Archive | November, 2015

The stranger within our gates

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Europe, like the U.S., is struggling mightily with the refugee crisis.

Even knowing what to call the Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, and others who are pouring across our borders in large numbers is a complicated matter, with each term betraying one’s political – and sometimes religious – viewpoint.

Are they political refugees, Flüchtlingen, as my German-language newspaper prefers to call them? Or, are they Muslim invaders, as some members of my church believe?

Raised on the parables of Jesus, like the Good Samaritan, my first response to the refugee crisis was that my church should do something. In fact, I said as much. ‘We should adopt a family,’ I said early on, ‘as the pope himself suggested – one family per parish.’

One of my church members called and told me of his plans to drive a family from a refugee camp in southern Europe to Germany, perhaps in a rental car so as to avoid easy identification. His small act would help only one family, he acknowledged, but at least that one family would be safe. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about his plan, and told him so, but I found it difficult to do nothing, except for watching the news photos of squalid camps and overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean.

I was quickly informed, of course, that I was naive, that I did not understand how grave the situation was. ‘Muslims do not integrate,’ a few people helpfully explained to me. And news that at least one of the attackers in the Paris massacre last Friday night was a Syrian who had entered Europe posing as a refugee seemed to confirm that I was, in fact, naive, that I do not understand the situation we are facing.

Right now, the more conservative position represented by the SVP (Swiss People’s Party) seems to be the preferred position in this country. The SVP rode an anti-immigration platform to victory in the most recent election, and in a land of direct democracy that was a powerful message.

Even the pope, who isn’t reluctant to voice an opinion, seems to have gone silent on the issue.

I try to remember that I am a guest in this country, very much an immigrant myself. I am still learning the languange and the culture, after all, and it would be presumptuous of me to tell the Swiss how to run their country, especially when they seem to have done a remarkably good job of it for many years.

But I am a Christian pastor. I can and do read the Bible, and I know what it says about ‘the stranger within our gates.’ Republican presidential candidates in the U.S. do not hesitate to quote scripture about other topics, but they are noticeably reluctant to seek out the Bible’s clear teaching on this issue, have you noticed?

What about Exodus 23:9, to take just one example? ‘Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.’ That argument – you should understand because you too were foreigners – is repeated over and over in the Old Testament.

Naive or not, I continue to believe that my faith compels me to look with compassion on the strangers who are appearing among us. The Muslims I have spoken to (a very small number) are deeply disillusioned with their faith, but their faith in many cases is all they have. I would like to think that they would be especially receptive right about now to the Gospel message, the story of a God who welcomes us all, a God who brings shalom to a sin-ravaged world.

I will continue to struggle with this issue and with my naivete. I will continue to search scripture for the appropriate response (though the testimony already seems clear). I will continue to recommend to my members that we show compassion and not act out of fear. I will do my best, in it all, to be the follower of Christ I was raised to be – always concerned for the ‘least of these.’

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The hopes and fears of all the years

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Christmas is coming, though you would never know that from the weather around here, which has felt more like September than December. Hasn’t the fall been lovely?

Christmas comes each year, and we look forward to it with a mixture of anticipation and dread – anticipation mostly because we get to see family and loved ones, and dread, well, let’s just say there are lots of reasons. Many people I know do their best to avoid the holiday altogether, feeling enormous relief in January when the tree becomes compost and the decorations are put away again for another year. Marriage and family problems, to say nothing of employment and financial worries, can exaggerate the awful feelings we sometimes have at this time of year.

All of which is interesting (and sad) when you remember what Christmas is and what it means to tell us. Christmas, more than anything, is a story of origins. It’s like the creation story in that way because it tells us where we came from. Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with geneaologies and stories of angels and proclamations, as if to say, ‘Let’s remember how all of this started.’ Mary says, ‘Let it be to me according to your word,’ and ever since we have been people who look for the unexpected from God and then struggle to keep up. His plans are never quite our plans!

I’m one of those people who comes to the season with more anticipation than dread. I can remember Christmases of course that were unspeakably sad, mainly because of someone who had died the previous year and wouldn’t be with us for the first time, but mainly I remember Christmases that have been full of joy and love and even surprise.

Most years since my ordination the season has been a busy one, culminating in a kind of happy exhaustion at midnight on Christmas Eve. With three or four services on Christmas Eve, beginning with a family service in the afternoon and concluding with candelight communion at 11:00, the day has always been a long one. And then, for several years, there were toys or other things to assemble and wrap and place under the tree before heading off to bed in the wee hours of the morning. All I wanted for Christmas during those years was a nice, long nap in the afternoon.

Not surprisingly I am excited to be celebrating my second Christmas in Switzerland this year. This might be the only country on the planet where Christmas lights and decorations are really unnecessary. With a little snow on the ground, the village where I live comes to life and is transformed into the postcard view that most people imagine when they think of Switzerland, though the real thing is more beautiful than any painting. Walking the dog in the early morning, before anyone else is stirring, has been a gift, even though I complain about having to do it. I tug at the dog, or she tugs at me, and together we enjoy a land of surpassing beauty. I think she notices it too. How could she not?

But Christmas of course is about more than snow and beautiful Swiss villages and services that end at midnight. As much as I enjoy singing ‘Joy to the World’ each year in a darkened church, while clutching my tiny candle with its wavering light, I know that the story is way more powerful than all of the rituals I employ each year. I know for example that the savior of the world has been born, that the long wait is over, that the promise has at long last been fulfilled, that (as the carol puts it) ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’

To be honest about it, the underlying meaning of the season has always made the inevitable sadness and disappointment seem bearable. I think, ‘God is at work in the world, quietly, of course, but unmistakably. All creation has been groaning for this, and now it has happened.’ And it’s then that I take my nap.

(Photo: Christmas lights on Bahnhofstrasse.)

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The blog is back

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When you are as excited as I was about living and working in Europe, you tend to underestimate the size of the challenge.

Emotions can and often do trump logic.

But moving is difficult. Even moving, as I once did, from one Midwestern state to another was very, very difficult. I was excited about that move too and thought it would be no problem. As soon as the house was sold, I figured everything else would quickly fall into place. I was wrong about that, as I have been about a lot of things in my life.

And then, two years ago, I made the decision to move across an ocean. Not from Illinois to Michigan this time, but from the U.S. to Europe, to a tiny country called Switzerland, with its beautiful scenery and quaint villages and of course cheese. I had been to Europe. I knew people there. I have an adventurous spirit. So, once again, I thought, “No problem.”

But moving from one place to another, one country to another, is – may I use this word a third time? – difficult. Frankly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I should say at this point that I thought I was following God’s call in my life. But of course all pastors say that. Pastors say a lot of things, and they can justify just about any decision or behavior, maybe you’ve noticed, by using a lot of clever religious language. “God placed this call on my heart” is always a good one. “God decided to have his way with me” is another one I like. We pastors are good at making every decision seem like part of God’s eternal plan. It’s a required course at seminary.

Here’s the thing, though: I still believe this was God’s call in my life. Have never been more certain, as a matter of fact. But somewhere I got the idea that God’s call in my life would be to something better or easier – like a nicer climate, or a higher salary, or a better job description. I must have missed all of the biblical fine print about taking up one’s cross.

Not long ago a member of my church’s youth group said to me, “I thought following Jesus would make life easier.” Let me tell you, kid: I used to think that too. A lot of people do. And then we’re surprised when following turns out to be a lot harder than we ever imagined.

Switzerland usually ranks at the top of the list of countries for expats. It also ranks right up there on the “happiest” places to live in the world. If you’re going to move or be transferred somewhere, you could do a lot worse than Switzerland. I heard presidential candidate Bobby Jindal say in the last Republican debate that “the left is trying to turn the American dream into the European nightmare.” These words sound strange to anyone living here. Swiss life is hardly a nightmare. A lot of expats I know have decided to stay.

I suppose that what makes the move so difficult is leaving behind everything that is familiar. I forgot how utterly immersed I was in American culture. And then to find myself suddenly in a brand-new culture, as splendid as it is, in spite of what Bobby Jindal thinks, is a lot harder than I imagined it would be. Looking back I realize that the first year was exhausting – emotionally, physically, and even spiritually. I was starting a new job, for one thing, and even though people here welcomed me with open arms, starting a new job is nearly always demanding and stressful.

And then there was learning a new language. If I were five years old, I’m pretty sure I would be a fluent German speaker by now, but I am a bit older than five, and learning a language is tough, especially for Americans who think that English is God’s mother tongue. I still struggle with it.

Even going to the grocery store was a challenge at the beginning. Going to any kind of store required careful planning. Setting up the cable TV box (with instructions in German, French, and Italian) took the better part of an afternoon.

The list goes on and on. Every day there was something. I stopped writing this blog six months ago at least in part because I needed time to focus on living, settling in, finding my way.

I wrote a book last summer mostly to make sense of this country and of my new church. (Though the manuscript was submitted last week, the publication date has been set for the fall of next year.) I write, as many people do, to sort out my thoughts, to figure out what I really think, and I hoped that a book about serving a multicultural, international church with almost mind-boggling diversity would help me to understand what in the world I was doing here. Mostly it did. I was proud of the result.

So, the blog is back, which is another way of saying I am far more comfortable now in my new home, my new country. I can get around easily on trains and trams. I have carried on entire conversations in banks and restaurants and even at the salon where I get my hair cut in a language that is still new and strange to me. I am not nearly as tired at the end of the day.

But I will never again underestimate the degree of difficulty in moving.

(Photo: I took that on a Saturday morning hike a few weeks ago. It’s further evidence, I believe, of the “European nightmare.”)

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