Hi, my name is Doug.
I write little essays about faith and life.
I also laugh at my own jokes and correct other people's grammar.
I'm far from perfect.
This is my blog.

Called To Be a Loser

Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s community columnist:

Several years ago I was invited to give the baccalaureate address at the Presbyterian-related school, Hanover College, in southern Indiana.

As far as I knew, the school’s main claim to fame, other than having me as a speaker, was having Woody Harrelson as a student. He received his degree in English and theatre in 1983, more than 20 years before I set foot on campus.

I titled my address “Called To Be a Loser” and sent that information, along with a publicity photo, to the college president a few weeks before graduation weekend. Within a few days, the president telephoned with concern in his voice, though I couldn’t quite figure out why. Finally, he said, “That’s quite a title you chose for your address.”

“Yes, it is,” I agreed, not offering anything further about what I planned to say.

“Well,” he said, hesitantly, as if unsure how to continue the conversation, “we’ll be looking forward to what you have to say.” The tone of his goodbye suggested that I should behave myself—or this might be my last invitation.

The baccalaureate service was a beautiful one, I thought, and no one seemed outraged with what I said. I tried my best to be humorous. And brief. I even tried speaking over the heads of the graduates to the proud families and faculty members who were in attendance.

But my message, I thought, was blunt. And to the point. The “loser” in the title of my address was Jesus who, according to the Bible, lost everything we might value, but gained everything of eternal value. “Give yourselves away through lives of service,” I told the graduates, “tell the truth, and live with compassion, and you will have all the meaning and purpose in life you can handle. That’s your vocation.”

Then I added, as a final sentence: “Now all you need is a job.”

I still think what I said is true, and I would say it again, using most of the same words and the same title. I have changed my mind about a lot of things over the years, but not about this.

Losing is what we are called to do with our lives, if only losing were so easy.

I was not raised to be a loser. I was raised in the church, with long years in Sunday school and twice-on-Sunday worship services. I don’t remember any calls to be a loser, not one.

My parents, likewise, expected me to “make something” of myself, and though they never said what that looked like, I knew that second best was never going to be good enough. I came home from college one day and proudly announced that I had been appointed associate editor of the college newspaper for the coming year. Their response, without hesitation, was, “Why not editor?”

As a result, I haven’t lost many times in my life, but whenever I did, I felt a crushing disappointment. I had been put on this earth, I was taught, to come out on top.

A few weeks ago, Rob Davidson, the Democratic candidate for the local congressional seat, wrote movingly in this space about “losing.” After months of hard work, a substantial investment of his own money, and considerable time away from his family, he lost the election to the Republican candidate. The result wasn’t close. There was no need for a recount.

I was touched by his words and wrote to tell him so. Dr. Davidson wasn’t raised in the same family or church I was, but his background is similar enough to mine. Winning is expected, and when you don’t win, the losses are especially difficult.

What I wrote to Dr. Davidson may be helpful to other people who struggle with losing. I told him that I admired his gracious spirit and his humility in defeat. I was also glad, I told him, that he kept his words about his Republican opponent to a minimum. I hope we are past the campaign rhetoric.

More important, I wrote, I believe he said during the campaign what he believed to be true. He was honest about his views. He didn’t hedge or dissemble or find cover in clichés. Instead, he was unusually blunt and simply said what he believes, which is commendable because, as we learned, most people in the district disagree with his beliefs. But—and this is no small thing—he said it anyway, which requires a fair amount of courage, more than is found in most politicians. And of course speaking with honesty and courage requires a willingness to lose.

After all these years, I have come to see that offering ourselves in service and speaking the truth and living with a compassionate spirit is what we are called to do with our lives. It’s the best we can do, the best any of us can do. It’s the thing we can be most proud of when we come to the end of our lives.

Winning isn’t everything. Losing with integrity can be so much better.

Photo: Mountain hiking in Switzerland. Seems like a long time ago.

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My Annual Christmas Letter

Christmas 2018

Dear family and friends,

On January 28 I preached what will probably be my last sermon at the Eglise réformée française in Zürich, Switzerland, where the International Protestant Church offers Sunday morning worship and where we shared space with a French-speaking congregation.

I retired that day after nearly 40 years of ministry. Continue Reading →

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Crazy Poor Dutch People


Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s “community columnist”:

I wanted to call my new book “Crazy Poor Dutch People Who Immigrated to the U.S. and Became Rich, Republican and (Ironically) Anti-immigration,” but my publisher thought that title was too long and unnecessarily provocative. Plus, the allusion to “Crazy Rich Asians” is already dated.

Instead, I went with “The Truth About Who We Are,” which is not nearly as clever. It is available from the publisher and will soon be available through Amazon. Continue Reading →

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It’s good to be home

(Note: I started a new and lucrative career this month as a “community columnist” for the Holland Sentinel, the local newspaper. My first column is below. Look for my florid prose on the editorial page on the first Friday of every month. For those who’ve read excerpts on the blog from my new book, I’m happy to report that The Truth About Who We Are: Letter to My Grandchildren will be out next month from Wipf & Stock, a fine publisher based in Eugene, Oregon. I’ve seen the page proofs, and it looks great! Lots of photos and a Brouwer family tree dating to the 1700s, or about as far back as I have looked so far.) Continue Reading →

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James A. Brouwer and the Electric Car

Here’s another chapter – and most likely the last one you will see here – from my new book, now titled The Truth About Who We Are: A Letter to My Grandchildren.

To this point I’ve written mostly about ancestors who came to the United States and, against tall odds, not only survived, but thrived, making me proud to be descended from them. That was meant to be an inspiring story for you, as it has been for me. But the story is more complicated than that, as you must have recognized by this point. 

The separatist spirit that brought Dutch immigrants to the United States was sincere enough, but it could also be stubborn, rigid, and intolerant. Continue Reading →

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My Only Comfort in Life

(Here’s another random chapter from my new book, Letter to My Grandchildren: Brief Essays on Identity.)

When I was in third grade I started to attend weekly catechism classes at my church, something I would do until I graduated from high school. At the time I thought children all over the world did pretty much the same thing.

In catechism classes we memorized the 129 questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, a doctrinal statement published in 1653, in a city called Heidelberg, in what is now Germany. It’s a lovely medieval city. I have been there, and I hope you are able to visit someday as well. Continue Reading →

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My name is Brouwer

(Here’s another random chapter from my new book, Letter to My Grandchildren: Brief Essays on Identity.)

Where I grew up there was nothing at all unusual about the name Brouwer. Nearly everyone I knew – neighbors, classmates, teachers, even my pastor and dentist – had a distinctively Dutch last name, and so no one was ever puzzled by my name or had to ask me how to spell or pronounce it. Continue Reading →

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Those Embarrassing Names


(For a few months now I have been reading about and researching my ancestors, the women and men who came before me and passed down to me my name, my ethnic identity, my DNA, and of course my faith. Here’s a sample chapter from the new book which I’m – tentatively – calling “Letter to My Grandchildren.”)

Many of the people I knew when I was growing up had odd-sounding names. Not distinguished sounding at all, like I wanted them to be. The names were slightly embarrassing, I thought, as though in a previous life I had grown up with much better people, maybe in a much higher social class.

There wasn’t a Henry David Thoreau in the bunch. Or a Harriet Beecher Stowe. Those names and a lot of others like them always sounded remarkable to me, like you’d want to know them and read their books and be like them. Continue Reading →

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Turns out I’m not Dutch after all

Here’s the latest on the search for my identity: I’m British! No kidding. Take a look.

To bring you up to speed, I bought one of those DNA testing kits, spit in a glass tube, and sent the package off for testing. I declined the medical results, as I mentioned in a previous post, and I also decided that I didn’t need to know about “surprise relatives,” thinking that the ones I know are surprising enough.

But the results were – how should I put this? – still surprising. Continue Reading →

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Remembering who I am

A few months before I retired, a dear friend, someone I have known since college days, asked me what I planned to do in retirement, and to my surprise – to hers as well – I said, “I plan to remember who I am.”

These were words I hadn’t planned on saying. I blurted them out and then wondered what they meant. After three months of retirement, I think I know a little better what I had in mind that day. Continue Reading →

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