Tag Archives | humor

The Annual Christmas Letter

 

Dear family and friends,

Last year – never seen anything like it. Great. Greater than any other year, believe me. That’s what people are saying. My rich friends are calling me, and they’re saying, “Great year, Doug, great year.” And you know, they’re right. Look, I’m very smart. Went to Calvin College, very good school, very smart people there. Have good genes too, really good genes. But last year? Really, really great. You’d never know it, though, from the Fake News media.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

After nearly 40 years of ministry, I am retiring early in the new year.

For most of you this is old news. I keep a blog, so I can’t really dish up many surprises in a Christmas letter. My news is already all over the internet.

I have the usual mixture of feelings about retirement, ranging from gratitude to fear. I am more grateful than I can express for my life as a pastor. And as for the future, I can usually turn fear of the unknown into something like eager anticipation. Thanks to all for letting me know about the “exciting next chapter,” but I’m not there yet.

We have a new house on “the big lake” which has been waiting for us – empty these last three years, except for the summer months – and I look forward to being there year around, taking long walks on the beach, and yelling at the children to ride their bikes in the street not on my front yard. The neighbor who used to do it died not long ago, and someone had to take on the responsibility.

I have many plans in addition to yelling at children – like writing, going back to school, and spending five hours a day at the gym. I thought about learning Spanish too, but decided that learning German has been enough of a lesson in humility. I still want to walk the Camino di Santiago, the 500-mile pilgrimage across northern Spain, but surprisingly enough my travel itch has mostly been scratched. Susan has seen much more of western Europe than I have, but I’ve seen a lot too, even with my work. And it was everything I had hoped it would be. I still can’t believe I’ve been able to live here for the last four years.

Susan has already retired, so she’s way ahead of me in terms of the adjustment thing. Her attention has mostly turned to our new house where finishing work on the lower level has begun – turning the space into a playroom for the grandchildren. She did the framing last summer and used a .22 caliber cement gun to anchor the bottom plate to the floor. I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it. She installed a fireplace too and plans bookshelves and cabinets. Plus, she’s built herself quite an impressive tool bench where all of the saws, drills, sanders, air compressors, and nail guns are kept. I’m allowed to look but not touch. She promises that my book-lined study is next on her list, so obviously the needs of the grandchildren are going to come first in this “exciting next chapter.”

Did I mention grandchildren? There’s Gwendolyn, of course, age 4, who performs for the camera whenever we FaceTime. I can never get enough. She’s the oldest grandchild, and so will have to excel at everything. Poor kid. And then there’s Martin (or Mac), a happy baby who just started walking – like Frankenstein, though I was impressed that he bent down to pick up a Play-Doh container like it was no big deal before continuing his walk. Very impressive. And then, last but not least, there’s little Barack, which is just the code name for our newest grandchild who is due in April. His parents have a dog named “Ruth Bader Ginsbark” (or just Ruthie), they live in Seattle, and they drive a Toyota Prius, so with that political profile we’re not going to be surprised if there really turns out to be a little Barack in the family. Sadly, I was told, Douglas was never in the running.

Older daughter Sarah is a pastor on the staff of an active and progressive Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, and of course she and I can’t help but talk about church politics for the first couple of days whenever we get together – and then not so much after that, which (everyone agrees) is good. Younger daughter Elizabeth is in the final stages of her Ph.D. at the University of Washington, and her dissertation has something to do with drug pricing, though I don’t understand much more than that. The good news is that she explains health care policy whenever we ask. Our sons in law – Benjamin and Daniel – are fine young men, and we are about as pleased as it’s possible to be to have them in our family. To be honest, family gatherings have improved dramatically since they came along.

I’ve got a lot more, but will try to wind it up. Soon I won’t have a sermon to preach every Sunday, so just imagine how I will go on and on in future Christmas letters. A lot to look forward to for my faithful readers!  Come and see us in Michigan. You’ll find me at the gym and Susan hammering on something. It’ll be the “exciting next chapter” I keep hearing about.

Love to all,

Doug, Susan, and Sammi (our dog who now barks with a very subtle European accent)

(Photos: Arriving at the Meilen Bahnhof above is the S7 which I take to Zurich everyday, except you can see the flashing “Geschlossen” sign as it arrives. I’m not sure what happened, but shockingly the trains were slightly off-schedule today. The photo below is our cottage at the lake, just north of Holland, Michigan.)

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“Retirement” and this thing called ministry

I’ve been using the word “retirement” for the last few years mainly as a joke, as though it were some distant possibility, certainly not something that I needed to worry about any time soon.

And then, last week, what had seemed so distant and unlikely suddenly became a reality. I am planning to retire early next year, six months from now. Continue Reading →

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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. Continue Reading →

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My first Christmas sermon

I was 24 years old when I preached my first Christmas morning sermon. I was not the congregation’s first choice, but they had few options.

Between my second and third years of seminary, I took some time to get married and to test drive this thing called ministry. I became what was called then a “student pastor” in a university town in Iowa, where I hoped to learn the ropes from a seasoned pastor. Continue Reading →

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A day in the life of an international church

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Serving an international church is endlessly interesting.

I really wish I had started at the beginning to list and catalog all of the many curious, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing events in the life of a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-national congregation. With more than two dozen nationalities in worship on any given Sunday, a great deal can happen, often memorable. Continue Reading →

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Learning from midlife

Doug leanig on BMW

Midlife is a stern, unforgiving teacher. Other than that I liked it a lot.

I am teaching a class at my church right now about midlife, and as every teacher knows I am learning far more about the subject than my students. We are using a fine book, but I am freely supplementing the book with some of my own reading, research, and commentary. I am, after all, a midlife survivor, with scars to prove it. (The scars are real, not metaphorical, and have been left by a series of dermatologists.)

While getting ready to teach the class I learned that most people like to attach the word “crisis” to the word “midlife,” as though the only conversation we can have about midlife is about the crisis that sometimes goes with it.

Far more helpful than the word “crisis,” I think, is the so-called U-curve hypothesis, which rather nicely summarizes what many of us face. We go from young adulthood to midlife filled with anticipation and high hopes about what life will bring, believing what our parents and teachers have foolishly told us about following our bliss, only to run into obstacles, some of our own making and others that are inevitable as we age.

When I graduated from seminary, for example, I imagined that I might become a superstar preacher with my own television network (and satellite). To tell the truth, I have had a deeply satisfying ministry over the years, but the television part of it has, sadly, eluded me. I once appeared on an AM-radio talk show, but that was only for an hour, less commercial breaks (and news on the half hour). And my appearance was to talk about the church and social media, not to present the gospel. I would be surprised if we had more than five listeners. And yet, I spoke that Saturday evening as though to a stadium with 50,000 people. (I was not invited back.)

Doug's brief radio career on WJR

The bottom of the U-curve varies among countries, but the global average seems to be age 46. In case you’re interested, the Swiss reach the bottom part of the curve at the startlingly early age of 35. In any case, the late 40s and early 50s seem to be the age where disappointment, dissatisfaction, and discouragement can add up and become for some a full-blown crisis.

But the good news, I was happy to discover, is that there is life after the dip.

In fact, the 60s, 70s, and even 80s can be (according to the research) wonderful years. Older people tend to be happier, even though we don’t always look like it. This is counter-intuitive, I suppose, and income and education are factors too (as they are at every age), but generally speaking it’s not so bad to grow older. My yearning to be a superstar preacher, for example, has mostly disappeared, and I find myself deeply grateful for the few people who show up each Sunday morning to hear me preach.

All of this happiness in old age assumes, of course, that you can escape midlife with relatively few bone-headed decisions, the kind all of us are tempted to make when we’re feeling disappointment, dissatisfaction, and discouragement. If you are contemplating one of those decisions right now, give me a call. I will do my best to talk you out of it. You don’t really need a convertible.

As a pastor, I tried of course to put all of this midlife talk in faith perspective, and in the class I even presented some impressive-looking charts and graphs about faith stages. Along with everything else, faith begins to look and feel different at midlife, a bit thicker around the middle. And then, as it ages, it tends to grow into something wonderful.

Earlier in my life, for example, it was important to me to be right – and to convince other people of the rightness of my thinking about most things. It was tiring to be right all the time, but I thought I was called to that important ministry. I forget now when it happened, but I seem to have let go of that need or whatever it was. I still know what I believe, but I am far more relaxed when I talk about it. I can listen to other people, even when I don’t agree. I can even change my mind. What’s different is that my faith has become part of me, not something I admire or debate or throw at other people. It’s who I am.

Next month I will be heading down to Lake Zürich after morning worship for a few baptisms by immersion. Since I agreed to do my first one, a few more requests have come along. I’m not sure that “midlife Doug” would have agreed so easily, but “older Doug” is surprisingly accommodating and willing to get wet, to wade out into the water with his clothes on.

There’s no telling what “older Doug” might do or say (or write) next. This next stage of life might even be fun.

(Top photo: Yes, that’s my convertible, the stereotypical midlife decision, purchased at age 44 and sold nine years later. Lots of fun, but very expensive. Next photo: Yes, that’s me, trying out a career in AM-radio at WJR in Detroit.)

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Funny things doctors say

parakeet closeup

Is it just me, or do doctors sometimes say funny things?

Some of you may remember the comment I heard from my doctor a couple of years ago.

After researching the Internet, which turns out to be a poor substitute for actual medical training, I was certain that I had a severe case of strep throat. So, I presented myself to our family doctor, and after I told him proudly of my diagnosis, he looked at my throat, appeared skeptical, and sent me to the nearest emergency room.

What I had apparently did not look to him like a strep infection.

Once at the emergency room the staff wasted no time calling an ear, nose, and throat specialist, who shined his tiny flashlight into my throat and said matter-of-factly: Oh, George Washington died from that.

As it turns out, he did. George Washington, that is, not my doctor. I looked it up later. The thing in my throat, I learned, was a quinsy, or peritonsillar abcess, and it killed the first president of the United States in 1799 by slowly asphyxiating him.

Not a pleasant way to go. As for me, I stopped for ice cream on the way home.

Yesterday I went to the doctor again, after my cold entered its second week and didn’t seem to be getting any better. This time I was under the care of a Swiss physician. I don’t know what the equivalent of an emergency room is here – yet – but I didn’t need one. I described my symptoms to the doctor in German, a little speech I memorized on the way over. And he of course was amused, as everyone seems to be, by my pronunciation and grammar.

He told me, in English, to take off my shirt so that he could listen to my chest. He looked in my ears and throat. He also took a bit of blood out of the end of my finger. The whole exam lasted maybe three minutes. Then he told me to get dressed. As he sat at his desk, writing on my chart, he began to quiz me about stupidity in U.S. politics, a topic I had not come prepared to discuss, in either German or English.

Finally, I said, in English, So, is it viral? And he said, No, it’s a bacterial infection that kills parakeets in Africa.

So, as you see, I’m battling spiritual forces in the universe that have brought down George Washington and untold numbers of African birds, and I also seem to find doctors – on both sides of the Atlantic – who enjoy passing along curious medical information.

That’s an update on my life.

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When people listen to a sermon

French church

A seminary professor once told my class that pastors aren’t fired for heresy anymore, they’re fired for incompetence.

I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

Was he saying that people don’t care anymore about heresy? I don’t think he meant to say that. Or that they wouldn’t recognize a heretical statement if they heard one? Maybe that’s closer to the truth, but not a very generous comment about church people.

More likely, though, he was trying to encourage us to be capable pastors.

Sound pastoral work, together with capable administration and a good work ethic, would probably be more important to most church people than flawless theological thinking.

It’s hard to know sometimes what people are listening for when they listen to me. I don’t think many people listen for theological gaffes, though one or two people along the way thought they detected in my preaching some minor deviation from strict Reformed or Calvinist thinking. In those situations, I think I remember feeling grateful for the theological reflection shared over a cup of coffee.

Based on the comments and feedback I get most of the time, I think people seldom, if ever, listen for theology, and I shouldn’t be surprised.

After my very first sermon, preached to a classroom with fellow students, a moment in my life if there ever was one when I needed some solid, constructive feedback, the comment I remember best had to do with the suit I was wearing. My preaching professor obviously didn’t care much for the three-piece brown corduroy ensemble that actually made noise as I strode to the pulpit. In his comments after the sermon, he sarcastically thanked me for my ‘sartorial splendor.’

I am well aware that he had a point. He also inadvertently prepared me for the future.

Comments about my preaching since that first shaky effort in the seminary classroom have mostly been along the same lines – my pronunciation of certain words, the speed at which I speak, the length of my hair, the color of my tie, the beard I brought back from summer vacation, etc. One person disliked the beard so much that he handed me a disposable razor at the door and told me to ‘use it.’

In the last few years, another kind of feedback has emerged. People in the pews use their cell phones in order to be my fact checkers. If I mention a book, a date in history, an author’s name, I will know, in painful detail, what Wikipedia has to say about that fact by the time I am finished greeting people at the door after church.

Last Sunday I mentioned in my sermon that I tend to see God at work in my life when I look in the rear-view mirror. Seeing evidence of God’s guiding hand in my life is always easier that way than seeing it in the present moment. I’m not especially proud of that, I said, but that’s my experience. That’s who I am.

I was hoping a few people would say, ‘I can relate to that. That’s my experience too!’

Interestingly, though by now it shouldn’t be surprising, it was that comment that prompted most of the comments at the door – not my helpful new insights on the doctrine of general revelation. So, conversation quickly veered from the value and limits of God’s revelation in the world around us to the pastor’s spiritual life which, many agreed, could use some help.

It’s an endlessly interesting thing, the pastor’s life. I’ll say this much: I’m never bored. I seldom think anymore about my theological orthodoxy, but I pay careful attention to what I wear. And of course to regular shaving.

(Photo: That’s the French Reformed Church in Zurich where morning worship is held. Our congregation shares the space with a French-speaking congregation. Though I am very nearly fluent in German by now, worship at the International Protestant Church is in English.)

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Some thoughts about language learning

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1. It’s difficult.

Learning a new language has a certain romantic appeal – like, for example, living abroad. But the dreaminess disappears quickly.

I have dedicated a part of every day for the last eight months to language learning (and have committed over 1200 German words to memory), and today at the hair salon I could not say, “longer on top, shorter on the sides.” My stylist simply smiled and then gave me the haircut she thought I needed.

2. Immersion is probably the way to go.

Before leaving the U.S. I asked a brother in law who teaches German literature at a state university for his opinion about the best way to learn German, and he said, “Take a 2-3 week immersion class, and you’ll be speaking passable German by the time you’re finished.” (He was actually thinking, “You wouldn’t get a passing grade from me, but you would know how to get a haircut.”)

My once-per-week language class, supplemented by an online course, the car radio, and a daily German-language newspaper (the tabloid most Swiss do not admit to reading), are not enough. I have clearly chosen the longer, more difficult route.

3. The locals do not help.

There are really two issues here. One is that as soon as my American identity becomes clear – usually in the first three seconds after meeting someone – the Swiss person I’m talking to will switch immediately to flawless English. And so ends my opportunity to practice.

The other issue is that the Swiss really prefer to speak Swiss German, not the more widely known German language I am learning. I have listened to conversations on the train, expecting to understand a little of what is being said, only to realize that the conversation is not actually in German. This other dialect is the tribal tongue of the Swiss, and it’s one way to maintain an identity distinct from the Germans to the north who – how do I put this? – are not held in high regard.

4. In spite of #3, the Swiss really like it that I am trying to learn.

Maybe it gives them pleasure to see an American struggle. I’m sure that’s part of it. But mostly I think they value the attempt I am making to integrate within Swiss culture. Members of my church regularly tell me – in English – how glad they are that I am learning the language.

5. Spiritually speaking, language learning is an exercise in humility.

And I thought I was humble enough before I started.

(Photo: I’ve never had so many options for walking the dog.)

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I don’t go to church much anymore

Jesuit-Church,-Lucerne,-Switzerland

I don’t go to church much anymore, and haven’t attended regularly since 1980, when I stopped being a church member altogether.

I have mostly good memories of going to church, but for most of my adult life I have worked on Sundays.

So, occasionally – on vacation, for example – I’ll wake up on Sunday and think about going to church. But going to church sure seems a lot harder than it used to be.

For one thing, going to church means getting up and getting out of the house on a day off. I had thought about hiking one of western Michigan’s many scenic trails this morning with my brand-new hiking boots, which I’m really excited about, but instead I showered and got dressed.

Next, there was deciding what to wear.

Really, what do people wear to church these days? I haven’t gone to church in such a long time that I haven’t had to think about the question. In the end I opted for shorts, but almost immediately felt uncomfortable, even though most of the other men, as it turned out, were also wearing shorts.

My mom and dad used to say that I should dress for church the way I would dress to go to the White House and meet the President. In older adulthood, apparently, I have a hard time not following that direction.

Singing was also much harder than I expected. I love to sing, but I should point out that loving to sing is different from singing well. It would be more accurate to write that I love to sing when no one, except maybe God and my granddaughter, can hear me.

I knew the first hymn – “Be Thou My Vision” – and started singing it enthusiastically, as though for God’s and my granddaughter’s enjoyment, only to discover that no one around me was singing. Not a single person. For a couple of stanzas I tried to create some musical excitement around me, but finally gave up when a couple of people turned around to find out what the croaking toad behind them looked like.

And then there was the message.

Now, I know a little about the degree of difficulty involved in preaching, so I was willing to give a lot of bonus points for sincerity and effort and conviction. But not even a lot of sincerity and effort and conviction can make listening bearable for 25 minutes.

I thought about leaving during the last hymn, but noticed that a large group near me was already doing that. Maybe they were late for their brunch reservations. Instead, I decided – heroically – to stay all the way through the Benediction.

Will I be going to church next Sunday? I think so. I have a whole new level of respect for those who do it.

(Photo: That’s the inside of a church in Lucerne, Switzerland.)

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