Archive | September, 2014

My first mountain hike

Have I mentioned that hiking is the Swiss national obsession? I was wrong.

Glancing at one’s watch is actually the national obsession. Sorry. Cultural stereotype.

But number two on the list of national obsessions is most likely hiking. People here like to hike. And in a country as beautiful as this it would be sinful not to get outdoors and walk.

On Saturday I took my first mountain hike. By Swiss standards, I know, it wasn’t much. A cable car ride, a walk on a surprisingly well-maintained hiking trail, a stop somewhere for beer, and then talk with with other hikers (and beer drinkers). It’s not a bad life.

I have a new camera (kind of a big step up for me from the point-and-shoot I’ve used for most of my life) and took a few pictures as I walked. I hope you like these…

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Our hotel was above Lake Lucerne which was obscured by cloud cover. The trail I took required a cable car ride to an even higher altitude.

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That’s the path. As you can see, not exactly a highly technical climb.

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Swiss hikers generally know where they’re going and how long it will take to get there. Highly competitive Americans who hike in Switzerland feel superior when they arrive ahead of schedule. (High fives all around!) Note the reminder at the bottom to keep your dog on the leash. Seems cruel to the dog.

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The reward for walking a few meters, as I mentioned, is a beer and a few other things.

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Apparently the wind on Saturday was just right because one after another of these gliders took off. I don’t know that I would be able to run off the side of a mountain, but the gliding looks like fun.

My next hike is planned for October 25. Meet me at the French Reformed Church in Zurich. Air fares are lower at this time of year, and fall in Switzerland is gorgeous. Join me?

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Some thoughts about language learning

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1. It’s difficult.

Learning a new language has a certain romantic appeal – like, for example, living abroad. But the dreaminess disappears quickly.

I have dedicated a part of every day for the last eight months to language learning (and have committed over 1200 German words to memory), and today at the hair salon I could not say, “longer on top, shorter on the sides.” My stylist simply smiled and then gave me the haircut she thought I needed.

2. Immersion is probably the way to go.

Before leaving the U.S. I asked a brother in law who teaches German literature at a state university for his opinion about the best way to learn German, and he said, “Take a 2-3 week immersion class, and you’ll be speaking passable German by the time you’re finished.” (He was actually thinking, “You wouldn’t get a passing grade from me, but you would know how to get a haircut.”)

My once-per-week language class, supplemented by an online course, the car radio, and a daily German-language newspaper (the tabloid most Swiss do not admit to reading), are not enough. I have clearly chosen the longer, more difficult route.

3. The locals do not help.

There are really two issues here. One is that as soon as my American identity becomes clear – usually in the first three seconds after meeting someone – the Swiss person I’m talking to will switch immediately to flawless English. And so ends my opportunity to practice.

The other issue is that the Swiss really prefer to speak Swiss German, not the more widely known German language I am learning. I have listened to conversations on the train, expecting to understand a little of what is being said, only to realize that the conversation is not actually in German. This other dialect is the tribal tongue of the Swiss, and it’s one way to maintain an identity distinct from the Germans to the north who – how do I put this? – are not held in high regard.

4. In spite of #3, the Swiss really like it that I am trying to learn.

Maybe it gives them pleasure to see an American struggle. I’m sure that’s part of it. But mostly I think they value the attempt I am making to integrate within Swiss culture. Members of my church regularly tell me – in English – how glad they are that I am learning the language.

5. Spiritually speaking, language learning is an exercise in humility.

And I thought I was humble enough before I started.

(Photo: I’ve never had so many options for walking the dog.)

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When a friend betrays you

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I should have seen it coming, but that must mean I’m to blame.

And maybe I am, a little.

What I did wrong was to trust someone I should not have trusted, never, not a million years. But I did. I acted in good faith. I sometimes had a queasy feeling as I did it, but I trusted anyway, because that’s what you do, right? You put yourself out there. Relationships require it.

But deep down I knew. I always knew. I should not have trusted this person.

Betrayal is what happens when you act in good faith, become vulnerable, extend yourself for someone else, and then that person turns out not to be a friend after all, not to have your best interests in mind, not to care about you at all, as a matter of fact.

What is it about betrayal that hurts so much? The coldness of it? The calculation? No, I’m convinced that it’s the evil of it.

I woke up this morning thinking about what happened. And not just thinking about it, but being mad about it. After all these months, after fooling myself into thinking that I was finally over it, after working so hard to get on with life, I still feel the hurt of it, the teeth-clenching anger of it.

And I realized of course, as I lay there in the early morning light, that I needed to get rid of it, to let it go.

For my sake, if for no one else’s.

But the truth is, I’m not quite there yet. It’s as though I can’t let go until I acknowledge to myself the sheer awfulness of it, the extent to which this other person betrayed me, all the sorry details of it. I can’t forgive, much less forget, it seems, until I remember every bit of it.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. You can’t get to my age without having been betrayed once or twice. I remember an event from some years ago that felt like a kick to the gut. I felt at the time as though the wind had been knocked out of me. I nearly picked up the phone to call a lawyer. I was sure I had a case. I would sue. That would make things right.

But someone who heard my story, someone who knows me well, said to me, ‘Doug, let it go.’

And I don’t remember anymore how I did it, but I did. It actually happened quickly. I started to breathe again, I put down the phone, I deleted the angry letter I had written. It was over. Finished. I haven’t thought about it in years – not until this latest betrayal, in fact. And then, surprisingly, there it was.

Betrayal and grief have that much in common. Every loss reminds you of every other loss you have ever had. Every betrayal is a reason not to trust anymore, not to be vulnerable, not put yourself out there.

But it’s time to let this one go. It has a kind of power over me, and I’m sick and tired of that, as much as anything. I need to unclench my fists and go on. I want to live. And be free.

And if my faith means nothing else, it means this: Forgiving others as I have been forgiven. And God knows that I have needed forgiveness.

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The Bucket List

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I used to be proud to have a bucket list, and now I’m not so sure.

I’ve been thinking about what a bucket list means ever since I read that a couple of weeks ago President Obama took a small detour on his way back to the United States, after a summit meeting in Wales, in order to see Stonehenge.

After walking around a bit, listening to the curator, and having his picture taken with some surprised tourists, he said to reporters, “Knocked it off the bucket list!”

At first I was surprised to know that President Obama was still working on a bucket list. After “graduating from Harvard Law School,” “becoming a United States Senator,” and “becoming the first African-American President of the United States,” you would think that there wouldn’t be many items left on his list.

But no, apparently there are a few other things he’d still like to do.

I still have a few things I’d like to do too. Like the President I have a few travel destinations in mind. And I still haven’t climbed Mount Everest or qualified for the Boston Marathon.

Some items seem less and less likely as the years go by. I was never a terribly fast runner, for example, and each of my marathons has been slower than the previous one. So, qualifying for the Boston Marathon seems more like a pipe dream than a real, honest-to-goodness bucket list item. And frankly, I have no business being on Mount Everest or even a mountain half that size.

But most of the items that remain on my list seem, well, kind of small. Not small in degree of difficulty, but small in terms of significance.

Here’s the thing: Bucket list items have always seemed a tiny bit selfish. I’ve never heard anyone say, for example, that eradicating polio was on her bucket list. Or finding a cure for cancer. Or any of a number of things that might actually make life better.

Most bucket list items are about personal experience or personal achievement.

I finally got to see a rocket lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It was the last shuttle launch. And to be honest, it was a quite a thrill, something I had wanted to do since I was a little boy, watching Mercury, Gemini, and then Apollo rockets blast off. I stood that day in a VIP tent, not because I was a VIP, but because I knew someone who was. I listened to the countdown, and then I saw and felt something that I had only previously seen on a television screen. The ground shook, and a wave of heat from the blast washed over me. And then it was over. The rocket was out of sight. It was time to climb into my car and go home.

Bucket list items tend to be like that. But not all of them.

My older sister once traveled more than a thousand miles to come to my church and hear me preach, something she had never done before. Afterwards, she said, “It was on my bucket list.” And much too flippantly, I said, “You need a new bucket list.” I regretted saying it almost soon as the words were out of my mouth.

No bucket list item has to measure up to my standard of worthiness.

Who knows what seeing Stonehenge meant to a man who has already accomplished more with his life than most of us dream about. Maybe he promised his mother that one day he would do it because she didn’t live long enough to do it herself. I will most likely never know. And it doesn’t matter that I do.

His reasons were personal. As are the reasons for the items on my list.

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Sehnsucht

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Coming back to Switzerland after a summer holiday in the States was unexpectedly revealing and a tiny bit unsettling. It’s taken a few days to sort out my feelings and – like the first-year German student that I am – I haven’t been able to form sentences to describe what I’m feeling.

I’m still not sure I have put my finger on it.

Toward the end of my time away I started to feel as though it was time to get back to work. That’s always a welcome feeling. I feel it every year. I’m not quite sure what would happen if I didn’t want to get back to work.

Retire, I suppose.  Or, go back to school and get a real job, maybe.

But I was ready to re-engage, to see the people of my church, to prepare sermons for them, to ask about their lives, to go on hikes with them, to be the church with them. For more than 30 years I have lived for this, and for more than 30 years I have been glad for this life. I still am.

What was different this time was going home. I told everyone that I was “going home to Switzerland,” which has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? My home is in Switzerland. I loved to say it and loved to see the reactions to it.

And it’s true that I have some clothes and furniture in Switzerland. But home is also in the United States.  I have some clothes and furniture there too.

So, what is home?

The German language, which to me is not all that beautiful to listen to, finds its beauty in the way it expresses complex emotion. I never thought I would love German opera. (What is Italian for, after all, except to express the deep and painful longings of love, and to swear at other drivers?) But the German language, as it turns out, can describe a feeling with such precision that translators are tempted to leave some words well enough alone.

The word “sehnsucht” would be one example. Yearning and addiction. Those are the two words Germans have put together in a compound word that defies an exact translation.

For some people the yearning is for the past, nostalgia. They think about an America that may have existed briefly in the 1950s, but then only in certain suburbs and hardly for everyone. I think I remember it, but I’m never quite sure it was real. And for some there is a longing and – more recently – a grieving and an unsettling feeling that we will never experience that time and place again.

For me the yearning is not for the past, the American suburbs of the 1950s. And surprisingly my yearning is not for the U.S. at all. To be back briefly after months away was to recognize the good and the bad of American life. I was overwhelmed at times by the friendliness and helpfulness of people in Holland, Michigan, where I vacation each year. I recognized myself in those people. I am even aware that I look like them – and they like me. But I was also irritated by their driving, their wastefulness, their loudness, and much, much more.

I love what my friends here call their “passport country,” but I do not yearn to be there. At least not now.

C.S. Lewis once described “sehnsucht” as the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” I think I see this theme in much of his writing. I think I see it in much of my life. Which would account for the insatiable desire to see and experience so much of the world, to keep my passport in my back pocket, just in case.

I already know that this inconsolable longing, this “sehnsucht,” is spiritual. If more than 30 years of ministry teaches you nothing at all, it teaches you to see the spiritual connections in life. I read Augustine when I was at seminary, but a young man in his early 20s knows little of life. The young man I was then knew less than most.

“You have made us for yourself,” Augustine wrote, as if in prayer. “And our hearts are restless, until they find rest in you.”

I think those words, at long last, are beginning to make sense.

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