Archive | January, 2014

Herr Brouwer und Frau DeYoung go to language school

I love you  - in German

Having settled into our apartment, and unpacked most of our boxes, the Frau and I now turn our attention to the next important matter for newly arrived visitors in this beautiful country – namely, learning how to have actual conversations with people other than ourselves.

For the last week or so, just about every conversation we’ve had has started with a polite, “Do you speak English?”

And the Swiss person we’ve addressed – modest by nature, I guess – always looks slightly embarrassed and then replies, “A little.”

Well, that “little” bit of English the Swiss admit to knowing usually turns out to be stunningly good. Sir Laurence Olivier would weep over the impeccable grammar and pronunciation.

Which of course puts us to shame.

We know “a little” German too. And by that I mean that we know next to nothing. I can say “bitte” and “danke” (please and thank you), with a pronounced American Midwestern accent, but beyond that I, uh, am pretty much lost. If members of the International Protestant Church had not guided virtually every step to this point, we might still be standing at the Zurich airport luggage carousel.

So, that means the Frau and I will be attending language school. According to Swiss law, I will need to achieve a “B1” level of German proficiency by this time next year, and for some reason this has captured my attention more than Professor Kreutzer’s final exam in the subject at Calvin College more than 30 years ago. I wasn’t worried at that point in my life about not having my visa renewed. (How do you say “date night” in German?)

We’ll both be taking an entrance exam to determine our level, which I can already sense is closer to “beginner” than to “advanced.”

Constructions workers outside, laying in a new sewer line, can occasionally be heard shouting to each other. I’ve heard a couple of words more than once and am pretty sure I know what those words mean. It’s interesting that after “bitte” and “danke” those should be the first Germans words I learn.

I won’t be repeating them here, but I assume they’re terribly important to know to get along in the workplace. I’m hoping to add a few more soon.

german grammar

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The three kisses

princess kissing frog

The Swiss are great kissers. Who knew?

Among all the cultural differences and idiosyncrasies I thought I’d encounter (and then blog about), the kissing issue was never high on the list.

Then I went to church on Sunday. And there it was. The kissing!

In Switzerland the custom is to kiss three times on the cheeks, one more than the French, not that the Swiss are known for being excessive about anything, except possibly being on time. Maybe it’s more of a competition. Anyway, with family and close friends (and also church members?), you start on the left, move quickly to the right, and then back to the left. Three times which, for someone who prizes a firm handshake and good eye-contact, is a lot.

My first time was awkward, but exciting. Whose isn’t?

By my third or fourth time I was gold. The Midwesterner in me prefers a little less intimacy – at least at the get-go – but the custom is warm and genuine. I like it. I always thought cheek kissing was for celebrities and those far more glamorous and sophisticated than I am.

Not anymore. I’m ready to go.

Saying good-bye at a social gathering in Switzerland takes a while. It’s rude to walk out without saying good-bye to each person, and kissing everyone multiple times can take a surprising amount of time. I’m used to long coffee hours at church, and so are my children, but in Switzerland the coffee hour after church can be really long.

As for the spiritual significance of the three kisses, I can’t think of any, though I’m sure if I put my mind to it, I could come up with something. I liked the connection I made in my last post between communion and the distribution of chocolate on flights arriving in Switzerland, but was stumped when a reader asked what the spiritual significance might be for the chocolate left on a pillow at night in a fine hotel.

I didn’t know the answer to that one (thanks, Michael). But I plan to keep looking for connections – and keep kissing too, if the job requires it.

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The end of one thing, the beginning of something else (continued)

the end of one thing

I’ll get back soon to some blog posts about my transition to Switzerland; in fact, my next post will be about the Swiss habit of “three kisses.”

Sound interesting? It is. Stay tuned.

Today’s post is a response to a post I wrote recently about transitions – from one thing to something else. My friend Duane Kelderman raised a couple of important issues about it, and I asked him if he would be willing to guest blog for me. I’ve known Duane since 1977. He and I have crossed paths several times over the years, and for the last 10 years or so we’ve both served on the grants advisory board of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (it’s a mouthful every time I say that). Before his most recent transition, Duane was Vice President for Administration at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He’s a good friend and wise pastor.

Here’s Duane:

Doug’s blog about transitions reminded me of some recent discussions my wife Jeannette and I

had with some close friends. Jeannette and I just returned from a week-long vacation to Mexico

with four other couple friends. We’re all in our sixties and in some stage of transition from full-

time work to retirement.

One of the things that’s clear from our ten stories is that each person’s transition from full-time

work to retirement is unique, and often takes place over a number of years. Bill and Julie began

their transition to retirement 5 years ago when Julie retired from teaching. Three years ago Bill

retired as a full time school administrator but stayed on two more years in a half time position at

another school. Last year Bill fully retired.

The other thing that struck me as we talked about this transition is how the question of vocation,

of calling, is as important for these ten Calvinists in their sixties as it was in their 20s. Our most

energized conversations were around what we sense God is calling us to do in this next stage of

our lives.

A dentist has heard God call him to join an effort to build a dental clinic in Haiti where

he and his wife go annually to give dental services to Haitians. A retired pastor is very busy

helping churches discern their identity and direction. My wife Jeannette continues to work one

day a week as a hospice nurse, but knows her primary calling right now is to help our son and

daughter in law with their new twins—and their two and four year old siblings. I am enjoying

interim ministry and consulting, and have just become a board member of a national organization

that offers help to struggling seminaries. All of us want to know our life matters and that we are

obeying God even in retirement.

I don’t know what this means generationally. It seems as though winters in Florida or Arizona will not

be a central feature of the “ideal retirement” for baby boomers in the way it was for many of their

parents. I’m not sure. It’s too early to tell whether the ten of us who were in Mexico are part of

a broader generational trend. At the very least it seems safe to conclude that the transition from

full-time work to full-time retirement is thick, delightfully nuanced, and fraught with meaning for

many people currently contemplating retirement.

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The spiritual meaning of chocolate

swiss chocolate

Leave it to someone like me to look for the spiritual meaning in chocolate.

On Thursday morning – after months of planning, preparation, and packing – our flight was, we were told, making its final approach to the Zurich airport. We would soon be arriving to start an exciting new chapter of our lives in Switzerland.

Around me disheveled people who had spent the night sleeping awkwardly in their narrow economy seats were beginning to stir, doing their best to look presentable after the long flight. Cabin lights came on, and flight attendants who hadn’t been seen in a few hours were now moving quickly up and down the aisles.

Then something happened that I had witnessed on previous flights, but had never thought much about. The flight attendants were passing out chocolate. Not a lot, but a tiny square wrapped in foil with the iconic Swiss white cross on top.

I looked around and saw most people unwrapping their chocolates and eating, which is what I did. A few put theirs in a carry-on bag, presumably to enjoy later or to share with children and grandchildren. But I became unmistakably aware in that moment of a deeply spiritual event.

A few years earlier I had flown to the Philippines as part of a Habitat for Humanity construction team. On the approach to the Manila airport, people around me were growing noticeably excited. Faces were pressed up against cabin windows to catch a glimpse … of what I wasn’t sure. It was dark. And after so many hours of flying, crossing the dateline and even landing briefly in Japan, I didn’t know if it was nearly dawn or early evening. I didn’t care.

But the people around me did. And when the wheels touched down, the entire cabin erupted in cheers and applause. A few older people near me held tissues to their eyes, mopping up tears. I had never seen a group of people so thrilled to have landed, to be – I could plainly see – home.

The Swiss people around me on Thursday morning were not noticeably excited about our approach to the Zurich airport. They did not press their faces against the cabin windows. I’ve read enough to know that Swiss people do not become noticeably excited about very much, certainly not about a plane approaching a runway. For the Swiss being reserved is something of a proud national trait.

But in the chocolate I sensed something remarkable.

I hope it’s not irreverent to suggest that there was a feeling of communion in that moment. The chocolate was clearly meant to evoke a memory, to remind us – even those of us who weren’t Swiss – about our identity. This is what it means, we were told, to be Swiss.

No matter who you are, they seemed to say, no matter how long you’ve been away, no matter how much you may have forgotten about your home, this tiny square of chocolate will remind you of all you need to know.

It’s good to be here at long last. And even though I was raised to believe that Dutch chocolate is the finest the world has ever known, I was glad to be included in that communion service on Thursday morning.

And as with that other kind of communion, I’m already looking forward to more.

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“Auf Wiederluege”


I know, I know. I’ve been saying goodbye for months now. But this time I really, really mean it. The flight leaves tomorrow from O’Hare. I plan to blog the adventure … as soon as I land and find my stuff and get wi-fi and think of something interesting to write. In the meantime, Auf Wiederluege! Blessings!

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The end of one thing, the beginning of something else

Letting go - swingset

Most of us live our lives right there, between the end of one thing and the beginning of something else. What happens is that we have to let go of something so that we’re ready when something else comes along.

This saying goodbye and saying hello, as it turns out, is critically important spiritual work.

You can’t embrace – and I mean truly, profoundly, tenderly embrace – something new, until you’ve done a pretty thorough job of letting go of the old. And holding on to something old, even if it seems as though there’s a good reason to do it, sometimes makes the start of something new much harder.

A man who had remarried shortly after the death of his first wife – too soon, some said – came to see me one day in my office. He said, “It’s going okay, and I love Marie, but I now realize that it was too soon. I should have waited. I’m not ready to take the pictures down from the walls.”

And those pictures, of course, were of his first wife.

I didn’t understand exactly what he meant at the time, but now I’m beginning to. I’ve been spending the last few weeks taking the pictures down from the walls.

I took a short break – a sabbatical, really – between the end of one ministry and the beginning of another. I said goodbye in November to a congregation I loved and cared for and gave myself to, and now in just days I will say hello to a new congregation.

Early in my ministry a mentor said, “Do your grieving before you arrive.” Which, as it turned out, was exactly right, but I now realize it’s hard work, as hard as anything I’ve ever done.

I can report this much: I’ve spent a lot of time getting ready for this next thing in my life, this move to another country. The degree of difficulty for a move like this, even one as exciting as this, is far higher than I would have imagined.

And so is the level of stress.

As I write this, most of what I own, most of what I’ve spent a lifetime accumulating, is sitting inside a shipping container at the port in Antwerp, Belgium. I assume I’ll be reunited with all of it in a couple of weeks, but I have no assurances. When I waved goodbye to it, I realized that I might never see it – any of it – again.

And that was one of the first lessons I learned – the first picture, in a way, to come off the wall. And each day there have been other lessons, just as hard.

My mentor was right, but I’ll add something more: Don’t hurry it along. After all, it’s in between the old thing and the new thing that we discover who we are and what really matters.

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My dad passed away last week

Jack Brouwer watercolor

My dad passed away last week, and I can’t quite believe I’m typing those words.

It’s not that I thought my dad would live forever, any more than I think I’ll live forever; it’s just that his death seemed like an abstraction, much like my own death. It’s out there in the distant future, you’re vaguely aware of its possibility, but you don’t think that it will ever, really, finally happen, until last week when it did.

My dad was 88 years old when he died, a good, long life by any standard. He had been married to my mom for more than 66 years. I thought they would easily make it to 70 and beyond. He worked for the same company for more than 40 years. In fact, he worked there so long that eventually he owned the place. He was chairman of the board when he retired, having done every conceivable job along the way.

Everything my dad did – and this was true, I realize, for many men of his generation – he did it with the idea that it was the right thing to do and that he would keep doing it no matter what, until he couldn’t do it anymore.

In fact, that’s the earliest memory I have of my dad – namely, that he was strong. He would give me piggy-back rides around the house, crawling on his hands and knees, and somehow I knew even then that he would be the strongest man I would ever know.

I was surprised one day when I suddenly found myself a couple of inches taller than he was, but that sudden growth never gave me much of a competitive advantage. He still regularly beat me at racquetball, pool, cards, golf, pretty much anything that we did together.

I sometimes wondered where he learned to shoot pool so well, but thought it better not to ask him. “In the service” would have been his reply. He apparently learned a great deal “in the service.”

Not only was my dad strong, he was also something of a perfectionist.

Some of that perfectionism, I realize, has rubbed off on me, so I know it’s not always a good thing, but it can often produce some outstanding work. My dad was a painter, for example, but not just any old, toss-off-a-few-canvasses-in-retirement sort of painter. He took on the most formidable kind of painting there is – watercolor – and in relatively short order he managed to achieve signature membership in the American Watercolor Society, the best of the best.

And he didn’t choose just any style of watercolor painting, but the kind that forbids the use of white paint, a technique that is sometimes called “transparent watercolor.” He painted with a dry brush and razor blade too, and so his paintings – and he produced a few hundred of them in the last 25-30 years of his life – are ultra-realistic.

Not many people can produce a painting so realistic that you’d swear it was a photograph, but try doing it sometime using watercolor. I wish you the best.

I thought of this – and more – on Monday afternoon when I was driving behind the funeral director on the way to the cemetery. In Michigan winters, the words of committal – “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” – are often spoken at the church or the funeral home, rather than at the cemetery, and so the burial itself is typically private.

I went anyway, following closely behind the hearse with my car, mostly so that I could reassure my mom that everything had happened properly and with dignity, and so I stood alone in the cold and snow as the cemetery workers lowered my dad’s casket into the ground.

If I had been seeking finality, I would certainly have found it in that moment. But I found something else, something better. In standing there by myself, as tall and straight as I could, shoulders back and head high, I gave my dad what he had always demonstrated for me – strength and always doing my best, no matter what the circumstances.

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Praying at Epiphany

adoration of the magi

Ernest Hemingway’s advice to writers – “write hard and clear about what hurts” – could probably apply to those of us who pray as well.

A dear friend who had been through a particularly tough year wrote to me not long ago and asked for scripture to guide her thinking and praying.

Without thinking too much about it, a reflex more than anything, I suggested that she read the psalms.  “Not all the way through,” I wrote. “Just dip in, here and there.”

A few days later she wrote back to say: “I had no idea how dark the psalms are.”  The tone of her email suggested that they might have been too dark.

For every “make a joyful noise” in the psalms, there are several more: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The psalms teach us to pray.

Religious professionals – by which I mean people like me, the people for whom Jesus reserved his harshest words of condemnation – tend to think that people want to feel better about themselves.  We reason that when they come to church they want to feel better when they leave than when they arrived.

One church member told me recently that he comes to church to “get really pumped up about Jesus.”

And so, consciously or not, we tend to plan worship along those lines – more uplift than reflection on what hurts.  After all, you can’t drag people down and then expect to send around the offering plate.

But the history of spiritual writing suggests something different.  More people, it turns out, should pray “hard and clear about what hurts.”

Over the last year I’ve prayed quite a few Ernest Hemingway-style prayers.  Weighed down by worry and anxiety, I didn’t get all that “pumped up about Jesus,” but I did sense that my spiritual life was deepening and expanding in a way that it never had before – or that it hadn’t in a long, long time. I was praying honestly and transparently, hard and clear, about where I was in my life.

It wasn’t easy.  It never is.  But with the light of the season approaching – Epiphany – I find my spirit slowly and surely being restored.

From one of my favorite hymns at this time of year…

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

(Art credit: He, Qi. Adoration of the Magi, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.)

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Inspired to take action!

reasons to be optimistic

My daughters have heard more of my sermons over the years than just about anyone else.  That’s because when they were children I dragged them to church every Sunday.  Actually, their mother did most of the “dragging” because I was usually at church long before either one was awake.

Over the years, whether they were interested or not, whether they wanted to be in church or not, they heard lots of talk from me about Jesus – the claims he made, the things he did, the company he kept, that sort of thing.

I wasn’t always sure what the effect of all that talk would be 20-30 years later.

And so, I’ve asked each of them several times over the last couple of years to guest blog for me – not about what it was like to grow up in a pastor’s home, but about their faith, how they think about it now, how it affects their lives.  Or doesn’t.

My younger daughter, Elizabeth, is a global health researcher for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the University of Washington in Seattle, and this is her most recent response:

I read Melinda Gates’ tweet today about a list of reasons to be optimistic about 2014 and was not surprised to learn that most of the reasons were global health-related. For decades some of the world’s smartest people have been working hard to overcome some of the world’s largest scourges – with a surprising amount of success.

I like to keep up with the Gates Foundation, partly because they fund my current work, but also because I identify with the Gates’ motivation. The myth around the foundation’s origin is that Bill Gates read a health economics report and was inspired. In 1993 the World Bank published the World Development Report, entitled “Investing in Health.” The report laid out an action plan to tackle global health issues. Basically, it said: these are the diseases that affect the most lives, this is how you treat/prevent them, and this is how much it would cost.

To completely over-generalize, Bill and Melinda Gates saw what was possible with their resources, they decided they could not ignore the situation, and they took action.

The foundation is not religiously affiliated, yet their mission resonates with the believer in me. My main take-away from a childhood of church-going and countless “something about Jesus” sermons is that Jesus wanted us to take action on behalf of the vulnerable. In other words, he wanted us to figure out what we are capable of doing for our neighbors, and do it. In fact, Jesus recommended doing some pretty radical things, including selling everything you own and giving it to the poor.

Is that hyperbole, or was he serious? I’ll let my dad weigh in on that one.

But that is why my faith has led me to global health economics; the field allows me to identify issues in poverty and contribute to creating an actionable plan.

Melinda Gates wants us to be optimistic about 2014, and I think we should be. There is no shortage of ways to heed Christ’s call to action.

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:34-36)

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