Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Writing Page 1 of 3

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.

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.

Stranger in These Parts

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

Though I host this blog, all would be justified in addressing me in this way these days. Yes, I am ‘from’ here, but as any can see, I’ve been mostly an absent presence. Life is my excuse. But there are deeper reasons. Writing, as much as I want to do it, is hard. And like many things that are good but hard, I often shrink from it.

Steven Pressfield in The War of Art personifies this tendency as ‘The Resistance’ and challenges writers and other creators to fight against it. The most often suggested weapon against The Resistance is to set designated writing times. I set them, and then ignore them. The Resistance wins.

We all have a God given impulse to create. I sometimes express this impulse by working with words and sometimes by working with wood. When I work with wood the created thing exists in my mind before I touch the first piece of wood. As I build it, it grows and changes but the end result is generally close to what I saw in my head. My best writing occurs in the same way. The idea forms in my head before a word is typed. The writing is hard – words I think are a more difficult medium for me than wood. But eventually, what I have at the end is what first existed in my head.

But that does not come easily for me because I do not write enough, and I do not write enough because I blow through my designated writing times.

There are much better thinkers, much better observers of human nature, and much better processors of cultural events than I. But only I have my point of view and my particular voice. And to the degree that my point of view and voice resonate with others (though only a few, a happy few, my band of brothers) I’ll keep pounding away at the resistance.

I don’t like being a stranger in these parts.

Droopy Illusions

My wife is growing tomatoes in our backyard, and they are doing quite well. We look forward to their bearing fruit. I grow things, too. And what I grow, sometimes in secret, and sometimes where others can see, is this illusion that I can write. Yes, I’m teetering on the precipice of 60 – but still like to think that maybe I have picked up along the way some ability to string words together.

So, I nurture this illusion and I fertilize it and even prune it now and then. And just about when I have it to the place of blossoming, I read stuff I wished I could have written. My illusions suffer trauma, stems turn brown, leaves fall off, the whole thing kinda droops.

The source of the trauma this time is a sports writer named Joe Posnanski. He’s done this to me before. Posnanski writes for NBC Sports as well as for his own projects. He, like all those to whom I’m drawn, has a passion for storytelling. His fascination is with the people who do the sport, not just with the sport itself. Statistics matter only so far as they help to reveal the person. And he does all this with a light touch and often a clearly discernible grin. (Read the bio I linked above to discover that.)

I was first consciously exposed to Posnanski when he wrote about the Tampa Bay Rays’ improbable 2011 run to the baseball postseason, and the remarkable Game 162. His line in that piece that has stuck with me is this:

I never argue with people who say baseball is boring, because baseball is boring. And then, suddenly, it isn’t. And that’s what makes it great.

He’s not just a baseball guy. He wrote an article about a wacky NFL game last season that I can’t track down. His take is always a bit wry and carefully considered no matter what sport. Still, I find his stories about baseball to be the most engaging.

He’s 2/3 of the way through writing about the top 100 players (in his judgment) to ever play the game, and each article, from Pete Rose to Cal Ripken to Ozzie Smith is laced with compassion and humor and pathos. I read this morning his accounting of #32, the early 20th century pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. A movie was made about Alexander, apparently, one starring Ronald Reagan. And yet

“The Winning Team” stars Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander, making Alex the only American who will ever be NAMED for a U.S. President and PLAYED by a U.S. President in the movies. That alone should make it interesting…. But it does not. “The Winning Team” is so spectacularly bad, there is no possible way you can watch it for more than 10 minutes without your eyes bleeding.

I wish I had written that.

And as he tells Alexander’s story, from his glorious control as a pitcher to his descent into alcoholism, we find this account near the end of his life:

He was broke, and he was drunk, and he was in great pain. Alexander might be the origination of one of the saddest lines in sports literature.

“Aren’t you Grover Cleveland Alexander?” he was asked.

“Used to be,” he said.

Posnanski talks about what made him great as a ball player, but he also talks about what made him human.

Among his few possessions when he died was a typewriter, and inside the rollers was a half-written letter to [former wife] Aimee about how much he longed to see her again.

I knew nothing about this man before reading this. Posnanski introduced me and made me care.

We’ll get tomatoes off my wife’s plants, and my carefully nurtured illusions will survive, somehow. Droopy things will come undrooped. But at this point I can do nothing better than to encourage you to at least sample, and enjoy, some Posnanski. [Any of his vignettes on the top 100 baseball players are worth reading. But don’t be fooled by #57a like I was.]

yPad

As a follow up to this week’s post about use and non-use of pen(cil)s and paper, I should say that I am a convert to the yellow pad. Postman’s debate on the matter may have been inconclusive, but I’m somehow now drawn away from my white pad to the yellow pad either because the yellow is easier on the eyes or somehow “cooler”.

Either way, I carry two with me. The larger one I use for composing longish things when I don’t want to or can’t use the computer and a smaller one for taking notes from books I’m reading or jotting down to-do items from meetings.

And, of course, I have dubbed my large yellow pad my ‘yPad’ and my smaller one my ‘yPad mini’. Seems appropriate.

On Yellow Writing Pads and Oreo Cookies

In a recent tweet, Erik Larson, author of the acclaimed The Devil in the White City and the recently released and nearly as good Dead Wake (on which I’ll have more to say in time) paid tribute to his yellow writing pad and his well-sharpened pencils. I pictured him sitting at a cluttered desk with a pad open before him and a ready stack of pencils, and it encouraged me to step away from my computer and to attempt to write using a yellow pad and a pen.

I find that doing so does effect the way I write. When writing on paper my posture is more alert. I write more slowly, perhaps but not necessarily more thoughtfully. It is not as easy to correct a word or a sentence or to re-order paragraphs and so I think I’m a bit more careful.

Knowing that I will edit the whole as I bring it to final form on a computer may counteract these advantages, and yet being forced to rewrite the whole as I type is a good discipline in itself. I find it humorous if not disconcerting that when I begin to write with pen and paper after not having done so for a time, I cannot control the impulse to look at the top right-hand corner of my pad to see what time it is. Perhaps to quell such impulses as that makes the occasional yellow-pad writing worthwhile.

So, occasionally I’ll revert to the pad. But I’m guessing this is true of Larson as well. He has mentioned elsewhere other tools without which he could not write: his laptop and a stack of Double Stuf Oreo cookies.

I’m reminded of the comments of Neil Postman (in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century) regarding the perceived advantages of technology in writing.

I will use technology when I judge it to be in my favor to do so. I resist being used by it. In some cases I may have a moral objection. But in most instances, my objection is practical, and reason tells me to measure the results from that point of view. Reason also advises me to urge others to do the same. An example: when I began teaching at NYU, the available instruments of thought and teaching were primitive. Faculty and students could talk, could read, and could write. Their writing was don the way I am writing this chapter—with a pen and pad. Some used a typewriter, but it was not required. Conversations were almost always about ideas, rarely about the technologies used to communicate. After all, what can you say about a pen except that you’ve run our of ink? I do remember a conversation about whether a yellow pad was better than a white pad. But it didn’t last very long, and was inconclusive. (pages 55, 56)

It’s ironic then that I’ve consumed more than 500 words talking about the technologies of writing and not writing about things that matter. I’m guilty of his observations. Postman’s final judgment is that the net gain of our technologies of communication is “about zero, with maybe a two- or three-yard loss.” He’s probably correct.

Sticking with the football metaphor, I have no illusion that throwing the exact same football as Peyton Manning will qualify me to run an NFL offense. But as one who wants to write but rarely does, the tools that help accomplished writers intrigue me.

Therefore, I’m buying some Oreos. Today.

“It Was Bono!”

I love this interview with pastor and author Eugene Peterson. The whole thing is a treasure regarding story and writing and translation. But the real gem is in the middle – at about minute 11:45. If you have three minutes, enjoy. It’s a laugh, but also a serious challenge to one’s heart priorities.

Phyllis Dorothy James

If Phyllis Dorothy James had chosen to write under her given name, I wonder if the sexist bias against a female writer of crime novels would have worked against her. If it had, we all would have been impoverished.

I’ve been reading a book she published in 1962, Cover Her Face, the first of the 14 she wrote featuring detective Adam Dalgliesh and published under her better known and supposedly more masculine name, P. D. James.

She is a delight to read, especially when given the opportunity to paint a picture for the reader using an economy of words. I share but a few here.

Regarding the medical examiner called upon to give the results of an autopsy, she says

He was a mild-voiced man with the face of a depressed St. Bernard dog who gave the impression of having walked into the proceedings by mistake.

And regarding the owner of a local grocery and gossip hub,

He was a tall, lean, cadaverous-looking man with a face of such startling unhappiness that it was difficult to believe that he was not on the brink of bankruptcy instead of the owner of a flourishing little business.

Or regarding a town hall, which

…looked as if it had been designed by a committee of morons in an excess of alcohol and ciic pride.

Whether by P. D., Phyllis, or anyone else, those are keepers.

Page 1 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén