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.

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.

I tried hard, as I did most Sundays, to make the sermon about God and not about me, though some of it on this particular day was, inevitably, about me. I even tried hard not to cry, though I did take an industrial-size box of tissues to the pulpit, which no one but me thought was very funny.

I asked Ruth Pfister, our fine organist, to play Widor’s Toccata at the close of worship—not so much for the glory of God, but so that I could hear it one last time. To be honest, I don’t remember if she played that piece or something else entirely. What I remember is sitting in my chair up front, in tears, and feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the opportunity to do the work of ministry.

The next day Susan and I left our apartment, with its not-to-be-forgotten view of Lake Zürich, for Morocco. We weren’t quite ready to go home, because no one hurries to Michigan in February, and we had already seen as much of Europe as it is humanly possible to see, while also working full time and trying to learn a new language. So, it was on to Morocco, and then to Iceland, two countries not ordinarily paired for vacation travel.

We stayed in Marrakech for nearly a week. Susan shopped in the Medina, and I googled “unusual things to do in Marrakech,” which led me to getting a haircut and shave from a barber who did not speak English. The whole thing cost only a few dollars, but the hot towels and showmanship were worth the experience, which I filmed and posted on my blog. I didn’t shave again for more than five months. True story.

After Marrakech we traveled by local bus (an experience in itself) to Essaouira, a Moroccan resort city on the Atlantic coast. The man who handled our suitcases seemed to say that they would go directly to “Syria.” I tried to emphasize that they were to go to “Essaouira.” And they did, but I reached a whole new level of travel anxiety before I saw them again in the hotel lobby.

After nearly a week in Essaouira—and even more shopping—we flew to Iceland for an altogether different kind of travel experience.

Our rental car at Keflavik airport was covered with snow and ice, and yet the agent wanted me to sign the usual statement about no dents or dings. I politely declined to sign, saying that I couldn’t possibly check the car in its current condition, but the agent persisted, saying that “all cars in Iceland are covered in snow and ice,” which is pretty close to the truth, especially in February. We explored much of the western coast of the little island nation, but a serious snowstorm forced us back to our hotel in Keflavik and many hours at the Cafe Petite. In fact, most of what I remember about Iceland is from this fine neighborhood bar, which was a short walk from our hotel.

Sadly, because of the weather, we didn’t see either northern lights or whales, which were two of the reasons for going. Finally, the weather cleared, and we said goodbye to Cafe Petite and flew home to the United States.

“Home” is an odd way to describe western Michigan because we haven’t lived here in more than 40 years. I’m pretty sure no one missed me, either, except maybe for my ninety-one year old mother, but we are home now, living in a house we built a few years ago near Lake Michigan. There are 30 cottages in the Edgewood Beach association, and about five of them are occupied throughout the winter, meaning that our lives were suddenly quiet in a way they hadn’t been for decades. We heard the waves on the lake and the wind in the trees—and not much else. A time to learn to pray once again.

Susan had already been retired for a few years, mostly because she wasn’t allowed to work in Switzerland, so she was accustomed to the routine of leisurely mornings. What I found most exciting, in addition to a second cup of coffee every morning, was the absence of evening meetings—no rushing back to church after a quick dinner to discuss the treasurer’s report or the church roof or proposed changes to the personnel policy. Mostly, we unpacked boxes, some of which had not been opened for years. And then, occasionally, we would come across an item—a photo, a yearbook, a letter—that would require an hour or more of our time.

As a result of going through old treasures, I found myself doing a kind of life review, wondering what, if anything, my own life has amounted to. I was so caught up in the life review—plus the obligatory genealogical research which many retired people seem to do—that I have written a book about my family history, already published, just in time for Christmas.

The most difficult project, as it turns out, was finding a church. We were in the pews on the first Sunday back, but—oddly, I couldn’t put my finger on it—everything was suddenly different. I recognized the hymns and scripture readings. I knew the prayers and responses, but for the first time I wasn’t responsible for any of it.

Mostly I’ve gone to the Presbyterian Church because they’re my tribe, and always will be, but we’ve gone other places too—Reformed Church in America, Episcopal Church, my mother’s church, and maybe one or two others I have erased from my internal hard drive. I don’t know where we’ll end up.

The best news is that we’re finally starting to realize the real reason for retiring and moving back to the United States—namely, spending time with our children and grandchildren. We still Facetime with them, of course, but we are together much more often. We celebrated Thanksgiving with our older daughter and her family this year for the first time in more than ten years. Grandchildren are the wonderful consolation of old age. Also, martinis.

We feel blessed and thankful and content, and we hope you feel the same. My hope and expectation during this Advent season is focussed mainly on Jesus—and the tiniest bit on Robert Mueller—but mainly on Jesus. We wish all of you a very merry Christmas and the happiest of new years.


Doug, Susan, and Samantha (the dog)

(Photos from top to bottom: 1) At the end of worship on my final Sunday at IPC, 2) my memorable haircut in Marrakech, 3) Susan in Essaouira with a painting that now hangs in Holland, Michigan, 4) that’s me in Seattle with new grandson Walter Brouwer Laninga, and 5) our view of Lake Zürich and the mountains beyond from the apartment in Meilen.)

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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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Facebook and me

Was it just me, or was Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress this week less than reassuring? I wanted to feel better than I do about Facebook.

I deactivated my account several weeks ago (before Zuckerberg’s testimony) and haven’t missed it … much. Continue Reading →

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