Archive | December, 2013

Ten most popular posts from 2013

saying goodbye

Here’s the list of my ten most popular posts from 2013, with a click-able feature (in blue) so that you can go to the post and read it, if you missed it the first time.

All but one of the most popular posts come from the last three months of the year, indicating: 1) that readership continues to grow; 2) my writing continues to get better and better;  and 3) there’s nothing like announcing a move to Switzerland to drive traffic to your blog.

10. Mariano Rivera and Me (As I mentioned in a previous post with blog news, I happen to like this post a lot, but I cannot tell a lie: The photo accompanying this post continues to show up in every Google Images search for Mariano Rivera, hence driving traffic to my blog and to this post in particular.  In other words, it ain’t the post; it’s the photo.)

9.  Pope Francis and Me (Part 2)  (I plan to write more about the new pope in coming year.)

8.  No Manger, But Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes

7.  Christmas and Learning to Live on Baby Time (More honesty: this was my older daughter’s guest blog post. My younger daughter is committed to writing something about faith and health economics – her field – in the new year.)

6.  Reading for Preaching

5.  A Prayer for Sunday Morning  (I publish a lot of prayers, and – by and large – they get lots of readers.)

4.  And Then There Was One

3.  My Annual Christmas Letter (For the second year in a row, I went all-digital in this annual tradition.  The letter also includes my favorite photo of the year – me having a mud treatment at the Dead Sea.)

2.  “A Wandering Aramean was My Father…” (Deuteronomy 26:5)

And the number one most popular blog post of the year…

1. Saying Goodbye

Thanks again to all of my readers – and especially those of you who’ve left comments – for making this such a good year for Doug’s Blog.  I enjoy doing it, and a growing number of you are reading it.  Email me and let me know what you like – and don’t like – about the blog.

A few weeks ago I emailed one of my favorite bloggers (Andrew Sullivan), thanking him for his Sunday themes, and he responded personally within an hour or so.  He’s one of the most-read bloggers in the world right now, so he’s setting a high standard.   I promise to respond to you too!

(Photo: That’s the photo I used with “Saying Goodbye.”)

 

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American Hustle – at the movies during Christmas break

American Hustle 2

It’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the kids are here, we’ve played all the card games and board games we can think of playing, and grandma has generously offered to babysit the new grandchild, if we’d like to go out – such an act of selflessness!

So, what do we do?  Of course, we go to the movies!

And – lucky for us – all of the Oscar contenders are in the theaters, as they usually are at this time of year.  We go through the usual heated conversation – we’re family, after all – about which one to see.  And we decide on American Hustle.  According to the buzz we hear, this one is definitely going to gobble up a bunch of Academy Awards, maybe even best picture.

We see it.  And on the way home we talk about it.  Which is definitely a good sign.  We’ve been to plenty of movies over the holidays where no one had much of anything to say except, “Should we pick up something to eat on the way home?”

But we talk about American Hustle.  And here’s the thing: I’m the one with the minority opinion.

I didn’t like it.

Well, yes, the cast was great.  (Jennifer Lawrence … are you kidding?)  And the acting was great too.  (I hear that there was a lot of improvising on the set, which makes sense as I think about it.)  The story was engaging.  (I never once thought about checking the time on my cell phone.)  And – wow – even the costumes were great.  (That’ll be good for at least one Oscar, I’m sure.)

So, what didn’t I like?

I didn’t like the characters.  I can’t think of a single character – and it has a large cast – who was in any sense … admirable.  The movie is about pulling a con, a big one, a well-known one, but the movie is filled with smaller cons.  Everyone in the movie, it seems, is trying to con someone else.

And maybe the movie itself is a kind of con. Rather than beginning with the words “based on a true story,” which it was, the movie begins with the words “some of this actually happened.”  And though the audience laughed about that, I started to wonder – at the very beginning – what sort of con the movie was pulling on me.

When you see a movie, or read a book, or watch a play, don’t you want at least one character you can admire?  Or wouldn’t you like to see someone start out bad but then end up good – or at least approaching what we think of as good?

You won’t be surprised to know that I like redemption.  It’s an important theme in Christian faith. So, in movies – as well as in books and plays – I like it when characters are redeemed, when they are – how do I put this? – changed, transformed, maybe even converted.  Paul Newman in The Verdict comes to mind. I think we want people to be better than they too often are, so we become involved with them, pull for them, and feel gratified at the end when they succeed.

None of that happened in American Hustle.  And I felt conned.

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No more let sins and sorrows grow…

creation groans

Romans 8:22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

I’m aware this Christmas Eve 2013 that I am joining with Christians all around the world, millions and millions of us, to wait patiently, though groaning inwardly, for God to complete what was started in Bethlehem a long, long time ago.

Come, Lord Jesus.

I wish all of my readers a very merry Christmas and a joy-filled new year.

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A prayer for the fourth Sunday of Advent

Advent art

Lord, it’s the fourth Sunday of Advent, as I think you know, you who created the universe and everything in it, including me and all the stuff I like to think of as belonging to me.

Anyway, today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, as I mentioned, and I’m sitting here in the early morning darkness, with the house still, my cup of coffee nearby, made from freshly-ground beans, just the way I like it, and the dog is waiting patiently for our daily walk around the block. (I like this time of day – once again, as you know.)

And I’m thinking about what this day means – for me, for you, and for the world you made.  Such big thoughts for so early in the morning, I know.

So much of what I hear from friends at this point in the season is whether or not they’re in the mood, whether or not they’ve captured the spirit, or whatever they think they’re supposed to be feeling right about now. And I confess that I’ve done quite a bit to get myself into the mood.  I put up the tree, for example, and decorated it, while listening to lovely Christmas music.  That was nice.  And last week I went to the big Christmas concert in town, featuring candlelight and over 200 singers and musicians, you know the one.  I hope you liked it, too.

And I came away that night thinking, “Hey, I’m really in the mood now!  And look!  There’s even snow on the ground!”

But this morning, before anyone else is up, before I’m fully awake, I realize that this season doesn’t depend on me.  Whether I’m in the mood or not.  Whether I’ve got the spirit or not.  And I’m thinking that might actually be good news.

Because whatever I’m feeling – or not feeling – you looked with love on the world you made, and you became one of us.  And not just a better version of us.  You came to us as a baby, born to a mom and dad.  You lived our lives as we must live them, with laughter and friends, as well as betrayal and loss.  You did all that.  And much more besides.

So, to wrap this up, because I know others (not as industrious as I am) are waking up and offering their morning prayers too, I’m trying my best to remember that none of this depends on me.  None of it whatsoever. My joy this season is what you did for me.  And for the whole world.  And for that I’m more grateful than I can possibly say.  Amen.

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Christmas and learning to live on baby time

photo (3)

My guest blogger today is my older daughter who recently made me a grandfather:

The mornings are my favorite time with our new baby girl.  She starts to stir before it’s light out, but politely lies awake cooing while I snooze just a few minutes longer.  The dog, on the other hand, is more demanding.  He wants his trip outside and two cups of food.  Stat.

When I finally go over to pick up Gwen she greets me with a wide-eyed grin.  I take her back to bed with me and feed her.  She always tricks me by falling asleep for a few minutes when she’s finished, but I relish those delicious little breaths on my neck as I burp her.

We head downstairs and I put her in her Snugabunny.  I never knew what that was until I became a mom.  I get the coffee pot going, grateful that I can indulge now in as much caffeine as I want (and I need it after some long nights).  I turn on the Christmas tree lights and we sit together while Gwen eventually slips into her first nap by 8 a.m.

It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?  This slow kind of morning?  Truthfully, it’s been difficult for me to appreciate it.  I’m used to getting going in the morning.  Taking my shower, blow drying my hair, picking out my clothes.  Now it’s all about her.

Don’t get me wrong, I know how lucky I am to have this time at home with her.  But, the days are long and short at the same time.  The minutes tick on by and yet the sun seems to creep away far too early.  We go on walks, trekking around the neighborhood on a mission to breathe crisp air and feel – if only for a few moments – like we’re a part of the bustling world around us.

But we’re not busy.  We’re not running around.  I haven’t entered a store once to Christmas shop this year.  Instead we are hunkered down, slowed down, buckled down into this new “routine” with a baby.  A friend came over a few weeks after Gwen was born and asked what I “do all day.”  Soothe, shush, swaddle, smile… not much I guess except attend to her every need.

This Advent season has forced me into a spiritual rhythm I’ve never had before.  Pastors like me usually have a million things to do at this time of year.  But during this particular Advent season, as these last days of maternity leave trickle on by, I have had to force myself to be present to this child.  To the monotonous beauty of it.  To wait and watch and listen on baby time.

In the sometimes overwhelming simpleness of our days together there’s nothing else to do but allow the new love I have for my daughter to envelope me.  It’s a painful kind of love that makes my heart ache and causes my throat to choke up.  It reminds me that this is the kind of love God has for me, too.

I’ll always be grateful for these slow Advent days.  This time is a gift.  This baby is a gift.   And as I find myself hushed in quiet during nap time, soaking in the sight of my child, I also remember the child who has come, and is coming, and will come again.

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Why do people put up creches at Christmastime?

ChristmaswithSt.Francis

So far I’ve stayed out of the “white Santa” and “white Jesus” controversy.  Aren’t you glad?  Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed that the topic is getting as much attention as it is.

A more uplifting, maybe even inspiring topic?  Why do people put up crèches at Christmastime, anyway? 

Stay with me here.  This is good.

The following is by L.V. Anderson, an assistant editor at Slate.  She covers food and drink for that publication, but apparently has a few other interests as well:

Blame St. Francis of Assisi, who is credited with staging the first nativity scene in 1223. The only historical account we have of Francis’ nativity scene comes from The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk who was born five years before Francis’ death. According to Bonaventure’s biography, St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”) Bonaventure also claims that the hay used by Francis miraculously acquired the power to cure local cattle diseases and pestilences.

While this part of Bonaventure’s story is dubious, it’s clear that nativity scenes had enormous popular appeal. Francis’ display came in the middle of a period when mystery or miracle plays were a popular form of entertainment and education for European laypeople. These plays, originally performed in churches and later performed in town squares, re-enacted Bible stories in vernacular languages. Since church services at the time were performed only in Latin, which virtually no one understood, miracle plays were the only way for laypeople to learn scripture. Francis’ nativity scene used the same method of visual display to help locals understand and emotionally engage with Christianity.

Within a couple of centuries of Francis’ inaugural display, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe.

Two thoughts: One, Francis needed permission – from the pope, no less – to set up this first living nativity? Oy. And I complain about the bureaucratic nightmare of getting new ideas approved in the church.

But, more important, I am struck by Francis’ creativity and passion for communicating the good news of the gospel story. Instead of arguing over the exact tint of Jesus’ complexion, maybe we could deploy some of that passion in this direction.

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The Third Sunday of Advent

third sunday of advent

Here’s my devotional reading for this morning, the third Sunday of Advent: a few words from Presbyterian pastor and author Eugene Peterson in a collection of essays titled, God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas.

There can’t be very many of us for whom the sheer fact of existence hasn’t rocked us back on our heels. We take off our sandals before the burning bush. We catch our breath at the sight of a plummeting hawk. “Thank you, God.” We find ourselves in a lavish existence in which we feel a deep sense of kinship—we belong here; we say thanks with our lives to Life. And not just “Thanks” or “Thank It,” but “Thank You.” Most of the people who have lived on this planet Earth have identified this You with God or gods. This is not just a matter of learning our manners, the way children are taught to say thank you as a social grace. It is the cultivation of adequateness within ourselves to the nature of reality, developing the capacity to sustain an adequate response to the overwhelming gift and goodness of life.

Wonder is the only adequate launching pad for exploring this fullness, this wholeness, of human life. Once a year, each Christmas, for a few days at least, we and millions of our neighbors turn aside from our preoccupations with life reduced to biology or economics or psychology and join together in a community of wonder. The wonder keeps us open-eyed, expectant, alive to life that is always more than we can account for, that always exceeds our calculations, that is always beyond anything we can make.

Thank you for the reminder that what I long for at this season of the year – and any season, for that matter? – is “a community of wonder,” a company of the faithful, a church – caught up, not in programs and activities and lovely decorations, but in the story of a God who became one of us.

And then, this prayer for the third Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer, which for some reason has become my devotional guide during this season:

O LORD Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee; Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever, one God, world without end. Amen.

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What Doug’s Reading

Doug's books

I’m not sure anymore when it was that I became a reader, but I think I know how it was that I became a reader.

As unlikely as it might seem, it was competition that first made a reader out of me.

One summer – out of boredom as much as anything – I signed up for the Ottawa Hills Public Library Summer Reading Club.  I forget now how many books I had to read to claim the prize, and I even forget what the prize was.  It was probably a piece of paper with the librarian’s actual signature.

All I know is that I had never before read so many books in such a short period of time.  I rode my bike to the library each week, carefully selected seven or eight weighty volumes (I always caught my limit), and then rode home again, determined to make my way through them all.

I suppose I could have cheated by claiming to have read what I hadn’t, because no one ever quizzed me about the books, but I never did. I loved the reading. Truly, passionately, with everything I had, the same way I played sports.

For most of my childhood I longed to be an athlete, and I certainly had the size.  From birth I was a big kid.  And I certainly had the heart too.  In fact, whatever sport I played, I always had a lot more heart than talent.  I was always the kid on the sideline hoping to catch the eye of the coach.  I must have yelled “Put me in!” a million times, and maybe I did wear him down a couple of times, when we were far ahead – or more likely when we were hopelessly behind.

Somewhere in high school I realized, sadly, that heart could only take me so far in the world of sports, and my athletic career came to an abrupt end.  By the time I was 16, I was pretty much a sports has-been.  But around that time another world opened up – a world of places and ideas and stories and mysteries.  It was a world I came to through reading.  And it’s a world I love.  Even today.

When I travel, which is as often as I can, I like to read about where I’m going.  Some people buy up lots of travel books – Fodor’s, Frommers, Lonely Planet – but I like to read what novelists have written.  Travel books can only tell you so much.  Really, who cares what the local currency is?  Or what weather to expect in August?  Or whether the voltage is 120 or 220?  A novelist will tell you things that you never thought to ask.

When I traveled to Africa a year or so ago, I re-read a few novels about Africa that I had read as a young adult.  What surprised me more than anything was that they all referred in different ways to the smell of the place, the smell of the continent.  Who knew?  Africa has a smell unlike any other continent.  Try finding that in Rick Steve’s latest travel guide.

Which is a long way of saying that I’ve added a new feature to my blog – Doug’s Reading.  If you look at the top of the home page, where you used to see only About Doug, Doug’s Church, Doug’s Books, and so on, you’ll see a new page.  Click on it, and you’ll see what I’m reading (and occasionally what movies I’ve seen).

I can be eclectic in my reading, so be forewarned.  My excuse is that preachers should be eclectic. We’re a lot like sharks, in that way, taking in just about everything in our way.  If you preach every week – and expect to have something interesting to say by, oh, the third week – reading widely is pretty much what you have to do, like it or not.  I like it.

And I hope you do too.

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When is it okay to cancel church on Sunday?

snow covered church steps

Put this in the category of “questions there are no clear answers to,” of which there are many in the church.

When I was young, I don’t remember that church was ever cancelled. (Or school, for that matter.) And I remember some big snowstorms in the Michigan of my childhood.

I think the policy was that, since the pastor lived next to church (and could simply walk over), church would go on no matter what. Members had to decide for themselves whether or not they could manage to walk through the snow. In my memory, just about everybody struggled to get there because most members lived within walking distance.

But that was then.

I was thinking about the question last weekend because several pastor-friends who serve churches in Texas announced on their Facebook pages that they were cancelling services – mainly, due to ice and cold and generally treacherous conditions. And then, after the announcements, there were the inevitable Facebook posts about what to do with sermons no one would get to hear.

One friend posted his sermon online, encouraging family devotions, and another was reminded of the words in the Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby”: “Father Mckenzie…writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear; no one comes near.” (Note to Blair: church members do not feel bad about staying home from church, no matter how much time you put into your sermon.)

Something about all of this seemed wimpy to me, to be honest about it. But times have changed.

The church I served right out of seminary had an interesting dilemma on the weekend of March 31-April 1, 1979. Just days earlier, one of the two nuclear reactors on Three Mile Island experienced a partial meltdown, releasing radioactive gases and iodine into the atmosphere. At the time no one seemed to know how bad the accident was.

On Friday, March 30, then-governor Dick Thornburgh announced a voluntary evacuation for those within a 20-mile radius of the reactor, a distance which easily included my church. The question was, should we cancel services? Remarkably, the answer was no.

So, in worship that fine spring Sunday morning there were a couple of staff members, the organist, and a CBS News crew filming the empty pews from the balcony. Everybody else – wisely – decided to get out of town. And maybe that was around the time that churches began to rethink their policies about cancelling services.

A year or so ago, I was experiencing my first active hurricane season, and a tropical storm was bearing down on South Florida. I asked around the church about our policies for cancelling church. No one seemed to know. I did, however, hear lots of stories about the last hurricane that blew through and how church was open for worship a couple of Sundays after the storm – without air conditioning, which is treated as a necessity in South Florida.

In the wake of that storm, we developed a policy that in the event of a “tropical storm warning” – not watch, but warning – church would be cancelled. Seemed like the prudent thing to do to keep streets clear for emergency vehicles, which is what we were being told to do by local newscasters.

You won’t be surprised to know that I still lean toward the “hold it and see who comes” school of thought. But times have changed on this matter, as with so much else.  No one wants to be responsible for the person who’s injured in the heroic, but foolish decision to go to church in bad weather.

I’m thinking that a growing number of my friends are going to be feeling like Father McKenzie.  No one comes near.

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My Annual Christmas Letter

photo (7)

Advent 2013

Dear family and friends,

Getting older has turned out to be a whole lot better than I would have imagined.

The last year which, to be honest, didn’t start very well, and a year I wasn’t looking forward to anyway because of the milestone birthday, has arguably turned out to be the best yet.  If I had known how much fun turning 60 would be, I would have done it a long time ago.  (Kind of a Yogi Berra tribute there.)

Let’s start with the birth of our first grandchild to older daughter Sarah and her husband Ben.  In what turned out to be a prophetic birth announcement, our younger daughter Elizabeth and her husband Daniel created the following at a couple of months before the actual birth:

photo (2)

Turns out that labor did start early – about two weeks early, in fact – and Ben was out of town on business.  So, after receiving the call about 3 a.m. to come home, he “rushed to her side,” though making it back in plenty of time for the birth. In the end it wasn’t an especially dramatic delivery.  Sarah did drive herself to the hospital, however, in an astonishing display female strength that made her mother (and me) proud.

Here’s the newborn, sleeping just like her grandpa:

photo (6)

She’s beautiful, isn’t she – and brilliant too, of course.  On the APGAR test, administered immediately after birth, measuring breathing effort, skin color, etc. she received the top score (one point better than her mother). Based on that as much as anything, I think she’s looking at perfect scores on the SAT as well.  Alert the Harvard admissions office!

Grandma and grandpa – I think we’re going to be “nana and pop” – boarded a plane and made it to St. Louis within a few hours of the birth.  The way we were feeling, I don’t think we really needed the help of Southwest Airlines to get there.  To hold that impossibly small human being – to see my own baby, now thirty years later, holding her own baby – I’m not sure I will ever have the words to describe the feeling which, I now realize, is why we have music, poetry, and art.

In addition to creating unusual birth announcements, Lizzy and Daniel have had an eventful year of their own.

On one fine day in May, in front of a mostly-dignified family cheering section at Hill Auditorium, Lizzy graduated from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.  The next day we loaded up their truck, and she and Daniel made the long trek to Seattle where Lizzy is a researcher – “data monkey,” she says – for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the University of Washington.  Daniel left Apple behind in the move and has spent the last several months on an Internet start-up dream.

Both seem to be embracing life in Seattle, making new friends, and enjoying the outdoor life of the Northwest.

All of that would have been a pretty good year for most people – and it would have been for us too – but early in the year an opportunity came along for a move to Zurich, Switzerland, and we pursued it, not knowing until very early in September if the invitation would ever come.  It did, and after preaching at the International Protestant Church later in the month, the congregation called me to be their next pastor.

Susan and I are spending these last days and weeks of 2013 doing a million and one things that need to be done in order to move overseas – selling a house, building a new one on our Lake Michigan lot, selling one car and putting the other in storage, getting visas and work permits, figuring out health insurance, and – oh – even learning a little German. Ach du Lieber!

And since we gave away all – or most – of our wool clothes in the move to Florida, let’s just say that Susan doesn’t need encouragement to shop.

My contract with the new church is for three years, with the possibility of renewal, and we’re thinking of this as the adventure of a lifetime.

Early in the year I had agreed to lead a tour to Israel, and so after making the announcement to my Florida congregation I took some of those same church members to the holy land for what was my fifth pilgrimage – and quite possibly the best yet.  The first time I went, the joy was in seeing the land for myself.  I had tears in my eyes just about every day.  Seeing the Sea of Galilee nearly did me in.  Today the joy for me is introducing this land to first-time visitors and watching them respond as I did.

Here’s a little video clip of a totally unexpected moment – not on the tour itinerary – that turned out to be one of the high points.  Our very reserved U.S. Presbyterian group joined with a very exuberant Nigerian group, numbering over a hundred, to sing “How Great Thou Art” in a church along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.

The photo below is from the trip, a little mud treatment on the shore of the Dead Sea.

photo

As exciting and thrilling as our year has been, it hasn’t been without its pain and disappointment.  It’s true of course that the kind of joys we’ve experienced should – and do – make up for any failures.  But life is more than a ledger on which you hope that gains will eventually outnumber losses.

So, it was during Thanksgiving week this year that I found what I had been looking for – a way to understand, or to re-frame, our year.  In the Book of Common Prayer, in a prayer of thanksgiving, I found this line:

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures
that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

And that of course is where we are as the year comes to an end, acknowledging our dependence on the One who loves us, the One who came into the world in a not-very-promising way (see baby photo above), and the One who left promising to return to make all things new.

We hope we see you this season, and if we don’t, we hope you’ll look us up across the water.  We’ll be the ones struggling to understand our new culture – and of course eating lots of chocolate.

Love,

Doug and Susan

(For everyone who missed it, here’s the YouTube video of my family wishing me a happy 60th!)

And below is a typical Swiss street at Christmas:

swiss_christmas_lights_by_cadaska-d4kj37o

 

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