Archive | May, 2014

The Elusive Meaning of Ascension Day

ascension day in Switzerland

Today is a national holiday in Switzerland.

An alert reader – and I seem to have many of them – would point out that there are actually no national holidays in Switzerland since each of the fiercely-independent 26 cantons must decide on its own holidays, but in fact all 26 agree to observe this day.

Which must mean that today is a very important day.

The church bells began ringing all over Zurich at 4:00 yesterday afternoon, and the stores closed soon after in preparation for the holiday. I dutifully went to German class last night, but most of my classmates had started the holiday early. (I had lots of individual attention, which I have always needed in school.)

As I walked the dog this morning, I realized that the neighborhood was unusually quiet. I might have written “not a creature was stirring,” but that line is already taken and associated with another holiday.

For those readers who need some help, today is Ascension Day, exactly 40 days after the Resurrection of Christ. (Easter Monday is also a national holiday in Switzerland, this very religious land in which I now live.)

Frankly, and you may be surprised to learn this from me, Ascension Day is hardly the biggest day on the Christian calendar. I’ve never tried to rank Christian holy days, but I’m pretty sure Ascension Day doesn’t rank very high for very many people.

Personally I wouldn’t put it in the Top 5.

As a child I remember going to church one time with my dad for an evening service on Ascension Day, and even then I remember thinking it was a strange thing to do. I don’t remember anymore what the sermon was about, which a lot of children will also undoubtedly say about the times they went to church when I was preaching.

Having a holiday associated with a relatively insignificant event in Jesus’ life – only Luke and Acts mention it – prompted me to do some reading this morning, and among other things I discovered a lengthy article in the journal on Reformed theology to which I’ve contributed for more than 20 years. I even plan to preach about the ascension on Sunday.

Even at that I’m at a loss to explain today.

Deep in the Swiss DNA there seems to be a religious longing that finds its expression not in church attendance, but in certain cultural reminders – like church bells and holidays. Given the chance to let go of those reminders, they (almost) always vote to retain them.

After only four months in the country I don’t claim to understand any of this, but will keep trying. And of course I’ll keep you posted.

(Photo: Religious observances tend to be more visible – and colorful – in the small villages. I saw some unusual costumes in Zurich yesterday but was told they had more to do with the end of exams than with a religious holiday.)

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A prayer at the Table on Memorial Day weekend

Lord's Supper

In my new, international context, the Lord’s Supper has taken on a new depth and significance. The people who come forward once each month look to me like the kingdom of God, or how I imagine the kingdom will look. There is no Memorial Day weekend here in Switzerland, of course, but as I prepare for worship this morning I am aware of the holiday, am thinking about it, am trying to make sense of it.

Here’s my payer for later this morning…

God of all nations and peoples, tribes and tongues, God who calls us all to be one around this Table, we prepare to receive the bread and cup today knowing – or at least having been told – that you love us and that your great love for us is made visible in this meal.

We come here today from good weeks and bad weeks, and often from weeks that were a mix of both. But we come, hoping for a glimpse of you, hoping to hear a word from you, hoping to see meaning and purpose in lives that too often feel random and messy.

We come just as we are.

Here in your presence we think of ourselves, of course, because our own needs are always before us, but we also think of those close to us – family members and friends who have particular and urgent needs today – and we lift them to you in prayer, trusting that you will heal and comfort them.

We think of this congregation, its work and witness in this city, and we pray for its people, its leadership, and its direction. Teach us to mobilize the many gifts and resources you have given us to do your work in this place.

And of course, because the images in the news are inescapable, we think of the world around us. We pray for places where there is war, where governments teeter, where leaders fail, where your church struggles to remain faithful.

On this Memorial Day weekend, some of us are remembering those who have fallen in war, who have given their lives for a cause higher than themselves, who teach us with their sacrifice how precious our freedom is.

As we come to the Table today, we pray that we may learn to live our own lives as you lived yours among us – with love and forgiveness and sacrifice.

And now, hear us as we say together, either in English or in the language we first learned this prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name….”

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One more thing about that Luther pilgrimage

Luther's death mask

Have I mentioned that I’m not a big fan of Martin Luther?

I returned a few days ago from a series of meetings in Berlin with other pastors serving international churches.  The trip included some sight-seeing in Wittenberg, Herrnhut, and Dresden – in other words, Luther (and Count von Zinzendorf) country.

What seemed obvious was that the German government is gearing up for a big celebration in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the year Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door.  Buildings are undergoing renovations, tour guides are sharpening their monologues, and even the gift shops are expanding their inventories.

Luther beer, anyone?

I knew a few facts about Luther’s life and teachings before the trip – the fierce anti-Semitism of his last years, for example. But a few facts were new to me. His attacks on the Catholic church were not quite as brave as I had been led to believe. Jan Hus was burned at the stake a century earlier for what the Catholic church called his “heresies,” but the biggest threat to Luther’s life came from overeating.

At one stop our guide was asked why a mostly secular country like Germany would be so keen to preserve Luther’s memory.

The guide, who had a brand-new Ph.D. in German history and was eager to demonstrate what he knew, especially with a group of mostly-Lutheran pastors, had a quick and unexpected answer. Luther, he said, is remembered in twenty-first century Germany not so much for the Reformation but for his translation of the Bible into German.  Before Luther’s German Bible, we were told, the German language was a series of dialects and not really a national language at all.

The new Bible standardized the language.

I’m not sure why that statement didn’t affect me at the time. Maybe it was because we were hurrying on to the next important Luther artifact. The death mask, maybe? But today, while working on my sermon for Sunday, it suddenly occurred to me that Luther would be devastated.

Really? After a life devoted to teaching the Christian faith, he is remembered today mainly for his contributions to German grammar and spelling?

I’m speechless. (And for a preacher that’s a serious matter.) I’m actually starting to feel sympathetic to the man.

(Photo: That’s Luther’s death mask, made following his death on February 18, 1546, in his hometown of Eisleben. I know, right?)

 

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The Disappointed Pilgrim

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Maybe next time I’ll just stay home.

Every time I make a pilgrimage, it seems, I come home a little disappointed, deflated, let down.

I climbed Mount Sinai one time with my 19 year old nephew. We drove a rental car from Jerusalem and arrived at the base of the mountain well after midnight. We climbed for about two and half hours, along with a few hundred other pilgrims, and we arrived at the summit in time to see the best sunrise of my life, a stunning view over the Gulf of Aqaba.

The incense wafting over from the tiny Russian Orthodox Church at the top of the mountain seemed to confirm that we were in a holy place. Unfortunately, my thrill was short lived.

Shortly after getting home, I found that TIME magazine had published an article on biblical archaeology and identified at least seven mountains in the Sinai peninsula where Moses might have received the Ten Commandments. The mountain my nephew and I climbed is the most popular site, true, but hardly the only possibility. I’ve been disappointed ever since.

Tour guides are often to blame.  Not content to repeat the myths that brought us in the first place, they seem to take perverse pleasure in offering an alternative version of the story, which is seldom as interesting or inspiring as the original.

I remember taking my daughters one summer on the “Sound of Music tour” in and around Salzburg, Austria, something that 300,000 or so pilgrims do each year. If I had known that our guide would point out dozens of historical and geographical errors in the movie, I might have added another cathedral to our itinerary instead of the bus tour. I haven’t been able to enjoy the movie since that visit. (Trust me, you don’t want to see the tiny church where the Captain married Maria. Big letdown.)

I could give more examples, but the most recent occurred last week in Wittenberg, Germany, where I had gone to see, among other things, the church where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses.

(Don’t read further if that story is inspiring to you.)

I’m not a Lutheran or even a huge Luther fan, but I can grudgingly admire the courage it must have taken in 1517 for a lowly monk to challenge the mighty Roman Catholic Church. I used to get chills.

As it turns out, according to our guide, Luther’s days as a lowly monk were long over by the time he drew up his 95 theses. He had settled comfortably into a teaching position at the University of Wittenberg, was married to a woman he was crazy about, and even had a bunch of children.  In other words, he was a slightly overweight (artists definitely agree on this point), middle-aged university professor who lived in one of the town’s nicest homes when all of this happened.

But it was still an act of courage, wasn’t it?

I wanted so much for that to be true but, alas, our tour guide quickly (and happily?) undercut my fantasy. It turns out that the customary way to prepare for a disputation – or academic debate – was to post your main points in advance. Luther would probably have been too busy for this chore, given his heavy teaching load and love for drinking beer, that the assignment would have been left – most likely – to an assistant, even the custodian. The church door (now bronzed) was nothing more than the community bulletin board.

I had my picture taken there just the same.

The pilgrimage – a journey of moral or spiritual significance – has been important over the years to most religious traditions. Visiting modern Israel has been an exciting and inspirational destination for me over the years. I confess that each time I go I am thrilled beyond words. But each time I hear the words “no one is sure that whatever is supposed to have happened on this site actually happened on this site,” my enthusiasm wanes a little.

Please understand the point I am doing my best to make. Because I have been to Israel, I will never read scripture in exactly the same way. I have a much better sense for references to “wilderness,” for example, than I ever had before. And seeing the Sea of Galilee with my own eyes has been a life-altering experience. I cry every time I go.

But my idea of pilgrimage has had to change.

I don’t know all that many Muslims, but the few I’ve known over the years have never expressed disappointment in the pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj. Making this particular pilgrimage, of course, is one of the five pillars of Islam, an expectation for every Muslim, and every single person I know who has gone has been deeply moved by the experience. (I’m guessing their tour guides are better screened than mine have been.) Just being able to do it, to have gone, seems to be enough.

And it would be unexpected – wouldn’t it? – to hear a Muslim say, “I don’t know. That didn’t do much for me.” In other words, the thoughts I’m expressing here might not be quite as welcome in Muslim circles.

So, what are pilgrimages for?

If you go somewhere to have everything you’ve ever dreamed, thought, or imagined confirmed, you’re likely to be in for a terrible disappointment. Your tour guide will make sure of that. On the other hand, if you go with a willingness to learn and grow and have your faith deepened, it’s always possible that the experience will be worthwhile. That’s been true for me.

Having seen where Luther was born, where he lived for most of his life, where he taught, where he preached his last sermon, where he had his heart attack, and where he died (three weeks later), I can honestly say that I’m so glad to be a Calvinist.

So, yes, it was a good trip.

(Photo: Yes, that’s me outside the church in Wittenberg, and those are the doors, now bronzed, where Luther’s 95 theses were posted. With the 500th anniversary of the event coming up in a couple of years, the entire church is undergoing an extensive renovation.)

(Update: Dear alert reader, Yes, I know it’s not possible to drive a rental car from Israel to Egypt. But I try to keep these posts to 400 words or less. What happened was that we left our rental car in a hotel parking lot in Elat, walked through the border crossing, and hired a Bedouin taxi driver for a last leg of the trip, which is an interesting story all by itself.  Dear other alert reader, Yes, I realize that the Sound of Music was a movie loosely based on a true story, so our “pilgrimage” was to the various places where the movie was filmed. The church was still unimpressive.)

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An update on language learning

learn german!

So, yes, life in Switzerland. An update.

A couple of younger women who live in the flat – I mean, apartment – below ours just asked if they could take our dog, Sammi, for a run or jog tonight. Through hand signals and making gestures on the wall, they indicated they would have the dog back in an hour. Nine o’clock, they said emphatically.

I’m reasonably certain that’s what they communicated. It took a while to establish that much.

So, I just handed them the leash and felt like a parent letting a child go on a date. It was hard to know what was happening because my German was better than their English. And trust me that that’s a frightening situation.

The women seemed nice. But then so did the boys who dated my daughters. I trusted them about as much.

I introduced myself as “Douglas,” because “Doug” for some reason always produces puzzled looks. But in response to “Douglas,” the younger one said, “Oh, Michael Douglas.”

And I thought, “Okay, isn’t he like 70 years old or something? Do I really look that old to you?” Not wanting to know the answer to that question, I returned our attention to the dog.

And I said with an excited look, “Wir gehen nach Berlin…eine Woche.”  Which, roughly translated, means “We’re going to Berlin … for a week!” I was hoping they would express interest in taking the dog while we were away, and – oh my! – they seemed to understand and said, “Ja!” The younger one said something about having “flexible hours,” but she could have meant something else entirely. I’m not sure.

You can’t imagine how good it feels to make a connection like this, to speak to other people in an utterly alien tongue, and to have someone say, “Ja,” as though that person understands completely, even when it’s not clear that she does.

I’m making progress. Even my language teacher agrees. She teaches six year olds during the day, and tonight she said to me – in English, of course – “You’re really doing well,” thinking maybe that I couldn’t handle that complicated sentence in German.

I felt prouder than I have since first grade, when Mrs. Myer told me that I had mostly mastered the first chapter of “Dick and Jane.”

(Update: Sammi was returned at 9:40. Mmmm. Is mostly tight-lipped about what happened while she was out. Am not sure these two women can be trusted. Will talk to her further – in English – about exactly what happened.)

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Comments at the door after church

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Someone came out of church yesterday and said, “I love America.”

People have always made interesting comments to me when they leave worship and shake my hand. I keep thinking I should collect and publish them – as a sequel to my best-selling “I Heard It at the Potluck.” (If I had had a better literary agent, I could have retired many years ago.)

I invited a seminary president to preach for me one time several years ago, and the sermon was clear if not exactly inspiring. Afterward at the door a Midwesterner, who was desperately searching for something polite to say, whispered in my ear, “She had such good diction!” Which is my all-time favorite after-church comment.

In the U.S., that “I love America” comment would have been unremarkable – a little odd immediately following worship, maybe, but understandable coming from an American citizen. The rest of the world finds this sort of reflexive patriotism endearing, but puzzling. To most ears it sounds insipid, kind of like “I love sunshine!”

The person who made the comment, however, was not an American.

What she meant was, “In spite of what everyone else says – and I don’t really need to go into all of that, do I? – I want you to know that I have mostly positive feelings for the country whose passport you carry.”

I was taken aback. I thought, “You really felt as though you needed to say that?” And of course the answer to that question was yes. She really did.

My “passport country,” as an expat friend refers to it, has an interesting and complicated reputation around the world. “Love” is usually not the first word to come to mind. “Grudging admiration” is sometimes the best we can hope for, and even that’s been slipping lately.

I came to Switzerland to learn about a culture other than my own, and I am slowly doing that, but I am also unexpectedly learning something about the culture I came from.

And in many ways that’s just as interesting. I love sunshine.

(Photo: Hard to believe, but that’s the size of Switzerland set against 48 of the 50 states that comprise the U.S.)

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Two nobodies going nowhere

road to emmaus 2

Something has happened as I prepare for Sunday.

As a preacher, I spend the better part of a week preparing “a few words” for my congregation to hear on Sunday morning. These are never random words. These are words that grow out of a text, a scripture reading that I have chosen for the day, usually some months prior.

And so I study the text, I ruminate on it, and – please pardon the image – I marinate in it, letting it have its way with me.

And then, more often than not, it does.  I find myself thinking, “How could I never have noticed that before?”

Maybe that’s the mystery of preaching.

Or one of the mysteries, because surely there is more than one.

Today, as I reflect on the story I’ve assigned myself for next Sunday – about two Jesus followers heading home to Emmaus after a disappointing week – I suddenly see something that I have never seen before.

My best insights, I confess, are seldom my own. Often I am prompted by something I’ve read or seen or experienced. And this week it was Debbie Blue, a preacher whose words can inexplicably jump-start the preacher’s imagination.

She refers to the Jesus followers in the story as “a couple of nobodies going nowhere.” And that’s pretty much all I needed, a new way of describing something I had seen countless times before.

I realized in that instant that this is God’s way – that, in fact, this has always been God’s way.

Me, I might have hired a cracker-jack public relations firm to get the word out. I might have networked with a few key people. At the very least I might have held a press conference and started a Facebook page.

Not God.  God never does things that way.

Instead he found “a couple of nobodies going nowhere” and told them what had happened and what it meant and how it was all part of a larger plan.

And then he let them figure out how to change the world.

What’s exciting, I suppose, is that I see myself in them – a nobody going nowhere who now has a story to tell. I’m one in a long line of nobodies who over the centuries has figured out how to change the world.

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