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Living with meaning and purpose

Here is my July column for the Holland Sentinel…

I’m still not sure how it happened, but one day I woke up and, curiously, I was retired. Of course I had planned for it, as much as it’s possible to plan for something like retirement. And I recognize that not everyone gets to choose the actual date and get ready for it. So, I am grateful for that.

I had a career that spanned 40 years, and though I didn’t love every minute of it, I loved the vast majority of it. To be honest, I can’t imagine having done anything else with my life. I was fully engaged every day, seemingly using every brain cell that God gave me. Not everyone can say that, so I am grateful for that too.

But here’s the thing: Somehow retirement came faster than I expected. One day I was doing all the things I love to do, and the next day I found myself traveling with no fixed date when I had to be home. I was suddenly free in a way that I had not been free in decades. I took a three-month sabbatical in the mid-90s to write a book about marriage, but other than that I have worked and worked hard, including more evenings, weekends, and holidays than I care to remember. (Please don’t tell me the old joke about how pastors work only one day per week. I’ve heard it before.)

Then, suddenly, it was over. It felt like a vast chasm opening in front of me. Liberating and terrifying at the same time.

So, I traveled. First, Morocco for a few weeks. Then, Iceland. After arriving in Michigan, finally, I explored my family history. I even wrote a book about family histories, published last November. Because I am still in astonishingly good health (for someone my age), I walked 500 miles across northern Spain last March, something I had always wanted to do.

But now what? “What am I supposed to do with my life?” Interestingly, I wrote a book with that title more than 15 years ago. I wrote it because it was the question most often asked when people came to see me. “What should I be doing with my life?” they wanted to know, as though I could give them the answer in one brief appointment. Now, ironically, I am asking the same question.

Yesterday I took that book off the shelf to find out if my thoughts then have held up over the years, and to my relief they mostly have. But I can see that the book is a little thin in the chapter about older adulthood. I knew what to write for young adults and people at mid-life, but I was mainly winging it for older adults. I had no personal experience with being, well, someone my age. My keenest insight was that there is no word for “retirement” in the Bible.

The first inclination is to assume that I have boundless wisdom to share. But I know better. People will ask for my wisdom when they want to hear it. What they really want from me is my blessing. The younger people coming along behind me are hoping to hear a word of encouragement, as in “you’re really good at that.” If they start believing that about themselves, they might ask for my wisdom about something. And I will gladly give it.

One more thing: Living with a sense of meaning and purpose—in my faith tradition, it’s called vocation—is important at any age, but they are critically important as we get older. Not happiness, interestingly enough, though happiness may flow from doing what I feel called to do. What’s most important is doing with my life what I am uniquely gifted or equipped to do. That seems to be the key to a full and rich life.

For some people, figuring out—my tradition likes to use the word “discerning”—our calls can be difficult. And with time running out (let’s be honest), this is not a task we can pursue with leisure. But figuring it out is what we must do. And the good news is that we can do it with the help of friends, pastors, and therapists. (Often family members are not as helpful on this question as we would like them to be, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I remember when my grandmother was in her late 90s. Each time I visited she expressed the hope that she would die peacefully in her sleep, not something I wanted to hear. Though I don’t have extensive training in this area, I was reasonably sure she was not depressed. My guess was that she felt as though she had outlived her usefulness, her sense of purpose.

Maybe when I’m 97 I will understand a little of what that means. But for right now, what I want more than anything is to keep doing what I have always done—namely, using the gifts that I have been given.

Photo: This is from one of my mission trips to Peru (2010). I’m standing here with the retired pastor of the Presbyterian church near the village of Huanta. The men in his congregation were ordered outside one Sunday morning and shot by government forces (next to the tree behind the church). They claimed to be looking for members of the Marxist guerrilla movement known as the Shining Path. When I met this man and saw his church, I seriously considered whether I felt called to serve here. At an internet cafe that night, I wrote to my wife that maybe I should consider coming to this church. My Michigan church could find a new pastor quickly, I reasoned. This church? They struggled for a long, long time. And so did I. I still think about this call to ministry.

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Not going to church anymore

Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for June:

I don’t go to church much anymore, and haven’t attended regularly since 1980, when I stopped being a church member altogether.

I have mostly good memories of going to church, with my parents and my sisters, but for most of my adult life I have worked on Sundays.

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Dachau and the Result of Hatred, Racism and Bigotry

Here’s my May column for the Holland Sentinel:

Before leaving Europe and moving back to the United States, my wife and I had in mind one last tourist destination. We had visited all of the cathedrals, museums and battle fields it was humanly possible to see during the four years we lived in Switzerland, but there was still something more I felt I needed to see—namely, the concentration camp at Dachau.

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My Camino de Santiago

Here’s my April column for the Holland Sentinel:

A spiritual pilgrimage, so the thinking goes, consists of both an outward journey and an inward journey.

Last week I returned from my first Camino de Santiago, a spiritual pilgrimage dating back to the 11th century. I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) to Santiago de Compostela (a university town in northwest Spain with a famous cathedral), a distance of 500 miles, which I walked in 29 days.

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Reflections on the “Dead Beat”

Here’s my March column for the Holland Sentinel, which could use an overhaul of its obituary page:

My name has appeared in dozens, maybe hundreds, of obituaries over the years, usually in the last paragraph.

After the date, time and location of the memorial service, my name would be given as the pastor who would be officiating. I think this is the reason I started reading obituaries. Not to make sure my name had been spelled correctly, but because the obituaries would often be revealing.

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A triumph of hope over experience

The lastest from the Holland Sentinel’s community columnist:

Oscar Wilde famously wrote that second marriages are “a triumph of hope over experience.” I feel the same way about exercise.

Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother.

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Called To Be a Loser

Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s community columnist:

Several years ago I was invited to give the baccalaureate address at the Presbyterian-related school, Hanover College, in southern Indiana.

As far as I knew, the school’s main claim to fame, other than having me as a speaker, was having Woody Harrelson as a student. He received his degree in English and theatre in 1983, more than 20 years before I set foot on campus.

I titled my address “Called To Be a Loser” and sent that information, along with a publicity photo, to the college president a few weeks before graduation weekend. Within a few days, the president telephoned with concern in his voice, though I couldn’t quite figure out why. Finally, he said, “That’s quite a title you chose for your address.”

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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. Continue Reading →

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Crazy Poor Dutch People

 

Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s “community columnist”:

I wanted to call my new book “Crazy Poor Dutch People Who Immigrated to the U.S. and Became Rich, Republican and (Ironically) Anti-immigration,” but my publisher thought that title was too long and unnecessarily provocative. Plus, the allusion to “Crazy Rich Asians” is already dated.

Instead, I went with “The Truth About Who We Are,” which is not nearly as clever. It is available from the publisher and will soon be available through Amazon. Continue Reading →

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It’s good to be home

(Note: I started a new and lucrative career this month as a “community columnist” for the Holland Sentinel, the local newspaper. My first column is below. Look for my florid prose on the editorial page on the first Friday of every month. For those who’ve read excerpts on the blog from my new book, I’m happy to report that The Truth About Who We Are: Letter to My Grandchildren will be out next month from Wipf & Stock, a fine publisher based in Eugene, Oregon. I’ve seen the page proofs, and it looks great! Lots of photos and a Brouwer family tree dating to the 1700s, or about as far back as I have looked so far.) Continue Reading →

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