Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Author: Randy Page 1 of 138

The Fruit of Freedom

Poor or destructive relationships persevere by one partner or the other closing their eyes to the other’s faults. In this case, I cannot any longer close my eyes to what I have seen. So I count the cost of separation and move on.

The cost cannot be overlooked. Since I’ve begun this process of separation, I’ve heard concerns about Amazon’s intrusion into the publishing side of the book business and fears that Amazon would disrupt the distribution of certain Christian books. Both concerns should lead us to rethink our addiction to that “Buy Now” button. The latter post says that we should “be willing to pay a small premium” to buy from independent booksellers. I agree in principle, but disagree that the premium is small. It is in reality over 40%, to which my ever practical wife says, “This means we can’t buy as many books for our grandkids.” So, yes. The cost of freedom is, in reality, hefty.

In return I can reasonably guarantee that the books I buy and give are the genuine article. I can be certain that the authors who work long lonely hours pursuing their dream get financial credit for that pursuit. I may re-learn something about the discipline of self-control and the joy of delayed as opposed to instantaneous gratification. And I can take joy in shaking a lonely, rebellious fist in the face of this enticing Goliath. And this is not nothing. My grandchildren may get fewer books but perhaps I can leave them, as well, a small legacy of resistance to the relentless commodification of life.

But it’s the personal gain that is the sweetest.

One Saturday afternoon I invited my wife on a journey. We made the 30 minute drive to WritersBlock bookstore. We browsed the nooks and crannies of its tight book-packed space. We chatted with the clerk who smilingly welcomed us, and we bumped up against, literally, other book lovers. I spoke to one person about poetry. I discovered in the children’s section that Kate DiCamillo had released a new book. I picked up a David Brooks book I’d wanted to read and Barb grabbed a thriller autographed by the authors, James Patterson and Bill Clinton. We pointed things out to each other, and felt in the end like we were a small part of a non-digital human community. For $60, it was a good date, and one that Amazon could never supply.

Years ago Charlie Mora, a good friend and mentor, passed away. When he died I made a visit to Demetrios, the Bradenton, Florida pizza house that he frequented. I knew they would want to know that they would not be seeing Charlie any more. I knew they would care, not about lost business but about a lost relationship. They were glad I had come by. They would miss him.

We may or may not ever develop that kind of relationship with local bookshops. But I wonder if there might not be great joy in the effort. Amazon will never care if any of us dies. But maybe we can again begin to live so that those around us in our neighborhoods and communities will know that we exist, will be encouraged by our presence, and miss us when we are gone. Some fear it “may be too late.” I say that does not matter.

The Courtship

It is great in theory to say that one will leave Amazon for other bookselling relationships, but there is a cost to be counted. I was unaware how deeply the grip of Amazon’s price and convenience had on me. To give these things up requires a determination that I’m not sure many of us will be able to muster. How attractive, I wondered, would the alternatives be?

One repeated recommended bookseller was Hearts & Minds Books in Dallastown, Pennsylvania. Tish Harrison Warren in her initial online comments about the counterfeiting of her book recommended this store. It met all my criteria but the local one. We also considered two local independent stores. One was Brightlight Books (which specializes in used books, and whose new selection tends toward the Christian/theological side of the book world) and the other was Writer’s Block Bookstore (specializing in the more general publishing side of things). All three assured me that protocols were in place to offer secure books.

Hearts & Minds lived up to its positive hype. I visited their site, browsed a bit, and signed up for their promotional mailings. Very soon I saw advertised a book that I had wanted to read listed at 20% off, so I ordered it. Their ordering process seems primitive in an Amazonian age. I emailed them the name of the book I wanted. They gave me the choice of paying for it in a variety of ways including their sending the book with an invoice. (What? They would trust me? Inconceivable!) For a non-local seller the process was oddly personal. There were a series of email exchanges and in 4 days from placing the order I had the book. Of course, having advertised the book, I knew they had it in stock. I have not tested their speed when the book is one they have to order. Nevertheless, their turnaround was quite impressive and the feel very personal.

Brightlight has been for years my used book source in Orlando. Having a storefront two miles from my house also makes it terribly convenient. For this test I only bought a new book that they had in stock – so the convenience and turnaround was solid. The owner tells me that if I want to order any new book I can do so by sending him a personal email. I’ve not had a chance to test that process, so I’m not sure how quickly I would get a book by that method, but it would be personal and close.

To shop at Writers Block Bookstore requires more of an effort on my part. Though it is a lovely and quaint physical space with, I am finding, delightful and helpful personnel, it is a thirty minute drive from my home and only indirectly on my way to anywhere. It has the charm that I associate with a local bookstore that makes me want to go, hang out, wander around. Unlike browsing on a web site, I can pick up books, feel them, flip through their pages. And, unlike an online store, I bump into other customers. Literally. There is a human engagement that feels right.

However, my tastes are rarely going to be found on the shelves of such a store. I ordered three books using their web site ordering system, two books I knew they did not have in stock and one that I knew they did. The process was not very efficient. The book in stock was available for pick up two days after the order was placed, though it was five more before I could get to the store to get it. The other two took about two weeks before they were ready for pick up.

So, same-day delivery is not going to happen. But rarely do I need a book immediately. I’ll give that up. But what premium was I willing to pay? What would it cost me in dollars? Quite a bit, it seems. The eight books I have purchased in this test run cost me 43% more than what I would have paid had I purchased them from Amazon. And that is where Amazon has its tightest grip on someone like me. My $500 worth of yearly new book purchases leaps to $715 if I abandon the Amazon ship. And for most of us, that matters.

Amazon is a cheaper and sexier date, by far. Still, I would rather pay the premium for someone whom I can trust, and who will carry on a conversation over dinner.

How to Leave Your Lover

Paul Simon tells us there must be fifty ways to leave our lovers. It’s a pretty cold prospect. In my case, I was not worried about hurting Amazon. “She” would get over it. My departure would cause no emotional upheaval. I doubted she would even miss me. Which, in a sense, is part of the problem that our increasing online existence creates. The need for any human interaction disappears. The world becomes one large, impersonal vending machine accessed by my laptop or tablet or phone. I have no need of speaking with any real person. This cannot be good for us.

And so I needed to leave. But how?

In searching for a new book-buying relationship, I had four criteria.

1. Secure – I wanted a source that had a clear chain of possession that would guarantee that authors would get their money. Amazon sold counterfeits. Did others? I wanted to make sure, as much as possible, that they did not.

2. Independent – I could simply shift my business from Amazon to Barnes and Noble. There is one nearby. And yet, all large chains, from booksellers to hair-cutters to coffee sellers, encourage a homogenization that strips personality, and the personal, from the experience. In some cases this can encourage comfort – miles from home I can be certain of what I’ll find in a Starbucks. But a chain cannot imprint its own personality upon a business in ways that an independent vendor can. If you have seen You’ve Got Mail, you know that Fox Books can work, but not in the way The Shop Around the Corner does.

3. Local – Independent booksellers locally operated not only meet the first two goals, but in order to survive have to know their communities. They are parts of their community and that is reflected in the character of the store. If they do it well, we who frequent their stores understand that we are supporting those we know and in a small but not insignificant way sustaining our local economy more than that of Seattle or New York City.

4. Complete – I am looking for a source that can pretty much take care of all my diverse reading habits, from theology to kid’s books, from history to science fiction. I am willing to consider two sources if need be – one specializing in Christian publishers and one in the more general publishing world. However, I’d prefer a single source.

Twitter friends at this point generated several recommendations that met the first two requirements. Of these, I eliminated seminary bookstores as being too specialized. Some recommended ordering from publishers – but my interests span so many different publishers that I eliminated this as being too unwieldy to be a solution. Christian Book Distributors (Now Christianbook.com) was suggested, but this source has the impersonal feel that I attribute to the large chains (and I have a history of resenting their unsolicited mailings).

There may be fifty ways to leave, but I only had time to court a few new booksellers. Three seemed attractive enough to pursue. And so the courtship began.

The Habits of Dependence

Amazon, how have I loved you? Let me count the ways.

Coming home after a day away, one might look forward to a spouse’s kiss or a child’s embrace or a dog’s leap. For some coming home has meant the joy and anticipation of seeing a package from Amazon on the front stoop. That thing we wanted and had to have which we might at this point have forgotten even though we just ordered it yesterday is there sitting, waiting, greeting us with a quick fix of acquisition. How did it get there?

There was a time when the thing I wanted, whatever it was, required that I find a store, climb in my car, trundle off to that store, pick the item, pay for it, and trundle back home. If I were truly efficient, I would bundle several such items together stopping at several stores and call it “running errands.” It was so truly labor intensive that one only did it when the objects required were really needed. Like toilet paper or the newest release from your favorite musician. Things not truly needed would evaporate from my mind and never be given a second thought, and never missed.

Books were a particular challenge. In college I could buy textbooks at one of the local college bookstores. For books that would feed my growing Christian curiosity, I browsed the Logos Bookstore in East Lansing, a small but richly stocked place for good books and engaging conversation. Back then Christian bookstores made their money from selling books not what Os Guinness later came to call “Jesus Junk”—plaques and posters and pens and the like. When living in Bradenton, Florida, books still required a trip to a bookstore – Walden Books in the mall or eventually the then intoxicating Books-a-Million – with occasional forays to Haslams the palatial used book store in St. Petersburg. For my Christian books I depended on the Cumberland Valley Bible Book Service in Pennsylvania. I phoned in an order which would be mailed to me, and I’d pay by check. All quite quaint.

Amazon changed all of that and I embraced it wholly. No more trips to bookstores. No more phone calls. No more real people. Amazon trumped all that with price, convenience, and speed. Even if Amazon’s prices were not ridiculously low, we would shop there for the convenience and speed alone. Now, within 60 seconds of deciding to buy a book I can order it and pay for it and before nightfall (or within a day or two at most) have it in my hands. If my taste is for Kindle, I can have it immediately.

Occasionally such speed has met a real practical need. But not normally. The fact is that such immediacy is intoxicating more than it is needed. Children demand immediate satisfaction of their wants. It is a part of growing up that we learn the wisdom of delayed gratification. Amazon removes that need to grow up. We can have what we want when we want it as soon as we decide we want it. Amazon has positioned itself to tap into our baser instincts and we have happily played along. We have grown so dependent upon this relationship that going back seems impossible.

But perhaps it is possible after all.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do – Ending My Love Affair with Amazon

I can’t remember when Amazon and I first met, but it was love at first sight, and our relationship went deep fast. We’ve been together for a long time now, but the time to end it has come. I’ve lost that loving feeling, and now it’s gone, gone, gone.

Relationships often begin to deteriorate long before the parties are willing to admit the fact. I noticed some time ago creepiness lurking below the surface, but I ignored it. I would search for something on Amazon and the next day an advertisement for that very think would show up in an unrelated place. “Coincidence!” I insisted. My lover’s exclusive demands on me cut me off from other human interactions. “That’s the cost of love,” I reasoned. Like any desperate lover I overlooked a lot in exchange for benefits, in this case 40% discounts and same day delivery.

I was willing to suppress my suspicions of villainy. I can’t, though, ignore recent evidence of clear unfaithfulness.

In late June of this year, Christianity Today broke the story that Tish Harrison Warren’s wonderful little book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, had been counterfeited. Nearly a quarter million dollars worth of sales lost. Warren spoke wistfully of this on her blog. This was not simply a glitch in the business practices of a large corporation. This theft had drained significant income from the author and her family. And from all indications, as the New York Times had recently reported, Amazon took no action, and takes no action, to prevent such things from happening.

After this news broke I spoke with a friend who works in the sales department of InterVarsity Press (IVP), the publisher of Warren’s book. When IVP became aware of the existence of counterfeit copies traced to Amazon, they tried to contact the company but it took many calls and countless hours to find a person at Amazon with authority who would talk to them about their concerns. I had to put that in perspective. Amazon is so big and so impersonal that a publisher who does millions of dollars worth of business with Amazon is treated as a small player. Where does that put me or any other customer?

My friend told me that counterfeiting was common and that Amazon was not policing it. A separate New York Times report on the issue confirmed his take. In the absence of an aggressive response from Amazon the responsibility for insuring that only authentic editions of their books are sold has fallen on the publishers. I picture someone coming into my local grocery, replacing the boxes of Frosted Flakes with their own product made to look like Frosted Flakes, and the store management saying they can do nothing about it.

This is not a mere corporate skirmish. Those hurt by this are the authors, the Tish Harrison Warrens who labor hard and pour flesh and blood and heart and soul into the words on a page. To steal this, or to stand by and do nothing while it is stolen, is to treat too lightly the labor and humanity that is at the bottom of this publishing food chain.

It’s taken this to see what is wrong in our relationship, though we’ve been together for years. My love is not being reciprocated and I certainly don’t want to have to snoop around to make sure no hanky panky is going on. I live in Orlando where a little company called Disney wants all the tourism money. Amazon wants all my book money. But, I realize, I don’t have to give it.

I need to break it off. I need to take a stand. We need to end it, this thing we have, even if breaking up is hard to do.

What I Did on Summer Vacation

When I was a sophomore in high school, I tried out for the cross country team. My best friend was a star runner and I thought I could give it a try. What could be so hard about running a couple of miles?

It wasn’t pretty. I became the team manager instead.

Since then my running career—currently on hold due to plantar fasciitis—has had as many stops and starts as my career as a Celebrated and Famous Blogger. And as successful. Every January or so I push forward with great energy. By March the distance between posts lengthens, and they all but disappear come June.

What happened this summer? Have I replaced writing with surfing or crocheting? No. It only seems that way. I’m actually writing more but just not for the moment for the blog.

My writing priorities are four:

1) Sermons – My day job has me delivering a “4000 word essay” weekly. This will always be my priority.

2) Books – I have two books in various stages, which I’ve detailed here and here.

3) Craft – I feel a need to work on my writing as a craft. Some have suggested I write fiction (which is not happening). Others have challenged me to write something funny (harder than it sounds). Most of these projects will never be shared publicly but they allow me to work at the craft of writing which is important.

4) This blog – For this I generate two or three ideas/week, most of which live in a pile where they ordinarily go to die. A friend once encouraged me to just “let ‘er rip” or some such counsel for blog posts. I’ve never been able to do that. Even this one, as I type, is in need of revision and proofing. (I hear that Toni Morrison was famous for “re-writing.” That’s it. Toni Morrison and I, you see, share a lot in common.)

For several months I’ve been focusing my non-sermon writing hours on the Something Worthy Living For book. I’ve completed the first draft and now am in the process of revision. I’ve dangled the proposal before three publishers and though one expressed some initial interest, all three have chosen not to pick it up. A widely admired author and professor (who must at this point go unnamed) told me that I have written a “beautiful book” which buoyed me wonderfully. He then sent a dozen pointed corrections and suggestions which at first unnerved me until I realized that he had read it closely (a great honor) and had taken pains to help me make it better. He is writing to his publisher to encourage them to consider taking an interest in it. There is hope yet.

In the meantime, life goes on. We’ve done what others do in the summer. We went camping with the family and had a short trip to St. Louis. I’ve read mystery novels and thrillers by David Baldacci and Elmore Leonard, science fiction by Ted Chiang and Blake Crouch, non-fiction by David Brooks, a child’s book by the wonderful Kate DiCamillo, and the most enjoyable book I’ve read in some time, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. And I’ve changed my writing schedule which may allow more blog posts to see the light of day.

I never quite became the runner I set out to be that day I tried out for the cross country team. But I’ve not stopped running. Nor writing.

Books (Not) in Print, Theology Edition

“Two streams converged in a wood,
And I was swept away,
and that has made all the difference.”

(with apologies to Robert Frost)

This is not a story of a wood or of literal streams. But it is the story of a convergence that captured my heart and ( once again) launched me into writing a book. While working with the content of the first book, a friend put me in touch with David Mills, a former executive editor of the journal First Things. A part of the wise counsel he kindly gave to this unknown pastor from Florida was this challenge:

“I’d also urge you to set yourself to write a regular column of some sort with too low a word limit for what you want to do. A weekly article for your bulletin or web site would do. Try to exposit each clause of the Nicene Creed in 250 words or predestination and the historical debates over it in three 300 word articles. Anything that forces you to cut and cut.”

To reduce forces a writer to come to grips with what he wants to say and to make sure he says it in the clearest possible way. E. B. White’s “omit unnecessary words” captures this.

This challenge from David Mills is the first stream.

The second stream has been a part of my life for some time. I pastor within a tradition whose theological standards are three related documents from the first third of the 17th century. Among the three is a little gem called the “Westminster Shorter Catechism.” Its 107 questions and answers, containing just over four thousand words, are a comprehensive and devotional survey of historic and reformed theology and practice.

The first question and answer is well known (“Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”) having made recent guest appearances in writers as different as John Piper and Rick Warren. But the supporting cast, while as insightful and rich, remains largely unknown.

And that is a loss.

The only resource that has been available to help people come to know, appreciate, and understand the Catechism has been a work that was written in the early seventies. It has served the church well but is dated. I have long urged others, some well known and others not, to write a new and fresh introduction and exposition of the Catechism. But none has been crazy enough to try.

These two streams, the Mills challenge and the need for a fresh introduction to the Catechism collided and led to my commitment to write short (five or six hundred words) entries on each of the seventy topics touched upon by the Catechism. My envisioned readers are the many thoughtful and curious people who want to understand historic reformed Christianity but who find the standard introductions too weighty and daunting. The work’s title, Something Worth Living For, captures its goal, that readers might find a rootedness here.

The work, about two-thirds complete has generated some good initial encouragement.

“Pastor Greenwald’s Something Worth Living For is a fine exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. His work is theologically accurate, and he never forgets that he is addressing real people.”

Theologian John Frame

“Finally a book of theology and the Reformed faith that won’t bore the reader to death.”

Pastor and teacher Steve Brown

“This is a project that requires writing chops, theological acumen and a pastor’s heart. Randy’s got them all.”

Former Warsaw Bureau Chief for Bloomberg News Nate Espino

Very kind, these words. But kind words don’t sell books. And though I care deeply about this work and want to make it accessible, that will take a great deal of work, a good dose of luck (see my conversation about Q/A 11 in the forthcoming book), and perhaps the engagement and help of a lot of friends.

The two streams converged to produce the book. Here’s hoping for a third, that of a publisher eager to invest in such a work.

Books (Not) in Print, Memoir Edition

As a writer who aspires to be published, I’ve discovered quite a few excellent books written for such people. Turns out there are a lot of us. And the advice the experts give us, consistently, is to establish a regular, disciplined routine of writing.

Writing, it turns out, is as glamorous as a trip to the gym.

The fact that writers devote themselves to something they sometimes look for excuses to avoid is an insight into the drive that some have to create, or the passion they have to tell a story.

And I have a story to tell.

Beginning around January of 2016 I began, weekly, to find my way to the back porch of our house and sit in the mid morning sunshine to write. These Friday mornings became sacred to me.

The story that came pouring out is one of God making a pastor of the young man who swore he would never be a pastor. It is the story of a very patient and wonderful small church who welcomed this young man and showed him how to be a pastor. That is the bright side of a story that took a dark turn.

I wrote because I needed to explore how I allowed the good vision with which I began ministry, a vision nurtured by wise and godly mentors, to be hijacked by bad theology and worse practice. I am not proud of this part of the story, but it needs to be told because I am not the only one susceptible to such forces.

Because the story does not end there is the heart of why I want this story told. It came about that I prayed to understand grace and two days later my world fell apart. God broke me hard against the wall of my own foolishness and out of the pieces gave me a picture of his love and glory I could have seen no other way. This is a story of God’s spectacular grace, and it needs to be told. The title I’ve given to this story is A Reformed Pastor. And yes, the title has multiple connotations.

As any writer will tell you, of course, writing the first draft of anything, while tough, may be the easy part. The challenge ahead is to pare 110,000 words down to a manageable 70,000 or so and to sell it.

Along the way, I have received some encouragement. One agent, in rejecting it, of course, said, “your writing is good, solid, and the idea is good.” The problem is that I’m not sufficiently well known, but I take “good, solid” as an endorsement at least to keep at it.

Wesley Hill was kind enough to take a peek at this and to say,

“Randy [has] written a sort of ‘anti-success’ memoir that I think could be a real boon to so many pastors. It’s about the realities of pastoral failure and mistakes and frustrations that don’t magically go away with some formula followed, conference attended, etc. Not only is this theme a vital one, in our age of multiplying success strategies and resultant guilt, but Randy’s also a good writer with a knack for storytelling.”

A “good writer with a knack for storytelling” is a line that has kept me going for many months since, and has led to another, perhaps more marketable, project.

More on that next time.

I’m a Writer

Hi. My name is Randy, and I’m a, I’m a . . . I’m . . .

I’m a writer.

I’ve been trying to understand why this is hard for me to confess. Truth be told, I’ve been a writer for the majority of my life.

Since becoming a pastor I’ve written sermons whose cumulative length would equal one good sized Stephen King novel each year. Since 2006 I’ve written for this blog, sometimes more regularly than others, but with general consistency.

At other times I’ve been paid to write. For a few years I wrote software reviews for the IDG Communications’ publication Amiga World, and after that I wrote the content for Great Commission Publications’ family worship guide As for My House which my wife and I had previously self-published.

Nevertheless, to say “I’m a writer” feels to me an attempt to claim membership in a fraternity to which I have no right. I admire writers too highly to claim status among them. To say, “I’m a writer” sounds to my ear akin to saying “I’m Eugene Peterson” or “I’m Marilynne Robinson.” This is as ludicrous a hesitancy as it is a claim, I know. I am not, never will be, and cannot pretend to expect to be, these people. Neither can most writers.

Nevertheless, to wear the label seems to me a claim to stand with them, and that is something I am uncomfortable doing.

I have always had a hard time wearing the label writer. However, my perspective began to change after attending last year the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, I attended a panel presentation led by four writers (some well known, others not) who were also pastors. I asked them whether they viewed their writing as vocation or hobby. Was it a part of their calling, or something they did “on the side.” They looked at each other, smiled, and one answered, “If we considered it a hobby, we’d give it up. It’s too hard.” The rest nodded their agreement.

Calling, as I’ve explored it with those considering pastoral ministry, is a combination of internal desire and external confirmation. Many have the internal inclination. They want to preach or to “help people” (whatever that means). But internal desire needs to be matched with an outside judgment that they indeed have the gifts for preaching and a track record of helping people pastorally. Applying similar criteria to writing, can I say that I am called to write?

Working through this with my friend, Mike Osborne, a fellow pastor and writer, our judgment has been that yes, this is a part of my calling. There is no question the internal desire is there, though, as I’m prone to do, I’ve overthought the source and motivation behind it. As well there are those who have encouraged me to pursue this, who have read what I have written and who, having the expertise to judge such things, encouraged me down this path.

I have yet to determine how big a part of my calling this is. What this is to look like, if any different than it has been in the past, is a developing scene. My primary calling is as a shepherd, to care for the church I have been called to pastor. Writing is simply a part of this. Where this leads is unknown to me. It’s an adventure and I’m speaking to it here to invite others to explore it with me.

Of course, this could be so much chutzpah. Just as some people read the Bible and the so-called “signs of the times” as pointing to Jesus returning on a particular date, perhaps Randy is prone to read the signals of his heart and the voices around him as a clear indication that he should write. Maybe it is all so much hooey.

And yet, though it is overly dramatic to say so, there is a “burning in my soul” to do this. No one yet has stepped forward to stop the madness or tell me I’m just too ugly for this beauty pageant (although I’m collecting rejections from publishers and editors and agents which may eventually amount to the same thing). So I might as well just admit it.

My name is Randy, and I’m a writer.

The Five (S1:E3)

I’ve been up to some funny business (more on that another day) and so have not been able to give the blog the attention it deserves. However, I have been collecting noteworthy items for this episode of The Five. I hope they interest you.

1.I’ve had the privilege of knowing some really good preachers and others who struggle in the pulpit. But one thing I respect in those I’ve known is that when they step into the pulpit, they are bringing the fruit of their own interactions with God and his word, prepared especially for their own sheep.

Apparently, that is not the universal experience. Scot McKnight’s challenge to pastors to preach their sermons and not someone else’s is important for what it says about what happens in that time when preachers speak to the people God has gathered for them.

To preach a sermon that is not yours is to create an image of yourself that is not truthful. . . . A sermon is a specific pastor’s engagement with a specific congregation. No one else can do this.

2.I’ve thought a lot the past several years about the power of myth – the stories a culture tells itself in order to justify its actions or simplify its motives. We have many civic myths, such as every military action being one in which our military is protecting our freedoms. The church has its myths as well, among them being the unquestioned nobility of the missionary and his labor. Mythical thinking is not always truthful and honest. This article reviews a book by Kathryn Long which revisits and evaluates the martyrdom of Jim Eliot and his associates. The story itself is a sacrosanct hero narrative among evangelicals, but like most stories, most myths, is more complex than it first appears.

Complexities like these don’t pack the same emotional punch as clear stories of missionary heroism. They do, however, give us a fuller understanding of how the world works. In her epilogue, Long points out a key theme in Elisabeth Elliot’s 1966 missionary novel, No Graven Image. Her young, idealistic heroine discovers that there is much more to missionary work than audiences at home realize.

3.I’m sorry that these articles are behind the Christianity Today paywall, but that can’t be helped.

I’ve mentioned in these pages the question of lament and its proper place on the tongue of the Christian. A helpful voice in these matters is Todd Billings, a theologian at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan and a cancer survivor. His book Rejoicing in Lament has been helpful to many. Some of the themes of that book are addressed in his article “Can Anger at God Be Righteous?”

“In addition to our confession, thanks, and praise, our covenant Lord calls us to bring our hopelessness, anger, fear, and bitterness before him. In his love, the Lord calls us to trust him enough to wrestle with his promises. In order to grow up into our identity in Christ, we need to join the psalmists in rejoicing, lamenting, and crying out to the Lord in a myriad of ways.

4.Rachel Held Evens has been a force in the American Christian world for some time. Suddenly and tragically less than two weeks ago, she died. She was only 37, leaving behind a husband, two small children, and a confused community trying to understand her appeal and impact.

Already, those assessments have themselves proven divisive. That is a shame. Agree with her or disagree, she raised questions that need to be raised and held up a mirror to the church in which we could see how others see us. Such is not always easy, but it is always necessary.

Ed Stetzer’s tribute to her in Christianity Today replaces an earlier one which CT put up and then, under criticism, took down. Stetzer does not overlook the controversy that swirled around RHE, but touches upon an aspect of that controversy which I’ve seen mentioned in numerous places.

But even amidst conflict (that was often quite personal, in that it mattered personally to both of us), she never stopped engaging directly. The effort that it takes to deal with people one-on-one is tremendous, and she did not run from it.

To engage, even to differ, personally, may be something that we cannot afford to lose.

5.To divide a room quickly, introduce the subject of immigration. I can think of few topics on which people feel so strongly while at the same time knowing so little about than immigration.

Unless it is guns. Or abortion. Or race.

Okay, so there are a lot of them.

But this one is helped by a recent article in The Atlantic. David Frum brings some helpful data and history to the subject that gets beyond the emotive soundbites that are the norm. The issue has frustrated me over the years because politicians have not wanted to address it sanely. A wall is not a solution, it is a symbol, Frum points out. And symbols are powerful when there are no reasonable solutions being proposed.

If difficult issues go unaddressed by responsible leaders, they will be exploited by irresponsible ones.

I may or may not agree with his conclusions, but at least his presentation is absent the polarizing rhetoric of the Twitter or TV news bite. Worth reading.

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