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“I will be with you”

signs along swiss hiking trails I’m preaching about Moses on Sunday. That’s hardly front-page news, because I’ve done it before. Many times.

But what do you say about Moses if you’ve preached about him before, if over the years you’ve more than covered the subject?

Preachers will know the answer to this question.

What happens is that you come back to an old story and – this happens nearly every time – you find something new, a whole new angle on an old, old story. You think, “I’ve been hearing this story since I was a child in Sunday School, and how could I have missed that?”

I know the Moses story pretty well. I like it too, which means that I’ve used it in my preaching many times over the years because preachers always turn to their favorite stories. But this week I saw something that I’m pretty sure I had never seen before.

What often happens in these situations is that the new insight comes from somewhere else – a book, a conversation with a friend, just about anywhere. For me this week it was reading what a friend, a fellow preacher, noticed in the Moses story, and as soon as I read it, I thought, “That’s brilliant.” (I even emailed him to tell him so.)

When Moses told God that he – Moses – wasn’t really up to the job that God had in mind for him, that he wasn’t really a public speaker, that he wasn’t such a good fit as a leader, God did something surprising.

I think I might have expected God to say: “Moses, you’ve got to believe in yourself! You’re smart and good looking. You’re really a very talented person. You’ve got all the gifts you need – and then some. I chose you for this work because I can’t think of a better qualified person.”

But God – I had never noticed this before – doesn’t say that to Moses. God, in fact, seems to agree with Moses in his self-assessment. God seems to say, “You know, I think you’re right. You’re not much. You’re a shepherd, after all, without a lot of prospects for advancement. If it weren’t for a generous father-in-law, you wouldn’t even have this much.”

What makes the story memorable is that God says the one thing Moses most needs to hear, the one thing that most of us need to hear – namely, God’s promise that “I will be with you.”

Why do we imagine that God is like a parent whose child has had a bad day in school: “You’re really smart. You’ll just have to try harder.”

God may well think those things about us (I’m not so sure), but he says the one thing that we most need to hear. “I will be with you.” And in the case of Moses that was enough.

As always, I can’t wait until Sunday.

(Photo: Am back home in Switzerland, looking forward to Sunday and to some hiking.)

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I may start going to church again

farewell to big red

I can be very critical, especially about the church.

I seldom like the sermon. I can be picky about the music. Frankly, I can (and do) find fault with just about everything, even with the cookies at coffee hour. (When was the last time you had a really good cookie at a church coffee hour? Right, my point exactly.)

When people talk about spending eternity singing in the heavenly choir, I hate to admit it, but I don’t look forward to it. I hope it’s okay for me to admit that. My point is that I hope worship in heaven is a lot better than it usually is down here.

But worship today was a happy exception.

A friend invited me to go with him today – this, by the way, is how something like 90 percent of first-time visitors come to church – and I loved every minute of it. From the greeting before I even set foot in the building, to the singing, to the prayer of confession (no kidding), to the message, to communion. I could do it all again next week, except that I don’t live around here.

What was it? I don’t know. I am trying to put my finger on it. Part of it was that no one tried very hard. What I mean is that worship wasn’t a show. Pastors and worship leaders were real, authentic, genuine – and that goes a long way.

Another part of it, I think, was the blend of old and new. The people were given responses that date to the earliest days of the church, and then there were elements that might have been written yesterday. I felt connected to believers of all times and places, but I also had the sense that the faith was being newly expressed.

There was more, of course, but I realized, with some relief, that it doesn’t take much. I’m not that hard to please. I just like to know that I was in the presence of God.

(Photo: One last look at Big Red until next year.)

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One reason the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge will not do nearly as well in Europe

ice bucket challenge

One reason the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge will not do nearly as well in Europe?

It’s nearly impossible to find ice. (Even the Smithsonian Magazine agrees.)

While my big American refrigerator in the U.S. has a built-in ice maker and can be heard to make ice all day long, my relatively small – let’s say petite – refrigerator in Europe has one teeny, tiny ice tray that takes up about a quarter of the freezer space.  Ice is just not as important to daily life in Europe as it is in the U.S.

I have been challenged to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – as has every other living American, apparently – and I have asked for an exception to the 24-hour rule.  (Asking for rule exceptions has been a big part of my life, but that’s another blog post.) And my reason is that I’d like to do this on my first Sunday back at the International Protestant Church of Zurich.

Beyond that, I would like to do it with my colleague in ministry, Scotty J. Williams, who has agreed to endure this challenge with me in front of the French Reformed Church immediately following morning worship on August 31. The entire congregation will be invited to watch, before heading off to coffee hour.

So, join us a week from Sunday. We’re hoping for a nice, sunny day, which would make it only the second one of the summer, so not likely. In any case, it’s for a good cause – raising awareness for an ALS cure and the need for more research. I’ve read the posts from some who refuse to participate because, after all, there are other, maybe worthier, causes in the world right now. And I agree. There undoubtedly are other causes and worthier ones too. But there’s room for this one.

See you Sunday after church.

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A prayer for the end of summer


Lord, where to begin?

If I forget everything else that’s been happening in the world, then – yes – it’s been a pretty good summer. Thank you.

But how do I forget everything that’s been happening in the world?

I looked back at the sermons I preached in July, before heading off on vacation, and they were – how do I put this? – gloomy. Well, you heard them, didn’t you? I’m never quite sure. But that’s what they were, weren’t they? There were gloomy about the world, they were gloomy about the future, they were gloomy about nearly everything.

I ask your forgiveness – and the forgiveness of all those who had to sit politely and listen to them. You have asked me to live with hope. You have asked me to trust in you. And I wish I could do that. But after all these years I’m still working on the very first step of faith, still trying to remember that you are God – and that I am not.

As you know – from previous prayers – I am not happy with our leadership. I have used strong language about them. I think they are all crooks and liars. I would ask that you bring down your devastating judgment on them – in the stern Old Testament sense – but then I think about my own life and how it isn’t really all it could be either. And I’m thinking that if I can ask for your mercy, so can they.

I pray that they do.

I’m heading back to work in a week, as I think you know, and surprisingly I feel ready to go back. I suppose that’s a prayer of thanksgiving right there. I thank you for the work you’ve given me to do. I thank you for the time away from that work. I thank you for the people I get to do that work with. I thank you that there are people who would actually like to be the church with me, who would like to walk this way together.

And if I forget to be thankful, I hope you will nudge me simply to open my eyes and look around. Amen.

(Photo: Thank you, Brooke Collier, for catching my lop-sided smile.)

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The importance of Big Red

Big Red Holland Michigan

Everybody knows “Big Red.”

Everybody who has ever lived or vacationed in Holland, Michigan, that is. Big Red is the lighthouse that marks the entrance to the channel linking Lake Michigan to Lake Macatawa (and thus to the City of Holland).

Every summer for more than 30 years I have vacationed within sight of Big Red, and even though the lighthouse no longer carries out its original mission, it has become an important landmark, very nearly synonymous with the City of Holland.

When I arrived in Holland a couple of weeks ago for my summer vacation, I changed the cover photo on my Facebook page to the photo you see above, letting everyone know, I suppose, that I had arrived. Many of my Michigan friends immediately “liked” the photo because Big Red has that effect on many of us.

It’s not the most beautiful lighthouse we’ve ever seen, but it’s our lighthouse, visible from our beach, located in our part of the world. Soon after I arrived I went to the beach, looked to the south, and – sure enough – there it was. For me at that moment vacation had begun.

One friend who is a serious sailor wrote in response to my Facebook photo to tell me that lighthouses are now obsolete because of GPS . He pointed out, further, that “lighthouses act now as museums and nice old things to look at as we walk down the beach.”

Thanks for that astonishing information, Andrew.

And then he mentioned that “lighthouses are bad images for churches.” Say what?

I should explain that Andrew is, like me, a Presbyterian minister. And this, like it or not, is how we think. We see a lighthouse, or a ship, or an anchor, and immediately we think about images and metaphors. We think about sermon illustrations. And in the process, I suppose, we can be guilty of telling people some pretty obvious stuff. (Please forgive me, if you’ve had to sit through one of my sermons thinking, “Gee, Doug, I never knew that before.”)

But I think Andrew got that last statement wrong, and I’ll tell you why.

The church at its best, of course, is very much like a lighthouse, helping weary travelers navigate through the storms and fog of life. But lately the church – in the West, at least – has become culturally irrelevant and obsolete, like the lighthouse. Fewer and fewer people look to the church anymore for guidance, and now the church – sadly – is often no more than a museum or “a nice old thing to look at.”

And the church – unlike the lighthouse – is partly to blame. (As ashamed as I am of so much in church history, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the church is entirely to blame for what has become of it. Cultural and historical forces have also played a role. But let’s not quibble.)

I’d quit there, but I’m a preacher. And on vacation I feel a little lost without a pulpit. So, let me make this one last point.

I think the church still has a role to play – and not as a museum or a nice thing to look at. I think the church, if it wanted to, if it could find the moral courage to do so, could become a beacon for justice and righteousness. And I’m not thinking about the silly issues that so many Christians waste their time with. I don’t have the energy, for example, to boycott stores where clerks fail to say “Merry Christmas.” Please.

What I have in mind are the larger cultural issues that have led to the situation we find today in Ferguson, Missouri – to give just one example. The gospel has something to say about issues like that. And it’s not always what we want to hear. But often it’s what we most need to hear.

Maybe – this is really dreaming, I know, but indulge me – maybe people will look one day to the church the way I look at Big Red. In other words, as a reminder of something.

Maybe people will look to the church and remember that we can be better, that we’re called to be better, than we often are.

Maybe people will look to the church and be reminded of the one who lived with more moral courage than any other human being who has ever lived.

Thanks for the email, Andrew. Just what I needed.

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I don’t go to church much anymore


I don’t go to church much anymore, and haven’t attended regularly since 1980, when I stopped being a church member altogether.

I have mostly good memories of going to church, but for most of my adult life I have worked on Sundays.

So, occasionally – on vacation, for example – I’ll wake up on Sunday and think about going to church. But going to church sure seems a lot harder than it used to be.

For one thing, going to church means getting up and getting out of the house on a day off. I had thought about hiking one of western Michigan’s many scenic trails this morning with my brand-new hiking boots, which I’m really excited about, but instead I showered and got dressed.

Next, there was deciding what to wear.

Really, what do people wear to church these days? I haven’t gone to church in such a long time that I haven’t had to think about the question. In the end I opted for shorts, but almost immediately felt uncomfortable, even though most of the other men, as it turned out, were also wearing shorts.

My mom and dad used to say that I should dress for church the way I would dress to go to the White House and meet the President. In older adulthood, apparently, I have a hard time not following that direction.

Singing was also much harder than I expected. I love to sing, but I should point out that loving to sing is different from singing well. It would be more accurate to write that I love to sing when no one, except maybe God and my granddaughter, can hear me.

I knew the first hymn – “Be Thou My Vision” – and started singing it enthusiastically, as though for God’s and my granddaughter’s enjoyment, only to discover that no one around me was singing. Not a single person. For a couple of stanzas I tried to create some musical excitement around me, but finally gave up when a couple of people turned around to find out what the croaking toad behind them looked like.

And then there was the message.

Now, I know a little about the degree of difficulty involved in preaching, so I was willing to give a lot of bonus points for sincerity and effort and conviction. But not even a lot of sincerity and effort and conviction can make listening bearable for 25 minutes.

I thought about leaving during the last hymn, but noticed that a large group near me was already doing that. Maybe they were late for their brunch reservations. Instead, I decided – heroically – to stay all the way through the Benediction.

Will I be going to church next Sunday? I think so. I have a whole new level of respect for those who do it.

(Photo: That’s the inside of a church in Lucerne, Switzerland.)

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Hiking in Switzerland

hiking in switzerland - dirty boots

I went on my first Swiss hike Saturday morning.  And I liked it.

Hiking in Switzerland is something of an obsession. Young people do it. Older people do it. Seeing someone 20 years older than I am moving up a steep grade at a high altitude is, I must say, quite impressive. And they do it in all kinds of weather.

The Swiss football team finished third in the World Cup this year, and Swiss hockey players are beginning to be noticed in the NHL, but hiking enjoys a place in Swiss life that nothing else can match.

I thought it was time for me to give it a go.

I think I liked my first hike because hiking takes advantage of my strengths – endurance, persistence, and a willingness to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what. Hiking – like running, which is another activity I enjoyed for more than 30 years – requires no particular athletic gifts. If you can walk, you can hike.

My first hike was not particularly challenging. I took a train to Zurich very early on Saturday morning, and then a tram ride to the top of a nearby mountain. For the next two and a half hours I walked at what for me is quite a fast pace along a high ridge that lies along Lake Zurich. I took a couple of water breaks along the way but, as with all of the marathons I have run, I kept going while I drank. I occasionally saw benches, but didn’t see the point. I was there to walk, after all, not sit.

The path was well marked and even, I would say, well manicured. Clearly there are people who work hard to maintain the hiking trails around here. I have been told that that’s true throughout Switzerland.

By mid-morning I reached my village, and I was tired, a good and familiar feeling.

A couple of years ago I heard a lecture by a young woman who has hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail several times. She is what is known as a “through walker,” meaning that she covers the entire 2,179.1 miles (3,506.9 kilometers) in a single effort, while most tackle the trail in short distances.

Even though she has written a book about her experience, I was surprised by the lack of spiritual reflection. Her talk covered mostly the cost and logistics and inevitable blisters. I expected more.

As I walked, I thought a lot and noticed things. As with my racing, I monitored my heart rate and kept track of joint and muscle fatigue. But I had time to reflect on the day and the startlingly good gift I have been given to be able to do such a thing.

I prayed too. Mostly my prayer was a thanksgiving for just about everything in my life. But my prayer was also full of Gaza, Syria, Ukraine, and more. I listened for what God might say to me, and I think I may have heard a whisper.

I will have to go again and listen more carefully.

hiking in switzerland3

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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.

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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

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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.)

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