned. I didn’t, of course, but it would have been alright with him if I had.

Some of the best and most memorable sermons I have ever heard were ones that Fred preached. I had never seen anyone own a pulpit the way Fred did. He overpowered it and made it his. The pulpit at Pine Street Church was actually quite large – “twelve feet above contradiction,” we used to say – but Fred’s presence was equal to it. I have seen piano players take command of a piano and bend the instrument to their will, and that’s what Fred did with the pulpit most Sundays. He made it his.

One of the sermons I remember – not because it was his best, but because of the sheer audacity of it – was titled “Gross or Net?” It was a stewardship sermon, and the title referred to an often-asked question when Presbyterians are challenged to tithe. “Before or after taxes?” they usually wanted to know, and Fred responded by demolishing the question. If I can summarize his point, it was that “if you have to ask the question, then you don’t understand Jesus’ claim on your life.” Fred made a tither out of me in my first years of ministry, something that simply would not have happened without his conviction and example.

I regularly heard Fred preach more than once on a Sunday, but his sermons were never the same, which was curious because he always took a manuscript to the pulpit. I never knew what those pieces of paper were for, because he never seemed to refer to them. His sermons were memorable, though, mostly because they were strong and courageous. He always said what needed to be said and never sugar coated anything. When he was finished there was never a question as to where Fred stood. He stood squarely within the Word of God.

And that’s another point that should be made about Fred – his commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I remember leaving a funeral service for one of our colleagues, a pastor at another downtown church. The service consisted of one tribute after another for the deceased pastor, and I could sense while sitting next to him that Fred very much disliked everything about the service. As we were leaving, he leaned over and whispered, loudly enough for the entire balcony to hear, “If it should ever become your responsibility to lead my funeral service, then preach the gospel!”

And the thing is, Fred always did. No matter what.

Fred did his best to teach me to be a preacher. On the occasional Sunday mornings when I was preaching, he would pick me up on his way to church, and then he would sit in the back at the sound console while I would nervously preach my sermon, over and over again, to a darkened and nearly-empty sanctuary.

Fred also taught me to baptize babies. On the Sunday morning before my first baptism, he and I arrived early, found a baby doll in the church nursery, and I said the words of the baptismal formula while soaking the doll I was holding in my arms. Somehow I missed the class at seminary where these kinds of things were demonstrated, but am glad now that I learned to do them with Fred.

The morning I baptized my own child, Sarah, I was so overcome with emotion that I only managed to baptize Sarah “in the name of the Father.” When Fred realized I could say no more, he reached into the baptismal font, grabbed a fistful of water, showered both of us with it, and said, “and in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” It was, I’m sure, one of the few tag-team baptisms in the history of the church, and I still smile about it.

I also learned to chair board (Session) meetings from Fred. As you might imagine, if you have never seen him do it, he chaired board meetings with authority. Part of that came from being the best prepared person in the room. Fred always knew every item on the agenda and how the discussion was going to go. He knew parliamentary procedure too and didn’t hesitate to shepherd the elders through its complexities. But as strong as Fred was in those situations, no one should have felt intimidated or cowed into silence. Everyone with an opinion to express had ample opportunity to do so. And then a decision was made, and we moved on. Fred knew what he wanted and usually got it.

My favorite part of the monthly board meeting was the debriefing later in the evening at the Tuesday Club which was always empty by the time we arrived. Fred seemed to know his way around the kitchen and made the best ham sandwiches I’ve ever had. He also introduced me to Manhattans at those late evening seminars, and over ham sandwiches and Manhattans we would dissect every aspect of the meeting which had just concluded. I realized years later that I had been given a doctoral seminar in managing a church board. My diploma should bear the coat of arms not of Princeton, but of the venerable Tuesday Club.

One more story. I’m pretty sure no other first-year pastor has ever had to officiate at so many funerals. After one particularly difficult stretch, with at least three maybe four funerals in a single week, Fred must have seen my war-weary look, and so he said, “You’d better figure out what you believe about life after death – and do it quickly!”

He was right, as he usually was in those situations, and that year I learned to lean hard on my faith. I have not officiated at a funeral service in the years since then without thinking about those words. You can’t do this work if you don’t know what you believe. Fred knew what he believed, and so do I.

To say that I had a good experience in my first five years of ministry would be an understatement. I realize that I had one of the best transitions into ministry it was possible to have. And I knew at the time, from listening to my classmates who were often in less-than-ideal situations, that I should not take this experience for granted. I hope I didn’t. I tried to learn as much as I could. I tried to enjoy my life as a pastoral staff member as much as I could, because there are many advantages to not being the one ultimately responsible . And I tried to grow into my new identity as a pastor as much as I could.

For all of that, and more, I will always be grateful to a fine mentor and one of the most capable pastors I have ever known.

I love you, Fred. And I am thankful for the ministry we shared over the years.

(Photo: That’s the sanctuary of the Pine Street Presbyterian Church where Fred Anderson was once the pastor and where I was ordained on the chancel steps 34 years ago. Fred is retiring this spring after more than 20 years as pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.)

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A ritual I look forward to each week

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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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