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.

“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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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.”)

Comments { 10 }

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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The restroom situation around the world

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The good news of course is that I live in a country without restroom wars.

No local governments here in Switzerland, as far as I know, are getting ready to pass laws about who can use which restroom and, believe me, I’ve been scanning the headlines each night in my Blick am Abend just to be sure.

Back in the U.S., which never ceases to amuse (and horrify) my Swiss neighbors, people are apparently getting all hot and bothered about people in restrooms who, in the opinion of some, shouldn’t be there.

Most of the people who are freaking out, I’m guessing, have never been been to a W.C. in Europe, where female attendants in men’s restrooms are fairly common. You’ll be minding your own business one day, and suddenly a woman will be sweeping under your feet. It’s distracting at first, sure, but you get used to it. Now I hardly notice.

Frankly, if you want to be traumatized by restrooms, you should travel more, not only in Europe, but in other countries as well.

Squat toilets – sometimes called “Turkish toilets” – are the norm in much of the world, not just in Turkey. (Some Swiss like to call these toilets “French toilets,” but I think that has something to do with not liking the French.) What you get are porcelain treads and a hole in the floor about four inches wide. I was puzzled when I saw my first one, I studied it carefully, and then I thought, well, when in Peru, which is where I happened to be, do as the Peruvians do. I was proud of my first attempt.

Less traumatizing, but no less annoying, is having to pay to go. A tip dish by the door? Really? And then, to add insult to injury, the attendants themselves are often incredibly rude, though I suppose I would be rude too if I had to work there day after day.

I might as well go all the way with this post and make a comment about the toilet paper. If you visit me, or travel anywhere in the world, you might want to take your own. You’ll be glad you did, especially where none is offered, and I’ll leave my comment at that. But seriously, if you visit me and leave a roll or two of the good stuff, I will be very grateful.

Look, I could go on. There’s a lot to write about, as you can imagine. I have spent a lot of time in restrooms around the world and have taken a special interest in the topic. But this is probably as much as you wanted to know. Frankly, I now know as much about the restroom situation in the U.S. as I ever wanted to know, and I wish state legislators would turn their attention to a few other subjects which – I apologize for this – have a greater sense of urgency.

Until next time. Tschüss!

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A personal update

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Dear readers,

Instead of the usual post about my latest (and impressive) spiritual insight, or my latest gripe about presidential politics in the U.S., I thought you might enjoy a more personal update:

My next book

It now appears that the publication date of my new book has been pushed back to Spring 2017. I am disappointed, of course, more than you know, but maybe the silver lining here is that interest in my topic – becoming a multicultural church – is growing. Here’s a link to an interesting New York Times article about the subject.

Language learning

I continue to learn grammar and add lots of vocabulary at my village language school, but my German speaking skills are nicht so gut. Schrecklich, to be honest. So, I’m going to do what I probably should have done at the start – namely, attend an immersion class. I’m going to use my study leave this year to attend a Goethe Institut summer intensive in Berlin. I will even be living with a German family while I’m there, enjoying Frühstück with them every morning before class. Sadly, even after attending this class, I won’t have any idea what my Swiss German friends are talking about, since they prefer not to speak Standarddeutsch, the language I am determined to master.

Church Life

My congregation voted in January to extend my contract, a gifted new associate pastor will begin work next month, there are gratifying signs of life and growth, and so I find myself excited about staying in Switzerland a while longer. I occasionally worried about being on autopilot at this stage of my ministry, not being sufficiently challenged, but that worry (like most of my worries over the years) can now be set aside. I find myself fully engaged with the complexity and excitement of ministry in this wonderful multicultural context. All (or almost all) brain cells are engaged!

The Blog

Google Analytics continues to provide me with information about you, my dear readers, and I have no idea what to do with most of it. Here’s an example that you might find interesting. My readers over the last month came from the following cities (in order):

  1. Zürich CH
  2. Wheaton, Illinois
  3. Fort Lauderdale, Florida
  4. Ann Arbor, Michigan
  5. Grand Rapids, Michigan
  6. Batavia, Illinois
  7. Chicago, Illinois
  8. New York, New York
  9. London UK
  10. Plantation, Florida

And here are a few honorable mentions:

  1. New Delhi, 34. Paris, 44. Sydney (Australia)

and interestingly

  1. Rio de Janeiro (with three page views!)

Thank you for reading my blog, thank you for your thoughtful comments (on the blog itself and on Facebook), and thank you for encouraging me to do what I like to do – namely, write about faith and life.

Love, Doug

(Photo: That’s me in the reflection, wearing a University of Michigan cap and modeling quite a good photographer’s stance. You can’t teach something like that. It’s a gift. )

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“I hate Trump. I hate Hillary. I hate I hate I hate.”

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tightening their grips on the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.

I don’t often give Facebook credit for very much, except stealing time that I could have used doing something else. But this week I read something my older daughter posted that I want to pass along to you.

One of my daughter’s friends is a teacher of young children – 9 year olds – and lately she has been listening to her children speak in harsh and angry terms, usually about politics. The children will talk about candidates as “scumbags,” “idiots,” and “dirty liars.”

“I have had to help many kids,” she writes, “find different words to use than ‘hate’ – oh, they are using that word so often. I hate Trump. I hate Hillary. I hate Democrats. I hate Republicans. I hate I hate I hate.”

This is primary season in the U.S., and people in Europe – or at least in the small part of Europe where I live – are paying attention, mostly because the political climate in the U.S. this year is so ugly, far uglier than usual, in my experience. A great deal of name-calling is taking place, some violence has broken out in a few places, and so no one, I suppose, should be surprised that this ugliness and nastiness is being heard and then learned by our children.

My daughter’s friend, the one who is a teacher, suddenly realized that she was as guilty as anyone. Her own language had become coarser, harsher, uglier, even filled at times with hatred. And so, she made a commitment to stop, to begin using different language, to model better language and behavior for her children, those in her class and of course those at her home.

I think the reason that this Facebook post affected me so much is that I saw myself in my daughter’s friend. I too have been frustrated this political season. More than once I have wanted to shout back at the television news (and, yes, have given in to the temptation). I even broke a personal rule about no politics on my blog and posted about a candidate with whom I am particularly concerned. I know better. As deeply as I care about my country and the direction it is taking, I know that my behavior affects others. I can’t do much to change things at home, except to send in my absentee ballot, but I can control myself. I can remember what I learned in Sunday school many years ago about other people being created (as I am) in the image and likeness of God. I may find their political views abhorrent – I often do – but I must make sure that my own behavior and my own language match what I profess to believe.

As a Christian, a great deal more is expected of me. I want to give evidence each day of the fruits of the Spirit, evidence that the Spirit is working in me and changing me and making a new creation out of me. I want to exhibit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I do exhibit those qualities, occasionally, but not often enough.

What about you? Have you noticed a change in the way you speak about others? Their political views, the ones with which you disagree so intensely, do not give you the right to belittle them or to treat them as something less than children of God.

I sometimes receive email forwards from church members who must think that I agree with their political point of view. I am included in lists of what must be their like-minded friends. And frankly I am surprised by what I read. The people who send these things always seem so saintly when they are singing the hymns during worship.

Somehow – and I don’t profess to know how to do this – we need to learn a way of speaking and acting that is honest about our beliefs and core values, but that also is fair-minded, loving, and hopes the best for all concerned.

I can do better at that. I hope you will join me in trying.

(Note: I wrote something like the above as the pastor’s letter for my church’s monthly newsletter.)

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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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