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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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Pierre Spoerri, 1926 – 2017

Pierre Spoerri was born in 1926. He died in late February after climbing into the backseat of a taxi in front of the Convita Bethanien, where he lived with his wife Fulvia. His memorial service was held at the French Reformed Church in Zürich on March 9, 2017. Continue Reading →

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Remembering Christmas break in photos (and a little text)

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The Zurich Hauptbahnhof (the main train station in the city and the largest train station in Switzerland) is mostly deserted at 7:20 on Christmas morning. Our train to the airport will arrive at any moment. (Do the trains keep a regular schedule on Christmas? Travel anxiety has started.)

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A few hours and a few miles later, the wooden shoes remind us that we’re finally in Holland (Michigan).

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I couldn’t wait to get to the beach to try out my new camera lens, but a few other people obviously had the same idea earlier in the day. I was going to shoot a “footprints in the sand” theme with two sets of footprints leading off into the distance. I don’t know what this photo means. Maybe lots of people walking with Jesus.

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The picnic table and fire pit look a bit forlorn in the winter.

stairs from the beach

The arrival of snow changes the look of things at the beach. Also, I don’t think I ever realized what a steep climb there is back from the beach to the cottage.

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No one will be sitting on the deck today. Why don’t these people put their deck furniture away for the winter?

South Street sign

This is our street, but I’m thinking that the “rule of thirds” might have improved the composition a bit. There’s a photo here somewhere, but I will have to come back to it (next year).

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The importance of Big Red

Big Red Holland Michigan

Everybody knows “Big Red.”

Everybody who has ever lived or vacationed in Holland, Michigan, that is. Big Red is the lighthouse that marks the entrance to the channel linking Lake Michigan to Lake Macatawa (and thus to the City of Holland).

Every summer for more than 30 years I have vacationed within sight of Big Red, and even though the lighthouse no longer carries out its original mission, it has become an important landmark, very nearly synonymous with the City of Holland.

When I arrived in Holland a couple of weeks ago for my summer vacation, I changed the cover photo on my Facebook page to the photo you see above, letting everyone know, I suppose, that I had arrived. Many of my Michigan friends immediately “liked” the photo because Big Red has that effect on many of us.

It’s not the most beautiful lighthouse we’ve ever seen, but it’s our lighthouse, visible from our beach, located in our part of the world. Soon after I arrived I went to the beach, looked to the south, and – sure enough – there it was. For me at that moment vacation had begun.

One friend who is a serious sailor wrote in response to my Facebook photo to tell me that lighthouses are now obsolete because of GPS . He pointed out, further, that “lighthouses act now as museums and nice old things to look at as we walk down the beach.”

Thanks for that astonishing information, Andrew.

And then he mentioned that “lighthouses are bad images for churches.” Say what?

I should explain that Andrew is, like me, a Presbyterian minister. And this, like it or not, is how we think. We see a lighthouse, or a ship, or an anchor, and immediately we think about images and metaphors. We think about sermon illustrations. And in the process, I suppose, we can be guilty of telling people some pretty obvious stuff. (Please forgive me, if you’ve had to sit through one of my sermons thinking, “Gee, Doug, I never knew that before.”)

But I think Andrew got that last statement wrong, and I’ll tell you why.

The church at its best, of course, is very much like a lighthouse, helping weary travelers navigate through the storms and fog of life. But lately the church – in the West, at least – has become culturally irrelevant and obsolete, like the lighthouse. Fewer and fewer people look to the church anymore for guidance, and now the church – sadly – is often no more than a museum or “a nice old thing to look at.”

And the church – unlike the lighthouse – is partly to blame. (As ashamed as I am of so much in church history, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the church is entirely to blame for what has become of it. Cultural and historical forces have also played a role. But let’s not quibble.)

I’d quit there, but I’m a preacher. And on vacation I feel a little lost without a pulpit. So, let me make this one last point.

I think the church still has a role to play – and not as a museum or a nice thing to look at. I think the church, if it wanted to, if it could find the moral courage to do so, could become a beacon for justice and righteousness. And I’m not thinking about the silly issues that so many Christians waste their time with. I don’t have the energy, for example, to boycott stores where clerks fail to say “Merry Christmas.” Please.

What I have in mind are the larger cultural issues that have led to the situation we find today in Ferguson, Missouri – to give just one example. The gospel has something to say about issues like that. And it’s not always what we want to hear. But often it’s what we most need to hear.

Maybe – this is really dreaming, I know, but indulge me – maybe people will look one day to the church the way I look at Big Red. In other words, as a reminder of something.

Maybe people will look to the church and remember that we can be better, that we’re called to be better, than we often are.

Maybe people will look to the church and be reminded of the one who lived with more moral courage than any other human being who has ever lived.

Thanks for the email, Andrew. Just what I needed.

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A pastor keeps the Sabbath

sabbath rest

Monday is my day off, my Sabbath. I’ve tried other days, but I keep coming back to Monday. Over the years taking Monday off has been both good and bad.

It’s been good because I’ve had running paths mostly to myself. (On Saturdays running paths can often seem like a Los Angeles expressway.) I remember taking some spectacularly beautiful long runs in Michigan and Illinois parks, always on Monday mornings.

No one else was around. I ran in the cold, snow, and rain. It didn’t matter. I ran into the wind and with the wind at my back. I watched the change of seasons. I felt God’s presence, even when I didn’t some Sundays in church.

But Monday as a day off has also been bad for the same reason. I have had few playmates over the years, no one to talk to about the colors of changing leaves, no one to complain to about irritating church members. And because it can be a lonely day, I tend to replay all of the events (and conversations) of Sunday over and over again.

Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor and writer, an influential person in my ministry, has written thoughtfully and well about the pastoral life. As he describes it, he and his wife would pack a picnic basket every Monday morning and head to the country for some hiking. When I read accounts like that, his and others, idyllic images come to mind. Those images are so good, so idyllic, that I figure I must not be doing it right – keeping the Sabbath, I mean.

Rather than stories of encouragement, those stories can sometimes be demotivating and depressing. I’ve never packed a picnic lunch on Monday and headed to the country.

Maybe I should have.

The Sabbath for me is a mixed blessing, such an opportunity for rest and recreation, yes, but also such an opportunity to see one’s life for what it is. There’s an old adage for pastors: “Never resign on a Monday.”

I think that when God commanded human beings to rest for one day out of every seven, he must have known that some of us would think too much, that we would use the day to brood, that without physical labor to do we would let our minds work overtime.

After more than 30 years as a pastor, you might think that I would have solved the Sabbath issue, that I would have figured out for myself what works and what doesn’t, that I would be so good at it, as a matter of fact, that I could mentor new pastors in it. The truth is – and please don’t think ill of me for admitting this – I struggle with it as much today as I did the day I started.

I think my best Sabbath days were the days I spent with my girls when they were much younger. I don’t remember that we ever did anything special, unless you count spending time together as special, which I do. We hung out together. We drove around, they in their car seats in the back and me in the front seat doing the driving. We talked, I told dad jokes, and we had fun. I think that if you asked them they would generally agree that those days were good – except maybe for my tired old jokes.

I have a picture of my older daughter and me sitting together in a chair at the end of a long Sabbath day. We’re both asleep, in identical poses, chins resting in our hands. What makes that such a wonderful memory – and maybe a lesson for future Sabbaths – is how I remember being lost, as the old hymn puts it, in wonder, love, and praise.

The way to enjoy the Sabbath, to get out of it what God intended for us to get out of it, is to let everything go, except for what is most precious, like the people closest to me.

When I learn to do that, I think I will finally have Sabbath rest.

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My Annual Christmas Letter

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Advent 2013

Dear family and friends,

Getting older has turned out to be a whole lot better than I would have imagined.

The last year which, to be honest, didn’t start very well, and a year I wasn’t looking forward to anyway because of the milestone birthday, has arguably turned out to be the best yet.  If I had known how much fun turning 60 would be, I would have done it a long time ago.  (Kind of a Yogi Berra tribute there.)

Let’s start with the birth of our first grandchild to older daughter Sarah and her husband Ben.  In what turned out to be a prophetic birth announcement, our younger daughter Elizabeth and her husband Daniel created the following at a couple of months before the actual birth:

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Turns out that labor did start early – about two weeks early, in fact – and Ben was out of town on business.  So, after receiving the call about 3 a.m. to come home, he “rushed to her side,” though making it back in plenty of time for the birth. In the end it wasn’t an especially dramatic delivery.  Sarah did drive herself to the hospital, however, in an astonishing display female strength that made her mother (and me) proud.

Here’s the newborn, sleeping just like her grandpa:

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She’s beautiful, isn’t she – and brilliant too, of course.  On the APGAR test, administered immediately after birth, measuring breathing effort, skin color, etc. she received the top score (one point better than her mother). Based on that as much as anything, I think she’s looking at perfect scores on the SAT as well.  Alert the Harvard admissions office!

Grandma and grandpa – I think we’re going to be “nana and pop” – boarded a plane and made it to St. Louis within a few hours of the birth.  The way we were feeling, I don’t think we really needed the help of Southwest Airlines to get there.  To hold that impossibly small human being – to see my own baby, now thirty years later, holding her own baby – I’m not sure I will ever have the words to describe the feeling which, I now realize, is why we have music, poetry, and art.

In addition to creating unusual birth announcements, Lizzy and Daniel have had an eventful year of their own.

On one fine day in May, in front of a mostly-dignified family cheering section at Hill Auditorium, Lizzy graduated from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.  The next day we loaded up their truck, and she and Daniel made the long trek to Seattle where Lizzy is a researcher – “data monkey,” she says – for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the University of Washington.  Daniel left Apple behind in the move and has spent the last several months on an Internet start-up dream.

Both seem to be embracing life in Seattle, making new friends, and enjoying the outdoor life of the Northwest.

All of that would have been a pretty good year for most people – and it would have been for us too – but early in the year an opportunity came along for a move to Zurich, Switzerland, and we pursued it, not knowing until very early in September if the invitation would ever come.  It did, and after preaching at the International Protestant Church later in the month, the congregation called me to be their next pastor.

Susan and I are spending these last days and weeks of 2013 doing a million and one things that need to be done in order to move overseas – selling a house, building a new one on our Lake Michigan lot, selling one car and putting the other in storage, getting visas and work permits, figuring out health insurance, and – oh – even learning a little German. Ach du Lieber!

And since we gave away all – or most – of our wool clothes in the move to Florida, let’s just say that Susan doesn’t need encouragement to shop.

My contract with the new church is for three years, with the possibility of renewal, and we’re thinking of this as the adventure of a lifetime.

Early in the year I had agreed to lead a tour to Israel, and so after making the announcement to my Florida congregation I took some of those same church members to the holy land for what was my fifth pilgrimage – and quite possibly the best yet.  The first time I went, the joy was in seeing the land for myself.  I had tears in my eyes just about every day.  Seeing the Sea of Galilee nearly did me in.  Today the joy for me is introducing this land to first-time visitors and watching them respond as I did.

Here’s a little video clip of a totally unexpected moment – not on the tour itinerary – that turned out to be one of the high points.  Our very reserved U.S. Presbyterian group joined with a very exuberant Nigerian group, numbering over a hundred, to sing “How Great Thou Art” in a church along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.

The photo below is from the trip, a little mud treatment on the shore of the Dead Sea.

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As exciting and thrilling as our year has been, it hasn’t been without its pain and disappointment.  It’s true of course that the kind of joys we’ve experienced should – and do – make up for any failures.  But life is more than a ledger on which you hope that gains will eventually outnumber losses.

So, it was during Thanksgiving week this year that I found what I had been looking for – a way to understand, or to re-frame, our year.  In the Book of Common Prayer, in a prayer of thanksgiving, I found this line:

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures
that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

And that of course is where we are as the year comes to an end, acknowledging our dependence on the One who loves us, the One who came into the world in a not-very-promising way (see baby photo above), and the One who left promising to return to make all things new.

We hope we see you this season, and if we don’t, we hope you’ll look us up across the water.  We’ll be the ones struggling to understand our new culture – and of course eating lots of chocolate.

Love,

Doug and Susan

(For everyone who missed it, here’s the YouTube video of my family wishing me a happy 60th!)

And below is a typical Swiss street at Christmas:

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God made us for work and play

work and play

“God made us for work and play.”

That’s what I told the students at Happyland Day School today.

Every month I speak at the Thursday morning chapel service.  It’s an enjoyable part of my work.  Well over a hundred children from two year olds through Kindergarten crowd into the church’s third floor chapel.  They’re so small they fit two to a seat.  And then, after a song and prayer, the school director introduces me.  And I’m on.

I usually bring something with me – my hat collection, my baseball bat (which, I realized too late, was kind of scary), my beloved Detroit Tigers jersey.  It usually doesn’t take much to get their attention … which I can probably hold for about five seconds.  Today I dressed up as though I was headed to the beach with a Tommy Bahama shirt, swimsuit, flip flops, and beach towel.  A large tube of sunscreen in my back pocket completed the ensemble.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure who enjoys these chapel talks more – me or them?  But I had a thought I wanted them to hear and remember – namely, that God made us for a purpose.  God made us for work and play.  (Actually, Genesis tells us that God worked and then rested, but stressing the need for naps didn’t seem like the right message.)

I’m just back from some playtime myself which is why I haven’t posted in a while.  After what seemed like many months of work, I enjoyed two weeks at the beach.  I rested too, of course, and napped, but the playtime is what I remember.  I really needed some unstructured time for reading a novel, playing a board game (I’m not sure I understood the game, but I played it in a fiercely competitive way anyway), seeing a movie at the local theater, and visiting the farmers market where there is some of the most wonderful produce I’ve ever seen.

So, I’m back at work today, if you can call having fun with the children in our pre-school work, and I’m remembering this idea that I have been created for work, yes, but also for play.  Without the work, I’m not sure where I would find meaning in my life, but without the play, I’m not sure I’d have the energy to start a busy fall.

Work and play. Life in balance.  It’s all good.

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Smitten with the Mitten

Michigan

Home is a complicated idea, one that gets harder to describe the older I get.

For anyone who has lived in as many places as I have, home becomes more than a place, more than a memory.  Frankly, it’s best left to poetry or literature.  I can’t quite put my finger on it.

As soon as I got off the plane a couple of days ago, having flown to Michigan to see my younger daughter’s graduation, I realized that I was home.  No one had to tell me where I was.  I had to resist the temptation to get down on my knees and kiss the ground.  I had the happy feeling of familiarity.  Not in a street address, but in the smell of the place, the scenery, and of course the people.

I see myself in them – tall, with broad features, not beautiful, except in the way the American West is beautiful (best observed from a distance).  These are people who were bred and born to farm, even though most of them these days have only set foot on a farm once or twice in their lives.  They look sturdy, built for hard work and long hours in the hot sun.  They look as though they have led serious and sober lives.  I know I look that way too, born for the farm.

But home is not just people.  It’s the landscape, the geography.  I’ve seen gorgeous sunsets all over the world, but none has brought tears to my eyes the way a sunset over Lake Michigan can.  Why is that?  It’s the same sun.  I suppose it’s the sense that I’ve been here before, that I’m seeing something I know and can count on.  It’s the sense that this is somehow mine.

I love the sound on an August evening of people up and down the coast of Lake Michigan clapping their hands as the sun disappears over the horizon.  I’m pretty sure I learned praise for God not in church, but by listening to that sound, responding to that beauty, caught up in something too wonderful for words.

I’ve lived most of my life somewhere else, but this still feels like home, this odd-shaped state that looks to some like a mitten.  I’m smitten with the mitten, as some clever marketer has put it.  When I come back to it, as I have most summers, for a couple of weeks at a time, I remember who I am.  I feel restored, as though I needed to be put back together again, as though only one place on earth could possibly do that for me.

You won’t be surprised to know that I think of home as a spiritual thing.  This longing that I feel to be home is really the longing for God.  It’s a longing that all of us have.  It’s a longing, I think, that God has placed within us.  It’s not Michigan that I long for so much as the place where I belong, where I am wanted, where I am loved, where I will spend eternity.

It’s just that this place, this state, is as close as I’m going to get before I die.

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