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.

Ernest Hemingway and Me

“…me sitting, the butt of my rifle on my foot, the barrel in the crook of my left arm, a flask of whiskey between my knees, pouring the whiskey into a tin cup … drinking this, the first one of the day, the finest one there is, and looking at the thick bush we passed in the dark, feeling the cool wind of the night and smelling the good smell of Africa, I was altogether happy.”

That’s Ernest Hemingway (who else?) in Green Hills of Africa, a novel I’ve read several times just to appreciate (and then be jealous of) the richness of Hemingway’s prose.  But I think it was also the descriptions of Africa that kept me coming back to it.

Some people get ready for travel by reading travel books, the kind issued by Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, and so on.  Other people I’ve known spend time learning the language of the place they plan to visit, which I’ve tried over the years without much success, though I think it’s a worthy thing to do.

For better or worse, I like to read fiction set in the place I hope one day to travel to.  The descriptions give me a better feel for the place than the most detailed travel books ever could.  (Does a Frommer’s travel book ever tell you to look forward to the smell of a place?) 

Some of the best novels I’ve read over the years have been set in Africa, where after all these years I’m headed at the end of the week.  I’m not sure why a continent like Africa should prompt writers to do their best work, but that’s often the way it seems.

Some of the best novels set in Africa aren’t great literature, but they’re still fun to read.  Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is one of those.  It’s actually the first in a series of novels about Botswana’s first lady detective.  I’m not going to Botswana on this trip, but I feel as though I’ve been there. I can see it – and smell it – if I concentrate long enough.

The Nobel-prize winning novelist J.M. Coetzee has, interestingly enough, left his home in South Africa and moved to Australia, but his best work grew out of his experience in his native land.  His Life and Times of Michael K won the Booker prize, as did his novel Disgrace, both astonishingly well-written books.

I’m pretty sure the first novel I read that was set in Africa was Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and first published in the U.S. in 1948.  I remember lively discussions in high school English class about apartheid, and I remember dreaming even then about eventually going and seeing South Africa for myself.  At long last, it’s going to happen.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is about a missionary family who in 1958 moves from the U.S. to the village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo. Even she writes about the smell of the place:

“Once every few years, even now, I catch the scent of Africa. It makes me want to ken, sing, clap up thunder, lie down at the foot of a tree and let the worms take whatever of me they can still use. I find it impossible to bear.” 

It’s a beautifully written book.

Some of the best moments of travel are these last few days before I leave, reading about and imagining the places I am about to visit. 

I can’t wait.

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Anticipating Africa

We leave for Africa a week from Friday.

There is always in the days leading up to a trip the sweet feeling of anticipation, and today is no exception.  Tomorrow it will be even better.  And so on until we leave.

It’s not as though I haven’t been to Africa before, if you count day trips, one to the Sinai Peninsula to climb Mount Moses and another to Tangiers to purchase rugs.  But those were short visits taken a long time ago and tacked to the back end of other trips to other places.

To add to the sense of anticipation, I’ve met with most of my fellow travelers several times to plan, swap stories, and sample some extraordinary South African wine.  There will be 17 of us who will travel separately and then come together for one weekend in the village of Acornhoek in the northeastern corner of the Republic of South Africa.

And it’s really this one weekend that I am most looking forward to.

Our plan is to dedicate a fresh-water well in a part of the country that doesn’t have nearly enough wells, where people must walk miles to have what we ordinarily take for granted in this country, where one in three is HIV positive.

Our group raised the money for the well during the last year.  Then we hired a local well driller and paid him half of the cost (the other half on completion).  And now we’re waiting for word that he has started and – more important – that he has found water beneath the village.

The well is to be drilled near the Calvary of Hope Christian Church in Acornhoek, which is an hour or so west of Kruger National Park, and we will worship with the people of this church on that weekend.

I have been invited to preach that Sunday, and I haven’t been quite so anxious about a sermon since my year as a student pastor more than 30 years ago.  Members of our group who have visited Acornhoek previously have brought back videos of the church at worship, and it’s wonderful, but also a bit scary.  There’s plenty of dancing and singing and celebration, not at all like Presbyterian worship in this country where worship, if I may be honest, can be just a bit subdued.

Pastor Winny Manzini founded the church, along with her husband, who died in a car accident a couple of years ago.  She is carrying on alone and appears to be a strong and forceful presence in that church.

I can’t wait to meet her.  I can’t wait to worship with her people. I can’t wait to dance and sing and celebrate.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnFkn–La40

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A memorable birthday card

I still love the homemade birthday cards from my kids, even when they’re 25 years old. Received this one last week from my (younger) daughter…

Things to do on your birthday:

1. Take a lot of pregnant pauses [something I’m known for, especially among family members]
2. Thoroughly clean the kitchen, then declare that “kitchen is closed!”
3. Bleach the crap out of something [it’s true, I love to use lots the bleach when doing the laundry]
4. Play on iPad until you fall asleep with your mouth open
5. Be generally awesome and wonderful

Love you, Papa!

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Those were the days

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this story over the years.  In nearly every church I’ve served it’s been the same thing.

At the end of the year, when the church was facing a deficit, the pastor would meet with a small group of men, usually at “the club,” over drinks, and the deficit would go away.

I can’t say that these stories prompt admiration in me for my predecessors – not for their fund raising abilities or for their drinking habits. And yet, I notice that these stories are almost always told fondly, as though those were the good old days.

What was good about them, as far as I can tell, is that someone else always picked up the tab for the church.  If a half dozen well-off church members paid the bills every year, well, that meant other people wouldn’t have to dig deep and somehow help to make the budget.

In each church where this story has been told, there have been members who looked to me to cultivate similar relationships and somehow keep the tradition going: “We’ve got to introduce Doug to some key people.”  Wink, wink.

The hard truth is, those days are gone – or very nearly gone.  But the memories live on, as well as the bad habits.

My church here in Fort Lauderdale has dreamed for many years of building a family center on Las Olas Boulevard, an important retail/restaurant thoroughfare that connects downtown and the beach.  Having a presence on Las Olas has always seemed to be a critical piece of the church’s growth and trajectory, and so for 61 years it has – one by one – purchased the necessary parcels of land.

Today we have the land, we are close to getting the necessary city approvals, and the plans are truly exciting.  Our only problem is, most members are convinced that someone else is going to pay for the project.

Reminds me of the old joke:  A preacher once said to his congregation, “The good news is that we have the money to pay for the new building.  The bad news is that it’s still in your pockets.”

Given the history of our church, though, I see a silver lining.

If the new building is going to be built, if our dream is going to be realized, if our church is finally going to have a presence on one of the most important streets not just in Fort Lauderdale, but in south Florida, then the money is going to have come from the entire membership.  Not from five or six people, meeting over drinks at “the club,” but from everyone.

I think this is good news, not just for the new building, but for the church more generally.  We have an opportunity to change the culture of the church to something that more clearly reflects what we believe.

We are the church.  Not a select group, but all of us.  The change will be good for us.

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Learning from Felix Baumgartner

I wouldn’t wish my preaching style on anyone.  If you’re a new preacher, learn from someone else.

I got into bad habits early, and I’m too old to change.  Or maybe not.

When I preach, most of the time I stand in one place (typically a pulpit) with my manuscript in front of me.  I try my best to learn the sermon and not refer to it very often, but the videos of my sermons on the church website do not lie.  I look at the manuscript a lot.

Which makes what I did last Sunday night all the more astonishing.

At our new 5:00 service (we call it “expressive,” not “contemporary,” because “contemporary” is divisive, and we don’t want that), the preacher usually stands at the front and not in the pulpit.  I don’t ordinarily preach at the 5:00 service, but I did last Sunday.  And that presented a problem.

But earlier in the day a man named Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a capsule and fell more than 20 miles to earth, passing the speed of sound along the way, and landing on his feet.  I watched that and thought to myself, “Mmmm, if Felix Baumgartner can do that, then I can stand in front of the church tonight without my manuscript and preach my sermon.  The two things require pretty much the same level of courage.”

No kidding, I really did think that.

Here’s the full story, and maybe it’s more than you wanted to know. I was a writer before I was a preacher.  I really, desperately wanted to be a writer – or work for a publishing company, one or the other.  I was in love with words, especially my own words.  And from about fifth grade onward, I’ve been trying to get better as a writer.

And so, when I started preaching – you guessed it – I carefully crafted my sermons, not realizing that the spoken word is a lot different from the written word. People who hear a sermon typically don’t care what the sermon looks like on paper.

Rather than doing the right thing early on – ditching the manuscript – I compensated by learning the sermon really, really well.  For years I would get to the church early on Sunday morning, earlier even than the custodian, and preach my sermon two or three times to an empty sanctuary.

Turns out, that was a good way for me to learn to be a preacher, but it also set in place the problem of being dependent on the manuscript. What happened last Sunday night is that I proved (to myself) that I’m not too old to learn better preaching habits.

Like all preachers who preach without notes, I probably repeated myself and probably wasn’t as concise as I would like to be, but no one complained. Instead they commented on the naturalness of it.  I’m determined to do it again.

The preacher in me wants to ask, “What did you learn from Felix Baumgartner?”

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The Bible and Teeth

“What does the Bible have to say about teeth?

Just when I thought I had heard every question that could possibly be asked about the Bible, I heard that one last week.

A member of the last church I served – and my dentist for the years I was there – emailed me with that question. Turns out he was asked to speak about his vocation to the older adult ministry at my former church, and he thought he would toss in a reference or two to the Bible.

And naturally that’s when he thought of me.

So, the question wasn’t about the position that Bible takes regarding teeth, but simply about tooth references.  Actually, writing about the Bible’s position on teeth might have been a more interesting question to explore.  I would like to think that Bible takes a strong and conservative stand on teeth, not a liberal and wishy-washy one.

In any case, I approached the question the way I approach nearly all questions these days.  I turned to Google and typed “Bible and teeth.”

The result?  Well, you won’t be surprised to know that the Bible contains many, many references to “weeping and the gnashing of teeth,” which biblically speaking is often the sound you hear from some very sad and grief-stricken people.

I didn’t know before, but as the result of my research I am now aware that the idiom or expression “by the skin of my teeth” comes from the Bible – from the Book of Job, as a matter of fact.  As with most idioms, it’s meant to be taken figuratively, not literally – as in “you’re pulling my leg,” which to my knowledge is not found in the Bible.

Okay, but the biblical reference that I thought had the most potential for my old friend’s talk was one from Amos 4:6 where God says he has given his people “cleanness of teeth.”  Sounds good, right?  Not so fast. That’s another idiom or expression, and in context it means that the people haven’t had much to eat of late … and so their teeth are clean.

Look – and it has taken more than 300 words to get here – we tend to use the Bible in some very peculiar ways … for a laugh during a talk at a seniors gathering, for example, or to back up our views on a variety of topics, or to find names for our children, etc.

What I hope we never lose sight of is that the Bible is mostly a story – our story, of course, but more importantly God’s story. So, the Bible tell us not only who we are, but also who God is, and what the relationship between us is like or ought to be like. That’s an amazing gift when you think about it.

And if the Bible gives us a smile or two about our teeth, I suppose that’s okay too.

If Dan gets a big ovation from his audience in Michigan, I told him he’s invited to speak to our older adults in Florida, minus the biblical references.

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October is Pastor Appreciation Month

Only one month?

Seriously, this month is Pastor Appreciation Month. And church members all over the country are … well, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what they’re doing.

Ever since the Apostle Paul wrote to his young protégé Timothy and urged honor “for those who labor in preaching and teaching,” church members have looked for ways to say thank you to their pastors.

A quick Google search revealed that it was actually Focus on the Family in 1994 that set the whole Pastor Appreciation Month thing in motion.  That organization claimed it was appropriate to honor pastors “and their families” all year long, but they decided to set aside one month each year for “a special tangible tribute.”

I don’t think that the “tangible tribute” was ever specified, but I certainly have ideas, in case you’re looking for some.

When I was serving a church in New Jersey a long, long time ago, one of my close clergy friends was the pastor of the black Baptist church in town.  Our friendship was an eye-opener to me.  I had grown up in a culture that thought its pastors should be poor.  A sack of potatoes left at the back door was about the only “tangible tribute” church members might imagine – and that was often in lieu of salary.

My pastor-friend Ron might have received the occasional sack of potatoes, but he received a great deal more. He drove a large Lincoln, he wore a dazzling Rolex watch, and he always seemed to have on a shiny, new suit.  He told me that every year on the anniversary of his ordination his congregation would buy him a new suit – and a new dress for his wife.

I was driving an old, rusting Toyota at the time, so I mentioned all of this to my elders one night at a Session meeting, but nothing ever came of it.  I came to realize that in some African American churches members want their pastor to look good, to have everything the members themselves aspire to.  When he looked good, they looked good.

At the Presbyterian Church across town, I was expected to make do with what I had and be grateful for it.  And I was.  Most of the time.

What I’ve learned – over the last 32 years of ordained ministry – is that my work is appreciated a great deal more often than the work of most of my members.  Along the way, churches have celebrated my marriage, the births of my children, the publication of my books, the beginnings and endings of my pastorates, and many other special times in my life.  Beyond that I regularly receive touching and heart-felt notes from church members about sermons I preach and other things I do.

As I say, I am probably remembered more times and in more thoughtful ways than most of the members of my church.  I am aware that many businesses do not recognize their employees – and hardly remember to say good-bye when they leave.

So, the truth is, I feel blessed.  And some days I feel blessed beyond measure.  If you come to my office I’ll show you a ceramic bowl on my shelf which contains all of the thank-you notes I’ve received in the last three years.

My bowl runneth over.

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Well, that’s some consolation!

Ever hear someone say, “I need to pray about that”?  The implication is that the person needs some time to consider or discern God’s will.

But what does that look like?

Recently I came upon some old spiritual tools for decision making and spiritual discernment.  The key words are “consolation” and “desolation.”  In simplest terms, consolation refers to the felt presence of God in the soul, while desolation refers to the opposite – God’s absence.

I think it’s fair to say that these words – especially “consolation” – have taken on all new meanings, but I think it would be good for our spiritual lives to recover something of the ancient meanings.  The words mean more than “I feel good” and “I feel bad.”

In case you’re interested it was St. Ignatius of Loyola who first explored this approach to knowing God’s will for our lives.

Consolation is not the prize you receive if you fail to win the grand prize. Consolation is a spiritual condition in which we find our hearts lifted.  The word refers to a kind of inner peace and joy.  I once heard an older person say, “Grandchildren are the consolation of old age.”  I like that. I’m looking forward to a little of that consolation myself.

Desolation is very different.  Ignatius called it a “darkness of the soul, a torment of the spirit.”

When we are asked to make a decision of some sort, the idea is that we quiet ourselves enough to notice what’s happening within.  Do we feel a serenity of spirit about whatever it is?

Or does the decision take us in another direction entirely, draining us of energy, crowding out what’s most important to us?

I know that someone is bound to say in response to all of this that “prayer and Bible reading” would be the best way to make good, God-honoring decisions.  And you won’t be surprised to know that I agree with that.  But what I am offering here, I hope, is a way to go deeper, to be more attentive, to open ourselves to the presence of God in our lives.

In the last year or so I have had to face some of the biggest, most distressing decisions of my life.  Each time, I’m happy to report, I have come to a place of peace and acceptance about one direction or another, and though I didn’t have the language of “consolation” and “desolation” at the time, that’s exactly what I was doing.  I had used an ancient spiritual tool.

I hope this is useful to you.

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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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