Hi! My name is Doug...
I'm a preacher, author,
runner, husband, father of two...
AND THIS IS MY BLOG!

My first mountain hike

Have I mentioned that hiking is the Swiss national obsession? I was wrong.

Glancing at one’s watch is actually the national obsession. Sorry. Cultural stereotype.

But number two on the list of national obsessions is most likely hiking. People here like to hike. And in a country as beautiful as this it would be sinful not to get outdoors and walk.

On Saturday I took my first mountain hike. By Swiss standards, I know, it wasn’t much. A cable car ride, a walk on a surprisingly well-maintained hiking trail, a stop somewhere for beer, and then talk with with other hikers (and beer drinkers). It’s not a bad life.

I have a new camera (kind of a big step up for me from the point-and-shoot I’ve used for most of my life) and took a few pictures as I walked. I hope you like these…

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Our hotel was above Lake Lucerne which was obscured by cloud cover. The trail I took required a cable car ride to an even higher altitude.

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That’s the path. As you can see, not exactly a highly technical climb.

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Swiss hikers generally know where they’re going and how long it will take to get there. Highly competitive Americans who hike in Switzerland feel superior when they arrive ahead of schedule. (High fives all around!) Note the reminder at the bottom to keep your dog on the leash. Seems cruel to the dog.

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The reward for walking a few meters, as I mentioned, is a beer and a few other things.

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Apparently the wind on Saturday was just right because one after another of these gliders took off. I don’t know that I would be able to run off the side of a mountain, but the gliding looks like fun.

My next hike is planned for October 25. Meet me at the French Reformed Church in Zurich. Air fares are lower at this time of year, and fall in Switzerland is gorgeous. Join me?

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Some thoughts about language learning

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1. It’s difficult.

Learning a new language has a certain romantic appeal – like, for example, living abroad. But the dreaminess disappears quickly.

I have dedicated a part of every day for the last eight months to language learning (and have committed over 1200 German words to memory), and today at the hair salon I could not say, “longer on top, shorter on the sides.” My stylist simply smiled and then gave me the haircut she thought I needed.

2. Immersion is probably the way to go.

Before leaving the U.S. I asked a brother in law who teaches German literature at a state university for his opinion about the best way to learn German, and he said, “Take a 2-3 week immersion class, and you’ll be speaking passable German by the time you’re finished.” (He was actually thinking, “You wouldn’t get a passing grade from me, but you would know how to get a haircut.”)

My once-per-week language class, supplemented by an online course, the car radio, and a daily German-language newspaper (the tabloid most Swiss do not admit to reading), are not enough. I have clearly chosen the longer, more difficult route.

3. The locals do not help.

There are really two issues here. One is that as soon as my American identity becomes clear – usually in the first three seconds after meeting someone – the Swiss person I’m talking to will switch immediately to flawless English. And so ends my opportunity to practice.

The other issue is that the Swiss really prefer to speak Swiss German, not the more widely known German language I am learning. I have listened to conversations on the train, expecting to understand a little of what is being said, only to realize that the conversation is not actually in German. This other dialect is the tribal tongue of the Swiss, and it’s one way to maintain an identity distinct from the Germans to the north who – how do I put this? – are not held in high regard.

4. In spite of #3, the Swiss really like it that I am trying to learn.

Maybe it gives them pleasure to see an American struggle. I’m sure that’s part of it. But mostly I think they value the attempt I am making to integrate within Swiss culture. Members of my church regularly tell me – in English – how glad they are that I am learning the language.

5. Spiritually speaking, language learning is an exercise in humility.

And I thought I was humble enough before I started.

(Photo: I’ve never had so many options for walking the dog.)

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When a friend betrays you

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I should have seen it coming, but that must mean I’m to blame.

And maybe I am, a little.

What I did wrong was to trust someone I should not have trusted, never, not a million years. But I did. I acted in good faith. I sometimes had a queasy feeling as I did it, but I trusted anyway, because that’s what you do, right? You put yourself out there. Relationships require it.

But deep down I knew. I always knew. I should not have trusted this person.

Betrayal is what happens when you act in good faith, become vulnerable, extend yourself for someone else, and then that person turns out not to be a friend after all, not to have your best interests in mind, not to care about you at all, as a matter of fact.

What is it about betrayal that hurts so much? The coldness of it? The calculation? No, I’m convinced that it’s the evil of it.

I woke up this morning thinking about what happened. And not just thinking about it, but being mad about it. After all these months, after fooling myself into thinking that I was finally over it, after working so hard to get on with life, I still feel the hurt of it, the teeth-clenching anger of it.

And I realized of course, as I lay there in the early morning light, that I needed to get rid of it, to let it go.

For my sake, if for no one else’s.

But the truth is, I’m not quite there yet. It’s as though I can’t let go until I acknowledge to myself the sheer awfulness of it, the extent to which this other person betrayed me, all the sorry details of it. I can’t forgive, much less forget, it seems, until I remember every bit of it.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. You can’t get to my age without having been betrayed once or twice. I remember an event from some years ago that felt like a kick to the gut. I felt at the time as though the wind had been knocked out of me. I nearly picked up the phone to call a lawyer. I was sure I had a case. I would sue. That would make things right.

But someone who heard my story, someone who knows me well, said to me, ‘Doug, let it go.’

And I don’t remember anymore how I did it, but I did. It actually happened quickly. I started to breathe again, I put down the phone, I deleted the angry letter I had written. It was over. Finished. I haven’t thought about it in years – not until this latest betrayal, in fact. And then, surprisingly, there it was.

Betrayal and grief have that much in common. Every loss reminds you of every other loss you have ever had. Every betrayal is a reason not to trust anymore, not to be vulnerable, not put yourself out there.

But it’s time to let this one go. It has a kind of power over me, and I’m sick and tired of that, as much as anything. I need to unclench my fists and go on. I want to live. And be free.

And if my faith means nothing else, it means this: Forgiving others as I have been forgiven. And God knows that I have needed forgiveness.

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The Bucket List

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I used to be proud to have a bucket list, and now I’m not so sure.

I’ve been thinking about what a bucket list means ever since I read that a couple of weeks ago President Obama took a small detour on his way back to the United States, after a summit meeting in Wales, in order to see Stonehenge.

After walking around a bit, listening to the curator, and having his picture taken with some surprised tourists, he said to reporters, “Knocked it off the bucket list!”

At first I was surprised to know that President Obama was still working on a bucket list. After “graduating from Harvard Law School,” “becoming a United States Senator,” and “becoming the first African-American President of the United States,” you would think that there wouldn’t be many items left on his list.

But no, apparently there are a few other things he’d still like to do.

I still have a few things I’d like to do too. Like the President I have a few travel destinations in mind. And I still haven’t climbed Mount Everest or qualified for the Boston Marathon.

Some items seem less and less likely as the years go by. I was never a terribly fast runner, for example, and each of my marathons has been slower than the previous one. So, qualifying for the Boston Marathon seems more like a pipe dream than a real, honest-to-goodness bucket list item. And frankly, I have no business being on Mount Everest or even a mountain half that size.

But most of the items that remain on my list seem, well, kind of small. Not small in degree of difficulty, but small in terms of significance.

Here’s the thing: Bucket list items have always seemed a tiny bit selfish. I’ve never heard anyone say, for example, that eradicating polio was on her bucket list. Or finding a cure for cancer. Or any of a number of things that might actually make life better.

Most bucket list items are about personal experience or personal achievement.

I finally got to see a rocket lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It was the last shuttle launch. And to be honest, it was a quite a thrill, something I had wanted to do since I was a little boy, watching Mercury, Gemini, and then Apollo rockets blast off. I stood that day in a VIP tent, not because I was a VIP, but because I knew someone who was. I listened to the countdown, and then I saw and felt something that I had only previously seen on a television screen. The ground shook, and a wave of heat from the blast washed over me. And then it was over. The rocket was out of sight. It was time to climb into my car and go home.

Bucket list items tend to be like that. But not all of them.

My older sister once traveled more than a thousand miles to come to my church and hear me preach, something she had never done before. Afterwards, she said, “It was on my bucket list.” And much too flippantly, I said, “You need a new bucket list.” I regretted saying it almost soon as the words were out of my mouth.

No bucket list item has to measure up to my standard of worthiness.

Who knows what seeing Stonehenge meant to a man who has already accomplished more with his life than most of us dream about. Maybe he promised his mother that one day he would do it because she didn’t live long enough to do it herself. I will most likely never know. And it doesn’t matter that I do.

His reasons were personal. As are the reasons for the items on my list.

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Sehnsucht

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Coming back to Switzerland after a summer holiday in the States was unexpectedly revealing and a tiny bit unsettling. It’s taken a few days to sort out my feelings and – like the first-year German student that I am – I haven’t been able to form sentences to describe what I’m feeling.

I’m still not sure I have put my finger on it.

Toward the end of my time away I started to feel as though it was time to get back to work. That’s always a welcome feeling. I feel it every year. I’m not quite sure what would happen if I didn’t want to get back to work.

Retire, I suppose.  Or, go back to school and get a real job, maybe.

But I was ready to re-engage, to see the people of my church, to prepare sermons for them, to ask about their lives, to go on hikes with them, to be the church with them. For more than 30 years I have lived for this, and for more than 30 years I have been glad for this life. I still am.

What was different this time was going home. I told everyone that I was “going home to Switzerland,” which has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? My home is in Switzerland. I loved to say it and loved to see the reactions to it.

And it’s true that I have some clothes and furniture in Switzerland. But home is also in the United States.  I have some clothes and furniture there too.

So, what is home?

The German language, which to me is not all that beautiful to listen to, finds its beauty in the way it expresses complex emotion. I never thought I would love German opera. (What is Italian for, after all, except to express the deep and painful longings of love, and to swear at other drivers?) But the German language, as it turns out, can describe a feeling with such precision that translators are tempted to leave some words well enough alone.

The word “sehnsucht” would be one example. Yearning and addiction. Those are the two words Germans have put together in a compound word that defies an exact translation.

For some people the yearning is for the past, nostalgia. They think about an America that may have existed briefly in the 1950s, but then only in certain suburbs and hardly for everyone. I think I remember it, but I’m never quite sure it was real. And for some there is a longing and – more recently – a grieving and an unsettling feeling that we will never experience that time and place again.

For me the yearning is not for the past, the American suburbs of the 1950s. And surprisingly my yearning is not for the U.S. at all. To be back briefly after months away was to recognize the good and the bad of American life. I was overwhelmed at times by the friendliness and helpfulness of people in Holland, Michigan, where I vacation each year. I recognized myself in those people. I am even aware that I look like them – and they like me. But I was also irritated by their driving, their wastefulness, their loudness, and much, much more.

I love what my friends here call their “passport country,” but I do not yearn to be there. At least not now.

C.S. Lewis once described “sehnsucht” as the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” I think I see this theme in much of his writing. I think I see it in much of my life. Which would account for the insatiable desire to see and experience so much of the world, to keep my passport in my back pocket, just in case.

I already know that this inconsolable longing, this “sehnsucht,” is spiritual. If more than 30 years of ministry teaches you nothing at all, it teaches you to see the spiritual connections in life. I read Augustine when I was at seminary, but a young man in his early 20s knows little of life. The young man I was then knew less than most.

“You have made us for yourself,” Augustine wrote, as if in prayer. “And our hearts are restless, until they find rest in you.”

I think those words, at long last, are beginning to make sense.

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“I will be with you”

signs along swiss hiking trails I’m preaching about Moses on Sunday. That’s hardly front-page news, because I’ve done it before. Many times.

But what do you say about Moses if you’ve preached about him before, if over the years you’ve more than covered the subject?

Preachers will know the answer to this question.

What happens is that you come back to an old story and – this happens nearly every time – you find something new, a whole new angle on an old, old story. You think, “I’ve been hearing this story since I was a child in Sunday School, and how could I have missed that?”

I know the Moses story pretty well. I like it too, which means that I’ve used it in my preaching many times over the years because preachers always turn to their favorite stories. But this week I saw something that I’m pretty sure I had never seen before.

What often happens in these situations is that the new insight comes from somewhere else – a book, a conversation with a friend, just about anywhere. For me this week it was reading what a friend, a fellow preacher, noticed in the Moses story, and as soon as I read it, I thought, “That’s brilliant.” (I even emailed him to tell him so.)

When Moses told God that he – Moses – wasn’t really up to the job that God had in mind for him, that he wasn’t really a public speaker, that he wasn’t such a good fit as a leader, God did something surprising.

I think I might have expected God to say: “Moses, you’ve got to believe in yourself! You’re smart and good looking. You’re really a very talented person. You’ve got all the gifts you need – and then some. I chose you for this work because I can’t think of a better qualified person.”

But God – I had never noticed this before – doesn’t say that to Moses. God, in fact, seems to agree with Moses in his self-assessment. God seems to say, “You know, I think you’re right. You’re not much. You’re a shepherd, after all, without a lot of prospects for advancement. If it weren’t for a generous father-in-law, you wouldn’t even have this much.”

What makes the story memorable is that God says the one thing Moses most needs to hear, the one thing that most of us need to hear – namely, God’s promise that “I will be with you.”

Why do we imagine that God is like a parent whose child has had a bad day in school: “You’re really smart. You’ll just have to try harder.”

God may well think those things about us (I’m not so sure), but he says the one thing that we most need to hear. “I will be with you.” And in the case of Moses that was enough.

As always, I can’t wait until Sunday.

(Photo: Am back home in Switzerland, looking forward to Sunday and to some hiking.)

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I may start going to church again

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I can be very critical, especially about the church.

I seldom like the sermon. I can be picky about the music. Frankly, I can (and do) find fault with just about everything, even with the cookies at coffee hour. (When was the last time you had a really good cookie at a church coffee hour? Right, my point exactly.)

When people talk about spending eternity singing in the heavenly choir, I hate to admit it, but I don’t look forward to it. I hope it’s okay for me to admit that. My point is that I hope worship in heaven is a lot better than it usually is down here.

But worship today was a happy exception.

A friend invited me to go with him today – this, by the way, is how something like 90 percent of first-time visitors come to church – and I loved every minute of it. From the greeting before I even set foot in the building, to the singing, to the prayer of confession (no kidding), to the message, to communion. I could do it all again next week, except that I don’t live around here.

What was it? I don’t know. I am trying to put my finger on it. Part of it was that no one tried very hard. What I mean is that worship wasn’t a show. Pastors and worship leaders were real, authentic, genuine – and that goes a long way.

Another part of it, I think, was the blend of old and new. The people were given responses that date to the earliest days of the church, and then there were elements that might have been written yesterday. I felt connected to believers of all times and places, but I also had the sense that the faith was being newly expressed.

There was more, of course, but I realized, with some relief, that it doesn’t take much. I’m not that hard to please. I just like to know that I was in the presence of God.

(Photo: One last look at Big Red until next year.)

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One reason the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge will not do nearly as well in Europe

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One reason the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge will not do nearly as well in Europe?

It’s nearly impossible to find ice. (Even the Smithsonian Magazine agrees.)

While my big American refrigerator in the U.S. has a built-in ice maker and can be heard to make ice all day long, my relatively small – let’s say petite – refrigerator in Europe has one teeny, tiny ice tray that takes up about a quarter of the freezer space.  Ice is just not as important to daily life in Europe as it is in the U.S.

I have been challenged to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – as has every other living American, apparently – and I have asked for an exception to the 24-hour rule.  (Asking for rule exceptions has been a big part of my life, but that’s another blog post.) And my reason is that I’d like to do this on my first Sunday back at the International Protestant Church of Zurich.

Beyond that, I would like to do it with my colleague in ministry, Scotty J. Williams, who has agreed to endure this challenge with me in front of the French Reformed Church immediately following morning worship on August 31. The entire congregation will be invited to watch, before heading off to coffee hour.

So, join us a week from Sunday. We’re hoping for a nice, sunny day, which would make it only the second one of the summer, so not likely. In any case, it’s for a good cause – raising awareness for an ALS cure and the need for more research. I’ve read the posts from some who refuse to participate because, after all, there are other, maybe worthier, causes in the world right now. And I agree. There undoubtedly are other causes and worthier ones too. But there’s room for this one.

See you Sunday after church.

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A prayer for the end of summer

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Lord, where to begin?

If I forget everything else that’s been happening in the world, then – yes – it’s been a pretty good summer. Thank you.

But how do I forget everything that’s been happening in the world?

I looked back at the sermons I preached in July, before heading off on vacation, and they were – how do I put this? – gloomy. Well, you heard them, didn’t you? I’m never quite sure. But that’s what they were, weren’t they? There were gloomy about the world, they were gloomy about the future, they were gloomy about nearly everything.

I ask your forgiveness – and the forgiveness of all those who had to sit politely and listen to them. You have asked me to live with hope. You have asked me to trust in you. And I wish I could do that. But after all these years I’m still working on the very first step of faith, still trying to remember that you are God – and that I am not.

As you know – from previous prayers – I am not happy with our leadership. I have used strong language about them. I think they are all crooks and liars. I would ask that you bring down your devastating judgment on them – in the stern Old Testament sense – but then I think about my own life and how it isn’t really all it could be either. And I’m thinking that if I can ask for your mercy, so can they.

I pray that they do.

I’m heading back to work in a week, as I think you know, and surprisingly I feel ready to go back. I suppose that’s a prayer of thanksgiving right there. I thank you for the work you’ve given me to do. I thank you for the time away from that work. I thank you for the people I get to do that work with. I thank you that there are people who would actually like to be the church with me, who would like to walk this way together.

And if I forget to be thankful, I hope you will nudge me simply to open my eyes and look around. Amen.

(Photo: Thank you, Brooke Collier, for catching my lop-sided smile.)

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The importance of Big Red

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Everybody knows “Big Red.”

Everybody who has ever lived or vacationed in Holland, Michigan, that is. Big Red is the lighthouse that marks the entrance to the channel linking Lake Michigan to Lake Macatawa (and thus to the City of Holland).

Every summer for more than 30 years I have vacationed within sight of Big Red, and even though the lighthouse no longer carries out its original mission, it has become an important landmark, very nearly synonymous with the City of Holland.

When I arrived in Holland a couple of weeks ago for my summer vacation, I changed the cover photo on my Facebook page to the photo you see above, letting everyone know, I suppose, that I had arrived. Many of my Michigan friends immediately “liked” the photo because Big Red has that effect on many of us.

It’s not the most beautiful lighthouse we’ve ever seen, but it’s our lighthouse, visible from our beach, located in our part of the world. Soon after I arrived I went to the beach, looked to the south, and – sure enough – there it was. For me at that moment vacation had begun.

One friend who is a serious sailor wrote in response to my Facebook photo to tell me that lighthouses are now obsolete because of GPS . He pointed out, further, that “lighthouses act now as museums and nice old things to look at as we walk down the beach.”

Thanks for that astonishing information, Andrew.

And then he mentioned that “lighthouses are bad images for churches.” Say what?

I should explain that Andrew is, like me, a Presbyterian minister. And this, like it or not, is how we think. We see a lighthouse, or a ship, or an anchor, and immediately we think about images and metaphors. We think about sermon illustrations. And in the process, I suppose, we can be guilty of telling people some pretty obvious stuff. (Please forgive me, if you’ve had to sit through one of my sermons thinking, “Gee, Doug, I never knew that before.”)

But I think Andrew got that last statement wrong, and I’ll tell you why.

The church at its best, of course, is very much like a lighthouse, helping weary travelers navigate through the storms and fog of life. But lately the church – in the West, at least – has become culturally irrelevant and obsolete, like the lighthouse. Fewer and fewer people look to the church anymore for guidance, and now the church – sadly – is often no more than a museum or “a nice old thing to look at.”

And the church – unlike the lighthouse – is partly to blame. (As ashamed as I am of so much in church history, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the church is entirely to blame for what has become of it. Cultural and historical forces have also played a role. But let’s not quibble.)

I’d quit there, but I’m a preacher. And on vacation I feel a little lost without a pulpit. So, let me make this one last point.

I think the church still has a role to play – and not as a museum or a nice thing to look at. I think the church, if it wanted to, if it could find the moral courage to do so, could become a beacon for justice and righteousness. And I’m not thinking about the silly issues that so many Christians waste their time with. I don’t have the energy, for example, to boycott stores where clerks fail to say “Merry Christmas.” Please.

What I have in mind are the larger cultural issues that have led to the situation we find today in Ferguson, Missouri – to give just one example. The gospel has something to say about issues like that. And it’s not always what we want to hear. But often it’s what we most need to hear.

Maybe – this is really dreaming, I know, but indulge me – maybe people will look one day to the church the way I look at Big Red. In other words, as a reminder of something.

Maybe people will look to the church and remember that we can be better, that we’re called to be better, than we often are.

Maybe people will look to the church and be reminded of the one who lived with more moral courage than any other human being who has ever lived.

Thanks for the email, Andrew. Just what I needed.

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