Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

The Five (S1:E1)

Some things that have caught my eye over the past few weeks.

1.

I believe this whole article is behind a paywall, but James Howell in reviewing a couple of recent translations of the Old Testament made this observation about the value of a stable translation for the whole church:

“It’s not as if we, now, today, finally ‘get’ the Bible after centuries of misconstrual.…At funerals, I watch my congregation recite Psalm 23 in the King James Version without ever looking at the words. While my parishioners never resort to 17th-century English in daily living, the deep resonance of this psalm’s words arouse some memory and hopefulness. They know the words by heart, in the sense that the words are inscribed deeply in their hearts. I worry that with a broad smattering of translations we’re losing the shared phrasings and terminology we deploy to encourage one another and profess our deepest commitments (with verses like John 3:16, Jer. 29:11, and Gal. 5:22). Bray and Hobbins feel the translator has a burden ‘to hold together a community of readers over time.’”

https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/two-new-very-different-old-testament-translations


2. Poised as we are between the looming end of the NFL season and the dawning of ‘March Madness,’ may I direct baseball fans to two wonderful documentaries.

On one side of the spectrum is “Fastball.” With interviews of Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan, of Hank Aaron and Johny Bench, and of many more power pitchers and hitters, interspersed with the science of pitching and the physics of speed, this captivated me.

On the other side is “Knuckleball!” There are pitchers who are never going to hit 100 mph on the radar gun, and so they resort to a pitch that most just cannot hit. Rare is the pitcher who can get it over the plate, and rare the catcher who can catch it. Many knuckleballers are profiled, but the focus is on a failing outfielder turned pitcher named Tim Wakefield. A fascinating story.

Both are available on Amazon Prime Video (not on Netflix).


3. Speaking of entertainment, my wife and I were surprised to watch John Krasinski morph into an action hero in Amazon’s “Jack Ryan.” Very well done, as this assessment so ably conveys.


4. My nurse daughter attended a conference in which Hospitalist Dr. Zubin Damania was one of the keynote speakers. When he is not saving peoples lives or speaking on the subject of improving health care (“Health 3.0”), he is rapping and creating music videos under the name ZDoggMD.

His take on making end of life preparations is powerful. Watch “Ain’t the Way to Die” and then, after making sure your living will and advance care directives and such are in order, sit back and enjoy some more of his more lighthearted productions. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Sepsis” tickled our funny bone.


5. Finally, I stumbled across a thoughtful essay about Fred Rogers in the Dordt College faculty journal Pro Rege (edited by an old friend, Dr. Mary Dengler). The author, Dr. Joshua Matthews, discusses Mr. Rogers and the recent documentary about him (Won’t You Be My Neighbor) with a critical eye that I’ve not seen elsewhere. It’s worth a read. Here is a taste:

“I couldn’t help thinking about Mr. Rogers the character in today’s terms. If he were on TV here in 2018, would he talk about today’s hard issues on his show? What would Mr. Rogers say to his young viewers about predatory Catholic priests?Would he be so open as to talk about pedophilic school teachers on his show?

“Let’s soften the topics a bit. Would he talk about gay marriage? About what to do if you see a man dressed as a woman in a women’s bathroom?About what it feels like to be called a girl but to feel like a boy?

“The documentary doesn’t address these questions. It remains a mere nostalgic glance back at a more innocent time, one that I think the viewers who have rated it so highly pine for. It offers hope only in a past that is not and may never again be,without the sufficient insight needed to confront the present spirits of our age.”


Everything Is Going to Be Okay

In many movies someone beloved of the hero is attacked or kidnapped or stricken with an illness or marred in an accident. The hero fights his way to the side of this loved one and says to him something akin to, “Everything is going to be alright. I promise.”

The stricken one is comforted by the presence of the hero, and the added promise and assurance allows him to close his eyes and rest.

And I cringe. How is it in the power of the hero to make such a promise?

It’s not and everyone knows it. But the wounded one accepts it, and in fact we accept it for him. We do so because at the deepest part of our being we too want that assurance that everything is going to be all right, and we will accept that assurance however tenuously it comes.

Sometimes we look at our hands, our talents, and our training and we say to them, “Bless me!” We ask them to assure us that by hard work and diligent effort we might craft a guaranteed future. We look to these for blessing, but they can’t give it.

Or we turn our eyes upon our land or our resources, our bank accounts or our retirement fund, and we say, “Bless me!” We ask them to assure us that they will always be there to provide all the pleasure and comfort we crave. We ask them for blessing, but they can’t give it.

Sometimes we look to others – to a loved one, a spouse, or our children, and ask them to always be around and stand with us and hold us up. We say to them, “Bless me!” But they can only care for us so far. They can’t do much when our health fails or age overtakes us. We ask them for blessing, but we ask for more than they can give.

We cast our eyes into the future trying desperately to find some measure by which we can assure that everything will be okay. What we want is for a hero to come alongside us who will say, unbidden, “Everything is going to be alright. I promise.”

God knows this. And through Moses and Aaron, he heaps words one upon another to assure us that blessing is what he intends.

“Thus you shall bless the people of Israel…‘The Lord bless you….’…and I will bless them.”

Number 6:22-27

I cringe at the movies because the one who says everything is going to be okay has no power or position to insure what he has promised. By contrast, when speaking for God a minister speaks to us,

“The Lord bless you and keep you….”

There is no need to cringe, only to close our eyes and rest.

A Lament for Good Pastors

Another pastor friend called me a few months ago to tell me that he was done with being a pastor. He is one of the wisest, gentlest shepherds I know and he is done. The job had taken its toll.

I’m currently aware of three other men, stellar pastors as well, who have no desire to pastor again. All have gladly served churches, loved the people, and faithfully preached God’s word. They would still if they could. But they are weary and they are done.

Something is very wrong with this.

Lynn Johnston
https://www.fborfw.com/

These are good, qualified, called and gifted men. Though like all of us they could do a better job at self care, they all have friends, engage in hobbies, and have sought counseling. Something else is at play. The church itself is driving them away. And that is to be lamented.

President George H. W. Bush was eulogized recently as being both humble and imperfect. As a eulogy that was sweet. But in office, neither attribute was well received. Something similar is true for pastors, and it is crushing. To be humble is great, but one had better be good.

But the pastor can’t be good. Not in everything, which often is the expectation. The pastor is a generalist in the same way that a family doctor is a generalist. No one expects his family doctor to be able to execute a heart transplant or to be able to distinguish a skin cancer from a simple mole. For these things one goes to a specialist. And yet pastors, every one of them, is expected to specialize in preaching, counseling, evangelism, organizational management, conflict resolution, pastoral care, apologetics, hospitality, small group dynamics, financial management and development, and more.

There is room for humility here, but precious little space for imperfection.

Churches alone are not to blame. We pastors are co-conspirators. We tolerate no imperfection in ourselves. An article tells us that we need to be our church’s chief evangelist and we believe it. A speaker challenges us to better management and we embrace the duty. A book says that our people need to see us as their primary counselors, and we set out to fill the role. And on it goes. If we do not live up the bar we or others have set in any one of these areas, we wear heavily the mantle of failure. If our churches don’t grow, if the money does not come in, if the leaders don’t buy into our vision, if we don’t have a list of evangelistic successes, we blame ourselves. We let people down, and we suffer under that realization.

In this culture those sensitive and gentle ones who make the best pastors are often crushed under the pressure and will, if they can, bail.

I have persevered not because I’m better at this job. I have felt the pressure. But I have been blessed to serve two wonderfully patient and accommodating congregations. Too many others not so blessed grow weary and walk away. The church is the poorer as a result.

I was angry at the church when my friend called. Now I’m simply sad, hoping that others will join in my lamentation. Perhaps this will create, in time, the soil out of which a newer and gentler church culture will sprout.

The Sky Is (Always) Falling!

The fearful cries are all around us. “The end of Christianity is imminent! Soon the American church will survive only underground!” “Moral degradation is eroding all decency!” “American freedom will soon be no more than a distant memory.”

Chicken Little
[uncredited image from http://www.terryburnham.com/2016/01/chicken-little-portfolio-performance_29.html]

Or, more succinctly, “The sky is falling.”

The sky, it seems, is always falling. Fear is such a powerful, and useful, motivator.

According to historian John Fea, evangelicals cast their votes in recent elections motivated by fear. More broadly, it is fear that has lead some Christians to make rules (such as “Don’t dance!”) to protect against the possibility of sin. It is fear that leads some to create fortresses or to demonize their neighbors. Fear leads some to be intolerant of those different lest they or their children or their churches be corrupted by those differences. Fear of losing otherwise good things like freedom and money turns these things into idols to be protected at all costs. Fear becomes the leash that a charismatic leader uses to retain access to the contributions and devotion of his followers.

Fear is powerful and ubiquitous. And though it is effectively used by all sides in social and political disputes, I’m concerned most when it is used so effectively among those who have the least cause to fear. And Christians, we have the least cause to fear.

I was reminded that the sky is always falling when I read this paragraph a few months ago.

“America and the rest of Western culture now seem to be more on the edge of dissolution than on the point of renewal.… The situation in this country seems to call for a jeremiad, not a celebration.… Race prejudice, latent under the surface of political campaigns, seems intensified by our very efforts to correct it. The crime rate is outstripping police restraint and turning private surveillance into a growth sector. Pornography and violence fill the media, and a host of other social problems run in counterpoint with an uncertain economy.”

That which could have been written yesterday was actually written in 1975 (by Richard Lovelace in his Dynamics of Spiritual Life.) Lovelace was not panicked or seeking to induce panic. But his observation simply illustrates that the sky that is falling now was falling 40 years ago (and centuries before that as well, in different ways).

To know that the culture can always seem to be in some ways on the verge of collapse should temper our response to the news of the day. Problems have been met before. They will be met again. Fear should not be our guide nor should we follow a leader just because he/she promises to keep the falling sky at bay. Our response to issues, which certainly should be vigorous and based upon an accurate assessment of reality, can afford to be thoughtful because the difficulties are not really new. Panic leads us to be hasty. Christians should not be hasty.

Christians can afford to be un-hasty because they know the one who upholds that falling sky. It is not inconsequential that ‘Do not fear’ is one of the most repeated refrains of the Bible. Preachers should make more of this, and of the power and ways and faithfulness of God, and less of the symptoms of the falling sky. Fear drives us into the arms of the demagogue and the false messiah. Eyes cast upon the living God, on the other hand, grow in confidence and perspective. And courage.

Yes, the sky is probably always falling. But those who “…believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible….” should be the last to be motivated by fear.

To Be Blessed

My cardiologist told me the other day, “It is a privilege to spend time with those who are dying.”

I didn’t think my heart was that bad.

Turns out it isn’t. She was speaking generally about the privilege that she, along with others like nurses and pastors, have in walking with people through some of their darkest times.

It is a privilege. But I get to do more. I get to bless.

At the end of every worship service, I stand in some liturgically significant place and with hands lifted over the congregation, speak words, frequently these:

Artwork by Mary Ann Porter. Used by permission.

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

If we are lucky, we’ve heard these words (taken from Numbers 6) so often that they are like warm bread to us: comforting, familiar, and certain. They have become a part of who we are.

God gave these words to Aaron to be spoken over his people. “Thus you shall bless the people of Israel,” God said. This people, weary of traveling and not yet receiving the things promised them, needed assurances. And so God gave them words of blessing.

But they are not mere words. All the goodness and intention of God lies behind them. When spoken from God to us we are drawn into a reality that is not yet but is nevertheless certain. Our impatience with life invites despair. Things are not the way we long for them to be. We long for life to get better, for the pain to disappear, for the conflict to pass. We grow desperate, perhaps despondent.

And then I or some other pastor stands and speaks these words into our darkness because God blesses his people.

Years ago my wife and I, with a toddler and an infant, sat in a state of desperation. We had moved everything to St. Louis to follow our sense of God’s call to seminary. But I had no job, and we were out of money. We put the kids to bed, sat on the edge of the bed in our apartment and sang a hymn.

“Jesus, I am resting, resting in the joy of what thou art….”

With this hymn we affirmed that we knew

“…thy certainty of promise and have made it mine.”

And we wept.

Yes, we knew the promise, and we wanted to believe its certainty, but we were having trouble making it our own.

Words of blessing like the ones we are here considering are necessary in such times. They serve as a bridge between what we know and yet struggle to make our own. They take the certainty of God’s promise and declare it to be real that we may rest now in what is yet future.

There is power in these words when spoken over the people of God gathered in worship that cannot be fully appreciated in a blog post, or twenty. Nevertheless, I’d like to spend some time teasing out some of this particular benediction’s richness in posts that will appear here every other week so that we might better know the certainty of his promise and make it our own.

Especially in those dark times through which we are each called to walk.

To Paint or Not To Paint, That Is the (Preacher’s) Question

On a recent Monday, several church members were at the church painting the nursery. When I went to get my lunch from the kitchen, one spied me and said, “Hey! Are you coming to join us?”

I mumbled some kind of answer, appealing to being busy, and the like. The essence of my answer was clear: “No.”

He accepted my answer.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I was half-joking.”

Half?

I will begin preaching through the book of Ephesians in January. To prepare for this, I’ve spent the past few Monday mornings coming to know Ephesians as best I can. It’s been a rich time in which I easily lose myself.

But some could easily argue that spending time with church members and youth slopping paint around the nursery might be time better spent. It makes sense. There is no better way to build relationships than working side by side with others. And yet, I spent the day in Ephesians. Why?

First, I genuinely believe there is power in the preached word. When Paul in Romans says that “…faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17) he is not suggesting that the Romans download a Bible app that will read the word to them on their daily commute. The word of Christ read and explained in worship promises faith to its hearers. The power is not in me or in any skill I might claim or possess. There is power in the Spirit of God taking the word and doing his work with it. That is not something to trifle with.

But if that is true, then, I must make sure that it is in fact the word of Christ that I preach. I fear, as I think I ought, the prospect of preaching untruth. I approach preaching with James’ caution in mind, that “Not many of you should become teachers…for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1)

It is annoying to think that people don’t listen to my preaching. But it is frightening to think that they do.

To work carefully to ensure that the sermons I preach conform to the word I’m seeking to expound takes time and care. I’ll stumble and I’ll fall and I’ll say foolish and ill-advised things. But I labor against that to speak what is the word of God.

These things together give me hope that the word preached might effect change. John Stott, a British pastor and theologian of the last century, was moved deeply by the powerful picture of a united Christian community that he found in the book of Ephesians. “At the same time,” he lamented, “the realities of lovelessness and sin in so many churches are enough to make one weep, for they dishonour Christ, contradict the nature of the church, and deprive the Christian witness of integrity.” (God’s New Society1979, page 10)

It was by preaching that he hoped to bring to pass the lofty vision of the Bible among a weak and struggling humanity. The word preached has the power to accomplish the change we hope to see in the lives of God’s people.

I believe these things. And so I and many others study when we could paint.

Whether my friend was ‘half’ or ‘fully’ joking, I can’t say. I think it is the latter.

Regardless, I can say with certainty that he and those like him are generally unaware of the important contribution they make to the preaching of the word. When they take up the brush, their pastors can study. And that promises blessing beyond measure.

The Five (The Pilot Episode)

1.

Some who publish blogs are so together that they are able on a regular basis, like weekly, to post a rundown of their more interesting discoveries. They will point to essays they’ve read, or make quick notice of books they’ve enjoyed or interesting facts they’ve learned.

This sounds fun.

If only I were one of those ‘together’ bloggers.

So, as an alternative, I’m introducing “The Five.” My intention is for this to be a periodic feature in which I’ll post five interesting things I’ve run across in the past week or month or 37 days. That is, whenever I collect five interesting things, I’ll post.

These will be random because I am random. My interests often run toward the odd and eccentric. But I hope some will find a thread of interest.

The name (“The Five”) is a nod to my favorite recipe item at a Florida based breakfast and lunch chain, Maple Street Biscuit Company. It’s an odd pile of things (biscuit, cheese, chicken breast, bacon, and sausage gravy) that amazingly work well together.

This is the ‘pilot.’ If it goes well, we may pick it up for a full season starting in January.


2.

Which came first – the doctor or the freshwater worm?

I recently read The Scarlet Letter (for the first time!). I was struck by how casually Hawthorne refers to the doctor as ‘the leech.’ I suspect that if I called my cardiologist a ‘leech’ she might take offense. So, I wondered, was Hawthorne being intentionally offensive?

Turns out, no.

Webster’s not only lists ‘leech’ as a (now archaic) name for a doctor or a surgeon, the word itself is derived from a German word meaning ‘physician.’ In fact, and this is where it gets weird, the worm is named because it was used by physicians.


3.

Related to the above, one of the most interesting twitter accounts I follow is Websters, which just revealed that it’s word of the year is ‘justice,’ a word whose look up rate is up 74% this year.

Dictionary nerds can be fun as well as informative. You can follow them at @MerriamWebster.

https://t.co/kyB9swUkQp

4.

A fascinating essay by Andrew Sullivan (New York Magazine / “America’s New Religions”) in which he makes the case that  all people have a religion.

“Our modern world tries extremely hard to protect us from the sort of existential moments experienced by Mill and Russell. Netflix, air-conditioning, sex apps, Alexa, kale, Pilates, Spotify, Twitter … they’re all designed to create a world in which we rarely get a second to confront ultimate meaning — until a tragedy occurs, a death happens, or a diagnosis strike”

5.

Finally, this interview with Anna Goff, the founder of Dove’s Nest, provides some very helpful and practical suggestions regarding how churches can be safe places for the survivors of sexual abuse.

As she says,

“Churches are places of high trust and therefore also places of high risk.”

They Are People

Recently, tear gas canisters were launched at people near the U.S. border with Mexico. The targets were those fleeing Central American instability to seek asylum in the United States. They were and are people.

And some of them were children.

No decent person wants to gas children, of course. But I wonder to what degree the language of our arguments, to the degree that it dehumanizes others, allows some to take such action which leaves children in the crossfire. That is, ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ might be met with a degree of sympathy and compassion. ‘Criminals,’ ‘threats,’ ‘rapists,’ and ‘terrorists’ (all terms at one point used to reference those heading for the border), on the other hand, are more readily cannon (or tear gas) fodder. The more successfully our language moves a group from the category of ‘human’, the easier it becomes to justify violence against them.

To counter this tendency, we need to read more books.

Edwidge Danticat

At the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing my wife discovered the books of Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat. With her encouragement I eventually read two of them, both set in Danicat’s native Haiti. I’ve never been to Haiti and I benefited from her rich and unsentimental portrait of a people shaped by their land and history to be so different from me and yet, by our shared humanity, to be so similar. Months later, the flavor of that land, its richness and earthiness, and of that people, their luminescence, joy, and sadness, is still with me.

The urge to leave such a place for greater opportunity or safety is developed in Danticat’s moving memoir of her father and uncle, Brother, I’m Dying. When Danticat was a child of two her father immigrated to the US, followed shortly thereafter by her mother, leaving Edwidge to be raised by her aunt and uncle. Such was the family-separating immigration policy of the time.

When at age twelve her parents were able to bring Edwidge to the U.S. to be with them, she was forced to leave the only land she had known and the uncle who, through disability and poverty, had cared for her. It was painful, as such things always are for people. People, and these are people, after all, like us, never make such decisions lightly.

In time, her uncle, then an old man suffering from a debilitating but treatable disease, fell under the disfavor of a violent gang. He was forced to flee Haiti seeking safety and asylum in the U.S. Danticat’s well-researched and well-documented account of her uncle’s experience with U.S. immigration authorities is agonizing to read and illustrative of a system that is and has long been broken and in need of repair.

It is a system that dehumanizes and eventually lofts tear gas across border walls.

Will reading Danticat, or authors like her, shape or change, a reader’s convictions regarding immigration policy? I can’t say. What I can say is that our convictions will be better formed when we form them around the fact that the subjects of these convictions are people. Not problems, not enemies, not threats, but people.

They are all people. And that matters.

The Preacher Is Out In

For a man who wants to maintain a blog, who believes that this is part of his calling, and who actually enjoys (mostly) doing so, five months between posts seems to belie it all. Nevertheless, as has often been pleaded to my patient and faithful readers, life has intercepted these desires.

Lack of presence does not reflect lack of concern. The things I write about matter to me. This blog’s tag line (a reference to Cornelius Plantiga, Jr.’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be) comes from a deep place in my heart. The things I see and often experience are far from what I want to see. Many feel a deep dis-ease that cries out for some orientation toward hope. I want to point, as far as I am able, in the direction where I sense such hope lies. I want to be a part of shaping a vision for the way things are to be.

My goal in these posts is to share my heart with clarity and with brevity. I value your time as well as your attention and so most posts will hover around 500 words. If I can honor Strunk and White’s challenging rule #17 (“Omit needless words.”) all the better. And if I can do this with a sense of joy and fun along the way, then that is a small step, at least, toward the way things are supposed to be.

All has not been inactivity these few months. I have continued to generate ideas, some of which will be developed and published (and some of which will be unceremoniously buried). I have in process two longer and larger projects of serialized content that I’m looking forward to releasing when I think they are ready. I hope you stay around to read, to react, and to pass what is valuable on to others. All of this is a great encouragement to me.

It Still Burns

This candle and it’s holder was purchased by newlyweds in July of 1978.

Finding it in a small shop tucked away off the main street in Gatlinburg, Tennessee they paid $4.25 to light it in their honeymoon suite.

Over the past 40 years, it has traveled through several states roughly tucked in a dresser drawer. It has stood as a sentinel, at times taken for granted and at other times greatly enjoyed. It has met struggle and been placed under stress it was never meant to endure.

But here it is. Forty years later. And it still burns.

By the kindness of God, it still burns.

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