Hi, my name is Doug.
I write little essays about faith and life.
I also laugh at my own jokes and correct other people's grammar.
I'm far from perfect.
This is my blog.

I still think Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday

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In this country, unfortunately, today is a work day like any other.

I live in a small village near Zürich, Switzerland, with my wife and dog, and on Thursday morning I will be getting on the train, as I do every morning, and will be heading to my office.

The train will be filled, as it is every morning, except Sunday, and so I will stand for the twelve or so minutes that it takes to reach Stadelhofen station, which is a short walk from my office. I will read the tabloid-sized newspaper, 20 Minuten, which is available free on the train platform, or I will listen to German-language podcasts on my iPod. Either way, it is a pleasant enough ride, and I enjoy it.

There’s no need to feel sorry for me for missing Thanksgiving in the U.S. this year. I live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and it is especially beautiful at this time of year, with Christmas lights and markets and something called Glühwein (look it up). Every day from the windows of my top-floor flat I can see Lake Zürich below and the snow-covered mountains beyond. Some days, when I am tempted to take that view for granted, I have to remind myself that living here has been for me a dream come true.

So, am I thankful this year? You bet I am. I am thankful for being able to live here, I am thankful for meaningful and challenging work to do, work I believe in and feel passionate about, and I am thankful for the people with whom I get to do this work.

Beyond that, I am thankful for my family. I look forward to talking with a few of them later today through the technological miracle known as FaceTime (thank you, Apple). And I will study the faces of my daughters, and they will pretend not to notice if I cry when I see them. They are both married and live too far away, but we talk regularly, share photos about our lives on Instagram, and commiserate about election results. I love them more than I can say.

I will also be seeing my three-year-old grand-daughter, via Facetime, and if she’s in the mood, she will sing me a song – maybe “Jesus Loves Me” (which she is learning in the Cherub Choir at her church). I love her too, more than I can say.

And then there is the grandson, who will make his debut into the world early in the new year. I am thankful for him already. (No, the truth is, I am coming out of my skin with excitement.)

I have people in my life who love me and care for me and keep me honest. I am especially thankful this year that we were all in agreement about the election and who should win.

Is there more? Yes, too much to include here, though I will mention my health because older people tend to do that. And you should know that I am thankful for my faith too. I don’t see how I could have made it through the last year without it.

Happy Thanksgiving to all! It’s a good holiday, whether you’re a U.S. passport holder or not. It’s a good idea to start the day by remembering what there is to be thankful for.

(Photo: On Thursday night at 6:00 the Christmas lights on Bahnhofstrasse – called “Lucy” for some reason – are switched on, and that’s pretty cool.)

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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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A day in the life of an international church

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Serving an international church is endlessly interesting.

I really wish I had started at the beginning to list and catalog all of the many curious, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing events in the life of a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-national congregation. With more than two dozen nationalities in worship on any given Sunday, a great deal can happen, often memorable.

Like what happened yesterday.

Some newcomers – we have a lot, which is nice – arrived at the church for worship and noticed that there was a “coffee hour” taking place on the patio in front of the church.

Odd, they thought, that the “coffee hour” would be taking place before church, so being curious or eager to fit in or whatever it was, they approached – only to discover that everyone was speaking French and drinking wine. Even odder – to them – was the fact that worship seemed to be starting inside. They could hear the organ playing, and they could hear people singing. So, what were all of these people doing outside and drinking – at mid-day for heaven’s sake?

At that point, the newcomers did what seemed to them to be the right and decent thing to do. They found someone with a name tag and complained.

They found it “just plain rude,” they said, that everyone was speaking French, and they found it “most unusual” – a slightly judgmental use of those words – that people would stand around and drink wine before Sunday morning worship.

They did not have to supply the question, “What kind of a church is this?”

The person with the name tag turned out to be our “safety officer” for the day, and he patiently explained that the French people out on the patio were most likely members of the French Reformed Church. It was their building, after all, he said. The English-speaking congregation rents the space from them. And, he added, the French speakers were allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted on their patio, as long as the English speakers were allowed to enter the church by 11:00.

Can you imagine the conversation that these newcomers had later in the day?

(Photo: That’s the front of the French Church where all of the rude behavior takes place.)

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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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Stumbling upon the Stolpersteine

index (25)During my intensive language learning last week at the Goethe Institut in Berlin, I went for walks at the lunch break – Mittagspause! – to rest my weary brain and to learn a little about where I was.

As it turned out, I was in an interesting place – near Alexanderplatz and the Hackescher Markt in what was (until 1989) East Berlin.

Not far from the door of the Institut I stumbled upon three Stolpersteine (pictured above), a word which literally means “stumbling stones.” Stolpersteine, a word my exceptionally patient teacher Frau Proksch taught me to pronounce, are part of an art project by the German artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate victims of National Socialism at their last place of residence.

The stones are actually concrete cubes, 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters (3.9 inches by 3.9 inches) fitted with a brass plate and inscribed with the name and life dates of the victims. As you walk along Neuer Schönhauser Strasse, where the Institut is located, you see several of these Stolpersteine, and then you realize that people who once lived here were taken from their homes and deported to extermination camps.

The project started fairly small – in the German city of Cologne – but has expanded to 50,000 Stolpersteine in more than 280 cities in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and others, for a total of 18 European countries.

I confess that I had never heard of the project before, and now that I have seen it (or a very small part of it) I can’t get it out of my thoughts. It’s a deeply moving sight.

The majority of those commemorated of course were Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but other Stolpersteine have been placed for Sinti and Romani people (then called “gypsies”), homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, black people, members of the Christian opposition (both Catholic and Protestant), the Communist Party, military deserters, as well as the physically and mentally handicapped.

The German people I know are not proud of their history, but to their credit they seem determined to remember it, acknowledge it, and learn from it. I hope other people – let’s say, American people – will take a look at this project and learn something from it as well. Too many other people could make it to the list of victims.

stolpersteine auf Deutsch

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(Photos: At the top are three Stolpersteine, located just steps from the main entrance to the Goethe Institut. The other photos were taken along Neuer Schönhauser Strasse. By the way, there really was “free cold beer” at Pepe Jeans London. I went inside to find out. Also, the dessert was crème brûlée, and it was very good.)


 

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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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Learning from midlife

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Midlife is a stern, unforgiving teacher. Other than that I liked it a lot.

I am teaching a class at my church right now about midlife, and as every teacher knows I am learning far more about the subject than my students. We are using a fine book, but I am freely supplementing the book with some of my own reading, research, and commentary. I am, after all, a midlife survivor, with scars to prove it. (The scars are real, not metaphorical, and have been left by a series of dermatologists.)

While getting ready to teach the class I learned that most people like to attach the word “crisis” to the word “midlife,” as though the only conversation we can have about midlife is about the crisis that sometimes goes with it.

Far more helpful than the word “crisis,” I think, is the so-called U-curve hypothesis, which rather nicely summarizes what many of us face. We go from young adulthood to midlife filled with anticipation and high hopes about what life will bring, believing what our parents and teachers have foolishly told us about following our bliss, only to run into obstacles, some of our own making and others that are inevitable as we age.

When I graduated from seminary, for example, I imagined that I might become a superstar preacher with my own television network (and satellite). To tell the truth, I have had a deeply satisfying ministry over the years, but the television part of it has, sadly, eluded me. I once appeared on an AM-radio talk show, but that was only for an hour, less commercial breaks (and news on the half hour). And my appearance was to talk about the church and social media, not to present the gospel. I would be surprised if we had more than five listeners. And yet, I spoke that Saturday evening as though to a stadium with 50,000 people. (I was not invited back.)

Doug's brief radio career on WJR

The bottom of the U-curve varies among countries, but the global average seems to be age 46. In case you’re interested, the Swiss reach the bottom part of the curve at the startlingly early age of 35. In any case, the late 40s and early 50s seem to be the age where disappointment, dissatisfaction, and discouragement can add up and become for some a full-blown crisis.

But the good news, I was happy to discover, is that there is life after the dip.

In fact, the 60s, 70s, and even 80s can be (according to the research) wonderful years. Older people tend to be happier, even though we don’t always look like it. This is counter-intuitive, I suppose, and income and education are factors too (as they are at every age), but generally speaking it’s not so bad to grow older. My yearning to be a superstar preacher, for example, has mostly disappeared, and I find myself deeply grateful for the few people who show up each Sunday morning to hear me preach.

All of this happiness in old age assumes, of course, that you can escape midlife with relatively few bone-headed decisions, the kind all of us are tempted to make when we’re feeling disappointment, dissatisfaction, and discouragement. If you are contemplating one of those decisions right now, give me a call. I will do my best to talk you out of it. You don’t really need a convertible.

As a pastor, I tried of course to put all of this midlife talk in faith perspective, and in the class I even presented some impressive-looking charts and graphs about faith stages. Along with everything else, faith begins to look and feel different at midlife, a bit thicker around the middle. And then, as it ages, it tends to grow into something wonderful.

Earlier in my life, for example, it was important to me to be right – and to convince other people of the rightness of my thinking about most things. It was tiring to be right all the time, but I thought I was called to that important ministry. I forget now when it happened, but I seem to have let go of that need or whatever it was. I still know what I believe, but I am far more relaxed when I talk about it. I can listen to other people, even when I don’t agree. I can even change my mind. What’s different is that my faith has become part of me, not something I admire or debate or throw at other people. It’s who I am.

Next month I will be heading down to Lake Zürich after morning worship for a few baptisms by immersion. Since I agreed to do my first one, a few more requests have come along. I’m not sure that “midlife Doug” would have agreed so easily, but “older Doug” is surprisingly accommodating and willing to get wet, to wade out into the water with his clothes on.

There’s no telling what “older Doug” might do or say (or write) next. This next stage of life might even be fun.

(Top photo: Yes, that’s my convertible, the stereotypical midlife decision, purchased at age 44 and sold nine years later. Lots of fun, but very expensive. Next photo: Yes, that’s me, trying out a career in AM-radio at WJR in Detroit.)

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