Archive | February, 2014

What we preach

The_Last_Judgment_Michelangelo

My recent post about idioms in preaching did what it was supposed to do – it started a conversation. My friend Scott Hoezee responded – humorously at first, and then thoughtfully – and so I asked him if he had other thoughts about preaching that he might like to blog about.

And being a preacher and a teacher of preachers, Scott said yes.

I’m happy to introduce Scott to you. He is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also the author of several books, most recently Proclaim the Wonder: Preaching Science on Sunday (2003).

Recently in an interview with a student who would soon apply to become a pastor, I asked if there were any parts of Reformed theology (since he was becoming a pastor in a Reformed denomination) that gave him pause. Somewhat predictably the matter of election (and its dim opposite of reprobation) was mentioned. This is, of course, a knotted area of theology and not just for Calvinist types. Most people are fine with the idea that we want to keep salvation as 100 percent God’s doing and 100 percent God’s initiative by grace alone, but just how people get on board with that program is where things get interesting.

But I mention this in a blog post on preaching because of one side comment the student made. At one point, even as he indicated his broad agreement with this area of theology, he also said, “I can’t see that I’d ever preach reprobation but . . .”

At the time I did not follow up on that little remark but what I wanted to say was “Well of course you would never ‘preach reprobation’ because that would be the very opposite of what preaching is supposed to be!” If you scour the New Testament, you will discover that basically all of the verbs and nouns used to refer to the act of preaching tie in snugly with the notion of proclaiming, heralding, shouting Good News. To preach is to present hope, joy, grace.

Yet I am not naïve: there are long traditions of the so-called “hellfire and brimstone” preachers who in a sense really did “preach” not just reprobation but all kinds of other scary, frightening scenarios. Many sermons in history were loaded with bad news, with threats and warnings and dire predictions. These themes dominated. Fear, therefore, was often the primary “take away” of such sermons.

But is that authentic preaching?

Well, let’s admit that you cannot have Good News without that message standing in contrast to something else, something less-than-good. Even to admit that you need the cross of Jesus as your only way to salvation is to grant in the same breath that your need is so great because your sin is so great. Preaching, therefore, cannot dispense with the prophetic voice, with the call to turn around and repent.

Still . . . at the end of the day what we preachers should be able to affirm loud and clear is that what we preach is Good News, not bad news. We preach salvation, not damnation. We preach the grace of a sovereign and loving God, not the dark sorrow of anyone’s being flung into perdition. Whether it is a sermon aimed primarily at those who have never yet believed the Gospel or a sermon in a more established church where most people have been serving God for many years already, in the end the sermon should be a heralding of a message that will fill people with hope and joy.

Preaching in the New Testament tradition should be a joyful heralding of profoundly Good News. People should be drawn to that Gospel—whether for the first time or for the thousandth time—not because the minister did such a good job preaching hell fire but because the preacher did such a good job at depicting the beauty of holiness, the listeners could not help but yearn to be inside such beauty themselves.

(Art credit: that’s a photograph of Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment.)

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A pastor keeps the Sabbath

sabbath rest

Monday is my day off, my Sabbath. I’ve tried other days, but I keep coming back to Monday. Over the years taking Monday off has been both good and bad.

It’s been good because I’ve had running paths mostly to myself. (On Saturdays running paths can often seem like a Los Angeles expressway.) I remember taking some spectacularly beautiful long runs in Michigan and Illinois parks, always on Monday mornings.

No one else was around. I ran in the cold, snow, and rain. It didn’t matter. I ran into the wind and with the wind at my back. I watched the change of seasons. I felt God’s presence, even when I didn’t some Sundays in church.

But Monday as a day off has also been bad for the same reason. I have had few playmates over the years, no one to talk to about the colors of changing leaves, no one to complain to about irritating church members. And because it can be a lonely day, I tend to replay all of the events (and conversations) of Sunday over and over again.

Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor and writer, an influential person in my ministry, has written thoughtfully and well about the pastoral life. As he describes it, he and his wife would pack a picnic basket every Monday morning and head to the country for some hiking. When I read accounts like that, his and others, idyllic images come to mind. Those images are so good, so idyllic, that I figure I must not be doing it right – keeping the Sabbath, I mean.

Rather than stories of encouragement, those stories can sometimes be demotivating and depressing. I’ve never packed a picnic lunch on Monday and headed to the country.

Maybe I should have.

The Sabbath for me is a mixed blessing, such an opportunity for rest and recreation, yes, but also such an opportunity to see one’s life for what it is. There’s an old adage for pastors: “Never resign on a Monday.”

I think that when God commanded human beings to rest for one day out of every seven, he must have known that some of us would think too much, that we would use the day to brood, that without physical labor to do we would let our minds work overtime.

After more than 30 years as a pastor, you might think that I would have solved the Sabbath issue, that I would have figured out for myself what works and what doesn’t, that I would be so good at it, as a matter of fact, that I could mentor new pastors in it. The truth is – and please don’t think ill of me for admitting this – I struggle with it as much today as I did the day I started.

I think my best Sabbath days were the days I spent with my girls when they were much younger. I don’t remember that we ever did anything special, unless you count spending time together as special, which I do. We hung out together. We drove around, they in their car seats in the back and me in the front seat doing the driving. We talked, I told dad jokes, and we had fun. I think that if you asked them they would generally agree that those days were good – except maybe for my tired old jokes.

I have a picture of my older daughter and me sitting together in a chair at the end of a long Sabbath day. We’re both asleep, in identical poses, chins resting in our hands. What makes that such a wonderful memory – and maybe a lesson for future Sabbaths – is how I remember being lost, as the old hymn puts it, in wonder, love, and praise.

The way to enjoy the Sabbath, to get out of it what God intended for us to get out of it, is to let everything go, except for what is most precious, like the people closest to me.

When I learn to do that, I think I will finally have Sabbath rest.

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My swiss bank account ctd

swiss bank account

Turns out that opening a Swiss bank account wasn’t quite as easy as I made it sound in a previous post.

True, I’ve watched too many movies starring people like Matt Damon who were pampered and fawned over upon entering a Swiss bank. Also true, as I reported, no one asked me when I arrived if I perhaps might like an espresso.

A couple of Friday afternoons ago, I went to the post office, took a number, and waited in line, just like everyone else. When my number was called, I handed over a great deal of information about myself – a copy of my passport and visa, a copy of my employment contract, a copy of my rental agreement, among other things.  I was prepared to hand over dental records and a DNA swab, if the request had been made.

But, after waiting a week for my account information to arrive by “post” (pardon me if I sound affected, but I now live in a “flat” and take a “lift” to get there, so naturally my mail arrives by “post”), I received an email from a very nice person at my new bank – the Swiss post office – informing me that, in addition to everything else, I would also have to furnish a copy of my residency permit.

Only then would I have the privilege of entrusting all of my money to them. In the U.S. I could bring in a dollar to open a savings account, and the bank manager would personally give me a toaster to thank me. (Well, that was true in 1963, when I opened my first account at Old Kent Bank in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Maybe things don’t work that way today.)

To be fair – and you’ll find out in a few paragraphs why I really do need to be fair about this – everyone I have dealt with has been unfailingly polite. They even speak (and write) impeccable English, compared to my shamefully peccable German.

Beyond that I learned a great deal since writing my last post about how the Swiss banking business has changed in the last year. Given how few banks want to take money from U.S. citizens right now, it’s remarkable that I found even one that was interested in holding my money.

Under pressure from the U.S. government, centuries of (profitable) Swiss banking practice changed, almost overnight, and so it’s no wonder that I wasn’t offered any espresso at the Swiss post office. They have been polite to me, yes, but they have decidedly mixed feelings about my government.

At this point I’m going to remind my readers that I’m a pastor – with excellent training in Hebrew and Greek, but little in the way of banking practice. And so, what has happened is still largely a mystery to me. What I know for sure is that I moved to Switzerland at an awkward time for U.S. citizens, even those with small amounts of money to deposit.

But here’s the thing: The compliance manager at my bank, who emailed yesterday with further instructions about opening my account, thanked me for my recent blog post.

And now I realize how wise it was for me to be fair when blogging about this subject. I hope to get my bank cards in a couple of days.

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Learning to speak all over again

eye on idioms

Everyone at my new church speaks English.

Many members, including young children, speak a bunch of languages other than English, but everyone speaks English – in most cases, they speak it very well. In fact, our website proudly states that we serve “the English-speaking community in Zurich and surrounding areas.” And we do.

So, even though we come from all over the world, we can understand each other. We can talk together about our faith and church life and families and the other things that are important to us, all because we have this common language, right?

Well, yes and no.

Turns out that a “common language” does not always mean that we understand each other.

I preached my fourth sermon yesterday at the International Protestant Church of Zurich, and on Saturday as I was putting the finishing touches on it – ordinarily one of the high points of the week for me – I suddenly began to perspire when I realized that my English, already corrupted by my American Midwestern accent, is heavily idiomatic and therefore, more than likely, hard for my new congregation to understand.

“No one,” I thought to myself, “is going to understand what in the world I’m talking about.”

For purposes of this blog, let’s say that an idiom is a phrase where the words together have a meaning that’s different from the dictionary definitions of the individual words.  The English language, as it turns out, is chock full of them. One website I found claims that English has nearly 4,000 relatively common idioms, and anyone who wants to master English should be familiar with all or most of them.

If I say, for example, that “on Saturday I was putting the finishing touches on my sermon,” I know perfectly well what that means. It means, of course, that I was tweaking it, polishing it to a high gloss.

But those words by their most common dictionary definitions may be confusing. Was I really using fine sand paper on it, in preparation for the primer coat? What exactly was I doing?

In a bit of a panic, I reviewed what I had and found that I had liberally sprinkled the sermon with nice, little idioms that I happen to like and that make my writing colorful and engaging (or so I’ve been told). I planned to say, for example, that “God is crazy about the world he has made.” (I even thought about saying “he’s crazy in love with the world,” but thought better of it.)

I know what that means, and I kind of like what it sounds like and suggests. But what does that phrase sound like to a person whose first language is not English, who would be coming to church for a few words of reassurance and hope?

I’ve had challenges in my preaching over the years, but this is a new one. I’m learning to speak all over again. I’m not ready to “sing the blues” or “put the brakes on.” I want to “swing into action.” I want to “take the bull by the horns” and “jump in feet first.” I’m not “seeking the limelight.” “That’s a given.”  But I’ve got to remember that “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” And then maybe I’ll “hit the jackpot.” Are you “on board” with that?

Don’t worry, I’ve got 4,000 more.

photo (8)

(Here’s some bonus material. That’s me buying a ticket at the train station in Meilen, the village where I live. It’s hard enough to do this in a language you understand. )

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Blog news – you’ll never guess who’s reading my blog

blog-news

Every few months I like to give you an idea of what’s happening with my blog.

Doug’s Blog launched nearly two years ago on my previous church’s website, and then in October 2012 I purchased my own domain name and moved to dougsblog.org. Readership has grown steadily each month. I now average close to 200 “unique views” each day, with more views – obviously – on those days when I actually post something. I post on average 2-3 times per week, and my subscribers find out immediately when a new post appears with an email alert in their mailboxes.

According to Google Analytics, which continues to tell me an astonishing amount about my readers and more than I can possibly use, a small shift among my readers occurred with my move to Switzerland, with Zurich displacing Wheaton as the number three city. The majority of my readers still come from Florida, but the Swiss are closing in.

Here are the top 20 cities where my readers come from…

1)      Fort Lauderdale (FL)

2)      Ann Arbor (MI)

3)      Zurich (CH)

4)      Wheaton (IL)

5)      Hialeah (FL)

6)      Grand Rapids (MI)

7)      Chicago (IL)

8)      Plantation (FL)

9)      Holland (MI)

10)   Pompano Beach (FL)

11)   Glen Ellyn (IL)

12)   Mannedorf (CH)

13)   Davie (FL)

14)   New York (NY)

15)   Seattle (WA)

16)   Coral Springs (FL)

17)   Dubendorf (CH)

18)   Winterthur (CH)

19)   Interlaken (CH)

20)   Boynton Beach (FL)

In case anyone is interested, the top five web browsers my readers use are…

1)      Safari

2)      Internet Explorer

3)      Chrome

4)      Safari (in app)

5)      Firefox

And in the unlikely event that anyone has made it this far, the top three devices that my readers use to access the blog are (in order)…

1)      Desktop (55 percent of my readers prefer to read my blog on their desktops, while the rest split almost evenly between mobile and tablet)

2)      Mobile

3)      Tablet

A link to my blog was recently added to Expats Blog, and an interview with me (about my first impressions as an expat) will appear in the next few weeks with photos of me buying train tickets and cleaning up after my dog. Right now there are 14 expats in Zurich who blog about their experience, and I’m the newbie in the group – and the only pastor.

That’s all for now.

If you’d like to subscribe, just add your email to the space provided on the right side of the home page. I don’t sell the email list – or do much of anything with it, except marvel at the screen names you’ve given yourselves.

If you’d like to contact me – and not have your comments appear for all to see – just use the contact submission form, cleverly titled “Contact Doug.” I respond to all contacts.

See you in church. I’d love to see you some Sunday at the International Protestant Church of Zurich.

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The problem with one really good sermon

A good sermon

The problem with one really good sermon – I hesitate to write “great” in connection with a sermon – is that there is always next Sunday.

Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect most preachers will agree with me about this: As good as it feels to preach an excellent sermon, to receive lots of compliments about something you’ve said, to have a full inbox of congratulatory email by the time you get home on Sunday afternoon, you realize at some point that you’ve got to do the same thing all over again the next week.

A mentor early on in my ministry used to talk about the “disturbing regularity of Sunday morning,” and I very quickly I came to understand what he meant. Preaching a good sermon – perhaps even an excellent sermon – felt good on Sunday afternoon. And maybe it felt good for a little while on Monday. But by Monday night, the following Sunday would be staring me directly in the face. I knew I’d be expected to do the same thing all over again the next Sunday.

There is no escaping it, the pressure to do it every time. Even a hall-of-fame baseball player only gets a hit every three times at bat. How can a preacher be expected to be better than that?

I’d like to think that I’ve preached a few really good sermons over the years. Sometimes the ones I feel good about receive a kind of ho-hum response, while others, which seemed ho-hum to me when I put the finishing touches on them, turned out to be huge crowd-pleasers.

Either way, I’m guessing that I’ve hit a home run at least a few times over the years.

How do I know? I’m not sure. It’s a combination of things, I guess. Standing ovation? Haven’t had many of them. I received one for the last sermon I preached at my last church, but had mixed feelings about it. No, to tell the truth I had mainly negative feelings about it. I was embarrassed. That was hardly the response I was looking for.

I grew up in a large and growing suburban church. At one point in my childhood that church was the largest in the denomination. We always had overflow crowds. Every fourth Sunday or so my family would have to sit in the church basement and watch via closed-circuit TV because there were no seats left upstairs.

Was the preacher of my childhood a great preacher? I think he was. Can I remember any of the sermons he preached? I remember a few, mainly the ones I disagreed with. So, what made him a great preacher? Lots of reasons. He was a good speaker, of course, and he always seemed to have something to say. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t engaged.

But there was something more, a bit harder to describe.

A few weeks ago, after my dad passed away, my family asked him if he would officiate at my dad’s funeral service. He’s not much younger than my dad was; he must be at least 80, but he said yes. I sat in the front row with my mom and my sisters, and I realized then what made him such a fine preacher. He preached the gospel.

He didn’t shout or wave his arms. In fact, I don’t remember that he raised his voice or gestured at all. He simply spoke in a reasonable and compelling way about what we believe. There weren’t all that many people in the funeral home for the service – a consequence of outliving most of your friends – but the pastor from my childhood preached in the same reassuring tones I remember from childhood. He said what I most needed to hear.

Next Sunday morning is coming, and I tell myself that I don’t need a great sermon. I need more than anything to say what’s true, what my congregation most needs to hear.

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My Swiss bank account

swiss bank account

I fulfilled a lifelong dream yesterday by opening a Swiss bank account.

I took my place alongside Mitt Romney and countless others over the years who have longed for that special feeling. I took a part of my personal fortune, earned from years of shoveling snow, mowing lawns, and delivering newspapers, and put it in the safest, most reliable place I could think of, a country that has been known for its banking since the Middle Ages.

I now have a numbered account, but only in the sense that my account has a number, not in the sense that my account is secret, known only by its number, because it’s not.

In fact, I opened my account at one of the dwindling number of Swiss banks now interested in taking money from U.S. citizens. After years – centuries, in fact – of banking secrecy, the Swiss government recently agreed to change the way it does business. The U.S. authorities who pay attention to this sort of thing can now find out pretty quickly how big my fortune really is, should they be interested, which seems unlikely.

But my experience yesterday was a letdown for another reason. I have clearly seen too many movies starring people like Matt Damon who are fawned over and pampered as soon as they walk in the door. When I arrived yesterday no one asked me if I perhaps might like an espresso.

No, my experience, I have to say, was like going to the post office because, well, I did go to the post office. That’s where I opened my account.

Swiss Post is a lot like the U.S. Postal Service in that I’m pretty sure mail is delivered, but Swiss Post does a great deal more, such as offering bank accounts to Americans who need to stash their personal fortunes somewhere.

As I waited my turn in line, I noticed that the Swiss post office also sells lottery tickets, cell phones, other electronics, and candy. Beyond that Swiss Post owns a transportation system and has recently developed an electronic identity system. It is the second largest employer in the country.

So, the saga continues. This is quite a learning experience.

(For a well-researched, as well as humorously-told, article about Swiss banking, click here.)

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Pat Robertson and me

pat robertson

I never thought I would be saying thank you to Pat Robertson, the American Christian broadcaster, for one of his public pronouncements, but today I’m – well, it surprises me to say so – in basic agreement with what he said.

Of course Robertson and I agree on a great deal when it comes to Christian faith – that Jesus Christ is our lord and savior, for example – but occasionally, over the last several years, there have been some cringe-worthy moments when I wanted to distance myself as far as possible from him, a painful thing to do with a brother in Christ. (His comment that Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people in and around New Orleans, was God’s judgment on American abortion policy was particularly difficult for me.)

But today I’m grateful for his courage.

On Tuesday night, in case you missed it, Bill Nye (known in the U.S. as ‘the science guy’) debated Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Ham (an Australian) is what is known as ‘a young-earth creationist.’ He takes a very literal view of the opening chapters of Genesis.

Let’s acknowledge up front that the debate was short on science and long on entertainment. Beyond that, the audience was decidedly on Ham’s side – not surprising given the venue – and seemed to be looking for applause lines whenever Ham spoke. The winner, if there was one, was more than likely the person you agreed with at the outset.

So, maybe the only question to answer in the end was not who won, but was the cause of Christ and his kingdom advanced in any way?

And here is where I find myself agreeing with brother Robertson who was quoted as saying, ‘Let’s be real, let’s not make a joke of ourselves.’ I’m afraid that what happened Tuesday night was a spectacle which portrayed the Christian faith in the worst light possible.

If I had guessed as to Robertson’s views, I would have thought he was closer to Ham than he turned out to be. But that’s just the thing: within mainstream Christianity today, there are many different ways of describing the origins of the universe. Some agree with Ham, but many do not. Some would describe themselves as ‘theistic evolutionists.’ Others subscribe to something called ‘intelligent design.’ And still others (such as the geneticist Francis Collins) would say that they are in basic agreement with the results of science and that faith exists to answer different kinds of questions – why, as opposed to how, the universe came into being. You would not have known from Ham’s comments on Tuesday that there was any discussion at all within Christian circles about this issue.

After the church’s experience with Galileo (it took only four centuries for the Catholic Church to acknowledge Galileo’s enormous scientific contributions), you would think that Christians would be a bit more modest in their engagement with the scientific world.

‘Let’s be real, let’s not make a joke of ourselves.’ And to to that I would add, ‘Let’s be more mindful about the ways we engage the culture around us.’

(Note: For the life of me I can’t find any exclamation point on this new European keyboard. That may be the kernel for a new blog post – and what it says about my host culture – but for now I feel just a bit limited in the way I express myself. There are other formatting peculiarities too. Please be patient. As with the train system here, it’s taking me a while to learn my way around.)

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The church with the word “international” in its name

swiss church

For the first time in my life I’m serving a church with the word “international” in its name.  “First” has shown up a lot in church names where I’ve been pastor, and that fits with my competitive nature. (I would never want to serve a “Second” or – God forbid – a “Third.”) But I’ve never served a church that claimed to be “international.”

I wonder why it’s taken so long.

I’ve served churches along the way that aspired to what the word suggests. Those churches wanted to be something other than what they were, but somehow couldn’t quite get there. Those churches, as many of my readers know, were mainly white – northern Europeans, English speakers, all very homogeneous, all very safe and reassuring, if you happen to be white, northern European, and English speaking.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  But those churches – often in settings like leadership retreats – would express regret that they were not more multi-cultural. They would hear Martin Luther King’s words about Sunday morning at 11:00 being the most segregated hour of the week in America, and they would nod as though guilty as charged.

I was at one leadership gathering where the desire to be less white was expressed, and the facilitator – surprisingly – pushed back. We expected that she would agree, I suppose, and join in our collective guilt, but instead she said, “Is that really what you want? Because if that’s really what you want, then you’ll have to change just about everything you do and the way you do it.”

We quickly erased “multi-cultural” from our list of goals. We didn’t come to a leadership retreat to make changes in our church, after all.

The church I serve now uses the word “international” in its name – and seems proud of it. Started by American expatriates a few decades ago, those American founders are now a minority, and today the membership seems to come from every continent on the face of the earth. (Well, not Antarctica, but you get the idea.)

A couple of weeks ago I watched as members came forward for communion, and I was astonished about the diversity to the point of tears. This is the “kingdom of heaven,” I thought. And in a way it is. This church gets as close to what the Nicene Creed expresses – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – as any church I’ve ever served.

But, not to get all misty-eyed about it, that diversity carries with it some disturbing challenges. When you come from so many different points on the globe, you inevitably bring some strong opinions about what the church should be and how it should be run and what worship should look like and how the Bible should be interpreted and so on.

Really, the kingdom of heaven can be very messy.

So, I’m curious to see what the next few years will bring. I love that word “international” right now. It seems charged with everything that the church should aspire to. And I love that Nicene Creed thing about it too.  But will I feel the same way a year from now? Two years from now? We’ll see.

And as for that other word in my church’s name – “Protestant” – I’ll need another blog post (or two) to sort that one out.

In the meantime, as we say in this part of the world … ciao.

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