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

Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship; Joyce Borger, Martin Tel, and John D. Witvliet, Editors; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, Faith Alive Christian Resources,and Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, 2012

I heard one of the editors of this impressive volume say at a recent worship conference that Psalms for All Seasons was “not born out of market research.”  No one, he said, has been asking the editors, “When is there going to be a new psalter?”

Yet, here it is, in its third printing in about as many months.

Psalms for All Seasons may not have been “much anticipated” (in the breathless language of some pre-publication blurbs), but it is nevertheless welcome, clearly filling a need, and telling us a great deal about where the American church is today.

I grew up singing the psalms in a denomination that has historically valued psalm singing and that sang out of a “psalter-hymnal,” but I don’t think I discovered the power and importance of the psalms until I was well along in my ministry.  Today it would be impossible, for example, to plan for a memorial service without making ample use of the Book of Psalms.  No other book of the Bible expresses what needs to be expressed during such a service quite like the Book of Psalms.

I started out in ministry as an associate pastor in a large church, and I quickly discovered that the senior pastor loved the psalms.  Trained early on to sing opera, he continued to sing following ordination by using the psalms in personal devotions.  I would arrive at the church early in the morning and hear him behind the closed door of his office singing the psalms, many of which he metered for singing with familiar hymn tunes.  (Several of his psalms, in fact, can be found in this volume.)

Writing this review, I thought, called for a different kind of preparation from other book reviews I’ve written. To give an example, I worked with the lead musician on my church’s staff, and together we have now selected several of the psalms in Psalms for All Seasons for use in worship.

On one recent Sunday, when Psalm 23 was the psalm of the day in the Revised Common Lectionary, the congregation sang three different settings of this psalm – from the stately and traditional to the lively and contemporary.  The adult choir sang yet another setting for a total of four very different experiences of this psalm.

What was the effect of all this attention to Psalm 23?  I would like to think that this particular psalm’s message, meaning, and beauty were fully on display – and perhaps that my congregation caught a little of the rich diversity of music now being sung in American churches.

Psalms for All Seasons contains settings for all 150 psalms, including 11different settings for Psalm 23 (only one setting for Psalm 101, but generally several settings for each psalm).  The settings follow a reproduction of the psalm in its entirety (from the New Revised Standard Version), a brief prayer (or collect), and a paragraph of commentary about the psalm.  Outlines of morning prayer, noon prayer, evening prayer, and prayer for meetings and classes are given toward the end of the volume, making it valuable for personal use and meetings as well as corporate worship.

The settings (where there is more than one) range from old to new and are thoughtfully selected to include all or most of the arrangers and writers at work today in the American church.

Here’s a prediction for pastors and worship leaders who select music each week for use in worship: in this volume you will find at least 200 psalm settings that you would never, under any circumstances, think to use, but that means you will find hundreds more that would fit nicely with your worship preferences. The range is sometimes startling, though that would also be a good description of worship life in the American church today.

What the editors of this volume have revealed is perhaps what we’ve known all along – namely, that the psalms have long had, and continue to have, an important place in the worship life of the church.

Companion CDs are available which offer a sampling of the psalms found in Psalms for All Seasons and which give the listener and worship planner an idea of how the setting might sound in worship.

Having sung a great many of the settings in this volume both with my congregation and in other settings, I can testify to not only its usefulness, but to its wonder. What an unexpected and timely gift to the church.

(a book review for Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought, a publication to which I’ve contributed for than 20 years)

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A little bug

I felt it Saturday morning.

Something was happening in my upper respiratory system, and it wasn’t something good.  My voice sounded a little more resonant than usual.  I had a scratchy throat. And so, clearly a cold was on the way.

But getting sick on Saturday is not an option, not for me.  I had a sermon to preach, one that I was looking forward to preaching, one that I was genuinely excited about, as a matter of fact.

So, I did what I usually do.  I powered through.  A little Tylenol, a little decongestant (the non-drowsy kind), and I figured I was good to go.  So, Sunday came and went, and I thought I had dodged a bullet (I don’t like that expression much, but it sort of fits).

Then, I woke up Wednesday morning, and I realized I hadn’t dodged anything.  The bug suddenly had the upper hand, and I was busy cancelling appointments for the day.  I reluctantly called my family practice doctor, who prescribed an anti-biotic, and I had no choice but to give in and – I can’t believe this – take a nap.

My grandparents took naps, for heaven’s sake!  And they were really old.

Spiritually speaking, this little encounter with a flu bug has significance for me, beyond the need to take care of myself.  Getting sick is often a reminder to me that I am, after all, a mere mortal, which is a simple truth I am tempted to forget.

It’s like the smear of ashes on my forehead at the Ash Wednesday service – and then the words “dust you are, Doug, and to dust you shall return.”

I don’t like that reminder because I like to think of myself as big and strong and, yes, very nearly invincible.  Illness is what happens to other people.

Then a little bug comes along – one that’s not even visible to the naked eye – and it lays me out.   And in that moment I realize (once again) that “I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…” (one of my favorite lines from the Heidelberg Catechism).

And this is where I’m supposed to comment on how thankful I am for this much-needed reminder…but I’m not quite there yet.

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Special Olympics

I’m preaching later this morning about leadership which is a big topic.  I gathered a lot of information, and then as so often happens I realized that I couldn’t use everything.
So, I made some painful choices, which is what a film director must go through to get a project down to 90 minutes or so. I figure I’ve got around 20 minutes which makes my job even harder.

What I plan to say is that the Bible teaches us some counter-intuitive lessons about leadership.  When God chooses a leader for the people of Israel, God chooses the youngest, smallest, scrawniest brother in the Jesse clan.  They didn’t even think to include him in the selection process and only brought him out when the old prophet Samuel asked if there was, maybe, one more son in the family.

For anyone who has ever been too young, too small, too scrawny, this is a good
story.  It reminds us that God sees potential in us that, sometimes, others do not see.

The other thing about leadership that I plan to say is that it is self-sacrificing, like the Good Shepherd in John’s gospel.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  I do my best to follow that Good Shepherd in my personal life, but I wish there were more of them today – in schools, businesses, and churches.

Here’s the part of my sermon for today I had to leave on the cutting-room floor: Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, is a curious blend of evangelical faith and liberal politics.  She’s got a quirky and irreverent style that isn’t for everyone, but it’s fun and occasionally filled with insight.  Here’s what she writes about leadership:

If I were going to help people with being good leaders, I would say the most important thing you can do is go to the Special Olympics every single year and bring more and more people there, because that is where you’re going to see the kingdom of God.

At the Special Olympics, if someone falls down or spaces out, the others don’t go, “Oh, great – that gives me an edge.”  They go back for him or her and help, and somebody that has been assigned to help helps everybody get going in the right direction again, and they go off together.

Yeah, there is no more joy to be had this side of glory than a morning at the Special Olympics track and field.

Amen to that.

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I’m not perfect

Over the last ten years or so I have often lamented the existence and widespread use of email.  It’s pretty much made my life miserable – except for those times when I can’t live without it.

Before email, sermon feedback was sparse.  In a church I served early in my ministry, I actually started a “sermon feedback” group for Sundays after the last service. The idea was that we would “continue the conversation” in a classroom setting.  I enjoyed those sessions and still think there’s a place for them.  I found out pretty quickly what people heard, what interested them, or what didn’t make sense.

Then came email.  And since then I haven’t had to ask for feedback.  It just comes, often as early as Sunday afternoon.  To be fair, most of the email I receive in response to sermons is kind and encouraging and supportive.  In fact, I probably receive more words of appreciation for what I do than people who labor in other professions.

So, there’s no need to feel sorry for me (unless you would like to).

And yet, I do receive the occasional email that makes me regret opening up my laptop on Sunday afternoon.  I read it and think, “Really? You needed to say that? I hope you feel better now, because I feel lousy.”

It’s on those occasions that I think back to the time when people actually had to go home and think about their response.  And then they would have to get out a pen, a piece of paper, an envelope, and a stamp.  After it was dropped into the mail, I probably wouldn’t receive it until Tuesday at the earliest – and by then I wasn’t nearly as sensitive and defensive as I often am on Sunday afternoon.

I can be sensitive and defensive on Sunday afternoon.  And that’s because there is something vulnerable about preaching. From the first time I stood in a pulpit, I have felt exposed when I preach, open to criticism, and vulnerable to … I don’t know, something, maybe personal attack.

Early in our marriage, Susan and I reached an agreement that she wouldn’t say anything about my sermon until at least Wednesday, which was when I figured that I could really hear what she had to say.  I value her opinion about what I say, but it’s sometimes hard to hear her so soon after I’ve said it.  And mostly she keeps the agreement, even when I taunt her on Sunday after church with a “So, what did you think?”

Good preaching, I’m convinced, ought to involve vulnerability.  When one of us preaches, we should  be putting ourselves out there.  Our beliefs and most deeply held convictions should be plain for all to see.  But there’s a risk in that.  To be exposed in that way makes us vulnerable.

Last Sunday I mentioned in my sermon that life in my childhood was good and that institutions of government were respected and that things generally were better than there are today.  I said it differently, of course, but that’s how it was heard.

And so – on Monday morning – I opened my laptop to find a wonderful, thoughtful, and gentle email expressing…well, profound disagreement with what I had said. Not everything back in the 1950s and 1960s, she reminded me, was good.  Many women, many African-Americans, and many others do not look back on those times as good at all.

I had to agree.  I told a story from my own limited perspective, and I got it wrong.

Another time, several years ago, on a Saturday night, I was visiting a church – a mega-church 20 miles from my home.  I was excited to go and was enjoying myself until I heard the pastor, who is a nationally-known preacher, say something disparaging about mainline Protestants.  I was so mad that I went home and (not knowing his email address) wrote him a letter letting him know that some mainline Protestants actually do believe in God and that he was a very bad man for implying otherwise (I forget exactly what I wrote).

To my surprise, he wrote back.  It was a nice letter, on personal stationary, and clearly not written by a staff member. He apologized.  He said, “I don’t remember saying those things, but if I did, I hope you will accept my apology.  I blew it.”

Which was not the response I expected.  And I decided to learn from it.  I don’t always get it right either when I stand up to preach.  I have been known to blow it.  I hope I get the essentials right.  I hope the gospel is clear every time I walk up those steps. But I’m not perfect.  And I hate email.

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Next chapter(s) of life

My younger daughter is getting married in August, and I have been given one relatively small chore in preparation – that is, in addition to keeping the checkbook balanced, which is an old, but still effective (I’m finding) little joke about fathers of the bride.

The little chore which has been entrusted to me is to find 50 photographs of my daughter taken at various points during her childhood.  The idea is that my 50 photos will be mingled with 50 photos of my soon-to-be son-in-law, resulting in a nice slideshow for people to watch at the reception, while we all wait for the bride and groom to arrive from wherever it is that brides and grooms go after their wedding ceremonies.

For those who are wondering – no, I’m not officiating. I told both daughters years ago that the only role at their weddings I truly looked forward to was being their dad.  Full disclosure: my daughters are also keenly aware that I’ve been known to cry to the point of embarrassment at times like these, and I suspect that neither one was keen on the idea of hearing me blubber my way through their wedding ceremonies.

Also, fortunately, they’ve got a couple of cousins who are ordained pastors and who can do a fine job of leading them through the vows.

But back to the photos.  When my older daughter was married four summers ago, I seized the opportunity to sort out the entire collection of family photos, including over 20 years’ worth of family vacations, Christmas mornings, proms, school graduations, etc.

Over the years, all of our family photos had been tossed into a large plastic tub – kind of a giant Tupperware container – waiting for me to tackle the job of sorting either in my retirement or in preparation for a wedding, whichever event came first.

So, four summers ago I sorted and categorized, and now the entire collection can be searched according to subject matter and chronological order.

Here’s the thing, though: A project that should have taken a few hours, or maybe a long weekend of focused effort, took days and days.  Why?  Well, you don’t look through 20 years of family history without stopping to remember and reminisce and – at least in my case – shed a few tears.

Those were good years.  I didn’t always think so at the time, of course, because they were also busy and demanding years, but they were good years.   And the photos confirm that we enjoyed ourselves.  We had fun together.  We did all the things that families hope to do.

And then one day it was all over.  Not really, but that’s how it seemed.  For 20 years I devoted myself – and I don’t want to sound heroic about it because I wasn’t perfect – but I devoted myself, more or less, to being a parent and raising two daughters I was crazy about.  And then, in the span of a few short years, they were gone – on to the next chapters of their lives.

The problem was that I couldn’t quite imagine the next chapter in my own life.  The sense of loss I felt at taking my older daughter to college was something I will never, ever forget.  I knew then – that very day – that my life had changed.  And only now am I beginning to see that something new has come along.  A new chapter has finally opened.

And it’s not bad.  I’m starting to like it as a matter of fact.  I like knowing my daughters as adults.  I still worry about them and listen for any hint of trouble in their voices when they call, but I like the people they have become, and I like talking with them, not as children, but as people who have interesting and thoughtful things to say.

I’ve learned something important about loss and grief in all of this.  And it’s that new chapters do eventually open for us.  They’re not necessarily better (or worse) than the chapter that has closed.  They’re new – with new possibilities, new opportunities, and (in the case of my family) new ways of having a relationship.

This time around the photo sorting is a source of joy – with only an occasional tear and twinge of regret that those wonderful days are gone for good. I suppose that looking forward to a new chapter of life is a good description of faith – “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

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Prayer in worship on May 27

Spirit of God, on a day when we remember the outpouring of your Holy Spirit that called together a people and launched a movement and gave birth to the church, we are in awe that 2,000 years later there is still a people and that the movement continues to spread and that – in spite of everything – even the church exists, wounded in places, but resilient and faithful.

We’re grateful that your Spirit is still here among us and within us, and that we still see it at work, and that it still pushes us to learn and grow and demonstrate your love. We celebrate today a flame that still burns and a fire that cannot be quenched.

We also remember today women and men in our nation’s history, including many who sit in these pews today, who set aside personal dreams and goals, and instead put their country first, who fought and served, who demonstrated bravery and sacrifice, who allowed us to enjoy freedoms and opportunities that are still second to none in the world.  We are blessed people, and today we thank some of those who have made our good life possible.

God of healing and hope, we also take time today to remember the sick in our congregation, as well those in our families and in our circles of friends.  We remember those who have experienced loss and now find themselves dealing with grief.  We remember those who struggle with family and marriage in a way that robs life of its joy.   We pray for healing, of course, but we pray also for trust – the trust that you are God, that we are your children, and that nothing in all creation can ever separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And now, trusting that you hear all of the prayers offered here this morning, hear us now as we say with one, confident voice, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name….”

(prayer offered in worship on Sunday, May 27, 2012, Pentecost and Memorial Day Weekend)

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See you in September

One of the most gratifying areas of my ministry over the last two years has been found in an unexpected place – the church’s grief support group.

Leading a grief group wasn’t even in my job description when I started.  I just noticed a large number of grieving people in my church – women and men – and decided to offer a safe place twice each month for conversation, support, prayer, and (can you have a church meeting without them?) snacks.

And nearly two years later, to my surprise, we’re still going strong.

Yesterday we had our last meeting before taking a break for summer, and we promised to start again on the first Wednesday in September.  The thinking was that so many people go away for all or part of the summer that attendance becomes erratic.  Better to close it down for the summer and start up again in the fall.

I was wrong, as I often am about these things.

Our turnout yesterday was nearly the best of the year, second only to the Wednesday just before Christmas, which is traditionally a tough time for people who are grieving.

What happened yesterday?  I’m not sure. Our regulars were there, of course, but so were some new people – not even church members, but a few people who had heard about the group and decided to give it a try.

The meeting yesterday might have been the best one of the year.  We talked, as we always do, we told stories, we read some words for each other that we had come across and liked, we cried, and – you might not believe this – we also laughed.

Anyone walking by our meeting room yesterday might have been surprised by all of the laughter.  Really?  That’s a grief group?

I wasn’t prepared for it, either, but laughter has become a regular part of our group life.  I hear laughter at funerals, so I know that when people tell stories about loved ones who have died there is bound to be some humor.  What I hadn’t expected was to see and hear people with raw feelings of grief suddenly give in to laughter.  For many of them it’s the first real laughter they’ve experienced since the death that plunged them into grief.

What have I learned after two years of listening to people in grief?  More than I can write in one blogpost, certainly, but here’s one thing that comes to mind: no two people grieve in exactly the same way.  Grief is different for everyone. My response to loss is going to be different from yours. And yours will be different from mine.

I suppose I had expected some rules and patterns to emerge – like the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross formula of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

But the surprise (to me) is that no pattern fits everyone.  We are all, apparently, as different in our grief as our fingerprints and our DNA.  Some of us grieve long and deep. Some members of the group experienced their loss four or five years ago and still need to talk about what has happened to them.  Others, in contrast, seem to bounce back relatively fast.

What may be a common experience for everyone who grieves is the need to acknowledge – to someone – the deep pain of it all, the emptiness that will never, ever be filled again, and the sadness that no amount of comfort will take away.

One member of the group has said to me that he had tried a grief group sponsored by a local hospice, but that he quickly found it unsatisfying because there was no faith component.  My group definitely has a faith component.  We open and close in prayer, of course.  And not surprisingly, we talk about our faith – sometimes about how our faith is tested by suffering and death, but more often about how our faith comforts and gives hope.  Faith is both in the background and at the center of our times together.

I learned long ago that people who grieve are at their most vulnerable – and therefore their most authentic, most honest, most transparent.  When we grieve, everything else is stripped away. Putting up a front is nearly impossible for a person in grief.  And the result in many ways is wonderful.  I find myself wanting to be with these people.

As I write this, September seems a long way away.

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Saying Good-bye

I attended what may have been my worst presbytery meeting ever this week, and after more than 30 years of attending presbytery meetings, that’s saying something.

What made the meeting sad and difficult was that the Presbytery of Tropical Florida “dismissed” nine congregations, their pastors, and all of their property (conservatively worth more than $17 million) to other “Reformed bodies.”  What all of that ecclesiastical language means is that our presbytery said good-bye to nine congregations who in the weeks to come will become part of other denominations.

In personal terms, I said good-bye to nine gifted colleagues, many of whom have become my friends.

Forty-five congregations remain in the presbytery…for now.

Most of the departing congregations will end up in something called the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which was formed last January.  For more information about that body, here’s a link: http://www.fellowship-pres.org/eco/

In nearly every case, the congregations who left the presbytery – and therefore the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – explained that their former denomination had moved in a direction that no longer felt comfortable to them. And last summer’s change to the Book of Order – allowing the ordination of gays and lesbians – was for them the last straw.   Requesting dismissal was for them an act of conscience.

I hesitate to write about this situation for a number of reasons, but chief among them is that most people don’t know what a denomination is, or what a presbytery is, and furthermore don’t care.  Most people who are members of First Presbyterian Church are (blissfully?) unaware that they are part of a larger body of Christian churches.  Most of us came to this church because we loved the people here, or the music, or the preaching. Denominational affiliation is hardly ever a factor in someone’s decision to join a church.

However, the article that appeared Tuesday morning in our local newspaper, the Sun-Sentinel, calls for some explanation and reflection.

Our presbytery, it should be noted, has been hit harder than most.  Most presbyteries are in the process of dismissing a congregation or two; very few will experience the sort of loss that our presbytery experienced this week.  In a denomination of around 2 million members and more than 10,000 congregations, the overall statistical loss is not expected to be significant.

But this is about more than numbers.

As I work my way through the sadness I experienced on Tuesday, I feel some hope.  Nearly every presbytery meeting I attended over the last three years was characterized by conflict – sometimes overt, though more often it was just beneath the surface.  We were so clearly not of one mind about how to do the business of the church. It was always there.  And at times it was debilitating.

So, the departure of these nine congregations is expected to lessen the conflict.  We will finally be able to get on with the business of being the church.

I believe that the church’s mission is larger than whatever issue popular culture happens to be wrestling with at any given time.  Right now our culture is wrestling with the issue of sexual orientation, and that conflict is almost inevitably played out within the church. Within my lifetime I have listened as the church has argued about the role of women, abortion, capital punishment, nuclear proliferation, immigration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a host of other divisive issues.

My hope has been (and continues to be) that as a church we will model something better to the culture around us.  Rather than dividing ourselves along ideological lines, I continue to hope for a church that wants to serve Jesus Christ, first of all, and to find a way to stay together in times of division and conflict.

I do not believe we should ignore our differences.  I support thoughtful and respectful conversation.  And I think the most difficult position to hold is the one we have right now – namely, our determination to be one, a body of believers who are committed to the work that Jesus Christ has called us to.

When people ask me when our church is going to take a stand, this is what I say: “We have taken a stand, and that stand is to stay together, despite our differences, to model something different from the rest of culture.  Separating is the easier choice.  Finding a way to stay together – now that takes courage and hard work!”

Allow me to end – though I am aware that much more could be written – with a personal note.  One of the reasons for the sadness I felt this week is that my ties to the Presbyterian Church run very deep.  I was not raised a Presbyterian, but as a young adult, when I most needed it, I suddenly found myself embraced and welcomed by the Presbyterian Church.  And I have not forgotten the grace I found within this denomination, the kind of grace that has allowed me more than 30 years of ministry.

But that isn’t all.  Not long ago my older daughter was ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  My daughter serves a congregation that is strong and vital, one that not only proclaims the gospel, but lives it out in its mission and ministry.  So, my ties to this denomination now run through my own family.

I am hopeful for our future.  I do not make that statement lightly.  I see the obstacles plainly.  But I continue to do my work convinced that the ministry of this church is larger than, and more important than, what divides us today.

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