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.

The stranger within our gates


Europe, like the U.S., is struggling mightily with the refugee crisis.

Even knowing what to call the Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, and others who are pouring across our borders in large numbers is a complicated matter, with each term betraying one’s political – and sometimes religious – viewpoint.

Are they political refugees, Flüchtlingen, as my German-language newspaper prefers to call them? Or, are they Muslim invaders, as some members of my church believe?

Raised on the parables of Jesus, like the Good Samaritan, my first response to the refugee crisis was that my church should do something. In fact, I said as much. ‘We should adopt a family,’ I said early on, ‘as the pope himself suggested – one family per parish.’

One of my church members called and told me of his plans to drive a family from a refugee camp in southern Europe to Germany, perhaps in a rental car so as to avoid easy identification. His small act would help only one family, he acknowledged, but at least that one family would be safe. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about his plan, and told him so, but I found it difficult to do nothing, except for watching the news photos of squalid camps and overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean.

I was quickly informed, of course, that I was naive, that I did not understand how grave the situation was. ‘Muslims do not integrate,’ a few people helpfully explained to me. And news that at least one of the attackers in the Paris massacre last Friday night was a Syrian who had entered Europe posing as a refugee seemed to confirm that I was, in fact, naive, that I do not understand the situation we are facing.

Right now, the more conservative position represented by the SVP (Swiss People’s Party) seems to be the preferred position in this country. The SVP rode an anti-immigration platform to victory in the most recent election, and in a land of direct democracy that was a powerful message.

Even the pope, who isn’t reluctant to voice an opinion, seems to have gone silent on the issue.

I try to remember that I am a guest in this country, very much an immigrant myself. I am still learning the languange and the culture, after all, and it would be presumptuous of me to tell the Swiss how to run their country, especially when they seem to have done a remarkably good job of it for many years.

But I am a Christian pastor. I can and do read the Bible, and I know what it says about ‘the stranger within our gates.’ Republican presidential candidates in the U.S. do not hesitate to quote scripture about other topics, but they are noticeably reluctant to seek out the Bible’s clear teaching on this issue, have you noticed?

What about Exodus 23:9, to take just one example? ‘Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.’ That argument – you should understand because you too were foreigners – is repeated over and over in the Old Testament.

Naive or not, I continue to believe that my faith compels me to look with compassion on the strangers who are appearing among us. The Muslims I have spoken to (a very small number) are deeply disillusioned with their faith, but their faith in many cases is all they have. I would like to think that they would be especially receptive right about now to the Gospel message, the story of a God who welcomes us all, a God who brings shalom to a sin-ravaged world.

I will continue to struggle with this issue and with my naivete. I will continue to search scripture for the appropriate response (though the testimony already seems clear). I will continue to recommend to my members that we show compassion and not act out of fear. I will do my best, in it all, to be the follower of Christ I was raised to be – always concerned for the ‘least of these.’

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The hopes and fears of all the years


Christmas is coming, though you would never know that from the weather around here, which has felt more like September than December. Hasn’t the fall been lovely?

Christmas comes each year, and we look forward to it with a mixture of anticipation and dread – anticipation mostly because we get to see family and loved ones, and dread, well, let’s just say there are lots of reasons. Many people I know do their best to avoid the holiday altogether, feeling enormous relief in January when the tree becomes compost and the decorations are put away again for another year. Marriage and family problems, to say nothing of employment and financial worries, can exaggerate the awful feelings we sometimes have at this time of year.

All of which is interesting (and sad) when you remember what Christmas is and what it means to tell us. Christmas, more than anything, is a story of origins. It’s like the creation story in that way because it tells us where we came from. Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with geneaologies and stories of angels and proclamations, as if to say, ‘Let’s remember how all of this started.’ Mary says, ‘Let it be to me according to your word,’ and ever since we have been people who look for the unexpected from God and then struggle to keep up. His plans are never quite our plans!

I’m one of those people who comes to the season with more anticipation than dread. I can remember Christmases of course that were unspeakably sad, mainly because of someone who had died the previous year and wouldn’t be with us for the first time, but mainly I remember Christmases that have been full of joy and love and even surprise.

Most years since my ordination the season has been a busy one, culminating in a kind of happy exhaustion at midnight on Christmas Eve. With three or four services on Christmas Eve, beginning with a family service in the afternoon and concluding with candelight communion at 11:00, the day has always been a long one. And then, for several years, there were toys or other things to assemble and wrap and place under the tree before heading off to bed in the wee hours of the morning. All I wanted for Christmas during those years was a nice, long nap in the afternoon.

Not surprisingly I am excited to be celebrating my second Christmas in Switzerland this year. This might be the only country on the planet where Christmas lights and decorations are really unnecessary. With a little snow on the ground, the village where I live comes to life and is transformed into the postcard view that most people imagine when they think of Switzerland, though the real thing is more beautiful than any painting. Walking the dog in the early morning, before anyone else is stirring, has been a gift, even though I complain about having to do it. I tug at the dog, or she tugs at me, and together we enjoy a land of surpassing beauty. I think she notices it too. How could she not?

But Christmas of course is about more than snow and beautiful Swiss villages and services that end at midnight. As much as I enjoy singing ‘Joy to the World’ each year in a darkened church, while clutching my tiny candle with its wavering light, I know that the story is way more powerful than all of the rituals I employ each year. I know for example that the savior of the world has been born, that the long wait is over, that the promise has at long last been fulfilled, that (as the carol puts it) ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’

To be honest about it, the underlying meaning of the season has always made the inevitable sadness and disappointment seem bearable. I think, ‘God is at work in the world, quietly, of course, but unmistakably. All creation has been groaning for this, and now it has happened.’ And it’s then that I take my nap.

(Photo: Christmas lights on Bahnhofstrasse.)

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The blog is back


When you are as excited as I was about living and working in Europe, you tend to underestimate the size of the challenge.

Emotions can and often do trump logic.

But moving is difficult. Even moving, as I once did, from one Midwestern state to another was very, very difficult. I was excited about that move too and thought it would be no problem. As soon as the house was sold, I figured everything else would quickly fall into place. I was wrong about that, as I have been about a lot of things in my life.

And then, two years ago, I made the decision to move across an ocean. Not from Illinois to Michigan this time, but from the U.S. to Europe, to a tiny country called Switzerland, with its beautiful scenery and quaint villages and of course cheese. I had been to Europe. I knew people there. I have an adventurous spirit. So, once again, I thought, “No problem.”

But moving from one place to another, one country to another, is – may I use this word a third time? – difficult. Frankly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I should say at this point that I thought I was following God’s call in my life. But of course all pastors say that. Pastors say a lot of things, and they can justify just about any decision or behavior, maybe you’ve noticed, by using a lot of clever religious language. “God placed this call on my heart” is always a good one. “God decided to have his way with me” is another one I like. We pastors are good at making every decision seem like part of God’s eternal plan. It’s a required course at seminary.

Here’s the thing, though: I still believe this was God’s call in my life. Have never been more certain, as a matter of fact. But somewhere I got the idea that God’s call in my life would be to something better or easier – like a nicer climate, or a higher salary, or a better job description. I must have missed all of the biblical fine print about taking up one’s cross.

Not long ago a member of my church’s youth group said to me, “I thought following Jesus would make life easier.” Let me tell you, kid: I used to think that too. A lot of people do. And then we’re surprised when following turns out to be a lot harder than we ever imagined.

Switzerland usually ranks at the top of the list of countries for expats. It also ranks right up there on the “happiest” places to live in the world. If you’re going to move or be transferred somewhere, you could do a lot worse than Switzerland. I heard presidential candidate Bobby Jindal say in the last Republican debate that “the left is trying to turn the American dream into the European nightmare.” These words sound strange to anyone living here. Swiss life is hardly a nightmare. A lot of expats I know have decided to stay.

I suppose that what makes the move so difficult is leaving behind everything that is familiar. I forgot how utterly immersed I was in American culture. And then to find myself suddenly in a brand-new culture, as splendid as it is, in spite of what Bobby Jindal thinks, is a lot harder than I imagined it would be. Looking back I realize that the first year was exhausting – emotionally, physically, and even spiritually. I was starting a new job, for one thing, and even though people here welcomed me with open arms, starting a new job is nearly always demanding and stressful.

And then there was learning a new language. If I were five years old, I’m pretty sure I would be a fluent German speaker by now, but I am a bit older than five, and learning a language is tough, especially for Americans who think that English is God’s mother tongue. I still struggle with it.

Even going to the grocery store was a challenge at the beginning. Going to any kind of store required careful planning. Setting up the cable TV box (with instructions in German, French, and Italian) took the better part of an afternoon.

The list goes on and on. Every day there was something. I stopped writing this blog six months ago at least in part because I needed time to focus on living, settling in, finding my way.

I wrote a book last summer mostly to make sense of this country and of my new church. (Though the manuscript was submitted last week, the publication date has been set for the fall of next year.) I write, as many people do, to sort out my thoughts, to figure out what I really think, and I hoped that a book about serving a multicultural, international church with almost mind-boggling diversity would help me to understand what in the world I was doing here. Mostly it did. I was proud of the result.

So, the blog is back, which is another way of saying I am far more comfortable now in my new home, my new country. I can get around easily on trains and trams. I have carried on entire conversations in banks and restaurants and even at the salon where I get my hair cut in a language that is still new and strange to me. I am not nearly as tired at the end of the day.

But I will never again underestimate the degree of difficulty in moving.

(Photo: I took that on a Saturday morning hike a few weeks ago. It’s further evidence, I believe, of the “European nightmare.”)

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A tribute to a mentor, colleague, friend, and fine pastor

Pine Street Presbyterian Church

Fred Anderson is one of a kind. And everyone who knows him knows what I mean.

I can’t quite believe that the day has arrived when I would write a tribute to him, but I am honored to do so. In fact, I feel compelled to do so. Few people have had a greater impact on my life and work.

When news came to me that Fred’s farewell celebration would be held in May – at a time when I would not be able to travel to New York City – I was deeply disappointed, more so than you can possibly imagine. I write these words in lieu of being present. I hope you sense in them the genuine affection I have for him.

I first met Fred when I, along with a few dozen other graduating Princeton Seminary seniors, interviewed for church positions. I have no idea how the process works now, but back then pastors came to Princeton, usually along with an elder or two, and they would interview seminary students like me who were hoping to find work in the church.

We were coached to say that we were “looking for a call,” but we knew better. This was the job market, and jobs were scarce. We were coached, further, to sign up for as many interviews as possible, mostly to get interview experience.

As it turned out, I need not have signed up for as many as I did.

Fred was the first person I interviewed with. I liked him immediately. And I eagerly accepted his invitation to be his “assistant pastor,” which is what we were in those days, a kind of a two-year audition before becoming an “associate pastor,” a title which carried with it a bit more job security. I was the first in what has become a long list of associates whom Fred has invited to serve and learn with him.

To be honest, I had never dreamed of living and working in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, few people do, but as some wise person once told me (it was probably Fred), “If you get along with the senior pastor, you can live just about anywhere.” Fred presented Harrisburg to me in a way that Harrisburg has never been presented before. After riding around town with Fred in his tiny Chevy Chevette, and hearing him extol the virtues of life in Harrisburg, I would easily have chosen to live there over, say, Zurich, Switzerland. Such were his powers of persuasion, finely tuned during one of his previous careers – no kidding – as a Fuller Brush salesman. Fred could sell sand to Saudis.

My wife and I stayed at Fred’s home for our first visit to Harrisburg because, as he put it, it was important to know “if we could live together.” I am reasonably certain that Fred does not give this advice concerning other areas of life, but his reasoning made sense to me and I went along with it. Fred and Questa warmly welcomed us, and looking back I think one of the key tests during that visit was whether or not I could stay up late talking about the church and still function reasonably well the next day. We were to have many of those late-into-the-night conversations about the church over the years.

Fred told me early on that he had learned his administrative skills in the Air Force, and that piece of information should have set off an alarm in me. And when it didn’t, he added that “when I tell you to jump, you should ask me how high on the way up.” I had never before heard authority claimed so easily and comfortably. I half expected him to be joking, but it turned out that he wasn’t.

And curiously, you may find this hard to believe, that’s why I trusted him. Fred knew who he was, and he always challenged other people to figure out who they were.

As comfortable as Fred was in his role as senior pastor, I don’t recall that he ever felt threatened by my own achievements, accomplishments, and successes. In fact, Fred repeatedly looked for ways for me to succeed. He opened doors. He introduced me to people I should know. He sincerely wanted me to do well – expected me to do well. And since I was never a threat to him, I could find success every day of the week as far he was concerned. I didn’t, of course, but it would have been alright with him if I had.

Some of the best and most memorable sermons I have ever heard were ones that Fred preached. I had never seen anyone own a pulpit the way Fred did. He overpowered it and made it his. The pulpit at Pine Street Church was actually quite large – “twelve feet above contradiction,” we used to say – but Fred’s presence was equal to it. I have seen piano players take command of a piano and bend the instrument to their will, and that’s what Fred did with the pulpit most Sundays. He made it his.

One of the sermons I remember – not because it was his best, but because of the sheer audacity of it – was titled “Gross or Net?” It was a stewardship sermon, and the title referred to an often-asked question when Presbyterians are challenged to tithe. “Before or after taxes?” they usually wanted to know, and Fred responded by demolishing the question. If I can summarize his point, it was that “if you have to ask the question, then you don’t understand Jesus’ claim on your life.” Fred made a tither out of me in my first years of ministry, something that simply would not have happened without his conviction and example.

I regularly heard Fred preach more than once on a Sunday, but his sermons were never the same, which was curious because he always took a manuscript to the pulpit. I never knew what those pieces of paper were for, because he never seemed to refer to them. His sermons were memorable, though, mostly because they were strong and courageous. He always said what needed to be said and never sugar coated anything. When he was finished there was never a question as to where Fred stood. He stood squarely within the Word of God.

And that’s another point that should be made about Fred – his commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I remember leaving a funeral service for one of our colleagues, a pastor at another downtown church. The service consisted of one tribute after another for the deceased pastor, and I could sense while sitting next to him that Fred very much disliked everything about the service. As we were leaving, he leaned over and whispered, loudly enough for the entire balcony to hear, “If it should ever become your responsibility to lead my funeral service, then preach the gospel!”

And the thing is, Fred always did. No matter what.

Fred did his best to teach me to be a preacher. On the occasional Sunday mornings when I was preaching, he would pick me up on his way to church, and then he would sit in the back at the sound console while I would nervously preach my sermon, over and over again, to a darkened and nearly-empty sanctuary.

Fred also taught me to baptize babies. On the Sunday morning before my first baptism, he and I arrived early, found a baby doll in the church nursery, and I said the words of the baptismal formula while soaking the doll I was holding in my arms. Somehow I missed the class at seminary where these kinds of things were demonstrated, but am glad now that I learned to do them with Fred.

The morning I baptized my own child, Sarah, I was so overcome with emotion that I only managed to baptize Sarah “in the name of the Father.” When Fred realized I could say no more, he reached into the baptismal font, grabbed a fistful of water, showered both of us with it, and said, “and in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” It was, I’m sure, one of the few tag-team baptisms in the history of the church, and I still smile about it.

I also learned to chair board (Session) meetings from Fred. As you might imagine, if you have never seen him do it, he chaired board meetings with authority. Part of that came from being the best prepared person in the room. Fred always knew every item on the agenda and how the discussion was going to go. He knew parliamentary procedure too and didn’t hesitate to shepherd the elders through its complexities. But as strong as Fred was in those situations, no one should have felt intimidated or cowed into silence. Everyone with an opinion to express had ample opportunity to do so. And then a decision was made, and we moved on. Fred knew what he wanted and usually got it.

My favorite part of the monthly board meeting was the debriefing later in the evening at the Tuesday Club which was always empty by the time we arrived. Fred seemed to know his way around the kitchen and made the best ham sandwiches I’ve ever had. He also introduced me to Manhattans at those late evening seminars, and over ham sandwiches and Manhattans we would dissect every aspect of the meeting which had just concluded. I realized years later that I had been given a doctoral seminar in managing a church board. My diploma should bear the coat of arms not of Princeton, but of the venerable Tuesday Club.

One more story. I’m pretty sure no other first-year pastor has ever had to officiate at so many funerals. After one particularly difficult stretch, with at least three maybe four funerals in a single week, Fred must have seen my war-weary look, and so he said, “You’d better figure out what you believe about life after death – and do it quickly!”

He was right, as he usually was in those situations, and that year I learned to lean hard on my faith. I have not officiated at a funeral service in the years since then without thinking about those words. You can’t do this work if you don’t know what you believe. Fred knew what he believed, and so do I.

To say that I had a good experience in my first five years of ministry would be an understatement. I realize that I had one of the best transitions into ministry it was possible to have. And I knew at the time, from listening to my classmates who were often in less-than-ideal situations, that I should not take this experience for granted. I hope I didn’t. I tried to learn as much as I could. I tried to enjoy my life as a pastoral staff member as much as I could, because there are many advantages to not being the one ultimately responsible . And I tried to grow into my new identity as a pastor as much as I could.

For all of that, and more, I will always be grateful to a fine mentor and one of the most capable pastors I have ever known.

I love you, Fred. And I am thankful for the ministry we shared over the years.

(Photo: That’s the sanctuary of the Pine Street Presbyterian Church where Fred Anderson was once the pastor and where I was ordained on the chancel steps 34 years ago. Fred is retiring this spring after more than 20 years as pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.)

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A ritual I look forward to each week

photo (15)

We have a cool ritual on Sundays at the International Protestant Church of Zurich, something I look forward to each week.

But first a word about that word “ritual.”

Where I grew up, ritual was always a bad thing. For one thing, maybe the most important thing, ritual reeked of Roman Catholicism. Catholics had rituals. We Protestants didn’t. It was that simple.

And when we spoke about ritual, the word was usually preceded by another word – “empty.” Ritual, almost by definition, was empty. In other words, mindlessly going through the motions.

The ritual I am referring to here is neither empty nor mindless. In fact, it’s exciting. I thought I might tire of it, but the fact is I get more and more interested each week. I look forward to it. Which is the best kind of ritual, I suppose.

What happens is that I stand up at the beginning of worship, move to the center of the church in front of the first row of seats, and then – in a non-ritualistic manner – offer a welcome to all in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. I also offer a special welcome to visitors and ask if they wouldn’t mind introducing themselves.

Each week, surprisingly, they do. Introduce themselves, that is.

Where I come from, asking visitors to introduce themselves or say anything at all in worship would probably make visitors feel uncomfortable and not want to come back. But here, in Zurich, something very different happens. As one stands to speak, another will feel more confident about standing, and then still others will pop up, until we have several people, maybe 10-12 of them, waiting their turn.

An usher hurries over with a microphone (and a welcome package) so that all can hear.

I sense that everyone enjoys this moment as much as I do. Even the youth, who sit in the same place each week on one side of the balcony. (Another ritual, but then I’ve probably made my point about that matter.)

What makes this time of worship so interesting?

First, of course, it’s the places people come from. Australia, Greece, Singapore, the U.K., Korea, South Africa, and – yesterday – Princeton, New Jersey. An audible murmur is heard when a far-off and exotic country is mentioned.

Princeton, New Jersey! Can you imagine?

The other reason this moment in worship is so interesting is that it reminds us of the global reach of the Christian church. If we had any doubts whatsoever that the church exists (and thrives) all around the world, this ritual – sorry, not sure what else to call it – reminds us that we do not exist alone, that every Sunday on nearly every continent people of faith are gathering and singing and listening and offering themselves in worship.

Yesterday, much later in the service, as members and visitors came forward to receive the elements of communion, I was aware – as I am nearly every time we do this – that the family of God is far more varied than I sometimes imagine.

For God so loved the world…

(Photo: My Saturday morning hike took me away from the village where I live. This was my view somewhere near St. Moritz. That’s a cell phone photo, regrettably, because I left my fancy new camera at home.)

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One Ash Wednesday several years ago…

burning ash wednesday ashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What would Jesus say about 50 Shades of Grey?


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

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

But then that’s me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is this what a sermon is supposed to be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Neues aus Absurdistan

Blick am abend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The village where I live

the village where I live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some days my head hurts.

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

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

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

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Remembering Christmas break in photos (and a little text)


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


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


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


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

stairs from the beach

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


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

South Street sign

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

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