The annual Christmas letter

Advent 2019

Dear family and friends,

No one who knows me will be surprised to learn that I crammed an entire retirement’s worth of activity into my first full year. It’s hard to imagine that there will still be one or two things left to do.

Just in case there is still someone on the planet who has not heard—hard to imagine given how much I’ve talked and written about it—I completed the Camino de Santiago in March, walking from Saint Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. I walked the 500-mile distance in 29 days, averaging just over 17 miles per day. It’s not a race, but you know me. I had just enough time at the end to enjoy two days in Santiago, which is a wonderful university town, as well as to take a bus ride to the Atlantic. The walk didn’t seem complete without at least dipping my toe in the ocean which, as you might imagine, was cold.

Then, because the busy season at Edgewood Beach, where we live, is in summer, we spent a couple of months getting the house and yard ready for guests, though the truth is that we were mainly looking forward to that glorious (and exhausting) week in early August with our daughters, sons in law, and grandchildren—Gwendolyn, Martin, and Walter. Important-sounding names, don’t you think? Future Nobel Prize winners, I’m sure. They’re already far ahead of their peers in height, weight, and head circumference.

In mid-August I accepted an unexpected invitation to serve as interim pastor at the International Church of Lucerne, so I headed back to Switzerland, brushed up on my not-very-good language skills, and had a brief reminder of the joys and, well, mostly joys of parish ministry. ICL is a relatively small church in the heart of a beautiful and very touristy city. Like the international church in Zurich, ICL has a diverse and multicultural congregation. I was the only staff member, which means that I preached, made pastoral visits, led Bible studies, taught adult education classes, prepared and copied the weekly worship bulletin, plus wrote and published the weekly newsletter. I did everything but supply the music. I’m not sure but I might have been responsible for cleaning the sanctuary.

Susan didn’t come along with me, because she’s doing her best to stay retired from being a pastor’s wife. She did have a medical scare in the fall, however, and I returned to the U.S. earlier than planned. When the lab tests and doctor’s appointments were finished, with the news being mostly good and a great relief, I decided not to return to Switzerland, which was a tough decision. But the congregation has been understanding and supportive, they quickly found another interim for the remaining months (maybe one who can play an instrument and sing), and they have already voted to call a new pastor.

When Susan wasn’t spending time seeing doctors and giving blood samples, she was busy with construction. The bonus room above the garage, the one with its own entrance, was transformed into a wonderful extra bedroom and quiet getaway when we need the space, which we did in August. A large project! It has a daybed with a nice view, some exposed beams, and of course lots of closets for storage, because we always need more of that. It’s so nice I might use it as a quiet place to write. A favorite Bryan Cranston movie provides another possible use for the space.

Susan also designed, built, and painted an office for me (while I was hiking in Spain), she made a large outdoor table for summer picnics, and she completed some other, smaller construction projects around the house. She’s clearly doing what she loves to do, and she does everything at a more reasonable pace than I seem able to manage. Also, the number of tools, saws, drills, air compressors, and so forth we own is impressive.

Elizabeth, our younger daughter, will (most likely) complete her Ph.D. in the coming months, which means there will soon be a graduation to attend (joyfully) in Seattle. Sarah, our older daughter, continues her work as associate pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. Their husbands and children seem to be thriving, too, for which we are more grateful than I can say. If the water levels on Lake Michigan ever go down again, we may even enjoy some time together as a family on the beach.

I’m grateful for everything, as I am every year, but especially this year for my family. Unexpectedly, in April, my brother in law Donald Sloat lost his life in an automobile accident. At age 78 he was on his way to work when it happened. I am grateful for him and for the work he loved to do. I was honored when my sister asked me to officiate at his service, and I hope I never have to do anything like it again.

Here’s where I write something mawkish and vaguely theological: For the first time in lots of years, we spent Thanksgiving with children and grandchildren, along with treasured plates and platters, instead of trying to make a nice holiday for lonely people, which we’ve done often over the years. I feel selfish about saying so, but I loved the change this year, and I am so pleased that Sarah and her family made the long drive (even with a vomiting dog in the back of the car).

In addition to gratitude, there’s also the feeling that the world is a mess right now, especially our own country, and that things are likely to get worse before they get better. But the world’s been in this position before, and each time God made something good come out of it. I haven’t lost hope that God will do in the future what God has always done in the past. My faith sustains me now as it always has. I hope yours does as well.

We said goodbye to Sammi a few months ago, a good dog if there ever was one, in spite of the constant shedding. I’ll dedicate this year’s Christmas letter to her. If everyone offered as much love as that big, dumb animal, the world would be a much better place.



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.

4 Responses to The annual Christmas letter

  1. Sarah Snyder December 8, 2019 at 7:32 pm #

    I love your articles; please never stop writing.

    • Doug December 8, 2019 at 8:50 pm #

      I love feedback like that!

  2. Jolene Carpenter December 30, 2019 at 10:23 am #

    It feels like you are talking to us, filling us in over a piece of pie at your dining room table. You are an exceptional writer and a wonderful person. Also a blessed person. Happy 2020!

    • Doug December 30, 2019 at 1:01 pm #

      I love this, and from my first editor it means a lot! Thanks, Jolene. And all the best to you in the new year. I haven’t lost hope that you might come back to West Michigan.