Archive | January, 2015

Remembering Christmas break in photos (and a little text)

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The Zurich Hauptbahnhof (the main train station in the city and the largest train station in Switzerland) is mostly deserted at 7:20 on Christmas morning. Our train to the airport will arrive at any moment. (Do the trains keep a regular schedule on Christmas? Travel anxiety has started.)

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A few hours and a few miles later, the wooden shoes remind us that we’re finally in Holland (Michigan).

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I couldn’t wait to get to the beach to try out my new camera lens, but a few other people obviously had the same idea earlier in the day. I was going to shoot a “footprints in the sand” theme with two sets of footprints leading off into the distance. I don’t know what this photo means. Maybe lots of people walking with Jesus.

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The picnic table and fire pit look a bit forlorn in the winter.

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The arrival of snow changes the look of things at the beach. Also, I don’t think I ever realized what a steep climb there is back from the beach to the cottage.

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No one will be sitting on the deck today. Why don’t these people put their deck furniture away for the winter?

South Street sign

This is our street, but I’m thinking that the “rule of thirds” might have improved the composition a bit. There’s a photo here somewhere, but I will have to come back to it (next year).

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A prayer for Sunday morning (and the annual meeting that follows)

 

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Merciful God, you know how we anticipate this day, clinging to hope that this year will be different, but mostly feeling fear and dread that this year will be like all the others. We will do our best to pray and sing the hymns and listen to the sermon, your Word to us, but really, if we are honest, our hearts are focused on what comes later – the annual meeting.

We are human, after all – pathetically, inescapably human.

Even though we pray that this year will be different from other years, and that we will be fully present to you in worship, we know that our thoughts, in spite of ourselves, will be on budgets and reports and elections. If there is something in scripture about budgets, it would be helpful if you would point us to it, but then we seem to know, deep down, that none of this matters, not really, that when your Son announced the kingdom of God he wasn’t really thinking about church buildings and leadership boards and budget deficits. He seemed to have so much more in mind for us. He seemed to want so much more for us.

In so far as it is possible, lift our own minds from that which has no eternal meaning … to that which you would have us know and believe and trust. Keep us from mean-spirited thoughts. Help us to think the best of others, whose opinions – forgive us – we cannot abide. When we would stand and offer an opinion not worthy of you, push us firmly back to our seat. And when we would sit quietly and listen to – forgive us again – nonsense, prompt us to speak.

Above all, give us wise and discerning hearts, mostly to remember that your church will never quite measure up until that day that you make all things new. And for that day we pray that you will make it come … quickly.

Amen.

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Funny things doctors say

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Is it just me, or do doctors sometimes say funny things?

Some of you may remember the comment I heard from my doctor a couple of years ago.

After researching the Internet, which turns out to be a poor substitute for actual medical training, I was certain that I had a severe case of strep throat. So, I presented myself to our family doctor, and after I told him proudly of my diagnosis, he looked at my throat, appeared skeptical, and sent me to the nearest emergency room.

What I had apparently did not look to him like a strep infection.

Once at the emergency room the staff wasted no time calling an ear, nose, and throat specialist, who shined his tiny flashlight into my throat and said matter-of-factly: Oh, George Washington died from that.

As it turns out, he did. George Washington, that is, not my doctor. I looked it up later. The thing in my throat, I learned, was a quinsy, or peritonsillar abcess, and it killed the first president of the United States in 1799 by slowly asphyxiating him.

Not a pleasant way to go. As for me, I stopped for ice cream on the way home.

Yesterday I went to the doctor again, after my cold entered its second week and didn’t seem to be getting any better. This time I was under the care of a Swiss physician. I don’t know what the equivalent of an emergency room is here – yet – but I didn’t need one. I described my symptoms to the doctor in German, a little speech I memorized on the way over. And he of course was amused, as everyone seems to be, by my pronunciation and grammar.

He told me, in English, to take off my shirt so that he could listen to my chest. He looked in my ears and throat. He also took a bit of blood out of the end of my finger. The whole exam lasted maybe three minutes. Then he told me to get dressed. As he sat at his desk, writing on my chart, he began to quiz me about stupidity in U.S. politics, a topic I had not come prepared to discuss, in either German or English.

Finally, I said, in English, So, is it viral? And he said, No, it’s a bacterial infection that kills parakeets in Africa.

So, as you see, I’m battling spiritual forces in the universe that have brought down George Washington and untold numbers of African birds, and I also seem to find doctors – on both sides of the Atlantic – who enjoy passing along curious medical information.

That’s an update on my life.

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The sickness unto death

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I woke up this morning feeling lousy – cough, sore throat, you know the combination.

I attributed my condition to my 15-month old grand-daughter who, in addition to being beautiful and brilliant, is a petri dish of micro-organisms, enough germs and bugs to take down a healthy adult male, which is what I was until a week ago when I couldn’t resist holding, cuddling, and reading to a sick child.

So, today I am sick, but have no regrets about it. I am also aware that what I have is “not a sickness unto death,” which is what Jesus once said about his friend Lazarus’ illness. I should be back to normal in a few days.

One reason – among many – that I enjoy reading the gospels is to notice the way Jesus often left his listeners scratching their heads: “What did he just say?”

Did his listeners the day he described Lazarus’ illness know what he was talking about? Maybe, but I have my doubts. In fact, it’s not clear why Jesus didn’t hustle off to Bethany when he first received word of Lazarus’ illness. What could have been so important that he couldn’t drag himself away to see his dear friend one last time?

That’s Jesus for you, I’ve always said. Mysterious, unpredictable, making comments that leave you wondering for days, pondering what he might have meant. The way I imagine it, it was only years later that his followers came to understand what he had in mind by mentioning a “sickness unto death.”

For most of my preaching life I have been content to let mystery be mystery. In other words, I have been content not to answer every question, to allow some things to gnaw at us, to keep us awake at night. I love to send my congregation away on Sunday afternoon with something to think about for the rest of the week and, if I’m lucky, for the rest of their lives.

And that approach has worked for more than 30 years in what is still a mostly-Christian culture, the United States. Today, though, I find myself in what cannot be called a Christian culture, in spite of the ringing of chuch bells at all hours, and interesting questions to think about no longer feel quite right.

My people – not all, but a few – are telling me that I need to “connect the dots.” I need to make things clear, when – almost instinctively – I prefer the open-ended question. In a truly missional context, it may be that we no longer have the luxury of enjoying the mystery and pondering the questions. It may be that certainty must win out over mystery.

From the bookshelf behind me, I grabbed Kierkegaard’s slim volume titled, The Sickness Unto Death, and opening it I recognized the underlining and enthusiastic marginal notes of an undergraduate philosophy major, which is what I was or pretended to be. Kierkegaard’s explanation for this “sickness unto death” is rooted in the spiritual condition of despair, and I am persuaded that he’s right about that, though I can’t help pointing out that the best explantion I know of – Kierkegaard’s – took a number of years to develop. And frankly, there is probably still more to be said.

Flu symptoms are nothing to be concerned about – my own or whatever it was that drove poor Lazarus to his untimely death. It’s the other conditon, the spiritual condition, that Jesus was always far more concerned about. It was the other condition that Jesus came into the world to do something about.

Let there be no ambiguity about that.

 

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