Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Author: Randy (Page 1 of 135)

Finding Good Company

When Paul says that ‘bad company corrupts good morals’ (1 Cor 15:33) he is, I understand, quoting a Greek playwright much as we might quote Shakespeare in order to make a self-evident point. In this case the self-evident truth is that our character is going to be shaped in a large measure by the company we keep. He who hangs out with angry people grows angry. Get all your news from the fearful, and every drop of rain becomes a piece of the sky that is falling.

The point I raised in a previous post is that perhaps the degradation of public discourse among Christians is that many of us are modeling our behavior and attitude on those whose feeds we read or shows we watch, on those whose way of handling opposition is entertaining and engaging more than it is Christ-like. Such less than stellar company may be corrupting our sense of what is good and right in dealing with controversy.

Not many of us are independent thinkers. We do need others to give us perspective and insight on issues. But with that perspective and insight will come a particular attitude and approach. If the source of our information is one which takes pleasure in demonizing and ridiculing opposing views, we, sadly, will find ourselves doing the same. We need to disassociate ourselves from those who convey a bitter, angry, fearful, and divisive spirit even though they might be funny and provocative and entertaining and even insightful. There is no question that those with the sharpest tongue (or pen) can often be the most engaging. But the ability to leave an opponent in a bleeding rhetorical heap on the floor (perhaps for a cause with which we agree), while captivating, does not nurture within us the heart of Christ. We can and should do better.

But what does better look like? I suggest that we find our perspective from those who, Christian or not, reflect the following attributes:

  • Humility – the willingness to admit limits of knowledge and understanding.
  • Integrity – the willingness to admit error.
  • Charity – the willingness to show deference and respect for those of an opposing view.
  • Restraint – the willingness to refrain from polarizing an issue when there is uncertainty.
  • Perspective – the willingness to see the sweep of history and the stability of the church over time.
  • Knowledge – being well informed on all sides of a subject.

I will expand on these as time allows. In the mean time, I am interested in attributes you would add. Further, I would love to hear the names of sources that you believe reflect these qualities.

But let me repeat my point: if we are ourselves to learn a gracious way of engaging, dare I say ‘loving’, our opponents, we should spend time around people who reflect these virtues and steer clear of those who don’t.

Quarrelsomeness

It is often with dismay that I cast my eyes over the Christian landscape.

This landscape is inhabited by friends as well as those who gain prominence in news reports and online and print conversation. It is a landscape of controversy and conflict, and it grieves me deeply.

It is not the existence of disagreement itself that pains me (though I am by nature conflict avoidant). Disagreement we will always have. Unity is not uniformity. The “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church is a reality born of many minds wrestling through deep questions seeking understanding and common confession. It’s not the presence of disagreement that is my concern.

My grief is sparked by the way we address those disagreements. Paul warns Timothy to flee from the one who has an “…unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction….” (1 Timothy 6:4, 5) It is the quarrelsome spirit with which disputes are carried out that grieves me.

That Paul addresses this spirit is a good reminder that the reality to which I speak is not one that is born of or unique to the internet age. Of course the ease with which news travels, and untruth and slander propagates, in a digital world does not serve us well. And it does not take long for those who hunger for ‘hits’ and ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ and ‘followers’ to learn that being provocative and edgy, perhaps quarrelsome, can spike those numbers in an intoxicating way. Nevertheless, the spirit of contention and the tendency to grow ugly in our disputes well predates the internet.

I grieve that in this we, the Church, have not learned to distinguish ourselves from the world. The sniping between the President of the United States and his critics carried out in plain sight on Twitter bears all the marks of a power and popularity struggle between pre-adolescent boys. It is shameful in its own way and cries out for a dose of restraint and decency. But I am afraid that someone familiar with that world dropped into the crossfire among Christians disputing the issue du jour would find no difference. Would he be able to tell that we are Jesus’ disciples by the love we have for one another? (John 13:35) I don’t need to answer that.

Just Be Cool

I am aware that this is a lament without substance. I am not footnoting and cross referencing or using person A and opponent B as examples. Yes, this is sparked by a current controversy which led me to drop in on some sites I don’t normally frequent. And yes, I was saddened by what I found there and saddened that good friends had directed me to sites that were happily trashing other good friends of mine. I’m purposely not being specific because my point is not one particular person or group and not one particular issue or conflict. It is that our discourse has degenerated to the point that I want to cry out in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 6, “Why not rather suffer wrong?” (verse 7) than fight before unbelievers?

This also might be a lament without solution. I can shout into cyberspace with the power of ALL CAPS and exclamation points, “STOP BEING SO MEAN!!!!” but that only adds to the noise. And it would be futile to wander among competing positions urging men and women to be nice and play fair.

But I do want to invite my small community of readers to act with some radical flair.

First, we need to agree that the spirit of our discourse is a problem. If I’m wrong in that, let me know. I will then return to my regularly scheduled life.

Secondly, we ourselves need to practice what we want to see. What is hard about this is that we so few models of how to enter into disagreements in a Christian way. We will, I fear, model those we hear. It should come as no surprise that if we hang around angry people, we will be angry. If our only models for how to confront differences are clever men and women proud of their verbal power and snark, then we will be trained to attack. Perhaps we need to remember that “those who walk with the wise become wise” (Proverbs 13:20) and its corollary regarding fools. Maybe we have been enamored with the wrong models. We have learned to react in accusatory, fearful, angry ways because those are the models to whom we have exposed ourselves.

We need to do better. We need to stop following, stop reading, stop promoting those who model what we would not want to emulate and find those whose spirit we want to imbibe.

More on what that might look like to follow.

God, Monasteries, and the Rhythms of Life

How do we ‘experience’ God?

One Sunday morning in college I stood in a worship service in our church in a pew three rows from the back singing the hymn “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart.” I wept at the words and the palpable sense of God’s love and favorable presence. I experienced the reality of God. I was moved. My devotion was deepened.

This past April, I returned to that church. I sat in the same pew. We sang similar songs. Similar leaders prayed. We heard the same Bible. But no tears came. No emotional engagement happened. I left unmoved.

So I ask, “How do we ‘experience’ God?”

I had never knowingly seen a monk. The one speaking to us was a bit chubby with short, cropped, slightly graying hair. His white robe underneath it’s black overlay, the signature of the Trappist, showed evident wear, stained in some places, frayed in others. As he spoke to us he betrayed a frequent smile. Though he had chosen a life of seclusion and silence I sensed he cared for people and took joy in speaking.

He introduced himself to us as Father Carlos and spoke to orient us to the week ahead of us at the Abbey of Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery where we were guests. He touched briefly on the rules of silence—where and when we could speak—assuming that it was for the silence that we had come. The monks open their home to guests so that, among other things, guests might through silence and solitude become ‘open to God in a particular way that is not always available in the world today’ as their welcome material puts it.

The Monks’ Church

One might think that pastors don’t need this, that we have a hot-line of openness to God. One would be wrong.

Pastors too easily orient their lives around what they produce for others. I find I’ve nearly forgotten what it is to read something—even Scripture—thinking only of its inherent value for me and my life as a Christian and not of how I might use it for a sermon or lesson or for someone else’s encouragement. I wanted, needed, to be ‘open to God’ in a way not ordinarily available to me. I wanted to experience Him in a fresh way.

To this end I determined to take nothing with me but a Bible and a notebook and to spend the time being engaged with God through his word in a way not otherwise possible. That was a good plan. But it terrified me. What if I bored of that? What if I could not sustain the prolonged biblical reflection? What of the time that would then be wasted? I panicked and shoved a dozen books into my suitcase, just in case, and effectively sabotaging the radical possibilities of my original plan.

I spent the week (silently!) reading and praying and walking. The books were good. The physical rest was real. The time I did spend in the Scriptures was fruitful. And watching men who have dedicated their days to to a routine focused on worship and prayer alerted me to the ways in which I’m enslaved to a world that discounts the importance of such things.

Nevertheless, there was “no angel visitant, no op’ning skies” as the hymn puts it. There was no overwhelming experience of the wonder and love of God.

If that is not found in a monastery, then where? How do we experience God?

It is easy to attach a sense of our ‘experience’ of God to our productivity. If we are doing enough good and working hard enough for Him, then we find it easier to sense his care for us. I know the fallacy of such thinking and I preach a gospel that undermines it. But it is a persistent burden we carry, trying to earn our way to friendship with God. It leaves us hungry, in need of a re-awakening, a revival in our inner being.

They are serious.

I had planned the monastery trip over a year ago because I was hungry for such renewal. But renewal is God’s work, and he did not wait for the monastery to do his work. From January through Easter I had the joy of preaching a dozen sermons

on the death and resurrection of Jesus from Luke 22-24. I cannot measure the impact of those sermons upon those who heard them, but in the one who preached them there was great fruit. Spending time in the presence of these texts stirred in me again an understanding of Jesus as one who loved me beyond measure and as one I long to follow.

This awakening was fed as I hit my post-cruise sabbatical stride, re-reading John Stott’s The Cross of Christ together with unhurried and regular Scripture reading alone and with my wife. The monastery retreat, intended to jump start a renewal process, simply became a part of it.

This is not surprising. Renewal, or some experience of God, ordinarily occurs not in a spectacular fashion, but in the course of faithfully lived lives. We may not know what to do with five days of silence and solitude and worship and prayer (or we MAY know what to do and panic). But the soil out of which real renewal will arise is the daily rhythms of a life faithfully lived. God is not constrained. He is as willing to warm our hearts through our breakfast Bible reading in the towns in which we live as he is willing to do so in the strange confines of a central Kentucky monastery.

For sure, the daily rhythms of a pastor’s life necessarily involve more time in the company of Scripture. If you are not a pastor, your rhythms will not match mine. But what is necessary for all of us is that we build moments into the daily rhythms of our lives that allow room for the Spirit to breathe his breath into us. For me that means certain things, for others different things. It may mean cracking open a few moments of each day or week to place yourself in the presence of God. Perhaps it means making it to church regularly on Sundays. It may mean meditating on Scripture as you walk the dog.

The stepping away from the ordinary rhythms of life, such as Gethsemani afforded me, is necessary if only to assess those rhythms and reset them to make more room for the things of God.

How do we experience God?

Perhaps we expect God to meet us as he met the French mathematician/philosopher/apologist Blaise Pascal who famously had an experience of the presence of God one night which he described simply with the word ‘FIRE’. Maybe he will. But ordinarily he does not.

He met me in the third row from the back in a suburban Michigan church in 1978 when all I had done was get up and do what I normally did – go to church.

Certainly such deep movements of the Spirit in the soul are not for us to orchestrate but for God to give. He will make himself known to the one who waits with patience in the ordinary and faithful living of the Christian life.

Preparing for Silence

A week ago Monday I pulled into the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery set in the beautiful rolling hills of Western Kentucky. Gethsemani is home to brothers of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance. At Gethsemani the monks (including author Thomas Merton until his death in 1968) continue the monastic disciplines of prayer, silence and labor as it has been practiced there for the past 170 years and around the world for nearly a millennium. For ordinary people like me the Abbey provides a place where one might sample a period of silence and reflection, and so I had come.

I was directed to a modest third floor room that would be my home for five days. It had once housed a monk for life. On the desk were a schedule of meals and times of prayer and the ubiquitous FAQ answers. Were I in charge, I’d add a page to that stack to adequately prepare new ‘retreatants’. It would say something like this:

  1. Be prepared to be silent. There are specified places for talking, but signage nearly everywhere reminds one of the rule of silence. Shocking as this may be to us used to constant noise, it IS a balm to one’s inner introvert.
  2. Be prepared to be silent. I know. I already said that. But your hosts mean it. You will find yourself wondering whether to say things like ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you’ (you may). You will need to suppress the urge to ask others for their names and hometowns and stories. They will remain strangers. But they are there to hear from God, not you. So, as much as this is a challenge to your inner extrovert, be silent.
  3. Be prepared to be well fed with three precisely timed (7:00, 12:30, and 6:00) meals of simple and wholesome food.
  4. Be prepared to not find beer. These are not the Trappists who brew. These ones make fruitcake and fudge. Sorry.
  5. Be prepared to look at these men as if they are some kind of zoo animal. (“O, look! There goes one!”) Monks are rare, after all.
  6. Be prepared to climb. There is an elevator that serves the newer portion of the retreat house, but it is so slow that I fear if I entered with a green banana on the ground floor it would be rotten by the third. To get a cup of tea from my room required 140 stairs. I counted. Of course I did.
  7. Be prepared to be awakened at 3AM by the bell in the bell tower. (Your

    The Bell

    window is open because there is no AC in these rooms. The bell therefore sounds like it is hovering, oh, three feet above your bed.) Vigils are at 3:15 (followed through the day by lauds, terce, sext, none, vespers, and, before bed, compline). These monks are serious about prayer and think you might want to join them. Even at 3:00AM. (I did. Once.)

  8. Be prepared to be drawn into these rhythms of prayer and psalm. I found myself at times checking my watch so that I might sit in the back of the church and bring my own heart and its concerns to their scheduled times of prayer.
  9. Be prepared to be different – to not like it. Some of us don’t like silence. Some of us reflect better in a library surrounded by books or in a coffee shop with a laptop than we do sitting in a garden or in a church. That’s okay.
  10. Be prepared to sleep. It’s not being lazy. It’s called rest.

I left my ‘cell’ early Friday, summoned by the 3AM bell, trudging down 70 stairs and out into the darkness and back to the ‘real’ world. I left having grown fond of the place in spite of its oddities.

And I left sent on my way by prayer, by men devoting their lives to that “useless” endeavor.

Theodicy and the Cross

Tuesday morning my wife and I read together these words:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1, 2)

In my experience, “How long” questions generally morph into “why” questions and when those who ask them don’t hear an answer from God they often ask their pastor. When asked I would love to answer with words that make the pain disappear. I listen and empathize as a fellow struggler.

That day that began with these questions ended with the terrible news of a friend’s tragic and sudden death.

Kevin Collins was a faithful minister of the Gospel, a servant who had given his life (that part not irretrievably captured by his love for the University of Tennessee!) to Christ and his church. As such he had loved and ministered to me and served and strengthened the church I pastor. His kindness was legendary and his pastoral heart irrepressible. I was shaken by this and was reminded how often death steals from us the things, the people, we love.

Why, God? How long shall our enemy be exalted over us?

Our souls cry out for explanations that satisfy our hearts. We want what theologians call a theodicy, a justification of the ways of God, an explanation of how evil can seem to still exert sway in a world purportedly governed by a loving God. We want a word to satisfy the ache in the heart caused by death.

God, however much we might plead, chooses not to answer all our questions. The scriptures do not exist to assuage our curiosity but to ensure our salvation. What we are told is that in the light of the cross, no matter how great the inexplicable evil around us, there are no grounds for questioning the love of God for us nor his devotion to our welfare. The God whose ways we so often question leaves us no question of his love for us.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…. (1 John 3:16)

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

No matter what we face, we need to be once again stunned by the depth of the love of God in the cross.

“We learn from John [1John 3:16, 4:10], then, that although in this world our attention is constantly arrested by the problems of evil and pain, which seem to contradict God’s love, we will be wise not to allow it to be deflected from the cross, where God’s love has been publicly and visibly made manifest.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ)

God’s love has been revealed to us in a dazzling and objective display of sacrifice. Will he who died for us not care for us in every other way?

We will still not understand the evil we experience. Life will continue to confuse us. Hard things will come. Questions will be asked. We will not get the answers we want. It is then we must look to the cross and know the unwavering love of God for us.

Senator Rubio’s Instructions on Prayer

On Monday Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted

For the senator this was a good political move. It will stir his base and none can argue a prayer for peace. Points all around.

And yet this vexes because it plays into a common misreading of the psalm to which it refers, a misreading which often poisons evangelical political thinking.

The Psalms of Ascent, of which Psalm 122 is one, were hymns of hope sung by Jewish pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for one of Israel’s annual feasts. Jerusalem was their focus because it was where God’s house was.

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!” Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem! (1, 2)

Jerusalem fills the psalmist’s heart not as a piece of real estate or civic entity but as the place where God is. It was a place of worship and a place of justice. It was held in his heart as the place where things are as they are supposed to be.

Jerusalem— built as a city that is bound firmly together, to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD. There thrones for judgment were set, the thrones of the house of David. (3-5)

This is the psalmist’s vision, but it is an idealized vision. He is aware of the city’s inability to effect all he longs for and so his hope is seated in Jerusalem as a symbol of what God will and can do when he dwells among his people, not in the city itself.

The failure of the physical Jerusalem moved Jesus to tears.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37)

Jesus did not weep for the city per se (cities don’t throw stones) but for the people the city represented. The city stood as the symbol of the people among whom God was determined to dwell, the people who bore his covenant promises. And so Jesus spoke of the destruction of the city (which came) and the consequent re-centering of those covenant promises in his church.

The psalmist is making a pilgrimage to a city which would fall under judgment and eventually be destroyed. But the hope his pilgrimage represented would not be touched. It would be relocated.

We all ache to be in that place where God is. The Jerusalem the psalmist longs for and is heading for and longs to be a part of is a society in which worship is unfettered, where judgment is rich with justice and mercy, and where God’s people are one. We long for the garden, for that deep impulse to be in naked fellowship with our God and with one another, and it is a longing that will be fulfilled. But it will be fulfilled by a city God brings from above, not one that is built on earth.

In the meantime, the hope and the prayers encouraged by this psalm are not for the protection of the residents and political stability of a city in Israel, appropriate though such prayers might be. The prayer this psalm encourages is for the peace of that people and that place where God’s worship is now centered, and where now God’s purposes of justice and unity are now worked out. To pray for the peace of Jerusalem is to pray for the stability, purity, and prosperity of the church.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this is not what Sen. Rubio had in mind.

The Exact Book

A popular eatery in town has fun asking customers to identify their orders by  answers to questions and not by name. One’s order may be identified by The Beatles if the month’s question is “What is your favorite band” or by “Main Street” if the question is “On what street did you grow up?” This month’s question is, “With whom would you most like to have lunch?” Being there with my wife, I knew the correct answer on that occasion. I have a hunch, though, that most people populated their answers with the names of famous people. Fame and celebrity dictate our interests.

And our reading choices. And that can be a shame.

Faced with a choice of what to read recently, my choices narrowed to three: Ron Chernow’s biography, Grant, Neil Gaiman’s retelling of Norse mythology titled, not surprisingly, Norse Mythology, and Margie Haack’s memoir, The Exact Place. Chernow wrote the biography that inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to create the Broadway hit Hamilton. Gaiman is the masterful storyteller both dark and delightful behind movies as diverse as Coraline and Stardust. And if we ask “Who is Margie Haack,” Wikipedia has no idea. Some know her as one of the key persons, with her husband Denis, behind a ministry called Ransom Fellowship. If fame was the deciding factor in my choice, Haack would not be in the race.

To help my choice, I read the first ten pages of each.

Fame be damned.

The Exact Place winsomely tells Haack’s story of being raised by her mother and stepfather on a farm in a piece of rural northern Minnesota that should be Canada. The family’s house gave up no floor space for bathroom facilities (those being conveniently located in a separate building) but it was still small for a family of eight. The neighbors were memorable, some for their primness, some for their libertine tendencies, some for the terror they would bring. All the delights and hardship of such a life are lovingly told. Life, death, love, and bringing the horse into the house. Lack was normal, family ties were tight, and life was mostly okay.

Mostly.

There is an ache in these pages as she reveals her deep longing for the love of a father. She carefully unfolds this longing and weaves it through the story of her spiritual awakening, finding in God the love her heart was unable to find elsewhere. She lets her stories reveal this longing, its frustration and its satisfaction, without any tone of preachiness. Content with gentle nudges she helps us see the longing to be known and loved we all possess. I felt befriended and confided in, not lectured. There is power in that.

At times, fame is deserved. I’m now reading Grant and it is worth the praise it brings for Chernow. But lack of fame is not necessarily a reflection on quality. The Exact Place is s a wonderful book that was agented and rejected by thirty-five publishing houses before being given life by Kalos Press, a small independent publisher. I get that larger publishers must base their decisions on what will sell. They know that a book such as this by a relatively unknown, though profoundly gifted, author would not sell in the numbers they needed. And so they passed on giving it the kind of visibility they could give.

But this is our fault and not theirs. As readers we flock to the well known often over the well written. We prefer the Chernows and Gaimans and neglect the Haacks. And we are all the poorer for it.

🕰 Books Worthy of Your Time 🕰

I had occasion the other day to resurrect all the book reviews I’ve written and posted on this site. For ease of access I’m posting them all here and taking the opportunity to categorize them.

The first groups the books I have read or would be likely to read more than once. Being worth such time, I’ve awarded them four “clocks.” 🕰🕰🕰🕰

The second grouping, receiving three “clocks,” 🕰🕰🕰, is for those that I genuinely liked. They are quite worthy, but did not have the same impact on me as those in the first.

The third lists books for which I did not much care. 🕰🕰,

And the fourth are books which I would not encourage any to invest their time. 🕰

I don’t start to read books I’m not likely to like. So, for books to end up in the bottom two categories means that these were books that I entered hopefully and was subsequently greatly disappointed.

These are only the books I’ve taken the time to write about. I could populate each category with many more selections, as could you.

I’m interested in hearing from you, especially if you disagree with my rankings.

🕰🕰🕰🕰
Cry, the Beloved Country

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Moby Dick

Gilead and here

The Brothers K

Summerland

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

At Large and at Small

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

The Jesus Storybook Bible

How Starbucks Saved My Life

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

 

🕰🕰🕰
Between the World and Me

Hillbilly Elegy

Strange Glory

Surviving Ministry

Being Mortal

The Name of the Wind

The Wright Brothers

George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father

In the Garden of Beasts

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

Just Do Something

1776

The Bullpen Gospels

New Bible Commentary

Physics for Future Presidents

The History of the Ancient World

Tinkers

Mornings on Horseback

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Crazy Love

Counterfeit Gods

The Color of Water

 

🕰🕰
Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

The Pastor

The Silence of Adam

 

🕰
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and here.

With Reverence and Awe

A Resilient Life

A Reader/Pastor/Preacher/(Writer?) Attends the FF&W

[For a spell I was away from my computer and easy access to the internet. Five thousand miles away, in fact. Hence, this post is a bit dated but I hope not wholly disposable.]

* * * * *

Off and on I ponder what God might want to do with my impulse to write.

That’s a lie, of course. I think about it all the time.

Writing is a large part of what I do as a pastor. But there are those who encourage me to push my writing to a larger platform. Such urgings stir something inside of me which I sometimes ignore. Other times, I feed them, as I did in April by attending the Festival of Faith and Writing, a biennial writers’ conference hosted by the Calvin College Center for Faith and Writing.

The attractiveness of this event is conveyed in this summary of the event’s history:

“Since our first gathering in 1990, we have been privileged to host hundreds of writers, including Maya Angelou, John Updike, Elie Wiesel, Marilynne Robinson, Zadie Smith, Miroslav Volf, Salman Rushdie, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, George Saunders, Christian Wiman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Tobias Wolff, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Mary Karr, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Yancey, Anne Lamott, Ann Voskamp, and Michael Chabon.”

One need not have writerly aspirations to be drawn by such a lineup. My wife (who cannot understand why anyone would want to write) thoroughly enjoyed attending with me. She was moved by the presentations of Walter Wangerin, Jr. and Kate Bowler touching upon suffering and joy, and she was challenged by a number of panel discussions on racism and diversity in contemporary publishing and church life. Books create community among readers. To meet and interact with their authors enriches that experience of community.

We both were particularly engaged by Kate Bowler, a young professor of church history whose cancer diagnosis two years ago spawned her wonderful book Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved). She has not yet escaped this diagnosis. She is still on a journey that may result in her early death. Her affirmation of life, that it is both beautiful and awful, is necessary for us all to hear. “I am not special,” she pointed out, meaning that sadly many, many others are on her path. This was confirmed during the question and answer period as one person after another stood up to ask questions preceded by statements of context, “My brother/mother/wife/friend has cancer/is bedridden/is suffering….” Her voice is a hopeful one in this broken world, and her voice draws people into a community of hope.

As a pastor with a conservative bent, I found myself sailing an unfamiliar ocean of theological diversity. I suspect that some of the nearly 2000 people in attendance are moored in the same theological harbor as I. Others, though, clearly sail from different ports and some struck me as genuinely adrift. I am grateful for my rootedness in historic Christianity. I find security in the sound doctrine and clear definition given by the creeds of the church and I find no need to jettison any of that (even if I had the right or desire to do so). When people differ it is easy from a distance to pass judgment and to condemn. When, however, I meet these people, when I have coffee with them or engage them in conversation, they become people with real questions and concerns. I may still disagree with them, but I am moved to treat them with greater charity and to ponder how my well moored theology might bring answers to the questions and struggles that they raise. Though uncomfortable this is good.

All the while, the preacher in me was moved to preach. And this came from a surprising source. The church in which I serve does not ordain women to ministry and does not permit them to preach. Consequently I did not expect to have my flickering belief in the power of preaching so magnificently fanned into flame by a woman preacher. Fleming Rutledge, one of the first women ordained as a priest in the Episcopal church, is renowned as a preacher in many circles. (She has recently been widely praised for her book, The Crucifixion.) She spoke passionately on the power of the word of God preached. Her words challenged me to remember what I often forget. There is power in the word preached. The Holy Spirit of God carries that word forward to the hearts of His people. It is a great privilege as a preacher to stand in the pulpit every Sunday and participate, not in a show or display of oratorical or rhetorical prowess but in the work of God among his people. She moved me to want to preach fourteen weeks before I will be able to do so again.

As a reader, as a pastor, and as a preacher I benefited. But as a writer? Did attending confirm my impulse to write? One session, wonderfully titled “Publish or Parish?” featured a panel of men and women (including Lauren Winner) all who have found ways to balance pastoring a church with their writing . To this panel I posed the question, “Is writing a hobby or a calling?” Their unwavering answer was that if it were a hobby, they would have abandoned it long ago.

I’m not so sure. I’m still processing whether this is a part of my calling or just a notion that needs to be put to bed. If it is calling, the question becomes what will or should I do to serve that calling? The jury is still out on that.

Sabbatical Plans (or “I May Go Dark Again”)

“Had we not been awarded the Lilly grant,” I told the congregation at our congregational meeting last September, “the sabbatical would still have happened. But Barb and I would be renting a kayak to paddle up and down the Little Big Econ (an oxymoronically named river near the church, pictured in the heading to this blog) rather than taking a cruise on the Mediterranean.”

But we were awarded the grant. Kayaking the Econ may still be a good idea, but what the grant is allowing us to do is far more dream-atic, if I may coin a word.

The sabbatical will launch this Friday, April 6, with a party at the church for the congregation and all who have some relationship with the church or with me. A food truck will feed us, and a bounce house will swallow the children. Capping the evening, magician Marc Vergo will make the children disappear (or at least entertain them for 90 minutes) and the adults will enjoy a concert by the Jimmy Buffett tribute band, The Caribbean Chillers. We want to celebrate and have fun together, and that we will do.

The following week, my wife and I will first wander up to Michigan to attend the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids. On that Sunday we plan to worship in the building in which we were married which, since that day so many years ago has, ironically, been purchased by a congregation of our own denomination, before returning home.

A kayak

A few days later, we’ll fly to Rome to begin a ten day Mediterranean Cruise. My guess is that it will be more relaxing than a kayaking trip.

In June, seeking a time of renewal, I’ll spend a week at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. I plan to take minimal supplies beyond a Bible, a journal, and a heart to pray.

There are other plans in place for this time, much of which will be spent at our home in Oviedo. We will end the sabbatical celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary in a lodge in the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alberta, Canada, a far cry from our honeymoon in the Smokies.

For the congregation we are publishing a book to guide the congregation through the same seasons of the sabbatical as I will be following. As well, a special lineup of speakers and programs are designed to enrich and bless the congregation. In addition to five of our church’s ruling elders, Jeff Brown, Nathan Ilderton, Jake Levee, Jon Boardman, and Mike Sacasas, three former staff members, B. J. Milgate, Rob Edenfield, and Josiah Katumu and former interim pastor Rod Whited will all preach for us.

One slot will be filled by Drew Dinardo, the father of one of our members. The remaining slots will be taken by Steve Brown, Bill Mills, Richard Pratt, Michael Allen, and Carl Ellis, Jr. This will be a rich three months of preaching.

As I have suggested elsewhere, I plan to hijack this space for occasional posts bringing reports and reflections during the sabbatical.

But, then again, I may not.

The primary goal of the sabbatical is to strip my life of the constant pressure of deadlines and responsibilities. If all I do is rest and reconnect with Jesus, then the time will have been a success.

But I do hope to check in here a time or two. Maybe.

“A joyful heart is good medicine.” – Proverbs 17:22

“If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.” – Jimmy Buffett

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