Archive | April, 2013

Have no anxiety about anything

The only privately owned version of Edvard Munch's The Scream is to be sold at auction in New York

I’m something of a worrier.

No, I’m just being modest about that.  The truth is, I’m a world-class, platinum-club worrier.  I can hold my own in any group of worriers.  I’m really, really good.

My dream when I was young was to be a world-class athlete, but I soon realized that I had been blessed with a different gift.  I worry.

And don’t get me wrong.  I’ve grown to appreciate this gift.  Worry has done some good things for me over the years.  It made me a good student, for example.  While my classmates were out having a good time, I could often be found in the library late into the night.  Why?  Well, I worried that if I didn’t stay late at the library, I might not get a good grade on my exam.  So, worry turned out to be good for my GPA.

According to my research on worry, I’m in good company.  Lots of high-achieving athletes, scientists, and artists have been worriers.  Their worry has pushed them to excel.  The artist Michelangelo is considered by some scholars to have worried his way to great art.  Martha Stewart, an artist of a different kind, once confessed to Oprah Winfrey that she attributed much of her success to “maniacal” worry over doing well.

But worry hasn’t always been good for me.  Worry has occasionally been a burden that robs my life of its enjoyment.

I’m told that I’m the classic perfectionist.  I want everything I do – and everything I’m a part of – to be … well, perfect, and pursuing that goal has the sometimes-unfortunate consequence of causing me worry.  So, there you go.  I understand why I do it, but that doesn’t mean I can stop when I want to.

What’s most worrisome about this – look, I even worry about worrying so much – is that at root it’s a spiritual issue.

Jesus could not be more clear:  “Then Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?’” (Luke 12:22-26)

If I had been in the crowd that day, I probably wouldn’t have raised my hand with a question, but I would have thought, “Okay, okay, I know my worry is really a lack of trust, but what am I supposed to do about it?”

Even the Apostle Paul some years later addressed the subject head on: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

“Do not be anxious about anything.”  At this point in my life you’d think I’d have this one licked.  But – no – I’m still working on it.

I’m beginning to see that some spiritual issues are going to take time – LOTS of time.  I’m beginning to see that I might be working on this one for the rest of my life.  Keeps me humble.

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Now I lay me down to sleep…

South Africa 2012 049

For years I’ve been using the prayer printed below at graveside services, and so for years I thought it was a prayer about death.

And then this week I was at a clergy prayer retreat – sounds terribly exciting, I know – and our leader used the prayer to close our time of evening prayer or compline.  I suddenly realized that the prayer could be about another kind of letting go or, as he put it,” relinquishing.”

Every time we go to bed, we are giving in to a “holy rest.”

Here it is.  Enjoy.  It’s from the Book of Common Prayer (1928).

O LORD, support us all the day long,

until the shadows lengthen

and the evening comes,

and the busy world is hushed,

and the fever of life is over,

and our work is done.

Then in thy mercy

grant us a safe lodging,

and a holy rest,

and peace at the last. Amen.

(Photo credit:  Well, mostly God deserves the credit, but I snapped the picture near Cape Town, South Africa, in November 2012.)


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Call me “Doug”


“What titles are we going to use – Reverend, Doctor, Pastor, or some combination like Reverend Doctor?”

The question was asked because we weren’t being consistent.  One pastor on my staff preferred one thing, another pastor preferred something different.  So, what titles will we use?  A fair question, except that I was conflicted about the subject.

The first time someone called me “Reverend Brouwer” – I’ll never forget where I was and who said it – I felt awkward and uncomfortable, which the person who said it surely intended. (Thereafter, he would call me “padre” to get a similar reaction.) True, I was newly ordained, but for heaven’s sake I was 27 years old and didn’t think of myself as all that “reverend” – and all that that word implied.

I have never liked “reverend” much.  Now, mostly funeral directors call me that, the ones who don’t know me very well.

Then came “doctor.”  I liked that one better.  For a while.  Not many people called me “Doctor Brouwer,” but when I heard it, I thought, “That has a nice ring to it.”  Kind of academic and smart.  My elementary school teachers (and some of my high school teachers) would have been surprised to hear it.  In fact, I think that’s why I liked it.  I had proven something to myself, if not to any of them.

But “Doctor Brouwer” is not very pastoral.  It doesn’t project the sort of warmth and caring and approachability that I imagine in myself.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Leaving Church, describes such deference as “well intentioned…[but also] as distancing as a velvet rope in a museum.”  Most pastors I know hate the thing with the velvet rope.  Taylor left the ministry altogether because of it.

To beat some of my readers to it, I should mention the term “dominie.”  It’s a term the Dutch Reformed often used for their pastors, usually not in an endearing way.  From what I’ve heard these men – and they were always men – didn’t care much about their warmth and caring and approachability, so the term has come to suggest a sort of distant and cold pastoral identity.

I’m no dominie, thank you very much, at least I hope not.

A few years ago I was serving a church where titles seemed to matter a great deal to church members. I could understand titles meaning something in a business or work setting, but not at church.  I wondered why we used them so often in newsletters and other publications.  So, I mentioned in a sermon that I had taken my diplomas down from the wall and put them in a closet.  I wanted to claim my baptism as my most important credential.  I even referred to the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 3 about his own accomplishments and how he counted “all these things as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

After the sermon, a church member confronted me in the Narthex, more loudly than necessary, about how much his degrees meant to him and how hard he had worked to get them.  After that I didn’t press the issue.

But I still wonder about titles at church.

When my children were growing up, I told them to call grownups “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” unless those grownups told them it was okay to use their first names.  So, what about grownups who are pastors?  Over the years most children have called me “Pastor Doug.”  When I first heard that, I wasn’t sure I liked it, and for a while I wore it uneasily, but gradually it grew on me.  Just the right amount of respect, but little of the unapproachability.

I think of myself as Doug.  You’re welcome to call me that.  If someone wants to give me a title, let it be “Pastor” Doug.  I like that too.

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Marathons and terrorist attacks


The second marathon I completed was the Chicago Marathon in October 2001.  It was a race I’ll never forget.

And it almost wasn’t held.  In the weeks following 9/11, race organizers agonized over whether to hold the race.  They worried that bringing 40,000 runners together would present a tempting bombing target.  And they were right to be worried.

Ultimately they decided what most large-event organizers have decided ever since – namely, that life must go on or else the terrorists win.

So, I remember standing in Grant Park early on that Sunday morning.  It was still dark, and it was cold.  I was shivering and rubbing my hands together to stay warm.  I was dressed in running shorts and racing jersey, plus several layers of clothing that I planned to throw away as soon as I warmed up, if I ever did.

All around me runners were wearing T-shirts with pictures of those lost in the Twin Towers.  I could feel emotions running high.  No one had to say anything; I could just feel that this day was different.  We weren’t just proving something to ourselves – which is the usual motivation for doing something as silly as running 26.2 miles – we were running to prove something more.

Suddenly, a few minutes before the starter’s gun went off, an announcement was made that the National Anthem would be sung by a tenor from Chicago’s Lyric Opera and that he would also be running the race that day.

We cheered the announcement, and then waited.  As soon as he started to sing, something happened that has never happened before at any sporting event I’ve ever attended.  People around me began to sing.  Not just one or two, but everyone.  And quickly we were singing louder than the soloist, much louder.  After his “oh say, can you see,” I didn’t hear him again.  We were singing as loudly as we could.  40,000 of us were singing with tears in our eyes.  It was, looking back, a rush of adrenaline and patriotism.  We were singing as if to say, “Just try and stop us.”

It was quite a moment.

Naturally I thought of that morning this week as I learned of the bombings in Boston.  Having run the distance a few times I know a little of what it feels like to approach the finish line.  Not many runners are thinking clearly at that moment.  Getting across and getting the medal are pretty much the only thoughts most runners are capable of having.

And then those two bomb blasts seconds apart.

I’m as angry as anyone.  But I know that my anger does no good.  And so my anger gives way to something else – to a determination to keep running the race, to go on no matter what.

I plan to say something about the bombings in my sermon Sunday.  But I don’t think that our determination to keep going no matter what is exactly a good biblical response.  It’s my sentiment, exactly, but it’s not necessarily a biblical sentiment.  If getting through a tough time always depended on me to tough it out and keep going, I’m afraid I would be in trouble.

No, the biblical response is more hopeful than leaving it up to me and whatever resolve I happen to have on any given day.  The biblical response is – you already know, don’t you? – that God is faithful.  God was there at the beginning, God will be there at the end, God is there right now.  Of that we can be sure.

Can’t see God in this awful tragedy?  I did.  I saw God in all of those people who ran toward the explosions to help. I saw God in the soldiers who ran in their army boots and fatigues and backpacks and who just happened to be there at the end to offer aid to the wounded.  I saw God in everyone who was helping in the face of danger.

I like the quote from Mister Rogers that appeared later that day: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ’Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

God wasn’t absent that day.  God was present.  Of that I am certain.

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My old friend Bruce

campus ministry

Just returned from a brief visit to an old friend and seminary classmate.  Our friendship dates back to the late 70s when we were classmates at Princeton Seminary.

Today my friend Bruce is director of the Presbyterian campus ministry at Florida State University, and since several young members of my church are students at FSU, a visit seemed like a good idea – to catch up with Bruce, to see his ministry, and to visit my church members.

About those young church members: I got to know them long before they went off to college by going with them on their high school mission trips.  You get to know people pretty well when you live in close proximity for a week.  And not only did I get to know them, but I grew to love them and care for them.  (How can you not love someone deeply after a 14-hour van ride to Tennessee?)  They’re a great group of kids who have now – obviously, surprisingly, gratifyingly – become young adults.

Bruce and I took them – can you believe that they all said yes to my offer of a free lunch? – to the University Club which is located inside the football stadium.  During lunch we looked out at a sea of empty seats and the striped field which had just been used the previous Saturday for the annual “spring game.”

I’ll say this much: College students have hearty appetites, and so I’m glad we chose the buffet.  I didn’t count, but I noticed they went back to the serving line several times.  I suppose that sometimes ministry means feeding the hungry.

It was good to see my young friends, and it was good to see Bruce.  I realized, among other things, that what he does and what I do are not so different.  True, my ministry is in a parish, not on a university campus. But we both spend much of our time caring for people, leading them – gently, patiently – to an openness to God’s presence in their lives.

I was glad to see what a fine pastor Bruce is.  I was glad to see how students respond to him.  I was glad to see that his ministry extends far beyond students to faculty members, to university administrators, and to the person who stands at the cash register in the cafeteria.  He knows them all, and they know him.

I have asked Bruce to guest blog for me in the next few weeks.  I want my readers to hear some of his thoughts about our kids.  We raise them in the church, we make sure that they go through confirmation and other rites of passage, but then we haul them off to a distant university and leave them there – to fend for themselves.

What happens to them spiritually at this point is … well, it’s not clear.  Most of them drop out of church at this point.  Most of them become “un-churched” the minute they reach campus.

I would like Bruce to reflect on this for us.  And with the end of semester coming up soon, we may have to wait just a bit.  In the meantime, please pray for Bruce and others like him who work with students.

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What’s your Sunday routine?

Sunday routines

What’s your Sunday routine?

What time do you get up, what time do you go to bed?  Who are the people you usually see or call during the day?  What do you like to eat?

Those are the questions the New York Times asks someone every week.

One of my favorite columns in the Sunday Times is called the “Sunday Routine.”  Each week it features someone who lives in New York City, and in the column that person tells us, in his or her own words, how Sunday usually goes.

Sunday for most New Yorkers is a family day.  It’s spent with children and, where possible, with extended family.  And that means Sunday is often planned around meals, either meals cooked at home or meals enjoyed at a favorite restaurant.

Sunday is also often – at least for the people featured – a day of routines.  Frequently, they’ll say, “I like to do this, and then I like to do that, and of course we always end up doing this other thing.”  Each week they look forward to the same thing, the same restaurant, the same park, even the same food.

What I almost never see is the mention of a faith community – specifically, church.  Today’s profile (find it here) featured a 52-year-old woman who sings for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  She mentions that she grew up in a “Christian Baptist” home, so she said she tries to spend a little “quiet time” each Sunday morning which makes her feel “peaceful” the rest of the day.  No other details, just that.

But her experience is rare.  For the most part – and this must be why I find the column so fascinating – church is just not a part of the lives of these people.  Their Sundays sound happy, relaxing, restorative – and utterly without something I would recognize as a faith component.

As you might imagine, I grew up much differently.  I went to church on Sundays throughout my childhod – not just once, but twice each Sunday.  I went to Sunday school too.  And occasionally, though not as often as my parents wanted, I went to youth group on Sunday nights.  I thought that was the norm.  And it was – at least among the small social group in which I was raised.

I read somewhere that one reason church attendance is in such steep decline is not that people are less spiritually-inclined today than they used to be, but that the cultural expectations for going to church have fallen away.  People who may not have gone to church in the 1950s but did so because of cultural expectations simply do not go today.

Even though retirement is a long way off (I hope), I’ve started to imagine what retirement will look like, and one of the first questions I ask myself is, What will Sunday morning look like?  Once I no longer have to preach and lead worship, what will I do with myself?  Will I find a church home and sit quietly in the pews?  Will I stay home and watch the Sunday morning news programs that I’ve never been able to see?  (Not likely.)  Will I go for long walks through interesting neighborhoods, stopping for latte and lunch, as the people do who are featured each week in the New York Times?

The truth is, I will probably do what I’ve always done. I’ll go to bed early on Saturday night and get up early on Sunday morning.  I’ll go to church and then come home.  I’ll take a nap.  And not because it’s a habit, though by now it surely is.  I’ll do all of that, when I no longer get paid to do it, because that’s who I am, that’s who I have become.  My place in the world is to be part of a faith community – praying, listening for God’s word to me, weeping with those who weep, laughing with those who laugh.

I don’t long to be free of church.  I long to be part of it for the rest of my life.

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Picasso and me


“How long does it take you to write a sermon?” a member of the church asks.

“About 50 years,” I say.

“No, no, no,” the person says, “how long does it actually take you to write it out – or whatever you do?”

No matter how often I answer this question, I never seem to get it right for the person who asks.  Putting a sermon together takes a long time, a lot longer than most people realize.

Reminds me of the story about Picasso who was recognized at a restaurant by another patron who then asked for the artist’s autograph.  Picasso obliged, according to the story, and wrote his name on a napkin using those famous block letters.

Handing it to the autograph seeker, Picasso mischievously said, “That’ll be a million dollars (or whatever the equivalent would have been in Spanish pesetas).”

“That’s ridiculous,” said the autograph seeker, “it only took you a couple of seconds.”

“Wrong,” said Picasso, “it took me 50 years.”

The point Picasso and I would like to make is that great art (or the humble sermon) takes time – a lot more than you might imagine.  A lot of life experiences, a lot of bumps and bruises, a lot of hurt, joy, and painful life lessons are involved in the creation of a sermon.

When I can bring myself to do it, which isn’t often, reading a sermon from early in my ministry is a painful experience.  Why?  Because I knew so little.  I think I was even aware at the time that I had a lot to learn.

What’s the sweet spot for life experience?  In other words, how much is enough – and when do we reach the point at the other end of life that no one much cares what our life experience was like?  I don’t know.

Maybe a better question is this: Can you take what you’ve learned along the way and translate it into something meaningful and intelligible to other people?  Can you speak from experience in such a way that it actually helps another human being?

I think that’s the gift of preaching.  It’s taking what we know to be true – not what we’ve learned by reading a book, but from living our lives – and translating it into something that engages the imagination of other people.

How long does that take?

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The promise of Easter


Since the start of the new year, my congregation has lost 29 people to death – either members of the church or close family members.

I can’t remember ever having gone through a stretch quite like this.

During this week following Easter, a week when I ordinarily catch my breath after a busy Lenten season, we will have four funerals or memorials services, every day Tuesday through Friday.  Two of them may involve overflow crowds.  One of the larger ones is for a physician who is said to have delivered more than 9,000 babies during his career in this community.  (One of his nurses in the ICU tearfully told me that he had delivered her.)

Yes, death is a part of life.  Yes, we are not people who grieve as those who have no hope (to paraphrase the Apostle Paul).  And yes, as I’ve written before, I actually feel more like a pastor at a funeral than I do with many other pastoral responsibilities.

But still.

On Easter morning I said in my sermon that Easter worship is not a time for reasons or explanations.  I’ve never preached an Easter sermon titled “Thirteen Incontrovertible Proofs for the Resurrection” – and don’t plan to any time soon.  I don’t think anyone really wants to hear on Easter morning why it’s reasonable to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

What I said was, “This is a day to believe if there ever was one, to open ourselves to the possibility that it’s true, that death is not the last word that will be spoken about us.”

I’m glad I believe that.  I’m glad I came to that conviction early in my ministry.  During my first year following ordination, I officiated at something like 60 funeral services.  A great deal of my job description at that first church right out of seminary was focused on pastoral care.  I called on homebound people and naturally was the first person to be asked to officiate at the funeral.

At the time, the pace of funerals seemed like a lot, especially for someone so new to ministry.  My mentor said, “You’d better figure out what you believe – and do it quickly.”  I did.  I believe in the promise of Easter.

And haven’t wavered in that belief.

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