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.

I tried hard, as I did most Sundays, to make the sermon about God and not about me, though some of it on this particular day was, inevitably, about me. I even tried hard not to cry, though I did take an industrial-size box of tissues to the pulpit, which no one but me thought was very funny.

I asked Ruth Pfister, our fine organist, to play Widor’s Toccata at the close of worship—not so much for the glory of God, but so that I could hear it one last time. To be honest, I don’t remember if she played that piece or something else entirely. What I remember is sitting in my chair up front, in tears, and feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the opportunity to do the work of ministry.

The next day Susan and I left our apartment, with its not-to-be-forgotten view of Lake Zürich, for Morocco. We weren’t quite ready to go home, because no one hurries to Michigan in February, and we had already seen as much of Europe as it is humanly possible to see, while also working full time and trying to learn a new language. So, it was on to Morocco, and then to Iceland, two countries not ordinarily paired for vacation travel.

We stayed in Marrakech for nearly a week. Susan shopped in the Medina, and I googled “unusual things to do in Marrakech,” which led me to getting a haircut and shave from a barber who did not speak English. The whole thing cost only a few dollars, but the hot towels and showmanship were worth the experience, which I filmed and posted on my blog. I didn’t shave again for more than five months. True story.

After Marrakech we traveled by local bus (an experience in itself) to Essaouira, a Moroccan resort city on the Atlantic coast. The man who handled our suitcases seemed to say that they would go directly to “Syria.” I tried to emphasize that they were to go to “Essaouira.” And they did, but I reached a whole new level of travel anxiety before I saw them again in the hotel lobby.

After nearly a week in Essaouira—and even more shopping—we flew to Iceland for an altogether different kind of travel experience.

Our rental car at Keflavik airport was covered with snow and ice, and yet the agent wanted me to sign the usual statement about no dents or dings. I politely declined to sign, saying that I couldn’t possibly check the car in its current condition, but the agent persisted, saying that “all cars in Iceland are covered in snow and ice,” which is pretty close to the truth, especially in February. We explored much of the western coast of the little island nation, but a serious snowstorm forced us back to our hotel in Keflavik and many hours at the Cafe Petite. In fact, most of what I remember about Iceland is from this fine neighborhood bar, which was a short walk from our hotel.

Sadly, because of the weather, we didn’t see either northern lights or whales, which were two of the reasons for going. Finally, the weather cleared, and we said goodbye to Cafe Petite and flew home to the United States.

“Home” is an odd way to describe western Michigan because we haven’t lived here in more than 40 years. I’m pretty sure no one missed me, either, except maybe for my ninety-one year old mother, but we are home now, living in a house we built a few years ago near Lake Michigan. There are 30 cottages in the Edgewood Beach association, and about five of them are occupied throughout the winter, meaning that our lives were suddenly quiet in a way they hadn’t been for decades. We heard the waves on the lake and the wind in the trees—and not much else. A time to learn to pray once again.

Susan had already been retired for a few years, mostly because she wasn’t allowed to work in Switzerland, so she was accustomed to the routine of leisurely mornings. What I found most exciting, in addition to a second cup of coffee every morning, was the absence of evening meetings—no rushing back to church after a quick dinner to discuss the treasurer’s report or the church roof or proposed changes to the personnel policy. Mostly, we unpacked boxes, some of which had not been opened for years. And then, occasionally, we would come across an item—a photo, a yearbook, a letter—that would require an hour or more of our time.

As a result of going through old treasures, I found myself doing a kind of life review, wondering what, if anything, my own life has amounted to. I was so caught up in the life review—plus the obligatory genealogical research which many retired people seem to do—that I have written a book about my family history, already published, just in time for Christmas.

The most difficult project, as it turns out, was finding a church. We were in the pews on the first Sunday back, but—oddly, I couldn’t put my finger on it—everything was suddenly different. I recognized the hymns and scripture readings. I knew the prayers and responses, but for the first time I wasn’t responsible for any of it.

Mostly I’ve gone to the Presbyterian Church because they’re my tribe, and always will be, but we’ve gone other places too—Reformed Church in America, Episcopal Church, my mother’s church, and maybe one or two others I have erased from my internal hard drive. I don’t know where we’ll end up.

The best news is that we’re finally starting to realize the real reason for retiring and moving back to the United States—namely, spending time with our children and grandchildren. We still Facetime with them, of course, but we are together much more often. We celebrated Thanksgiving with our older daughter and her family this year for the first time in more than ten years. Grandchildren are the wonderful consolation of old age. Also, martinis.

We feel blessed and thankful and content, and we hope you feel the same. My hope and expectation during this Advent season is focussed mainly on Jesus—and the tiniest bit on Robert Mueller—but mainly on Jesus. We wish all of you a very merry Christmas and the happiest of new years.


Doug, Susan, and Samantha (the dog)

(Photos from top to bottom: 1) At the end of worship on my final Sunday at IPC, 2) my memorable haircut in Marrakech, 3) Susan in Essaouira with a painting that now hangs in Holland, Michigan, 4) that’s me in Seattle with new grandson Walter Brouwer Laninga, and 5) our view of Lake Zürich and the mountains beyond from the apartment in Meilen.)

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.

10 Responses to My Annual Christmas Letter

  1. Keith December 3, 2018 at 10:12 am #

    Your retirement sounds idyllic! Best wishes and “warm” regards from Florida.

  2. David Bayer December 3, 2018 at 11:46 am #

    Hi Doug, We love your blogs, and wish you and Susan the best Christmas ever. Love, Dave and Jackie

  3. Jamie Yi December 3, 2018 at 3:32 pm #

    Hi Doug. What a wonderful post. 2 thumbs up 👍🏻
    Wishing you, Susan and the extended family many blessings. Merry Christmas! And please do drop in and say hello when you can’t bear to miss us any longer 😄

  4. Mary Ann Vanden Berg December 4, 2018 at 12:38 pm #

    We are both related to James A. Brouwer. My grandmother’s name was Gertrude Brouwer. She married William Boer. He died of tuberculosis when my mother, Lois, was 2 months old and her brother, Gordon, was 2 years old. They went to live in Holland then with James A. Brouwer. My grandmother remarried when my mother was 13 years old. My grandmother married a Christian Reformed pastor named Rev William Stuart. My mother told me that Rev. William Stuart was verbally abusive to both my mother and her brother. My mother married my dad to get away from Rev. Stuart.

    Mary Ann Vanden Berg

    • Doug December 4, 2018 at 4:23 pm #

      Hi, Mary. I remember our exchange back when I posted about James A. Brouwer. Have you been able to find a copy of his “family record”? I used a relative’s copy when I wrote my book, but we have recently found our own copy. I would be happy to make a copy for you. Just let me know. It looks to me as though you have story to tell about your own family history!

      • Mary Ann Vanden Berg December 11, 2018 at 8:24 am #

        I have not found a copy of our family’s history. You could make a copy for me. Send it to: M.A. Vanden Berg 4736 Burton St S.E. Grand Rapids, MI 49546.
        I would like to meet you sometime.

        • Doug December 11, 2018 at 8:35 am #

          Hi, Mary Ann. I will contact you through email (and get you a copy of the James A. Brouwer history).

      • Mary Ann Vanden Berg December 11, 2018 at 1:07 pm #

        Did you marry Susan De Young? She looks like that family. She would be a cousin of mine then. M.A. Vanden Berg

  5. Bruce Fogerty December 10, 2018 at 1:44 pm #

    Doug, thanks for the update. Its good to hear you have landed well in West Michigan. That new grandson sure is a charmer. We are still in Wheaton, probably always will be. Be sure to wave to the folks at the intersection of 28th Street and Byron Center in Wyoming. That area is “my tribe”.

  6. Holly Kellar December 15, 2018 at 2:47 pm #

    I love reading these! (And the Robert Mueller comment made me laugh out loud!) Best wishes, Doug and Susan. Greetings from Nashville!