My Annual Christmas Letter

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Advent 2013

Dear family and friends,

Getting older has turned out to be a whole lot better than I would have imagined.

The last year which, to be honest, didn’t start very well, and a year I wasn’t looking forward to anyway because of the milestone birthday, has arguably turned out to be the best yet.  If I had known how much fun turning 60 would be, I would have done it a long time ago.  (Kind of a Yogi Berra tribute there.)

Let’s start with the birth of our first grandchild to older daughter Sarah and her husband Ben.  In what turned out to be a prophetic birth announcement, our younger daughter Elizabeth and her husband Daniel created the following at a couple of months before the actual birth:

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Turns out that labor did start early – about two weeks early, in fact – and Ben was out of town on business.  So, after receiving the call about 3 a.m. to come home, he “rushed to her side,” though making it back in plenty of time for the birth. In the end it wasn’t an especially dramatic delivery.  Sarah did drive herself to the hospital, however, in an astonishing display female strength that made her mother (and me) proud.

Here’s the newborn, sleeping just like her grandpa:

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She’s beautiful, isn’t she – and brilliant too, of course.  On the APGAR test, administered immediately after birth, measuring breathing effort, skin color, etc. she received the top score (one point better than her mother). Based on that as much as anything, I think she’s looking at perfect scores on the SAT as well.  Alert the Harvard admissions office!

Grandma and grandpa – I think we’re going to be “nana and pop” – boarded a plane and made it to St. Louis within a few hours of the birth.  The way we were feeling, I don’t think we really needed the help of Southwest Airlines to get there.  To hold that impossibly small human being – to see my own baby, now thirty years later, holding her own baby – I’m not sure I will ever have the words to describe the feeling which, I now realize, is why we have music, poetry, and art.

In addition to creating unusual birth announcements, Lizzy and Daniel have had an eventful year of their own.

On one fine day in May, in front of a mostly-dignified family cheering section at Hill Auditorium, Lizzy graduated from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.  The next day we loaded up their truck, and she and Daniel made the long trek to Seattle where Lizzy is a researcher – “data monkey,” she says – for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the University of Washington.  Daniel left Apple behind in the move and has spent the last several months on an Internet start-up dream.

Both seem to be embracing life in Seattle, making new friends, and enjoying the outdoor life of the Northwest.

All of that would have been a pretty good year for most people – and it would have been for us too – but early in the year an opportunity came along for a move to Zurich, Switzerland, and we pursued it, not knowing until very early in September if the invitation would ever come.  It did, and after preaching at the International Protestant Church later in the month, the congregation called me to be their next pastor.

Susan and I are spending these last days and weeks of 2013 doing a million and one things that need to be done in order to move overseas – selling a house, building a new one on our Lake Michigan lot, selling one car and putting the other in storage, getting visas and work permits, figuring out health insurance, and – oh – even learning a little German. Ach du Lieber!

And since we gave away all – or most – of our wool clothes in the move to Florida, let’s just say that Susan doesn’t need encouragement to shop.

My contract with the new church is for three years, with the possibility of renewal, and we’re thinking of this as the adventure of a lifetime.

Early in the year I had agreed to lead a tour to Israel, and so after making the announcement to my Florida congregation I took some of those same church members to the holy land for what was my fifth pilgrimage – and quite possibly the best yet.  The first time I went, the joy was in seeing the land for myself.  I had tears in my eyes just about every day.  Seeing the Sea of Galilee nearly did me in.  Today the joy for me is introducing this land to first-time visitors and watching them respond as I did.

Here’s a little video clip of a totally unexpected moment – not on the tour itinerary – that turned out to be one of the high points.  Our very reserved U.S. Presbyterian group joined with a very exuberant Nigerian group, numbering over a hundred, to sing “How Great Thou Art” in a church along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.

The photo below is from the trip, a little mud treatment on the shore of the Dead Sea.


As exciting and thrilling as our year has been, it hasn’t been without its pain and disappointment.  It’s true of course that the kind of joys we’ve experienced should – and do – make up for any failures.  But life is more than a ledger on which you hope that gains will eventually outnumber losses.

So, it was during Thanksgiving week this year that I found what I had been looking for – a way to understand, or to re-frame, our year.  In the Book of Common Prayer, in a prayer of thanksgiving, I found this line:

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures
that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

And that of course is where we are as the year comes to an end, acknowledging our dependence on the One who loves us, the One who came into the world in a not-very-promising way (see baby photo above), and the One who left promising to return to make all things new.

We hope we see you this season, and if we don’t, we hope you’ll look us up across the water.  We’ll be the ones struggling to understand our new culture – and of course eating lots of chocolate.


Doug and Susan

(For everyone who missed it, here’s the YouTube video of my family wishing me a happy 60th!)

And below is a typical Swiss street at Christmas:



About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


13 Responses to My Annual Christmas Letter

  1. sandy steffen December 6, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    Thank you Doug & Susan for the years you were a part of our First Church family!! You will always be loved & missed very much!! Please pray that God will heal our church and send an interim that is strong & courageous!! You have big shoes to fill Doug. I truly believe God has a plan for our church but it would be nice for him/her to give us a hint!!

    God speed to you both!!! Sandy ( :

  2. sandy steffen December 6, 2013 at 11:53 am #

    Oooops, I meant the interim will have big shoes to fill Doug!!

    • Doug December 6, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

      My daughters don’t appreciate the shoe sizes they (apparently) inherited from me, but I’ve grown to love the size of my feet! As for FPC, I trust that God will bring the right person at the right time. He always does!

  3. Susan SB December 6, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    Traveling mercies to you as you prepare for the adventure of a lifetime!
    I appreciate the honesty of this post as well. Indeed, life is a mixture of sweet and low, and as you note the One holds us in a cradle of grace throughout it all.

    • Doug December 6, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

      Thanks, Susan. As for the honesty in my Christmas letter, I’m hoping that honesty – and a little humor – make up for the bragging tone that these things usually taken on. With a grandchild, I now know, it’s tough not to brag, even if it’s only about APGAR test results!

  4. Don Wagner December 6, 2013 at 2:19 pm #

    Hello Doug, Many thanks for your Christmas message. I always look forward to any communication which you author. Have a wonderful Christmas and joyous New Year. I so miss seeing and hearing you on Sunday morning. Don

    • Doug December 6, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

      Thanks for being a reader, Don. Miss you. And merry Christmas to you!

  5. Chris Elder December 6, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    You will love Switzerland, especially at Christmas time. It is magical. Being in the Army allowed us to be in different countries for 3 (sometimes less) stints. It has been a wonderful experience. Congratulations on your grand baby. Does make life a little more precious. Have a very Merry Christmas and I am sure it will be a exciting new year.

    • Doug December 6, 2013 at 5:33 pm #

      I’m glad you’re a blog reader, Chris! Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  6. Georgia Hamilton December 6, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    I read your Christmas letter with anticipation for how you might approach the season. I enjoyed the “wrap” of your year and the confession that with all the blessings you too have some trepidation and anxiety for what the future will bring.

    May you and Susan continue in God;s grace and protection as you embark on what may possibly be a life-changing experience. Thank you for your never failing inspirational thoughts along the way.

    Georgia Hamilton

    • Doug December 6, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

      Thanks, Georgia. Your comments are always so thoughtful and generous! Miss you.

  7. Mandana Sharifi December 8, 2013 at 11:35 pm #

    The Swiss Christmas photo reminds me of my home town of Bath UK at Christmas with all the Charles Dickens settings and real snow for good measure! Happy Holidays and stay well.GOD Bless us everyone! :0)

    • Doug December 9, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

      We can’t wait for Christmas next year – and of course for all of the other experiences that await! I just may get to Bath UK today. If it’s as beautiful as you say, it will be worth the trip. Thanks, Mandana!

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