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.

Dachau and my friend John O’Melia

After visiting European cathedrals, castles, gardens, and museums, I finally visited my first concentration camp on a cloudy and cold Friday afternoon in April.

The Dachau concentration camp was on my list of places to see mostly because of a person who has had a major impact on my life and how I understand my work. John O’Melia was a 19 year old soldier with the U.S. 7th Army when he walked through the gate (pictured above) on April 29, 1945, nearly 72 years ago.

I first met John when he was already in his 70s, having retired from a long and distinguished career with the YMCA. John was on the search committee that brought me to the First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois, where I served as pastor for 13 years, the longest stretch of my nearly 40 years of ministry.

John and his wife, Marty, came along on my first tour to Israel, and one day in Jerusalem, when the group stopped at the Yad Vashem holocaust museum, John became noticeably ill. He took no more than two steps inside the front door when it became clear to me that he would not be able to continue. And so, as the tour host, I walked with him back to the bus, and it was on the bus, while the rest of the group toured the museum, that I first heard John’s story about the Dachau concentration camp. In the years to come I would hear a great deal more about it.

As the Army unit John was with made its way across France and then Germany, John took a camera from a fallen German soldier and later used it to document his first hours inside the concentration camp. What the soldiers saw was horrific.

In the last days of the war in Europe, the Dachau camp ran out of coal, and the work of the crematorium came to an end, meaning that corpses piled up outside like firewood. One photo from the day shows corpses stacked nearly as high as the building itself.

More than 40,000 human beings died at the camp. At the beginning the camp at Dachau was used mainly for political prisoners, those who were opposed to the new Nazi regime. Later, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Gypsies (as they were then called) were also interred at the camp. Only toward the end of the war were Jews introduced as prisoners. As historians document these things, Dachau was not technically an extermination camp.

John told me that when the camp was secure he went off by himself and read the small New Testament that his mother had tucked into his belongings before he left for Europe. He asked God to use his life so that nothing like this would ever happen again.

John’s work after the war took him first to Cleveland where, in the 1950s, among other things, the YMCA organized a first-of-its-kind interracial summer camp, bringing black and white children together. During my years in Wheaton, after his retirement, John was elected to the YMCA Hall of Fame for his work, and though he was modest about it, I sensed that the recognition meant a great deal to him.

In my new book about the multicultural church, I tell the story about how John coaxed and prodded me to reach out to the African American pastors in Wheaton and DuPage County – and how my church took some small, tentative steps toward becoming a more open, more racially diverse congregation.

At the first Martin Luther King Jr. service I ever attended, on a Monday night in Wheaton (at the Second Baptist Church), John and I were the only two white people present. That number was to grow over the years, but only because John insisted that it was the right thing to do.

I am more grateful than I can say to have known John, his wife Marty, and the rest of his family who were members of the Presbyterian church in Wheaton.

In my work today I am still putting into practice what I first learned from him.

Comments { 4 }

“Translation services” on Easter

 

Image result for how to become a multicultural church

Last night a church member called to ask if we would be offering “translation services” to Arabic or Kurdish speaking people on Easter morning. She is tutoring refugee women in her village, and a half dozen or more are apparently interested in coming to Zürich for worship.

She asked the question so casually, like wondering if perhaps we would be receiving an offering on Easter this year. (yes)

But translation services?

I serve a startlingly multicultural church. On any given Sunday more than two dozen nationalities will be in attendance. Most people are English speaking, which is how we advertise ourselves to the Zürich area, but a few members are still very much in the learning stages of the language (as I am, unfortunately, with German).

Misunderstandings due to language are frequent, though mostly minor, and sometimes humorous. Still, getting along is hard work. It is in any church, of course, but it is even more so in a multicultural church. Leading (or even being a member of) a multicultural church is not for the person whose ego is easily bruised.

I should mention that we are decidedly low tech in our worship, at least on Sunday mornings. Morning worship is held in an old Swiss church, practically ancient by U.S. standards. The church has no screens or projection equipment. We consider it a good Sunday when my wireless microphone works.

Translation services (with headsets and translators offering simultaneous translation of worship) have not been discussed, as far as I know, but in the research for my new book I discovered that multicultural churches around the world often provide a list of “available languages” in their advertising. Do you prefer Mandarin? Or Pashtu? No problem.

My church is not there yet, but I recognize that the day is coming, sooner rather than later. My church may seem like an exception, and in some ways it is, but our experience is about to become the norm, even in countries like the U.S. where worshipping congregations are still stubbornly segregated along racial and ethnic lines.

I found all of this very exciting and quickly found a young woman from Lebanon who is fluent in Arabic (and in 2-3 other languages) and who agreed to translate for the refugee women on Easter morning. And then, still excited, I phoned a friend in the U.S. to tell the story.

His comment was discouraging: “Will they be wearing burqas?”

I had not thought to ask what these young women would be wearing, and to be honest I don’t care. My worry now, and with me there is always a worry, is how to present the message in a way that will communicate the good news of Easter.

It’s hard enough to get it right without all of the cultural diversity.

(Note: A reliable source, who prefers that I not use her name, but who is really well informed about these things, has leaked to me that my book is headed to the printer and will be available shortly. I’m excited about that too.)

Comments { 1 }

Pierre Spoerri, 1926 – 2017

Pierre Spoerri was born in 1926. He died in late February after climbing into the backseat of a taxi in front of the Convita Bethanien, where he lived with his wife Fulvia. His memorial service was held at the French Reformed Church in Zürich on March 9, 2017.

It was my privilege to have been his pastor for the last three years.

Pierre and Fulvia could be seen most Sundays, sitting toward the front, Fulvia in a wheelchair. To me it was always a matter of concern when they were not there. I would assume – often correctly – that one of them was not feeling well.

As it turns out, their faithfulness to the church I serve in Switzerland went back a long, long time. Previous pastors with whom I have corresponded in the last few weeks report that Pierre was an unfailingly wise and supportive counselor and friend. As my pastor friends will recognize as I tell this story, people like Pierre come along only once or twice in a pastor’s life. They have a way of changing us (for the better) and inspiring us to be better people (than we usually are).

Soon after I moved to Zurich, I was a guest of Pierre and Fulvia at their home. We enjoyed strawberries and ice cream and some late afternoon sunshine, and I quickly realized that I was in the presence of remarkable people. Pierre gave me a copy that day of his most recent book, his memoir, which was titled No End to the Adventure. I started reading it as soon as I returned home. I forget when I finally turned out the light that night and went to bed.

Pierre’s father was a professor of romance languages at the University of Zürich, and he made sure Pierre developed a fluency in several languages, a skill Pierre was to use throughout his life. Pierre’s father was also a lay preacher in the Methodist church, and so Pierre’s spiritual formation began in the church where we hold evening worship each week.

Pierre studied medicine at the universities in Geneva and Zurich, but gave up his studies in 1946 as World War II was coming to an end. Instead of medicine, Pierre devoted the rest of his life to what was then called Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change), a moral and spiritual movement founded by the American minister Frank Buchman who had earlier been the driving force behind the Oxford Group.

A large, derelict hotel in Caux, Switzerland, near Lake Geneva, was transformed into a retreat center where, in the early years, Europeans would come together for healing and reconciliation following the war. Pierre’s stories about those conversations between French and German people were always moving to the point of tears. The hotel is still in use as a retreat and conference center, but today groups of people come from all over the world, not just Europe, and they are still finding healing and reconciliation.

Pierre and Fulvia lived all over the world – in places like India, Africa, and the Middle East, doing the work of peace-making and reconciliation. They had no children.

I was unaware of it when I was growing up, but Moral Re-Armament had a significant presence in my home state of Michigan. On Mackinac Island, beginning in 1942, Moral Re-Armament held conferences, like those in Caux, at the island’s famous Grand Hotel. By the early 1950s the movement had acquired a considerable amount of real estate on the island. I’ve made many trips to Mackinac over the years, but never knew of this presence.

As a writer myself, I was of course impressed with the number of books Pierre wrote. He filled many roles within the Moral Re-Armament movement, but he was clearly one of the most gifted communicators they had. He also had an extraordinary gift not only for listening, but for understanding. Every time I left after a visit with Pierre, I had the unmistakable feeling that he understood me, which is a rare gift to receive, something that always felt to me like grace.

Someone said to me before the memorial service, “Well, this must be the hardest part of your work.” And without thinking I said, “This is the time when I feel most like a pastor.”

I was glad to come together on a Thursday afternoon with so many of the people from Pierre’s life – his extended family and friends. His co-workers flew in from all over the world, more of them than we expected. In fact, we hadn’t printed nearly enough orders of worship for the occasion.  Together we sang, prayed, and gave thanks (in a variety of languages) for Pierre’s life, and we gave witness, as Presbyterians like to say, to our hope in the resurrection.

I look forward, as I said in my prayer, to “a glad, heavenly reunion.” I am so blessed to have known Pierre.

(Note: I wrote something like this for my church’s monthly newsletter.)

Comments { 3 }

My most embarrassing moment

When I was 10 years old, I won second prize in my school’s annual “prose and poetry” competition and got to read my entry in front of an all-school assembly.

I nearly always use those words in my biography to get a laugh, but the truth is, the prize was for me a life-altering event.

Like most children, I wanted very much to excel at something, and my greatest fear was that I would never distinguish myself at anything. My piano teacher didn’t think I would ever amount to much in music, and she was probably right. My baseball coaches were not enthusiastic about my athletic abilities. So, I became a writer in the fifth grade.

The first-prize winner in that “prose and poetry” competition was Randy Vandermey, now a professor of English literature and a teacher of writers. He was a year older than I was, and his winning entry, as I recall, was really good – a whimsical piece of science fiction, written with actual dialog. My own entry was a great deal funnier, I thought, and quite a bit darker, and it wasn’t fiction. It was drawn from the raw experience of my own life.

I titled it, “My Most Embarrassing Moment,” and it is now gone forever, thankfully, unless my mother saved it somewhere.

With that second-place finish, I realized that I had been given a kind of power. I could express myself. I could put feelings into words. I could make people laugh or cry just by putting my thoughts on paper.

I did not take my new-found gift for granted; I cultivated it and learned to write with semi colons. I would practice by writing in notebooks and experimenting with tone, mood, and voice. I once wrote for an entire summer using only the third person to refer to myself because I had seen Norman Mailer do it in Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

What I was going to do with my gift wasn’t clear until I found myself at seminary preparing for ministry. I made a conscious decision then that I would write sermons. That would be my life as a writer.

And for nearly 40 years that’s what I’ve done. I’ve put my thoughts into words, making people laugh and cry just by expressing myself. Even better, I did what I had always been taught that I should do with my gifts – namely, use them to serve God. If I could have learned to play the piano or hit a curveball, I would have used those gifts in the same way. Where I grew up, that’s what you did with the gifts you were given. That’s what they were for.

In 1999 I became for the first time a published author. My book not only had my name on the front cover, but it also had my picture on the back. I was thrilled. A publisher I had respected all my life bought my book, printed a few thousand copies of it, not knowing if anyone would buy it, and put his name right there next to mine. I autographed those books at book-signing events, and I even went on a book tour – of sorts – to places like Fort Wayne (Indiana), Toledo (Ohio), and Las Vegas.

In June my fourth book with the same publisher will be released. I confess that I worked as hard on that book as I have worked on anything in my life. I sweat and agonized over every word. If I could get the manuscript back right now, I’m sure that I could make the whole thing even better, maybe changing to the third person to refer to myself.

More than 50 years after I started, I’m still writing funny and sometimes dark pieces drawn from the raw experiences of my life. And of course I’m happy to say that I’m still serving God with my gifts. I hope he’s pleased.

(Photo: Taken not long ago near Two Harbors, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior.)

Comments { 5 }

A dry and desiccated spirit

Something has happened to me over the last several months. I seem to have lost my voice.

The campaign, the election, the painful period between election and inauguration, and now the first stumbling weeks of a new administration – in it all, I seem to have lost my ability to speak. I still preach most Sundays at my church in Zurich, so it’s not that voice that seems to have gone away. It’s something else.

I still look at Facebook each day and see the anger and outrage from my friends, though I’m not sure why I bother to look. I sometimes “like,” seldom “comment,” and never “share.” I have been urged by friends and colleagues to call and write and march. A family member wrote not long ago and asked me to use my position – my “pastoral authority,” as she put it – to address the situation, and I think I have, a little, but not as she would like me to do it. I watch the news – CNN and BBC are the English-language choices where I live – and I rarely like what I see. I can get as worked up as anyone over “alternative facts” and a lot more.

But I have grown quiet instead. Not withdrawn, still. I hear that the future of the republic is at stake – and that may well be true – but I have surprised myself by saying nothing at all, turning inward, even finding peace there.

Among other things, I have started reading again. I sit quietly in the morning while it is still dark and read. I read late at night and turn off the light, reluctantly, wishing I could go on. I even read on the Stairmaster at the gym.

I haven’t had much time for reading over the last few years. I had a new language to learn – remember? – and that was more difficult than I imagined. And then there was that book I decided to write, something about the multicultural church. So all of that, plus my work, left little time for reading, something I have always loved.

I started with biographies. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow got me going, maybe it was the musical, but then I had to read John Quincy Adams: American Visionary and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House as well. You can’t believe how rocky things were back then at the founding of the republic. I read a book by a dear friend who does what I do, except in Rabat, Morocco – A Guide to International Church Ministry: Pastoring a Parade. I read a book by a classmate who hiked the Camino di Santiago recently – Walking in Love – and had tears in my eyes when I put it down. I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, because I heard Terry Gross interview the author on “Fresh Air” and thought he might help me understand what’s happening in the U.S. He didn’t.

And now I’ve even rediscovered theology, starting with Dallas Willard’s fine The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus, which is about apologetics, of all things, something I have never been all that interested in. Just now I finished Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. I should have something to say on Good Friday.

Reading, I would say, has lessened my need to speak. I may speak again one day, but I don’t feel the need right now. I feel the need to replenish a spirit that has become dry and desiccated.

I am breathing again too.

Comments { 13 }

My first Christmas sermon

I was 24 years old when I preached my first Christmas morning sermon. I was not the congregation’s first choice, but they had few options.

Between my second and third years of seminary, I took some time to get married and to test drive this thing called ministry. I became what was called then a “student pastor” in a university town in Iowa, where I hoped to learn the ropes from a seasoned pastor.

That seasoned pastor took one look at me and decided to pursue a call to a church in Colorado which, according to his tearful congregation in Iowa, would be a whole lot closer to the ski slopes which he loved. That left me as the best – and perhaps the only – choice for Christmas morning 1977.

With my shoulder-length hair, aviator glasses, and an ill-fitting, three-piece corduroy suit, I must have been quite a sight, standing at the front of that church. Photos from the era confirm that I was tall, disturbingly skinny, and not exactly a charismatic presence in the pulpit.

It was my first Christmas away from home, and it was to be the first of nearly 40 – and still counting – Christmases away from home.

I hope I had the good sense to throw away that first Christmas sermon, but more than likely it is in a box in a damp basement, along with a lot of other old sermons, waiting to be recycled.

The sermon I preached that Christmas morning nearly 40 years ago was titled “The Gleam That is Christmas,” and my main point, rooted nowhere in the biblical text, was that we should be childlike in our approach to the Christmas story. It was best, I remember saying, to read the story and sing the carols and lose ourselves in the wonder and mystery of it all. My congregation was probably relieved that I did not plan to make my sermon the main point of worship that day.

Looking back, I was probably grieving the loss of my own childhood and trying my best to hold on to some part of it, especially the childlike wonder and mystery of it all.

I will be preaching the Christmas morning sermon once again this year – in Zurich, Switzerland, of all places – and I already know what I am going to say. My sermon will be, as I hope all of my sermons over the years have been, something about Jesus. I am glad he was born.

(Photo: That’s my backyard in Holland, Michigan.)

Comments { 5 }

The annual Christmas letter

img_0672

Dear family and friends,

I just googled “annual Christmas letter” for some good ideas about what to write this year and – I am not making this up – two of my most recent Christmas letters appeared on the first page of search results.

So, obviously, no help there, but my blog is getting good SEO (search engine optimization).

For those of you who are wondering, Susan and I are still living in Switzerland. Our third anniversary is almost here, and we are finally beginning to adapt and fit in and find our rhythm in this strange country.

“Strange” may not seem like the right adjective to use for one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but if you’re new and don’t speak the language and don’t know the metric system, starting up here can be quite a challenge. It was for us, and it is for most newcomers. Now, though, as veterans of the expat life, we sometimes give advice of questionable value to other newcomers, exactly what others so generously did for us.

image

Every season is a beautiful season for Switzerland, but Christmas time, as you can imagine, is especially wonderful. The Christmas lights are nice, of course, as are the Christmas markets, which seem to spring up in every empty space in the city. And though it’s hard to believe that anyone buys the junk they sell at these markets, sorry, I do like the smell of Glühwein and Raclette and other delicacies of the season as I walk through.

The hard part of winter – and this is as true in the U.S. as it is in Switzerland – starts in January when the Christmas lights come down and the markets are put away for another year. March and April can’t come soon enough. At least in this country you can drive 10 minutes and be on one of the best ski slopes in the world.

In case you’re wondering, I have not yet tried downhill skiing. On the other hand, my bones and joints appear to be intact, and I plan to do my best to keep them that way. Snowshoeing will have to be the extent of my winter sports.

Many of you have been asking me about my progress with language learning – okay, the truth is that not a single person so far has shown the least bit of interest – so I wanted to let you know anyway that I am making the big leap this month from A2 to B1. And if that sounds impressive, it isn’t. Let me just say that no one will EVER mistake me for a native German speaker, the level known as C2.

I spent much of my study leave in Berlin last summer at the Goethe Institut, where they seem to speak an entirely different language from the one I hear on the streets here each day, because it is, in fact, an entirely different language. Everyone here prefers to speak Züridüütsch, and that’s not even one of the four official languages of Switzerland (which, for trivia enthusiasts, are German, French, Italian, and Romansh). I can get by with my beginners’ German in restaurants and most stores, and I can even call to make a haircut appointment (Guten Tag! Ich würde gerne einen Termin machen … am Freitag?), but even after three years of study I am quickly lost in most conversations.

image

Susan is keeping herself busy not with language learning, but with reading, painting, traveling, being a grandmother, and tending to our vast real estate holdings in the U.S. And by vast real estate holdings I mean, of course, our summer cottage in Holland, Michigan. But keeping track of a property on another continent requires a surprising amount of effort, as we have discovered. I am always pleased – and a bit surprised – to drive up and see the house still standing where I left it.

Last year’s travels took Susan to London, Amsterdam, and the Alsace region in France, and this year found her traveling (without me) to Tuscany, Barcelona, and Hanoi. Tuscany and Barcelona are easier to explain than Hanoi. Tuscany and Barcelona were for pleasure, and Hanoi was church and mission related. Ask her sometime about sightseeing in Hanoi on the back of a motorcycle.

Since we’re not going to the U.S. for Christmas this year, we’re headed to London after Christmas morning worship for a few days of sightseeing and theater. Unfortunately, Hamilton hasn’t made its way to the London stage, though we both recommend the biography on which the musical was apparently based.

Our kids seem to be doing well, for which we are more grateful than you can imagine. We talk regularly via FaceTime, though not often enough for me. We spent a wonderful week together at the family compound in Edgewood Beach last summer, enjoyed all of our favorite foods, and went to all of our favorite Holland restaurants, including Boatwerks, the Windmill, and of course (my favorite) de Boer Bakkerij. Who says Dutch cuisine is nothing special? And on the lake we used for the first time an enormous raft which was the talk of the beach association (we had to use a leaf blower to inflate the thing). Those memories, and of course time with our grand-daughter, will keep me going until next August.

My new book now has a publication date. I wish it could be ready for Christmas giving this year, but unfortunately it won’t be available until next June. The working title – Journey into the Multicultural Church – seems like a mouthful. Am still at work on a brilliant one- or two-word alternative. Suggestions welcome.

We have the birth of a baby on our minds right about now – two of them, actually – one in Bethlehem (the Savior of the world) and the other in Minneapolis (our second grandchild, a boy). It’s surprising in a way how excited we can get over the birth of a baby. After all, it’s something that happens every day and has been happening every day for a few thousand years. But there is something about the birth of a baby – “for to you a son is given,” Isaiah said – that is indescribably good. I think God knew that something so ordinary and so prosaic could create quite a lot of joy and hope, the most I have ever felt about anything in my life. A baby is born, and then, well, life is never quite the same again.

May the joy and hope of this season fill your lives as well.

Love,

doug_signature1

Photos: 1) Windmill Island in Holland, Michigan, where we went for a family wedding in August; 2) the view of Lake Lugano from the Art Deco Dellago Hotel one morning recently; and 3) our 22 year old Volvo died, after taking us through much of Western Europe, and we replaced it with the older but still charming (like me!) Opel shown here. All shot with an iPhone, not my fancy new camera.

Comments { 9 }

I still think Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday

christmas-lights-on-bahnhofstrasse

In this country, unfortunately, today is a work day like any other.

I live in a small village near Zürich, Switzerland, with my wife and dog, and on Thursday morning I will be getting on the train, as I do every morning, and will be heading to my office.

The train will be filled, as it is every morning, except Sunday, and so I will stand for the twelve or so minutes that it takes to reach Stadelhofen station, which is a short walk from my office. I will read the tabloid-sized newspaper, 20 Minuten, which is available free on the train platform, or I will listen to German-language podcasts on my iPod. Either way, it is a pleasant enough ride, and I enjoy it.

There’s no need to feel sorry for me for missing Thanksgiving in the U.S. this year. I live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and it is especially beautiful at this time of year, with Christmas lights and markets and something called Glühwein (look it up). Every day from the windows of my top-floor flat I can see Lake Zürich below and the snow-covered mountains beyond. Some days, when I am tempted to take that view for granted, I have to remind myself that living here has been for me a dream come true.

So, am I thankful this year? You bet I am. I am thankful for being able to live here, I am thankful for meaningful and challenging work to do, work I believe in and feel passionate about, and I am thankful for the people with whom I get to do this work.

Beyond that, I am thankful for my family. I look forward to talking with a few of them later today through the technological miracle known as FaceTime (thank you, Apple). And I will study the faces of my daughters, and they will pretend not to notice if I cry when I see them. They are both married and live too far away, but we talk regularly, share photos about our lives on Instagram, and commiserate about election results. I love them more than I can say.

I will also be seeing my three-year-old grand-daughter, via Facetime, and if she’s in the mood, she will sing me a song – maybe “Jesus Loves Me” (which she is learning in the Cherub Choir at her church). I love her too, more than I can say.

And then there is the grandson, who will make his debut into the world early in the new year. I am thankful for him already. (No, the truth is, I am coming out of my skin with excitement.)

I have people in my life who love me and care for me and keep me honest. I am especially thankful this year that we were all in agreement about the election and who should win.

Is there more? Yes, too much to include here, though I will mention my health because older people tend to do that. And you should know that I am thankful for my faith too. I don’t see how I could have made it through the last year without it.

Happy Thanksgiving to all! It’s a good holiday, whether you’re a U.S. passport holder or not. It’s a good idea to start the day by remembering what there is to be thankful for.

(Photo: On Thursday night at 6:00 the Christmas lights on Bahnhofstrasse – called “Lucy” for some reason – are switched on, and that’s pretty cool.)

Comments { 12 }

What in the world is God up to?

01de6f1df258f5ef10be7596f6127135edf3af77ec

If I were standing in a pulpit in the United States today, I would know exactly what to say.

I would say something about the U.S. presidential election, of course, which took place last week, and I would not be alone in that. I am guessing that some very fine sermons are going to be preached today all across the U.S.

In times of national crisis, America’s preachers have searched their souls and found wisdom that many of us didn’t know they had. Preachers who don’t sound eloquent most Sundays of the year somehow manage to be profound and memorable when it counts.

If you want to know the truth, I have thought about little else in the days and hours since last Tuesday. I have been searching my own soul about that election, wondering what it means, looking for divine wisdom and guidance.

But I do not serve an American church, not these days.

A small group of people came together more than 50 years ago and founded the church I now serve, and with an astonishing amount of foresight they called it an “international” church – not an “American” church.

The church I serve today is a church for people of all nationalities: no matter what passport you hold, you will find a welcome here. That was the vision, and it was a good one. It still is.

I don’t know – because we don’t keep these records – but I’m almost certain that U.S. passport holders in the congregation are not in a majority. When I first arrived, only one member of the church’s Council was a U.S. citizen. More than two dozen nationalities are represented in worship every single Sunday. It is a congregation that is staggering in its racial and ethnic diversity.

So, many people in my congregation have been sleeping just fine these last few days. They have been more than a little curious about what is happening in the U.S., but with the exception of a few from the U.S. most of them seem to be sleeping just fine.

On the other hand, we do have several members who are from Hong Kong, and I saw in the news – in the midst of all the coverage about Donald and Hillary – that the Peoples Republic of China has prevented two pro-democracy legislators from taking their seats in Hong Kong’s legislative council. That number may grow to 10. Why? China decided to make clear who was in charge.

I know several people who lie awake at night thinking about that.

We also have at least one member from Ethiopia, and because I have come to know him well I have been paying attention to nationwide protests in his country against the government. Government security forces killed 55 people one day last month in the Oromo region, where my friend is from, as part of an ongoing campaign of violence and terror.

My friend was able to bring his wife and children to Switzerland in the last year after being separated from them for several years, but he worries about others he knows who are still there.

And finally, we have members from Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon, which is where another wave of refugees is headed, though the West is not all that interested in receiving them.

When I think about all of this, I realize that a presidential election in the U.S. is only one news story among many. Don’t get me wrong. When a country with the world’s largest economy and military elects a new president, that’s news. But it is only one news story among many.

And so, what I have in mind for tomorrow is not a sermon about a U.S. presidential election or Hong Kong’s grievances with the Chinese government or even Ethiopia’s repressive and brutal regime. I have had a fair amount to say about refugees in the last couple of years too, and I don’t plan to revisit that subject tomorrow either. What I have in mind is a sermon about God’s providence, which involves all the nations of the world, all races, all ethnic groups.

What in the world is God up to these days? Is God still caring for and preserving the world he made? Now those are questions that more than a few believers around the world might wonder about.

Comments { 10 }

Becoming the (multicultural) church Jesus has in mind for us to be

dsc_0046_484

Within the last month I caught up with an old friend, and as is always the case with an old friend, time and distance are never factors in renewing the friendship. When we spoke, the conversation picked up where it left off more than 25 years ago.

I knew Jack Wald when I was pastor of the Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, NJ. Jack was a seminary graduate and an ordained pastor who had come home to New Jersey to take over the family business. Because he knew the unique demands of parish ministry, however, he made it his ministry to be a friend and source of support to me. I valued the friendship more than I can say. We went for long runs two or three times a week, during the lunch hour, and we would talk the entire time, which is not easy to do when you’re running up and down New Jersey hills.

And then I moved, and he and I lost touch, and I hadn’t heard from him until last month.

I discovered that Jack sold the family business and returned to ministry, and for the last 17 years he has been pastor of the Rabat International Church in Rabat, Morocco.

As you can imagine, we had a great deal to talk about.

After catching up on our lives, and our families, we talked ministry – the unique challenges (and the occasional great joys) of serving an international church. Jack told me, “The last 17 years have been the best of my life.” Which is not what you might expect to hear from a Christian man who is living in a predominantly Muslim country, where proselytizing is against the law, and where up to 60 percent of the congregation turns over each year. But I knew what he was talking about.

Jack pursued a doctoral degree in the U.S. while serving the church in Rabat, and he recently turned his dissertation into a book called A Guide to International Church Ministry: Pastoring a Parade (available on Amazon). When I finished reading the book a week or so ago, my first thought was, “He and I are pastors of the same church.”

Not literally, of course, but our experiences are very, very similar. To serve a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multicultural church in a setting that is not familiar, where the customs and habits are vastly different from everything we once knew, requires a high level of pastoral skill (and energy). I thought I served challenging churches in the U.S., but that was only because those churches in the U.S. were bigger than the International Protestant Church of Zürich – with larger staffs and budgets.

What made them far easier to lead – in retrospect – was that they were homogeneous, mono-cultural. We looked alike and thought alike and almost always knew what to expect from each other. To be fair, there is something to be said for serving a church like that. To serve a church like IPC, in contrast, requires a huge reservoir of patience and discernment and a determination to listen and understand. Our different backgrounds mean that we think differently about most things, even though we serve the same Lord, even though we speak the same language. Over two dozen nationalities are represented on any given Sunday.

That was the subject Jack and I talked about most – namely, finding common ground in a situation of so much diversity, so much theological diversity.  I don’t want to diminish or understate either the importance or the difficulty of this work. Some days I still find it overwhelming. I was so taken with the experience during my first year here that I wrote a book about it, and that book will appear, I hope, early in the new year.

In Revelation 7:9, John is permitted a glimpse into heaven, and he reports seeing “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

All tribes, peoples, and languages.

Everyone who is part of IPC, the church I now serve, or part of one of the dozens of other international churches around the world, has been permitted this same glimpse. It is most visible and most remarkable on communion Sundays when we stream forward to receive the elements of communion, but of course it is visible on other occasions as well. It is a remarkable and precious thing. We take it for granted occasionally, and for that reason we may need to be reminded that we are privileged to be part of something so rare and so beautiful.

In Luke 13:29 Jesus taught his followers that “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” This is the future reality to which Jesus points us and calls us. It is not an option. It is where history is headed. This is God’s plan for us. A great banquet awaits us, and not only for people who look like us.

After my (nearly) three years at IPC, I no longer think of our life together as nice but optional, interesting but voluntary. The church, if it is faithful, must move in this direction. This is what God desires for us, his children.

But of course a church like this one is not easy. To keep moving requires generous amounts of God’s grace, steady infusions of his tender mercy. I keep praying for both.

(Note: I wrote something like this for the November-December edition of the IPC newsletter called The Update. The photo is the reading desk from St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin’s church.)

Comments { 2 }