Archive | December, 2014

Top 10 posts of 2014

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These are my top 10 posts from the past year (posting today obviously assumes I won’t be writing a blockbuster in the coming week).

If you missed one of them the first time, please have a look now. Links are provided in blue.

1. Holy Saturday (This was a re-post from the previous year.)

2. What we preach (This was from a guest blogger. Thanks, Scott.)

3. Top 10 differences between Switzerland and the U.S. (Being featured at “expats blog” clearly helped to drive traffic to this post.)

4. My dad passed away last week

5. When a friend betrays you

6. Westboro Baptist and me

7. The problem with Palm Sunday

8. Comments at the door after church

9. One reason the ALS ice bucket challenge will not do nearly as well in Europe

10. A prayer for the end of summer

The last year was a good one for my blog. I reached 6,600 unique views for the month of April, my best month ever, and then leveled off. A factor in the leveling off, I’m guessing, is that I began to post less often, once per week rather than the feverish pace (two to three times per week) with which I started the year.

Observations about expat life in Switzerland have clearly drawn readers, but the bread-and-butter for my blog continues to be reflections on the spiritual life. That’s where I started, that’s what energizes me, and that’s where I’ll stay, Lord willing, in the year ahead.

Thanks for leaving comments. I like those better than the creepy data about you that I get from Google Analytics. I’m curious about something: very few – close to zero – comments have been left by my Swiss readers. A natural reserve? Neutral, so no strong opinions? I’m not sure.

Been wondering where my readers come from? Here’s a top 10 list:

1. Zurich CH (no surprise)

2. Wheaton, Illinois

3. Ann Arbor, Michigan

4. Fort Lauderdale, Florida

5. Chicago, Illinois

6. Meilen CH (the village where I live)

7. Tampa, Florida

8. Plantation, Florida

9. Dubendorf CH

10. Thalwil CH

Honorable mentions go to the following cities: Singapore (#19), Kathmandu (#37), and Quezon City, The Philippines (#57).

I wish all of you the very best in 2015.

(Photo: That was yours truly participating in the ALS ice bucket challenge back in September, along with Scotty Williams, my colleague.)

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A prayer for the fourth Sunday of Advent

Advent art

(Re-posted from last year.)

Lord, it’s the fourth Sunday of Advent, as I think you know, you who created the universe and everything in it, including me and all the stuff I like to think of as belonging to me.

Anyway, today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, as I mentioned, and I’m sitting here in the early morning darkness, with the house still, my cup of coffee nearby, made from freshly-ground beans, just the way I like it, and the dog is waiting patiently for our daily walk around the block. (I like this time of day – once again, as you know.)

And I’m thinking about what this day means – for me, for you, and for the world you made.  Such big thoughts for so early in the morning, I know.

So much of what I hear from friends at this point in the season is whether or not they’re in the mood, whether or not they’ve captured the spirit, or whatever they think they’re supposed to be feeling right about now. And I confess that I’ve done quite a bit to get myself into the mood.  I put up the tree, for example, and decorated it, while listening to lovely Christmas music.  That was nice.  And last week I went to the big Christmas concert in town, featuring candlelight and over 200 singers and musicians, you know the one.  I hope you liked it, too.

And I came away that night thinking, “Hey, I’m really in the mood now!  And look!  There’s even snow on the ground!”

But this morning, before anyone else is up, before I’m fully awake, I realize that this season doesn’t depend on me.  Whether I’m in the mood or not.  Whether I’ve got the spirit or not.  And I’m thinking that might actually be good news.

Because whatever I’m feeling – or not feeling – you looked with love on the world you made, and you became one of us.  And not just a better version of us, but the version of us we could never be.  You came to us as a baby, born to a mom and dad.  You lived our lives as we must try to live them, with laughter and friends, as well as betrayal and loss.  You did all that.  And much more besides.

So, to wrap this up, because I know others (not as industrious as I am) are beginning to wake up and offer their morning prayers too, I’m trying my best to remember that none of this depends on me.  None of it whatsoever. My joy this season is what you did for me.  And for the whole world.  And for that I’m more grateful than I can possibly say.  Amen.

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Looking back across the ocean

fourth sunday of advent

It’s been an interesting time to be an American looking back across the ocean.

Yesterday I left my apartment building with the dog, and one of my neighbors walked over and began speaking to me in a rather animated way. I reminded him – in English – that I am still a beginner with my language study, but he kept going.

Most of my German conversation skills, by the way, have been learned here in the building with neighbors who speak little or no English. With a combination of sign language, smiling, Google translator, and my growing vocabulary, we are now able to communicate surprisingly well, though usually about friendlier topics, like dogs, for example.

“You’re American, right?” my neighbor asked, not in English and not in a friendly manner.

I said, “Ja,” sensing that this was not going to be pleasant.

“New York,” he said. And then he put his hands to his throat in a choking gesture. Finally, he waved his arm dismissively and said, “Better to live in Russia,” before walking away.

The shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, the choking death of a man selling single cigarettes in New York, the release of the torture report, together with the former Vice President’s comments that he would “do it again in a minute”  – these news items are all reported here with a mixture of fascination and revulsion.

The Swiss are frequently curious about Americans, and they speak proudly of having traveled to the U.S., but they can also be very critical. In fact, they are usually quite critical of American behavior, which in their view never measures up to the ideals we Americans loudly proclaim.

When I sat down to write out my sermon last week, I was tempted, as I am more and more these days, to preach from the headlines. It was Karl Barth – no stranger to Switzerland – who once (allegedly) said that the preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Then I opened my Bible to Luke 1 and the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, and I decided that I only get to preach on this story once each year. I was not going to waste the opportunity. I needed the message of hope and joy as much as anyone.

But even here, even at this time of year, I cannot escape the headlines.

Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

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Will this be on the test?

Grünewald-Crucifixion

Forty years ago I took a class in art history.

To be honest, it was more a survey of European art than anything else, and only five or six centuries’ worth of that, so in hindsight it was a pretty small slice of art history.

Even so, art history was not required for my degree.

And the class was certainly well outside my area of concentration, which – don’t laugh – was philosophy. And taking the class might have been risky, if I had been concerned about my grade point average or what a graduate school admissions committee might think about my academic record.

What’s next, basket weaving?

At the time, though, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was thinking, believe it or not, about art.

My dad was an artist, so I grew up with art and visited my share of exhibits and museums over the years. I still don’t know how to change the oil on my car, but I can make my way through an art gallery like a pro. (Tell me, who is better prepared for life?)

One of my best memories from childhood, in fact, was going to Europe with my parents and younger sister and visiting the great museums of art there. We dashed from one to another, with a cathedral or two in between, and that was my early impression of Europe – a lot of beautiful things to look at.

Once, in Florence, my dad realized that Michelangelo’s David was not on the tour itinerary, so we hopped in a taxi at lunch hour and flew – or rather crawled through heavy traffic – to the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze to see it, not knowing if our tour group would be waiting for us when we returned. We didn’t care.

This weekend, without a sermon to prepare for Sunday, thanks to the annual children’s pageant, I took a page from the family playbook and dashed over to Colmar, France, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. Yes, there was a famous Christmas market taking place nearby, but it was the painting by Grünewald that interested me.

And it did not disappoint. Forty years later I can still hear Edgar Boevé, the professor, describe the way the eye moves across the canvass. They did, just like he said!

And then, standing to the right of Jesus, I could see John the Baptist – tell me again why is he attending Jesus’ crucifixion? – pointing what may be the most famous forefinger in the whole history of Western art.

I felt a sudden rush of tears as I walked toward the painting. There it was at last. And there was John the Baptist’s finger. There was Mary, mother of Jesus, supported by John, the disciple, with that impossibly long, utterly unrealistic arm. And there was Mary Magdalene, the closest one of all to the cross, distraught.

I am grateful for that class – all these years later – because it cultivated in me a wonder and an awe that, over time, have not diminished.

Will this be on the test? Yes, it will.

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