Archive | June, 2014

Growing up in a pastor’s home

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(During my 13 years as a pastor in Wheaton, Illinois, eight of our members, including one of my daughters, heard God’s call in their lives, went to seminary, and pursued ordination so that they could serve the church of Jesus Christ as pastors. It was an extraordinary season of ministry, one that still astonishes me.  One of those eight, Ericka Parkinson Kilbourne, is now a Presbyterian pastor in Michigan City, Indiana. She did her theological studies at Princeton Seminary, where she won the Jagow prize in homiletics and speech. Today, she is a mother of three, and like me she is a blogger. Recently she asked me to reflect in a guest blog on the dual vocations of pastor and father. Here’s what I wrote.)

If we had listened to every horror story about the difficulties of raising children in a pastor’s home,
we would have made the decision to remain childless – and felt pretty good about it.

Everyone who talked to us seemed to know of at least one situation in which a child, raised in the
wretched fish bowl of a pastor’s home, reacted in extreme and scary ways – including drug abuse,
petty crime, mental illness, and juvenile detention.

And now that I think about it, that’s odd because every person I know who grew up in a pastor’s
home has been a remarkably good and loving person.

My best friend during my teenage years was the son of a pastor, and life at his house always seemed
pretty normal to me. They didn’t sing hymns together around the piano every night, which I half
expected and which I definitely would have rebelled against. Instead, his dad occasionally enjoyed a
cold beer in the evenings.

Nothing in that household ever seemed alarming to me, but I might have missed something.

Anyway, I became a father while serving my first church after seminary, and the church responded
generously and thoughtfully to the birth. I was regularly overwhelmed by it. And because the
biological grandparents lived hundreds of miles away, dozens more at the church were more than
willing to take their place. Plus, a pool of reliable babysitters could always be found in the church’s
youth group. If anything, raising children in the church always seemed like an enormous advantage
we enjoyed – a perk of the career, you might say.

Our children, now well into adulthood, have talked occasionally about their experiences of growing
up in a pastor’s home, though it’s not something we dwell on, and mostly their memories of the
church seem to have been positive. To explain my work to her friends, my younger daughter used to
say I talked on the phone a lot – in a distinctively ministerial tone – which she thought was
hilariously funny. And that seems to be the strongest memory of my work from that period of their
lives – me talking on the phone.

My children don’t appear to have been harmed by their experience. One of them, the older one, is an
ordained Presbyterian pastor, which doesn’t seem to me like evidence of deep emotional scarring.

The younger one joined a church recently, soon after moving to a new city, and her only comment
was that she liked the old days when she was a child and people would regularly invite us over for
dinner. Now she says that she has to work harder at the relationships within the church.

So, our experience was good, and I am more grateful than I can say for it. We were blessed, of course, with some strong churches during their childhoods, churches with excellent Sunday Schools, large youth groups, and loving people. My children were witnesses to faith being lived out in some wonderful and obvious and very mundane ways. I suppose things could have been different.

Maybe what most needs to be said is that people should resist the temptation to tell about-to-be parents about all the horrible things that might happen. Instead we should probably say, ‘Do your best and you’ll be fine.’

Or as a farmer in my first church said to me, ‘Babies are like newborn calves. Keep them dry and well fed, and they’ll thrive.’

That was the best advice about parenting I ever received.

(Photo: That’s me a few months ago holding my new grand-daughter who – good for her! – is going to grow up in a pastor’s home.)

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Welcoming the stranger

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(I have always enjoyed being an uncle, and I am especially proud that both a niece and a nephew have become Christian pastors. They didn’t follow me into ministry. They grew up in Christian families and then in adulthood embraced the faith of their parents. My niece, Kate Van Noord Kooyman, is a graduate of Calvin College and Western Theological Seminary. She is a Reformed Church in America pastor who is passionate about immigration reform. I saw her interviewed by a cable news network not long ago and realized just how articulate she is on the subject, and so I asked if she would write a few words for Doug’s Blog on the subject. Below are those words, together with hyperlinks that support and illustrate her statements. Thanks, Kate.)

Shortly after the birth of my second son, Sam, I went back to work. After months of being home all the time, I was once again immersed in one of the unspoken trials of modern parenthood: daycare drop-off. Crying, whining, begging, clutching, bribing, peeling-toddler-legs-from-mom’s-waist … there must be mommy support groups for this kind of daily trauma.

I got in the habit of reciting a little mantra on the way to daycare, while hyper-extending my elbow so that I could hold hands with my toddler in the back seat: “Sometimes Mommy goes away. But she will always come back. Can you say that with me? She will always come back.”

There’s a new documentary detailing a Christian perspective on undocumented immigrants in the United States, and it made me remember this ritual. In the film, there is a mom who is living life “in the shadows.” She’s working, paying taxes, and raising four kids on her own. At one point she tells us that her youngest daughter has been reporting having dreams that her mom is taken from her. With tears, the mom tell us her response to her child, “I’ll never leave you.” She will always come back. Maria loves her kids as much as I love mine. But her promise isn’t in her hands to fulfill. It’s in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It’s estimated that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US today. The media has told us that these are “freeloaders,” people looking to game the system. The truth is, the majority of the undocumented pay taxes – even income tax and Social Security contributions they will never benefit from, and they cannot access social services like welfare or food stamps. The media has told us that these are criminals. The truth is, immigrants are markedly less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes. For many, the only law-breaking that occurred was overstaying an expired visa, or crossing a border illegally. The public wisdom is that these immigrants should just “get in line” and “come the legal way” just like “my grandparents did.” The truth is, they would love to get in line. There is no line.

There are lots of ways to think and talk about this issue. We could talk about it as an economic issue (spoiler: immigrants are a huge boon to the economy). We could talk about it as a public safety issue (hint: our current system is a dream scenario for slave traders, drug traffickers, abusive spouses, and anyone looking to prey on vulnerable people). Or, we could talk about it like Christians.

But we don’t talk about it like Christians. Pew Research has told us that only 12 percent of American Christians admit they think about immigration primarily from the perspective of their faith. And that’s not surprising when we learn that only 20 percent of them have ever heard immigration mentioned by their pastor. But while the church might be silent on this issue, the Bible is not. The Hebrew word ger (translated immigrant, stranger, sojourner, foreigner) is mentioned in the Old Testament 92 times – reminding Israel to take special care of the ger, to welcome the ger, to treat the ger equally to the native-born. In the New Testament, the Greek word that we translate as “hospitality” is philoxenia. Biblical hospitality isn’t having your friends over for dinner – it is “love of the stranger.” While our culture encourages xenophobia (that strangers are to be feared), thinking like a Christian about immigration means that we actually approach immigrants as God’s means of giving a blessing.

I believe that immigrants do bring a blessing. I believe that they are the hope for the vibrancy of American Christianity. I believe they are the hope for US economic vitality. But mostly I believe they are the way that the native-born remember that we, too, were once strangers in a strange land. That in welcoming the stranger we are immersing ourselves in that foundational story of our faith in which God heard our cries, God freed us from oppression, God was revealed to be bigger than our nationalism, our power structures, our suffering, our sin. Welcoming the stranger is how we remember who God is.

I invite you to pray for reform of our broken immigration system. I invite you to watch and share The Stranger film. And – if you’re a voter in the US – to advocate for Congress to do something to address this crisis. Call 1-866-877-5552 and tell your member of Congress it’s time to decide on a more humane, logical, and hopeful immigration system.

my neice Kate Kooyman
(Photo: Yes, that’s Kate.)
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A plea for more modesty

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I don’t go out of my way to talk to people on trains. It just happens.

I was taking the S6 home last night because I missed the much faster S7, even though I ran, pretty fast too for a man of my, uh, maturity and position in the community.

But there she was – I recognized her from the evening service – and so I asked where she was from.

She had been visiting my church and had even introduced herself at the point in the service when we ask visitors to introduce themselves. She spoke English, as everyone at my church does, but I noticed that it was with a distinctive and (for me) unrecognizable accent.

She told me she was from Siberia and had been living in Switzerland for 20 years. I asked how she came to be at my church, and I then heard the story of her life. I don’t think of myself as an especially good listener, but I can ask open-ended questions like a champ.

I learned, among other things, that she had been baptized as a child, but that “it didn’t mean anything because I wasn’t aware of what was happening.” Then, a few years ago, she was baptized again, and this time it meant something because she began to explore her new faith – much to the chagrin of her mostly Muslim family. And then, a couple of months ago, she was baptized yet again – this time in a Pentecostal church and with full immersion, “just like scripture teaches us to do it.”

It was that last comment that caught my attention. I wasn’t napping before that, but when she made a strong assertion about what scripture teaches, in an area of theology where there have been centuries of debate and disagreement, I sat up and was – okay, I’ll admit it – irritated.

Here was a young Christian telling me – first – that my own baptism “didn’t mean anything.” (Try telling that to my parents who presented me as an infant with as much hope and pride and belief as any parents have ever had.) And then she told me what scripture teaches regarding the proper administration of baptism, which is not the way I ordinarily do it.

I resisted the temptation to say, “What seminary did you get your theological degree from?” Instead I thanked her – profusely – for sharing with me the deeply moving story of her spiritual journey. I told her that I hoped to see her again.

But today I’m thinking, “Why is it that young Christians presume to know so much about their faith, so much in fact that they feel confident enough to teach – and sometimes rebuke – others?”

She’s not the first, unfortunately. It happens a great deal.

And what am I supposed to say? How about “you know, actually, there’s a long history of debate on that particular point, and while you’re welcome to your point of view, you should know that not every Christian believes exactly as you do”?

I suppose this post, more than anything, is an appeal for some greater modesty about what we believe. Faith by its very nature seems to lead us to speak about it boldly, but I wonder if followers of Christ shouldn’t resist the temptation to set other followers straight, or at least until they have achieved some seasoning, some experience, some maturity.

Sometimes our boldness is arrogant and rude.

(Photo: It has nothing to do with the content of my post, but I couldn’t wait any longer to use it.)

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Top 5 Reasons Multi-Cultural Congregations Flourish

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During the annual colloquium of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship last week, I made a presentation and offered the following five reasons why congregations with diverse memberships flourish.

I noted, by way of introduction, that before my move to Zurich the congregations I served over the years have been mostly white. When we would fill out the denominational statistics form each year, we usually claimed that we were 98 percent white, but if we had been challenged to describe the remaining two percent, we would have had a difficult time.

The International Protestant Church, where I now serve, is staggeringly diverse. Every time people come forward to receive communion, I think, “This is what heaven will look like.” There is only one U.S.-born member on our leadership board. The rest are from the U.K., Hong Kong, India, Kenya, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. (I’m pretty sure they called me to be their pastor because I would add racial and ethnic balance. Think about that.)

  1. A welcoming name. The word “international,” I’ve come to see, is a beacon. Churches that want to be diverse in membership should pay much more careful attention to their names. If the church I now serve had decided to call itself the First Presbyterian Church of Zurich (or something similar), I’m certain most of our members, especially those from Africa and India, would not have given it a second look. (I’m still somewhat conflicted about the second word in our name, but “Protestant” has some different connotations in this part of the world. We’re located in Ulrich Zwingli’s backyard, after all.)
  2. Diversity in leadership. Though my church was founded in the 1960s by American expatriots, the founders anticipated a membership that included more than U.S.-born members. And so, over the years, the expectation has been that our leadership board itself would be very diverse. And it is. Being serious about diversity in the membership means being serious about diversity in the leadership.
  3. Theological generosity. As you might imagine, music styles and methods of serving communion are areas where my church has had to be flexible, but maybe more significant is the need to bend theologically. My church is essentially Reformed in its theological outlook, but the membership is drawn from a much larger theological world – Baptist, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, etc. Speaking personally, it’s in the area of baptismal theology where I have felt the greatest challenge and need to bend. (Ironically, the church is located just a few steps from a monument by the Limmat River where several Anabaptists were drowned for their heresy. Today, in our worship, Anabaptists sit side by side with strict Calvinists without fear of losing their lives. A bit of progress.)
  4. Thoughtfulness and sensitivity in every area of church life – including preaching, worship leadership, music selection, and even the potluck picnic. To get along with other cultures means doing things their way, acknowledging their customs and traditions, respecting their views, and of course asking them (occasionally) to do things a different or unfamiliar way. Mostly this works. I find my own greatest challenge in preaching. (References to American baseball, for example, would be mostly unintelligible in a setting like this, though I had a good response yesterday to my reference to the World Cup. I am learning.)
  5. Learn the language. Even if the church agrees to worship in English, it’s essential for pastors and leaders to learn the language that is most frequently spoken away from the church. At the very least it’s a signal that the newcomer wants to know the host culture. If I had remained in the U.S., and in my previous situation, it was becoming clear that I would have to learn Spanish (or Creole).

Are there are other reasons? I’m guessing that there are. What would you say? Given the changing nature of many congregations, I would say that this is an important conversation to have.

(Photo: Yes, totally random, but cute. Life in Switzerland.)

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Preacher as scout

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Is it ever okay to sound less than confident when preaching?

I ask not because I’ve been feeling confused lately about what I believe. I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that.

I ask because of a joke I told that started me thinking.

Here’s what happened: I gave a presentation this week before a group of pastors and worship leaders titled “Top 5 Reasons Multi-Cultural Churches Flourish.” At the beginning, in an unscripted, ad-lib sort of way, I said, “I’m still new to my congregation in Zurich, so these are my initial observations, always subject to revision. But because I’m a preacher, I’m going to say them with full conviction anyway.”

I was surprised by the amount of laughter the joke received, but later (as I often do) I started to wonder about it. Were they laughing because everyone knows how confident preachers sound about whatever they happen to be saying? I suppose the joke works only if it’s heard that way, but the enthusiastic response, I have to say, was unnerving to me.

People must notice how cocksure we preachers can be, and they must wonder how that’s possible, not just with the big things, but with the little ones too.

If preachers were occasionally hesitant or unsure about something, wouldn’t it be okay if they said so, acknowledged with honesty and humility that they were still sorting it out, still trying to understand with greater clarity?

I’m pretty sure I would not want a preacher who aired her doubts and misgivings about Christian faith in the Sunday message. I have something different in mind here.

Some years ago I read that a preacher is like a scout who has been called and trained to go ahead and peer into the fog, reporting back what she has seen and heard. Such a preacher presents herself to the congregation as a fellow traveler, but one who has a special responsibility to look ahead, to figure things out.

I have always liked that image. It invites the hearers to join the journey and be part of the conversation. The downside, I suppose, is that a hesitant scout doesn’t inspire much confidence. “This is what I think right now, but you never know what might happen tomorrow.”

I might look for a new scout.

Just so you know: I don’t spend much time re-thinking the historic creeds and doctrines of the church. God created the heavens and the earth? Not a problem for me. But I do wonder sometimes about a few of his creatures. What was he thinking?

Is it okay to say that?

(Maybe you’ve notice a little tweaking to the home page. Doug’s Blog has been added to the CC Blogs Community, and I’m proud to be listed. Several friends are already there. Click on the icon and take a look. And then there’s the revamped Doug’s Books page. I didn’t expect to sell a lot of my books through the blog, but I did expect to let people know what I’ve written. The re-design helps. Thanks to Chris at the Blog Designers!)

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Some thoughts on Pentecost morning

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While walking the dog early this morning through the village where I live, and thinking through the rest of my morning, especially the Pentecost celebration at my church, I found myself thinking about my neighbors.

To my friends in the U.S., I realize, these people are mostly secular and irreligious. (I nearly added “socialist,” but that’s a topic for another post, one I’ve been putting off.)

And yet nearly every day I find hints and clues that this picture of my new neighbors is flawed or incomplete. Last week, for example, my copy of the Meilener Anzeiger arrived. It’s the weekly tabloid which would keep me up-to-date on what was happening in my village – Meilen – if only I could read it.

On the front page – in fact, covering the entire front page – was an article by the pastor of the village church, Pfarrer Daniel Eschmann, explaining the meaning of Pentecost. The photo accompanying the article was of a 14th century painting depicting the giving of the holy Spirit. As I scanned the piece I tried to remember the last time I was invited to submit 750 words about Pentecost for the front page of a local paper in the U.S. (It happens in some communities, I know, but it’s not a widespread phenomenon. And in more than 30 years it never happened to me.)

So, the idea persists that Europe in general and Switzerland in particular is a godless place in need of evangelizing.

Twice in the last month I received letters announcing plans to establish churches in Zurich, funded by well-intended Americans, to “reach” people like my neighbors. From the glossy brochures that accompanied the letters, I’m guessing that these efforts will be well-funded. These letters were a “courtesy,” letting me know of their “exciting” plans, but mostly I sensed they were a kind of judgment that churches like mine had failed in reaching the “unreached” in Europe.

In addition to getting mail about new churches, I now regularly meet individuals who feel “called” to Europe, who find people in the U.S. to “partner” with them by providing funds for their mission work in places like Zurich. They will come and do their best to learn the language and then share the good news of Jesus Christ.

I’m told by friends who pastor churches similar to mine, in places like Paris, Stockholm, and Berlin, that most of these efforts fail to take root. They flourish for a time, or until funding runs out, and then they disappear. Some, however, do take root and grow, though their members are typically drawn from African and Asian expat populations.

What do I take from all of this?

Well, for one thing, I’m convinced that the typical U.S. view of European religious life is superficial at best, that we see European church life from the narrow perspective of our own experience. I suspect, as I’ve written previously, that religious sensibilities run deeper here than most realize.

And, for another thing, just so you know, I welcome the mission efforts. Go ahead and throw the seed. Some of it, I pray, will eventually land on fertile soil.

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A chapter in the spiritual life

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Hard to say, really, what’s been going on with me. I’m not usually at such a loss for words.

Preachers seldom are.

After months with lots to say, words coming out of every pore – blog posts and sermons and newsletter articles – these weeks after Easter have been pretty quiet. Well, what for me is quiet.

One explanation, of course, is that there is so much to take in. I thought it would let up, this almost-constant deluge of new experiences. But they keep coming.

I sat in language class last night and realized that I was actually forming thoughts and sentences in another language. When I studied Latin a long time ago, my teacher, Mr. Wolterink, never expected me to think of something to say in Latin. He would have been surprised, and probably irritated, if I had. The whole idea was to think deeply about what others had to say.

Why form your own thought when Cicero had already said it about as well as it can be said?

But last night I was expressing myself in German. Not deep thoughts, of course, but my thoughts. I’m not Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Not yet. But I am beginning to think in his language. One day I will even post in German without the help of Bing Translator. And Goethe will turn over in his grave.

Another explanation, a more likely explanation, is that there are inevitable ebbs and flows to the spiritual life. If belief in God, as I experience it, is more of a relationship than an abstraction, then I suppose quiet times are going to be pretty much inevitable. Every other relationship in my life works that way, so why should my relationship with God be different?

Not that God has been quiet, although that’s certainly possible too. It’s more likely that I have moved to a new place – not just geographically, but spiritually. That’s the thing about the spiritual life – isn’t it? – that it never stays in one place. There are periods when it’s loud and exciting and expressive, and then there are times when it’s not any of those things, when it’s quiet, when there aren’t words to describe it.

A year ago I never would have imagined being where I am today – geographically and spiritually – but here I am. It’s a lot to take in.

And so I am quiet. Enjoying it. The relationship.

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Celebrate Pentecost

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(I first posted this a year ago, though the incident I describe here happened 10 years ago or so when I was serving as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois.)

Imagine my surprise early one Friday morning, as I was sitting quietly at home with my coffee and the Wall Street Journal.  There on the op-ed page was a piece about my church.

Actually, it wasn’t so much about my church, as it was about the sign in front of my church.

Facing a well-traveled street in the Chicago suburb where I used to live was a church sign board.  On one side of the sign board we posted worship times and a welcome to visitors.  On the other … well, that was the problem.

What do you post on a church sign board?

For some reason this was a responsibility that always fell to me.  As hard as I worked to delegate it, I always ended up with the final decision about what to put out there.

I resisted the use of clever and catchy sayings.  What I preferred was to announce events like Vacation Bible School, the Mother-Daughter Tea, Nursery School registration, and so on.  However, there were church members, now and then, who wanted to do more than that.  Much more.  And they would bring in pictures of sign boards from other churches to make their case.

One year, heading into the summer season and without a lot of church activities to announce, I gave the custodian two words to put out there on the signboard, two words that I thought were utterly innocuous: “Celebrate Pentecost.”

I ordinarily don’t go looking for controversy.  But to one driver who passed by my church in the days leading up to Pentecost a few years ago those were words that couldn’t be ignored.

“Celebrate Pentecost?” she wrote in her Wall Street Journal column.  “What could those words mean for a Presbyterian Church?”

She argued that celebrating Pentecost would be understandable in a Pentecostal or charismatic church, where speaking in tongues and faith healing and so on were practiced.  But a Presbyterian Church, she wrote, was being misleading at best by encouraging its people to celebrate Pentecost.

Misleading?  Really?

What does Pentecost look like for a Presbyterian Church?  The truth is, I’m getting a lot of blank looks from staff members this week as I try to make plans for this special day.  It seems they’re not exactly sure what a Pentecost celebration would look like either.  “Why is the color for Pentecost red?” one of them asked.

I’m stunned.  In popular culture, I realize, Pentecost doesn’t rank up there with Christmas and Easter, but within the biblical account I would say Pentecost is an important day – very important.  I would say the story tells us a great deal about how God calls a people to himself – and then sends them out again to be the church.  Maybe our ignorance about Pentecost says a lot about where the American church is today.

I plan to say something about this on Sunday.

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