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.

Author Archive | Doug

Plagues and Quarantines


Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for April…

Plagues and quarantines are nothing new. History isn’t crowded with them, but there have been enough of them that we should have learned a few things over the centuries.

One of the earliest examples was the Plague of Justinian. It arrived in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in 541 CE. Historians believe that the pathogen came over the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt, a recently conquered land paying tribute to Emperor Justinian. No one knew what to do then to avoid getting sick except to avoid sick people.

One of the worst plagues in history was the Bubonic Plague or Black Death which devasted Europe in the mid-14th century. Many millions of people died, perhaps 60 percent of the population. Eight hundred years after the Plague of Justinian, people still had no scientific understanding of the problem, but they remembered that proximity to sick people was bad. That’s why forward-thinking officials in Venice determined that ships arriving from infected ports should sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. The practice known as quarantine took its name from the Italian words quaranta giorni, which means 40 days.

A friend who teaches at Calvin University recently suggested, somewhat facetiously, that the Bible is filled with examples of quarantine. “I suppose,” she writes, “we could read the Exodus as one interminable, sand-scoured, post-slavery quarantine.” She notes that Jesus returned to the desert after his baptism in the Jordan River, possibly because the Jordan “was a veritable petri dish of germs. Maybe the forty days in the desert was a noble act of self-isolation, just in case. Jesus wanted to spread love and forgiveness, not the plague.”

More seriously, chapters13-15 in the Book of Leviticus contain a surprising amount of instruction regarding infection and quarantine. Several hundred years before the birth of Christ, the ancients were clearly discussing reasons to keep distance from each other.

Given the history of plagues, and the success of quarantines, I scratch my head in wonder at the response in recent weeks to the new coronavirus. College students on spring break still crowded the beaches in Florida until some (but not all) were closed, and church goers still showed up for worship at a surprising number of churches.

A recent funeral in Albany, Georgia, a city of 70,000, resulted in what epidemiologists call a “super-spreading event.” In the words of the coroner, “It hit like a bomb.” Hundreds became infected, and dozens have died, with many more deaths expected. A six-month stockpile of protective equipment for hospital staff and first responders was gone in seven days.

Young adults think they are immortal, so their behavior may be understandable, if lamentable. But what about church goers? Shouldn’t we expect something better from them?

The first plague to be ended by vaccine was smallpox. In the late-18th century, a British doctor named Edward Jenner found that milkmaids infected with a milder virus called cowpox seemed immune to the disease. The vaccine for Covid-19, however, won’t be available until early next year at the earliest.

What should we be doing until then? The answer seems clear. We should stay home and stay safe.

Another lesson we can draw from our history with plagues is that blaming others for them is an inevitable, but sad outcome. In medieval Europe, Jews were blamed “so viciously for the Black Death that from 1348 to 1351 more than 200 Jewish communities were wiped out, their inhabitants accused of spreading contagion or poisoning wells.” Jews were often less affected by the plague than other people, and one reason may be that they lived in isolated communities or ghettos, a kind of quarantine. Another reason might be the washing or purification rituals which led to greater cleanliness.

Christian leaders in the U.S. have a well-documented history of scapegoating groups for natural disasters and disease. Recent hurricanes, beginning with Katrina in 2005, have been described as God’s judgment on all sorts of behavior, from abortions to environmental activism. A pastor who leads a weekly bible study for members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet wrote recently that the coronavirus pandemic could be blamed on several groups, including those who have “a proclivity toward lesbianism and homosexuality.” America, he wrote, “is experiencing the consequential wrath of God.”

I don’t think much of these public statements, except to feel ashamed of them. If God is unhappy about someone’s behavior, I always assume that it’s probably mine I should be concerned about. That’s the faith I learned from my parents and Sunday school teachers.

During the Black Death, many Christian leaders acted with courage and compassion, often putting their own lives at risk to care for others. I learned this week that in the outbreak of 1527 Martin Luther and his wife Katherina (who was pregnant at the time) turned their home into a hospital (or hospice) at a time when many others were fleeing the city of Wittenberg. Just a few years earlier, Ulrich Zwingli selflessly ministered to infected people in Zurich and then caught the disease. (He later recovered.)

Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic who lived through the worst of the Black Death and who first encountered the plague when she was only six years old, wrote about her visions to fellow Christians as a way to provide hope and comfort. A quote for which she may be best known: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

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Let me explain something to you

Here’s my March column for the Holland Sentinel…

I’m fed up with old white men. A few old white women too, but that’s a different story. Let me stay with old white men for a few minutes.

Hardly a day goes by when I’m not embarrassed by old white men. Listen carefully, because I’m not going to say this again, which is something old white men like to say. I know, because I am one. I like to explain things, especially obvious things, because those are the things we old men like to talk about. But listen anyway. Don’t even try to stop us from saying whatever is on our minds. We can talk louder than you. Continue Reading →

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I’m exhausted

Here’s my February column for the Holland Sentinel…

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted by the news.

The House impeachment hearings, the Senate impeachment trial, the 2020 presidential campaign, the Iowa caucuses, the State of the Union address, the daily drama of it all—it’s too much. I find myself talking back to the TV, which can’t be healthy. I do it even if no one else is in the room. I also grumble aloud while reading the newspaper, mostly animal sounds, not actual words. Frankly, I don’t recognize myself anymore.

I did a news cleanse after Christmas and spent a wonderful week in California with my children and grandchildren. I glanced briefly at the headlines in the morning because, well, I get up earlier than anyone else and couldn’t help myself, but I spent most days playing, laughing, and being silly, which seems to delight the grandchildren, if not their parents. I can’t wait until next year.

But now I’m right back to old habits, as if there had been no cleanse and no detox. I don’t dare look away. Continue Reading →

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The Courage to Tell the Truth

Here’s my January column for the Holland Sentinel…

I admire people who tell the truth. But I especially admire people who tell the truth when they do so at the risk of personal loss. Losing a job, for example.

So, I admire Napp Nazworth, the former editor of The Christian Post who resigned last week from a position he has held since 2011. Announcing his departure, he said he could not in good conscience continue with a magazine that, as he put it, was “joining Team Trump.” As I understand it, he has two children about to enter high school, and now, at least for the moment, he is unemployed. I call that courage. I would like to think that I would have been able to do what he did. Continue Reading →

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No more let sins and sorrows grow…

creation groans

(reprinted from December 24, 2013)

Romans 8:22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

I’m aware this Christmas Eve 2013 that I am joining with Christians all around the world, millions and millions of us, to wait patiently, though groaning inwardly, for God to complete what was started in Bethlehem a long, long time ago.

Come, Lord Jesus.

I wish all of my readers a very merry Christmas and a joy-filled new year.

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The inspiring example of Fred Rogers

Here’s my December column for the Holland Sentinel…

Applications to Presbyterian seminaries have surged in the last week, following the release of “A Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood,” a new movie about Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian pastor best known for his popular PBS television series “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Admissions offices at several Presbyterian seminaries have reported that they are struggling to keep up with a record number of inquiries. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Anthony Rivera, long-time director of admissions at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the Presbyterian school where Fred Rogers received his master of divinity degree.

Just kidding. I’m making this up. The last I heard, applications are trending down at most seminaries, not just the Presbyterian ones.

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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.

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Reading the comment section in online news

Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for November. If you do not live near the Great Lakes, you may not know that lake levels are near or at record highs. The Army Corps of Engineers is predicting that lake levels will continue to increase into next year. Together with powerful storms, lake levels have caused dramatic erosion along the coast line, with many lakefront homes now in danger of falling into the lake. My column reflects on readers’ reactions to newspaper articles about this situation.

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Letter from Lucerne, Switzerland

Here’s my October column for the Holland Sentinel…

The Swiss like to shake hands. They like a firm handshake with lots of eye contact. In Switzerland, it’s considered rude not to shake hands with everyone before leaving a social gathering, even if doing so requires a considerable amount of time.

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“How are you enjoying Holland?”

Here’s my September column for the Holland Sentinel…

“How are you enjoying Holland?” my dentist wanted to know last week at my annual checkup.

I had been a new patient only a year ago, so the question was an appropriate one. However, with his fingers exploring my mouth, I couldn’t do much more than nod and give a thumbs up. I want to give a fuller answer here: I’m enjoying it very much. Thank you for asking.

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