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.

A personal update

index (15)

Dear readers,

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

My next book

Even though my book manuscript was delivered to the publisher in a timely manner (last November, as per my contract), it now appears that the publication date has been pushed back to Spring 2017. I am disappointed, of course, more than you know, but maybe the silver lining here is that interest in my topic – becoming a multicultural church – is growing. Here’s a link to a New York Times article about the subject.

Language learning

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

Church Life

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

The Blog

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

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

And here are a few honorable mentions:

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

and interestingly

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

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

Love, Doug

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

Comments { 15 }

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments { 13 }

“I want to be baptized”

Frantisek's church photo

After morning worship last Sunday, standing outside in the early Spring sunshine, an 18 year old man I did not know very well approached me and said, “I want to be baptized.”

This was no April Fool’s joke, I quickly realized, and not a prank, as I half-expected, this was the real thing. It was written all over his face – the fear and joy of saying those words aloud. Plus, there was a small group of people – family members? – standing maybe five or 10 feet behind him, watching the whole conversation.

I think my first words were, “So, you’ve never been baptized,” as though this were an administrative or scheduling problem that needed my full attention.

The young man and I talked for quite a long time and then agreed to meet in a couple of days so that I could hear more about this decision, but I still think about what happened there that day and what the situation reveals about me and my training and where I find myself at this point in my ministry.

Frankly, what the situation reveals is not good.

I was ordained on September 20, 1980 – as some of you know, since I insist on observing the anniversary each year – and the ordination occurred after lengthy training and evaluation and psychological testing and even the learning of biblical languages. No one was better trained and equipped for a life of service to the church than I was. That’s not bragging. That’s a statement about how people like me have been prepared for the work of ministry over the last generation or two. And now, thanks be to God, I have been doing this work – without interruption – for more than 36 years.

So, what exactly is the problem?

I’ll tell you. A young man approached me after worship, asked to be baptized, and I forgot for a moment that that is the purpose of my life’s work – to lead people like him to just that moment in their lives and then to nurture and grow their new faith. Over the years I have forgotten (or neglected) this calling. In most of the churches I served over the years I was expected to be the executive director or chief executive officer of a legal entity known as the church. I supervised staff, raised money, built endowments, maintained buildings (and parking lots), managed a board, and responded to customer complaints. I came to think of all of that as ministry.

Coming to this particular church at this particular point in my life has had the transforming effect of reminding me of the call that brought me to this work a long, long time ago. I think it’s been the greatest gift I could have received.

Here’s my job description in its entirety: “The Senior Pastor is in charge of the spiritual welfare [my emphasis] of the congregation, including, but not limited to, conducting worship and preaching the gospel, pastoral counseling and visits, education of adults, youth and children, and the administration of the Sacraments (Ordinances) of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

I think that’s what I’ve always wanted to do!

(Photo: That’s a photo of my church by František Janák who suggests that we call him “Frank.”)

Comments { 15 }

It is spring. The jogger is spitting insects.

DSC_0002 (2)

What do I write about today? My ongoing disgust with Donald Trump – or the progress I am making with learning German?

Writing about Trump – again – is more tempting than you know, because my last post, which was about him, received a few hundred page views in the first hour. That’s above average for my blog, and – well – yelling and screaming about stuff I don’t like always draws attention. Like most children, I learned that much in the crib.

But I read something reassuring this morning – namely, that while Trump tends to draw a plurality of Republican voters in the primary elections, his overall appeal is relatively low and not enough to win in November. Among women, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and many other racial-ethnic groups, his popularity is quite low. Maybe now I can sleep better.

So, on to the more pressing issue in my life right now, which is learning to speak a new language.

For my North American readers, I should point out that German is one of four national languages in Switzerland. French, Italian, and Romansch are the others. What’s interesting about this – in addition to living in a country with not one, not two, but four national languages – is that most people I know prefer not to speak the language I am learning – namely, high German (Hochdeutsch). They prefer to speak English or Swiss German (especially Züridüütsch), neither one of which is a national language.

When, for example, I am on a train and listening to a rather animated conversation behind me (strictly for the purpose of language learning, I assure you), I expect to understand a little of what I am hearing. But no, most of the time I have no idea what is being said. And not because my German is so poor – it’s not great – but because these people are not speaking anything close to the language I am trying my best to learn, but a language they insist is not merely a dialect, but something better and more beautiful. (I respectfully disagree.)

Most people around me on the train, in the hair salon, and at the market, are not speaking the language I am required to learn for my work permit. When I respond in high German, they smile (as though learning that I have a serious illness), and they know immediately that I am ein Fremder, a foreigner.

Anyway, you’ll be glad to know that I am making progress. That’s what my teacher, Frau Zopfi, writes on my report card. I even pick up the evening newspaper for the train ride home – Blick am Abend – and can make sense of most articles. My favorite item yesterday was the Tweet des Tages (tweet of the day): Es ist Frühling. Die Jogger spucken Insekten aus.

It is spring. The jogger is spitting insects.

(Photo: For those new to German, that means “welcome, please come in.” Just trying to be helpful!)

Comments { 5 }

Donald Trump and me

index (12)

I listened yesterday during morning worship as one of the elders at my church prayed for the United States, and I immediately sat up straight. I expected to hear the name of a candidate – one in particular.

I always listen to these prayers, of course, but most Sundays we pray for other countries – where the church is being persecuted, for example, or countries where we support missionaries – not for my country, the country where I have lived most of my life, the country that I still call home and hope to return to one day.

And it wasn’t one of those low-attendance Sundays, either, when the highlight is seeing everyone at coffee hour and enjoying the warm sunshine outdoors. It was Palm Sunday, and the church was filled. We had just seen a hundred or more children parade through the sanctuary while waving their palm branches and singing “hosanna to the King of kings.”

And then there it was – a prayer for the United States, “as it prepares to elect a new president,” or something like that. No specific candidate was mentioned.

Americans like to think that “the eyes of the world” are always on them, and that isn’t quite true. People who live in other countries are often oblivious to whatever is happening in the United States. But not right now, not with Donald Trump running for president and closing in on his party’s nomination.

I haven’t asked everyone I know for an opinion, but I have heard enough to say that the general mood where I live is “what are you thinking?” The feeling behind those words ranges from bemusement (the usual response to American behavior) to fear. What the country with the most powerful military force in the world does is naturally a matter of concern to others.

I have to admit that I am more fearful than bemused. I am especially concerned that so many evangelical Christians would be able to support a three-times-married reality television star, who has built a large portion of his fortune from casinos, who calls for targeting innocent civilians in war, who has mocked a journalist with disabilities, who has threatened the religious liberty of minority groups in the United States, who has gained the support of white supremacists for his demeaning remarks about African Americans, Mexican immigrants, Muslims, and Syrian refugees.

And then there is his well-documented attitude toward women.

Given all of this – and more – I would have expected a far different response from evangelical Christian voters. But I am wrong. At this time Trump is favored among evangelicals and continues to receive endorsements from prominent leaders in the evangelical world. One of them – Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University – even compared Trump to Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr.

I don’t know what more to write, but I know I cannot be silent. I hope the elder who prayed yesterday continues to pray for my country. I hope that all of our elders are praying. I am praying too.

(Photos: Nothing to do with Donald Trump, I know, but left from the most recent Israel trip and too good not to use.)

index (11)

Comments { 9 }

Under the Meilener Sun

image

“Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.”

Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun

As you read this, I hope you are imagining me right now in my quaint Swiss chalet, situated charmingly on the side of a mountain, with cowbells faintly audible and towering Swiss peaks visible in the distance. I have just returned, of course, from walking my dog along a winding dirt path and breathing deeply of fresh mountain air. Along the way, I waved to my neighbors, Urs and Jürg, who may come over later to enjoy a hearty lager and soulful conversation by the crackling fire.

I don’t know how to break this news to you, faithful readers, but that is not where I live and that is most certainly not my life. I’m not even sure that place exists – outside my fantasy life which, I confess, has been really, really active over the years.

I would read books like Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun and Peter Mayles’ A Year in Provence, and then I would imagine myself moving to a place like that, and in my imagination I would meet charming, slightly eccentric people who loved life in tiny villages, and I would renovate an old farmhouse (never mind that I can’t change a light bulb without checking a YouTube video first to find out how it’s done), and I would master a new language, and I would discover the meaning of life – or at least important truths about life that were somehow inaccessible to me in my humdrum, American suburban life.

None of this has happened. I did not move to Tuscany or Provence, it’s true, but I did move to Switzerland, which has all of the charm of those other two places (and much more besides). I have not (so far) renovated an old farmhouse and do not see that happening any time soon (unless the movie rights to my new book bring in a tidy sum, and then I will probably hire someone who knows what to do with a hammer).

I have met wonderful people here, also true, but they are not always charming, and they are sometimes more than just a little eccentric. A better word might be “irritating.” Not all the time, certainly, but often enough. For heaven’s sake, they are human beings, and I knew plenty of them where I came from.

And as for the language, I have two comments to make. The first is that there is nothing all that romantic about speaking Swiss German. To be honest, it frightens me to hear it spoken. And the second is that learning a language is hard work. After two years of study I am still far from fluent. In fact, people usually laugh when I work up the courage to say something in German.

I think this idea that moving someplace new to discover the meaning of life is … well, a sham, a fraud. Book publishers and movie producers like the idea, of course, but mostly because people like me buy the books and watch the movies. Eat, Pray, Love, anyone?

I can truthfully say that there is no secret to life that cannot be found closer to home.

Francis Mayes writes well about her experience, but she is wrong. And not just wrong, she is dangerous. She could have stayed home to find out what she needed to know. And lots of other people who have set off for exotic-sounding places could have stayed home too. They could have saved themselves from a lot of headaches (and heartaches).

If discovering the meaning of life is what you want to do, I recommend that you stay where you are, even if it’s a crummy little town, find a comfortable place, close your eyes, and then wait for the voice that will eventually come to you. It’s the voice of God, and don’t ask me how I know. Everyone else who has heard it over the centuries has also recognized it immediately. And there have been large numbers of women and men who have heard the same voice I have.

And then of course listen to it, really listen, as you have never listened before, as if your life depended on it.

The voice sounds pretty much the same whether you are in Tuscany or Provence or my little village of Meilen, which is twelve minutes by train from Zürich. I get up early, while it is still dark outside, and I sit in my living room, always the same place, and listen, knowing that I could be anywhere in the world at that particular moment. It doesn’t matter. Because the voice I am listening for speaks to me of truths deeper than charming village life or mountain views. The voice I am listening for speaks to me of truths worth knowing, truths that are worthy of me. The voice I am listening for asks me how I’m doing, how my week has been, and how I plan to live my life for the people around me. The voice I am listening for tells me that I am loved with a love that is beyond description.

If adventure is what you seek, it’s closer than you know.

(Note: I’ve been away – for a few days in Israel and then for a few days in the U.S. Lots of travel seems to mean less blogging. But we’re coming up on the holiest week of the year for Christians, and I should have something to say about that. Plus, there’s the presidential election in the U.S. Thanks for being patient. Please stay tuned.)

Comments { 6 }

My last pilgrimage

IMG_5340

I returned last night from my seventh pilgrimage to Israel.

Except for the people who stayed behind for a visit to Petra (across the border in Jordan), everyone returned safely and in good health. I always breathe a big sigh of relief when everyone finds their luggage and waves goodbye at the airport.

I also resolve never to go again. “This is definitely the last pilgrimage for me,” I told myself last night. Frankly, I’m not sure how excited I can get about one more boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, or one more visit to the souvenir shops in Bethlehem. I have had my fill of olive wood trinkets, long lines at holy sites, and 6:30 wake-up calls from the front desk – “Please have your bags outside your door by 7:00!”

But then, a few years will pass, and another group will convince me that it’s time to go again. I have given in each time.

During my first visit I cried pretty much every day for the first three or four days. Maybe it was the jet lag, but something about seeing the Sea of Galilee for the first time brought waves of tears. Members of that tour group probably wondered how much blubbering they would have to tolerate from their pastor. A lot, as it turned out. Every new site brought more tears.

And I still cry, more than 20 years after that first visit.

Last week I found myself for the first time at the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus preached for the hometown folks and nearly got himself tossed over a cliff outside of town. The structure has been rebuilt several times, but the floor, we were told, was the original. I had my doubts about that, as I did with the authenticity of many of the sites we visited, but still … I found myself there last week, reading the story from Luke’s gospel for members of my tour group who were seated in small plastic chairs, and I was weeping over the thought of it – that Jesus had once stood somewhere near there and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The scene has never been more vivid in my imagination.

This, I have come to realize, is the meaning of pilgrimage. No one knows anymore where Jesus preached that sermon in Nazareth – or where exactly he was buried – but none of that matters. We go to breathe the air, smell the smells, hear the sounds, see the rocks (they are everywhere), and then remember the stories. We go to have our faith deepened and renewed, to see for ourselves where all of it happened, to have old stories come alive.

My only souvenir this year was a little twig from an olive tree at the Garden of Gethsemane. I tucked it into my travel Bible where it will stay until the next time I go. Can you imagine how many pilgrims over the years have pulled on the branches of those trees?

I am glad I was there … again.

IMG_5261

Comments { 3 }

A little something for Ash Wednesday

IMG_4946

I prefer my spiritual experiences to be as tame as possible. I like to decide when and where they are going to happen. If possible, I prefer to pray when it suits me, when it is not an interruption to my busy schedule.

Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness were anything but tame. In Mark’s account of the experience, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, suggesting to me that he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Mark’s gospel, with all of its stories about demons and exorcisms, takes the spiritual life very seriously, more seriously than I usually do.

For Jesus, his time in the wilderness was not a time to contemplate a beautiful sunset or to remark about God’s majesty in creation, which is what usually counts as a religious experience for most people I know. Instead, it was a difficult and heart-wrenching time.

Not eating for 40 days must have heightened his other senses, and when Jesus encountered the devil in the wilderness, he needed to be alert. He needed every bit of strength he could muster. He was challenged, I assume, as he had never been challenged before, a young man coming face to face with nothing less than the meaning and purpose of his life.

As Diogenes Allen, my seminary teacher, puts it in his classic book about the temptations (a parent who names a child Diogenes should not be surprised when he grows up to be philosopher), Jesus was challenged specifically on the issues of material comfort, personal security, and prestige, and in all three areas Jesus – rather remarkably to me – chose faithfulness to God.

I must say, I have never been quite as courageous as Jesus was in these areas. I like material comfort, personal security, and more than a sprinkling of prestige.

My own wilderness experiences have never been times of my own choosing. When they happen, I always want to be anywhere but in the wilderness, but there – more than once in my life – is where I found myself. And believe me, there is nothing pretty about the wilderness. Jesus, we are told, faced wild animals, but the wild animals in my own life have not been wolves and hyenas. More typically they have been my own thoughts, my awful habit of making excuses for my behavior, my eagerness to confuse my own will with God’s will for me.

As I enter this season of the year known as Lent, I am aware that the seasons of our lives are seldom the ones we choose. They do not start and stop based on church calendars. They almost never begin with a pancake supper at church. I usually find myself in the wilderness when I least expect it.

Even so, I invite you to join me during this Lenten season in following Jesus who showed the way for us, who demonstrated courage we will never equal, and whose victory over sin and death makes our own victory possible.

(Note: I submitted something like this to my church’s Lenten devotional guide this year.)

Comments { 5 }

Have I learned anything?

sankofa bird

Can I help it that I am looking back quite a bit these days? Older men tend to do that.

I look back partly because the tread on my tires is showing some wear, and it’s interesting to think about where I’ve been.

Also, I wonder if there’s anything that I’ve learned along the way.

A few years ago some seminary classmates and I applied for a Lilly Endowment grant. Our project sounded important, and the grant application was apparently quite convincing. We said we wanted look back over our decades of church experience and discover if there was anything worth passing along, perhaps to a new generation of pastors.

We even adopted the African word “sankofa” as the name for our group and the title of our project. But that decision may have exhausted our supply of creative energy. (Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates – roughly – to “go back and get it.” The symbol is a bird turning around to find an egg and creating a heart shape.)

Don’t get me wrong. We certainly had fun with the grant money. We traveled around – Montreal, Pittsburgh, Austin, and I may have forgotten a place or two. We enjoyed good meals, and we played cards late into the night. I seem to remember that a good bourbon was a part of our research as well.

We somehow convinced well-known theologians in each of those cities to spend a week with us. In the mornings, we would crowd into their book-lined offices, ask serious questions, and then listen as we remembered how much fun it was to be a theological student. In some ways, I now realize, we were reliving our student days.

When our money ran out three years later, we hadn’t published anything, and frankly we hadn’t thought of anything that our vast experience of church service had taught us, nothing that a newer generation of pastors might find worth knowing.

We worked and worked and came up empty.

In the years since the grant ended I have thought often of our project, but haven’t thought of anything that we missed. Ministry has changed so much since I started that I find myself wondering if I really know anything that a new pastor might want to know.

On the way to the train station yesterday morning, I found myself walking with a neighbor who was on his way to a card game with some other pensioners in our village. Our conversation turned out to be unexpected gift.

After a few minutes of German, which he gladly indulges me whenever we meet, we switched to English, and I asked him what he did before he retired. He was an engineer, he told me, at work on ways to store energy. Energy from the wind and sun isn’t worth much, as it turns out, if you can’t save it for those times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Unfortunately, he said, research today is almost entirely in batteries, not in the interesting methods he spent his life exploring and perfecting. I asked him how it felt to have devoted his life to something that no one today considered valuable.

He didn’t hesitate with his reply. He told me that the enjoyment was in the work – the endless fascination of it, the sense of discovery, the joy of progress. He seemed to have no regrets.

We reached the train station too soon, I thought, and so I headed up the steps to Track 3, and he kept going to his card game.

I think I would enjoy playing cards with him and learning from him. He has something to teach me.

Comments { 1 }

Is ministry a career?

index (8)

I started with the best of intentions. We all did.

My seminary classmates and I absorbed a great deal of advice from – where else? – an older generation of pastors, and then we did our best to follow that advice, working long hours, honing our pastoral skills, sometimes even receiving additional and impressive-sounding degrees.

Today I look back and realize that we got a lot wrong.  So, what follows is a confession  – not the titillating sort you half-expect to hear these days from pastors and hypocritical religious leaders, but in a way more serious, more devastating.

When I was ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament – going on four decades ago – I signed up for a career. I wasn’t aware of that at the time, and would have denied it, if you had pointed it out to me, but looking back that’s what it was. Was it “naked careerism”? I’m not altogether sure what that is, but it sounds really bad, doesn’t it? No, I’m certain it was not naked careerism. We thought we were doing God’s work, laboring in the vineyard, building the kingdom, and even winning the occasional soul for Christ.

But the truth is, we were building careers and trying to be professionals – not doctors or lawyers or accountants, but professional clergy.

On my first day I was enrolled in a medical plan and, even better, a pension plan and what was called “a supplemental retirement account.” I had a title and a parking place. I had an automobile allowance and four weeks of vacation. I thought of myself as a professional, even if I didn’t look like one.

What was missing on the first day was a wardrobe so, as quickly as I could, I added suits and dress shirts and ties and of course a better haircut. I even bought myself a pair of black, size 13 Florsheim wingtips, which I polished every week to a nice, bright shine. It now seems clear, looking at the old photographs, that the off-the-rack suits looked silly on my tall, skinny frame but, no matter, I was on my way to what I hoped would be a good, long career.

Lately, though, I have become aware of a radically new way of thinking about ordained ministry – okay, not new, but definitely a change from the previous generation.

I had lunch last week with a young pastor whose church in the U.S. has sent him and his wife to “plant” a church in Zürich, where I currently serve what we like to call an “established church.” I’m not altogether sure what that is either, but it’s definitely not a church plant. When my new friend emailed me to ask about the possibility of renting space from us, I responded and suggested that we meet for coffee.

A few days later I listened – convicted – as he explained to me what he is attempting to do.

He started the very first Sunday – jet-lagged and nervous – with worship in his small apartment, more of a Bible study, really, but there was singing and prayer and even an offering. As he explained it to me (the vastly more experienced pastor in this conversation), “There’s no better time to start than the first Sunday.” I nodded as though I knew this to be true, but really I was marveling at his courage – to move to a new city, a new country, and a new continent, and on the very first Sunday to hold worship, not knowing if or when an actual congregation might emerge from this small gathering.

The group, he tells me honestly, is still quite small, though it has outgrown his apartment, which is why he turned to me. Weren’t the numbers small at the beginning in Ephesus, he asks, and Philippi and Corinth and Thessalonica, for that matter?

I noticed that he neglected to mention a retirement plan or how much vacation he would receive. There is no parking place, apparently, not even an automobile allowance. He has no fancy degree, not even the basic seminary degree, and right now does not see the need for one. The Bible, he tells me, is the only textbook he needs.

My new friend is not alone, of course. Church planting seems to be very popular right now, and maybe, as much as anything, it’s a much-needed correction after a generation of pastors who have grown comfortable and career-oriented and entitled.

As Rick Warren tells the story in one of his books, he graduated from seminary one day and then took a map of the U.S., closed his eyes, and pointed his finger at … yes, Orange County, California. The cynic in me wonders why the finger didn’t point to western North Dakota, instead of the most affluent county in the U.S., but my cynicism misses the point.

The point is that he planted a church in the living room of his first apartment in Orange County, not knowing if or when anything would come of it. He trusted God in a way that I never did. And today his tiny “church plant” is of course known as Saddleback Church.

One reason I do not despair about the future of the church is that there are many others like my new friend who have listened to God’s call in their lives and then set out, like Abraham and Sarah, to a land that God promised to show them.

As long as there are pastors like my new friend, there will be a church, and thanks be to God for that.

(Photo: That’s from a recent hike. It’s a view from the mountain behind my village. If you look carefully, you can see Sammi at the lower right, photobombing as always.)

Comments { 7 }