Hi! My name is Doug...
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Looking back across the ocean

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It’s been an interesting time to be an American looking back across the ocean.

Yesterday I left my apartment building with the dog, and one of my neighbors walked over and began speaking to me in a rather animated way. I reminded him – in English – that I am still a beginner with my language study, but he kept going.

Most of my German conversation skills, by the way, have been learned here in the building with neighbors who speak little or no English. With a combination of sign language, smiling, Google translator, and my growing vocabulary, we are now able to communicate surprisingly well, though usually about friendlier topics, like dogs, for example.

“You’re American, right?” my neighbor asked, not in English and not in a friendly manner.

I said, “Ja,” sensing that this was not going to be pleasant.

“New York,” he said. And then he put his hands to his throat in a choking gesture. Finally, he waved his arm dismissively and said, “Better to live in Russia,” before walking away.

The shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, the choking death of a man selling single cigarettes in New York, the release of the torture report, together with the former Vice President’s comments that he would “do it again in a minute”  – these news items are all reported here with a mixture of fascination and revulsion.

The Swiss are frequently curious about Americans, and they speak proudly of having traveled to the U.S., but they can also be very critical. In fact, they are usually quite critical of American behavior, which in their view never measures up to the ideals we Americans loudly proclaim.

When I sat down to write out my sermon last week, I was tempted, as I am more and more these days, to preach from the headlines. It was Karl Barth – no stranger to Switzerland – who once (allegedly) said that the preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Then I opened my Bible to Luke 1 and the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, and I decided that I only get to preach on this story once each year. I was not going to waste the opportunity. I needed the message of hope and joy as much as anyone.

But even here, even at this time of year, I cannot escape the headlines.

Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

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Will this be on the test?

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Forty years ago I took a class in art history.

To be honest, it was more a survey of European art than anything else, and only five or six centuries’ worth of that, so in hindsight it was a pretty small slice of art history.

Even so, art history was not required for my degree.

And the class was certainly well outside my area of concentration, which – don’t laugh – was philosophy. And taking the class might have been risky, if I had been concerned about my grade point average or what a graduate school admissions committee might think about my academic record.

What’s next, basket weaving?

At the time, though, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was thinking, believe it or not, about art.

My dad was an artist, so I grew up with art and visited my share of exhibits and museums over the years. I still don’t know how to change the oil on my car, but I can make my way through an art gallery like a pro. (Tell me, who is better prepared for life?)

One of my best memories from childhood, in fact, was going to Europe with my parents and younger sister and visiting the great museums of art there. We dashed from one to another, with a cathedral or two in between, and that was my early impression of Europe – a lot of beautiful things to look at.

Once, in Florence, my dad realized that Michelangelo’s David was not on the tour itinerary, so we hopped in a taxi at lunch hour and flew – or rather crawled through heavy traffic – to the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze to see it, not knowing if our tour group would be waiting for us when we returned. We didn’t care.

This weekend, without a sermon to prepare for Sunday, thanks to the annual children’s pageant, I took a page from the family playbook and dashed over to Colmar, France, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. Yes, there was a famous Christmas market taking place nearby, but it was the painting by Grünewald that interested me.

And it did not disappoint. Forty years later I can still hear Edgar Boevé, the professor, describe the way the eye moves across the canvass. They did, just like he said!

And then, standing to the right of Jesus, I could see John the Baptist – tell me again why is he attending Jesus’ crucifixion? – pointing what may be the most famous forefinger in the whole history of Western art.

I felt a sudden rush of tears as I walked toward the painting. There it was at last. And there was John the Baptist’s finger. There was Mary, mother of Jesus, supported by John, the disciple, with that impossibly long, utterly unrealistic arm. And there was Mary Magdalene, the closest one of all to the cross, distraught.

I am grateful for that class – all these years later – because it cultivated in me a wonder and an awe that, over time, have not diminished.

Will this be on the test? Yes, it will.

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My annual Christmas letter

index (1)Dear family and friends,

I first started writing these things about 30 years ago. They were smart, funny, and irreverent. Just like me, or the person I imagined myself to be.

At the beginning my Christmas letters were the opposite of most Christmas letters you receive, the ones describing incredible promotions and fabulous vacations and over-achieving children. My Christmas letters had an ironic tone, a slightly amused look at the year just ended.

My favorite Christmas letter, now apparently lost from the historical record, described Susan’s courtroom theatrics in New Jersey when we and all of our neighbors were cited by an over-zealous police officer for failure to shovel the snow from our sidewalks within 24 hours after a particularly bad snowstorm. The charges were dropped because the police officer couldn’t say for sure if there was, in fact, a sidewalk under all of that snow. Susan got him to admit, under oath, that he didn’t actually get out of his car to check.

After reading that particular letter, my mother said, “You don’t send that to church members, do you?”

So, over the years, as the mailing list expanded, my annual Christmas letter became less smart, less funny, and more reverent. Just like me, middle-aged Doug.

The lowest blow of all came from Susan a few years ago when she said, “You’re getting to be just like Woody Allen, not nearly as funny anymore.”

Now, my Christmas letter is even available on-line, and whatever was exciting about this annual event is gone. A dear friend once wrote that he saved my letter for Christmas afternoon, after all of the parties were over. He sat in his leather recliner, he told me, with a glass of eggnog and bourbon, so that he could enjoy it.

It’s been a long time since anyone has said such a sweet thing. So, let’s get this over with. For this you can skip the eggnog.

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Early last year Susan and I moved to Switzerland.

Take a few seconds, as I did, to absorb that sentence. We sold our house and car and most of my Tommy Bahama shirts, which I never really liked anyway, and we loaded a few of our remaining possessions into a shipping container for the trans-Atlantic voyage. The rest of what we own, including the other car, went into storage, somewhere near Holland, Michigan.

I moved to a country that is almost unimaginably beautiful. Not just on postcards, but everywhere, all the time. Sometimes the beauty is overwhelming. I’ll drive over a mountain ridge and see my village below, with Lake Zurich and snow-covered mountains in the distance, and I’ll be at a loss for words, mouth gaping.

I bought a camera last summer, partly so that I could observe the beauty more closely, so that I could capture a small part of it, as though beauty is something that can be recorded and catalogued.

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I serve a church that is unlike any I have ever served before. It has elders and youth group and Sunday School and children’s choir, so it’s a little like other churches I have served before. Not surprisingly I lead worship pretty much the way I always have. And my sermons sound similar too. But in many ways this church is very different, delightfully different, and occasionally maddeningly different.

One time – it was my first Sunday at the church, and I didn’t have anything to do that day but sit in the congregation – we had just finished communion, and Susan leaned over and said, “That was awesome.” And I had to agree. It was. It had been a long time since she and I both felt that way.

I now stand behind the communion table on Sunday mornings, saying, “People will come from east and west, from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom that is coming.” And after saying it, I now think, “It’s already here.”

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Here, but not yet here.

We have our problems too. Finding a way to get along with so many different cultural (and spiritual) expectations is a challenge. Extra grace is often required, and grace, like gold, always seems to be in short supply.

I am learning a new language . After ten months I know a lot of German grammar and vocabulary. I can even make sense of the little tabloid – 20 Minuten – which commuters read on the train. But I am lost in most conversations with German-speaking people, and I have a hard time telling my barber how to cut my hair (not that barbers ever listen).

I live on the top floor of an apartment building with views of Lake Zurich and the mountains, a 12-minute train ride from Zurich. I can see the traffic on the Seestrasse below, and I can hear the church bells at all hours, every fifteen minutes. I walk the dog through the village every morning, in the dark, whispering “grüezi” to other dog walkers. I try not to smile, because Americans do that too much, I’m told, and it feels insincere to the indigenous population.

It is a good life. I am content (most days). I write blog posts. I have an idea for a book about multicultural congregations which my editor and publisher seem to find interesting. I hike the mountain ridge behind my village. I take pictures. I love my new congregation.

The downside, of course, is that I miss my children. They live (and work) a half a world away. They are married to good men. They have good jobs. And I am proud of them, more than I can adequately express. But I miss them. Occasional FaceTime chats are not enough. I watch their faces on the tiny screen. They are not the little girls I remember. And that’s good. But I miss those days. Those were good days too.

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I miss my grand-daughter. I had the thrill of seeing her take her first steps last August. She waited, I like to think, just so that I could be a witness. Or maybe her parents held her back a few days. Whatever it was, I was moved, as I was with my own daughters, about the powerful life force within us that wants to get up and get moving. She did and she is. She walks with ease now. There’s no stopping her. But last August those first tentative steps were – how do I describe it? – like grace. What can you do but savor it?

I can’t wait for Christmas this year. Partly because Christmas is so beautiful here, of course, and partly because I always look forward to Christmas Eve and the service of lessons and carols in a darkened sanctuary, filling up once again on that wonderful message of hope and joy. But mostly because, after a long flight on Christmas Day, I will be with family, my family.

I hope you have a good Christmas too. Fröhliche Weihnachten.

Love,

Doug

(Photos: except for the family photo, taken last summer by Brooke Collier, the rest are mine, taken very early on a Saturday morning, along the Pfannenstiel behind our village.)

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Getting ready for Thanksgiving Day

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(I am re-posting this from last year, mainly for my friends in the U.S. It still reflects my feelings about gratitude – namely, that I could be more grateful than I often am. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!)

Am I thankful? Sure, I guess.

The truth is, I usually need to be reminded. It’s not as though gratitude happens easily and naturally for me. With all of the good things in my life, with all of the moments of wonder and amazement, with a dream job and a new grandchild and good health, you’d think I would be thankful pretty much all the time.

But that’s not the way it is.

Much of the time – and I’m certainly not proud of this – I find myself thinking about what I don’t have. I’m not alone in this, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. Comparing myself to other people has turned out to be the number one gratitude killer in my life. I can find myself depressed and resentful in no time at all – just by looking around.

Maybe if I had less, I would be more grateful when something good came my way. On mission trips, when I have worked in situations of terrible poverty, I have often been struck by how much gratitude there is. Invariably the poorest of the poor live with so much more gratitude than I do.

Once, in the Philippines, I was with a church group that was building a house. Across the street I noticed a house much like the one we were building, and stenciled in tall letters across the front of the house were the words, “God is good, all the time.”

After a couple of days of reflecting on what that might mean – in a situation where God’s goodness wasn’t all that easy for me to see – I walked over and knocked on the door. I wanted to meet and maybe learn something from these people.

I was dirty and covered in sweat, but I was invited in anyway. And after introductions, after they offered to share with me just about everything they had, which wasn’t much, I mentioned the words on the front of the house.

They seemed surprised. Wasn’t it obvious? They had a place to live, didn’t they? Lots of people didn’t have that much. So, they were thankful. And it showed. The feeling of gratitude in that house was obvious and deeply moving. I left wondering why I didn’t have those same words stenciled across the front of my house.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. It’s my favorite holiday. One of them, anyway. And I think that what I like about Thanksgiving Day is that people like me who ought to be more grateful than we are will take time to name some of the things we’re grateful for. Before we eat, we’ll go around the dinner table, and each person will mention at least one thing. And then we’ll go around again. And again.

I am thankful. I wish I could be more thankful than I am.

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A pastor’s prayer for Monday morning

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Lord, I probably shouldn’t take Mondays off. Too much of today is filled with yesterday. What good is a day away if it’s filled with thoughts about what’s already happened and can’t be changed?

I loved being at church yesterday. So that’s good. I can’t always say that on Mondays, but I can today. Small blessings.

I can’t say much about yesterday’s sermon. It probably could have used more work, but you hear me say that most weeks and are probably tired of it. Am I right? I’ll try to be less critical of myself. But getting rid of those perfectionist tendencies has become a lifelong project. I could use some help. This is going to take some divine intervention.

I loved the music yesterday. Organ, flute, piano, all in various combinations.

Also, we sing all of my favorites on Christ the King. We missed “Crown Him with Many Crowns” this year, but happily no one complained (although that email may still arrive later today).

Following the church calendar is important to me, but I have a nagging suspicion that it doesn’t mean much to you. Anything I should know about that? Advent? Lent? Will there be much of that in the life after this? Christ the King helps me to remember that this victory I am looking forward to has already been won, and I need the reminder, even though you don’t.

Sometimes I get confused about what’s supposed to happen in worship. I love singing certain songs, not others, but I don’t usually think about what pleases you. If it pleases me, does it please you? A lot of things please me that surely don’t please you, so there must be more to think about than my feelings.

Or maybe I should think less on Mondays and enjoy the day more. I suppose that’s what would please you most, enjoying this gift you have given me. I’ll try to do that.

And thank you for listening. I need that.

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(Photos: That photo at the top of this post got my attention last Saturday. I didn’t need my German-English dictionary to understand it. I was on what was for me a new mountain path, along with eight other men from my church. Happily, I can report that no rocks fell on us. The next photo gives our location, and the photo at the bottom shows some of Switzerland’s tallest mountains in the distance. A beautiful day.)

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Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt

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I woke up in the dark this morning, which is not unusual at this time of year. Daylight hours always seem more precious right about now. I grabbed my camera – and the dog, who didn’t have to be asked twice – and headed up the mountain behind my village to the Pfannenstiel.

Walking, trekking, hiking, climbing – I don’t think the people I meet long the way are all that particular about how they describe this activity. Whatever it’s called, we do it because we love it.

We say a friendly “greutzi” to each other when we meet and keep going. I always smile too, as I say it, and the other hikers know from the toothy grin that I’m an American who has become lost on a Swiss mountain.

I know the path I’m on quite well by now and have even tried a few of the paths that seem to head off in odd directions. Remarkably, I always seem to end up again on the main path. And of course when that happens I make the obvious spiritual connection. This has been the story of my life. God has never let me wander too far off the main path.

Over the years I have collected various sayings and aphorisms about ministry from those who have practiced ministry a lot longer than I have. Early on I even put them together in a book that made a lot of money for my publisher and not nearly as much for me.

I am now beginning to do the same with hiking – collecting sayings, that is, not making money for my publisher.

“Anywhere is ‘within walking distance,’ if you’ve got the time” is one of my favorites.

I’ll never forget Yogi Berra’s line. The famous twentieth century theologian once said, “When you get to the fork in the road, take it.”

The veteran Mount Everest climber, Ed Viesturs, wisely said, “Getting to the top of the mountain is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” That one is the sort of quote that makes an amateur like me sound as though I know what I’m doing.

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” I’m not sure who first said that, but it must be something every hiker believes.  For me the walk is spiritual. It’s prayer time. It’s time to think through next Sunday’s sermon. And it’s also time to get a grip on the fears and worries that always seem ready to hijack my life.

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves,” said Sir Edmund Hillary.

And with each step I hope I am closer to the conquest.

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What I learned at seminary

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Have I mentioned before how difficult theological training was for me, how uncomfortable seminary education made me feel pretty much on a daily basis? And I don’t mean the academic work, although that was challenging enough.

Theological training – going to seminary – is often one of the most difficult experiences there is in education, and that’s counterintuitive, I suppose, because most people probably think seminary is like one big Sunday school – with snacks and craft projects and loving moms who teach. In other words, just like Sunday School – only better.

But, curiously, that’s not what I found.

In fact, there were no snacks or craft projects or loving moms anywhere to be found. There were no flannel boards to illustrate Old Testament stories.

What happened instead – and this is probably not what happens in the sciences or business administration – what happened instead was an immediate confrontation, a confrontation with everything I had ever been taught, with everything I had ever believed, with everything I previously thought.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think chemistry does that. Or tax law.

I could give plenty of examples. I don’t think there was a single lecture in “Introduction to the Old Testament,” for example, after which I did not go back to my dormitory room in a cold sweat, sorting out what I believed.

For me the hardest, most difficult, most challenging classes of all were in preaching, so of course that’s what I decided to concentrate in.

I grew up with an outstanding preacher. The preacher in my childhood was like a theologian in residence. He studied all week in his office on the top floor. And on Sunday he appeared and preached brilliant sermons.

And so, not surprisingly, that’s how I imagined myself.

But church life turned out to be so much different from what I expected. Spending all week in my top floor office, keeping my Hebrew and Greek up to date, was not going to work in the church into which I was ordained.  I quickly discovered that no one much cared about my biblical language skills.

And preaching, I soon discovered, was not limited to those weekly appearances on Sunday mornings. I soon found myself offering words of comfort and hope in hospital rooms, funeral homes, assisted living facilities, and even the prisons where my church members went to visit each week.

No prison inmate has ever asked me about the meaning of a word in the original language. I was always ready with the answer, but the question was never asked.

The people I found in church (and other places) wanted someone who knew them, someone who understood a little about their lives. They wanted someone who knew what it was like to be tested, to have failed, to have been beaten up a little. Unexpectedly, that’s what the “Introduction to the Old Testament” did for me.

My theological training did exactly what it was supposed to do. It took my Sunday School faith and made it grow up. I will always be grateful.

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Impressions of Switzerland after (nearly) nine months

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  1. People want to know if I like living here, and I usually say, ‘what’s not to like?’ Truthfully, I understand why so many people who plan to come to Switzerland for only a short time tend to stay much, much longer, eventually getting their Swiss citizenship and relinquishing their U.S. passport. Most days it’s like living a dream.
  1. I have stopped trying to have fun at the expense of the Swiss. Remember my ‘überpünktlich’ post from my first months here, what I thought was gentle teasing about how time conscious most Swiss are? No more of that. Why? I find that I don’t like the comments I hear from the Swiss about the U.S., so have decided to apply some version of the Golden Rule. I wish the worst thing I could say about Americans is that they look at their watches too much. You should hear what I hear.
  1. Does that mean I have no complaints about Switzerland? I didn’t say that. I am growing weary, for example, of the many speeding tickets I seem to be accumulating. For going 33 kph in a 30 kph zone. Really? Before I go completely broke, paying these 40 CHF fines, I need to find out where those cameras are and calculate alternate routes.
  1. The Swiss are good drivers. They tend to tailgate a lot, but that may be because I’ve had to slow down to a crawl. (Have my American readers made the conversion to realize how slow 30 kph really is?)
  1. I’m remembering all the times I heard as a child in school about the U.S. being ‘the greatest democracy in the world.’ I’m starting to think the people who said that never spent much time outside the U.S.
  1. I’m also remembering all the times I heard that the church in Europe is dead. Where did that ever come from? Not from anyone who has ever spent any time here. Missionaries arrive daily from the U.S. to ‘reach the unreached,’ which is wonderful, but based on what information? I think American tourists like to visit the great cathedrals of Europe and then conclude that the church on this continent has no future. What those tourists seem to miss are the many vibrant, active, growing Christian communities here, like the church I serve, for example. The church appears to be very much alive, thank you very much.
  1. American popular music is ubiquitous. (And not only that, it’s everywhere.) Turn on the car radio, and there it is. Evidence of American popular culture is all around – not only the music, but also Starbucks, Burger King, and the big Apple store on Bahnhofstrasse, one of the nicer streets for shopping in Zürich. I tend to avoid all of it, except for the car radio (listening to the news is important for my language learning).
  1. Still haven’t met Heidi. (Or Tina Turner.)
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The un-churched and the de-churched

Fall at Tree Tops Lane

I should not have been surprised as a new pastor that there would be some parts of the job that I liked and found energizing, while there would be other parts that I did not.

True of any job, right?

From my earliest days of ministry, I have enjoyed meeting, getting to know, and working with new church members. They almost always show up with smiles and energy and, if I’m lucky, with little baggage.

We call them the un-churched, and under our careful leadership they get churched.

Early on I thought, “Well, this is my true calling. This is what God has uniquely gifted me to do. Billy Graham and me, and maybe one or two others!”

After a few years of ministry I should confess that the reason I like this part of the job is because it’s easy. People on the way in are always easier to work with than people on the way out.

The part of the job that I never liked, that I have found de-motivating, was working with the de-churched, people who for one reason or another were fed up with the church – sometimes just my church, but often with most churches.

I remember coming to a new church several years ago – a church that advertised itself as having 2000 members – and at my first board meeting a motion was made to remove hundreds of names from our active rolls (and hundreds more from our inactive rolls). It must have been one of the largest purges of membership rolls in the history of the church.

I felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me. And no else around the table seemed to blink an eye.

At first I stuttered and stammered. I wondered what had been done to contact these people. The chairperson of the membership committee looked wearily at me and said, “Would you like to call on a few of these people? I’m sure a few of them would be receptive to a visit.”

Here’s what I was thinking: Would I like to call on these people? No, I would not. Do you really think I would like fill up every free evening between now and Easter with a visit to people who are hurt, angry, turned off, fed up, or just plain sick of the church? No, I have better, happier things to do.

But here’s what I said: “Sure, give me a few names. And while you’re at it, pass the rest of the list around so that we can do this together.”

No one looked happy. I’m sure I didn’t either.

And at that point I decided that we should pray. I prayed that the holy Spirit would pour out on us that rare spiritual gift of being able to keep our mouths shut, while the people on our lists spoke to us from their hearts.

My thinking hasn’t changed much over the years about what is fun (and what is not) in my job. What has changed is the growing realization that to be a pastor – to be a shepherd – means finding the sheep who get lost along the way. It’s not fun, but it’s important.

(Photo: This one is definitely from deep in the archives. That’s where I lived when I served my church in Wheaton. Tree Tops Lane is the best street name I’ve ever known, though I don’t miss the leaf raking.)

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History walk

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(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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