Tag Archives | pastoral

“Translation services” on Easter

 

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Last night a church member called to ask if we would be offering “translation services” to Arabic or Kurdish speaking people on Easter morning. She is tutoring refugee women in her village, and a half dozen or more are apparently interested in coming to Zürich for worship.

She asked the question so casually, like wondering if perhaps we would be receiving an offering on Easter this year. (yes)

But translation services?

I serve a startlingly multicultural church. On any given Sunday more than two dozen nationalities will be in attendance. Most people are English speaking, which is how we advertise ourselves to the Zürich area, but a few members are still very much in the learning stages of the language (as I am, unfortunately, with German).

Misunderstandings due to language are frequent, though mostly minor, and sometimes humorous. Still, getting along is hard work. It is in any church, of course, but it is even more so in a multicultural church. Leading (or even being a member of) a multicultural church is not for the person whose ego is easily bruised.

I should mention that we are decidedly low tech in our worship, at least on Sunday mornings. Morning worship is held in an old Swiss church, practically ancient by U.S. standards. The church has no screens or projection equipment. We consider it a good Sunday when my wireless microphone works.

Translation services (with headsets and translators offering simultaneous translation of worship) have not been discussed, as far as I know, but in the research for my new book I discovered that multicultural churches around the world often provide a list of “available languages” in their advertising. Do you prefer Mandarin? Or Pashtu? No problem.

My church is not there yet, but I recognize that the day is coming, sooner rather than later. My church may seem like an exception, and in some ways it is, but our experience is about to become the norm, even in countries like the U.S. where worshipping congregations are still stubbornly segregated along racial and ethnic lines.

I found all of this very exciting and quickly found a young woman from Lebanon who is fluent in Arabic (and in 2-3 other languages) and who agreed to translate for the refugee women on Easter morning. And then, still excited, I phoned a friend in the U.S. to tell the story.

His comment was discouraging: “Will they be wearing burqas?”

I had not thought to ask what these young women would be wearing, and to be honest I don’t care. My worry now, and with me there is always a worry, is how to present the message in a way that will communicate the good news of Easter.

It’s hard enough to get it right without all of the cultural diversity.

(Note: A reliable source, who prefers that I not use her name, but who is really well informed about these things, has leaked to me that my book is headed to the printer and will be available shortly. I’m excited about that too.)

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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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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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What in the world is God up to?

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If I were standing in a pulpit in the United States today, I would know exactly what to say.

I would say something about the U.S. presidential election, of course, which took place last week, and I would not be alone in that. I am guessing that some very fine sermons are going to be preached today all across the U.S.

In times of national crisis, America’s preachers have searched their souls and found wisdom that many of us didn’t know they had. Preachers who don’t sound eloquent most Sundays of the year somehow manage to be profound and memorable when it counts.

If you want to know the truth, I have thought about little else in the days and hours since last Tuesday. I have been searching my own soul about that election, wondering what it means, looking for divine wisdom and guidance.

But I do not serve an American church, not these days.

A small group of people came together more than 50 years ago and founded the church I now serve, and with an astonishing amount of foresight they called it an “international” church – not an “American” church.

The church I serve today is a church for people of all nationalities: no matter what passport you hold, you will find a welcome here. That was the vision, and it was a good one. It still is.

I don’t know – because we don’t keep these records – but I’m almost certain that U.S. passport holders in the congregation are not in a majority. When I first arrived, only one member of the church’s Council was a U.S. citizen. More than two dozen nationalities are represented in worship every single Sunday. It is a congregation that is staggering in its racial and ethnic diversity.

So, many people in my congregation have been sleeping just fine these last few days. They have been more than a little curious about what is happening in the U.S., but with the exception of a few from the U.S. most of them seem to be sleeping just fine.

On the other hand, we do have several members who are from Hong Kong, and I saw in the news – in the midst of all the coverage about Donald and Hillary – that the Peoples Republic of China has prevented two pro-democracy legislators from taking their seats in Hong Kong’s legislative council. That number may grow to 10. Why? China decided to make clear who was in charge.

I know several people who lie awake at night thinking about that.

We also have at least one member from Ethiopia, and because I have come to know him well I have been paying attention to nationwide protests in his country against the government. Government security forces killed 55 people one day last month in the Oromo region, where my friend is from, as part of an ongoing campaign of violence and terror.

My friend was able to bring his wife and children to Switzerland in the last year after being separated from them for several years, but he worries about others he knows who are still there.

And finally, we have members from Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon, which is where another wave of refugees is headed, though the West is not all that interested in receiving them.

When I think about all of this, I realize that a presidential election in the U.S. is only one news story among many. Don’t get me wrong. When a country with the world’s largest economy and military elects a new president, that’s news. But it is only one news story among many.

And so, what I have in mind for tomorrow is not a sermon about a U.S. presidential election or Hong Kong’s grievances with the Chinese government or even Ethiopia’s repressive and brutal regime. I have had a fair amount to say about refugees in the last couple of years too, and I don’t plan to revisit that subject tomorrow either. What I have in mind is a sermon about God’s providence, which involves all the nations of the world, all races, all ethnic groups.

What in the world is God up to these days? Is God still caring for and preserving the world he made? Now those are questions that more than a few believers around the world might wonder about.

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Becoming the (multicultural) church Jesus has in mind for us to be

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Within the last month I caught up with an old friend, and as is always the case with an old friend, time and distance are never factors in renewing the friendship. When we spoke, the conversation picked up where it left off more than 25 years ago.

I knew Jack Wald when I was pastor of the Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, NJ. Jack was a seminary graduate and an ordained pastor who had come home to New Jersey to take over the family business. Because he knew the unique demands of parish ministry, however, he made it his ministry to be a friend and source of support to me. I valued the friendship more than I can say. We went for long runs two or three times a week, during the lunch hour, and we would talk the entire time, which is not easy to do when you’re running up and down New Jersey hills.

And then I moved, and he and I lost touch, and I hadn’t heard from him until last month.

I discovered that Jack sold the family business and returned to ministry, and for the last 17 years he has been pastor of the Rabat International Church in Rabat, Morocco.

As you can imagine, we had a great deal to talk about.

After catching up on our lives, and our families, we talked ministry – the unique challenges (and the occasional great joys) of serving an international church. Jack told me, “The last 17 years have been the best of my life.” Which is not what you might expect to hear from a Christian man who is living in a predominantly Muslim country, where proselytizing is against the law, and where up to 60 percent of the congregation turns over each year. But I knew what he was talking about.

Jack pursued a doctoral degree in the U.S. while serving the church in Rabat, and he recently turned his dissertation into a book called A Guide to International Church Ministry: Pastoring a Parade (available on Amazon). When I finished reading the book a week or so ago, my first thought was, “He and I are pastors of the same church.”

Not literally, of course, but our experiences are very, very similar. To serve a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multicultural church in a setting that is not familiar, where the customs and habits are vastly different from everything we once knew, requires a high level of pastoral skill (and energy). I thought I served challenging churches in the U.S., but that was only because those churches in the U.S. were bigger than the International Protestant Church of Zürich – with larger staffs and budgets.

What made them far easier to lead – in retrospect – was that they were homogeneous, mono-cultural. We looked alike and thought alike and almost always knew what to expect from each other. To be fair, there is something to be said for serving a church like that. To serve a church like IPC, in contrast, requires a huge reservoir of patience and discernment and a determination to listen and understand. Our different backgrounds mean that we think differently about most things, even though we serve the same Lord, even though we speak the same language. Over two dozen nationalities are represented on any given Sunday.

That was the subject Jack and I talked about most – namely, finding common ground in a situation of so much diversity, so much theological diversity.  I don’t want to diminish or understate either the importance or the difficulty of this work. Some days I still find it overwhelming. I was so taken with the experience during my first year here that I wrote a book about it, and that book will appear, I hope, early in the new year.

In Revelation 7:9, John is permitted a glimpse into heaven, and he reports seeing “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

All tribes, peoples, and languages.

Everyone who is part of IPC, the church I now serve, or part of one of the dozens of other international churches around the world, has been permitted this same glimpse. It is most visible and most remarkable on communion Sundays when we stream forward to receive the elements of communion, but of course it is visible on other occasions as well. It is a remarkable and precious thing. We take it for granted occasionally, and for that reason we may need to be reminded that we are privileged to be part of something so rare and so beautiful.

In Luke 13:29 Jesus taught his followers that “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” This is the future reality to which Jesus points us and calls us. It is not an option. It is where history is headed. This is God’s plan for us. A great banquet awaits us, and not only for people who look like us.

After my (nearly) three years at IPC, I no longer think of our life together as nice but optional, interesting but voluntary. The church, if it is faithful, must move in this direction. This is what God desires for us, his children.

But of course a church like this one is not easy. To keep moving requires generous amounts of God’s grace, steady infusions of his tender mercy. I keep praying for both.

(Note: I wrote something like this for the November-December edition of the IPC newsletter called The Update. The photo is the reading desk from St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin’s church.)

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“Hey, I’m sending you my thoughts and prayers!”

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If you’re anything like me, your outrage has pretty much exhausted itself. Most days, what with the presidential election and all, I feel spent, outrage now in dangerously short supply. I know I’m not alone.

But I can still get worked up about a few things if I try hard enough.

Take prayer.

Surprised? You wouldn’t think that prayer would be high on my list of concerns, but it is. I’m more than a little concerned about the way people pray. And in my line of work, as you can imagine, I hear a lot of prayer – some of it touching and heartfelt, but much of it, frankly, shallow and empty.

My concern isn’t posture or whether or not people should close their eyes or fold their hands when they pray, though to be honest I wish someone would take Donald Trump aside and tell him what to do when he’s surrounded by evangelical pastors who want to lay their hands on him and anoint him with their prayers. I don’t expect him to get on his knees, but a facial expression that says he’s in the presence of a power greater than himself would be a nice start.

No, my concern is actually with the content of the prayers I hear – what people pray for and what those prayers sound like to me.

Whenever there’s a tragedy in the world – a mass shooting or bombing, let’s say – I will invariably hear that my friends are sending their “thoughts and prayers.” Politicians like to send a lot of “thoughts and prayers” these days, have you noticed? But here’s my question: Does anyone know what in the world that means? I haven’t figured it out. Can I actually send my thoughts to you? I assume they would be happy thoughts.  Or maybe supportive, comforting thoughts. Look out, here they come.

To be blunt about it, that’s not how I learned to pray. And I don’t recall that Jesus sent “thoughts and prayers” either, though I might have missed a situation in the gospels where he did just that. I’ll keep looking.

And then, since I’m venting my spleen about this subject, I can’t believe all the complaints I get about printed prayers in our order of worship. A few weeks ago someone told me that she had a problem with our church’s use of printed prayers – like the prayer of confession which we pray in unison every week in morning worship. She told me that prayers should be “spoken and spontaneous.” I tried to appear understanding, with my best pastoral expression, but I was thinking, “Lady, have you heard of the psalms? They sure look like printed prayers to me, all 150 of them.”

But I’ve saved the big one for last.

As a pastor I find myself on a lot of prayer chains. People are always asking me to pray – for that upcoming surgery, for the biopsy report, for the job interview, even for a parking space. And most of the time, I pray. I don’t send anyone “thought and prayers,” but I do let God know what I’m thinking and feeling. A family member was taken to the hospital a couple of Saturday mornings ago, and you’d better believe I was praying for her, for the ambulance driver, for little or no traffic on the way to the hospital, for the doctors who would be waiting for her, even for the person who would take down the insurance information in the ER. I think God probably noticed the  note of desperation in my voice. That was my hope.

I don’t have a problem with those prayers, and I offer my share of them. I ask God for stuff all the time. But I think there’s a different, higher purpose for our prayers. I think that when we pray we are conforming ourselves to the person of Christ.

When Jesus taught the disciples what we like to call the “Lord’s Prayer,” he wasn’t giving them tips on prayer. He was saying, “Pray these things until they become the desire of your hearts.”

Frankly, I’m not much interested in “daily bread.” I would prefer to have a comfortable retirement and the finer things in life.  “Daily bread” has never been high on my list of prayer points. But I think Jesus was hoping that I would pray that particular prayer until it became what I truly wanted.

Same with temptations. I kind of like temptations, don’t you? I would like to enjoy my temptations, without actually falling into them. But I think Jesus was hoping that I would change my attitude about temptation, by learning to pray differently.

Read the rest of the Lord’s Prayer. It works pretty much the same way. Prayer is asking God for stuff – I get that – but prayer has a way of changing us too, if we let it, if we start to think about what we’re praying for, if we can only learn to let God’s will be done here on earth as it is in heaven. And don’t be afraid to use a printed prayer. I know a 150 of them that might help.

So, there. I got it off my chest. Thanks for reading.

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(Photo: Above, my grand daughter strolling along Lake Michigan near Holland. Below, the cozy cottage at the lake.)

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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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A prayer for Sunday morning

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Lord, it gets harder to pray these prayers.

You must have noticed how I struggle. How could you miss it?

I stand on Sunday morning, I face my congregation, I do my best to look strong and confident, and I say, “Let us pray.”

And then I wonder what I should say. What is there to say?

Sometimes I think of the week just ended. Do I begin with Istanbul? But then I think people must be tired of hearing about that. And besides, it’s so depressing. Forty-one more deaths? We come to worship to have our spirits lifted, not to be reminded of the latest bombing, shooting, attack, massacre, disaster, or whatever. Frankly, I lose track of them. Weren’t we just talking about Orlando, or Brussels, or Paris, or Baghdad, or Kabul, or was it Mogadishu?

There are so many, Lord. We are no longer shocked. We have become numb. We hear the news and think, “Not again.” It’s hard to feel anything anymore.

Forgive us.

Other times – and I know this should happen more often than it does – I suddenly remember where I am. I remember that I am standing in your presence, your holy and majestic presence. I am speaking to you, the one who created everything out of nothing. And I am leading your people in prayer. I am praying on their behalf, and I know they are counting on me to get it right, to say what needs to be said, to express what is on their minds and in their hearts.

When I remember where I am, and who is listening, it’s then that I can’t go on. It’s then that I realize how inadequate I am to the task, how pathetic my words must sound. They certainly sound pathetic to me.

Forgive me.

Almost as an afterthought I remember to thank you for what you have given to me – to all of us – and I even name a few things, but the truth is, everything we have is a gift from you, all of it, every last thing. We are blessed people.

When I have said everything I can think to say, I say, “Thank you.”

Because I am thankful.

Most of the time.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

And hear my prayer.

(Photo: Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem)

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I used to play with guns

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The funny thing is, I used to play with guns.

They were toy guns, of course, but guns nevertheless. Playing “army” was my favorite thing. I remember adding the sound track for all of our battles, making noises resembling explosions or machine gun fire (my specialty). I seem to have had a vivid imagination for fighting, killing, and war.

And I have no idea why.

My parents never bought me a gun, not even a BB gun, and there were never guns around the house, except for my toy guns. My father, a World War II veteran, was not a hunter and showed no interest in weapons of any kind, and so he never taught me to shoot or thought it was his duty as a father to do so. He seemed more interested in teaching me how to throw a curveball.

But for some reason, when I was younger, I nevertheless had a fascination with guns.

I find this funny, I suppose, because I grew up to be a decidedly non-confrontational sort of person. I did play high school football, if that counts for anything, and I enjoyed the contact and the tackling, especially what my coaches liked to call “hard tackles.” And even today when I am threatened, I can easily assert myself, but the truth is that I have been more or less a pacifist. I feel somewhat odd writing those words, but most people, I have found, are content knowing that their pastor has a preference for peace not war.

I write all of this to say, I have no idea anymore what to think about the gun situation in the U.S., except that I find it deeply disturbing. With every mass shooting (the recent one in Orlando, the largest one in U.S. history, was the 133rd of the year, according to my reading), I find myself even more troubled and confused. Is it really such an important matter of personal liberty that anyone – even someone the FBI has interviewed twice for possibly radical views and violent behavior – should be able to purchase a weapon, even an AR-15 assault rifle?

As I type that question, I can think of several friends who will have their responses ready. So, before you write, you should know that I am familiar with all of the arguments. In fact, most people who follow the news know the arguments on both sides.

On one side, for example, there is Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, warning that “jack-booted government thugs” might come one day to take away the guns of decent, law-abiding citizens. This might be described as the fear of an authoritarian government.

On the other side, there is Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, a former congresswoman from New Mexico, who was shot in the head at a campaign rally in 2011, along with 12 other people, including a nine year old child and a federal judge who were both killed in the shooting. Giffords now understandably urges legislation to keep “guns out of the hands of dangerous people like criminals, terrorists, and the mentally ill.”

Maybe for obvious reasons these positions have been impossible to reconcile.

In keeping with the Swiss theme of my blog, I should mention that I have seen several Internet memes recently about the relatively high rate of gun ownership in Switzerland and the low rate of mass shootings here. The argument is that there is little correlation between gun ownership and mass shootings. However, the real story, which doesn’t fit a typical Facebook post, is a bit more complicated.

Switzerland does indeed have a high rate of gun ownership, one of the highest in the world, and though mass shootings occur, they are rare. But there is a high rate of gun ownership mainly because the vast majority of men in Switzerland are conscripted into military service and receive military training, including weapons training. Their personal weapons may be kept at home, but – and this is a fact not often reported – it is generally not permitted to keep army-issued ammunition at home. Further, there is in this country a blanket ban on automatic weapons.

To me the two situations – the U.S. and Switzerland – are not really comparable. A better example, to my mind, might be Australia, which has dramatically reduced gun violence and mass shootings through legislation. But this argument, I know, does little to persuade. Our minds on both sides are already made up.

I am weary at this point and don’t know what more to say, except this: I find it inconceivable that a follower of Jesus Christ, one who reads the gospels and attempts to apply the teachings found there, could support the situation as it exists.

(Photo: That’s the AR-15 … “effective and affordable.”)

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