Tag Archives | my family

My Only Comfort in Life

(Here’s another random chapter from my new book, Letter to My Grandchildren: Brief Essays on Identity.)

When I was in third grade I started to attend weekly catechism classes at my church, something I would do until I graduated from high school. At the time I thought children all over the world did pretty much the same thing.

In catechism classes we memorized the 129 questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, a doctrinal statement published in 1653, in a city called Heidelberg, in what is now Germany. It’s a lovely medieval city. I have been there, and I hope you are able to visit someday as well. Continue Reading →

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Those Embarrassing Names

 

(For a few months now I have been reading about and researching my ancestors, the women and men who came before me and passed down to me my name, my ethnic identity, my DNA, and of course my faith. Here’s a sample chapter from the new book which I’m – tentatively – calling “Letter to My Grandchildren.”)

Many of the people I knew when I was growing up had odd-sounding names. Not distinguished sounding at all, like I wanted them to be. The names were slightly embarrassing, I thought, as though in a previous life I had grown up with much better people, maybe in a much higher social class.

There wasn’t a Henry David Thoreau in the bunch. Or a Harriet Beecher Stowe. Those names and a lot of others like them always sounded remarkable to me, like you’d want to know them and read their books and be like them. Continue Reading →

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The Annual Christmas Letter

 

Dear family and friends,

Continue Reading →

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I miss Thanksgiving Day

The country where I live does not celebrate Thanksgiving Day. They say they do, but they don’t.

They call it the Federal Day of Thanksgiving, Repentance and Prayer, which is a mouthful, especially in German, but it’s nothing, really. It falls in the middle of September, and to me it’s just a day like any other.

I miss Thanksgiving Day, the real one, the one I remember from childhood. I woke up a little sad this morning thinking about it. Continue Reading →

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The annual Christmas letter

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Dear family and friends,

I just googled “annual Christmas letter” for some good ideas about what to write this year and – I am not making this up – two of my most recent Christmas letters appeared on the first page of search results. Continue Reading →

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I still think Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday

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In this country, unfortunately, today is a work day like any other.

I live in a small village near Zürich, Switzerland, with my wife and dog, and on Thursday morning I will be getting on the train, as I do every morning, and will be heading to my office. Continue Reading →

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My annual Christmas letter

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Dear family and friends,

Life in Switzerland isn’t much different from life anywhere else. I get up in the morning, walk the dog, shower, dress, and leave for work. At the end of the day I come home again.

I used to do all of that in the U.S.

What’s different here, clearly, is that everything is new. New and exciting, mostly, but also new and exhausting, new and puzzling, new and … sometimes I just want to turn on the TV and watch a little Downton Abbey. Well, no, sorry, not that.

After the first year of living here, I realized that I was tired – not because my work is so demanding, but because expat life is by its very nature stressful, especially at the beginning. Do I leave a tip in restaurants? (No, or maybe a little, not always clear.) Why do I need to change from summer to winter tires? (Because driving on narrow mountain roads in winter is a lot different from driving on the flatlands of Illinois, Florida, and Michigan where I have spent much of my life. And also there may be a fine for not having the right tires on the car.) How come even a trip to the grocery store requires careful planning? (Well, first of all, you need to remember a two franc coin to unlock a grocery cart, and then you need to remember your own – reusable – grocery bags. Otherwise, you have to turn around, go home, and start over.) Is there anything at all that is the same? (No, but the trains do run on time, and there is something comforting in that. I look forward to my train rides each day to and from the church office.)

I am learning a new language too, of course, and my work permit requires me to reach a fairly high level of proficiency in a relatively short amount of time. But it’s not the language learning that I find tiring, although maybe I will give a different answer tonight after I get home at 10:00 from my language class. (My kind and patient teacher, Frau Zopfi, teaches the entire hour and 15 minutes in German, so there is no opportunity to check email or browse the Internet.)

I am no longer the class clown I once was, but am still the slow learner I always was.

What’s really and truly tiring is navigating each day in an unfamiliar culture.  Here’s a tiny example: I smile a toothy smile and say a cheery “Guten Morgen!” to my neighbors as I walk the dog in the early dawn, and from the smile and the awful accent and the high German, they size me up pretty quickly as an American, a foreigner, an “Ausländer.”  I learned quickly that addressing people I don’t know requires a certain amount of formality. It’s not that the Swiss are an unfriendly people, it’s that Americans tend to be gregarious by nature. And that, I’m afraid, usually comes off as insincere and superficial.

Last spring I took a break from my blog to give myself some time to get acclimated to this new culture. I even wrote a book about the experience in order to sort out my feelings and reactions, especially as I experience all of this in a multi-cultural church. (Watch the Eerdmans fall list for 2016!) I wouldn’t say Susan and I are now fully integrated into Swiss culture, but we are moving as fast as a couple of old, gray-haired  people from the U.S. can. And most days we enjoy living here, though Susan I’m sure would give her own, slightly nuanced answer. After 38 years of marriage, we still do not think alike on very much. It’s funny how that works.

Susan spends Thursday afternoons painting with an artist-friend at a studio in Zürich. She meets most Fridays with a group of women from our church. She cooked five turkeys in our tiny Swiss oven and fed a bunch of lonely Americans (and others) at our church’s Thanksgiving dinner last month. She has traveled (without me) to London and Provence and Berlin. And together we spent a week in Amsterdam back in July (where I made considerable progress on that book I mentioned) and then last week in Paris for a couple of nights around her birthday. She is getting around – not only on the trains, but in our car as well. We both joined the local gym last fall and now find ourselves exercising with other seniors, something I was sure I would never do.

When Susan goes out, she speaks English with a German accent, thinking that this will help others to understand her. I speak German with a pronounced American accent, and people sometimes burst into laughter when they hear me. Her approach always seems to work better than mine.

My work at the International Protestant Church of Zürich continues to be an extraordinary experience, one I will savor for the rest of my life. I sat in the congregation yesterday and witnessed the most culturally diverse children’s Christmas pageant that I could ever have imagined. English was spoken throughout, true, but in such a wonderful variety of accents. One of the magi was unquestionably from the U.K. Another was from Africa, but a former British colony. The third dropped his microphone on the floor and was hard to hear.

But they all traveled a long distance to get to the manger, as we all have.

Cultural diversity at the church shows up each day in countless other ways and has been a wonderful – and sometimes maddening – experience. I learn and grow and do my best to understand, and in it all I marvel that Christ’s church could have so many, vastly different expressions. In church life people work hard to understand each other, to be patient, and to figure out what it means to be the church at this time and in this place. It’s not easy, but it never was.

Susan and I look back across the ocean with longing, because of course our two daughters and their husbands and one very beautiful granddaughter live there, but we also look back with incredulity. People sometimes ask us if Donald Trump really has a chance. At first we laughed at the question and said, “Nein.” But now the truth is, we don’t know what to say. “It’s a mess,” we say, and it is. And speaking of a mess, we read about the gun violence, and from a country – an entire continent! – with very little, almost none, it is shocking and deeply troubling.

We pray for our country, we pray for our family, and we pray for you. Two thousand years ago a hope was born into the world, and it is to that hope that I cling today – not to politicians or to political parties, but to a baby who was called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Love,

Doug and Susan (and of course Sammi, who doesn’t know what a good life she has here)

(Photos: That’s from a nice little coffee shop in Paris, and (bottom) the Eiffel Tower was visible from our apartment at the American Church in Paris where we stayed.)

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Will this be on the test?

Grünewald-Crucifixion

Forty years ago I took a class in art history.

To be honest, it was more a survey of European art than anything else, and only five or six centuries’ worth of that, so in hindsight it was a pretty small slice of art history.

Even so, art history was not required for my degree.

And the class was certainly well outside my area of concentration, which – don’t laugh – was philosophy. And taking the class might have been risky, if I had been concerned about my grade point average or what a graduate school admissions committee might think about my academic record.

What’s next, basket weaving?

At the time, though, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was thinking, believe it or not, about art.

My dad was an artist, so I grew up with art and visited my share of exhibits and museums over the years. I still don’t know how to change the oil on my car, but I can make my way through an art gallery like a pro. (Tell me, who is better prepared for life?)

One of my best memories from childhood, in fact, was going to Europe with my parents and younger sister and visiting the great museums of art there. We dashed from one to another, with a cathedral or two in between, and that was my early impression of Europe – a lot of beautiful things to look at.

Once, in Florence, my dad realized that Michelangelo’s David was not on the tour itinerary, so we hopped in a taxi at lunch hour and flew – or rather crawled through heavy traffic – to the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze to see it, not knowing if our tour group would be waiting for us when we returned. We didn’t care.

This weekend, without a sermon to prepare for Sunday, thanks to the annual children’s pageant, I took a page from the family playbook and dashed over to Colmar, France, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. Yes, there was a famous Christmas market taking place nearby, but it was the painting by Grünewald that interested me.

And it did not disappoint. Forty years later I can still hear Edgar Boevé, the professor, describe the way the eye moves across the canvass. They did, just like he said!

And then, standing to the right of Jesus, I could see John the Baptist – tell me again why is he attending Jesus’ crucifixion? – pointing what may be the most famous forefinger in the whole history of Western art.

I felt a sudden rush of tears as I walked toward the painting. There it was at last. And there was John the Baptist’s finger. There was Mary, mother of Jesus, supported by John, the disciple, with that impossibly long, utterly unrealistic arm. And there was Mary Magdalene, the closest one of all to the cross, distraught.

I am grateful for that class – all these years later – because it cultivated in me a wonder and an awe that, over time, have not diminished.

Will this be on the test? Yes, it will.

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My annual Christmas letter

index (1)Dear family and friends,

I first started writing these things about 30 years ago. They were smart, funny, and irreverent. Just like me, or the person I imagined myself to be.

At the beginning my Christmas letters were the opposite of most Christmas letters you receive, the ones describing incredible promotions and fabulous vacations and over-achieving children. My Christmas letters had an ironic tone, a slightly amused look at the year just ended.

My favorite Christmas letter, now apparently lost from the historical record, described Susan’s courtroom theatrics in New Jersey when we and all of our neighbors were cited by an over-zealous police officer for failure to shovel the snow from our sidewalks within 24 hours after a particularly bad snowstorm. The charges were dropped because the police officer couldn’t say for sure if there was, in fact, a sidewalk under all of that snow. Susan got him to admit, under oath, that he didn’t actually get out of his car to check.

After reading that particular letter, my mother said, “You don’t send that to church members, do you?”

So, over the years, as the mailing list expanded, my annual Christmas letter became less smart, less funny, and more reverent. Just like me, middle-aged Doug.

The lowest blow of all came from Susan a few years ago when she said, “You’re getting to be just like Woody Allen, not nearly as funny anymore.”

Now, my Christmas letter is even available on-line, and whatever was exciting about this annual event is gone. A dear friend once wrote that he saved my letter for Christmas afternoon, after all of the parties were over. He sat in his leather recliner, he told me, with a glass of eggnog and bourbon, so that he could enjoy it.

It’s been a long time since anyone has said such a sweet thing. So, let’s get this over with. For this you can skip the eggnog.

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Early last year Susan and I moved to Switzerland.

Take a few seconds, as I did, to absorb that sentence. We sold our house and car and most of my Tommy Bahama shirts, which I never really liked anyway, and we loaded a few of our remaining possessions into a shipping container for the trans-Atlantic voyage. The rest of what we own, including the other car, went into storage, somewhere near Holland, Michigan.

I moved to a country that is almost unimaginably beautiful. Not just on postcards, but everywhere, all the time. Sometimes the beauty is overwhelming. I’ll drive over a mountain ridge and see my village below, with Lake Zurich and snow-covered mountains in the distance, and I’ll be at a loss for words, mouth gaping.

I bought a camera last summer, partly so that I could observe the beauty more closely, so that I could capture a small part of it, as though beauty is something that can be recorded and catalogued.

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I serve a church that is unlike any I have ever served before. It has elders and youth group and Sunday School and children’s choir, so it’s a little like other churches I have served before. Not surprisingly I lead worship pretty much the way I always have. And my sermons sound similar too. But in many ways this church is very different, delightfully different, and occasionally maddeningly different.

One time – it was my first Sunday at the church, and I didn’t have anything to do that day but sit in the congregation – we had just finished communion, and Susan leaned over and said, “That was awesome.” And I had to agree. It was. It had been a long time since she and I both felt that way.

I now stand behind the communion table on Sunday mornings, saying, “People will come from east and west, from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom that is coming.” And after saying it, I now think, “It’s already here.”

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Here, but not yet here.

We have our problems too. Finding a way to get along with so many different cultural (and spiritual) expectations is a challenge. Extra grace is often required, and grace, like gold, always seems to be in short supply.

I am learning a new language . After ten months I know a lot of German grammar and vocabulary. I can even make sense of the little tabloid – 20 Minuten – which commuters read on the train. But I am lost in most conversations with German-speaking people, and I have a hard time telling my barber how to cut my hair (not that barbers ever listen).

I live on the top floor of an apartment building with views of Lake Zurich and the mountains, a 12-minute train ride from Zurich. I can see the traffic on the Seestrasse below, and I can hear the church bells at all hours, every fifteen minutes. I walk the dog through the village every morning, in the dark, whispering “grüezi” to other dog walkers. I try not to smile, because Americans do that too much, I’m told, and it feels insincere to the indigenous population.

It is a good life. I am content (most days). I write blog posts. I have an idea for a book about multicultural congregations which my editor and publisher seem to find interesting. I hike the mountain ridge behind my village. I take pictures. I love my new congregation.

The downside, of course, is that I miss my children. They live (and work) a half a world away. They are married to good men. They have good jobs. And I am proud of them, more than I can adequately express. But I miss them. Occasional FaceTime chats are not enough. I watch their faces on the tiny screen. They are not the little girls I remember. And that’s good. But I miss those days. Those were good days too.

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I miss my grand-daughter. I had the thrill of seeing her take her first steps last August. She waited, I like to think, just so that I could be a witness. Or maybe her parents held her back a few days. Whatever it was, I was moved, as I was with my own daughters, about the powerful life force within us that wants to get up and get moving. She did and she is. She walks with ease now. There’s no stopping her. But last August those first tentative steps were – how do I describe it? – like grace. What can you do but savor it?

I can’t wait for Christmas this year. Partly because Christmas is so beautiful here, of course, and partly because I always look forward to Christmas Eve and the service of lessons and carols in a darkened sanctuary, filling up once again on that wonderful message of hope and joy. But mostly because, after a long flight on Christmas Day, I will be with family, my family.

I hope you have a good Christmas too. Fröhliche Weihnachten.

Love,

Doug

(Photos: except for the family photo, taken last summer by Brooke Collier, the rest are mine, taken very early on a Saturday morning, along the Pfannenstiel behind our village.)

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Growing up in a pastor’s home

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(During my 13 years as a pastor in Wheaton, Illinois, eight of our members, including one of my daughters, heard God’s call in their lives, went to seminary, and pursued ordination so that they could serve the church of Jesus Christ as pastors. It was an extraordinary season of ministry, one that still astonishes me.  One of those eight, Ericka Parkinson Kilbourne, is now a Presbyterian pastor in Michigan City, Indiana. She did her theological studies at Princeton Seminary, where she won the Jagow prize in homiletics and speech. Today, she is a mother of three, and like me she is a blogger. Recently she asked me to reflect in a guest blog on the dual vocations of pastor and father. Here’s what I wrote.)

If we had listened to every horror story about the difficulties of raising children in a pastor’s home,
we would have made the decision to remain childless – and felt pretty good about it.

Everyone who talked to us seemed to know of at least one situation in which a child, raised in the
wretched fish bowl of a pastor’s home, reacted in extreme and scary ways – including drug abuse,
petty crime, mental illness, and juvenile detention.

And now that I think about it, that’s odd because every person I know who grew up in a pastor’s
home has been a remarkably good and loving person.

My best friend during my teenage years was the son of a pastor, and life at his house always seemed
pretty normal to me. They didn’t sing hymns together around the piano every night, which I half
expected and which I definitely would have rebelled against. Instead, his dad occasionally enjoyed a
cold beer in the evenings.

Nothing in that household ever seemed alarming to me, but I might have missed something.

Anyway, I became a father while serving my first church after seminary, and the church responded
generously and thoughtfully to the birth. I was regularly overwhelmed by it. And because the
biological grandparents lived hundreds of miles away, dozens more at the church were more than
willing to take their place. Plus, a pool of reliable babysitters could always be found in the church’s
youth group. If anything, raising children in the church always seemed like an enormous advantage
we enjoyed – a perk of the career, you might say.

Our children, now well into adulthood, have talked occasionally about their experiences of growing
up in a pastor’s home, though it’s not something we dwell on, and mostly their memories of the
church seem to have been positive. To explain my work to her friends, my younger daughter used to
say I talked on the phone a lot – in a distinctively ministerial tone – which she thought was
hilariously funny. And that seems to be the strongest memory of my work from that period of their
lives – me talking on the phone.

My children don’t appear to have been harmed by their experience. One of them, the older one, is an
ordained Presbyterian pastor, which doesn’t seem to me like evidence of deep emotional scarring.

The younger one joined a church recently, soon after moving to a new city, and her only comment
was that she liked the old days when she was a child and people would regularly invite us over for
dinner. Now she says that she has to work harder at the relationships within the church.

So, our experience was good, and I am more grateful than I can say for it. We were blessed, of course, with some strong churches during their childhoods, churches with excellent Sunday Schools, large youth groups, and loving people. My children were witnesses to faith being lived out in some wonderful and obvious and very mundane ways. I suppose things could have been different.

Maybe what most needs to be said is that people should resist the temptation to tell about-to-be parents about all the horrible things that might happen. Instead we should probably say, ‘Do your best and you’ll be fine.’

Or as a farmer in my first church said to me, ‘Babies are like newborn calves. Keep them dry and well fed, and they’ll thrive.’

That was the best advice about parenting I ever received.

(Photo: That’s me a few months ago holding my new grand-daughter who – good for her! – is going to grow up in a pastor’s home.)

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