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.

The annual Christmas letter

Advent 2019

Dear family and friends,

No one who knows me will be surprised to learn that I crammed an entire retirement’s worth of activity into my first full year. It’s hard to imagine that there will still be one or two things left to do.

Just in case there is still someone on the planet who has not heard—hard to imagine given how much I’ve talked and written about it—I completed the Camino de Santiago in March, walking from Saint Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. I walked the 500-mile distance in 29 days, averaging just over 17 miles per day. It’s not a race, but you know me. I had just enough time at the end to enjoy two days in Santiago, which is a wonderful university town, as well as to take a bus ride to the Atlantic. The walk didn’t seem complete without at least dipping my toe in the ocean which, as you might imagine, was cold.

Then, because the busy season at Edgewood Beach, where we live, is in summer, we spent a couple of months getting the house and yard ready for guests, though the truth is that we were mainly looking forward to that glorious (and exhausting) week in early August with our daughters, sons in law, and grandchildren—Gwendolyn, Martin, and Walter. Important-sounding names, don’t you think? Future Nobel Prize winners, I’m sure. They’re already far ahead of their peers in height, weight, and head circumference.

In mid-August I accepted an unexpected invitation to serve as interim pastor at the International Church of Lucerne, so I headed back to Switzerland, brushed up on my not-very-good language skills, and had a brief reminder of the joys and, well, mostly joys of parish ministry. ICL is a relatively small church in the heart of a beautiful and very touristy city. Like the international church in Zurich, ICL has a diverse and multicultural congregation. I was the only staff member, which means that I preached, made pastoral visits, led Bible studies, taught adult education classes, prepared and copied the weekly worship bulletin, plus wrote and published the weekly newsletter. I did everything but supply the music. I’m not sure but I might have been responsible for cleaning the sanctuary.

Susan didn’t come along with me, because she’s doing her best to stay retired from being a pastor’s wife. She did have a medical scare in the fall, however, and I returned to the U.S. earlier than planned. When the lab tests and doctor’s appointments were finished, with the news being mostly good and a great relief, I decided not to return to Switzerland, which was a tough decision. But the congregation has been understanding and supportive, they quickly found another interim for the remaining months (maybe one who can play an instrument and sing), and they have already voted to call a new pastor.

When Susan wasn’t spending time seeing doctors and giving blood samples, she was busy with construction. The bonus room above the garage, the one with its own entrance, was transformed into a wonderful extra bedroom and quiet getaway when we need the space, which we did in August. A large project! It has a daybed with a nice view, some exposed beams, and of course lots of closets for storage, because we always need more of that. It’s so nice I might use it as a quiet place to write. A favorite Bryan Cranston movie provides another possible use for the space.

Susan also designed, built, and painted an office for me (while I was hiking in Spain), she made a large outdoor table for summer picnics, and she completed some other, smaller construction projects around the house. She’s clearly doing what she loves to do, and she does everything at a more reasonable pace than I seem able to manage. Also, the number of tools, saws, drills, air compressors, and so forth we own is impressive.

Elizabeth, our younger daughter, will (most likely) complete her Ph.D. in the coming months, which means there will soon be a graduation to attend (joyfully) in Seattle. Sarah, our older daughter, continues her work as associate pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. Their husbands and children seem to be thriving, too, for which we are more grateful than I can say. If the water levels on Lake Michigan ever go down again, we may even enjoy some time together as a family on the beach.

I’m grateful for everything, as I am every year, but especially this year for my family. Unexpectedly, in April, my brother in law Donald Sloat lost his life in an automobile accident. At age 78 he was on his way to work when it happened. I am grateful for him and for the work he loved to do. I was honored when my sister asked me to officiate at his service, and I hope I never have to do anything like it again.

Here’s where I write something mawkish and vaguely theological: For the first time in lots of years, we spent Thanksgiving with children and grandchildren, along with treasured plates and platters, instead of trying to make a nice holiday for lonely people, which we’ve done often over the years. I feel selfish about saying so, but I loved the change this year, and I am so pleased that Sarah and her family made the long drive (even with a vomiting dog in the back of the car).

In addition to gratitude, there’s also the feeling that the world is a mess right now, especially our own country, and that things are likely to get worse before they get better. But the world’s been in this position before, and each time God made something good come out of it. I haven’t lost hope that God will do in the future what God has always done in the past. My faith sustains me now as it always has. I hope yours does as well.

We said goodbye to Sammi a few months ago, a good dog if there ever was one, in spite of the constant shedding. I’ll dedicate this year’s Christmas letter to her. If everyone offered as much love as that big, dumb animal, the world would be a much better place.

Love,

Doug

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Reading the comment section in online news

Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for November. If you do not live near the Great Lakes, you may not know that lake levels are near or at record highs. The Army Corps of Engineers is predicting that lake levels will continue to increase into next year. Together with powerful storms, lake levels have caused dramatic erosion along the coast line, with many lakefront homes now in danger of falling into the lake. My column reflects on readers’ reactions to newspaper articles about this situation.

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Letter from Lucerne, Switzerland

Here’s my October column for the Holland Sentinel…

The Swiss like to shake hands. They like a firm handshake with lots of eye contact. In Switzerland, it’s considered rude not to shake hands with everyone before leaving a social gathering, even if doing so requires a considerable amount of time.

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“How are you enjoying Holland?”

Here’s my September column for the Holland Sentinel…

“How are you enjoying Holland?” my dentist wanted to know last week at my annual checkup.

I had been a new patient only a year ago, so the question was an appropriate one. However, with his fingers exploring my mouth, I couldn’t do much more than nod and give a thumbs up. I want to give a fuller answer here: I’m enjoying it very much. Thank you for asking.

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The moral urgency of “plastic or paper?”

Here’s my August column for the Holland Sentinel:

“Paper or plastic?” the person at the grocery cash register asked, without looking up (or saying hello).

“I brought my own bags,” I said, proudly, holding them up for her to see. And with that, of course, she looked up—to get a good look at the tree-hugging Green Panther standing in front of her.

I’ll never know if I fit her image of an environmentalist, because she quickly looked down again and began to scan my items before placing them in my reusable bags.

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Living with meaning and purpose

Here is my July column for the Holland Sentinel…

I’m still not sure how it happened, but one day I woke up and, curiously, I was retired. Of course I had planned for it, as much as it’s possible to plan for something like retirement. And I recognize that not everyone gets to choose the actual date and get ready for it. So, I am grateful for that.

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Not going to church anymore

Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for June:

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, with my parents and my sisters, but for most of my adult life I have worked on Sundays.

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Dachau and the Result of Hatred, Racism and Bigotry

Here’s my May column for the Holland Sentinel:

Before leaving Europe and moving back to the United States, my wife and I had in mind one last tourist destination. We had visited all of the cathedrals, museums and battle fields it was humanly possible to see during the four years we lived in Switzerland, but there was still something more I felt I needed to see—namely, the concentration camp at Dachau.

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My Camino de Santiago

Here’s my April column for the Holland Sentinel:

A spiritual pilgrimage, so the thinking goes, consists of both an outward journey and an inward journey.

Last week I returned from my first Camino de Santiago, a spiritual pilgrimage dating back to the 11th century. I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) to Santiago de Compostela (a university town in northwest Spain with a famous cathedral), a distance of 500 miles, which I walked in 29 days.

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Reflections on the “Dead Beat”

Here’s my March column for the Holland Sentinel, which could use an overhaul of its obituary page:

My name has appeared in dozens, maybe hundreds, of obituaries over the years, usually in the last paragraph.

After the date, time and location of the memorial service, my name would be given as the pastor who would be officiating. I think this is the reason I started reading obituaries. Not to make sure my name had been spelled correctly, but because the obituaries would often be revealing.

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