Six years ago, my family and I watched as a team of international movers bubble-wrapped and boxed every item we owned in preparation for our move back to New Jersey. We had completed a three-and-a-half-year assignment in Zurich, Switzerland, and were now headed home to the United States. By all accounts, our time in Zurich had been an overwhelming success. Wanderlust led us to dozens of cities across Europe, journeying as far afield as Israel and Egypt. My husband’s performance at work received stellar reviews, and in the midst of our full life, he managed to earn a Master’s Degree while working full time and raising a family internationally. Our three children learned German, made new friends with ease, and embraced a life of constant change—a feat many adults never manage.
And me? I lived the life I’d always dreamt of, writing articles from my kitchen table with a stunning view of the jagged peaks and green valleys of the Alps as a backdrop. On sunny days, I ran trails winding through the foothills of the mountains, and I reminded myself to live every moment awake and alive to the experience. I knew this cocoon spun from joy was a temporary endeavor. The existence of the real world waited for me across the ocean where family tension, financial insecurity, and suburban boredom resided. Eventually we would return there, but for now, I lived in a constant state of beauty unfolding.
Our years in Zurich have taken on a mythic quality in our family, and we reminisce over stories that begin with the words, “Remember when…?”. They were some of the best years of our lives, though a tiny, niggling part of me wonders if we’ll regret some of our choices during those years. When I feel particularly vulnerable, I wonder if we disordered our priorities while there. I question whether or not the choices we made will haunt the future spiritual growth of our children—if the cocoon was actually a product of my romantic imagination.
At the time of our move to Switzerland, my husband and I had spent an intense few years committed to serving in our growing church community. We’d been churched all of our lives, and, while not tired of Jesus, we were tired of what the church can ask of us in service to Him. We needed a sabbath from serving, and in Zurich, for a number of complex reasons, we decided to take a sabbath from church altogether. Our children were young, and just entering the early years of elementary and middle school. They too had been churched all their lives, and with our move to Switzerland and the ensuing language barrier, no easy solution for an English-speaking church existed.
Because my husband traveled much of the week, our weekends became a sacred space for us as a family. We either traveled abroad or spent the weekend exploring the forest, watching movies, or eating large, late helpings of homemade waffles. I refused to consider surrendering that time to an international church 40 minutes away with questionable theology and no discernable leader in the role of pastor. Rather than settle for a seriously flawed solution, we stayed home together.
For nearly four years, we cobbled together our own version of Bible teaching for the kids or we watched the messages broadcast over the internet from our church in New Jersey. For the first time in my life as a former Pastor’s kid and a heavily invested church member, Sundays brought the blessed relief of unhurried sabbath time with my family. Culturally, the country encouraged this day of rest, banning all noise—including mowing the lawn or dropping glass bottles at the outdoor recycling centers. All the shops closed for the day, and like us, most Swiss spent Sundays with family in their local cathedrals of forest and lake and mountain.
We are six years settled back into our life in America, and the memory of those days leaves me feeling both longing and regret. We’ve returned to our church in New Jersey, happy to serve and participate in this familiar community of believers on Sundays. But I still feel the pull, the physical urge for rest and togetherness, the desire to retreat from the busyness of the weekend into my familiar cocoon of beauty and true Sabbath.
Since our return years ago, we’ve intentionally encouraged the practice of service and commitment in our children. They are older and worldly-wise, and our efforts have been met by significant resistance.
They remember the days of sprawling on the sofa to watch a video recording of the message from across the ocean. They remember the excitement of flights to faraway places on the weekends. They remember forest hikes and lazy lakeside cookouts of grilled bratwurst and mustard sandwiches. They remember the tinkle of cowbells in the distance without the roar of Sunday errand traffic. They remember slow, and sleeping in, and mornings of birdsong breaking through stillness. I, too, remember.
Try as we might, we have found no suitable substitute for our Swiss custom of rest and Sabbath. American life, with its weekend team sports and consumerism and constant need for busy, busy, busy, is not suited to a countercultural stance. My teenagers tell me that none of their friends attend church on weekends. They don’t understand our insistence, not only in attendance but in service. In our family, Sundays have become a point of surrender in our walk with Jesus. We’ve experienced how easy it is to slip away from our commitment to gather together with fellow believers.
Our children are older now, some of their life choices have led me to wonder if we did them a disservice by not placing a higher value on traditional church during our years in Switzerland. I’ve had to forgive myself for what may have ultimately been a bad decision. However imperfectly, I find grace in the knowledge that we’ve always, always pointed them to the source of all that is beautiful and true, Jesus.
Legalism would have me fear the choices we made all those years ago, but I know many healthy, Jesus-loving Christians who grew up in dysfunctional homes or were unchurched or never heard the name of Jesus as children. I know that grace can overcome all of my failures as a parent.
At times, I have cocooned my children too much from the world at large, wrapped like precious cargo in the bubble wrap of cultural Christians; and at other times I have kept them too much immersed in the world apart from it. I don’t know how they will express their faith as they enter adulthood, and this is another step in the life of surrender. I am imperfect and so are my choices. I am forgiven for my failings, and I lean into mercy, knowing so are my children.
I love the years we spent prioritizing our family as a sacred place of growth and togetherness. I love how the wider world became a place we could see and touch and smell through our own experiences, where we learned how others prayed or asked questions or worshipped. And I love the Bride of Christ, where we enter into the fellowship of believers through worship and service. I have beheld the beauty of God uniquely through both.
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Thank you for a beautifully written and thoughtful piece.
I have been encouraged by many of your posts as you share from your walk as a Christian. You are an effective and gifted writer.
The choice you made as parents in Switzerland regarding your family’s sabbaths I believe you made in good faith and in the desire to bless and grow your children’s souls toward Christ.
From my perspective as a 60 year old mom of grown children (five sons, one daughter in their 20’s and 30’s) who we raised in mostly a PCA church, three of whom now faithfully attend and serve in their churches, two who occasionally attend) I want to encourage you that whatever you can do to steer your kids toward worship and service in a like-minded body of believers will lay a foundation for their future. Yet as they move into adulthood and make their own choices you may find yourselves praying (in earnest!) as parents for them to return to/live closely with Jesus. Our plans, patterns, and prayers we offer with faith, hope, and love.
Blessings on you and yours:)
Katie, thank you so much for your encouragement! It’s always such a gift to hear from mothers who are a bit further ahead than me, encouraging me to keep pressing on and praying in earnest for my kids as they enter adulthood.
This is a lovely piece and I needed to read it TODAY. I needed to hear your words of grace for parenting mistakes from someone who knows what it is like to be an ex-pat. Our family moved to the UK as church planters last year and we are fearing for our oldest son. He is struggling and we have not always been perfect in that struggle. The words that I needed are, “I know that grace can overcome all my failures as a parent.” This is so true and also part of the surrender. Thank you.
Amy, oh, how well I understand this! Praise God, perfection isn’t required from us in parenting, but rather, surrender. Thinking of you and your family today, and believing with you that God’s grace is sufficient for you.