Tag Archives | books

My most embarrassing moment

When I was 10 years old, I won second prize in my school’s annual “prose and poetry” competition and got to read my entry in front of an all-school assembly.

I nearly always use those words in my biography to get a laugh, but the truth is, the prize was for me a life-altering event.

Like most children, I wanted very much to excel at something, and my greatest fear was that I would never distinguish myself at anything. My piano teacher didn’t think I would ever amount to much in music, and she was probably right. My baseball coaches were not enthusiastic about my athletic abilities. So, I became a writer in the fifth grade.

The first-prize winner in that “prose and poetry” competition was Randy Vandermey, now a professor of English literature and a teacher of writers. He was a year older than I was, and his winning entry, as I recall, was really good – a whimsical piece of science fiction, written with actual dialog. My own entry was a great deal funnier, I thought, and quite a bit darker, and it wasn’t fiction. It was drawn from the raw experience of my own life.

I titled it, “My Most Embarrassing Moment,” and it is now gone forever, thankfully, unless my mother saved it somewhere.

With that second-place finish, I realized that I had been given a kind of power. I could express myself. I could put feelings into words. I could make people laugh or cry just by putting my thoughts on paper.

I did not take my new-found gift for granted; I cultivated it and learned to write with semi colons. I would practice by writing in notebooks and experimenting with tone, mood, and voice. I once wrote for an entire summer using only the third person to refer to myself because I had seen Norman Mailer do it in Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

What I was going to do with my gift wasn’t clear until I found myself at seminary preparing for ministry. I made a conscious decision then that I would write sermons. That would be my life as a writer.

And for nearly 40 years that’s what I’ve done. I’ve put my thoughts into words, making people laugh and cry just by expressing myself. Even better, I did what I had always been taught that I should do with my gifts – namely, use them to serve God. If I could have learned to play the piano or hit a curveball, I would have used those gifts in the same way. Where I grew up, that’s what you did with the gifts you were given. That’s what they were for.

In 1999 I became for the first time a published author. My book not only had my name on the front cover, but it also had my picture on the back. I was thrilled. A publisher I had respected all my life bought my book, printed a few thousand copies of it, not knowing if anyone would buy it, and put his name right there next to mine. I autographed those books at book-signing events, and I even went on a book tour – of sorts – to places like Fort Wayne (Indiana), Toledo (Ohio), and Las Vegas.

In June my fourth book with the same publisher will be released. I confess that I worked as hard on that book as I have worked on anything in my life. I sweat and agonized over every word. If I could get the manuscript back right now, I’m sure that I could make the whole thing even better, maybe changing to the third person to refer to myself.

More than 50 years after I started, I’m still writing funny and sometimes dark pieces drawn from the raw experiences of my life. And of course I’m happy to say that I’m still serving God with my gifts. I hope he’s pleased.

(Photo: Taken not long ago near Two Harbors, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior.)

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A dry and desiccated spirit

Something has happened to me over the last several months. I seem to have lost my voice.

The campaign, the election, the painful period between election and inauguration, and now the first stumbling weeks of a new administration – in it all, I seem to have lost my ability to speak. I still preach most Sundays at my church in Zurich, so it’s not that voice that seems to have gone away. It’s something else.

I still look at Facebook each day and see the anger and outrage from my friends, though I’m not sure why I bother to look. I sometimes “like,” seldom “comment,” and never “share.” I have been urged by friends and colleagues to call and write and march. A family member wrote not long ago and asked me to use my position – my “pastoral authority,” as she put it – to address the situation, and I think I have, a little, but not as she would like me to do it. I watch the news – CNN and BBC are the English-language choices where I live – and I rarely like what I see. I can get as worked up as anyone over “alternative facts” and a lot more.

But I have grown quiet instead. Not withdrawn, still. I hear that the future of the republic is at stake – and that may well be true – but I have surprised myself by saying nothing at all, turning inward, even finding peace there.

Among other things, I have started reading again. I sit quietly in the morning while it is still dark and read. I read late at night and turn off the light, reluctantly, wishing I could go on. I even read on the Stairmaster at the gym.

I haven’t had much time for reading over the last few years. I had a new language to learn – remember? – and that was more difficult than I imagined. And then there was that book I decided to write, something about the multicultural church. So all of that, plus my work, left little time for reading, something I have always loved.

I started with biographies. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow got me going, maybe it was the musical, but then I had to read John Quincy Adams: American Visionary and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House as well. You can’t believe how rocky things were back then at the founding of the republic. I read a book by a dear friend who does what I do, except in Rabat, Morocco – A Guide to International Church Ministry: Pastoring a Parade. I read a book by a classmate who hiked the Camino di Santiago recently – Walking in Love – and had tears in my eyes when I put it down. I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, because I heard Terry Gross interview the author on “Fresh Air” and thought he might help me understand what’s happening in the U.S. He didn’t.

And now I’ve even rediscovered theology, starting with Dallas Willard’s fine The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus, which is about apologetics, of all things, something I have never been all that interested in. Just now I finished Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. I should have something to say on Good Friday.

Reading, I would say, has lessened my need to speak. I may speak again one day, but I don’t feel the need right now. I feel the need to replenish a spirit that has become dry and desiccated.

I am breathing again too.

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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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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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