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

My blog is coming to an end

Doug Funni

My blog is coming to an end.

I have one more blog post that I plan to write in the next few weeks – a tribute to my mentor and friend, Fred Anderson, who is retiring this spring after 42 years of ordained ministry. I won’t be able to attend his farewell celebration in New York City, as I had always imagined I would, but I have a few stories to share, which should give him a few reasons to worry.

Without Fred’s patient mentoring during the first five years of my ministry, I doubt that I would be in ministry today, and I intend to write something about that before I sign off.

As for the blog, I have enjoyed it, more than you know, but I don’t expect to miss it…much. For nearly three years, the blog was my hobby and friend.

I like to write, which was what got me started, and the blog gave me the freedom to write all I wanted. I like being in charge too, and the blog allowed me to be creative director and editor-in-chief and even chief technology officer. I learned more about the back end of web sites than I ever wanted to know.

I paid all of the bills, not that there were many to pay. But I paid them, so I pretty much did whatever I wanted to do. And mostly it was fun.

A few people along the way have thought it odd that I would have a blog, and felt the need to say so, but mostly my readers have been kind and supportive. I have received many, many responses along the way that I will always treasure. I have avoided political and hot-button social issues, and I think that contributed greatly to the positive spirit of the blog.

Just so you know, I do have opinions about politics. I try to exercise good judgment about when to share them.

I have other interests now – a difficult new language to learn, for example, which (oddly) places the most important words of the sentence at or near the end. But, importantly, I also have a congregation I care deeply about. I like to hike the mountains of Switzerland too, and I have a fancy new camera that might still produce a nice picture or two as soon as I learn how to use it properly.

Beyond that, I still have at least one book left in me, and with the encouragement of my publisher I have already started work on that. It’s a book about why some multicultural churches thrive – and of course why some do not. I serve a multicultural church now that mostly thrives, and I want to give whatever time and energy I have in me to understanding why it does and then fanning that flame.

I read somewhere that 400 words was the optimum length for a blog post, and I have already gone beyond that number. For my next-to-last post, I hope you will indulge me. Thank you for being my readers.

(Photo: That’s not me. It’s a cartoon character who stole my name.)

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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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One Ash Wednesday several years ago…

burning ash wednesday ashes

In case you missed it the first time, this was posted last year on Ash Wednesday…

One Ash Wednesday several years ago, I headed to the church kitchen with an armful of very dry palm fronds.

You can buy very nice, pre-moistened ashes from Catholic church supply stores in the United States, and my church did that for several years, until I decided to try the ancient custom of creating my own, using the palm fronds I had saved from the previous Palm Sunday.

I had stashed them away in my office, hoping that the cleaning service wouldn’t throw them away. The cleaning service treated just about everything in my office, including the overflowing wastebasket, as sacred, and so the fronds survived undisturbed for nearly a year.

What I imagined as I headed for the kitchen that morning was a truly holy moment, filled with deep spiritual meaning, the wonder of palms being turned into ashes for the Ash Wednesday service that evening.

What happened was something very different. The palm fronds immediately burst into flames, setting off the church’s smoke detectors and releasing quite an unexpected, pungent odor throughout the church.

After the smoke detector stopped screeching, what was left was the smell, which we couldn’t seem to get rid of, and so all afternoon people came to the church and commented on the strange smell. Our receptionist couldn’t keep from laughing each time she told the story.

My attempts to create holy moments often go like that. What I intend as holy and meaningful often turns out to be comical and forgettable. On the other hand, when I am least expecting an encounter with the holy, it’s then that something truly remarkable and mysterious is likely to happen.

That night, as I was applying the ashes to the foreheads of members as they came forward, I realized that the meaning was not in the kitchen ritual, but in the touch and in saying the words, ‘Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.’

I touched the foreheads of at least a couple hundred people that night. I gripped their arms, I looked them in the eyes, and I realized that those people were God’s faithful, entrusted to my sometimes-clumsy care. Now that was a holy moment.

I hope your Ash Wednesday this year is a holy one. You probably won’t have to work as hard as I did to make it that way.

(Photo: I don’t know who that is, but I’m guessing that’s the right way to burn palm fronds.)

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What would Jesus say about 50 Shades of Grey?

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This is the big week, the one we’ve all been waiting for!

In my sad, dark, out-of-touch corner of the world, this is the week that Lent begins, always preceded by the Feast of the Transfiguration, one of my favorite days on the church calendar. I look forward to preaching about the transfiguration every year.

But then that’s me.

The rest of the world has been waiting – breathlessly – for the release of 50 Shades of Grey, a movie based on three novels by E. L. James. I assume there will be at least two more movies, and maybe the last book will be divided in two, which seems to be the trend, resulting in a total of four movies about … a fictional and, from the reports, utterly implausible relationship that I don’t care anything at all about. (Most billionaires I know, unlike the main character in the novel, spend long hours at the office doing actual work.)

But there is always someone in the church wanting me to “take a strong stand” about whatever is happening in popular culture.

I remember back in 2003, when The Da Vinci Code was published, that there was a clamor for me to “say something” about the book “from the pulpit” because those “new to the faith” would be harmed by it.

Ordinarily, a book like The Da Vinci Code would not be on my reading list, but at the time I felt compelled to read it. I don’t usually enjoy reading books I feel compelled to read, but I found The Da Vinci Code to be entertaining, more of a guilty pleasure, though not especially great literature. I ended up offering an adult education class about it anyway. I even bought the curriculum developed by the denomination to refute the book’s main points.

Even after a lot of publicity fewer than 10 people attended.

I feel the same pressure once again to “take a strong stand” about 50 Shades of Grey. And to be honest, I feel more sympathetic than I have in the past because I too am concerned about the topics addressed by the books and the movie. Being a father to two daughters has changed my mind about lots of things.

But is this what a sermon is supposed to be?

In the last community where I served, a pastor started a church that grew almost overnight to several thousand attendees on a weekend, and his sermon titles, published in the local newspaper, were always eye-catching. He once preached a series on “What would Jesus say to…?” LeBron James, Lance Armstrong, Barack Obama, Miley Cyrus, and a host of other sports and popular culture figures.

Maybe he was on to something. Maybe my sermon tomorrow should have been titled “What would Jesus say about 50 Shades of Grey?”

That’s not the title I chose, sadly, but now that I think about it, what I have planned fits that topic.

What Jesus did on that mountain with three of his disciples, what we call the transfiguration, was to offer an alternative, something not based in popular culture, something deeper, richer, more compelling. The glimpse of glory that the disciples saw stayed with them for the rest of their lives and became the focus of their lives.

The transfiguration, I believe, was Jesus’ way of “taking a strong stand.”

If you happen to be in Zurich tomorrow, join us at the International Protestant Church as we all “take a strong stand.”

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Neues aus Absurdistan

Blick am abend

I probably shouldn’t admit to reading it. It’s not The Times of London after all.

Blick am Abend (“look in the evening”) is a small, some might say “trashy,” tabloid available free each evening at the Stadelhofen train station where I catch the train that takes me home. (Anything available free at the train station should probably be considered suspicious.)

I tell myself that I practice my German by reading it. And it’s true that I can understand most of it, which of course means that the stories are not especially challenging. After a year of reading it, I now know a fair amount about the night club scene in Zurich and a lot less about the political situation in Ukraine.

But my favorite column is Neues aus Absurdistan (“new from Absurdistan”).

These are funny – let’s say “painfully funny” – news stories from other parts of the world, but usually from the U.S. The U.S., as it turns out, is an overflowing source of material for this column. This week, for example, I read about “measles parties” in California, where parents are intentionally exposing their children to measles, explaining to news reporters that this was “the way God intended” children to acquire immunity to disease. God is apparently opposed to needles and vaccinations. Who knew? I thought the medical advances of the last century were a gift from God, but apparently not.

“You can’t make this stuff up” might be a better title for the column. There’s no attempt to be funny, though with my beginners’ German I probably miss a snarky comment here and there. Mainly the column exposes, well, the absurdity of life around the world and especially in the U.S.

I should probably stop reading it – not just the column, but the Blick itself – but I’m afraid that the damage has been done. I look back across the ocean and now see life in my home country in a new way. And a lot of it isn’t pretty.

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The village where I live

the village where I live

So, it’s been a year, and I am mostly acclimated and settled in. Thank you for all of the cards, notes, and letters expresssing concern.

I know my way around. I have figured out the trains, trams, buses, ferries, and boats (though not without some early trial and error). I have been to both a Swiss doctor and a Swiss dentist. I can buy groceries and get a haircut. When a letter arrives with words like ‘Achtung!’ on the outside of the envelope, I no longer think that I am in immediate danger of deportation. Those omninous-looking mailings we receive are usually just friendly greetings from the local government, asking why we haven’t done something that EVERY OTHER RESIDENT has already done on time.

And it has been several months since I have been fined for driving too fast.

For all of that I am more grateful can I say. It helps of course that I had several hundred friends to greet me on arrival and ask me about my every need. Not every expat, I realize, can say that. Also, Switzerland is not Somalia. It is a highly-developed western country with one of the best transportation systems in the world. The views are gorgeous in every direction. It is clean and safe. The health care is among the best in the world. And that’s the just the beginning. I don’t want to bore you.

If you move to Switzerland and fail to thrive, then … you are a complete failure as a human being and should never have tried expat life. (See, I am learning to think like a Swiss.)

However, being acclimated and settled in doesn’t mean that I know everything I need to know. My language skills, for example, still leave a lot to be desired. I can read German fairly well, but my conversational skills are sadly lacking. The young woman who cut my hair this morning tried to be helpful by saying, ‘Do you want me to speak German or English?’ I can assure you that Mike at the barbershop back in Fort Lauderdale never posed a question like that. (But I still love you, Mike.)

More important than langauge skills is the matter of living and working, as I do each day, in a multicultural setting. I have mentioned previously that only one member of my church’s Council (or leadership board) was born in the U.S., but the differences are more numerous (and often more subtle) than that. Some days the differences are mind-boggling and overwhelming.

What I take for granted in my preaching and pastoral care, skills I have labored for more than 30 years to perfect and sharpen, can no longer be taken for granted. I am not only learning to speak the language of my village and canton, as I mentioned, but I am also learning to speak the spiritual language of my congregation. When believers come together from so many different continents, when they have been trained and discipled in the faith by such a wide variety of Christian teachers, when their worship experiences are as varied as they are, being a pastor of this congregation has an exceedingly high degree of difficulty.

Some days my head hurts.

I remember saying in the interview process that I know who I am. And that’s still true. My Christian (and pastoral) identity has been shaped and formed over a very long period of time. I have had one of the most thorough Christian educations (beginning with my parents and my Kindergarten Sunday School teacher) it is possible for one person to have, but nothing could have adequately prepared me for this church, this experience, this time in my life.

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus right now, right here, at this moment in history? I will keep you posted.

(Photo: That’s the village of Meilen where I live.)

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Remembering Christmas break in photos (and a little text)

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The Zurich Hauptbahnhof (the main train station in the city and the largest train station in Switzerland) is mostly deserted at 7:20 on Christmas morning. Our train to the airport will arrive at any moment. (Do the trains keep a regular schedule on Christmas? Travel anxiety has started.)

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A few hours and a few miles later, the wooden shoes remind us that we’re finally in Holland (Michigan).

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I couldn’t wait to get to the beach to try out my new camera lens, but a few other people obviously had the same idea earlier in the day. I was going to shoot a “footprints in the sand” theme with two sets of footprints leading off into the distance. I don’t know what this photo means. Maybe lots of people walking with Jesus.

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The picnic table and fire pit look a bit forlorn in the winter.

stairs from the beach

The arrival of snow changes the look of things at the beach. Also, I don’t think I ever realized what a steep climb there is back from the beach to the cottage.

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No one will be sitting on the deck today. Why don’t these people put their deck furniture away for the winter?

South Street sign

This is our street, but I’m thinking that the “rule of thirds” might have improved the composition a bit. There’s a photo here somewhere, but I will have to come back to it (next year).

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A prayer for Sunday morning (and the annual meeting that follows)

 

Predigerkirche interior

Merciful God, you know how we anticipate this day, clinging to hope that this year will be different, but mostly feeling fear and dread that this year will be like all the others. We will do our best to pray and sing the hymns and listen to the sermon, your Word to us, but really, if we are honest, our hearts are focused on what comes later – the annual meeting.

We are human, after all – pathetically, inescapably human.

Even though we pray that this year will be different from other years, and that we will be fully present to you in worship, we know that our thoughts, in spite of ourselves, will be on budgets and reports and elections. If there is something in scripture about budgets, it would be helpful if you would point us to it, but then we seem to know, deep down, that none of this matters, not really, that when your Son announced the kingdom of God he wasn’t really thinking about church buildings and leadership boards and budget deficits. He seemed to have so much more in mind for us. He seemed to want so much more for us.

In so far as it is possible, lift our own minds from that which has no eternal meaning … to that which you would have us know and believe and trust. Keep us from mean-spirited thoughts. Help us to think the best of others, whose opinions – forgive us – we cannot abide. When we would stand and offer an opinion not worthy of you, push us firmly back to our seat. And when we would sit quietly and listen to – forgive us again – nonsense, prompt us to speak.

Above all, give us wise and discerning hearts, mostly to remember that your church will never quite measure up until that day that you make all things new. And for that day we pray that you will make it come … quickly.

Amen.

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Funny things doctors say

parakeet closeup

Is it just me, or do doctors sometimes say funny things?

Some of you may remember the comment I heard from my doctor a couple of years ago.

After researching the Internet, which turns out to be a poor substitute for actual medical training, I was certain that I had a severe case of strep throat. So, I presented myself to our family doctor, and after I told him proudly of my diagnosis, he looked at my throat, appeared skeptical, and sent me to the nearest emergency room.

What I had apparently did not look to him like a strep infection.

Once at the emergency room the staff wasted no time calling an ear, nose, and throat specialist, who shined his tiny flashlight into my throat and said matter-of-factly: Oh, George Washington died from that.

As it turns out, he did. George Washington, that is, not my doctor. I looked it up later. The thing in my throat, I learned, was a quinsy, or peritonsillar abcess, and it killed the first president of the United States in 1799 by slowly asphyxiating him.

Not a pleasant way to go. As for me, I stopped for ice cream on the way home.

Yesterday I went to the doctor again, after my cold entered its second week and didn’t seem to be getting any better. This time I was under the care of a Swiss physician. I don’t know what the equivalent of an emergency room is here – yet – but I didn’t need one. I described my symptoms to the doctor in German, a little speech I memorized on the way over. And he of course was amused, as everyone seems to be, by my pronunciation and grammar.

He told me, in English, to take off my shirt so that he could listen to my chest. He looked in my ears and throat. He also took a bit of blood out of the end of my finger. The whole exam lasted maybe three minutes. Then he told me to get dressed. As he sat at his desk, writing on my chart, he began to quiz me about stupidity in U.S. politics, a topic I had not come prepared to discuss, in either German or English.

Finally, I said, in English, So, is it viral? And he said, No, it’s a bacterial infection that kills parakeets in Africa.

So, as you see, I’m battling spiritual forces in the universe that have brought down George Washington and untold numbers of African birds, and I also seem to find doctors – on both sides of the Atlantic – who enjoy passing along curious medical information.

That’s an update on my life.

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The sickness unto death

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I woke up this morning feeling lousy – cough, sore throat, you know the combination.

I attributed my condition to my 15-month old grand-daughter who, in addition to being beautiful and brilliant, is a petri dish of micro-organisms, enough germs and bugs to take down a healthy adult male, which is what I was until a week ago when I couldn’t resist holding, cuddling, and reading to a sick child.

So, today I am sick, but have no regrets about it. I am also aware that what I have is “not a sickness unto death,” which is what Jesus once said about his friend Lazarus’ illness. I should be back to normal in a few days.

One reason – among many – that I enjoy reading the gospels is to notice the way Jesus often left his listeners scratching their heads: “What did he just say?”

Did his listeners the day he described Lazarus’ illness know what he was talking about? Maybe, but I have my doubts. In fact, it’s not clear why Jesus didn’t hustle off to Bethany when he first received word of Lazarus’ illness. What could have been so important that he couldn’t drag himself away to see his dear friend one last time?

That’s Jesus for you, I’ve always said. Mysterious, unpredictable, making comments that leave you wondering for days, pondering what he might have meant. The way I imagine it, it was only years later that his followers came to understand what he had in mind by mentioning a “sickness unto death.”

For most of my preaching life I have been content to let mystery be mystery. In other words, I have been content not to answer every question, to allow some things to gnaw at us, to keep us awake at night. I love to send my congregation away on Sunday afternoon with something to think about for the rest of the week and, if I’m lucky, for the rest of their lives.

And that approach has worked for more than 30 years in what is still a mostly-Christian culture, the United States. Today, though, I find myself in what cannot be called a Christian culture, in spite of the ringing of chuch bells at all hours, and interesting questions to think about no longer feel quite right.

My people – not all, but a few – are telling me that I need to “connect the dots.” I need to make things clear, when – almost instinctively – I prefer the open-ended question. In a truly missional context, it may be that we no longer have the luxury of enjoying the mystery and pondering the questions. It may be that certainty must win out over mystery.

From the bookshelf behind me, I grabbed Kierkegaard’s slim volume titled, The Sickness Unto Death, and opening it I recognized the underlining and enthusiastic marginal notes of an undergraduate philosophy major, which is what I was or pretended to be. Kierkegaard’s explanation for this “sickness unto death” is rooted in the spiritual condition of despair, and I am persuaded that he’s right about that, though I can’t help pointing out that the best explantion I know of – Kierkegaard’s – took a number of years to develop. And frankly, there is probably still more to be said.

Flu symptoms are nothing to be concerned about – my own or whatever it was that drove poor Lazarus to his untimely death. It’s the other conditon, the spiritual condition, that Jesus was always far more concerned about. It was the other condition that Jesus came into the world to do something about.

Let there be no ambiguity about that.

 

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