Hi, my name is Doug.
I write little essays about faith and life.
I also laugh at my own jokes and correct other people's grammar.
I'm far from perfect.
This is my blog.

Prayer at lunchtime

It’s interesting to listen to others pray.  I was at a lunch meeting yesterday, and our speaker opened with prayer by saying, “Daddy.”

I hadn’t heard that word used in public prayer before – and I’ve heard a lot of public prayer over the years – but I remember feeling fine with it.

After lunch, on the elevator ride down from the 28th floor, I listened as two men, who were also at the lunch, debated the use of the word “daddy” in prayer.  One of them said, disapprovingly, “I come from a Southern Baptist background, and that word would never have been used in prayer.”  The other man seemed to think it was just fine.  He listed a half dozen churches he attends in the community and mentioned that all of them would be fine with it.  (My church was not on his list.)

I listened for a while to their conversation – okay, I eavesdropped – and then I introduced myself just before the elevator car doors opened.  “Hi, I’m the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church here in Fort Lauderdale.”

Their reactions were priceless.  But I kept thinking about the prayer and am still thinking about it more than 24 hours later.

Prayer language is an interesting subject. How do you address the Creator of the heavens and the earth, Maker of all things, seen and unseen?  Is “Daddy” okay?  Is “Lord” or “Lord God” better?  How do you decide?  Maybe some language is better for personal prayer and other language for public prayer, but how does one decide?

I’m interested in prayer language mainly because I think it reveals a great deal about the person who’s praying and the nature of the relationship that person has with the Almighty, if any.  I remember a person from a church I served previously who used to address God as though he was sitting at a boardroom table with him.  I loved those prayers.  God always seemed so sensible and matter-of-fact. God made decisions on the basis of good data.

I’ve listened to other people pray who become uncomfortably (to me) child-like when they pray.  Their voices take on a little girl or little boy sound.  I wonder what that sound says about their relationship with God.  I’m a child of God, true, but I would like to think that God prefers me to be a grown up in my relationship with him.

When my grandmother prayed many years ago, I enjoyed listening to her King James English.  She was Dutch and spoke Dutch, but she peppered her English prayers with a lot of thee, thou, and thine.  When she prayed, we were always approaching “Thy throne of grace.” I liked that.  For her God was on a throne that had to be reverently approached, but it was always, thankfully, a throne of grace.

Since moving to south Florida I have adjusted some of my own prayer language to fit a new culture.  I hear lots of “Father Gods” around here, a phrase that suggests some intimacy but also some majesty and holiness.  In other settings where I’ve served, though, that phrase would have sounded a tad too masculine.  I haven’t adopted that combination, but I’ve tried others.  I won’t be trying “daddy.”

Here’s what I think: Our word choices in prayer should be thoughtful.  We should use words because we’ve thought about what they mean and because they’re appropriate for our relationship with God.  I believe that God values sincerity and honesty and genuineness in our prayers, but I’m also convinced that God values a well-chosen word.

If God is going to take the time to  listen, we should choose our words with care.

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Not Compatible with Christianity

A couple of years ago, after nearly 35 years of running, I decided to try another form of exercise, to give my joints, which are still in remarkably good shape, an occasional break from pounding the pavement around town.

So, on a whim, I walked into a yoga studio early one Monday morning.

And not just any yoga studio.  I happened to walk into a studio that practices hot yoga (with temperatures set between 95 and 105 degrees).  I had never experienced anything quite like it.  I’ve run marathons, and many, many races of shorter distances, but have never felt pushed physically the way I felt pushed in this one 90-minute class.

I liked it so much that I went back.

In my excitement, I even told a couple of people about my discovery.  And that was probably my mistake.  One person, with a disapproving tone in her voice, said, “You’re doing what?”

Later she forwarded to me an article she had read titled, “Is Christianity Compatible with Yoga?”  I am familiar with the author, and I am aware that he takes strong positions regarding perceived threats to the Christian faith.  (Remember Rob Bell?  This author preached a sermon after Bell’s God Wins book was published that I thought was one of the biggest takedowns of a fellow preacher I had ever heard.  He pulls no punches.)

As you can guess, the article about yoga was clear and unambiguous.  Christians, he wrote, should stay out of yoga studios.  Period.  To venture inside is to put your salvation in jeopardy.  Yoga, simply put, is not just another form of exercise; it’s a religion, one that’s very different from – in fact, antithetical to – Christianity.

So, not being one to shrug off a challenge from a brother in the faith, I decided to do a little reading myself and discovered that the “Is Christianity Compatible with X?” formula is a fairly common question for Christians to ask.

I found lots of interesting articles including, “Is Christianity Compatible with Freemasonry?” (apparently not) and “Is Christianity Compatible with Capitalism?” (depends on who’s asking the question) and “Is Christianity Compatible with Being a Goth?” (who cares?)

At that point I started to think of other questions I would like to see explored – such as, “Is Professional Football compatible with Christianity?”  (A game based on aggression and physical violence, often resulting in long-term physical and emotional consequences for its participants, certainly needs a second look, though I admit that I’m a fan and don’t want to push the argument.)

Or, better yet, what about boxing?  How is that compatible with Christian faith?

But back to yoga.  What am I supposed to do?  And what are the other church members who have unrolled their mats next to mine supposed to do?

Here’s what I’m thinking: we live in a morally complicated world.  Nearly everything we do – for business, exercise, or pleasure – raises at least a question or two.   Should I participate in that sport?  Should I shop in that store? Should I do business with that person?  Should I pay $10 to see that movie?

And not to minimize, I believe people who are sincere in their faith should actively think about these questions.  To live faithfully often means to live carefully, thoughtfully, sensitively.

I listen to my yoga instructors at the end of the class thank me “for sharing my energy” with them.  I don’t really know what that means.  I shared a great deal of my sweat, but my energy?  A lot of what I hear, frankly, sounds like drivel.

Am I about to be pulled away from my faith and absorbed by a new and heretical one?  I don’t think so.  Still, I wonder about it.  Just as I wonder about freemasonry, capitalism, professional football, and boxing.  I’ve never been tempted to become Goth.

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It’s not all misty-eyed pride!

Having a daughter who’s a Presbyterian pastor is a mixed blessing. You might have thought it was all misty-eyed pride, but that’s not so.

On the one hand, she’ll say something like, “All of you baby-boomer pastors should retire and make room for us younger pastors to move up.”

I mean, really, it’s hard to disregard a comment like that when it comes from your own daughter.  With other young pastors, I could simply pretend that I didn’t hear, that something was wrong with my hearing aid, maybe.  When your own daughter says something like that, you kind of have to respond.

What she’s saying, I know, is that it’s time for my generation, which to her and her pastor-friends has failed abysmally, to move along to make way for her generation of bright-eyed, energetic, dynamic, clear-thinking friends, who are ready to take the church to new and unprecedented heights.

But then, just when I’m ready to encourage her to find another career path, I’ll read her blog one morning and find that she’s articulated some important truth about the life of faith that, after more than thirty years of trying, I’ve been unable to do.  And not only that, it will be so good that I’ll decide to post it on my own blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account.

This morning, for example, I saw that my daughter had written something on her blog about church members who toil away without recognition, who do tedious and monotonous work without a penny in compensation, and who (generally) ask for nothing except a thank you.

She said it in such a thoughtful, caring way, and she even quoted a lovely bit of scripture (1 John 3), that her words took my breath away.

That’s my kid, I thought. She’s got a pastor’s heart.  And I’m so proud, even if she does think I should retire and get out of her way.

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Suddenly dreading the fall

Honestly, how do I get myself into these situations?

Last summer I decided to preach a sermon series in the fall on the most common objections to the Christian faith.  “How could a good God allow suffering?” “The church is responsible for so much injustice in the world” “How can a loving God send people to hell?” – that sort of thing.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

And now the fall is here, and I’m wondering how this could have happened.

I’m not alone in having thought of preaching a sermon series.  After all, preachers have been doing this for a long, long time.

Those of us who’ve been around for a while have, at one time or another, preached our way through the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, and more.  In my childhood I remember my pastor preaching a sermon series on the 12 sons of Jacob, one sermon per son. (Somehow I remember that the youngest, Benjamin, was left-handed.)

Last summer I preached my way through the Bible’s long narrative on the life of King David, and by the time I reached the story about David’s affair with Bathsheba, I realized that I had taken on too much for a summer Sunday in July.  I could sense that people were hoping for something a little lighter before heading off to the beach.

The 16th century Reformer John Calvin used to preach lectio continua, which means that he preached his way through entire books of the Bible, verse by verse, an example that’s been followed by many, many preachers who’ve followed him. (When I’ve done this, I’ve tended to choose short books, though, because a sermon series on, say, Luke’s gospel could very well take a couple of years or more.)

Here’s my concern about the fall.  And it’s not that people might miss one or two of my sermons along the way, almost demanding that I include lots of review each week to keep people up to speed.

No, my concern is that I’m bound to say too little for some – and too much for others.

Take a topic like “You can’t take the Bible literally,” which will be the last sermon in the series. I know there are going to be people who want me to make certain specific statements about the Bible, statements they’ve heard many times over the years, and I know there are going to be people who are dreading those statements because they’ve heard them a lot and don’t know if they believe them anymore.

With a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, you can say about as much as you want, without offending anyone. A lot more is at stake when you’re talking about, say, the limits of God’s love, which is coming up in week 5.

Here’s my plan.  And it’s going to be the same approach I’ve used in more than 30 years of preaching.  I’m going to do my best.  I’m going to say as plainly and as confidently as I know how what I believe to be true.  And not just what I believe to be true.  I’m going to say what people of faith have said consistently and reliably down through the centuries.

And then I’m going to trust that people, by a miracle of the holy Spirit that I don’t pretend to understand, will hear exactly what they most need to hear.

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Marriage, covenant, and crazy loyalty

At my younger daughter’s wedding this summer, the preacher (who happens to be my niece) reflected in her homily on the meaning of covenant, which is at the center of a Christian understanding of marriage.

It was easily, by the way, the best wedding homily I’ve ever heard, and I’m not just saying that because we’re related and because I’m very, very proud to be her uncle, though of course those are also factors.

She described covenant, the relationship God has with his people – and I don’t know if this was scripted or if it just slipped out – as “crazy loyalty.”

God is committed to us, she said, in a way that doesn’t make sense, that defies explanation, and that runs counter to all human expectations.  And that, she said, is a model for our own relationships – in particular, for our marriages.

I like that.  Crazy loyalty.

But the truth is, we don’t see much of it around us.

I read in a recent Christian Century article that we live in “a world marked by infidelity, each of us debilitated in our capacity to do what we say we will do.”

That’s a strong statement, of course, but the author backs it up with a compelling argument, and he ends by writing that “broken promises add up.”  They are so much a part of our lives that we just expect them.  We no longer expect to be told the truth. We no longer expect others to believe us when we ourselves make promises.

Which is where the idea of covenant just might be startlingly good news to a world “marked by infidelity.”

Many of us are familiar with contracts.  We enter into lots of them in the course of our lives.  But contracts are different from covenants.  Contracts are made to be broken. They contain escape clauses and expiration dates.  Human relationships – the kind of relationships we long for, the kind of relationships that are nurturing and life-giving – cannot be defined by contracts.

Marriages in particular cannot be defined by a contract, not if we expect them to be more than they often are.

If more of us thought of our relationships as covenant relationships, modeled after God’s own covenant relationship with his people … why, who knows how our lives might change?

When I think of the promises I’ve made in my life – to my wife, to my family, to my church, to my community, to my country – I realize that all of them have been inspired by crazy loyalty.  I’m in these relationships not because they feel just right – often they do, but not always.  I’m in them because I’ve been inspired to live differently, to promise differently, to act in a way that for many would be just plain crazy.

I’m in these relationships because of the way God has been in a relationship with me.

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The Crybaby

I cry easily.  Just ask my family.

I cried in the delivery room when my daughters were born.  The first time, in fact, I had so many tears and was so overcome that I unfortunately forgot to use the camera strapped around my neck.  I distinctly remember the other people in the delivery room saying, “Oh, he must be a first-time father,” as though the wonder of childbirth wears off quickly.  By the third or fourth child, it’s all business.

Not for me.

I clearly remember crying in 1998 when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record, though I now regret having done so, given McGwire’s probable steroid use.  Still, it was quite a moving event, and sporting achievements are as likely to move me to tears as anything else.

If Michigan beats Alabama in their season opener in a couple of weeks, I know the tears will flow.  (Don’t call me during the game.)

I also cried at the sun setting over Lake Michigan last weekend, another moving event for me.

Some people cry at hurt, pain, or sadness.  I tend to cry at joy or beauty.  I think Lake Michigan sunsets are the best glimpses of God’s glory we’re going to get until God calls us home.

I remember team teaching a class at my last church about Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead, one of the most beautiful novels I’ve read in the last 10 years.  My co-teacher was an English professor at a nearby state university and, as it turned out, an astonishingly gifted teacher.  He began by reading a few paragraphs for us and then weeping over the beauty of Robinson’s prose.

And naturally I wept too.  Eventually everyone in the class was crying, and I remember sitting down and allowing this gifted teacher to explain to us why the words were so beautiful.  After the first class I dropped the pretense of being a team teacher. I sat in the front row and cried whenever I felt like it.

Tears have been on my mind lately because my younger daughter was married over the weekend.  Nearly every person who found out that there was going to be a wedding in my family asked me if I was going to officiate.  I told each person (truthfully) that I really only wanted to be the father of the bride.

Another reason – maybe a more important reason – for not acting in the pastor role is this thing with crying.  I am pretty sure I would not have been able to get through the wedding without blubbering.

When I walked my older daughter down the aisle a few summers ago, she and I couldn’t look at each other without making each other cry.  Pictures taken at the back of the church confirm that we were both red-eyed and biting our lower lips.

So, if walking the bride down the aisle is difficult for me to do, imagine what handling the rest of the ceremony might involve.  No one wanted that.

I did agree, however, to give the toast at the reception, and – you guessed it – I cried.  And like yawning, crying often has the effect of causing other people to do the same thing.

When I told everyone how much life and joy and delight my daughter had brought into my life, I found that I couldn’t go on, and I found that many other people there that night – those I could see through my tears – were also crying.

The thing is, I wasn’t sad.  I was happy. As happy as I’ve ever been.

And as I type this, and as I remember the wedding and everything that happened that day, I can feel a few more tears coming on.  I just may have to stop typing and find a tissue.

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Hey, look at me!

Ever noticed how happy and successful our friends seem to be in their Facebook posts?  Me too.

They post pictures of themselves smiling at the camera, as though they’re having the time of their lives.  Often they’ve just climbed a mountain or completed a marathon or bought a cool, new car.

Good for them.  No, really.  I’m generally happy for all of them.

A friend of mine from seminary days recently retired and built a house on an island off the coast of Florida.  Facebook posts over several months tracked the building of the house and culminated in the delirious joy of moving in.

Today’s photo shows a smiling group of people in a cute, little breakfast nook overlooking gorgeous scenery.

Now, come on.  I’ve moved once or twice in my life.  I’ve built a house in a new state.  I’ve moved from one stage of life to another.  (True, I haven’t retired.)  And I know that not every transition in life is happy and joyful.  Even the best transitions are often filled with doubt, anxiety, and hesitation.

Am I supposed to believe that none of that happened in connection with this move?

And yet I find myself wanting to post good news too.  Hey, look at me, my posts seem to say.  Here I am eating out tonight at a cool, new restaurant!  Look at my plate!  (Post photo from smart phone here.)  Isn’t that an appetizing entre?  Bet you’re jealous, aren’t you?

I have a friend who teaches communications at Calvin College and promotes something he calls “servant communications,” to which I find myself strongly attracted.  His name is Quentin Schultze.

Mostly he sounds upbeat and positive when he writes about social media sites like Facebook.

In a recent blogpost he described Facebook pages as something similar to the front porches on older houses.  It’s as though we’re out there in our rocking chairs, waving as people go by.  We shout hello and share our latest news.

To be honest, I’ve never lived in a house with a front porch like that.  My grandma Brouwer did, but most people today do not.  I don’t know if the neighborhood where my grandmother lived ever really had that happy kind of familiarity.  I’d like to believe it.  But I doubt it.

I’m thinking that a more apt comparison of Facebook posts is the annual Christmas letter.  You know the kind.  Every year you get a letter from someone you once knew, and it’s filled with cheery, sometimes fantastic, news about everything that happened in the last year.

Hey, we sailed around the world!  And my wife won the Nobel Prize in Literature!  Plus, all six of our grandkids were admitted to Harvard!  And that was January!  Wait ‘til you hear about the rest of the year!

Letters like these can be a cause of seasonal depression.

Full disclosure:  I am one of those people who writes an annual Christmas letter.  We’ve lived in six states over 35 years and have tried our best to “keep up” with lots of dear friends we’ve made along the way.

Because of the bad reputation that Christmas letters have, however, I’m self-conscious about it.  I don’t want my letters  to sound like those other letters.  And so I use humor and tell stories.

But, darn it, when my wife wins the Nobel Prize, you can bet I’m going to report that.  And you can bet that I’m less likely to share the news that we struggled in our marriage during the last year, or faced lingering medical problems, or worried incessantly over having enough money for retirement.  (Don’t start rumors.  These were examples of what I might not share, if these things ever happened to us, which they never have.  Absolutely not.)

So, where am I going with this?

As Facebook (and other social media sites) evolve, I’m learning to take them with … a grain of salt.  What I read may be true, but I remind myself that it’s only part of the truth.

We tend to post the best about ourselves for public view.  We want to create the impression that – hey! – we’re doing okay.  We may even be telling ourselves – hoping against hope? – that things are great, despite some evidence to the contrary.

I won’t be giving up my Facebook account any time soon, but when you read one of my posts, you’re welcome to ask, “What is he not saying?”

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David and Bathsheba

I’m preaching about David and Bathsheba on Sunday.  So are a lot of other preachers around the world.  That’s because 2 Samuel 11 is the Old Testament reading this week in something called the Revised Common Lectionary (explaining what that is would require at least another blogpost), and many preachers around the world use the lectionary to guide them in selecting scripture on which to base their sermons each week.

By this point in the week I’ve done a fair amount of reading about the David and Bathsheba story, and I’m pretty sure I understand what’s going on.  It’s a sad and tawdry tale.

Much of what I read this week I already knew, which is often the case when I preach about familiar portions of scripture.  But I did come across a couple of new insights.

One is that the sexual encounter with Bathsheba is often portrayed as a romantic interlude – in other words, consensual – when in reality the story suggests something very different.  David sent for her, slept with her, and then sent her back home.

This is not the language of romance.  It’s the language of power.

It’s true that David marries Bathsheba after having her husband murdered, but the circumstances surrounding their first meeting do not sound like a fairytale romance. Instead, the David we meet in this story is bored and full of himself. I’m thinking that maybe God should have allowed him to build the Temple, as he wanted, because without a project like that David has way too much time on his hands.

Maybe my original understanding of this story was shaped by influences other than the actual words of scripture.  For example, the 1951 film David and Bathsheba, staring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, certainly made the relationship seem beautiful and sensual, as sensual as films in that era were allowed to be.

The story, as the Bible tells it, however, suggests something very different.  I’ll need a day or two to process this new information.

The other new insight into this story comes from Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian pastor and writer.  In his wonderful book about the David story, Leap Over A Wall, Peterson argues that David will forever be linked with two names – Goliath and Bathsheba.

Though these two are different in so many ways, they are nevertheless similar, says Peterson, in that each one was something of a test for David.  They reveal David’s heart.

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon about David and Goliath, and I lifted up David’s courage as a model for us.  I suggested that we too aim higher, work harder, and trust God more.  In this other story David is calculating and cruel. So, what’s the message?

That we should copy the behavior we see earlier in David’s life and avoid the sad mess that his life becomes later on?  Sure, but I’m guessing there’s more here.  I’m starting to see that David was powerful in both stories, but in the story of Bathsheba that use of power was distorted.  It was used for David’s own gratification.  It was abused, used casually, thoughtlessly.

This is the exciting part of the week for me, as I squeeze as much of the spiritual wisdom as I can out of the words of scripture.  I know I’ll get there.  I (almost) always do.

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A pastor’s response

Our country has once again had one of those weeks. It was bloody and terrible and senseless, and it’s all of those things every time it happens.

We wake up and turn on the news, and there it is.  We see people running away in fear.  We see people being loaded into ambulances.  We see family members, huddled together and waiting for news, hoping against hope that their son or daughter, mother or father, sister or brother, is not among the victims.

It happens at Army bases, in schools and universities, in post offices, in shopping malls, and now in theaters.  No place, it seems, is safe.

Over the last few months, several church members have been engaged in a conversation about security measures we should probably take here … in this church, in a place of worship. That’s a conversation I never wanted to have.

Look, I have no political axe to grind here.  I don’t think these are occasions to score points on one side or another.

But I’m sad.  And I’m terrified.  And I happen to believe that there’s a spiritual side to all of this.  I hope you won’t be surprised to know that.

When politicians rush out to microphones to make their statements in the aftermath of one of these tragedies, they typically use the language of faith.  They mention prayer.  They call us to reflect on the things that really matter.

And even though those words sometimes seem a little too calculated, I have to agree. This is a time to use the language of faith. This is a time to pray.  This is a time to reflect on the things that really matter.

When we reach within and try to find those spiritual resources – and this is a pastor’s worry for his congregation – my worry is that we won’t find much, or that we won’t find enough.

So, my promise to you is to work harder – harder than ever – to focus on those things…to cultivate the spiritual resources we will need to face times like these.

There will be more, sorry to say.  This latest one is just that – only the most recent. There will be others.

And so, all of us – this is my challenge to you – need to find ways to think about what happened.  We need to make sure our spiritual resources are up to the job.  I’m talking about not giving in to anger or cynicism or despair.

I’m talking about finding ways to have hope, to live with hope, to live with confidence about the future.

That’s a tall order!  I know that. But I think that’s what it means to be people of faith. If we don’t believe that we are in the hands of a loving God, then we will eventually give in to the cynicism of our culture.

I don’t want to do that.  And I suspect you don’t either.  So, let’s find another way. The way of hope, the way of life, the way of Jesus, who once said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

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A church starts to rebuild

In a recent blogpost I mentioned a church in northern New York State that had burned to the ground following a lightning strike.

I had the privilege of meeting the pastor, the Rev. Bonnie Orth, at a worship grants colloquium at Calvin College last month where she told me that her church would soon be rebuilt and that the ministry would continue.

Here’s a link to a TV news report on the ground-breaking ceremony held on Sunday, July 8…

http://capitalregion.ynn.com/content/590803/mayfield-church-celebrates-ground-breaking-ceremony/

To me, Bonnie Orth is one of the saints in the church today.  Lots of attention is focused on superstar preachers like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren – and they certainly deserve credit for the work they do and the many lives they reach – but I am convinced that women and men like Bonnie Orth, laboring in small towns across North America, are the ones who most deserve our thanks and admiration.

Their churches will never grow to the 20,000 attendees per weekend level, but then the towns in which they serve typically don’t have that many people anyway.  And yet, they work hard and put in long hours and sit at bedside in many hospitals across this country.  They preach on Sundays, but they also lead the youth group and take out the trash and do a hundred other chores not currently in my own job description.

And, in the case of Bonnie Orth, they reach deep into the resources of their personal faith to find ways to rebuild their churches and to move their people from sorrow to joy.

When I go to meetings like the one I attended last month, I can’t wait to meet them and shake their hands and say thank you for what they do.  God bless you, Bonnie.  I’m proud to call you my colleague in ministry!

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