Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

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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.

A Lot of Jesus

I spoke to someone the other day about how we would be adjusting our family Christmas morning activities because of Christmas falling on a Sunday, given the fact that our church would be meeting for worship that morning.

“You’re having church on Christmas?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “It’s Sunday.”

“And you are having a Christmas Eve service, too?”


“Wow,” she laughed. “That’s a lot of Jesus.”

She’s right, in a way. But is that bad?

I’ve spoken with pastors whose churches are canceling services on Christmas morning, most so that they do not disrupt special family time. That’s an honorable and precious motive, but one which may be tilting in the direction of the not-too-glorious triumph of the family. As my friend, Geoff Henderson, has often pointed out, and does so eloquently in this context here, the church in an attempt to honor the family runs the risk of idolizing the family.

Certainly left unchecked the church can become a hub of activity that draws husband away from wife and child away from parent. But an equal and perhaps greater danger is the ‘corrective’ that subtly communicates to our children that their personal preferences are more important than the worship of God. I know the challenges and have faced them when sporting events are scheduled during Sunday worship. There are hard decisions here, decisions which aren’t always clear. But do we not at some point subtly communicate to our children that public worship is and can be a secondary matter? Whether we mean to or not, when we choose family tradition, i.e. Christmas morning, over the worship of God (ostensibly the origin of that family tradition) we have chosen family over God. And that makes me sad.

But you think I’m overreacting. I know. Maybe I am. What is one Sunday, after all? That’s an important question. It’s one Sunday, but maybe we need this Sunday more than most.

It has been a hard year. It’s been hard for our family personally, but it has been hard for us all culturally. In the light of this past year, I was asked twice in one day this week how I keep pressing on through all the realities that threaten to pull us down. My response was, without any sense of pastoral piety, and without hesitation, “Advent.” Advent, of which Christmas is the culmination, keeps me going.

The promise of Advent in the Christian calendar is that the sad things in this world are going to be undone. The promise is that those things which are broken will be healed and that the evil that has embedded its terrible talons in our flesh and threatened to drag us to the ground will be stripped of power and banished from doing us harm. The hope of Jesus’ birth is that with his coming God has begun a work which he fully intends to complete. Advent and Christmas is the season that confirms to us that there will be a time when

They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9)

karr_tweetThis is not simply an ‘in house’ kind of hope. Memoirist Mary Karr, whose spiritual convictions are unknown to me and certainly not revealed on her Twitter feed, tweeted this week a quote she attributed simply to the prophet Isaiah.

“Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
Make firm the knees that are weak,
Say to those whose hearts are frightened,
Be strong, fear not.”

She feels it. She longs for it, as we all do. The hope we have, absent from her tweet, is Advent. For the hope that was Isaiah’s is ours:

“Behold your God…. He will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:4)

What we all long for whether we know it or not is the coming of One who will make things right. Worship on Christmas is not an interruption in our family lives. It is an act of desperate hope.

If three or thirty or three hundred gather for worship on Christmas morning, it will be a time to bow before the one who has come and is coming, and to drink deeply of the hope we celebrate in the gifts we give.

Heaven knows, we need it.

We need Jesus. We need, in fact, a lot of Jesus.

Helping “Somber and Dull” Find its Future

There are two (or three!) ways you can help this blog map its future. The first is easy. I’ve created a simple survey which shouldn’t take you more than a minute or two to complete. Please click here. This will help me think through what has resonated with my readers and how this content gets to them. (A link to this survey is also on the sidebar.)

The second is a bit more difficult. I am deeply grateful to those of you who have generously supported this blog over this past year. Your generosity is enabling me to take the steps that are necessary to move forward. The need for financial support will continue on into the future. So, if any would like to help us as we move forward, you can contribute by clicking here. I am very grateful. (There is a link to this also on the sidebar.)

Finally, any time you can direct traffic to this site, do so! If something strikes your fancy, pass it on to others. It’s the only way, really, any will find their way here. This will especially be true when we kick off the new site.


The Future of “Somber and Dull”

I love writing this blog, and I am gratified by the kind words many of you often pass my way in response. Some of what has been written here has resonated in an encouraging and helpful way with some of you. When “Somber and Dull” lay dormant for a couple of years, a few of you kept prodding me to resurrect it, and so I did. I like to think I have things to say that are worth saying, and this blog gives me the space to say them. I am trying to contribute something positive and helpful regarding how we are to live as Christians and the church in the modern world.

So far, I have written for a core of very loyal readers, a core who either are fond of the name “Somber and Dull” or who are not put off by it. But as I consider ways to grow the readership of the blog, I think the time has come to put the title out to pasture.

“Somber and Dull” was chosen as the title of this blog on a whim when I started it in October, 2006. You can read about that here and here.

The title and its ironic sensibilities grew on me and a few others. Others, however, are puzzled by it. In fact, the title confuses even internet sales algorithms, one of which thought this week that it would be suitable to inform me that the domain name ‘somberandstupid’ was available if I wanted to purchase it.
I’ll pass, but the point was received. The title is too obscure.

Soon, therefore, I will be giving this site a good makeover christening it with a new name and a new URL. You won’t see the changes soon, and I’ll give plenty of warning.
By Enrico Mevius - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12807129
As I was thinking through this, I drove by a pond and watched a duck start at one end and madly flap his wings trying to gain altitude and speed. That will be me trying to move this blog along. I may crash into the far end of the pond, but that’s okay. There may also be a chance to soar.

In Debt to Our Trespasses

For the first nineteen years of my life, I attended Methodist churches in which we possessed ‘trespasses’ needing to be forgiven, according to the form of the Lord’s Prayer we regularly recited. For all but three of the years since (I’m now sixty) I’ve attended Presbyterian churches where the ‘trespasses’ had become ‘debts’. I’ve been confessing debts twice as long as trespasses. And yet…

Some months ago I was sitting in my study troubled by many things and seeking to pray. I prayed, as I am prone to do in such times when I don’t know how to pray, the Lord’s Prayer. In the intensity of that moment, I found myself praying for the forgiveness of my childhood Methodist trespasses and not my adulthood Presbyterian debts. Praying from within the context of desperation, those childhood liturgical forms welled up from deep within me where they had been disciplined to reside until needed most. Liturgy has an ability to shape the young and formative mind in powerful and lasting ways.

I was reminded of this in a comment by journalist James Fallows, not a particularly devout man if his blog and other writings are any indication, and yet he says this:

“I spent my youth hearing the cadences of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer repeated roughly one zillion times and still feel they are my main guide to the proper shape and pacing of a sentence.”

Somehow our youthful liturgical exposure is formative in ways that transcend the merely spiritual.

And yet, we’ve persuaded ourselves that children get nothing from public worship. I beg to differ.

A Time to Refrain from Speaking

Advice is easy, listening is hard, and advice given without first listening can be hurtful. So I often pray for the grace to be silent. Sometimes I forget.

Years ago, my mother had had some surgery after which she was confined to a rehab facility until she had recovered sufficiently to return home. She hated it and let me know. On the phone she told me about how the place was full of crazy and demented people. I immediately told her that it couldn’t be that bad. I told her to just go sit at a table and start talking to people.

We had a joke in our family that Mom could carry on a fifteen-minute phone conversation with a wrong number. Where I got the notion that she was not already trying to befriend people in precisely the way I suggested I cannot say. Nevertheless, I did not hesitate to give her the advice which, when followed, would clearly make everything okay.

Except that it wouldn’t. I was not living near her and so when I had the chance to visit her, I met the people I was telling her to befriend, people whose mental acuity had long since departed. I suddenly understood her loneliness and to this day regret not being more quick to sympathize than I was to advise.

Sometimes people trust us enough to share their sorrow with us. That is a gift before which we need to be quiet. We need to believe that they in fact know what they are talking about and that their sorrow or confusion or hardship is real and that it will not bend or bow to our hastily spoken simplistic solutions.

There is a time to speak, but not before we’ve listened and made every effort to understand. And even then, the best move might be to simply be quiet and wait for the words that God will give.

Not Nice, Flan

Flannery O’Connor, America’s first mistress of the dysfunctional family, wrote a story called “The Enduring Chill”. In it, the son of a rural Georgia widow returns to his hated (of course) home from a failed attempt to make it as a writer in New York City. He is convinced that he is dying and writes and seals a letter for his mother in which he chronicles his bitterness against her hoping to leave her with an ‘enduring chill’ of doubt and remorse.

Instead, he reveals a chill of his own, and one shared by many others, I suspect.

“I have no imagination. I have no talent. I can’t create. I have nothing but the desire for these things.”

Thus is encapsulated the chill lurking in the back of any who wish to create: the fear that they lack the capacity to do what their heart longs to do. Its creeping icy wind stirs and grips artists and preachers alike.

My own version of hell is having an ear good enough to know that my guitar is out of tune, but one insufficiently skilled to bring it into tune. Cursed forever to be out of tune, falling short of the music one wants to make, leaving only the options of playing poorly or not at all. That is an enduring chill.

Thanks, Flan (is that what your friends call you?) for awakening that specter for us.

Hello, World

As some might have figured out, I’ve been flying “Somber and Dull” this summer on autopilot. The posts on David Crumps Knocking on Heaven’s Door (which began here) were prepared in June and have been posting automatically through the summer months.

I, meanwhile, have been chasing family through Georgia-Tennessee-Ohio-Michigan and have been chased by yellow-jackets in North Carolina. Around those exciting events I’ve been keeping up on my day job and having way too much fun working on another very involved writing project. And, now and then, I’ve watched movies and read books finishing, among other things, Dombey and Son (begun here) and being not all that impressed. And occasionally, but not often enough, I’ve sat on the back porch and stared at the clouds.

But the summer is coming to an end and so I’m fixin’ (!) to get back to the more regular, and consequently eclectic, postings. Stay tuned.

Branding, 3

A while back I posted some thoughts about branding, particularly the wisdom of calling a blog meant to be engaging and playful “Somber and Dull”. That generated some fun feedback and, in the end, I’m happy sticking with the title. There certainly is no competition for the domain name.

While these things were on my mind, I ran across this picture of the Florence (Kentucky) Mall in the online edition of the Atlantic Monthly.
I was reminded that a branding vs. local ordinance issue led to that distinctive water tower message. Originally, as can be seen here, the water tower was painted with the name of the mall on whose property it resides. Florence2It seemed like a good, though drab, way for the mall to attract the attention of passing motorists.

But then, as I understood it (I lived nearby at the time) local officials protested that commercial advertising was not permitted on water towers or other structures that high. Faced with the prospect of having to repaint the whole water tower, some brilliant person suggested that the two side bars of the ‘M’ in ‘Mall’ be whited over and a stem placed beneath the remaining two lines, forming a ‘Y’. With the addition of the apostrophe, a visual impression was created that is now far more noticed than the original ever would have been. (It has since been re-painted, repeatedly, so that the ‘Y’ looks far more ‘Y-ish’. Originally, it looked like a converted ‘M’.)

There is no moral to this, no reason to point it out other than the fact that I find it interesting and to bemoan that no such event has occurred to make “Somber and Dull” more noticeable to a passing world.

“Hey, Kettle! It’s me, Pot. You Don’t Need to Hate Yourself!”

Is repentance a matter of ‘changing one’s mind’ about sin, or is it something more active, such as changing one’s behavior? Conflicting takes on this have been argued, which is troubling since repentance is so central to the Christian life.

Therefore, I appreciate John Frame’s clear and sensible presentation of the topic in his Systematic Theology (pages 958-960). Building upon his distinctive perspectival approach he reminds us that BOTH a change of mind AND a change of behavior, together with genuine sorrow for sin are each properly considered repentance, each observed from a different perspective. I would encourage any puzzled by the idea to visit these concise pages.

Absent from any proper notion of repentance is self-hatred, though many sensitive Christians somehow manage to wedge it in. When made aware of sin some speed rapidly to the conclusion that they must be worthless and useless people. This is both wrong and hope-destroying.

It is wrong because the Biblical idea of repentance nowhere includes it. We are indeed to hate sin, but our sin does not define us. We are not the sin. We belong to Jesus, we are beloved by him, and we are the adopted children of God. When we sin, he does not begin to hate us or cast us off. When we become aware of our sin, we should not conclude that we are suddenly hateful and not worthy of his love. We have NEVER been worthy of his love, but in Christ we are forever the apple of his eye. Our sin or our awareness of it does not change that.

The church in Corinth was a boiling cesspool of disunity and immorality into which Paul speaks severely and firmly to bring about repentance. In doing so he calls them saints beloved by him and by God.

Self-loathing is wrong AND it is hopeless. When we identify our sin with our person we can despair of there being any hope for change. Sin is a stubborn resident who needs to be evicted, but he is not the householder. If we forget that we will tend to see ourselves as those who will always be the way we are.

It is true that sometimes we do not change. It is true that we may struggle long and hard against the same sinful tendencies and fail time and again. But the only hope for change, the only thing that keeps us from giving up, is the deeply held knowledge that we are, even in our sin, beloved of God. We will only change, that is repentance will only lead to substantial growth, when we know that we don’t need to change in order to be loved by God. He loves us now and forever.

Christian, hate your sin, not yourself. Never forget that you are the beloved of God. You belong to the one who gave his Son to deliver you out of the dominion of that sin into the kingdom of his love. You are now and ever will be a child of God.

And Kettle, I know that calling you black is a bit disingenuous of me. I’m working on that.

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