Archive | June, 2013

Pablo Casals and Me

if it ain't broke

So, there was a lot of email response to my recent “Blog News” post.

Mostly the responses urged me not to change anything – not to listen to busy bodies who gave me advice about my blog. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was the concerned response from several people.

Thanks, everyone. I get it. But two points. One, I asked for the advice. It wasn’t as though people came to me and told me how my blog could be better. I went to them – and I’m still going to them.

Which leads to my second point. Trying to be better isn’t the same thing as fixing what ain’t broke.

Reminds me of the old Pablo Casals story. Someone noticed that the great cellist, then in his 90s, was practicing on his cello with great concentration. “Why do you bother?” someone asked. And Casals – this may be an apocryphal story, but I like it – said, “Because I’m noticing improvement.”

Of course. What Casals and I (and probably a few others down through history) believe is that it’s important to keep trying to be better.

Isn’t anyone impressed that I signed up with “Bloggers Helping Bloggers”? Doesn’t it sound like a grand humanitarian organization – like “Doctors Without Borders”? Okay, maybe not, but it sounds promising, and maybe I’ll get some really cool ideas.

Again, thanks so much for the feedback. And thanks for liking the blog as it is. I should have known that most of my readers who are church members would be opposed to change … on principle.

(Photo credit: Any first-year Latin student should be able to translate that one.)

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Blog News

Haiti Trip 168

I was going to report that revenues are down for the fifteenth straight month since founding, but then I remembered that there are no revenues.

This is a labor of love.

Readership is up, however, way up – and that’s great news. Thanks so much for your support!  In May “” averaged 80 unique views per day which for me is an all-time high.

My current blog design is nearly a year old – and some of you may be tired of opening the blog each time to





I know I am.  My son-in-law – formerly of Apple, the $373 billion company founded by Steve Jobs, and now head of his own Internet start-up company in Seattle – is working on some tweaks to the design that I’m sure you’ll like.  My blog turns up in most search engines, but not always in the top 2-3 results, and he promises to change that.  (Had no idea, when I named my blog, how many “Doug’s Blogs” existed on the Internet!)  Thanks, Daniel!

Plus, the editor who worked with me on the three books I published with the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. has just completed what she called a “blogathon,” reading 15 months of blog posts in a single day, and she too has suggested several tweaks – not in the design, but in my writing.  These might be harder to implement than the design tweaks, but I promised to try.

Among other things she noted my tendency to start down rabbit trails that have nothing whatsoever to do with the central theme of the blog.  I’m guilty as charged, of course, and I know I do this in preaching as well, but sometimes, as I reminded her, I can’t help myself.

Anyway, thank you, Mary!

And then, last but not least, I’ve signed up for something called “Bloggers Helping Bloggers.”  Experienced bloggers – with vastly larger readerships than my own – agree to mentor newbies like me for no charge, and during August I’ll be assigned to someone successful who will follow my blog and make recommendations for improvements.  Maybe someday I’ll be one of those successful bloggers who gets to tell others how to do it.

So, that’s it.  I welcome feedback on the blog – the public kind in the comments section, as well as the email kind.  Let me know what you think!

(Photo credit:  That’s Dr. Schweitzer … I mean, that’s me at the Hopital Ste. Croix in Leogane, Haiti, on the same mission trip described in the previous post, doing the one thing that I was really, really good at.)

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Finally, a skill that’s needed

Haiti Trip 212

I may have bitten off a little more than I can chew.

I have not one, not two, but three mission trips planned for this summer.  That’s a lot even by my standards.

In early July I’m going with the high school youth to Tampa, Florida.  This is the sort of trip I started making years ago, and I’ve never looked back.  I love the kids at our church, as I’ve loved all of the youth groups I’ve travelled with, and there’s nothing like a week spent in close quarters to grow a relationship.

Then, later in July, I’m headed to the Dominican Republic.  We’re going to live and work in the mountains, deep in the country’s beautiful interior.  We’re going to sleep in hammocks (too many creeping things on the ground apparently), and we’re going to take bucket showers … when there’s water available.  (I hate camping, generally speaking, but this isn’t camping, I keep telling myself. And it’s for a good cause.)

In early August I’m going along with yet another group – to Moore, Oklahoma, site of those devastating tornados last month.

What’s ordinarily good and memorable about these trips are the unexpected moments.

On a mission trip to Haiti several years ago I went along with a medical team to the rural parts of the island.  Before loading up the four-wheel-drive vehicles, I learned how to take blood pressure readings, and so my job – along with a University of Michigan nursing student – was triage, taking down as much information from the long line of people that formed as we could before the physicians saw them.  (That’s me in the photo above, looking very important and official in my scrubs.)

The highlight of that trip was being present for the birth of several babies at the hospital in Leogane.  One of those babies was born by caesarian section, as were both of my own children, and so the next morning I checked in and found that the new mom had no experience with much of anything, including changing a diaper.

So, here, finally, was something I knew how to do.  After all those mission trips where I was the least skilled person on the team, I was experienced at something that was very much needed.  (Yes, that’s me in the picture below, changing a diaper.)

I have no idea what this summer’s trips will bring, but I look forward to bringing home stories and memories that will sustain me for years to come.  And provide me with a few interesting blog posts too.

Haiti Trip 130

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There’s something about a pastor


A young mother dies, leaving a husband and two young children. The school makes the decision to cancel classes the afternoon of the memorial service so that the students and their families can attend. As many as a 150 elementary school-aged children may be at our church for the service.

How do we plan worship knowing all of that?

My colleague, a pastor of exceptional skill and insight, says we need to have a children’s sermon. “Really?” I say.  She says she’ll invite all of the children up front and ask them to stand around the communion table while she talks to them about life and death and God’s providential care.

I am skeptical. I am not a fan of children’s sermons, mainly because most of them fail spectacularly at everything but comic relief for the congregation when children make unexpectedly funny (and darling) comments. But my colleague persists.  “It will be just right,” she says.

The day of the memorial service arrives. More than a 100 children walk to the front and stand around the table.  They fidget, but they are surprisingly quiet and expectant. They seem to know the solemnity of the occasion. In beautifully chosen and soothing words, my colleague speaks to the children and assures them of God’s love amidst the mystery of death.  It is, as she predicted, “just right.”

My jaw drops. I realize that there is really no need for me at this point to go to the pulpit for the “homily” listed in the order of worship immediately following the children’s sermon. Everything that should be said at this service has been said – in language children can understand. I go up anyway of course – in the unlikely event that one or two people did not hear and grasp the meaning of what was said in the children’s sermon.

What sort of skill or gift makes a pastoral move like this possible?

My colleague has demonstrated something called “pastoral imagination.”  The move she has made grows out of her education, experience, reading, and intuition. It’s a way of looking at the world – not so different from the way a lawyer learns to look at the world.  With training and experience in a particular method, a lawyer is able to zero in on the heart of complicated issue, not distracted by a million and one interesting questions. Call it “legal imagination.” When we witness it, we are amazed. When we have need of it, we are overwhelmed and grateful.

Pastors – many of them – have something similar.

Craig Dykstra, until recently a vice president with the Lilly Endowment and a keen observer of pastoral ministry, first coined the phrase:

The pastoral imagination requires multiple kinds of intelligence. Pastors must … allow these intelligences to be trained and formed within a lifelong process of learning. Both substantive knowledge -some of it fairly abstract – and practical know-how will be required, and because ministry takes place amid the changing circumstances of life, intelligent adaptation and renewed learning will often be necessary as well. Extensive reading and serious observation, along with a great deal of accumulated personal experience, is essential to the emergence of a mature pastoral imagination.

So, it’s a complicated thing, but it’s real.  And it lies at the heart of what pastors – the good ones – do.

Here are a couple of other examples:

  • A 200-year-old church in northern New York state is struck by lighting and burns to the ground.  The pastor, who never doubts that the church must be rebuilt, saves a charred beam from the ruins and commissions a local artist to fashion the beam into a cross that will hang in the new sanctuary, a sign of God’s power to move us from death to resurrection, from ashes to new life. No seminary class can prepare a pastor to know how to respond in a situation like this. 
  • A chaplain at a children’s hospital in Cincinnati notices that parents of very sick children spend long stretches of time at the hospital, often with children who do not get well.  They find themselves in the chapel, attending services or sitting quietly when no one else is around.  The chaplain realizes that certain psalms – filled with pain and anguish and doubt – can help these parents give expression to feelings that need to be expressed. They find the  words they need.

I have been a pastor for more than 32 years. Most days I can’t explain why I do what I do. Young pastors on staff will sometimes say, “Why are you doing it that way?” And my first response is, “I don’t know. It seemed like the right thing to do.” Later on, maybe, I will find an explanation, but this is pastoral imagination – part skill, part intuition, part guess, part prayer.

And there’s no need to admire it – only to recognize it and to trust it.

(Photo credit: An ink and watercolor drawing by my daughter Sarah Brouwer – for a bulletin cover at her church.)

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Prayer for Sunday, June 16

south florida sunrise

God, we thank you for this day, your gift to us.  We thank you for the wonder and the beauty of it – and the privilege we have to live our lives surrounded by such wonder and such beauty.

We confess that we sometimes take all of that for granted, that life can seem more like a burden than a gift, that our worries can often overwhelm what is most precious about our lives.  And for that, we’re truly sorry.  Help us, remind us, push us, to see our lives as you do, to see them as gifts to be enjoyed, not burdens to be endured.  Help us to find something new in each moment, something more surprising and good and delightful every time we look around.

It’s not surprising that our prayer begins with ourselves.  It almost always does.  We focus so much of our attention on how we’re feeling, and how we’re getting along, so today in this time of worship we take time to re-focus our attention on the world as you see it.

We pray for your world, especially for those places where there is war and conflict, where people are displaced from their homes and villages, where hunger and disease are closer than any of us can imagine.  We feel helpless in the face of it.  We hardly know what to do or how to pray.  And so we pray that you will show us how to be your hands and feet in a hurting world.  Show us how to love.

We pray for this church – its leadership, its staff, its members.  We pray for those who are struggling with illness today, those whose lives feel out of control, and those who are just trying to get through each day.  Help us as a church family to be there for them, to embrace them, to tell them how much their lives matter to us.

On this Father’s Day, we pray for fathers.  We’re grateful for the fathers among us who took their calling seriously, who lived and loved and taught, who wanted us to be everything we were capable of being, who encouraged us, who believed in us when we were discouraged, and who showed us with their own lives what matters most.  Help those of us who are fathers to leave a lasting impression.

For the Kirk Singers choir tour and the college mission trip people who are returning today, we give thanks.  For those groups who are getting ready to go in the next couple of weeks, we pray.  For all of us, show us how to live and speak the good news.

Now, hear us as we pray together the words Jesus taught us…

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Mrs. Peterson

rehobeth, new mexico

My Kindergarten Sunday school teacher was Mrs. Peterson.  If she had a first name, I don’t remember it.  To me she was – and will always be – Mrs. Peterson.  I can remember what she looked like and smelled like.  I would know her if I saw her today, though I’m sure she died years ago.

Mrs. Peterson had white hair, and I thought she was really old. Most likely 50, or maybe 51.

In Kindergarten Sunday school there isn’t a lot of content that can be communicated, but one thing you have to do is let children know that God loves them.  And Mrs. Peterson did that.  I knew that God loved me.  I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that.

I also learned to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” so not only did God love me, but Jesus did too.  How can you not like going somewhere where everyone talks about loving you?  I felt loved, and cared for, and wanted.

And just in case you think that, early on, I was pretty much thought of as “mostly likely to go to seminary and become a preacher,” you are mistaken.  Just the opposite was true.  I was probably thought of as “least likely” to become anything resembling a preacher.

Mrs. Peterson would have been pleased of course if she had known where I ended up, but also very, very surprised.

But here’s the thing: Mrs. Peterson went beyond telling us that God loved us.  She made a connection between feeling loved and telling someone else about that love.

Mrs. Peterson told us that she had been a “missionary,” a tough word for a Kindergartner to grasp, but what I understood is that she lived among the Zuni and Navajo Indians in New Mexico telling the children there how much God loved them.

One time she even came to class with pieces of brightly-colored cloth to tie around our heads, so that we would look like Tonto, I guess, though not the Johnny Depp version.  And she gave us Navajo names.

Best day in Sunday school ever!  I got to look like an Indian – and I had a Navajo name (which I’ve long since forgotten).

Not surprisingly, I grew up thinking that anybody could be called to do what Mrs. Peterson did.  God would call us, and then we would say good-bye to family and friends, travel to a distant land (like New Mexico), learn a new language and culture, and tell people how much God loves them.

To be honest, I was interested, but also a little scared.  Sort of depended, I thought, on exactly where God wanted me to go.

You won’t be surprised to know that I have the same urge today all these years later.  It’s never gone away.  I keep thinking that God will come to me in a dream and say, “Doug, it’s time.  Thank you for waiting so patiently.  Now it’s time for you to go to ….”

But where?

I’m preaching this Sunday on the Great Commission given by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, and I’ve got this story in my head – Mrs. Peterson and the cloth tied around my head and the idea that I should “go and make disciples.”

Of course the idea has occurred to me that I have already gone – not once, but several times.  I’ve been called to New Jersey, a strange and exotic land by any estimation.  I’ve lived in suburban Chicago and also Ann Arbor, both far (in some ways) from the place of my birth.

And now I’m in south Florida, stranger and more exotic than any other place I’ve ever  lived.

I suppose it’s time for me to let people know how much God loves them.  And hope that a little boy – or girl – hears the story and begins to wonder what that story might mean.  If I could find some cloth, I’d tie a little of it around the heads of every person who comes to church on Sunday – and give them all Navajo names.

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The “church shopping” experience

church shopping

Asking my daughters to guest blog for me has been a gold mine in terms of readership.  The days their guest blogs appeared have been my blog’s biggest single days, so it’s time to hear from one of them again (and the other one too if I can convince her to do it).  Here’s a post about looking for a new church when your parents don’t select it for you.  Thanks, Elizabeth.

I grew up with a distorted view of joining a church. There was never any “church shopping” in my family. We always knew what church we would attend because my dad worked there. The transition period was pretty short; congregations full of wonderful and welcoming people would embrace my family and make us feel loved from the moment we arrived.

I am slowly but surely learning that this is not most people’s “church shopping” experience.

My husband and I recently moved from Ann Arbor to Seattle, and we have been looking for a church community to join. The first church we visited was the University Presbyterian Church adjacent to the University of Washington campus. This church is huge and fascinating. The 9 a.m. contemporary service we attended was energetic, and the congregation spanned almost every age group – a young couple’s church-shopping dream!

What it lacked, however, was the personal greeting with which I had grown up. Where was the welcome brunch? Where were all the handshakes and introductions? Why wasn’t my calendar rapidly filling up with church events?

Because joining a church is hard work. It takes a lot of time/effort (when you are no longer a spoiled pastor’s daughter) to go to events, to introduce yourself, to join groups, to seek out volunteer positions. And after all of that, it takes time and commitment to build the relationships that can make church such a special place.

So, while I will probably be attending new member classes soon, that won’t be enough to really become a new church member. As my older sister, who is also a pastor, so wisely told me, “You will get out of church what you put into it.”

It looks like I have my work cut out for me.


Who could resist?  

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Churches and Short-Term Mission

Village Moutain Mission

Not everyone is a fan of the short-term mission trip.  Sure, they’re fun and life-changing for the people who go, but they’re often expensive and don’t always have long-lasting results.

I’m a fan, though.

Over the years I’ve gone on dozens of mission trips – mostly in the United States, but also to places like the Philippines, Peru, Haiti, South Africa, and Israel.  This summer I’m going along with a mission team to the Dominican Republic.  I can’t wait. I bought my hammock and have had my shots.

But the concerns are real, and I don’t want to dismiss them too quickly.  Yes, the cost to go is typically quite high, and the argument that we should just send the money that we spend on airfare makes some sense.  Beyond that, if we build a house or whatever, we probably take work that a local laborer could have had.  I understand and agree with these arguments – to a point.

As for that argument that the experience of going is life-changing, the truth is that short-term missions do not reflect the true cost of doing mission, not really.  To go somewhere for a week is hardly the same thing as going there for a few years, learning a new language, developing relationships in a new culture.  Sometimes people come home with a very limited understanding of what the true cost of mission really is.

So, why am I excited to go again this summer?  I think there’s no substitute for seeing mission up close, for developing relationships with the people, for getting our hands dirty.

I led a mission team one summer to northern Israel, to the dusty village of Ibillin in Galilee.  It was there that a parish priest named Father Elias Chacour – or “Abuna” as they called him in the village – founded a school.  His dream was that Christians, Jews, and Muslims would come together in a classroom and learn to live and work together in peace.  This dream started with a high school, but the school now goes all the way from Kindergarten to University, the only Arab university in northern Israel.  Father Chacour – now Archbishop Chacour – has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

During the week we were there – the hottest week in August on record – we painted classrooms, planted olive trees, and sweat buckets.  In the afternoon, to cool off, we went for a swim in the Mediterranean near Haifa.  And then, at night we sat on the rooftop of Father Chacour’s residence and talked.  We talked about everything, or I should say that we listened and Father Chacour talked – about Israel, about the chances for Mideast peace, about the dwindling population of Christians in Israel (and elsewhere in the Middle East), about what it means to be a Christian in a region where there is violence and war and hopelessness.

It was quite a week.  It was life-changing.  Our painting was appreciated, of course, as were the olive trees, but what happened was that we developed lifelong relationships with each other and with a school and with a visionary leader.  Every time I’ve returned to Israel with a tour group, I’ve stopped at the school.  Father Chacour is a friend, but – more important – I believe in the mission.

Next month I’ll be heading off to the Dominican Republic.  I’ve been to the poorer side of the island – Haiti – a few times, but this is my first trip to the DR.  We’re going to build a house – or more likely finish a house that a group earlier in the summer started.  And I’m sure the house will be appreciated by the family that gets to live there.  But more important will be what the members of the team learn about themselves, going somewhere very different from home, living in the same circumstances as the people there, being hot and uncomfortable and dirty, and getting to know new friends.

I know we’ll come back as changed people.

Village Mountain Mission 2

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