Archive | December, 2016

My first Christmas sermon

I was 24 years old when I preached my first Christmas morning sermon. I was not the congregation’s first choice, but they had few options.

Between my second and third years of seminary, I took some time to get married and to test drive this thing called ministry. I became what was called then a “student pastor” in a university town in Iowa, where I hoped to learn the ropes from a seasoned pastor.

That seasoned pastor took one look at me and decided to pursue a call to a church in Colorado which, according to his tearful congregation in Iowa, would be a whole lot closer to the ski slopes which he loved. That left me as the best – and perhaps the only – choice for Christmas morning 1977.

With my shoulder-length hair, aviator glasses, and an ill-fitting, three-piece corduroy suit, I must have been quite a sight, standing at the front of that church. Photos from the era confirm that I was tall, disturbingly skinny, and not exactly a charismatic presence in the pulpit.

It was my first Christmas away from home, and it was to be the first of nearly 40 – and still counting – Christmases away from home.

I hope I had the good sense to throw away that first Christmas sermon, but more than likely it is in a box in a damp basement, along with a lot of other old sermons, waiting to be recycled.

The sermon I preached that Christmas morning nearly 40 years ago was titled “The Gleam That is Christmas,” and my main point, rooted nowhere in the biblical text, was that we should be childlike in our approach to the Christmas story. It was best, I remember saying, to read the story and sing the carols and lose ourselves in the wonder and mystery of it all. My congregation was probably relieved that I did not plan to make my sermon the main point of worship that day.

Looking back, I was probably grieving the loss of my own childhood and trying my best to hold on to some part of it, especially the childlike wonder and mystery of it all.

I will be preaching the Christmas morning sermon once again this year – in Zurich, Switzerland, of all places – and I already know what I am going to say. My sermon will be, as I hope all of my sermons over the years have been, something about Jesus. I am glad he was born.

(Photo: That’s my backyard in Holland, Michigan.)

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The annual Christmas letter


Dear family and friends,

I just googled “annual Christmas letter” for some good ideas about what to write this year and – I am not making this up – two of my most recent Christmas letters appeared on the first page of search results.

So, obviously, no help there, but my blog is getting good SEO (search engine optimization).

For those of you who are wondering, Susan and I are still living in Switzerland. Our third anniversary is almost here, and we are finally beginning to adapt and fit in and find our rhythm in this strange country.

“Strange” may not seem like the right adjective to use for one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but if you’re new and don’t speak the language and don’t know the metric system, starting up here can be quite a challenge. It was for us, and it is for most newcomers. Now, though, as veterans of the expat life, we sometimes give advice of questionable value to other newcomers, exactly what others so generously did for us.


Every season is a beautiful season for Switzerland, but Christmas time, as you can imagine, is especially wonderful. The Christmas lights are nice, of course, as are the Christmas markets, which seem to spring up in every empty space in the city. And though it’s hard to believe that anyone buys the junk they sell at these markets, sorry, I do like the smell of Glühwein and Raclette and other delicacies of the season as I walk through.

The hard part of winter – and this is as true in the U.S. as it is in Switzerland – starts in January when the Christmas lights come down and the markets are put away for another year. March and April can’t come soon enough. At least in this country you can drive 10 minutes and be on one of the best ski slopes in the world.

In case you’re wondering, I have not yet tried downhill skiing. On the other hand, my bones and joints appear to be intact, and I plan to do my best to keep them that way. Snowshoeing will have to be the extent of my winter sports.

Many of you have been asking me about my progress with language learning – okay, the truth is that not a single person so far has shown the least bit of interest – so I wanted to let you know anyway that I am making the big leap this month from A2 to B1. And if that sounds impressive, it isn’t. Let me just say that no one will EVER mistake me for a native German speaker, the level known as C2.

I spent much of my study leave in Berlin last summer at the Goethe Institut, where they seem to speak an entirely different language from the one I hear on the streets here each day, because it is, in fact, an entirely different language. Everyone here prefers to speak Züridüütsch, and that’s not even one of the four official languages of Switzerland (which, for trivia enthusiasts, are German, French, Italian, and Romansh). I can get by with my beginners’ German in restaurants and most stores, and I can even call to make a haircut appointment (Guten Tag! Ich würde gerne einen Termin machen … am Freitag?), but even after three years of study I am quickly lost in most conversations.


Susan is keeping herself busy not with language learning, but with reading, painting, traveling, being a grandmother, and tending to our vast real estate holdings in the U.S. And by vast real estate holdings I mean, of course, our summer cottage in Holland, Michigan. But keeping track of a property on another continent requires a surprising amount of effort, as we have discovered. I am always pleased – and a bit surprised – to drive up and see the house still standing where I left it.

Last year’s travels took Susan to London, Amsterdam, and the Alsace region in France, and this year found her traveling (without me) to Tuscany, Barcelona, and Hanoi. Tuscany and Barcelona are easier to explain than Hanoi. Tuscany and Barcelona were for pleasure, and Hanoi was church and mission related. Ask her sometime about sightseeing in Hanoi on the back of a motorcycle.

Since we’re not going to the U.S. for Christmas this year, we’re headed to London after Christmas morning worship for a few days of sightseeing and theater. Unfortunately, Hamilton hasn’t made its way to the London stage, though we both recommend the biography on which the musical was apparently based.

Our kids seem to be doing well, for which we are more grateful than you can imagine. We talk regularly via FaceTime, though not often enough for me. We spent a wonderful week together at the family compound in Edgewood Beach last summer, enjoyed all of our favorite foods, and went to all of our favorite Holland restaurants, including Boatwerks, the Windmill, and of course (my favorite) de Boer Bakkerij. Who says Dutch cuisine is nothing special? And on the lake we used for the first time an enormous raft which was the talk of the beach association (we had to use a leaf blower to inflate the thing). Those memories, and of course time with our grand-daughter, will keep me going until next August.

My new book now has a publication date. I wish it could be ready for Christmas giving this year, but unfortunately it won’t be available until next June. The working title – Journey into the Multicultural Church – seems like a mouthful. Am still at work on a brilliant one- or two-word alternative. Suggestions welcome.

We have the birth of a baby on our minds right about now – two of them, actually – one in Bethlehem (the Savior of the world) and the other in Minneapolis (our second grandchild, a boy). It’s surprising in a way how excited we can get over the birth of a baby. After all, it’s something that happens every day and has been happening every day for a few thousand years. But there is something about the birth of a baby – “for to you a son is given,” Isaiah said – that is indescribably good. I think God knew that something so ordinary and so prosaic could create quite a lot of joy and hope, the most I have ever felt about anything in my life. A baby is born, and then, well, life is never quite the same again.

May the joy and hope of this season fill your lives as well.



Photos: 1) Windmill Island in Holland, Michigan, where we went for a family wedding in August; 2) the view of Lake Lugano from the Art Deco Dellago Hotel one morning recently; and 3) our 22 year old Volvo died, after taking us through much of Western Europe, and we replaced it with the older but still charming (like me!) Opel shown here. All shot with an iPhone, not my fancy new camera.

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