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

 

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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

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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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Top 10 posts of 2014

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These are my top 10 posts from the past year (posting today obviously assumes I won’t be writing a blockbuster in the coming week).

If you missed one of them the first time, please have a look now. Links are provided in blue.

1. Holy Saturday (This was a re-post from the previous year.)

2. What we preach (This was from a guest blogger. Thanks, Scott.)

3. Top 10 differences between Switzerland and the U.S. (Being featured at “expats blog” clearly helped to drive traffic to this post.)

4. My dad passed away last week

5. When a friend betrays you

6. Westboro Baptist and me

7. The problem with Palm Sunday

8. Comments at the door after church

9. One reason the ALS ice bucket challenge will not do nearly as well in Europe

10. A prayer for the end of summer

The last year was a good one for my blog. I reached 6,600 unique views for the month of April, my best month ever, and then leveled off. A factor in the leveling off, I’m guessing, is that I began to post less often, once per week rather than the feverish pace (two to three times per week) with which I started the year.

Observations about expat life in Switzerland have clearly drawn readers, but the bread-and-butter for my blog continues to be reflections on the spiritual life. That’s where I started, that’s what energizes me, and that’s where I’ll stay, Lord willing, in the year ahead.

Thanks for leaving comments. I like those better than the creepy data about you that I get from Google Analytics. I’m curious about something: very few – close to zero – comments have been left by my Swiss readers. A natural reserve? Neutral, so no strong opinions? I’m not sure.

Been wondering where my readers come from? Here’s a top 10 list:

1. Zurich CH (no surprise)

2. Wheaton, Illinois

3. Ann Arbor, Michigan

4. Fort Lauderdale, Florida

5. Chicago, Illinois

6. Meilen CH (the village where I live)

7. Tampa, Florida

8. Plantation, Florida

9. Dubendorf CH

10. Thalwil CH

Honorable mentions go to the following cities: Singapore (#19), Kathmandu (#37), and Quezon City, The Philippines (#57).

I wish all of you the very best in 2015.

(Photo: That was yours truly participating in the ALS ice bucket challenge back in September, along with Scotty Williams, my colleague.)

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A prayer for the fourth Sunday of Advent

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(Re-posted from last year.)

Lord, it’s the fourth Sunday of Advent, as I think you know, you who created the universe and everything in it, including me and all the stuff I like to think of as belonging to me.

Anyway, today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, as I mentioned, and I’m sitting here in the early morning darkness, with the house still, my cup of coffee nearby, made from freshly-ground beans, just the way I like it, and the dog is waiting patiently for our daily walk around the block. (I like this time of day – once again, as you know.)

And I’m thinking about what this day means – for me, for you, and for the world you made.  Such big thoughts for so early in the morning, I know.

So much of what I hear from friends at this point in the season is whether or not they’re in the mood, whether or not they’ve captured the spirit, or whatever they think they’re supposed to be feeling right about now. And I confess that I’ve done quite a bit to get myself into the mood.  I put up the tree, for example, and decorated it, while listening to lovely Christmas music.  That was nice.  And last week I went to the big Christmas concert in town, featuring candlelight and over 200 singers and musicians, you know the one.  I hope you liked it, too.

And I came away that night thinking, “Hey, I’m really in the mood now!  And look!  There’s even snow on the ground!”

But this morning, before anyone else is up, before I’m fully awake, I realize that this season doesn’t depend on me.  Whether I’m in the mood or not.  Whether I’ve got the spirit or not.  And I’m thinking that might actually be good news.

Because whatever I’m feeling – or not feeling – you looked with love on the world you made, and you became one of us.  And not just a better version of us, but the version of us we could never be.  You came to us as a baby, born to a mom and dad.  You lived our lives as we must try to live them, with laughter and friends, as well as betrayal and loss.  You did all that.  And much more besides.

So, to wrap this up, because I know others (not as industrious as I am) are beginning to wake up and offer their morning prayers too, I’m trying my best to remember that none of this depends on me.  None of it whatsoever. My joy this season is what you did for me.  And for the whole world.  And for that I’m more grateful than I can possibly say.  Amen.

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Looking back across the ocean

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It’s been an interesting time to be an American looking back across the ocean.

Yesterday I left my apartment building with the dog, and one of my neighbors walked over and began speaking to me in a rather animated way. I reminded him – in English – that I am still a beginner with my language study, but he kept going.

Most of my German conversation skills, by the way, have been learned here in the building with neighbors who speak little or no English. With a combination of sign language, smiling, Google translator, and my growing vocabulary, we are now able to communicate surprisingly well, though usually about friendlier topics, like dogs, for example.

“You’re American, right?” my neighbor asked, not in English and not in a friendly manner.

I said, “Ja,” sensing that this was not going to be pleasant.

“New York,” he said. And then he put his hands to his throat in a choking gesture. Finally, he waved his arm dismissively and said, “Better to live in Russia,” before walking away.

The shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, the choking death of a man selling single cigarettes in New York, the release of the torture report, together with the former Vice President’s comments that he would “do it again in a minute”  – these news items are all reported here with a mixture of fascination and revulsion.

The Swiss are frequently curious about Americans, and they speak proudly of having traveled to the U.S., but they can also be very critical. In fact, they are usually quite critical of American behavior, which in their view never measures up to the ideals we Americans loudly proclaim.

When I sat down to write out my sermon last week, I was tempted, as I am more and more these days, to preach from the headlines. It was Karl Barth – no stranger to Switzerland – who once (allegedly) said that the preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Then I opened my Bible to Luke 1 and the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, and I decided that I only get to preach on this story once each year. I was not going to waste the opportunity. I needed the message of hope and joy as much as anyone.

But even here, even at this time of year, I cannot escape the headlines.

Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

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Will this be on the test?

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Forty years ago I took a class in art history.

To be honest, it was more a survey of European art than anything else, and only five or six centuries’ worth of that, so in hindsight it was a pretty small slice of art history.

Even so, art history was not required for my degree.

And the class was certainly well outside my area of concentration, which – don’t laugh – was philosophy. And taking the class might have been risky, if I had been concerned about my grade point average or what a graduate school admissions committee might think about my academic record.

What’s next, basket weaving?

At the time, though, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was thinking, believe it or not, about art.

My dad was an artist, so I grew up with art and visited my share of exhibits and museums over the years. I still don’t know how to change the oil on my car, but I can make my way through an art gallery like a pro. (Tell me, who is better prepared for life?)

One of my best memories from childhood, in fact, was going to Europe with my parents and younger sister and visiting the great museums of art there. We dashed from one to another, with a cathedral or two in between, and that was my early impression of Europe – a lot of beautiful things to look at.

Once, in Florence, my dad realized that Michelangelo’s David was not on the tour itinerary, so we hopped in a taxi at lunch hour and flew – or rather crawled through heavy traffic – to the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze to see it, not knowing if our tour group would be waiting for us when we returned. We didn’t care.

This weekend, without a sermon to prepare for Sunday, thanks to the annual children’s pageant, I took a page from the family playbook and dashed over to Colmar, France, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. Yes, there was a famous Christmas market taking place nearby, but it was the painting by Grünewald that interested me.

And it did not disappoint. Forty years later I can still hear Edgar Boevé, the professor, describe the way the eye moves across the canvass. They did, just like he said!

And then, standing to the right of Jesus, I could see John the Baptist – tell me again why is he attending Jesus’ crucifixion? – pointing what may be the most famous forefinger in the whole history of Western art.

I felt a sudden rush of tears as I walked toward the painting. There it was at last. And there was John the Baptist’s finger. There was Mary, mother of Jesus, supported by John, the disciple, with that impossibly long, utterly unrealistic arm. And there was Mary Magdalene, the closest one of all to the cross, distraught.

I am grateful for that class – all these years later – because it cultivated in me a wonder and an awe that, over time, have not diminished.

Will this be on the test? Yes, it will.

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My annual Christmas letter

index (1)Dear family and friends,

I first started writing these things about 30 years ago. They were smart, funny, and irreverent. Just like me, or the person I imagined myself to be.

At the beginning my Christmas letters were the opposite of most Christmas letters you receive, the ones describing incredible promotions and fabulous vacations and over-achieving children. My Christmas letters had an ironic tone, a slightly amused look at the year just ended.

My favorite Christmas letter, now apparently lost from the historical record, described Susan’s courtroom theatrics in New Jersey when we and all of our neighbors were cited by an over-zealous police officer for failure to shovel the snow from our sidewalks within 24 hours after a particularly bad snowstorm. The charges were dropped because the police officer couldn’t say for sure if there was, in fact, a sidewalk under all of that snow. Susan got him to admit, under oath, that he didn’t actually get out of his car to check.

After reading that particular letter, my mother said, “You don’t send that to church members, do you?”

So, over the years, as the mailing list expanded, my annual Christmas letter became less smart, less funny, and more reverent. Just like me, middle-aged Doug.

The lowest blow of all came from Susan a few years ago when she said, “You’re getting to be just like Woody Allen, not nearly as funny anymore.”

Now, my Christmas letter is even available on-line, and whatever was exciting about this annual event is gone. A dear friend once wrote that he saved my letter for Christmas afternoon, after all of the parties were over. He sat in his leather recliner, he told me, with a glass of eggnog and bourbon, so that he could enjoy it.

It’s been a long time since anyone has said such a sweet thing. So, let’s get this over with. For this you can skip the eggnog.

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Early last year Susan and I moved to Switzerland.

Take a few seconds, as I did, to absorb that sentence. We sold our house and car and most of my Tommy Bahama shirts, which I never really liked anyway, and we loaded a few of our remaining possessions into a shipping container for the trans-Atlantic voyage. The rest of what we own, including the other car, went into storage, somewhere near Holland, Michigan.

I moved to a country that is almost unimaginably beautiful. Not just on postcards, but everywhere, all the time. Sometimes the beauty is overwhelming. I’ll drive over a mountain ridge and see my village below, with Lake Zurich and snow-covered mountains in the distance, and I’ll be at a loss for words, mouth gaping.

I bought a camera last summer, partly so that I could observe the beauty more closely, so that I could capture a small part of it, as though beauty is something that can be recorded and catalogued.

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I serve a church that is unlike any I have ever served before. It has elders and youth group and Sunday School and children’s choir, so it’s a little like other churches I have served before. Not surprisingly I lead worship pretty much the way I always have. And my sermons sound similar too. But in many ways this church is very different, delightfully different, and occasionally maddeningly different.

One time – it was my first Sunday at the church, and I didn’t have anything to do that day but sit in the congregation – we had just finished communion, and Susan leaned over and said, “That was awesome.” And I had to agree. It was. It had been a long time since she and I both felt that way.

I now stand behind the communion table on Sunday mornings, saying, “People will come from east and west, from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom that is coming.” And after saying it, I now think, “It’s already here.”

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Here, but not yet here.

We have our problems too. Finding a way to get along with so many different cultural (and spiritual) expectations is a challenge. Extra grace is often required, and grace, like gold, always seems to be in short supply.

I am learning a new language . After ten months I know a lot of German grammar and vocabulary. I can even make sense of the little tabloid – 20 Minuten – which commuters read on the train. But I am lost in most conversations with German-speaking people, and I have a hard time telling my barber how to cut my hair (not that barbers ever listen).

I live on the top floor of an apartment building with views of Lake Zurich and the mountains, a 12-minute train ride from Zurich. I can see the traffic on the Seestrasse below, and I can hear the church bells at all hours, every fifteen minutes. I walk the dog through the village every morning, in the dark, whispering “grüezi” to other dog walkers. I try not to smile, because Americans do that too much, I’m told, and it feels insincere to the indigenous population.

It is a good life. I am content (most days). I write blog posts. I have an idea for a book about multicultural congregations which my editor and publisher seem to find interesting. I hike the mountain ridge behind my village. I take pictures. I love my new congregation.

The downside, of course, is that I miss my children. They live (and work) a half a world away. They are married to good men. They have good jobs. And I am proud of them, more than I can adequately express. But I miss them. Occasional FaceTime chats are not enough. I watch their faces on the tiny screen. They are not the little girls I remember. And that’s good. But I miss those days. Those were good days too.

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I miss my grand-daughter. I had the thrill of seeing her take her first steps last August. She waited, I like to think, just so that I could be a witness. Or maybe her parents held her back a few days. Whatever it was, I was moved, as I was with my own daughters, about the powerful life force within us that wants to get up and get moving. She did and she is. She walks with ease now. There’s no stopping her. But last August those first tentative steps were – how do I describe it? – like grace. What can you do but savor it?

I can’t wait for Christmas this year. Partly because Christmas is so beautiful here, of course, and partly because I always look forward to Christmas Eve and the service of lessons and carols in a darkened sanctuary, filling up once again on that wonderful message of hope and joy. But mostly because, after a long flight on Christmas Day, I will be with family, my family.

I hope you have a good Christmas too. Fröhliche Weihnachten.

Love,

Doug

(Photos: except for the family photo, taken last summer by Brooke Collier, the rest are mine, taken very early on a Saturday morning, along the Pfannenstiel behind our village.)

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Getting ready for Thanksgiving Day

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(I am re-posting this from last year, mainly for my friends in the U.S. It still reflects my feelings about gratitude – namely, that I could be more grateful than I often am. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!)

Am I thankful? Sure, I guess.

The truth is, I usually need to be reminded. It’s not as though gratitude happens easily and naturally for me. With all of the good things in my life, with all of the moments of wonder and amazement, with a dream job and a new grandchild and good health, you’d think I would be thankful pretty much all the time.

But that’s not the way it is.

Much of the time – and I’m certainly not proud of this – I find myself thinking about what I don’t have. I’m not alone in this, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. Comparing myself to other people has turned out to be the number one gratitude killer in my life. I can find myself depressed and resentful in no time at all – just by looking around.

Maybe if I had less, I would be more grateful when something good came my way. On mission trips, when I have worked in situations of terrible poverty, I have often been struck by how much gratitude there is. Invariably the poorest of the poor live with so much more gratitude than I do.

Once, in the Philippines, I was with a church group that was building a house. Across the street I noticed a house much like the one we were building, and stenciled in tall letters across the front of the house were the words, “God is good, all the time.”

After a couple of days of reflecting on what that might mean – in a situation where God’s goodness wasn’t all that easy for me to see – I walked over and knocked on the door. I wanted to meet and maybe learn something from these people.

I was dirty and covered in sweat, but I was invited in anyway. And after introductions, after they offered to share with me just about everything they had, which wasn’t much, I mentioned the words on the front of the house.

They seemed surprised. Wasn’t it obvious? They had a place to live, didn’t they? Lots of people didn’t have that much. So, they were thankful. And it showed. The feeling of gratitude in that house was obvious and deeply moving. I left wondering why I didn’t have those same words stenciled across the front of my house.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. It’s my favorite holiday. One of them, anyway. And I think that what I like about Thanksgiving Day is that people like me who ought to be more grateful than we are will take time to name some of the things we’re grateful for. Before we eat, we’ll go around the dinner table, and each person will mention at least one thing. And then we’ll go around again. And again.

I am thankful. I wish I could be more thankful than I am.

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A pastor’s prayer for Monday morning

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Lord, I probably shouldn’t take Mondays off. Too much of today is filled with yesterday. What good is a day away if it’s filled with thoughts about what’s already happened and can’t be changed?

I loved being at church yesterday. So that’s good. I can’t always say that on Mondays, but I can today. Small blessings.

I can’t say much about yesterday’s sermon. It probably could have used more work, but you hear me say that most weeks and are probably tired of it. Am I right? I’ll try to be less critical of myself. But getting rid of those perfectionist tendencies has become a lifelong project. I could use some help. This is going to take some divine intervention.

I loved the music yesterday. Organ, flute, piano, all in various combinations.

Also, we sing all of my favorites on Christ the King. We missed “Crown Him with Many Crowns” this year, but happily no one complained (although that email may still arrive later today).

Following the church calendar is important to me, but I have a nagging suspicion that it doesn’t mean much to you. Anything I should know about that? Advent? Lent? Will there be much of that in the life after this? Christ the King helps me to remember that this victory I am looking forward to has already been won, and I need the reminder, even though you don’t.

Sometimes I get confused about what’s supposed to happen in worship. I love singing certain songs, not others, but I don’t usually think about what pleases you. If it pleases me, does it please you? A lot of things please me that surely don’t please you, so there must be more to think about than my feelings.

Or maybe I should think less on Mondays and enjoy the day more. I suppose that’s what would please you most, enjoying this gift you have given me. I’ll try to do that.

And thank you for listening. I need that.

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(Photos: That photo at the top of this post got my attention last Saturday. I didn’t need my German-English dictionary to understand it. I was on what was for me a new mountain path, along with eight other men from my church. Happily, I can report that no rocks fell on us. The next photo gives our location, and the photo at the bottom shows some of Switzerland’s tallest mountains in the distance. A beautiful day.)

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