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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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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.

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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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Hiking in Switzerland, ctd

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On the mountain ridge, known as the Pfannenstiel (or pan handle), behind our village is a nice, easily accessible hiking trail. On one side you can see Lake Zurich, and on the other the Greifensee, another beautiful body of water. Mostly, though, you see wooded areas with an occasional farm and obligatory cow.

Early this morning I took the dog and my new camera to the top – 853 meters (2799 feet) – and walked. I thought the fog and lack of sun would ruin my chances for good photos, but fog, as it turns out, can be a photographer’s friend.

Am I a photographer? Well, yes. I own a camera, and I have viewed a few tutorials on YouTube. How much is there to know?

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Quite a lot, actually. Getting aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to work together, plus focussing, plus keeping the dog out of the shot – all of that requires a fair amount of skill and patience. I’m learning.

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I’m also aware now – in a way I never was previously – that photographs often get a great of attention in the post-production phase. In other words, once I’ve downloaded them the real fun begins. There is so much that can be done to a photograph after clicking the shutter that I have become suspicious of every photograph I’ve seen in the last 20 years.

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In addition to the walking and picture taking, there was time to think and pray. I also managed to think through my sermon for tomorrow, as well as my faith and science class. Oh, and I yelled at the dog a couple of times too, which felt good. Happy wandering!

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The selfie comes to church!

Remember this…from the Academy Awards broadcast a week ago?

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Well, how about this…from my installation last Sunday at the International Protestant Church of Zurich? No Brad, Angelina, Meryl, Jennifer, and others, but some fine people nonetheless.

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Thank you, Mariano Rivera

Mariano GameShot

Something happened overnight that has never happened to my blog before.

After months of chugging along at 80-90 “unique visits” per day for the last several months, a volume which I was feeling pretty good about, I suddenly had several hundred visitors to my blog yesterday.  And the heavy traffic continues today.

Naturally I wondered how come my blog was suddenly so popular.  “Maybe,” I thought, “people are finally discovering what an inspiring and clever writer I am.  Maybe I can start using ads and making a lot of money from this little venture.”

As it turns out, the blog isn’t quite as popular as I thought.

Between the stats I receive from WordPress (too complicated to explain briefly) and Google Analytics (ditto), I was able to determine that the vast majority of those “unique visits” overnight ended up at my site because of a photo of Mariano Rivera I used a few weeks ago.

Rivera played his last game at Yankee Stadium this week, and it seems that lots of people went to the Internet looking for a photo of him.  And they went looking to the source I typically use – namely, Google Images.  If you look for a photo of Rivera, the photo I used turns up close to the top of the list.  And hundreds of people clicked on that photo at about the same time, resulting in a huge traffic jam on my website.

So, my brush with Internet fame turned out to be merely a fluke of search engine algorithms.  Too bad.

(Photo credit: Hey, it worked once, didn’t it?)

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The Summer Beard

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Today’s controversial topic?  The summer beard.

Among all the difficult and complex issues I’ve tackled since I started this blog, the summer beard just has to rank … yes, close to the bottom.

Still, let’s think it through.

For years summer vacation has been a good time for me to grow my whiskers. Like most of what happens on vacation, a beard requires little work.  Just the way I like it.  Give me two weeks – or so – and there it is.  As easy as floating in the cool, fresh water of Lake Michigan.

So, that’s what I did most summers.  I let it grow.  Until about mid-September, or even early October, when I remembered that beards actually require more upkeep and maintenance than the clean-shaven look.  And that’s when I typically shaved the thing off.

Trust me on this: it’s easier just to shave every morning.

What was interesting all those years, though, was coming back to church on Sunday morning and looking like Jeremiah Johnson, fresh from hunting grizzlies in the north woods.  I didn’t keep records, but my clear sense is that more women than men objected to the look.   I didn’t ask for their opinions, of course, but that didn’t stop church members (especially the women) from letting me know how much they didn’t like the beard.

One Sunday morning – this was a long time ago at my New Jersey church – a woman even handed me a brand-new disposable razor at the door after worship.

“You should use this,” she said.

But things started to change about 10 years ago.  My beard still came in – with absolutely no effort on my part – but the thing was clearly changing color.  First it was a couple of white patches on my chin, and then, well, the whole thing went white.  I had turned into Santa Claus.

And that ended the fun.

Until this summer when I spent some time in the Dominican Republic – without running water or a mirror.  And – you guessed it – the thing reappeared just like that.

I wasn’t disappointed by the reaction at church either.  I discovered that women still don’t like beards.  (My wife would be an exception to this rule, by the way.)   But beards at my church are more common than you might think.  Every year on Maundy Thursday my church presents a moving drama which ends with a re-enactment of Leonardo daVinci’s “The Last Supper.”  It’s always one of the best-attended services of the year.

So, around the beginning of Lent, a few men start learning their lines and growing their beards.  Here’s the thing: No one says anything about it.  They wear their beards proudly.  I suppose everyone knows that they’ll all be clean shaven by Easter.

I’ve been asking the director to write a role for me – Caiaphas, the high priest, seems like a good fit – but so far nothing has happened.  Maybe now that I’ve demonstrated what I can do in the facial hair department, he’ll change his mind.

Even though I’ll be shaving soon, I want to point out what the Bible says.  Mostly the Bible assumes that men will be bearded which – to me – ought to settle the matter.  However, scripture often has a way of offering another, opposing point of view.  In Genesis 41:14, the story clearly tells us that Joseph shaved before going to meet with Pharaoh.  A sign of respect?  I don’t know.  Hard to tell.

A better story, I think, is found earlier in Genesis where Esau (Jacob’s fraternal twin) is described as a hairy man.  Jacob, in contrast, is smooth.

What can we conclude from this story?  Not as much as I would like.  Even though Jacob was probably clean shaven, he was a scoundrel.  And Esau, who probably had a big bushy red beard, was not terribly bright.

Facial hair – or the lack of it – doesn’t seem to be a factor in God’s plans.

I’m glad I was able to shed some light on that difficult subject.

(Photo credit: No, that’s not me.  That’s actually George Clooney, though we’re frequently mistaken for each other.)

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I get to do this with my life

iphones at a wedding

I have my picture taken a lot.

Most of this picture taking is in connection with weddings and baptisms.  (In more than 30 years of parish ministry I’ve never seen picture taking at a funeral, though I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens too.)

People take lots of pictures.  Usually we pose after the service – with me standing alongside bride and groom or else me holding the baby near the front of the church – but increasingly the pictures are being taken during the service.  I’ve served churches where “no flash photography” was printed in the wedding bulletin, but that was mainly to discourage Aunt Millie from standing up and snapping pictures with her noisy Instamatic.  Today everyone with a Smart Phone is a photographer, and it’s not unusual at a wedding to see everyone on their feet during a processional aiming a phone at the bride.

The thing is, I almost never get to see any of these pictures.  Not that I’m dying to remember what the bride wore, but I’m curious to know how things turned out.

And then this week – out of the blue – two families sent me pictures of me holding their baby at a recent baptism.  I almost cried each time (see The Crybaby for more on that).  I looked at those pictures and thought, “I live for this!”

And it’s true.  While I’m not wild about the wedding industry in this country and think many weddings today are way over the top – don’t get me started – I love it that I get to be part of an important moment in the lives of the bride and groom. And of course I love it that I get to hold babies and let everyone know that God loves them and has claimed them for himself.

One of my prized possessions is a photograph of me standing with an 80 year old woman I had just baptized.  I’m smiling, and she’s smiling, but there’s a great deal more going on in the picture.  The woman I baptized is Jewish, and when we met to talk about her baptism, I learned a great deal about her family history and why her parents would have been proud of her, even though they were Jewish too.  With this baptism we were bridging two worlds.  She told me she would always be Jewish, but now – with her hair still damp from where I poured the water – she had been raised with Christ to new life.

I think the look on my face – behind the smile – was one of satisfaction. I can’t believe I get to do this with my life.

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Maundy Thursday

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The origin of Pi Day

Wife of Pi

 

The earliest known official or large-scale celebration of Pi Day was organized by the physicist Larry Shaw in 1988 at the San Francisco Exploratorium.The most common ways of celebrating the day are marching in circles and eating fruit pies.  Susan and I are thinking of watching the Life of Pi.

And who said Congress never gets anything done?  On March 12, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution (HRES 224), recognizing March 14, 2009, as National Pi Day.

I lived in Princeton, New Jersey, for several years.  Since Albert Einstein was born on March 14 (and lived in Princeton), Princeton now combines the birthday and Pi Day celebrations.  An Einstein look-alike contest is the highlight of the festivities.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has often mailed its application decision letters to prospective students for delivery on Pi Day. Starting in 2012, MIT announced it will post those decisions (privately) online on Pi Day at exactly 6:28 pm, which they have called “Tau Time,” to honor the rival numbers Pi and Tau equally.

And that’s about enough on this subject for one day (unless my readers would like to post comments).

Below is a “Google Doodle” from a previous Pi Day.

Happy Pi Day, everybody!

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Best photo of 2012

Baboons are dangerous

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