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 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.

A pilgrimage is not a race, of course, and many pilgrims walk more slowly and cover the distance in two months or more. I enjoyed the physical challenge of the Camino and averaged more than 17 miles a day, not necessarily a pace I would recommend to every pilgrim.

My walk, with a backpack weighing approximately 20 pounds, was my outward journey. My inward journey has not ended. I am still sorting out the meaning of my experience and will probably do so for weeks and months to come.

Without a doubt the best part of my pilgrimage was meeting fellow pilgrims from all over the world. During the first several days I was mostly alone, without another human being in sight, often for hours at a time, and so I spent my time praying, singing (sometimes loudly, why not?), and reflecting on my life. Later, as the number of pilgrims increased, I walked less by myself and more with others.

I was surprised to learn that few pilgrims walk the Camino for spiritual reasons—or what they would consider to be spiritual reasons. Many of the pilgrims I met were hoping, as they put it, to “find direction” for their lives or, more simply, to find themselves. Why they expected to find themselves by walking a long distance, I wasn’t sure, but for centuries this has been one of the most common reasons for walking the Camino.

One of the first pilgrims I met was a Jesuit priest from Chile who now lives and works in Russia. As we walked I learned that he has a Ph.D. in biblical theology and that he trains priests in Siberia, in what sounded like a small theological seminary. He speaks Spanish, but is also fluent in Russian, French, and English. While we talked, I couldn’t help wondering if I would have been willing to do the work to which he is devoting his life. I went eagerly to Switzerland, but would not have been quite as enthusiastic about Siberia

Later I met an American man who told me he was diagnosed 35 years ago with type 1 diabetes and was told he had 30, maybe 35, years to live. His doctor told him that eventually he would experience blindness, his internal organs would fail, and there would be amputations. His response to this grim diagnosis was to start walking, to achieve a level of fitness that most people without diabetes would envy.

In addition to completing several ultra-marathons, this man has walked the entire perimeter of the United States (in stages), giving talks along the way about living with diabetes to Rotary Clubs and church groups, basically any group that would give him an audience. To observe the 35th anniversary of his diagnosis he is planning a 100-mile walk in the U.S., and his grandchildren will join him for the last five miles.

The equipment he carries related to his insulin weighs eight pounds, and suddenly my own 20-pound pack felt much lighter.

One evening in a pilgrim hostel—or albergue—I met a young woman from Estonia who was doing some unusual stretching exercises between bunk beds. I quickly realized that she had cerebral palsy and that nightly stretching was essential to her being able to finish the Camino. The degree of difficulty she faced for her Camino, I must say, brought me to tears.

While we walked together the next day, I asked Greta what she did for work, and she told me that she was an accountant and that she owned her own accounting firm. I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Oh.”

My own reason for walking the Camino always seemed less grand when I met Greta and others like her. I walked, I would tell everyone who asked, because I am grateful for my life. And that was certainly true but not, as it turned out, the whole truth.

Now that I am back in the U.S. I realize that I was walking, like all the others, to find myself. And the good news is that I found myself—in a great company of women and men who, over the centuries, have walked and listened and attempted to understand what God was doing in their lives. For this pilgrimage, and for its discoveries, I am deeply grateful.

Photo: …moments after arriving at the cathedral in Santiago, 29 days after setting out from Saint Jean Pied de Port.

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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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A triumph of hope over experience

The lastest from the Holland Sentinel’s community columnist:

Oscar Wilde famously wrote that second marriages are “a triumph of hope over experience.” I feel the same way about exercise.

Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother.

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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.”

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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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