Archive | April, 2014

Doug’s Blog turns two today

The_Sun_Sets_on_Château_de_Chillon

Two years ago I started out on my church website, and five months later – after buying the totally awesome domain name dougsblog.org and teaming up with the Web Designers in Australia for my totally-cool, super-sleek, now somewhat-dated design – I moved to my own site.

Months of surprisingly steady growth later, I reached more than 6,000 “unique visitors” for the first time in April – nearly 6,500 to be exact, without posting at all the last week of the month.

That’s pretty good – better than I expected, to be honest – but then I had no idea when I started where this thing was going.

To put the 6,000 “unique visitors” in perspective, Andrew Sullivan writes one of the most popular blogs in the world today (he’s listed down there on the right side of the page under “favorite blogs”), he has a full-time staff of 4-5, he posts maybe 20 times per day (more if he’s live blogging something like a presidential debate in the U.S.), and he has more than 800,000 “unique visitors” per month. And that was after he put up a pay wall, meaning that you have to pay to have access to all of his content.

Anyone who knows me knows that I set impossibly high standards for myself – like Andrew Sullivan, for example. If I compared myself to “Glen’s real estate blog serving metro Dubuque, Iowa,” I’d look really good. But I’ve never been able to do that. So, look out, Andrew! I’m right on your heels.

Google Analytics continues to tell me more about my readers than I can possibly absorb. Here’s a list of the top 20 cities where my readers come from, but – just so you know – I know more about you than where you come from. I know what device you use to access the site, how long you stay on a page, and where you click to after you leave my site. Frankly, I would be more concerned about Google’s reach right now than the National Security Administration’s, but that’s just me.

  1. Fort Lauderdale, FL
  2. Ann Arbor, MI
  3. Wheaton, IL
  4. Zurich, CH
  5. Stafa, CH
  6. Basel, CH
  7. Chicago, IL
  8. New York City
  9. Plantation, FL
  10. Davie, FL
  11. Dubendorf, CH
  12. Grand Rapids, MI
  13. Pune, India
  14. Glen Ellyn, IL
  15. Sky Lake, FL
  16. Lagos, Nigeria
  17. Pompano Beach, FL
  18. Eau Clair, WI
  19. Coral Springs, FL
  20. Frauenfeld, CH

And just for fun, London ranks 24, Los Angeles 27, and Malaga (Spain) 45. Am not sure who my readers in Nigeria and India are, but I’d like to meet you.

My most-read posts for the last six months or so have been those with spiritual content, but blogging about the move to Switzerland has clearly bumped up the number of readers. And then, being listed on the Expat Bloggers website has also added a few readers I wouldn’t otherwise have reached. So, those are the topics I will continue to focus my attention on – musings about faith, but also comments about this interesting culture where I now live.

I have political opinions, like most people, and occasionally have the urge to express them here. Earlier this week, for example, I wasn’t happy when former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin spoke to the annual convention of the National Rifle Association and made a sort of equivalence between torture and the sacrament of baptism.  I vented for about 200 words before deleting what I had written.

I’ll continue to keep my political viewpoints to myself. I’ll leave Sarah Palin to Andrew Sullivan and stick to what I know. Besides, he’s better at outrage than I am.

Thanks for your support. Don’t forget to subscribe (posts are delivered to your inbox within seconds of being posted). And please keep leaving those comments – public and private. I read them all.

Here’s to the terrible twos!

happy-2nd-birthday

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The difference between traveling and living somewhere

eating-outside

When I told friends that I was moving to Switzerland, many of them said, “Oh, I’ve been there. I took a train one time from [somewhere] to [somewhere]. Yeah, beautiful country.”

And to be honest, I’ve used that “oh, I’ve been there” routine a time or two myself. I’ve been to lots of places. Istanbul? Of course. Lima? Yep. Cape Town? Loved it. Nagoya? Never left the airport, but a great place!

In fact, I’ve been all over the world and have worn out a few passports in the process. Lucky me.

But there’s a difference, I am coming to see, between passing through and living somewhere. Having a beer in a pub in Zurich on a pleasant spring evening and then heading for Italy the next morning, as one of my friends did recently, is not the same thing as seeing Switzerland. It’s not a bad thing to do, spending one night and then moving on, but it’s not the same thing as getting to know a place.

I realized this morning as I was walking the dog around the neighborhood that I now live here. These people are my neighbors. Their habits and ways of doing things are (slowly) becoming my own habits and ways of doing things. Their language is also (slowly) becoming my own language. I am registered, I pay taxes, I buy groceries, I whisper “grüezi” to people I meet on the street.

I live here. I am not passing through with only three more countries to see before heading home.

When I interviewed for the position I now have – pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zurich – I was asked more than once, “Do you have any international experience?” And of course, each time I was asked, I proudly said, “Yes, lots.”

Not a “pants on fire” kind of lie, but not completely true either.

“International experience” is not a well-worn passport. It’s an ability to adapt, adjust, learn, get along, speak a new language, and more than anything else live somewhere new.

In spiritual terms – you knew I would get here eventually – one could make this same distinction. When I ask people about their spiritual lives, I get a lot of “yeah, sure” answers, as if taking a train one time or having a beer in a pub makes one fully knowledgeable about the spiritual life.

To have faith is much like living someplace new. To do it – and to do it well – requires that one stay awhile, learn the language, get to know the people, be patient, live with the frustrations, and get registered.

To have faith is not to live out of a suitcase. It means to unpack and settle in. Buy groceries. Walk the dog. Learn to say “good morning.” And then say proudly, “I live here.”

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The church with the word “Protestant” in its name

church basement in Zurich

A few weeks ago I wrote a post titled, “The church with the word ‘International’ in its name.” And that church, of course, is the one I now serve as pastor – the International Protestant Church of Zurich.

At the close of that post, I mentioned that I would soon get around to writing about the other word in my church’s name – namely, “Protestant.”

Turns out, that other word is a bit more difficult to deconstruct. So, here’s the first in what will likely be a series of installments, as I get to know this fascinating culture better.

Soon after my arrival in the country, I registered at the Gemeindehaus in Meilen – or the village offices where I now live.  I registered myself, the dog, and a few weeks later the car. When I leave, I will have to return and let them know that I’m going and taking the dog and car with me (maybe not the car). The Swiss like to know where everyone is at all times – nationals as well as auslanders (foreigners) like me.

One of the questions I was asked that day at the Gemeindehaus was this: “Catholic or Protestant?” Of course I proudly said, “Protestant,” prepared then and there to die for my faith.

Somewhat disappointingly, I was not chained and thrown into prison for publically professing my faith; however, a few weeks later the tax bill arrived.

Around two percent of my income, I learned, would be going to support the Evangelical Reformed Church of the Canton of Zurich (Switzerland has 26 cantons or semi-autonomous states). If I had said “Catholic” that day at the Gemeindehaus, a similar amount would have gone to support the Catholic Church in the Canton of Zurich. And since the Canton of Zurich – thank Ulrich Zwingli for this – is overwhelmingly Protestant, the Reformed churches around here are impeccably maintained and the clergy are very well compensated (or so they tell me).

Now, before my new Swiss readers write to correct me on this point, I should point out that this tax is entirely voluntary. On that day at the Gemeindehaus I could have said, “Neither.” And if I had, I would have had to pay no taxes (to the church).

So, why do the Swiss support their churches so well when so few of them attend on a weekly basis? That’s a good question, and I haven’t been here long to know how best to answer.

But here’s a guess: Swiss religiosity is actually deeper and more substantial than the typical American Christian might imagine. In a national referendum a few years ago, the Swiss voted to keep the church tax. Given the choice, they opted to keep the state church at the center of village life.

As I say, I haven’t got this all figured out yet, and likely won’t have it figured out for some time to come, but it’s interesting – and it’s far more complicated than I imagined.

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Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday

This is the second post from a year ago that I am re-posting this week. Interestingly, thanks to the magic of search engines it’s already the most viewed post of the day, with more than 180 unique views – and it’s still morning in the states. “Holy Saturday” originally appeared March 30, 2013. The last line still gives me chills.

It’s Saturday, the day before.  And I just came in from the Easter egg hunt.

For some reason it happens every year on this day, the day before Easter.  Every church I’ve ever served has done it exactly this way.

Right now the park across the street from the church is teeming with happy children, watchful parents, and even a few smiling (“isn’t this wonderful!”) grandparents.  I talked with just about everyone, and everyone I talked to seemed to be having a good time, even a few of the older children who have aged out of the actual hunt and are being asked this year for the first time to hide the eggs, instead of hunting for them.

But there’s something odd about this day too – and something odd about having an Easter egg hunt on this day.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but hearing people say “Happy Easter!” on Saturday feels strange.

I keep thinking, “No, no, no, not yet.”

We Protestants don’t have a well-developed theology of Holy Saturday.  Our Catholic friends could probably tell us a thing or two about this day and what it means.  And yet, maybe there’s something we could say about today, the day before.

I’m sitting at my desk now about to put the finishing touches on my sermon for tomorrow.  I’m hoping it’s a good one too, because there are few things worse than having to preach a sermon three times that you know (after the first time around) is a turkey.

So, I’m feeling a sense of anticipation and a twinge of nervousness and a pinch of fear.  And that, I suspect, is what this day is really for – getting ready for what’s going to happen tomorrow, living with the nervous excitement, knowing (but not knowing) that Easter will be better than anything we can imagine right now.

In just a few hours the stone will be rolled away.

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The ‘Living Last Supper’

last supper again

I’m not exactly sure anymore whose idea it was or where the idea came from. I doubt that my church was the first to do it, but my church would have been among the first to try it. This was in the early 1990s.

And that’s astonishing when you think about it, since mainline churches in the U.S. aren’t known for bold liturgical moves – or bold moves of any kind.

The idea I’m referring to is the chancel drama widely known as the “Living Last Supper.”  While the script for the drama seems to vary a great deal from church to church, the visual part is fairly consistent. And that’s because the whole point of the thing is to end up with a visual tableau that closely resembles the Leonardo da Vinci painting which survives today (barely) in Milan, Italy.

I did a quick Google search just now and discovered not only that the “Living Last Supper” is widely performed in churches throughout the U.S., but that production values – lighting, costumes, set design, etc. – have dramatically increased.

Looking back, my church’s first attempt was amateurish in many ways and succeeded mostly because of its sincerity.

About six weeks or so before Maundy Thursday, I remember finding 12 men (13 if you count Jesus, though his was mostly a non-speaking role) who would play Jesus’ disciples.  I don’t recall that anyone turned me down.

We had no script, as I recall – only a sense of where the drama needed to end. So, each man essentially wrote his own part. Little is known for sure about the disciples, but legends abound. And with a little creative license, a script of sorts soon came together.

On Maundy Thursday evening each disciple appeared, stood alone in the spotlight, spoke movingly about who he was and why he followed Jesus, and then took his place behind the table. After the 12 had taken their place, the lights went out for a few seconds, and when they came up, voila! A near-perfect match for the painting.

That first night I distinctly remember a gasp from the congregation, an audible in-take of breath, as the image registered.

Since that first attempt, one other church I have served has presented the drama, but the result is always the same – yes, the audiences love it, but the actors themselves have a transforming experience. It’s one thing of course to commit a few lines to memory and, with no community theater experience, stand in front of a few hundred spectators and recite those lines.

But even more astonishing is to enter into the experience – to be Peter, or John, or Judas, to embody those roles so completely that they can imagine themselves being there, sharing the meal, and – this is the thing – betraying their teacher and friend.

After that first performance I went back to the “make-up room” and sat with the men for nearly an hour. No one wanted to move. I think they were in awe of what they had done.

And so was I.

(Photo: According to Wikipedia, da Vinci’s Last Supper “is a late 15th-century mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. It is one of the world’s most famous paintings, and one of the most studied, scrutinized, and satirized.” It’s also in better condition today than the photo suggests. The latest restoration was an extensive one.)

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The Promise of Easter – Again

Candle

I posted the following on April 3, 2013. It’s not “throwback Thursday” or anything, but this week I plan to re-post one or two posts from Holy Week last year. Unlike sermons I’ve preached previously, which I generally don’t like at all, I often like my older posts.

Since the start of the new year, my congregation has lost 29 people to death – either members of the church or close family members.

I can’t remember ever having gone through a stretch quite like this.

During this week following Easter, a week when I ordinarily catch my breath after a busy Lenten season, we will have four funerals or memorials services, every day Tuesday through Friday.  Two of them may involve overflow crowds.  One of the larger ones is for a physician who is said to have delivered more than 9,000 babies during his career in this community.  (One of his nurses in the ICU tearfully told me that he had delivered her.)

Yes, death is a part of life.  Yes, we are not people who grieve as those who have no hope (to paraphrase the Apostle Paul).  And yes, as I’ve written before, I actually feel more like a pastor at a funeral than I do with many other pastoral responsibilities.

But still.

On Easter morning I said in my sermon that Easter worship is not a time for reasons or explanations.  I’ve never preached an Easter sermon titled “Thirteen Incontrovertible Proofs for the Resurrection” – and don’t plan to any time soon.  I don’t think anyone really wants to hear on Easter morning why it’s reasonable to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

What I said was, “This is a day to believe if there ever was one, to open ourselves to the possibility that it’s true, that death is not the last word that will be spoken about us.”

I’m glad I believe that.  I’m glad I came to that conviction early in my ministry.  During my first year following ordination, I officiated at something like 60 funeral services.  A great deal of my job description at that first church right out of seminary was focused on pastoral care.  I called on homebound people and naturally was the first person to be asked to officiate at the funeral.

At the time, the pace of funerals seemed like a lot, especially for someone so new to ministry.  My mentor said, “You’d better figure out what you believe – and do it quickly.”  I did.  I believe in the promise of Easter.

And haven’t wavered in that belief

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What a country!

Rob's garage

I stopped at Rob’s Garage today – it’s a short walk from where I live – to ask about having my winter tires swapped out for my summer tires.

And yes, of course, in case you were wondering, it’s the law.

From what I’ve been told, it’s best not to be caught in the winter with summer tires. On the other hand, no one cares if you use your winter tires in the summer, though they may think you’re nutty, which must happen often with all of the expats who are driving around.

From the outside, Rob’s Garage looks like most garages you might see in the U.S. – well, in the nicer neighborhoods – but you can’t disguise the fact that this is a car repair business.

I had walked the dog by Rob’s Garage many times already, but I had never stopped. And so, with April coming to an end, I thought it was time to introduce myself to Rob (or someone inside) and acquaint him with my new vehicle – the “slightly older” Volvo station wagon, with the color of a deep thigh bruise, that I mentioned in an earlier post.

By the way, I hold my breath whenever I blog about Swiss culture, because I worry that I may offend someone. A couple of people didn’t like my “in the land of cheese, there is no cheddar” comment, for example.

But this story is too good not to tell, and it tells the story about this new culture about as well as any.

Inside I stood at the counter and asked about scheduling an appointment (in my worst German and Rob’s equally atrocious English), and to the left of Rob as we were chatting I spotted an enormous wine chiller. I mean, it was huge. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and – get this – it was filled with very expensive-looking bottles of wine.

For customers, I wondered?

And next to the wine chiller was an espresso machine which I’m pretty sure I could not afford – not in this life or the next.  I made my tire appointment for early in the morning next week and plan to have a cup of Rob’s famous espresso, but I’m thinking that my next appointment (with that car you just know there will be another) should be late in the day.

And I imagine Rob calling out, “Pfarrer (that’s “pastor” around here), help yourself to a bottle! The Pinot Noir is nice! The cork screw is next to the espresso machine!”

And I’ll be thinking, “What a country!”

(Photo: I don’t see the wine chiller next to the counter. Maybe it’s a recent addition. Whenever it was added, it won over my business on the first visit.)

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The problem with Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday palms

The problem with Palm Sunday is that it’s hard to face up to the truth about the day.

You should know that your pastor is struggling mightily right about now, getting ready for tomorrow, because the truth about Palm Sunday turns out to be very different from our expectations. Your pastor is wondering how honest to be.

Here’s the thing: most people love Palm Sunday. And who can blame them? It’s fun to see our children waving palm branches and singing. And it’s fun for adults to sing, “All Glory Laud and Honor.” I saw a YouTube video this week of an American gospel choir singing “Ride On King Jesus,” and I found myself wanting to go to that church tomorrow to sing and dance and shout along with them. (Unfortunately, that church is a few thousand miles from here.)

As I child I loved going to church on Palm Sunday. Not only was it a welcome break from the tedium of Lent, but people seemed genuinely happy, even joyful, which you didn’t see very often in the church where I grew up. I thought then that Palm Sunday worship was a dress rehearsal for Easter, the mother of all happy church celebrations.

So, what’s a pastor to do? Preach about the dark truths of the day? Only the brave (or the ones nearing retirement) would do that. Mention that Jesus had come to Jerusalem for one purpose only – to die? That would bring everybody down. Remind listeners that Jesus may have been the only person that day who wasn’t enjoying himself? I’ve done that, and there was no applause.

If, as Luke tells us, Jesus wept over Jerusalem in the minutes before mounting that donkey, then his eyes would have been puffy and red. If he smiled, it was a forced smile, the smile of someone who doesn’t want to take the fun out of the day for other people.

But surely the people closest to Jesus could see his growing sadness, apprehension, and determination to see the mission through. They at least knew the truth.

Palm Sunday is a mixed bag of emotions – kind of like life as we live it. I find that even my best days, even my happiest moments, have at least a small twinge of regret or sadness or pain. You don’t get to be my age and not accumulate a few scars.

Speaking of scars, when Jesus emerged from the tomb on Easter morning, having triumphed over death, having destroyed sin once and for all, his hands and feet and side still bore the signs of his crucifixion. I suspect that he wore those scars proudly – and did nothing to hide them.

I think that’s honesty.

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Men and breakfast

men and breakfast 2

What is it about men and breakfast?

Sounds like the start to a Seinfeld routine, I know, but – seriously – what is it with men getting together with other men over breakfast?

Sure, men eat lunch and dinner together too, and they might even meet for a beer in between, but over the years the church seems to have found lots of success by scheduling meetings for men very early in the morning.

There must be some prehistoric root to all of this. Maybe there are primitive cave paintings showing men at an early morning campfire drinking coffee and eating dinosaur eggs with sausage and home fries.

Early in my ministry, for no less than 13 years, I attended a men’s breakfast every Friday morning at 6:00. The men were so proud of themselves for getting up at that hour that they called their group the Too Early and Short Stack Society (with ‘short stack’ referrring to the pancakes on the menu).

The idea behind starting so early was that the men could have breakfast and still get to work on time. Never mind that most of the men in this particular group had been retired for years. Even a breakaway group that decided to meet at 7:00 (in the same restaurant) could not budge the diehards who insisted on keeping the 6.00 start time. After so many years the start time had become a matter of pride.

I’ve been getting up early to attend men’s breakfasts for so many years that I think of it as unremarkaable – until this morning. Today I saw what we were doing with new appreciation and insight.

I got up early, walked the mile or so to the train station, got off the train at the main station in Zurich, and then hurried over to The Hotel Montana (which, I swear, sounds like the title of a bad novel). I arrived with several minutes to spare, but – and this has been consistently true over the years – most of the other men were already there. (Late arrivals at a men’s breakfast are usually subjected to the kind of hazing that women would find hard to understand, which of course is the point.)

So, this morning I sat down and looked at the men around me.

It’s a younger group than I’m used to. Most are young fathers. Most would not attend a Bible study in my office, but would gladly show up for a manly breakfast and a brief, inspirational talk about faith, sprinkled liberally with hearty male-type laughter. Most of the men are even willing – touchingly so – to engage in brief one-on-one conversations about a point made by the speaker.

Today, at the prompting of the speaker, I spoke with the man next to me (whom I hardly know) about how difficult it is to ‘bounce back’ in faith from one of life’s many setbacks. I was startled by how honest both of us were.

And then I realized that men need and want this, as long as we can call it ‘getting some breakfast with the guys at church.’

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10 Habits of Spiritually Healthy People – Ctd

spiritual health3

Turns out that my last post with a similar title wasn’t received very well.

I tried to sound cranky about the state of journalism today – it’s the pits – and I found out that many of my readers really were hoping to read something along the lines of habits for spiritual health. Imagine turning to your pastor for something like that.

So, pleased by the request, I put some effort into it. And here’s what I concluded: I’m going to give this a try, partly because I don’t very often back down from a challenge (a lifelong spiritual issue I’ve been working on), and partly because I’m interested to see where this goes.

However, you should know up front that what I write won’t be anything close to a definitive list. I’ve got some ideas – in fact, some ideas that I feel strongly about – but I also have the sense that a list like this can’t be done alone. I can tell you what Proverbs 15:3 means with a high degree of certainty; I can only offer preliminary observations about something like the habits of a healthy spiritual life.

The spiritually healthy people I have known over the years:

  • take time each day to be quiet, as in doing nothing but being alert to the presence of God. This is kind of like “being present in the moment,” but I’ve come to see that it’s far more than that. It includes what Barbara Brown Taylor has famously called “the art of paying attention.” I’m up early just about every morning. I haven’t always liked that and am still a bit jealous of those who can sleep late whenever they want to, but I’ve actually become protective of those early morning hours when I’m awake. The early darkness – think of the beginning of the Easter story – is where I begin most days.
  • are grateful. They seem to have cultivated a thankful spirit. No matter what happens, no matter what life dishes out, they always find a way to be grateful for something. Not necessarily for anything big.  Often it’s something small, even tiny. The point is, you can always hear them say, “Oh, look at that. Isn’t that wonderful?” One of my favorite writers about the spiritual life, Anne Lamott, includes gratitude among her three essential prayers: Help, Thanks, Wow.
  • are generous. Yes, they are generous givers. They tend to put more in the offering plate than other people because of course that’s what generous people do. But I’m really thinking of a larger kind of generosity here – a generous spirit. I have known people who never, under any circumstances, returned evil for evil. If someone spoke an unkind word to them, they never seemed to respond with anything other than grace and patience. They were not weak, and they were not pacifists, but they were generous with their warmth and hospitality. (I pray daily for this same spirit.)
  • are honest –painfully, ruthlessly, almost shockingly honest. I realize that this echoes step 5 in the 12-step program:  “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Apparently, being honest is also the way someone gets sober. I don’t have space to write about appropriate and inappropriate self-disclosure, so maybe it’s enough to say that we know authentic people when we meet them. I like to surround myself with them.
  • are strong. As I get older, my ideas about strength are slowly changing. Being able to run 26.2 miles was once my ideal of physical strength. And I am still in awe of it. But being strong can also mean inner strength and character. It can refer to the ego. It can refer to the inner serenity that results from doing the right thing and saying the right thing, not because it’s popular to do so, but because it’s the right thing to do (and say). Ask me to name some of the most important spiritual mentors in my life, and I’ll name a half dozen or so very strong people.

I think that’s enough for now. I invite you to add more.

Notice that I haven’t bothered to define spiritual health. At some point maybe I’ll circle back to that. For now I want you to know what I think about when I think about the habits of the spiritually healthy people I know and have known along the way.

Please, don’t anyone suggest that peppering our conversations with references to Jesus or to Bible verses we committed to memory is a sign of spiritual health. It’s not. Often it’s the sign of just the opposite.

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