Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Hello, Darkness:

The Questions of Silence

In March of 1970, pop singer Ray Stevens released his Grammy winning song “Everything Is Beautiful.” In March of 1972, novelist Chaim Potok published My Name is Asher Lev the refrain of which is “It’s not a pretty world.” 2017’s Martin Scorcese film Silence, (carefully based on the 1969 Japanese novel by Shusaku Endo), leans toward Potok while making room for Stevens.

At 2 hours and 40 minutes Silence is hard to watch not because it is tedious, which it is not. It is hard to watch because it raises difficult questions of faith without offering easy answers to audiences uncomfortable with such questions.

As did the book, the movie traces the lives of two 17th century Jesuit priests (Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) who travel to Japan to find a priest and mentor (Liam Neeson) rumored to have denied the faith. From the ease of their Portugal, the report seems fantastical. They cannot imagine anything that could make their friend turn from his God. They are given permission to go to Japan and find him to prove these slanderous reports false.

What they find is a once flourishing Christianity struggling to survive under systematic persecution aimed at its extermination. They are forced to watch the brutal torture of simple men and women of faith who hold onto their faith as they die. When reunited with the priest they sought, the reunion is not what had been anticipated.

The questions raised are many. Had Christianity not been introduced to this island these people would not be dying. Are there some cultures in which Christianity is not meant to flourish? Is faith so certain that for it we must be willing to die? Would I be willing to do so? In the face of pain, is God silent? Or are we too deaf to hear him? Is there hope for those who are weak and unwilling and unable to die? How should we respond to the apostate? Is there hope for them? Where is beauty to be found? Is it never a pretty world?

It’s a beautiful film about a painful world, a world that is beautiful and not pretty at the same time, a world in which, perhaps, God is not silent.

The Great Commission without the Church? Inconceivable.

Many Christian ministries are driven by a single eyed focus on Jesus’ final words (Matthew 28:19, 20). These words have been sloganized as ‘The Great Commission’ to impel an urgent evangelistic effort to find and develop committed followers of Jesus Christ. This would be admirable if this common use did not eviscerate the heart of this commission by eliminating the place of the local church.

Most properly understand that these words ask for more than finding converts. Jesus says

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…. (19)

Jesus wants his disciples to help others become his followers. This involves clearly

…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (20)

This commission is fulfilled, it is felt, when the new disciple begins to make and teach other new disciples. But it is not.

We have not been compliant to the commission if the new convert is not as well, through baptism, admitted to the membership of a local church. The whole commission reads:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19, 20)

Jesus’ Jewish followers would have heard this in covenantal terms, as should we. In their heritage, when someone from ‘the nations’, not born a Jew, came to faith in Yahweh, his verbal expression of that faith was not enough to mark him as a follower of Yahweh. He could claim faith and live righteously, but he would not be admitted into the life of the followers of Yahweh apart from receiving circumcision, the mark of covenantal inclusion (see Exodus 12:48). Then and then only would he be considered a follower, a disciple, of God.

The only change in the minds of Jesus’ listeners would have been the nature of the mark. Circumcision is now baptism (a subject for another day). Baptism marks a person’s being included among the followers of Jesus. By this act one is marked as belonging to God, as having been admitted to the community of faith, to the church of the living God. This step is integral to genuine discipleship and cannot be omitted from our understanding of it. We have not fulfilled the call of the commission if we do not lead Christ’s converts to Christ’s church.

Groups operating outside the context of the church do wonderful things, but they cannot fulfill the great commission. Any work that fails to establish as its center the act of discipling converts into the church is not being obedient to the final words of Jesus.

My son’s Marine recruiter hung with him long after my son had signed his commitment papers. I later was told that Marine recruiters don’t get credit for the recruit until he steps onto the yellow footprints at Parris Island. Only then has he fully discipled his charge.

Only then has he fulfilled his commission.

Hillbilly Elegy

At one point I had had three people ask me about whether I’d read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. One thought it was great, one thought it awful, and the other was noncommittal. They’re all right.

Published in 2016, Hillbilly Elegy shot to the top of many bestseller lists propelled by the thought during the last election cycle that reading it could help the mystified understand the American subculture that was Donald Trump’s base. Director Ron Howard thinks so highly of it that he plans to make a movie of it and it is among the top five books (three of which, intriguingly, are memoir) that Bill Gates recommends in his Time Magazine interview we referenced earlier.

Vance tells the story of his life growing up in Middletown in southwestern Ohio, in a transplanted rural Appalachian (read: eastern Kentucky) culture. I myself grew up in southwestern Ohio well aware and somewhat disdainful of the Kentucky migrants of whom Vance writes. Many grow up in broken homes and many struggle to prosper against adversity, and so many stories like this can be told. The value of Vance’s book is the window it cracks on the fierce family loyalty and regional pride and sense of justice that belongs to his ‘hillbilly’ culture. That he uses the word ‘elegy’ (a lament for the dead) in the title suggests that the culture he inhabited, and which inhabits him, is in some sense dying or dead.

As a memoir, the book is good. Vance’s cast of characters, if truly drawn, are truly fascinating. They can be vicious, and viciously loving. They are complicated, loyal, broken, and real. If only he had been content to write a memoir. But he can’t contain it. It moves from memoir to fairy tale and then to political essay, In so doing Vance prostitutes his story for the sake of a didactic goal. Perhaps it is a good essay, perhaps it is an inspiring fairy tale, but after his grandmother dies, the only characters left on stage are Vance himself and the America about which he wishes to make social commentary. What began as memoir morphs into an essay on the American white middle class, and his stories and characters become merely the platform for his commentary.

And that is sad. Stereotyping and ridicule, of the type I too often embraced as a child toward those we derided as ‘hillbillies’, dehumanizes. As memoir Vance honors his characters, his family, and his culture by humanizing them. He then turns the newly humanized into objects, making them merely the representatives of societal trends, illustrations of his own social commentary.

Bill Gates recommends the book, yes, but he does so with this telling sentence:

“While the book offers insights into some of the complex cultural and family issues behind poverty, the real magic lies in the story itself and Vance’s bravery in telling it.”

That’s it. The real magic is the story. The shame is that Vance and his editors could not let the story be.

Especially in Nottingham

Some of us live squarely, if unwillingly, in Nottingham. We live where those close to us die in childbirth, where innocent drinks become desperate addictions, where brilliant minds descend into dark caverns of mental illness. We live desperate for hope.

If we pray, there are many paths along which those prayers could be shaped. The path followed by some of the Psalms led to imprecation, prayers wishing ill upon their enemies. Such prayers strike our gentle and sentimental sensibilities as too harsh and ill-fitting to be worn by Christians.That is, until we come face to face with our real enemies. Paul reminds us:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:10-12)

We can puzzle over the effective power of the forces of darkness, but we ought never doubt that their efforts are arrayed to harm us. It is against THEM, the agents of death and decay, that we pray. Language that sounds violent and inhumane becomes understandable against such an enemy.

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.” (Psalm 58:6-11)

Awful words these, yes, but not when aimed at one whose food is the infliction of grief and death and suffering and despair. To pray thus negatively, is to pray this positively:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9, 10)

To the degree God’s will is not yet manifest on earth, we pray that it would be, that our understandable fear would be replaced by the certain hope of the coming kingdom.

We pray harsh words against a bitter enemy, all the while longing for this:

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth! (Psalm 57:11)

Which is to cry out, with John and all the saints,

Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

Such prayers are never lost upon the God who cares.

Especially in Nottingham.

Not in Nottingham

At the heart of Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood is a song penned and sung by Roger Miller (and covered here by Mumford and Sons) which captures the heart’s anguish when life has penned us in with sorrow.

Nottingham was home to the poor people for whom Robin Hood robbed the rich. But even with his heroics, life grew grim. It was unfair.

Every town has its ups and down
Sometime ups outnumber the downs
But not in Nottingham

To escape the despair one might flee, but when the oppression is so deep, the sorrow so profound, even that seems impossible.

I’m inclined to believe
If we weren’t so down
We’d up and leave

Unable or unwilling to escape, an appeal is made for relief, but it meets only silence.

We’d up and fly if we had wings for flyin’
Can’t you see the tears we’re cryin’?
Can’t there be some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham

Pretty heavy fare for a Disney film.

The sequence over which the song plays is an image of rain falling on a people for whom all hope is lost. It’s an honest prayer of lament asking in despair, “Can’t there be some happiness for me?”

For the many who pray such a prayer, the response, it seems, is never more than the sound of rain on the pavement.

In some ways, it’s a biblical prayer. The psalmist prays in this way:

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me. (Psalm 88:14-16)

There is, the biblical writers knew, a time for weeping and mourning (Ecclesiastes 3:4). And yet they did not shrink back from penning such honest laments because they knew, unlike the poor stricken residents of Nottingham, that there would, as well, be a time of laughing and dancing (also Ecclesiastes 3:4).

“Can’t there be some happiness for me?” Yes, they knew there would be. There is resurrection on the other side of death. And for that we long.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation. (Psalm 42:5)

Bookish Habits #7: Bill Gates

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

This series has sought to encourage wide reading by pulling the curtain back on the reading habits of a few readers of varying ‘celebrity.’ I’ve wanted to interview the genuinely famous and have approached a couple, but, to date, none have found sufficient time or whimsy to respond.

Image from Time Magazine

Until now.

Well, not really.

No doubt Bill Gates would have jumped at the opportunity to be profiled in this space had I asked him. Instead, Time Magazine, with questions oddly similar to my own, published an interview with him in the May 22, 2017 issue. It’s a fun interview to which I cannot resist adding my annotations. The quotes are all Gates’.

Warren Buffett loaned me his copy of Business Adventures by John Brooks many years ago.

A man who could probably buy Amazon borrows, instead of buys, a book. Maybe that’s why he’s rich and I’m not.

Melinda and I both love the book [The Great Gatsby], and it’s the novel that I reread the most.

Reading is best as a communal activity. To share what one reads, to discuss it, to savor it with another, is part of its joy. If one can do that with his partner, so much the better. Good for Bill and Melinda!

And some books are so rich that they bear re-reading. The experience of reading them does something to us. Returning renews and deepens that experience.

I read the whole set of World Book encyclopedias when I was a kid.

What was I doing when I was a kid? Not that.

My elementary school librarian, Mrs. Blanche Caffiere at Seattle’s View Ridge Elementary School, introduced me to biographies of famous figures throughout history.

Each of our lives is littered with people who simply in doing what they love and being who God made them to be touch us in profound ways, ways they never could imagine in the moment. This librarian no doubt knew she had a bright kid. She never could have imagined that he’d be talking about her in Time Magazine 60 years later.

The biggest problem I have is that I refuse to stop reading a book in the middle, even if I don’t like it.

I get that, and it is a problem. Right now I’m 490 pages into George Elliot’s Middlemarch still waiting to meet a character I care about.

I love the way good fiction can take you out of your own thoughts and into someone else’s.

This is the primary reason I urge those who preach or teach to read widely and wildly. Otherwise, we get stuck with singular perspectives.

I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read.

So did I. I wish I could thank them for it.

Slightly Alive

Contrary to what you might have imagined, this blog is not dead. At least not all dead. If it were all dead there would be nothing left to do but to go through its clothes and look for loose change. As it is, it is only mostly dead, which we all know means slightly alive. And we hope, soon, that it will be again fully alive.

Life for its author has taken on a busy-ness that cannot be averted, delayed, suppressed, or avoided. This has left little room for ruminating much less for writing. So, don’t change the channel or unplug your set. We will in due time return this blog to its regularly scheduled programming.

Thanks for your patience.

What Is a Sabbatical?

My church has scheduled a sabbatical for me beginning in April, 2018. In order to build understanding for this the church has started a blog for which I was asked to write the following in answer to the question, “What is a sabbatical?” Published last week it interestingly generated attention outside the church. This suggests that others not associated with the church might find value in it. With that in mind I am posting it here as it appeared originally on the church’s sabbatical blog.

Talk of my taking a sabbatical spawns the question (thought, though rarely spoken), “Why are we giving Randy a 13 week vacation?”

It’s a great question. ‘Sabbatical’ can easily look like ‘vacation.’ After all, I will stop coming to church. I will stop preaching, stop planning and moderating meetings, stop visiting the sick, stop mentoring or discipling others. I will stop doing my job, and that looks like a vacation.

But sabbatical is more than stopping. It is a period of intentional rest, renewal, and re-imagining.

In engaging ‘rest’ the sabbatical most resembles a vacation. Rest for people in ministry is essential but hard to find. Jesus commanded his disciples to ‘come away and rest’ (Mark 6:31) because ministry depletes the minister. Ministry demands an intentional period of disengagement so that strength for the work can be renewed.

The minister’s body needs rest and renewal, but so does his soul. Over time, though the pastor fights to retain his passion for Christ, the demands of ministry can deplete it. This leaves some ministering weakly on the fumes of their prior devotion. Churches end up with pastors merely going through the motions of ministry. A sabbatical, as a part of a pastor’s regular routine of spiritual health, can renew the depth and vitality of his walk with Christ restoring his ability to give needed spiritual care to his congregation.

Such intentional rest and renewal can refresh a pastor’s vision. Men and women from all professions report that disengagement from their regular responsibilities allows them to imagine a future they might have been unable to see before. A properly planned sabbatical (and much planning is being given) can give a renewed enthusiasm for the vision God has for the church.

The sabbath year in the Old Testament law required that farmers let a field lie fallow for a season. Obedience to this was an act of faith by the farmer and an act of renewal for the field. During that year nutrients drained by prior use would be restored to the soil. Similarly, a pastoral sabbatical is a congregation’s act of faith, hoping for the restoration of their pastor’s depleted spiritual resources.

“Okay,” you say, “It’s not a vacation. But will you come back?”

Stories of pastors leaving their churches after a sabbatical are dramatic but rare. The opposite is the norm. Pastors return invigorated and anxious to continue to serve. CPC’s sabbatical policy is structured to ensure my return, but the concern is really moot. I love this church. My desire is to return to serve you as a better pastor.

When all is done I hope to be able to report in a fashion similar to this:

“I returned with more energy than I can remember having since I was fifteen years old…. The experience of my maturity was now coupled with the energy of my youth…. The sabbatical had done its work.” (Eugene Peterson)

Please pray to that end.

Great Scott! Gadzooks! Television and Reading Books!

Life has been busy for me recently, with little reading, less writing, and no posting. As I make the necessary in flight adjustments to my life’s trajectory I am lifting a post from 9 years ago and pasting it here. It seems appropriate to reprint this post, given we have spoken much about reading recently in these pages (and given that I’ve just finished binge watching my favorite detective show, Amazon’s Bosch.)

So, enjoy the wisdom of Roald Dahl, appearing here first on August 29, 2008. And then go pick up a book.

The simplest explanation for the lost passion for reading is to blame the television. My favorite presentation of this charge comes from Willie Wonka’s Oompa Loompas as they sing regarding the demise of poor Mike Teevee. This is especially fun to read to children. But there are plenty of us adults who might need to pay attention to it as well.

Enjoy!

The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set —
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink —
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
IT ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!
‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY… USED… TO… READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)
The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and-
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There’s Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole-
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start — oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

(With gratitude to Roald Dahl.)

VP Pence and My Mom

I didn’t know it was the ‘Billy Graham’ rule. I thought it was just sage advice from my mom.

Twitter, at least, has been all a-flutter (a-twitter?) with the surprising and shocking (?) revelation that Vice President Mike Pence operates with a policy of not dining alone with women other than his wife. I’m stunned that this is in the least bit controversial. I’ve not heard his justification for his policy. I’ve only heard what others, some bitterly opposed, have said about it. But since this was my policy for many years, I want to toss a few words into the fray.

After college I had the wonderful privilege of spending three years teaching English to seventh-graders. I liked that age. I loved their energy and enthusiasm and I loved seeing their minds begin to engage the world around them. They were old enough to begin to have intelligent conversations but they had yet to inhabit the cynical, cool world of the older adolescent.

My mom had for many years taught that age, and as I began my career one piece of advice she gave me stuck: don’t let myself be in a room alone with a junior high girl. In her experience, even in the 60s and 70s, all it took to ruin a man’s reputation was a girl’s accusations. True or not they could stain and ruin a male teacher. She wanted to protect me from that.

As I transitioned from teacher to pastor that counsel stuck with me, magnified by the terrible track record  of male pastors staying out of emotionally and sexually charged relationships with women. To not spend time alone with a woman – either in my study or over a meal (Starbucks was not a thing back then) – seemed at the time like a wise policy to adopt.

This policy did more than to protect my own reputation (and by extension that of the church). It gave my wife needed security. The tale is old as time, that a pastor under the guise of regular counsel of a woman moves from pastor to confidante to lover. And though I saw no reason that that would happen in my case, who does? It seemed wise to erect barriers that would give my wife an added layer of confidence.

My role was no where near that of a US Senator or Vice President. And I would never presume to demand that others embrace the rules by which I steered my life. But I understand how important reputation is and how easy it is, no matter who we are, to be careless in the preservation of it.

But as a policy it proved unsustainable for me. I pastored a small church in which I was often on site alone with a female administrative assistant or financial manager. Is there any greater stereotype than that of the pastor running off with the church secretary? But it was unavoidable, really, and so we did it. Not the running off, mind you. The being alone.

It was not only unsustainable, it was in the end unfair to women in need of spiritual and pastoral care. One could theorize that they could get that from their husbands or from other astute and wise women, but that was theory and not reality. My policy caused the neglect of sheep in my congregation in need of care. And so, eventually, I abandoned it.

I now meet with women, preferably in a public place (my mom’s voice is still in my head) when possible. Most of the time, my wife is aware, and she has the right and responsibility to speak to me should she perceive that any one relationship is receiving more attention than she thinks it should. I still am concerned about her sense of security.

Being Vice President invites the spotlight, and Mike Pence will no doubt have many things to answer for. But this should not be one of them. I can’t say if in his case he should or should not hold on to this policy. Looking in from the outside I’m inclined to say that it is impossible for him to do so. But I would never imply that his decision is reflective of weak character. It may be reflective of wisdom.

Or of listening to his mom.

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