Tag Archives | humor

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.)

Comments { 5 }

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.

That seasoned pastor took one look at me and decided to pursue a call to a church in Colorado which, according to his tearful congregation in Iowa, would be a whole lot closer to the ski slopes which he loved. That left me as the best – and perhaps the only – choice for Christmas morning 1977.

With my shoulder-length hair, aviator glasses, and an ill-fitting, three-piece corduroy suit, I must have been quite a sight, standing at the front of that church. Photos from the era confirm that I was tall, disturbingly skinny, and not exactly a charismatic presence in the pulpit.

It was my first Christmas away from home, and it was to be the first of nearly 40 – and still counting – Christmases away from home.

I hope I had the good sense to throw away that first Christmas sermon, but more than likely it is in a box in a damp basement, along with a lot of other old sermons, waiting to be recycled.

The sermon I preached that Christmas morning nearly 40 years ago was titled “The Gleam That is Christmas,” and my main point, rooted nowhere in the biblical text, was that we should be childlike in our approach to the Christmas story. It was best, I remember saying, to read the story and sing the carols and lose ourselves in the wonder and mystery of it all. My congregation was probably relieved that I did not plan to make my sermon the main point of worship that day.

Looking back, I was probably grieving the loss of my own childhood and trying my best to hold on to some part of it, especially the childlike wonder and mystery of it all.

I will be preaching the Christmas morning sermon once again this year – in Zurich, Switzerland, of all places – and I already know what I am going to say. My sermon will be, as I hope all of my sermons over the years have been, something about Jesus. I am glad he was born.

(Photo: That’s my backyard in Holland, Michigan.)

Comments { 5 }

A day in the life of an international church

20140416-_DSC3687

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.

Like what happened yesterday.

Some newcomers – we have a lot, which is nice – arrived at the church for worship and noticed that there was a “coffee hour” taking place on the patio in front of the church.

Odd, they thought, that the “coffee hour” would be taking place before church, so being curious or eager to fit in or whatever it was, they approached – only to discover that everyone was speaking French and drinking wine. Even odder – to them – was the fact that worship seemed to be starting inside. They could hear the organ playing, and they could hear people singing. So, what were all of these people doing outside and drinking – at mid-day for heaven’s sake?

At that point, the newcomers did what seemed to them to be the right and decent thing to do. They found someone with a name tag and complained.

They found it “just plain rude,” they said, that everyone was speaking French, and they found it “most unusual” – a slightly judgmental use of those words – that people would stand around and drink wine before Sunday morning worship.

They did not have to supply the question, “What kind of a church is this?”

The person with the name tag turned out to be our “safety officer” for the day, and he patiently explained that the French people out on the patio were most likely members of the French Reformed Church. It was their building, after all, he said. The English-speaking congregation rents the space from them. And, he added, the French speakers were allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted on their patio, as long as the English speakers were allowed to enter the church by 11:00.

Can you imagine the conversation that these newcomers had later in the day?

(Photo: That’s the front of the French Church where all of the rude behavior takes place.)

Comments { 3 }

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.)

Comments { 5 }

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.

Comments { 13 }

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.)

Comments { 13 }

Some thoughts about language learning

DSC_0056

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.)

Comments { 7 }

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.)

Comments { 3 }

Should there be a “mercy rule” in football?

the two popes (I posted this first to my Facebook page and started such a good conversation that I decided to post it here as well. The photo shows the two popes deep in prayer about, I’m sure, the upcoming match on Sunday night, and Francis looks a lot more confident than Benedict.)

I watched it, and I enjoyed it. I admit it.

I hurried home last night from – ironically – a meeting at church and turned on the television just in time to see Germany score its second goal in the World Cup semi-final match with Brazil.

I didn’t intend to watch more, because it was late and I had to get up early, but then I saw the Germans score another goal. And then another. And another. And soon the match was out of reach.

But still I couldn’t look away.

Was that a grown man weeping on the sidelines? Yes! Obviously I would have to stay up and watch the entire second half too. I wanted to see more weeping Brazilians.

Which raises the question: Should there be a ‘mercy rule’ in football?

When my daughters played the sport years ago, I seem to remember something called a ‘mercy rule.’ If the other team had a 10-goal lead, or whatever, the game was over. Or maybe they just stopped keeping score. In any case, there was this rule, which grew out of a sense of decency and fair play and sportsmanship.

I once broke my arm in a high school football game (the other kind of football) and ran off the field, thinking I was done for the day and possibly for the season. But my coach, apparently not seeing the odd way my wrist was dangling off the end of my arm, sent me back on the field. When I failed to make a tackle on the very next play, he took me out – not because of my badly broken arm, but because of my ineffectiveness on the previous play.

So, the lessons I learned playing sports didn’t have much to do with team work and the value of practice and so on. The lessons I learned had much more to do with winning – winning as impressively as possible and even winning at any cost.

There’s a shadow side to sports, and I felt it last night.

I watched not because the game was so good – it wasn’t – but because it was so awful that I couldn’t look away.

Comments { 1 }

A little cross-cultural stereotyping

Swiss cultural stereotypes

You would think that cultural stereotyping would be a problem for a multi-cultural church. And you would be wrong.

The truth is, we kind of like doing it. And we do it a lot.

I’ve been wondering why a church that is as racially and ethnically diverse as any in the world does so well at being the church, and I don’t yet have anything like a definitive answer, but I am a little intrigued by how many assumptions we make about each other and how much fun it (usually) is.

Just to give a definition to what I’m talking about, stereotyping occurs when we make generalizations about groups or classes of people: Fire fighters, for example, are courageous. Everyone knows that. Blonds, on the other hand, are less intelligent than the rest of the population. Everyone seems to know that too. Italians, meanwhile, are loud. Or great lovers, if you ask them.

Fun, right? And mostly it is, until the generalization begins to feel uncomfortable. My blog post soon after my arrival about how the Swiss are überpünktlich (over punctual) might have been a bit too soon. They are, but maybe I should have waited a while before commenting about it.

How American of me.

I’ve never been so self-conscious about being American, and mostly I’m self-conscious because I fit the stereotype of Americans so well. I’m very friendly and outgoing when I meet someone new, for example, which tends to make the Swiss feel cautious and suspicious. I know now that they see me as superficial and disingenuous, although secretly they would like to be more like me.

And then there’s my Dutch connection. My grandparents were born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the U.S. at least a hundred years ago. I have Dutch features and a Dutch name, I look like someone from a Frans Hals (or Adriaen Brouwer) painting, even though I am a thoroughly assimilated U.S. citizen.

Still, I see myself in the Dutch. I am tall and sturdy (I was taught to say “big boned”). I love tulips and that cheese with an unpronounceable name (never say “goo-dah” to the Dutch). I own a pair of wooden shoes, and like most Dutch I own an impressive bicycle (designed, I’m sure, by leading scientists and made of space-age materials) that never leaves the shed.

And I haven’t even gotten to the Chinese, Koreans, Indians, South Africans, Germans, British, Swiss, and a host of others – how others see them, and (more scary) how they see me.

We do this regularly and often, this game of stereotyping, and mostly I think it’s harmless fun. We seem to learn about each other by making jokes and teasing each other. We seem to know, at least I hope we do, that it’s all in good fun, that there are many exceptions to the “rules,” and that most generalizations are also exaggerations.

And then there are times when I think maybe we have gone too far, that we have had a laugh at the expense of another, that our humor has become hurtful. But those times seem few and far between.

Mostly – I would say miraculously – we get along.

(Photo: We might call that a cultural stereotype, but a positive one. )

 

Comments { 0 }