Hi! My name is Doug...
I'm a preacher, author,
runner, husband, father of two...

Yesterday was tomorrow today

Gestern war Heute Morgen

Please forgive me for this one.

I shouldn’t learn my German from advertising, but advertising is all around, even in Switzerland. And so, it seems, is this sign: Gestern war Morgen Heute (yesterday was tomorrow today).

I think I’ve seen a variation too: Morgen ist Heute Gestern (tomorrow is today yesterday). And maybe there is still another: Heute ist Gestern Morgen.

No, that last one can’t be right. Or can it? I don’t know anymore.

The words have become like an old song that I can’t seem to get out of my head.

I think it’s time to set aside language learning for a few days. Or weeks.

Comments { 3 }

From a broken home…

brocki haus1

Over the last few months I’ve done my best to introduce you to my new village with stops at city hall (where, for tax reasons, I proudly declared my Protestant faith), the garage (with the impressive wine chiller in the waiting area), and most recently the recycling center (which, I now know, should not be visited on Saturday morning, if at all possible).

Today’s destination is the Brockenhaus!

To my English-speaking friends, this might sound like a sad and depressing pastoral visit, but the broken home in Switzerland – known by most people simply as “the Brocki” – is actually a second-hand or re-sale shop.  When people move and, yes, break up their households, many of these people give their unwanted household items to the Brocki for resale. Every village seems to have one.

And since the Swiss themselves – cultural stereotype alert – prefer to buy items that are new and expensive, the Brocki is frequented mostly by expats like me, looking to buy a chair for the balcony, or a set of wine glasses, or just about anything else imaginable.

I am not a shopper, so visits to the Brocki have been painful, but even I can grudgingly admit that we have found some great deals there. And maybe the best part is that we have contributed to the work of non-profits in our area.

In 1904, on the initiative of local merchant Dr. h.c. Arnold Scherrer, the first Brocki in Zurich was established, with a Protestant minister, a Catholic priest, and a Jewish rabbi on its board of directors. The actual history of the Brocki is somewhat murky to me, but at some point the Salvation Army also became involved, and so some Brockis today are non-profit and charitably run, while others aren’t.

As a preacher I can find spiritual significance just about anywhere, including the Brocki.

By nature I am not a saver. When something is old or broken or has otherwise outlived its usefulness, my first inclination is to throw it away. I tend not to be sentimental about stuff. Please don’t judge.

Fortunately, I believe in a God who by nature is very much a saver, who is strangely attracted to the old and broken and useless, and who can find a new and dazzling use for just about anything. In fact, I like to think of the church, at its best, as a Brocki, not because anyone is for sale, but because the people there are no longer new and in pristine condition, but nevertheless have worth and value and purpose.

I look forward to going to the Brocki on Sunday – not the one I can see from my window, which will be closed, but the one in Zurich with the pulpit in front and the organ in back. We’ll be remembering the worthiness in us that only God can see.

Brocki haus

Comments { 10 }

School’s out for summer – finally


The school year is different here, as is most everything about life in Switzerland.

By my crude calculations, Swiss students have as many days of school each year as students in the U.S., but vacations are distributed very differently.

Take summer, for example. There is an extended break here, but only if by “extended” you mean a month. And that month officially started this week.

A few of the international schools around Zurich try to adhere to the U.S. school schedule, but most students toil away at their studies until the middle of July. And by the middle of August they will all be back at it.

I learned all of this the hard way last night. I hurried over from the train station and found that the door to my language school was locked. I even sat on the steps for a while, thinking that the door might still open. (I must still be new here because the idea that a Swiss school might open a few minutes late is laughably funny.)

Had I been 10 years old, I can imagine that not having a class last night would have been indescribably good news. I would have let out a shout that could have been heard for, uh, several kilometers all around.

Last night, though, sitting there on the steps with my book bag, I actually felt sad.

Don’t get me wrong. I am glad to be finished with exams, term papers, thesis projects, and the like. I hope I have taken my last standardized test. But I think of myself as a lifelong learner. I read, for example, I am learning a new language, and I am getting ready to teach an adult class in the fall on the relationship between faith and science, which involves a surprising amount of study.

So, I am still very much a student. And I find, as I get older, that the desire to know more, learn more, understand more, doesn’t diminish. It grows. In fact, I feel an urgency about it today that I never felt when I was that 10 year old who was so happy for summer vacation to begin.

These days I am acutely aware that time is running out, that the list of books I want to read is getting longer not shorter, that there is still so much I want to know. I never realized before what a gift it is to be able to learn.

I will definitely use my summer break to work on my German grammar.

(Photo: That’s the Kantonsschule Stadelhofen, one of Zurich’s many schools, which I walk by every morning on my way to the church office.)

Comments { 1 }

Saturday fun at the Gemeindesammelstelle


“Doug, tell us about the recycling situation over there in … uh, where do you live?”*

I live in Switzerland, a country that is sometimes confused with Sweden (which is well north of here) and even Swaziland (which is well south). Mail intended for me from senders in the U.S. has gone to both places, a story I’ll tell in another blog post.

But back to recycling.

As it turns out, the community recycling center (known here as the “Gemeindesammelstelle,” a good example of why German-speaking people will never win at Scrabble) is a busy place on Saturday morning.

I went today with a large carpet remnant that – how should I put it? – no longer fits our design needs. I loaded it into the back of our Volvo station wagon and drove over.

Surprisingly, I had to wait in a long line, with the car engine switched off, but was eventually allowed in. I parked and carried the remnant over to a scale and learned that leaving the remnant in the capable hands of the Gemeindesamm…I mean, community recycling center, would cost me eleven Swiss francs and some change.

Just to fill in the blanks about recycling, I take our glass and cans each week to a long row of containers next to the train station, and there I sort the glass – green, brown, clear, etc. Happily, this doesn’t cost me anything and has become a satisfying weekly ritual. What can’t be recycled goes into special bags we buy at the grocery store, and then a tag is affixed to the bag before it’s tossed into the waste container.

To sum up, then, recycling is a priority here. And the Swiss appear happy to do it. The results, after all, can be seen everywhere. It’s a clean, attractive country. The air, water, and land are testimonies to what can happen when a high value is placed on – well, clean air, water, and land.

I was asked recently by some youth at the church if it was true, as they have heard, that when Americans throw something away they simply roll down their car windows and toss it out.

To answer I used a response that I’ve had to cultivate because of similar questions about guns, politicians who are actually proud of never taking a science class, etc. I say, “Well, it’s complicated.”

*A question I have never been asked.


Comments { 8 }

Should there be a “mercy rule” in football?

the two popes (I posted this first to my Facebook page and started such a good conversation that I decided to post it here as well. The photo shows the two popes deep in prayer about, I’m sure, the upcoming match on Sunday night, and Francis looks a lot more confident than Benedict.)

I watched it, and I enjoyed it. I admit it.

I hurried home last night from – ironically – a meeting at church and turned on the television just in time to see Germany score its second goal in the World Cup semi-final match with Brazil.

I didn’t intend to watch more, because it was late and I had to get up early, but then I saw the Germans score another goal. And then another. And another. And soon the match was out of reach.

But still I couldn’t look away.

Was that a grown man weeping on the sidelines? Yes! Obviously I would have to stay up and watch the entire second half too. I wanted to see more weeping Brazilians.

Which raises the question: Should there be a ‘mercy rule’ in football?

When my daughters played the sport years ago, I seem to remember something called a ‘mercy rule.’ If the other team had a 10-goal lead, or whatever, the game was over. Or maybe they just stopped keeping score. In any case, there was this rule, which grew out of a sense of decency and fair play and sportsmanship.

I once broke my arm in a high school football game (the other kind of football) and ran off the field, thinking I was done for the day and possibly for the season. But my coach, apparently not seeing the odd way my wrist was dangling off the end of my arm, sent me back on the field. When I failed to make a tackle on the very next play, he took me out – not because of my badly broken arm, but because of my ineffectiveness on the previous play.

So, the lessons I learned playing sports didn’t have much to do with team work and the value of practice and so on. The lessons I learned had much more to do with winning – winning as impressively as possible and even winning at any cost.

There’s a shadow side to sports, and I felt it last night.

I watched not because the game was so good – it wasn’t – but because it was so awful that I couldn’t look away.

Comments { 1 }

A little cross-cultural stereotyping

Swiss cultural stereotypes

You would think that cultural stereotyping would be a problem for a multi-cultural church. And you would be wrong.

The truth is, we kind of like doing it. And we do it a lot.

I’ve been wondering why a church that is as racially and ethnically diverse as any in the world does so well at being the church, and I don’t yet have anything like a definitive answer, but I am a little intrigued by how many assumptions we make about each other and how much fun it (usually) is.

Just to give a definition to what I’m talking about, stereotyping occurs when we make generalizations about groups or classes of people: Fire fighters, for example, are courageous. Everyone knows that. Blonds, on the other hand, are less intelligent than the rest of the population. Everyone seems to know that too. Italians, meanwhile, are loud. Or great lovers, if you ask them.

Fun, right? And mostly it is, until the generalization begins to feel uncomfortable. My blog post soon after my arrival about how the Swiss are überpünktlich (over punctual) might have been a bit too soon. They are, but maybe I should have waited a while before commenting about it.

How American of me.

I’ve never been so self-conscious about being American, and mostly I’m self-conscious because I fit the stereotype of Americans so well. I’m very friendly and outgoing when I meet someone new, for example, which tends to make the Swiss feel cautious and suspicious. I know now that they see me as superficial and disingenuous, although secretly they would like to be more like me.

And then there’s my Dutch connection. My grandparents were born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the U.S. at least a hundred years ago. I have Dutch features and a Dutch name, I look like someone from a Frans Hals (or Adriaen Brouwer) painting, even though I am a thoroughly assimilated U.S. citizen.

Still, I see myself in the Dutch. I am tall and sturdy (I was taught to say “big boned”). I love tulips and that cheese with an unpronounceable name (never say “goo-dah” to the Dutch). I own a pair of wooden shoes, and like most Dutch I own an impressive bicycle (designed, I’m sure, by leading scientists and made of space-age materials) that never leaves the shed.

And I haven’t even gotten to the Chinese, Koreans, Indians, South Africans, Germans, British, Swiss, and a host of others – how others see them, and (more scary) how they see me.

We do this regularly and often, this game of stereotyping, and mostly I think it’s harmless fun. We seem to learn about each other by making jokes and teasing each other. We seem to know, at least I hope we do, that it’s all in good fun, that there are many exceptions to the “rules,” and that most generalizations are also exaggerations.

And then there are times when I think maybe we have gone too far, that we have had a laugh at the expense of another, that our humor has become hurtful. But those times seem few and far between.

Mostly – I would say miraculously – we get along.

(Photo: We might call that a cultural stereotype, but a positive one. )


Comments { 0 }

Notes about the expat life


Where are you from? I remember when that was a simple, straight-forward question.

For most of my life I could hold up my right hand and point to a place on my palm, because Michigan – well, the lower peninsula – is shaped like a mitten. Everyone from Michigan would know exactly where I was from. The southwest corner of the state, of course.

When I ask where someone is from today, there’s no telling what I might hear.

At a youth group event last Friday night, we played a game which required us to divide into four teams, and so we divided up by continents and passports. People with passports from Asian countries were on one team, people with passports from African countries were on another, etc. I played for the American team.

On my team, for example, was a young man who was born in Paraguay, lives currently in Switzerland, but has a U.S. passport.  Poor kid, except, as it turns out, that’s not such an unusual story.

Youth groups always find a way to leave someone feeling left out, and Friday night that person was the lonely, left-out teenager with an Australian passport. I forget now which team she joined, but trauma was avoided and everything turned out all right.

But there we were, with all of our cultural stereotypes on full display. The Americans and Asians fought hard to win, as though the World Cup itself was at stake, while the Africans and Europeans talked among themselves, ate the snacks, and appeared to have a good time.

Speaking of the World Cup, where are these guys from? Does anyone even care? The player who kicked the winning goal for Switzerland a few nights ago is Albanian. The coach of the U.S. team is German. Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best players in the world today, is Portuguese but plays for Real Madrid, a Spanish team.

I want the U.S. team to do well of course, though it was clear (I thought) when we played the German team that we are not yet among the elite teams in the world. And because I’m living in Switzerland, this tiny land of only eight million people, I find myself cheering for the Swiss team too. (The whole country goes nuts when they win.) And surprisingly, I also feel a tiny bit of allegiance to the team from the Netherlands. Go orange!

So, where are you from?

I told the youth group Friday night – during the “let’s all be serious now and talk about our faith” portion of the evening – that these days we need to think more deeply than ever before about our identity. We are more than our passports tell us about ourselves.

For me, I told the youth, that means being a child of God. I have been baptized. I have an identity that transcends nationalities and languages and skin colors and even World Cup teams.

I know where I am from.

Comments { 0 }

Growing up in a pastor’s home


(During my 13 years as a pastor in Wheaton, Illinois, eight of our members, including one of my daughters, heard God’s call in their lives, went to seminary, and pursued ordination so that they could serve the church of Jesus Christ as pastors. It was an extraordinary season of ministry, one that still astonishes me.  One of those eight, Ericka Parkinson Kilbourne, is now a Presbyterian pastor in Michigan City, Indiana. She did her theological studies at Princeton Seminary, where she won the Jagow prize in homiletics and speech. Today, she is a mother of three, and like me she is a blogger. Recently she asked me to reflect in a guest blog on the dual vocations of pastor and father. Here’s what I wrote.)

If we had listened to every horror story about the difficulties of raising children in a pastor’s home,
we would have made the decision to remain childless – and felt pretty good about it.

Everyone who talked to us seemed to know of at least one situation in which a child, raised in the
wretched fish bowl of a pastor’s home, reacted in extreme and scary ways – including drug abuse,
petty crime, mental illness, and juvenile detention.

And now that I think about it, that’s odd because every person I know who grew up in a pastor’s
home has been a remarkably good and loving person.

My best friend during my teenage years was the son of a pastor, and life at his house always seemed
pretty normal to me. They didn’t sing hymns together around the piano every night, which I half
expected and which I definitely would have rebelled against. Instead, his dad occasionally enjoyed a
cold beer in the evenings.

Nothing in that household ever seemed alarming to me, but I might have missed something.

Anyway, I became a father while serving my first church after seminary, and the church responded
generously and thoughtfully to the birth. I was regularly overwhelmed by it. And because the
biological grandparents lived hundreds of miles away, dozens more at the church were more than
willing to take their place. Plus, a pool of reliable babysitters could always be found in the church’s
youth group. If anything, raising children in the church always seemed like an enormous advantage
we enjoyed – a perk of the career, you might say.

Our children, now well into adulthood, have talked occasionally about their experiences of growing
up in a pastor’s home, though it’s not something we dwell on, and mostly their memories of the
church seem to have been positive. To explain my work to her friends, my younger daughter used to
say I talked on the phone a lot – in a distinctively ministerial tone – which she thought was
hilariously funny. And that seems to be the strongest memory of my work from that period of their
lives – me talking on the phone.

My children don’t appear to have been harmed by their experience. One of them, the older one, is an
ordained Presbyterian pastor, which doesn’t seem to me like evidence of deep emotional scarring.

The younger one joined a church recently, soon after moving to a new city, and her only comment
was that she liked the old days when she was a child and people would regularly invite us over for
dinner. Now she says that she has to work harder at the relationships within the church.

So, our experience was good, and I am more grateful than I can say for it. We were blessed, of course, with some strong churches during their childhoods, churches with excellent Sunday Schools, large youth groups, and loving people. My children were witnesses to faith being lived out in some wonderful and obvious and very mundane ways. I suppose things could have been different.

Maybe what most needs to be said is that people should resist the temptation to tell about-to-be parents about all the horrible things that might happen. Instead we should probably say, ‘Do your best and you’ll be fine.’

Or as a farmer in my first church said to me, ‘Babies are like newborn calves. Keep them dry and well fed, and they’ll thrive.’

That was the best advice about parenting I ever received.

(Photo: That’s me a few months ago holding my new grand-daughter who – good for her! – is going to grow up in a pastor’s home.)

Comments { 0 }

Welcoming the stranger


(I have always enjoyed being an uncle, and I am especially proud that both a niece and a nephew have become Christian pastors. They didn’t follow me into ministry. They grew up in Christian families and then in adulthood embraced the faith of their parents. My niece, Kate Van Noord Kooyman, is a graduate of Calvin College and Western Theological Seminary. She is a Reformed Church in America pastor who is passionate about immigration reform. I saw her interviewed by a cable news network not long ago and realized just how articulate she is on the subject, and so I asked if she would write a few words for Doug’s Blog on the subject. Below are those words, together with hyperlinks that support and illustrate her statements. Thanks, Kate.)

Shortly after the birth of my second son, Sam, I went back to work. After months of being home all the time, I was once again immersed in one of the unspoken trials of modern parenthood: daycare drop-off. Crying, whining, begging, clutching, bribing, peeling-toddler-legs-from-mom’s-waist … there must be mommy support groups for this kind of daily trauma.

I got in the habit of reciting a little mantra on the way to daycare, while hyper-extending my elbow so that I could hold hands with my toddler in the back seat: “Sometimes Mommy goes away. But she will always come back. Can you say that with me? She will always come back.”

There’s a new documentary detailing a Christian perspective on undocumented immigrants in the United States, and it made me remember this ritual. In the film, there is a mom who is living life “in the shadows.” She’s working, paying taxes, and raising four kids on her own. At one point she tells us that her youngest daughter has been reporting having dreams that her mom is taken from her. With tears, the mom tell us her response to her child, “I’ll never leave you.” She will always come back. Maria loves her kids as much as I love mine. But her promise isn’t in her hands to fulfill. It’s in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It’s estimated that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US today. The media has told us that these are “freeloaders,” people looking to game the system. The truth is, the majority of the undocumented pay taxes - even income tax and Social Security contributions they will never benefit from, and they cannot access social services like welfare or food stamps. The media has told us that these are criminals. The truth is, immigrants are markedly less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes. For many, the only law-breaking that occurred was overstaying an expired visa, or crossing a border illegally. The public wisdom is that these immigrants should just “get in line” and “come the legal way” just like “my grandparents did.” The truth is, they would love to get in line. There is no line.

There are lots of ways to think and talk about this issue. We could talk about it as an economic issue (spoiler: immigrants are a huge boon to the economy). We could talk about it as a public safety issue (hint: our current system is a dream scenario for slave traders, drug traffickers, abusive spouses, and anyone looking to prey on vulnerable people). Or, we could talk about it like Christians.

But we don’t talk about it like Christians. Pew Research has told us that only 12 percent of American Christians admit they think about immigration primarily from the perspective of their faith. And that’s not surprising when we learn that only 20 percent of them have ever heard immigration mentioned by their pastor. But while the church might be silent on this issue, the Bible is not. The Hebrew word ger (translated immigrant, stranger, sojourner, foreigner) is mentioned in the Old Testament 92 times – reminding Israel to take special care of the ger, to welcome the ger, to treat the ger equally to the native-born. In the New Testament, the Greek word that we translate as “hospitality” is philoxenia. Biblical hospitality isn’t having your friends over for dinner – it is “love of the stranger.” While our culture encourages xenophobia (that strangers are to be feared), thinking like a Christian about immigration means that we actually approach immigrants as God’s means of giving a blessing.

I believe that immigrants do bring a blessing. I believe that they are the hope for the vibrancy of American Christianity. I believe they are the hope for US economic vitality. But mostly I believe they are the way that the native-born remember that we, too, were once strangers in a strange land. That in welcoming the stranger we are immersing ourselves in that foundational story of our faith in which God heard our cries, God freed us from oppression, God was revealed to be bigger than our nationalism, our power structures, our suffering, our sin. Welcoming the stranger is how we remember who God is.

I invite you to pray for reform of our broken immigration system. I invite you to watch and share The Stranger film. And – if you’re a voter in the US – to advocate for Congress to do something to address this crisis. Call 1-866-877-5552 and tell your member of Congress it’s time to decide on a more humane, logical, and hopeful immigration system.

my neice Kate Kooyman
(Photo: Yes, that’s Kate.)
Comments { 0 }

A plea for more modesty

photo (13)

I don’t go out of my way to talk to people on trains. It just happens.

I was taking the S6 home last night because I missed the much faster S7, even though I ran, pretty fast too for a man of my, uh, maturity and position in the community.

But there she was – I recognized her from the evening service – and so I asked where she was from.

She had been visiting my church and had even introduced herself at the point in the service when we ask visitors to introduce themselves. She spoke English, as everyone at my church does, but I noticed that it was with a distinctive and (for me) unrecognizable accent.

She told me she was from Siberia and had been living in Switzerland for 20 years. I asked how she came to be at my church, and I then heard the story of her life. I don’t think of myself as an especially good listener, but I can ask open-ended questions like a champ.

I learned, among other things, that she had been baptized as a child, but that “it didn’t mean anything because I wasn’t aware of what was happening.” Then, a few years ago, she was baptized again, and this time it meant something because she began to explore her new faith – much to the chagrin of her mostly Muslim family. And then, a couple of months ago, she was baptized yet again – this time in a Pentecostal church and with full immersion, “just like scripture teaches us to do it.”

It was that last comment that caught my attention. I wasn’t napping before that, but when she made a strong assertion about what scripture teaches, in an area of theology where there have been centuries of debate and disagreement, I sat up and was – okay, I’ll admit it – irritated.

Here was a young Christian telling me – first – that my own baptism “didn’t mean anything.” (Try telling that to my parents who presented me as an infant with as much hope and pride and belief as any parents have ever had.) And then she told me what scripture teaches regarding the proper administration of baptism, which is not the way I ordinarily do it.

I resisted the temptation to say, “What seminary did you get your theological degree from?” Instead I thanked her – profusely – for sharing with me the deeply moving story of her spiritual journey. I told her that I hoped to see her again.

But today I’m thinking, “Why is it that young Christians presume to know so much about their faith, so much in fact that they feel confident enough to teach – and sometimes rebuke – others?”

She’s not the first, unfortunately. It happens a great deal.

And what am I supposed to say? How about “you know, actually, there’s a long history of debate on that particular point, and while you’re welcome to your point of view, you should know that not every Christian believes exactly as you do”?

I suppose this post, more than anything, is an appeal for some greater modesty about what we believe. Faith by its very nature seems to lead us to speak about it boldly, but I wonder if followers of Christ shouldn’t resist the temptation to set other followers straight, or at least until they have achieved some seasoning, some experience, some maturity.

Sometimes our boldness is arrogant and rude.

(Photo: It has nothing to do with the content of my post, but I couldn’t wait any longer to use it.)

Comments { 0 }