Tag Archives | grief

Pierre Spoerri, 1926 – 2017

Pierre Spoerri was born in 1926. He died in late February after climbing into the backseat of a taxi in front of the Convita Bethanien, where he lived with his wife Fulvia. His memorial service was held at the French Reformed Church in Zürich on March 9, 2017.

It was my privilege to have been his pastor for the last three years.

Pierre and Fulvia could be seen most Sundays, sitting toward the front, Fulvia in a wheelchair. To me it was always a matter of concern when they were not there. I would assume – often correctly – that one of them was not feeling well.

As it turns out, their faithfulness to the church I serve in Switzerland went back a long, long time. Previous pastors with whom I have corresponded in the last few weeks report that Pierre was an unfailingly wise and supportive counselor and friend. As my pastor friends will recognize as I tell this story, people like Pierre come along only once or twice in a pastor’s life. They have a way of changing us (for the better) and inspiring us to be better people (than we usually are).

Soon after I moved to Zurich, I was a guest of Pierre and Fulvia at their home. We enjoyed strawberries and ice cream and some late afternoon sunshine, and I quickly realized that I was in the presence of remarkable people. Pierre gave me a copy that day of his most recent book, his memoir, which was titled No End to the Adventure. I started reading it as soon as I returned home. I forget when I finally turned out the light that night and went to bed.

Pierre’s father was a professor of romance languages at the University of Zürich, and he made sure Pierre developed a fluency in several languages, a skill Pierre was to use throughout his life. Pierre’s father was also a lay preacher in the Methodist church, and so Pierre’s spiritual formation began in the church where we hold evening worship each week.

Pierre studied medicine at the universities in Geneva and Zurich, but gave up his studies in 1946 as World War II was coming to an end. Instead of medicine, Pierre devoted the rest of his life to what was then called Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change), a moral and spiritual movement founded by the American minister Frank Buchman who had earlier been the driving force behind the Oxford Group.

A large, derelict hotel in Caux, Switzerland, near Lake Geneva, was transformed into a retreat center where, in the early years, Europeans would come together for healing and reconciliation following the war. Pierre’s stories about those conversations between French and German people were always moving to the point of tears. The hotel is still in use as a retreat and conference center, but today groups of people come from all over the world, not just Europe, and they are still finding healing and reconciliation.

Pierre and Fulvia lived all over the world – in places like India, Africa, and the Middle East, doing the work of peace-making and reconciliation. They had no children.

I was unaware of it when I was growing up, but Moral Re-Armament had a significant presence in my home state of Michigan. On Mackinac Island, beginning in 1942, Moral Re-Armament held conferences, like those in Caux, at the island’s famous Grand Hotel. By the early 1950s the movement had acquired a considerable amount of real estate on the island. I’ve made many trips to Mackinac over the years, but never knew of this presence.

As a writer myself, I was of course impressed with the number of books Pierre wrote. He filled many roles within the Moral Re-Armament movement, but he was clearly one of the most gifted communicators they had. He also had an extraordinary gift not only for listening, but for understanding. Every time I left after a visit with Pierre, I had the unmistakable feeling that he understood me, which is a rare gift to receive, something that always felt to me like grace.

Someone said to me before the memorial service, “Well, this must be the hardest part of your work.” And without thinking I said, “This is the time when I feel most like a pastor.”

I was glad to come together on a Thursday afternoon with so many of the people from Pierre’s life – his extended family and friends. His co-workers flew in from all over the world, more of them than we expected. In fact, we hadn’t printed nearly enough orders of worship for the occasion.  Together we sang, prayed, and gave thanks (in a variety of languages) for Pierre’s life, and we gave witness, as Presbyterians like to say, to our hope in the resurrection.

I look forward, as I said in my prayer, to “a glad, heavenly reunion.” I am so blessed to have known Pierre.

(Note: I wrote something like this for my church’s monthly newsletter.)

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A dry and desiccated spirit

Something has happened to me over the last several months. I seem to have lost my voice.

The campaign, the election, the painful period between election and inauguration, and now the first stumbling weeks of a new administration – in it all, I seem to have lost my ability to speak. I still preach most Sundays at my church in Zurich, so it’s not that voice that seems to have gone away. It’s something else.

I still look at Facebook each day and see the anger and outrage from my friends, though I’m not sure why I bother to look. I sometimes “like,” seldom “comment,” and never “share.” I have been urged by friends and colleagues to call and write and march. A family member wrote not long ago and asked me to use my position – my “pastoral authority,” as she put it – to address the situation, and I think I have, a little, but not as she would like me to do it. I watch the news – CNN and BBC are the English-language choices where I live – and I rarely like what I see. I can get as worked up as anyone over “alternative facts” and a lot more.

But I have grown quiet instead. Not withdrawn, still. I hear that the future of the republic is at stake – and that may well be true – but I have surprised myself by saying nothing at all, turning inward, even finding peace there.

Among other things, I have started reading again. I sit quietly in the morning while it is still dark and read. I read late at night and turn off the light, reluctantly, wishing I could go on. I even read on the Stairmaster at the gym.

I haven’t had much time for reading over the last few years. I had a new language to learn – remember? – and that was more difficult than I imagined. And then there was that book I decided to write, something about the multicultural church. So all of that, plus my work, left little time for reading, something I have always loved.

I started with biographies. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow got me going, maybe it was the musical, but then I had to read John Quincy Adams: American Visionary and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House as well. You can’t believe how rocky things were back then at the founding of the republic. I read a book by a dear friend who does what I do, except in Rabat, Morocco – A Guide to International Church Ministry: Pastoring a Parade. I read a book by a classmate who hiked the Camino di Santiago recently – Walking in Love – and had tears in my eyes when I put it down. I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, because I heard Terry Gross interview the author on “Fresh Air” and thought he might help me understand what’s happening in the U.S. He didn’t.

And now I’ve even rediscovered theology, starting with Dallas Willard’s fine The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus, which is about apologetics, of all things, something I have never been all that interested in. Just now I finished Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. I should have something to say on Good Friday.

Reading, I would say, has lessened my need to speak. I may speak again one day, but I don’t feel the need right now. I feel the need to replenish a spirit that has become dry and desiccated.

I am breathing again too.

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Your words need more melody

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It’s funny, isn’t it, how certain comments will stay with us and gnaw at us and maybe grow more irritating the longer we think about them?

Or maybe it’s just me. I work in the world of words, after all, and I like to string them together in what I hope are interesting ways. And so when I hear a curious comment, or a word that hits my ear at an odd angle, I think about what it might mean.

I don’t know if investment bankers or stock analysts do this, but I do.

“Your German needs more melody” is what my German teacher, Frau Proksch, said to me a couple of weeks ago in Berlin. I was officiating at a wedding at the end of the week, in nearby Potsdam, and so after several wearying days of intensive language classes, I asked her if she would coach me a little in the lines I planned to speak at the wedding.

After we practiced a few times, she said unexpectedly: “Your German needs more melody.”

When I have dared to use a German word in a sermon (not such an odd thing to do in a mostly German-speaking congregation), the typical reaction has been laughter. Like the time I used the word ankommen to make the idea of Advent a little clearer, there was laughter, which was a bit disconcerting because laughter was not the response I was going for at that particular moment. And ankommen is not an especially funny word. What was funny was that I dared to speak it at all.

Anyway, I’ve thought about the melody of my spoken words lately and have decided that my words are not the only ones that could use more melody. I have been listening to a few of the speeches at the political conventions in the U.S. these last two weeks, and I have to say, there isn’t a lot of melody. A lot of shouting, maybe, a lot of anger, but not much melody.

Could it be that my problem is really the whole world’s problem right now, or at least the part of the world I come from? Could it be that there is so much anger and cynicism and (at least in my case) despair right now that melody is in short supply?

The psalms have become my favorite devotional reading in the last weeks and months – mainly the laments. I need someone to express for me, in spiritual language, what I am no longer able to express, in spite of that love of language I mentioned earlier. In Psalm 137, a psalm filled with anger and cynicism and despair, if there ever was one, the writer reflects on the exile to Babylon and states that his words too have lost their melody: “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”

The idea is that the circumstances are so wretched, so hopeless, that it has become impossible to sing. I know that foreign land. I am there now – not Switzerland, but a spiritual place, a land of fear. My words have lost their melody.

“By the waters of Babylon –

                there we sat down and there we wept

                when we remembered Zion.”

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History walk

lancaster theological seminary

(Stephens G. Lytch, who wrote the following post, is a seminary classmate and friend. He and I first met at Princeton Theological Seminary in the fall of 1975 – on the third floor of Alexander Hall, for those of you who know the campus and still like to argue about the best residence halls. His path and mine have crossed often over the years, and the friendship has deepened. Since he mentions my wife and one of her previous careers in this guest post, I should mention that his wife is a Presbyterian pastor and is now president of Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I could not have imagined nearly 40 years ago that Steve and I would one day be commenting on the many losses in life we’ve experienced and our mutual hope in the resurrection. Thanks for the thoughtful – and hopeful – response, Steve.)  

On Saturday my wife and I took a History Walk sponsored by the local historical society. The theme was repurposing. We went to 20 buildings that had been repurposed and renovated for new uses. Many of the sites were old tobacco warehouses. One had been repurposed into an architect’s office. One is now the Lancaster Arts Hotel. Another is the costume repository for the Fulton Theater. One is condos and a candy factory. A brewery and tavern have been converted into a French restaurant. A carriage house has become an office that houses a travel agency.

The day before taking this tour Doug posted a blog lamenting the losses that come with turning 60. His greatest grief is losing the immersion in the life of his girls who are now accomplished young women. They have grown into everything he wanted them to be, but they are no longer the intimate part of his life they were when they lived at home.

Maybe the task of this time in life is repurposing the old structures – something Doug’s wife Susan must know about, having done a stint as a house flipper during the boom. Granted, part of the charm of those old buildings is that they still have quirky traits. Several of them have preserved quaint features, like freight elevators operated by rope pulleys, which are now interesting but useless. But others have taken the essence of why they were built and given it new life. An old dry goods warehouse is perfect for its new occupant, an open space office for independent contractors and entrepreneurs who thrive on the interactions that workplaces without walls provide. The ballroom on the top floor of the former girls’ school where young ladies were prepared for their debut will be a perfect venue for elegant receptions with its intricate plaster molding and stunning cityscapes.

The joy of being a grandfather doesn’t remove the ache to have my own children woven into my daily life. The death of parents and even friends reveals undiscovered layers of sadness. But those layers of sadness sometimes give shading to the more intense joy I now experience in things like noticing the blood moon, Psalm 139, and catnaps. Proverbs touts wisdom as more precious than gold, but sometimes the price of wisdom is knowledge – you know more and that is sometimes depressing.

I’m not sure I have enough confidence in humanity or the world that I could see much value in those changes without the resurrection. Knowing that we will be raised (repurposed?) gives hope that there is more than one use in a house (even one not made with hands) that has good bones.

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The best decade

going home

A friend once told me that when he reached his 60s he enjoyed the best decade of his life.

His 60s, he said, felt like a reward for years of raising children, building a career, and working hard. His boys were married, having children of their own and enjoying successful careers. His long-term marrige was stable – and, though you can never be absolutely sure about these things, seemingly happy. His career was at the point where he could slow down a bit and work fewer hours, while still enjoying his role as the founder of his professional practice. With all of that, his health was good too.

And – I almost forgot – he had a nice place at the lake to which he and his wife retreated most weekends for reading, walking, and quiet evenings by the fireplace.

So, good for him, right?

As I enter my 60s – reluctantly, but without much choice in the matter – I find that I am enjoying a few of those same things. Not all, but some. (Going away for the weekend has, in my line of work, never been part of my life.)

But here’s the thing, and if you’ve read this far, you must have anticipated something like this: It’s not all good.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am more grateful than I can say for everything I have. I am blessed in ways I could not have imagined. I am in the rare position right now of being able to live a lifelong dream. But – how do I say this without seeming ungrateful? –  it’s not all good.

In fact, I am beginning to wonder about that idyllic picture of this stage of life that my friend once painted for me. I don’t think he was telling me everything.

I had a moment yesterday that I should have ignored, but I couldn’t. It was a moment of grief and sadness. More than a twinge, it was more like a wave that washed over me and left me feeling unexpectedly low.

My girls who for 20 years were pretty much my whole life are now gone. They are doing all the things I dreamed for them – and more – so that’s not the problem. I am prouder, as a matter of fact, than anyone can possibly imagine. The problem is that chapter of my life is now closed, and I miss it terribly. I miss them. If I could, I would do it all over again, including the worries and sleepless nights that are inevitably a part of raising children.

But I realize that those times are now gone. They are not coming back. And I know that I’m terribly selfish for wanting them back.

I try to live in the present. I want to be grateful for this moment and all of its wonder and potential. And mostly I am.

I am beginning to see, though, that at this stage of life the losses become more apparent. They add up and accumulate. The little ones, the big ones, they can’t be ignored.

They don’t diminish the joy, but they certainly balance it.

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When a friend betrays you

lake michigan shore

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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Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday

This is the second post from a year ago that I am re-posting this week. Interestingly, thanks to the magic of search engines it’s already the most viewed post of the day, with more than 180 unique views – and it’s still morning in the states. “Holy Saturday” originally appeared March 30, 2013. The last line still gives me chills.

It’s Saturday, the day before.  And I just came in from the Easter egg hunt.

For some reason it happens every year on this day, the day before Easter.  Every church I’ve ever served has done it exactly this way.

Right now the park across the street from the church is teeming with happy children, watchful parents, and even a few smiling (“isn’t this wonderful!”) grandparents.  I talked with just about everyone, and everyone I talked to seemed to be having a good time, even a few of the older children who have aged out of the actual hunt and are being asked this year for the first time to hide the eggs, instead of hunting for them.

But there’s something odd about this day too – and something odd about having an Easter egg hunt on this day.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but hearing people say “Happy Easter!” on Saturday feels strange.

I keep thinking, “No, no, no, not yet.”

We Protestants don’t have a well-developed theology of Holy Saturday.  Our Catholic friends could probably tell us a thing or two about this day and what it means.  And yet, maybe there’s something we could say about today, the day before.

I’m sitting at my desk now about to put the finishing touches on my sermon for tomorrow.  I’m hoping it’s a good one too, because there are few things worse than having to preach a sermon three times that you know (after the first time around) is a turkey.

So, I’m feeling a sense of anticipation and a twinge of nervousness and a pinch of fear.  And that, I suspect, is what this day is really for – getting ready for what’s going to happen tomorrow, living with the nervous excitement, knowing (but not knowing) that Easter will be better than anything we can imagine right now.

In just a few hours the stone will be rolled away.

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The Promise of Easter – Again


I posted the following on April 3, 2013. It’s not “throwback Thursday” or anything, but this week I plan to re-post one or two posts from Holy Week last year. Unlike sermons I’ve preached previously, which I generally don’t like at all, I often like my older posts.

Since the start of the new year, my congregation has lost 29 people to death – either members of the church or close family members.

I can’t remember ever having gone through a stretch quite like this.

During this week following Easter, a week when I ordinarily catch my breath after a busy Lenten season, we will have four funerals or memorials services, every day Tuesday through Friday.  Two of them may involve overflow crowds.  One of the larger ones is for a physician who is said to have delivered more than 9,000 babies during his career in this community.  (One of his nurses in the ICU tearfully told me that he had delivered her.)

Yes, death is a part of life.  Yes, we are not people who grieve as those who have no hope (to paraphrase the Apostle Paul).  And yes, as I’ve written before, I actually feel more like a pastor at a funeral than I do with many other pastoral responsibilities.

But still.

On Easter morning I said in my sermon that Easter worship is not a time for reasons or explanations.  I’ve never preached an Easter sermon titled “Thirteen Incontrovertible Proofs for the Resurrection” – and don’t plan to any time soon.  I don’t think anyone really wants to hear on Easter morning why it’s reasonable to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

What I said was, “This is a day to believe if there ever was one, to open ourselves to the possibility that it’s true, that death is not the last word that will be spoken about us.”

I’m glad I believe that.  I’m glad I came to that conviction early in my ministry.  During my first year following ordination, I officiated at something like 60 funeral services.  A great deal of my job description at that first church right out of seminary was focused on pastoral care.  I called on homebound people and naturally was the first person to be asked to officiate at the funeral.

At the time, the pace of funerals seemed like a lot, especially for someone so new to ministry.  My mentor said, “You’d better figure out what you believe – and do it quickly.”  I did.  I believe in the promise of Easter.

And haven’t wavered in that belief

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The problem with Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday palms

The problem with Palm Sunday is that it’s hard to face up to the truth about the day.

You should know that your pastor is struggling mightily right about now, getting ready for tomorrow, because the truth about Palm Sunday turns out to be very different from our expectations. Your pastor is wondering how honest to be.

Here’s the thing: most people love Palm Sunday. And who can blame them? It’s fun to see our children waving palm branches and singing. And it’s fun for adults to sing, “All Glory Laud and Honor.” I saw a YouTube video this week of an American gospel choir singing “Ride On King Jesus,” and I found myself wanting to go to that church tomorrow to sing and dance and shout along with them. (Unfortunately, that church is a few thousand miles from here.)

As I child I loved going to church on Palm Sunday. Not only was it a welcome break from the tedium of Lent, but people seemed genuinely happy, even joyful, which you didn’t see very often in the church where I grew up. I thought then that Palm Sunday worship was a dress rehearsal for Easter, the mother of all happy church celebrations.

So, what’s a pastor to do? Preach about the dark truths of the day? Only the brave (or the ones nearing retirement) would do that. Mention that Jesus had come to Jerusalem for one purpose only – to die? That would bring everybody down. Remind listeners that Jesus may have been the only person that day who wasn’t enjoying himself? I’ve done that, and there was no applause.

If, as Luke tells us, Jesus wept over Jerusalem in the minutes before mounting that donkey, then his eyes would have been puffy and red. If he smiled, it was a forced smile, the smile of someone who doesn’t want to take the fun out of the day for other people.

But surely the people closest to Jesus could see his growing sadness, apprehension, and determination to see the mission through. They at least knew the truth.

Palm Sunday is a mixed bag of emotions – kind of like life as we live it. I find that even my best days, even my happiest moments, have at least a small twinge of regret or sadness or pain. You don’t get to be my age and not accumulate a few scars.

Speaking of scars, when Jesus emerged from the tomb on Easter morning, having triumphed over death, having destroyed sin once and for all, his hands and feet and side still bore the signs of his crucifixion. I suspect that he wore those scars proudly – and did nothing to hide them.

I think that’s honesty.

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The end of one thing, the beginning of something else (continued)

the end of one thing

I’ll get back soon to some blog posts about my transition to Switzerland; in fact, my next post will be about the Swiss habit of “three kisses.”

Sound interesting? It is. Stay tuned.

Today’s post is a response to a post I wrote recently about transitions – from one thing to something else. My friend Duane Kelderman raised a couple of important issues about it, and I asked him if he would be willing to guest blog for me. I’ve known Duane since 1977. He and I have crossed paths several times over the years, and for the last 10 years or so we’ve both served on the grants advisory board of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (it’s a mouthful every time I say that). Before his most recent transition, Duane was Vice President for Administration at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He’s a good friend and wise pastor.

Here’s Duane:

Doug’s blog about transitions reminded me of some recent discussions my wife Jeannette and I

had with some close friends. Jeannette and I just returned from a week-long vacation to Mexico

with four other couple friends. We’re all in our sixties and in some stage of transition from full-

time work to retirement.

One of the things that’s clear from our ten stories is that each person’s transition from full-time

work to retirement is unique, and often takes place over a number of years. Bill and Julie began

their transition to retirement 5 years ago when Julie retired from teaching. Three years ago Bill

retired as a full time school administrator but stayed on two more years in a half time position at

another school. Last year Bill fully retired.

The other thing that struck me as we talked about this transition is how the question of vocation,

of calling, is as important for these ten Calvinists in their sixties as it was in their 20s. Our most

energized conversations were around what we sense God is calling us to do in this next stage of

our lives.

A dentist has heard God call him to join an effort to build a dental clinic in Haiti where

he and his wife go annually to give dental services to Haitians. A retired pastor is very busy

helping churches discern their identity and direction. My wife Jeannette continues to work one

day a week as a hospice nurse, but knows her primary calling right now is to help our son and

daughter in law with their new twins—and their two and four year old siblings. I am enjoying

interim ministry and consulting, and have just become a board member of a national organization

that offers help to struggling seminaries. All of us want to know our life matters and that we are

obeying God even in retirement.

I don’t know what this means generationally. It seems as though winters in Florida or Arizona will not

be a central feature of the “ideal retirement” for baby boomers in the way it was for many of their

parents. I’m not sure. It’s too early to tell whether the ten of us who were in Mexico are part of

a broader generational trend. At the very least it seems safe to conclude that the transition from

full-time work to full-time retirement is thick, delightfully nuanced, and fraught with meaning for

many people currently contemplating retirement.

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