Couchsurfing in Bern

I walked towards the main hub of Bern central station and saw my friend Caleb standing with a group of three strangers. One of the three flagged me down and introduced himself as Sam.

“So you’re the one we’re staying with?” I asked.

“Yep. Welcome to Bern,” he said with a warm smile. Sam introduced me to his friends Benji and Gardner and then tossed me an umbrella.

“Follow us.”

This was my first couchsurfing experience. The concept is a little strange, but basically you go online to, create a profile, and then find someone with a spare couch in a city you’re traveling to. Caleb and I had found Sam ‘s place on the website and sent him a surfing request. A week later, we were staying with Sam in Bern for the weekend.

As our newly composed posse of five trudged through the stormy night, I asked Sam where we were heading.

“A local place.” He responded casually. After a couple of minutes, we stopped in front of a massive old barn covered in colorful street art.

“Welcome to the Reitschule.” Sam explained. “This used to be an old abandoned horse-riding school until it was taken over by some anarchists in the 80’s.”

“What happened after the anarchists moved out?” I asked.

“Oh, you don’t understand.” Sam grinned. “They’re still here.”

We walked through wooden double doors into the massive old barn packed with people. Benji and Mark grabbed us some stools near the corner while Sam greeted everybody in sight. They were regulars here.


The Reitschule

We sat down and started to talk. I asked about the Reitschule and learned more about the fascinating building. It was a community center of sorts claiming its own bar, restaurant, cinema, wood-working shop, conference room, and even a few apartments. Sam looked at me and asked how I liked the place. I told him I liked it a lot. He kept looking at me and his expression became more serious, like he was about to say something important.

“Everybody is welcome here.” He turned on his stool and gestured towards the crowds. “Everybody.”

“Yeah, even the people they don’t let into other bars. Crazy people, alcoholics, everybody.” His friend Benji quipped in.

“Yeah, everybody. Except for Nazis and cops.” Gardner added. Sam nodded in agreement.

“That’s cool. Very cool.” I said quietly while surveying the room.

And it was cool. Every type of person filled the massive space. There must’ve been 500 people in the recycled old barn. Young professionals in tight grey khakis with skinny black ties, rowdy teenagers with gaged earrings and black denim jeans, tired old men with grey beards and tattered clothes. Some people smoked in the corners. Others played ping pong on a makeshift table. Anti-FIFA shirts were for sale above the bar, protesting Brazil spending billions on soccer stadiums when millions of Brazilians live in extreme poverty.

We chatted with our Bernese hosts at the bar for an hour or so, getting the low-down on everything from Swiss chocolate, to the country’s unique direct democracy political system, to the Bernese bear pit (Yes, Bern has a bear pit. So both the best university and the best city in the world have bear pits. Sic ‘em.) Benji, Gardner, and Sam were awesome. They thought deeply about the world and cared deeply about the people in the world. They were that rare combination of intellectual and kind, pausing to think before they said things and yet not taking themselves too seriously.

Despite the fascinating conversation with our new friends, the ten hours of train travel that day started to wear on Caleb and myself. Sam noticed and asked if we wanted to head back to his place. We nodded.

“Here’s the key to the flat. Make yourselves at home.” Sam sketched us a crude map to his apartment on a napkin. “In the morning, there’s cereal in the cupboard and milk in the fridge. Oh, and feel free to use my computer.”

Here was Sam, somebody we met two hours ago, giving us the key to his house and telling us to make it our own, use his things, eat his cereal. So this is what it means to be welcomed in.

The next day was a dream. Sam’s place in Bern was a launching pad towards the beautiful Swiss Alps. Saturday morning, Caleb and I hiked from the Lauterbrunnen Valley to Mürren, a charming little mountain town perched in the shadow of the Jungfrau mountain. On the way down, we spotted a waterfall close to the trail and took turns standing underneath the icy mist. We came back to the flat that night and Sam took us to another local place.  This one was even more remote, funky, and, of course, welcoming.

On Sunday, the dream continued. Sam, Benji, Caleb, and I put real Swiss cheese(yes, there’s a difference) on our scrambled eggs, drank Italian dark-roast, and blared Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks from the stereo. Benji and Sam were convinced that Texas was a state filled completely with gun-bearing, boot-wearing cowboys, so we decided to feed that stereotype.

After brunch, they took us to the Aare river. Benji parked up on the street, and we walked down to the river’s banks. The water was deep turquoise and see-the-bottom clear, like the water in those Caribbean vacation advertisements. It was easily the most beautiful river I’ve ever seen.

“So what do we do now?” I asked.

“We swim it.” Benji replied with a playful smile. We placed our stuff on the bank and walked a mile up the path along the bank of the swift-moving river to a pedestrian bridge. After asking a million questions about how to not die while floating the Aare, I climbed up on the bridge’s railing, said a quick “YOLO” under my breath, and cannon-balled fifteen feet down into the river below.

photo cred to tntmagazine

photo cred to tntmagazine

I floated briskly down the cool, blue river, pinching myself a few times in between swim strokes just to make sure that floating this idyllic lazy river in Switzerland wasn’t a dream. All types of people, gym junkies with chiseled muscles and grandmas with arm wrinkles, drifted down the current alongside me. Just like the rest of Bern, everyone was welcome to float the Aare.

The Aare River from above

The Aare River from above

After we exited the Aare, the dream ended. It was time to go home. We exchanged hugs and headed towards the train station. During goodbyes, our host Sam got the last word of goodbyes.

“You’re welcome back anytime.” He said with a big smile.

I’m convinced that there’s no better way to show love to the people around us than a party invitation or an open couch to sleep on. Sam and his friends did that for us in a big way this past weekend. Our new friends welcomed us in and shared their lives with us, and the result was an incredible weekend.

Our time in Bern made a big impression on Caleb and I. It made us want to share our things more. It made us wonder if we were doing it wrong, holding our possessions and our money too tightly with clenched fists.

Sam’s radical hospitality was awesome. He opened his apartment to us, shared his  local stomping grounds, and gave us free access to the cereal and milk. It was pretty awesome. But if a weekend’s free lodging is the only reason I’ve got to welcome others, well, that gift doesn’t keep on giving too far down the line.

But here’s the bigger reason to welcome others and hold our possessions loosely. The reality of Jesus is that, through faith, WE HAVE BEEN WELCOMED. He invites us into His Kingdom. He calls us Beloved. Every good and perfect gift comes from Him. The list of good news goes on and on and on. His hospitality puts the nicest bed and breakfast to shame, and his gift-giving makes Santa look like Ebenezer Scrooge.

That gift, the gift of the Gospel, keeps on giving. Because of Jesus and what He has done, we look at our things differently. We see that the value of our possessions, our money, and our homes lies in our ability to bless others with these gifts.  We have houses to host and welcome others. we have money to provide for the needs of others, and most importantly, we have the Good News of Jesus to share with others.

Join me in remembering the Good News, that He came and died and rose again so that we could be welcomed. This truth fuels us to radical hospitality, to sharing and giving and welcoming in a way that’s anything but ordinary.

Also, if you’re looking for a couch to surf, there’s a new listing up in Waco. Click here if you need a place to stay. In the words of Sam, “you’re welcome anytime.”



Is Our Church Too Sober?

Maastricht Musings is a new category of posts that I’ll be adding to as often as possible while I study abroad for 11 weeks this summer in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Some will dabble deep into theological truths; others will offer comic relief, but hopefully all will offer entertaining and informative glimpses into this summer overseas.

My roommate Patrick and I spent the weekend in Zermatt, Switzerland, a mountain resort town more populated with deep-pocketed tourists than backpackers on a budget. Our early opinions on Zermatt was the epic mountain hiking was a blast but the regal and ritzy town was a bore.



On Sunday morning, we and some newly acquired friends from our hostel walked into a little anglican chapel on the edge of town. On arrival, we instantly cut the average age of the tourist congregation in half. We timidly walked down the center aisle and filed into the second row. I had never been to an Anglican church before. and if I’m being honest, I was expecting a service quite fitting to the town of Zermatt: a boring, and traditional snoozer of a service. I expected an lethargic church service that would leave me missing my contemporary and hip church back home.

Well, God had different plans. Today is Pentecost Monday, a continent-wide holiday here in Europe. Yesterday’s service marked the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The text for the sermon came out of Acts 2. The pastor began to read Acts 2 in a monotone voice, conforming to my expectations for the service. I don’t know how you drearily read a text about Pentecost, but he was managing. He got to the part where the Holy Spirit has descended on the believers, and they begin to proclaim the wonders of God in all different languages, attracting a large crowd. He read verse 13:

But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

The pastor described how the crowd gathered around the Christians on that day and begin to mock them for being drunk. At this point in the chaplain’s sermon, the tone shifted dramatically. In a booming voice, the previously mild-mannered chaplain asked a piercing question that hasn’t left my mind for the past 36 hours.

“Is our Church today too sober?”

“When was the last time that the world took notice of Christians that were so full of the Holy Spirit that they looked different?”

“In our church today, we love our system of religion but want to deny God’s power to move in our midst.”

He wasn’t talking about alcohol. He was talking about how our church today feels too much like a book club and not enough like a life-changing, paradigm-shifting, and universal collection of people who are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit within us. After this poignant indictment of our church today, he turned our attention back to the believers in the story.

“The truth and the irony of this story is that they were full of the new wine, the new wine being the blood of Christ shed on their behalf. Because of the reality of  this new wine, the Gospel, this very early Church looked different and, on Pentecost, the world took notice when the Holy Spirit moved through them.”

Needless to say, my expectations for the service were shattered in the best possible way. As our small motley crew of a congregation sang a few hymns off-key, that question echoed in my head. It’s still bouncing around up there, enough so that I want to pass that question on through this blog. Think about it. Ponder it. Pray on it.


Is our Church today too sober?

That first day of Pentecost ended with a sermon by Paul and a description of the early Church that was anything but sober.

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call. With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:36-47