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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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The best decade

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A friend once told me that when he reached his 60s he enjoyed the best decade of his life.

His 60s, he said, felt like a reward for years of raising children, building a career, and working hard. His boys were married, having children of their own and enjoying successful careers. His long-term marrige was stable – and, though you can never be absolutely sure about these things, seemingly happy. His career was at the point where he could slow down a bit and work fewer hours, while still enjoying his role as the founder of his professional practice. With all of that, his health was good too.

And – I almost forgot – he had a nice place at the lake to which he and his wife retreated most weekends for reading, walking, and quiet evenings by the fireplace.

So, good for him, right?

As I enter my 60s – reluctantly, but without much choice in the matter – I find that I am enjoying a few of those same things. Not all, but some. (Going away for the weekend has, in my line of work, never been part of my life.)

But here’s the thing, and if you’ve read this far, you must have anticipated something like this: It’s not all good.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am more grateful than I can say for everything I have. I am blessed in ways I could not have imagined. I am in the rare position right now of being able to live a lifelong dream. But – how do I say this without seeming ungrateful? –  it’s not all good.

In fact, I am beginning to wonder about that idyllic picture of this stage of life that my friend once painted for me. I don’t think he was telling me everything.

I had a moment yesterday that I should have ignored, but I couldn’t. It was a moment of grief and sadness. More than a twinge, it was more like a wave that washed over me and left me feeling unexpectedly low.

My girls who for 20 years were pretty much my whole life are now gone. They are doing all the things I dreamed for them – and more – so that’s not the problem. I am prouder, as a matter of fact, than anyone can possibly imagine. The problem is that chapter of my life is now closed, and I miss it terribly. I miss them. If I could, I would do it all over again, including the worries and sleepless nights that are inevitably a part of raising children.

But I realize that those times are now gone. They are not coming back. And I know that I’m terribly selfish for wanting them back.

I try to live in the present. I want to be grateful for this moment and all of its wonder and potential. And mostly I am.

I am beginning to see, though, that at this stage of life the losses become more apparent. They add up and accumulate. The little ones, the big ones, they can’t be ignored.

They don’t diminish the joy, but they certainly balance it.

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A burning fire shut up in my bones

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If I say, “I will not mention him,
    or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
    shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
    and I cannot.  Jeremiah 20:9

 

It’s a funny thing, this preaching life.

I didn’t want it when I started. I resisted as much as I have resisted anything in my life. I was willing to do just about anything but getting up in front of a group of people on Sunday morning.

To make matters worse, I wasn’t particularly promising with my first effort. There was the preaching class at seminary, of course, which was bad enough, but there was also that first church where I preached. If some people resigned their memberships that day when I preached my first sermon, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

In an act of grace and compassion, however, my supervisor never told me. I learned later, several years later, that people looked around when I was finished and wondered, “What was that?” Not disapproval so much as disbelief. They weren’t even sure it was a sermon.

I clearly had a long way to go.

But I kept at it. I don’t know why. Maybe it was God’s determination to have me, the way God has been determined down through the centuries to have countless others like me.

Whatever it was, I made myself do it. For a number of years I remember arriving at the church on Sunday mornings before dawn to preach my sermon over and over to an empty sanctuary. Getting there before the custodian was always a challenge, but I did it. I can’t think of anything in my life I’ve ever been so determined to do.

Now, more than 30 years have passed, and – strangely, oddly – I can’t imagine another life for myself. This way of life I resisted for so long has become so much a part of me that I actually look forward to it each week. I miss it when I don’t do it. I squirm uncomfortably when I have to listen to others do it – not because they’re bad, but because I feel deep inside as though I should be doing it.

On Saturday mornings, when I feel as though the next day’s sermon will finally preach, I do a fist pump and let out a yell, the way an athlete would who scored the winning goal or who broke the tape at the end of a marathon. Even the dog doesn’t jump anymore when I do it.

But I do it out of a sense of joy and satisfaction and gratitude.  What a privileged life.

(Photo: That’s the medieval fortress on the banks of Lake Geneva near Montreux known as Chateau de Chillon. I was there Monday, and – yes – it’s that beautiful.)

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Hiking in Switzerland, ctd

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On the mountain ridge, known as the Pfannenstiel (or pan handle), behind our village is a nice, easily accessible hiking trail. On one side you can see Lake Zurich, and on the other the Greifensee, another beautiful body of water. Mostly, though, you see wooded areas with an occasional farm and obligatory cow.

Early this morning I took the dog and my new camera to the top – 853 meters (2799 feet) – and walked. I thought the fog and lack of sun would ruin my chances for good photos, but fog, as it turns out, can be a photographer’s friend.

Am I a photographer? Well, yes. I own a camera, and I have viewed a few tutorials on YouTube. How much is there to know?

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Quite a lot, actually. Getting aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to work together, plus focussing, plus keeping the dog out of the shot – all of that requires a fair amount of skill and patience. I’m learning.

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I’m also aware now – in a way I never was previously – that photographs often get a great of attention in the post-production phase. In other words, once I’ve downloaded them the real fun begins. There is so much that can be done to a photograph after clicking the shutter that I have become suspicious of every photograph I’ve seen in the last 20 years.

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In addition to the walking and picture taking, there was time to think and pray. I also managed to think through my sermon for tomorrow, as well as my faith and science class. Oh, and I yelled at the dog a couple of times too, which felt good. Happy wandering!

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When people listen to a sermon

French church

A seminary professor once told my class that pastors aren’t fired for heresy anymore, they’re fired for incompetence.

I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

Was he saying that people don’t care anymore about heresy? I don’t think he meant to say that. Or that they wouldn’t recognize a heretical statement if they heard one? Maybe that’s closer to the truth, but not a very generous comment about church people.

More likely, though, he was trying to encourage us to be capable pastors.

Sound pastoral work, together with capable administration and a good work ethic, would probably be more important to most church people than flawless theological thinking.

It’s hard to know sometimes what people are listening for when they listen to me. I don’t think many people listen for theological gaffes, though one or two people along the way thought they detected in my preaching some minor deviation from strict Reformed or Calvinist thinking. In those situations, I think I remember feeling grateful for the theological reflection shared over a cup of coffee.

Based on the comments and feedback I get most of the time, I think people seldom, if ever, listen for theology, and I shouldn’t be surprised.

After my very first sermon, preached to a classroom with fellow students, a moment in my life if there ever was one when I needed some solid, constructive feedback, the comment I remember best had to do with the suit I was wearing. My preaching professor obviously didn’t care much for the three-piece brown corduroy ensemble that actually made noise as I strode to the pulpit. In his comments after the sermon, he sarcastically thanked me for my ‘sartorial splendor.’

I am well aware that he had a point. He also inadvertently prepared me for the future.

Comments about my preaching since that first shaky effort in the seminary classroom have mostly been along the same lines – my pronunciation of certain words, the speed at which I speak, the length of my hair, the color of my tie, the beard I brought back from summer vacation, etc. One person disliked the beard so much that he handed me a disposable razor at the door and told me to ‘use it.’

In the last few years, another kind of feedback has emerged. People in the pews use their cell phones in order to be my fact checkers. If I mention a book, a date in history, an author’s name, I will know, in painful detail, what Wikipedia has to say about that fact by the time I am finished greeting people at the door after church.

Last Sunday I mentioned in my sermon that I tend to see God at work in my life when I look in the rear-view mirror. Seeing evidence of God’s guiding hand in my life is always easier that way than seeing it in the present moment. I’m not especially proud of that, I said, but that’s my experience. That’s who I am.

I was hoping a few people would say, ‘I can relate to that. That’s my experience too!’

Interestingly, though by now it shouldn’t be surprising, it was that comment that prompted most of the comments at the door – not my helpful new insights on the doctrine of general revelation. So, conversation quickly veered from the value and limits of God’s revelation in the world around us to the pastor’s spiritual life which, many agreed, could use some help.

It’s an endlessly interesting thing, the pastor’s life. I’ll say this much: I’m never bored. I seldom think anymore about my theological orthodoxy, but I pay careful attention to what I wear. And of course to regular shaving.

(Photo: That’s the French Reformed Church in Zurich where morning worship is held. Our congregation shares the space with a French-speaking congregation. Though I am very nearly fluent in German by now, worship at the International Protestant Church is in English.)

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My first mountain hike

Have I mentioned that hiking is the Swiss national obsession? I was wrong.

Glancing at one’s watch is actually the national obsession. Sorry. Cultural stereotype.

But number two on the list of national obsessions is most likely hiking. People here like to hike. And in a country as beautiful as this it would be sinful not to get outdoors and walk.

On Saturday I took my first mountain hike. By Swiss standards, I know, it wasn’t much. A cable car ride, a walk on a surprisingly well-maintained hiking trail, a stop somewhere for beer, and then talk with with other hikers (and beer drinkers). It’s not a bad life.

I have a new camera (kind of a big step up for me from the point-and-shoot I’ve used for most of my life) and took a few pictures as I walked. I hope you like these…

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Our hotel was above Lake Lucerne which was obscured by cloud cover. The trail I took required a cable car ride to an even higher altitude.

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That’s the path. As you can see, not exactly a highly technical climb.

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Swiss hikers generally know where they’re going and how long it will take to get there. Highly competitive Americans who hike in Switzerland feel superior when they arrive ahead of schedule. (High fives all around!) Note the reminder at the bottom to keep your dog on the leash. Seems cruel to the dog.

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The reward for walking a few meters, as I mentioned, is a beer and a few other things.

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Apparently the wind on Saturday was just right because one after another of these gliders took off. I don’t know that I would be able to run off the side of a mountain, but the gliding looks like fun.

My next hike is planned for October 25. Meet me at the French Reformed Church in Zurich. Air fares are lower at this time of year, and fall in Switzerland is gorgeous. Join me?

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Some thoughts about language learning

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1. It’s difficult.

Learning a new language has a certain romantic appeal – like, for example, living abroad. But the dreaminess disappears quickly.

I have dedicated a part of every day for the last eight months to language learning (and have committed over 1200 German words to memory), and today at the hair salon I could not say, “longer on top, shorter on the sides.” My stylist simply smiled and then gave me the haircut she thought I needed.

2. Immersion is probably the way to go.

Before leaving the U.S. I asked a brother in law who teaches German literature at a state university for his opinion about the best way to learn German, and he said, “Take a 2-3 week immersion class, and you’ll be speaking passable German by the time you’re finished.” (He was actually thinking, “You wouldn’t get a passing grade from me, but you would know how to get a haircut.”)

My once-per-week language class, supplemented by an online course, the car radio, and a daily German-language newspaper (the tabloid most Swiss do not admit to reading), are not enough. I have clearly chosen the longer, more difficult route.

3. The locals do not help.

There are really two issues here. One is that as soon as my American identity becomes clear – usually in the first three seconds after meeting someone – the Swiss person I’m talking to will switch immediately to flawless English. And so ends my opportunity to practice.

The other issue is that the Swiss really prefer to speak Swiss German, not the more widely known German language I am learning. I have listened to conversations on the train, expecting to understand a little of what is being said, only to realize that the conversation is not actually in German. This other dialect is the tribal tongue of the Swiss, and it’s one way to maintain an identity distinct from the Germans to the north who – how do I put this? – are not held in high regard.

4. In spite of #3, the Swiss really like it that I am trying to learn.

Maybe it gives them pleasure to see an American struggle. I’m sure that’s part of it. But mostly I think they value the attempt I am making to integrate within Swiss culture. Members of my church regularly tell me – in English – how glad they are that I am learning the language.

5. Spiritually speaking, language learning is an exercise in humility.

And I thought I was humble enough before I started.

(Photo: I’ve never had so many options for walking the dog.)

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When a friend betrays you

lake michigan shore

I should have seen it coming, but that must mean I’m to blame.

And maybe I am, a little.

What I did wrong was to trust someone I should not have trusted, never, not a million years. But I did. I acted in good faith. I sometimes had a queasy feeling as I did it, but I trusted anyway, because that’s what you do, right? You put yourself out there. Relationships require it.

But deep down I knew. I always knew. I should not have trusted this person.

Betrayal is what happens when you act in good faith, become vulnerable, extend yourself for someone else, and then that person turns out not to be a friend after all, not to have your best interests in mind, not to care about you at all, as a matter of fact.

What is it about betrayal that hurts so much? The coldness of it? The calculation? No, I’m convinced that it’s the evil of it.

I woke up this morning thinking about what happened. And not just thinking about it, but being mad about it. After all these months, after fooling myself into thinking that I was finally over it, after working so hard to get on with life, I still feel the hurt of it, the teeth-clenching anger of it.

And I realized of course, as I lay there in the early morning light, that I needed to get rid of it, to let it go.

For my sake, if for no one else’s.

But the truth is, I’m not quite there yet. It’s as though I can’t let go until I acknowledge to myself the sheer awfulness of it, the extent to which this other person betrayed me, all the sorry details of it. I can’t forgive, much less forget, it seems, until I remember every bit of it.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. You can’t get to my age without having been betrayed once or twice. I remember an event from some years ago that felt like a kick to the gut. I felt at the time as though the wind had been knocked out of me. I nearly picked up the phone to call a lawyer. I was sure I had a case. I would sue. That would make things right.

But someone who heard my story, someone who knows me well, said to me, ‘Doug, let it go.’

And I don’t remember anymore how I did it, but I did. It actually happened quickly. I started to breathe again, I put down the phone, I deleted the angry letter I had written. It was over. Finished. I haven’t thought about it in years – not until this latest betrayal, in fact. And then, surprisingly, there it was.

Betrayal and grief have that much in common. Every loss reminds you of every other loss you have ever had. Every betrayal is a reason not to trust anymore, not to be vulnerable, not put yourself out there.

But it’s time to let this one go. It has a kind of power over me, and I’m sick and tired of that, as much as anything. I need to unclench my fists and go on. I want to live. And be free.

And if my faith means nothing else, it means this: Forgiving others as I have been forgiven. And God knows that I have needed forgiveness.

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The Bucket List

stonehenge

I used to be proud to have a bucket list, and now I’m not so sure.

I’ve been thinking about what a bucket list means ever since I read that a couple of weeks ago President Obama took a small detour on his way back to the United States, after a summit meeting in Wales, in order to see Stonehenge.

After walking around a bit, listening to the curator, and having his picture taken with some surprised tourists, he said to reporters, “Knocked it off the bucket list!”

At first I was surprised to know that President Obama was still working on a bucket list. After “graduating from Harvard Law School,” “becoming a United States Senator,” and “becoming the first African-American President of the United States,” you would think that there wouldn’t be many items left on his list.

But no, apparently there are a few other things he’d still like to do.

I still have a few things I’d like to do too. Like the President I have a few travel destinations in mind. And I still haven’t climbed Mount Everest or qualified for the Boston Marathon.

Some items seem less and less likely as the years go by. I was never a terribly fast runner, for example, and each of my marathons has been slower than the previous one. So, qualifying for the Boston Marathon seems more like a pipe dream than a real, honest-to-goodness bucket list item. And frankly, I have no business being on Mount Everest or even a mountain half that size.

But most of the items that remain on my list seem, well, kind of small. Not small in degree of difficulty, but small in terms of significance.

Here’s the thing: Bucket list items have always seemed a tiny bit selfish. I’ve never heard anyone say, for example, that eradicating polio was on her bucket list. Or finding a cure for cancer. Or any of a number of things that might actually make life better.

Most bucket list items are about personal experience or personal achievement.

I finally got to see a rocket lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It was the last shuttle launch. And to be honest, it was a quite a thrill, something I had wanted to do since I was a little boy, watching Mercury, Gemini, and then Apollo rockets blast off. I stood that day in a VIP tent, not because I was a VIP, but because I knew someone who was. I listened to the countdown, and then I saw and felt something that I had only previously seen on a television screen. The ground shook, and a wave of heat from the blast washed over me. And then it was over. The rocket was out of sight. It was time to climb into my car and go home.

Bucket list items tend to be like that. But not all of them.

My older sister once traveled more than a thousand miles to come to my church and hear me preach, something she had never done before. Afterwards, she said, “It was on my bucket list.” And much too flippantly, I said, “You need a new bucket list.” I regretted saying it almost soon as the words were out of my mouth.

No bucket list item has to measure up to my standard of worthiness.

Who knows what seeing Stonehenge meant to a man who has already accomplished more with his life than most of us dream about. Maybe he promised his mother that one day he would do it because she didn’t live long enough to do it herself. I will most likely never know. And it doesn’t matter that I do.

His reasons were personal. As are the reasons for the items on my list.

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