Archive | October, 2013

And then there was one

photo

And then there was one.

I’m counting down the number of sermons I’m going to preach in this beloved church before I leave.  After today I see one more on the calendar.  And then I’m done.  Auf Wiederluege.

I’ll say this much: it’s not easy.  There’s so much emotion.  But there’s also this: freedom, the kind of freedom that I didn’t feel at the beginning and that I’m guessing no one, not even the best of preachers, feels right away.

But I feel it now.

I should point out that the freedom I feel is not the desire to tell anyone off.  You might think that with only one more sermon to go I might feel like letting it rip.  Doesn’t everyone have a fantasy about telling someone – an employer? – what you really think and then walking out the door?

But that’s not what I’m tempted to do.  Early in my ministry – I regret it now – I got something off my chest in a sermon.  I wrote it out, calculated it, timed it, relished it – only to find out later that the person I most wanted to hear it wasn’t in the congregation that Sunday.  I never attempted such a thing again.  I’m ashamed that I even did it once.

No, the desire right now is to preach with emotional honesty.  Not that previous sermons in this church have been dishonest, but there’s always a kind of holding back.  You don’t express everything in a sermon.  You can’t.  At least I can’t.  Laughter and tears aren’t a good idea every single week.  I would wear myself out, and I know I’d wear out my congregation.

But right now, in this sweet spot between announcing my departure and leaving, I find myself wanting to say everything with transparency and honesty. It’s hard work, but it’s important.

I know I’ll never get this opportunity again.

(Photo credit: That’s me, but not my publicity photo. If you have an iPad, you know how much fun it is to explore all of the features.)

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For the 60 year old who has everything

turning-60

 

Click here to view the YouTube video my family and friends made for me!

 

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Turning 60

marilynne robinson 2

“I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books.”

That’s Marilynne Robinson in Gilead, easily one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read.

I reached for her book last night because I’m fast approaching a milestone birthday and because the book is in the form of a letter written by an – ahem – older pastor to his toddler son.  The pastor is dying, knows it, and wants his son to know who he was.

There’s more to the book than that, of course, but that’s the narrative framework.  (An 80-year-old pastor with a toddler son isn’t a bad narrative feature either.)

In addition to the wonderful way Robinson strings her words together, I’m struck by how well she understands the way a pastor might think – not only the small-town pastor in Iowa whose thoughts we read in her book, but my own thoughts and worries and doubts.

As I read the book, I realize that she’s speaking for me, if only I could speak with such insight:

“That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.”

I’ve thought often about writing a memoir about my ministry, but the stories I could tell no one would believe.  They’d think I was making it up.  But the truth is, any pastor who’s been around as long as I have has seen it all.  And if not all of life, then a big enough hunk of it to be amazed and appalled and humbled.

Human beings are capable of so much – so much that is good and lovely, but also so much that is ugly and unseemly.  I wonder sometimes at how much pain people bear, how much hurt they endure, how indescribably cruel their lives have been.  And then I wonder at how resilient they turn out to be, how they go on, how they find the inner resources to live good, caring lives.

I’m coming up on a birthday tomorrow that I somehow didn’t see coming.  It was always out there in the distance somewhere and nothing to worry about.  And now it’s here, in just a few hours.  So, I find myself thinking about what I’ve learned and what I know to be true and what I would pass along – to a toddler son or to anyone who cared to listen.

And it’s my gratitude for the gift of life.

“Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

(Photo:  That’s Marilynne Robinson.)

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Saying goodbye

saying goodbye

Saying goodbye is never easy.

Even the times when I thought it would be easy, when I was glad to leave, when I couldn’t wait to walk out the door, I realized later that it hurt, that I had no idea how attached I had become.

I brought our cat to be put down one time.  She had not been my idea.  I resisted her, but as often happens when the kids grow up and leave home and forget that they had begged and pleaded for a tiny kitten, I became her primary care-giver.

She curled up in my lap every morning while I read the newspaper.  I didn’t invite her, but she climbed up anyway.  I also fed her and scooped her litter box.

And so when I brought her to be put down, I thought it would be no big deal.  “Do you want to hold her while we kill her?” They didn’t say that, of course, but that’s what I heard.  “Do you want to hold her while we administer this lethal injection that will render her lifeless in a second or two?”

I held her.

And then I brought her home in an old blanket and buried her in the woods behind our home.  What a lousy job.  No one prepared me for how terrible I would feel for days afterward.  How did I ever become attached to an animal who seemed to sleep for 23 hours a day?

Saying goodbye, I’ve found, is almost always a kind of death.

As excited as I am to begin this new chapter in my life, as excited as I am to realize this dream of living and working abroad,  as sure as I am that God has prepared me for just this moment in my life, I can feel the toll that it’s taking on me.

Someone hugs me after church yesterday, has a really good grip on me, and whispers into my ear, “I’m going to miss you.”  I say, “I’m going to miss you too.”  And it’s true.  I’m going to miss a lot of people.  Some of them I’m going to miss acutely.  How can you not miss a group of people to whom you’ve given just about every waking hour of the day for the last several years?

I looked at my congregation as I stood in the pulpit yesterday, and it was almost more than I could bear.  I don’t know every person well, true, but I know a lot of them.  I’ve officiated at weddings and funerals and baptisms for their family members.  I’ve held their hands in hospital rooms.  I’ve called late at night to ask if they’re okay.  I’ve listened to them tell me things that they haven’t told a single other person in the whole world.

How do you say goodbye to people you have loved from the first time you met them?

I still have two more Sundays.  I’m not sure how it will be possible to stand in front of them two more times.  A week ago I tried humor which, I can report, did not go over very well.  I tried to lighten the mood, but it was not a good decision.

A few people laughed, but my humor is usually received better than that.  I realized that this is not a time for laughter.

Unfortunately, if I don’t laugh, I will cry.  I will take a pocket full of tissues for my last day.

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Reading for Preaching

bookshelves loaded with books

I read.  In fact, I read a lot.

I read for pleasure, mostly, but I also read for my work, my ministry.  After all these years my book shelves are sagging under the weight of books, and so I’ve had to cull the herd, a painful process.

It was in an introduction to preaching class at seminary that I first realized what I would have to do to be able to preach week in and week out over a lifetime in ministry.  I would need an active spiritual and devotional life, of course, but I would also have to be a reader.

The preaching professor encouraged – no, sternly charged – my classmates and me to read.  And he was very specific about what a preacher could be expected to read.

I dutifully wrote out what he said: one national daily newspaper (which in his mind could only mean the New York Times), one weekly newsmagazine (in those days Time and Newsweek were indispensable and could be counted on to provide valuable quotes), one major work of theology each year, one book on preaching each year (either a sermon collection or a book about the theology of preaching), novels, histories, books of poetry, and biographies.  I might have missed something.

It was a daunting assignment.  But for me it couldn’t have been more thrilling.  It was an invitation to a full, rich life.  I had always been a reader, and now, well, it would be an expected part of my life.  I could lie on the sofa with a book in my hand and say to my wife, “Sorry, sweetheart, I’m working now.”

Mostly I’ve followed this regimen. And mostly I’ve loved it.  But here’s the thing: I now realize the truth of what I was told – namely, that reading would make me a better preacher.  I believe it has.

Reading has improved my vocabulary (this isn’t about sounding more learned, which has never been a goal for me in preaching, but it made my preaching livelier and more interesting to listen to); reading has taught me how to be a better story teller; and reading has shown me how to take a reader (or listener) from one point to another, what I like to think of as the narrative arc of the sermon.

I don’t know where I’d be as a preacher if I didn’t read.  I’ve listened to some preachers over the years who couldn’t preach their way out of a wet paper bag, and I would find myself wondering if they had ever read a book or even a newspaper.

So, I was thrilled in the last few days to read my friend Neal Plantinga’s new book, Reading for Preaching, in which he essentially makes the same argument.  And not only does he make a compelling case for the importance of reading, he demonstrates what he believes.

His writing is rich and compelling.  He makes wooden theological concepts come alive through references to popular culture and literature and news.  He writes in a way that draws in the reader.  In other words, he doesn’t make the reader work to get his point.

I will probably keep reading long after I’ve given up preaching.  Reading has become an old and reliable friend.

But for now I’m reading because my preaching depends on it.

reading for preaching

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Jesus saves – and then some

Jesus saves

In last Sunday’s sermon, the fifth in a series on what are sometimes known as the “hard sayings” of Jesus, I was doing my best to explain what Jesus meant when he said, “Your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19).

Somehow the translation “made well” doesn’t capture the richness of meaning that Jesus intended.  And yet the word Jesus used is very nearly impossible to translate.

But, I said, the word contained precisely the ambiguity (or the richness) of meaning that he wanted.

Did he mean faith made the leper physically well, or that it made him whole (as in having his humanity restored), or that it saved him?  And the answer is, “Yes!  All that and more.”

Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible known as The Message, has Jesus saying, “Your faith has healed and saved you.”  (Contemporary translations apparently don’t like ambiguity.  Better to make things clear.)   But even that translation – with apologies to Peterson for the heroic work he has done with The Message – doesn’t quite do it.

I started to wonder if there were any words like that in the English language and Googled “untranslatable English words,” thinking that “very nearly impossible to translate English words” was not a good search.

And as almost always happens with Internet searches, I came up with some interesting information, much more than I could possibly use.  Turns out, English has lots of words like these – from “bling,” to “cheesey,” to “poppycock,” to “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”  Even using Google as a verb is arguably an example of this phenomenon.

In fact, most languages have words like these.  And when English speakers come across them, we Americans typically import them into the language without translation.

At a favorite restaurant in Holland, Michigan (de Boer’s Cafe and Bakery), the serving staff wears T-shirts with the Dutch word “gezellig.”  Apparently the German language translates the word “gemutlich,” but the word has no real counterpart in English.  Cozy, friendly, comfortable, pleasant, easy-going, and genial are all candidates, but – hey! – why translate when everyone knows what “gezellig” means?

So, back to Jesus.

When he said to the leper who had been healed that his faith had made him well, he was saying, “Your skin is clear, yes, but you’ve just been given something a great deal more precious.”

I feel as though I’ve been given the same gift.

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“A wandering Aramean was my father…” (Deuteronomy 26:5)

zurich street scene

The first real adventure of my life was moving to New Jersey.

I could have done better, as adventures go, but Princeton Seminary was in New Jersey, so it was there that I went, after living the first 20 years of my life in the same house, same neighborhood, same city.  The distance door to door was only 750 miles, but it was far enough for me.

I met people in New Jersey I had never met before – Presbyterians, of course, but also Unitarians, Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, Coptics, Italians, Jews, and a wonderful Ph.D. student from Thailand who once went with me to a Yankees baseball game in the Bronx (my dating skills left a lot to be desired).  My next door neighbor on the third floor of Alexander Hall, where I lived, was African American, the very first black man I recall having had an actual conversation with.  He pretended not to notice how sheltered I had been.  He was (and is) a fine man.

New York City was only an hour or so away from Princeton, and so on Saturdays, when I probably should have been at the library learning my Hebrew grammar, the bus would deposit me at Port Authority, and from there I walked and walked all over Manhattan, looking in store windows, visiting museums, and watching the people.

The world was far larger than I had ever imagined.

Over the years this adventurous spirit hasn’t taken me all that far from home in terms of miles – Pennsylvania, Illinois, back to Michigan, and most recently to Florida.  But I’ve compensated by travelling – to the Philippines, Peru (twice), Haiti (three times), the Dominican Republic, South Africa, Europe (have lost count of the number of times), Canada and Mexico (do they count?), Israel (four times), Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco,  and more.

My passport is worn out, just like my Bible.

I’m pretty sure I know where this longing to wander came from.  It was my Kindergarten Sunday school teacher Mrs. Peterson.  (Parents: do a thorough job of investigating the sweet old ladies who are teaching your children.  You never know what kind of subversive ideas they might plant in young minds.)

Mrs. Peterson had just returned from doing missionary work in the far off and terribly exotic land of New Mexico, where she worked with Zuni and Navajo children, telling them all about the love of Jesus.  I’ve posted about her before, I know, but I’m just beginning to realize what an important influence she was in my life.

It was from her that I first learned how God might very well call me to a distant land (like New Mexico), and there I would have the privilege and opportunity to talk about my faith, just like she did.

I’ve waited and waited for that call.

I always assumed it would be to a tiny village in sub-Saharan Africa, someplace remote, where maybe there was no written language and no Internet.

And for a long time I thought the call would never come.  But – could I have buried the good news any deeper into this post? – early in the new year I will be moving to Switzerland.  I’m happy to announce that I’ve been called to be pastor of the International Protestant Church in Zurich.  It’s an interesting church with wonderful people, and I’ll be posting more about it in the days ahead.

Several people have asked, “Are you going to keep blogging?”  The answer is, “Yes.”  There will be more to write about.

As you can imagine, I’m very excited.  I’m also scared.  These were the two emotions I remember best from the summer before I moved to New Jersey.  I’ve got them again.  But I have something else I didn’t have then, and maybe that’s why God has taken his sweet time with me.  I know what I believe today in a way I didn’t then.  I have something to say.

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The miracle of Google Analytics

blog news 2

Who reads “Doug’s blog”?

Not surprisingly, most of my readers live in and around Fort Lauderdale.  That’s been my home base for going on five years.

But through the miracle of Google Analytics, a free service from Google, I’ve been able to find out a great deal more about my readers.  I know what city they’re in when they log on to my site, I know what pages they view, and I even know how much time they spend on each page.

Actually, there’s far more information than that.  But you get the idea.  Google Analytics is obviously a fine new way for me to waste time.  If I ran a business, I would be checking these reports obsessively.  I’m guessing that many web site managers do.

In September “Doug’s blog” averaged 87 “unique visits” per day.  I thought you might like to see where these “unique” readers live.  Some surprises, but mostly what I’d expect. Here are the top 20 cities where my readers live (in order):

Fort Lauderdale

Zurich (Switzerland)

Ann Arbor (Michigan)

Plantation (Florida)

Wheaton (Illinois)

University City (Missouri)

New York (New York)

Hollywood (Florida)

Grand Rapids (Michigan)

Chicago (Illinois)

Baden (Switzerland)

Winterthur (Switzerland)

Hialeah (Florida)

Coral Springs (Florida)

Tallahassee (Florida)

Weston (Florida)

Davie (Florida)

Tampa (Florida)

San Francisco (California)

Pompano Beach (Florida)

I plan to post tomorrow about the second city on the list.  And by the way, you can subscribe and have my posts delivered to your email inbox by supplying your email address along the right side of the page. I don’t sell (or do much of anything with) the list, but I do marvel over some of the screen names.

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An invitation to the Lord’s Table on World Communion Sunday

world communion sunday 2

 

(Tomorrow, Sunday, October 6, is World Communion Sunday, and what follows is an invitation to the Lord’s Table from Presbyterian Church USA liturgical resources.)

 

Friends, this is the joyful feast of unity.

Christ has gathered his people around the earth

to commune at this table.

 

Across political lines and economic lines,

in places of powerfully protected affluence,

and among the poorest of the poor,

we share a meal,

remembering and celebrating the One who proved shalom possible.

 

And so, come:

you from the East and you from the West,

from the North and from the South.

 

Come.

Come with your doubts,

come with your hopes,

come with your inadequacies

and with your strengths.

 

Come,

for this is a table where all are invited

and all are welcome.

 

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The Historical Jesus

greek on papyrus

My younger daughter says, “What do you think of that new book about Jesus called ‘Zealot’ where Jesus turns out to be nothing more than a political revolutionary?”

Typical family conversation in our home.

I’ve heard of it of course.  I’ve even seen the author interviewed. His name is Reza Aslan, and the book’s title is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. A FOX News interviewer gave him a hard time for being a Muslim and writing about Jesus, an interview that gave off more heat than light, but was probably great for sales.

“I haven’t read it,” I say.  “I don’t have much use for these searches for the historical Jesus.  They never amount to anything.”

“Really,” she says, genuinely surprised.  “Why don’t you blog about that?”  It had never occurred to me that anyone would be interested.  I thought everyone knew the history.

Peeling back layers of tradition and getting to the person who lived and taught and died in first century Palestine sounds like a noble and worthwhile thing to do – and plenty of scholars over the years have attempted it – but the consensus seems to be that the search doesn’t go anywhere.

But my daughter was right.  Most people don’t know that.  They hear or read about the publication of a book like “Zealot,” and they’re not quite sure what to think.  It’s easy to understand why someone would conclude that it’s nothing more than the work of a Muslim trying to smear Christianity.

I don’t know what Aslan’s intentions are, but his claims to have a Ph.D. in the history of religions and to teach the history of religion are false.  He’s an associate professor in the creative writing program at the University of California, Riverside.  Nowhere in the academic world is he known as a scholar in the history of religion.

That’s all troubling – and tends to undermine the authority of the claims he makes – but what’s really important to know is that all of these searches for the Jesus of history (as opposed to the Christ of faith) have one thing in common.  They make Jesus look a great deal like the person who set out on the search.

Albert Schweitzer famously wrote (in his own Quest for the Historical Jesus, published in 1906) that Jesus “comes to us as One unknown” and that the searches are “often pale reflections of the searchers” themselves.

John Dominic Crossan, who has given the search more than one try himself, finally concluded that most researchers will “do autobiography and call it biography.”

I won’t be reading “Zealot.”

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