Archive | August, 2014

“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

image

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

Jesuit-Church,-Lucerne,-Switzerland

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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