Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Biography Page 1 of 3

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.

The Sleep Habits of Noble Beasts

My oldest son and I used to have arguments about whether one is a night or morning person by choice, by nurture, or by nature. He insisted it was NOT by nature, and who was I to say. My habit of getting up early was initiated by a job in seminary (I had to be at work at 5AM, sometimes at 4), and was nurtured through years of children (I had to get up early to have ANY alone time). I always assumed that I had learned to rise early and just could not break the habit. An argument for nature is made by the fact that my older brothers, both retired, are in bed by 830 and up by 500 every day, even though they don’t have to do so.

Some like to make a moral case for early rising. Jesus rose early, it is pointed out, and went to the hills to pray, so clearly, it is more spiritual to be an early riser. Some make that case, but not James Henly Thornwell.

Thornwell was a leading Southern Presbyterian scholar of the 19th century. He was at one time president of the University of South Carolina, and later of Columbia Theological Seminary. He was an avid churchman and a devoted husband and father. And like the recently retired Alex Rodriquez, his bio includes asterisks. A product of his time and culture, he could not see the blindspot that was his support of and defense of slavery.

That said, I’ve often been taken by Thornwell’s repudiation of the idea that the early riser is a morally superior being. His biographer tells of a few nights that Thornwell spent with a friend who struggled to adapt to Thornwell’s night-owlish habits. In a letter, JHT commented on this, giving a wonderful tongue-in-cheek defense of the moral superiority of HIS habits:

“He left the city in self-defense, protesting that a few more nights with me would kill him; and pitying my wife, who, from year to year, had to endure the plague of a man who neither slept nor waked, according to the laws which govern civilized human beings…. I think a brief campaign with me would completely cure him of the infirmity of feeling sleepy at night. I endeavoured to impress upon him that the noblest beasts, such as the lion, take the nights for their feats of activity and valour. To work in the day, when every one can see you, savors too much of ostentation for a generous and modest spirit; and to be eating by eight o’clock in the morning, indicates a ravenous propensity for the things of earth.”

There you have it. Case closed.

By the way, my son now often is up before me. On his days off. He has not been able to fight nature.

Points for Coolness

I’ve been listening quite a bit to the Hamilton soundtrack over the weekend, and this evening before supper, I was, apparently, walking around the house singing, “I’m not throwing away my shot…”

My 15 year-old looked at me with puzzlement and a hint of renewed respect. His dad was apparently sounding like the music he listens to.
Hamilton
Yup. This guy deserves to stay on the $10 bill.

Ironies

When I was young, I was called to a church in Bradenton, Florida, where all the restaurants were jammed at 4:30 in the afternoon with snowbirds and seniors. Closer to my wedding, I did more funerals than weddings.

Now I am older, and I am called to a church in Oviedo, Florida, on the edge of the University of Central Florida, a teeming metropolis of 63,000 students, 90% aged 25 or younger. Closer to my funeral, I do more weddings than funerals.

Is this merely an irony or is it the wisdom of God?

That is, of course, a false dichotomy. The wisdom of God is often full of irony.

For God Took Him

Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him. (Genesis 5:24)

In the genealogies of Genesis 5, this line regarding Enoch stands out because it does not say that Enoch died, as it does of all the others listed, but that he simply ‘was not’. For reasons we cannot know, his transition was different. The writer of Hebrews says that he did not ‘see death’. He simply was no more because God took him. Enoch’s uniqueness lies in his not tasting death. All who walk in faith and then leave this life do so because ‘God took him’.

God took my friend Dave yesterday. Dave did, in fact, see death, but it was, as far as we know at this point, quick and without terror. He was recovering at home following successful by-pass surgery when God, through a means not yet known, took him.

Dave pastored a church in my denomination. His church was located five miles from the one I pastored and as for a time, while his church was in its early days, we shared a building, we had much more contact than many pastors might. As different as we were, we became friends. It was a friendship that for me was essential for my persevering as a pastor.

A few months ago I was asked to serve on a panel discussing how pastors stay mentally and spiritually healthy. My primary contribution to that panel was first to say that I’m not sure that I am healthy. But I went on to say that if perseverance is any indication of health, I owe that to a small group of friends who have both believed in me and have loved me with all my faults. Foremost, a pastor needs other pastors before whom all facades are removed and complete honesty can prevail. Few pastors have this. Dave became that for me.

Fred B. Craddock was a man who for many years trained pastors. He made sure that he got to students early in their seminary education to tell them this:

You very likely…will experience lapses in your own personal faith. Do not panic. In the interim between the lapse of faith and the return of faith…let the church believe for you until your own faith returns. (Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, page 8)

Dave believed for me and I for him during those lapses over 20 years of ministry. One cannot measure the gift that was. It is rare. And one cannot imagine that being gone.

To share the depth of the loss is not possible now. Memories clamor for attention. Shock and sorrow mingle, and if in me, how much more in his lovely and now bereaved family.

I cannot understand why God would choose now to take him. And yet to know that it is God who took him provides a measure of comfort. His passing is not a random loss. Dave walked with God and then, inexplicably but certainly, God took him. God, who gave his own son. God, who raised Jesus from the dead. God, who loves with an everlasting love. God took him. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Of course, God knew full well what he was getting in taking Dave. If you knew and loved Dave, simply replace the name ‘Mitch’ with ‘Dave’ below and smile with me. We’ll miss him.

Mitch

Bonhoeffer. Again.

A friend messaged me the other day wondering if I was aware of a new Bonhoeffer bio about to be released. StrangeGlory

I was not, and yet the news made me hopeful. As any who have glanced at these pages know, I have felt that Eric Metaxas’ bio is embraced by so many not because of the quality of the writing, which I find wanting, but because of the power of its subject. I would love to see a modern critical biography of Bonhoeffer that tells his story well. (See my review here and follow-up comments here.)

I was given hope about this biography by Charles Marsh by the fact that at least the cover has a picture of Bonhoeffer smiling. I know, don’t judge a book by its cover. But the common pictures of Bonhoeffer are so dour, including the one on the cover of the Metaxas bio, that they make me NOT want to get to know the guy.

To see whether I’d want to pre-order the new book, I searched for some reviews. In so doing I was reminded of how much a minority I am in my evaluation of Metaxas style. The Kirkus review (which is anonymous) concludes with this line:

Though Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer (2010) is a more sensitive and well-written account of the subject’s life, Marsh also serves readers well.

There is much in the Metaxas biography that makes it a useful resource. But I continue to be mystified by those who say it is ‘well-written’. Well researched? Check. Well documented? Check. Thorough? Check. Successfully reclaims Bonhoeffer for a more orthodox Christianity? Check. Well written? No.

The publisher sponsored blurbs on Amazon praise the writing of the Marsh bio. But so do many who praised the one by Metaxas. So, I’m jaded.

The big question for me will be this: do I have sufficient interest in Bonhoeffer to slog through another 500 page bio on his life? At present, no. Knowing there is a well told story between the covers of this book could push me to read it. I wait to hear from others if this is so.

In the meantime, maybe I should just read, well, Bonhoeffer. Now there’s an idea.

Mr. Knox’s Courage

In my sermon this past Sunday, I made mention of the period of England’s history in which Edward VI was dying, and others were scheming to retain power by arranging for young Lady Jane Grey to be his successor. (This is all wonderfully captured in a movie called simply Lady Jane which is, unfortunately, very expensive to buy, but can be streamed.)
Lady Jane
In the midst of this intrigue, a young John Knox was given opportunity to preach to the parties involved. He made the most of his opportunity.

The second Sunday in April 1553 the last Tudor King of England went to hear, for the last time, one of his favourite preachers in Westminster Abbey. All the glitter and jingle of a medieval court was there; the glorious, flashing colour, the shields and banners, the velvet and miniver. His Highness Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, a gorgeous figure, famous as a jouster, with his tall handsome sons: Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, the perfect time-server, who was Comptroller, Secretary and Lord Treasurer to Edward, who cursed Mary as a bastard, yet lived to ‘crouch and kneel’ successfully to her in turn; all the dukes and earls and jewelled ladies were there: for sermons were high fashion, for the moment, in England.

Knox, the dour little Scotsman, rising to preach, perhaps looked round from the white-faced boy to the jealous lords: and gave out his text from the Gospel of St. John xiii. 15: ‘He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me.’

These words, used by the Lord at the Last Supper, are quoted from Psalm 41, v. 9, in which David laments the treachery of Absalom. Knox turned back to read again those incomparable stories of treachery and heroism in Isaiah, in 2 Samuel xvi and xvii, 2 Kings xviii; stories of three different sorts of traitors: of Shebna the traitor who wormed his way into King Hezekiah’s confidence, becoming comptroller, secretary and treasurer – did the congregation prick up their ears? Of Achitophel who rose to be the highest in the land while he plotted with Absalom to supplant David: whose counsel ‘was as the oracles of God’: of Judas who sold his friend.

The preacher’s voice rose to a climax: ‘Was David and Hezekiah, princes of great and godly gifts and experience, abused by crafty counsellors and dissembling hypocrites? What wonder is it then, that a young and innocent King be deceived by crafty, covetous, wicked and ungodly counsellors? I am greatly afraid that Achitophel be counsellor, that Judas bear the purse and that Shebna be scribe, comptroller and treasurer.’

There must have been a wave of anger – perhaps of laughter – along the gorgeously dressed congregation. Was there too a flicker of satisfaction over the white face of the little King? But whether or not he was the King’s favourite, this sermon went a little too near the bone : Knox was summoned before the Privy Council of England on 14 April.

There were present at this Council, Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, the Earls of Bedford, Northampton and Shrewsbury; the Lord Treasurer (‘Shebna’), and the Lord Chamberlain, and two Secretaries of State. For obvious reasons, they did not take him up on the sermon; but instead brought up the old complaints against him. Why had he refused preferment? Why had he objections to kneeling, to the special wafer instead of common bread, and the like? Knox had answers ready for all their points: so in the end they ‘dismissed him with fair words’, saying only ‘they were sorry to understand he was of a contrary mind to the Common Order’….

His enemies could afford to wait a little. The sands were clearly running out for Edward. Youth had ceased to fight with death: his days were numbered.

Plain Mr. Knox, Elizabeth Whitley

This scene, unfortunately but not surprisingly, does not make it into the movie.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

I’ll never quite know why and how it is that a particular actor becomes one whose death I lament – but hearing that Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose of heroin yesterday struck me as very sad. I feel I’ve lost something that was valuable. A face, a voice, a presence that I’ll never experience again.

Hoffman Magnolia 300x201

The best and most reflective tribute I’ve read is this from critic and author Jeffrey Overstreet.

In a way, we mourn the death of actors because we love the characters they played, not because we knew who they were as individuals. And it’s plain to see that Hoffman was fighting a terrible battle behind closed doors, while audiences enjoyed what he could do to bring other personalities to life.

We don’t know them, and what the average observer might not know is that Hoffman was fascinated with the character of Christ, and considered himself a believer. This was sparked by the genuine faith of his sister and the vigor of her evangelical community.

The idea that a young person could be sane, generous, intelligent and Christian held out great appeal for him. So did the palpable sense of community he felt with his sister and her friends.

The whole piece is worth reading, and pondering. Soberly, he concludes:

Moreover, I am inspired to remember that even if all of my worldly dreams come true and I gain riches and fame and respect, I am still vulnerable. I have no place to speak any words of judgment over the circumstances of Hoffman’s death. In my moments of clear-thinking, I know that I have my own addictions. I have my own secrets that exist in direct contradiction to what I profess and what I long to be. By grace, I’ve been spared all kinds of devastating consequences. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner, and upon us all.

Metaxas vs. Me: A Reprise

I give up.

From all that I can gather, Eric Metaxas is a nice guy, a smart guy, a funny guy, and generally, a good writer.

But I also am gathering that my wife and I are the ONLY people on planet Earth and, for all we know, in the galaxy not to fall head over heels over his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I went public with my issues with the work just over a year ago: Bonhoeffer vs. Metaxas. Since then, I’ve yet to find someone who agrees with me.

A recent dinner guest when the subject turned to books mentioned being deeply impressed with the book. He was unaware of my take. A good and wise and discerning friend in Bradenton recently told me that he loved the book. He WAS aware of my view. Ouch.

But that’s not all.

The religious news service recently ran an article about Eric Metaxas being something of the ‘new’ Charles Colson. I’m not sure what a new Charles Colson is, but the article mentioned George W. Bush having read the bio and implied that Barack Obama would do the same.

The NY Times then recently asked National Institutes of Health director and human genome decoder and all around really smart guy Francis Collins about the best books he’s ever read. Of all the books in all the world, he has to mention this one:

I was deeply moved by Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and loved “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” by Walter Isaacson.

Sigh. The irony is that I read the Einstein biography immediately after the Bonhoeffer, and it was so much superior in my mind that the only way to compare them was by contrast. But how do I take issue with presidents and preeminent geneticists?

My opinion has not changed. A biography should tell a story well. Bonhoeffer’s story is great, but this is not a good telling of it. I continue to believe that readers are so drawn to Bonhoeffer that they fail to see the faults of the book itself. So, I guess I haven’t given up after all. I’m just losing.

My Precious-es

In the late 80s I borrowed from a friend the first volume of a biography of Winston Churchill by William Manchester entitled The Last Lion. When I had devoured that, I rushed off to the library to borrow and read the next volume. But this volume, which I presumed to be the final volume, ended in 1939. A third volume, I heard, was in the works.

Last LionAnd so I waited. And waited. And waited.

Eventually, I wrote a letter to Mr. Manchester through his publisher Little, Brown, and Company to ask when I could expect the third volume to be published. After a time, I received a personal, hand written reply (rare, even in those pre-email days) from Mr. Manchester’s personal assistant. Mr. Manchester, he regretted to inform me, had had a stroke, and would be unable to complete his work on the third volume. I was saddened by the news both of his disability and of the loss of the capstone to this tremendously written life.

Recently, however, I learned that the third volume had been published, completed by Mr. Manchester’s personal friend, journalist Paul Reid. Whether it measures up to Manchester’s original hardly matters. It completes that which was left undone, and for that I am glad.

The first two volumes were books I read but never owned. Books that mean something to me I like to own and to see and to hold. But to buy them new now would cost over $60 (from Amazon) and over $30 used.

But today. Today I walked into Brightlight Books, Orlando’s gem of a used bookstore to see if, on a lark, they had the books. Remarkably, they did. Top shelf, dusty, and labeled as having been there over a year, which means in Brightlight’s pricing policy, steep discounts. Both volumes are first edition, first printing, with dust covers and only minor wear. And I bought both for $8.00.

I’m giddy over my new “precious-es”, which I must now re-read. Can’t wait.

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