Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Page 2 of 139

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do – Ending My Love Affair with Amazon

I can’t remember when Amazon and I first met, but it was love at first sight, and our relationship went deep fast. We’ve been together for a long time now, but the time to end it has come. I’ve lost that loving feeling, and now it’s gone, gone, gone.

Relationships often begin to deteriorate long before the parties are willing to admit the fact. I noticed some time ago creepiness lurking below the surface, but I ignored it. I would search for something on Amazon and the next day an advertisement for that very think would show up in an unrelated place. “Coincidence!” I insisted. My lover’s exclusive demands on me cut me off from other human interactions. “That’s the cost of love,” I reasoned. Like any desperate lover I overlooked a lot in exchange for benefits, in this case 40% discounts and same day delivery.

I was willing to suppress my suspicions of villainy. I can’t, though, ignore recent evidence of clear unfaithfulness.

In late June of this year, Christianity Today broke the story that Tish Harrison Warren’s wonderful little book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, had been counterfeited. Nearly a quarter million dollars worth of sales lost. Warren spoke wistfully of this on her blog. This was not simply a glitch in the business practices of a large corporation. This theft had drained significant income from the author and her family. And from all indications, as the New York Times had recently reported, Amazon took no action, and takes no action, to prevent such things from happening.

After this news broke I spoke with a friend who works in the sales department of InterVarsity Press (IVP), the publisher of Warren’s book. When IVP became aware of the existence of counterfeit copies traced to Amazon, they tried to contact the company but it took many calls and countless hours to find a person at Amazon with authority who would talk to them about their concerns. I had to put that in perspective. Amazon is so big and so impersonal that a publisher who does millions of dollars worth of business with Amazon is treated as a small player. Where does that put me or any other customer?

My friend told me that counterfeiting was common and that Amazon was not policing it. A separate New York Times report on the issue confirmed his take. In the absence of an aggressive response from Amazon the responsibility for insuring that only authentic editions of their books are sold has fallen on the publishers. I picture someone coming into my local grocery, replacing the boxes of Frosted Flakes with their own product made to look like Frosted Flakes, and the store management saying they can do nothing about it.

This is not a mere corporate skirmish. Those hurt by this are the authors, the Tish Harrison Warrens who labor hard and pour flesh and blood and heart and soul into the words on a page. To steal this, or to stand by and do nothing while it is stolen, is to treat too lightly the labor and humanity that is at the bottom of this publishing food chain.

It’s taken this to see what is wrong in our relationship, though we’ve been together for years. My love is not being reciprocated and I certainly don’t want to have to snoop around to make sure no hanky panky is going on. I live in Orlando where a little company called Disney wants all the tourism money. Amazon wants all my book money. But, I realize, I don’t have to give it.

I need to break it off. I need to take a stand. We need to end it, this thing we have, even if breaking up is hard to do.

What I Did on Summer Vacation

When I was a sophomore in high school, I tried out for the cross country team. My best friend was a star runner and I thought I could give it a try. What could be so hard about running a couple of miles?

It wasn’t pretty. I became the team manager instead.

Since then my running career—currently on hold due to plantar fasciitis—has had as many stops and starts as my career as a Celebrated and Famous Blogger. And as successful. Every January or so I push forward with great energy. By March the distance between posts lengthens, and they all but disappear come June.

What happened this summer? Have I replaced writing with surfing or crocheting? No. It only seems that way. I’m actually writing more but just not for the moment for the blog.

My writing priorities are four:

1) Sermons – My day job has me delivering a “4000 word essay” weekly. This will always be my priority.

2) Books – I have two books in various stages, which I’ve detailed here and here.

3) Craft – I feel a need to work on my writing as a craft. Some have suggested I write fiction (which is not happening). Others have challenged me to write something funny (harder than it sounds). Most of these projects will never be shared publicly but they allow me to work at the craft of writing which is important.

4) This blog – For this I generate two or three ideas/week, most of which live in a pile where they ordinarily go to die. A friend once encouraged me to just “let ‘er rip” or some such counsel for blog posts. I’ve never been able to do that. Even this one, as I type, is in need of revision and proofing. (I hear that Toni Morrison was famous for “re-writing.” That’s it. Toni Morrison and I, you see, share a lot in common.)

For several months I’ve been focusing my non-sermon writing hours on the Something Worthy Living For book. I’ve completed the first draft and now am in the process of revision. I’ve dangled the proposal before three publishers and though one expressed some initial interest, all three have chosen not to pick it up. A widely admired author and professor (who must at this point go unnamed) told me that I have written a “beautiful book” which buoyed me wonderfully. He then sent a dozen pointed corrections and suggestions which at first unnerved me until I realized that he had read it closely (a great honor) and had taken pains to help me make it better. He is writing to his publisher to encourage them to consider taking an interest in it. There is hope yet.

In the meantime, life goes on. We’ve done what others do in the summer. We went camping with the family and had a short trip to St. Louis. I’ve read mystery novels and thrillers by David Baldacci and Elmore Leonard, science fiction by Ted Chiang and Blake Crouch, non-fiction by David Brooks, a child’s book by the wonderful Kate DiCamillo, and the most enjoyable book I’ve read in some time, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. And I’ve changed my writing schedule which may allow more blog posts to see the light of day.

I never quite became the runner I set out to be that day I tried out for the cross country team. But I’ve not stopped running. Nor writing.

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.

The Five (S1:E3)

I’ve been up to some funny business (more on that another day) and so have not been able to give the blog the attention it deserves. However, I have been collecting noteworthy items for this episode of The Five. I hope they interest you.

1.I’ve had the privilege of knowing some really good preachers and others who struggle in the pulpit. But one thing I respect in those I’ve known is that when they step into the pulpit, they are bringing the fruit of their own interactions with God and his word, prepared especially for their own sheep.

Apparently, that is not the universal experience. Scot McKnight’s challenge to pastors to preach their sermons and not someone else’s is important for what it says about what happens in that time when preachers speak to the people God has gathered for them.

To preach a sermon that is not yours is to create an image of yourself that is not truthful. . . . A sermon is a specific pastor’s engagement with a specific congregation. No one else can do this.

2.I’ve thought a lot the past several years about the power of myth – the stories a culture tells itself in order to justify its actions or simplify its motives. We have many civic myths, such as every military action being one in which our military is protecting our freedoms. The church has its myths as well, among them being the unquestioned nobility of the missionary and his labor. Mythical thinking is not always truthful and honest. This article reviews a book by Kathryn Long which revisits and evaluates the martyrdom of Jim Eliot and his associates. The story itself is a sacrosanct hero narrative among evangelicals, but like most stories, most myths, is more complex than it first appears.

Complexities like these don’t pack the same emotional punch as clear stories of missionary heroism. They do, however, give us a fuller understanding of how the world works. In her epilogue, Long points out a key theme in Elisabeth Elliot’s 1966 missionary novel, No Graven Image. Her young, idealistic heroine discovers that there is much more to missionary work than audiences at home realize.

3.I’m sorry that these articles are behind the Christianity Today paywall, but that can’t be helped.

I’ve mentioned in these pages the question of lament and its proper place on the tongue of the Christian. A helpful voice in these matters is Todd Billings, a theologian at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan and a cancer survivor. His book Rejoicing in Lament has been helpful to many. Some of the themes of that book are addressed in his article “Can Anger at God Be Righteous?”

“In addition to our confession, thanks, and praise, our covenant Lord calls us to bring our hopelessness, anger, fear, and bitterness before him. In his love, the Lord calls us to trust him enough to wrestle with his promises. In order to grow up into our identity in Christ, we need to join the psalmists in rejoicing, lamenting, and crying out to the Lord in a myriad of ways.

4.Rachel Held Evens has been a force in the American Christian world for some time. Suddenly and tragically less than two weeks ago, she died. She was only 37, leaving behind a husband, two small children, and a confused community trying to understand her appeal and impact.

Already, those assessments have themselves proven divisive. That is a shame. Agree with her or disagree, she raised questions that need to be raised and held up a mirror to the church in which we could see how others see us. Such is not always easy, but it is always necessary.

Ed Stetzer’s tribute to her in Christianity Today replaces an earlier one which CT put up and then, under criticism, took down. Stetzer does not overlook the controversy that swirled around RHE, but touches upon an aspect of that controversy which I’ve seen mentioned in numerous places.

But even amidst conflict (that was often quite personal, in that it mattered personally to both of us), she never stopped engaging directly. The effort that it takes to deal with people one-on-one is tremendous, and she did not run from it.

To engage, even to differ, personally, may be something that we cannot afford to lose.

5.To divide a room quickly, introduce the subject of immigration. I can think of few topics on which people feel so strongly while at the same time knowing so little about than immigration.

Unless it is guns. Or abortion. Or race.

Okay, so there are a lot of them.

But this one is helped by a recent article in The Atlantic. David Frum brings some helpful data and history to the subject that gets beyond the emotive soundbites that are the norm. The issue has frustrated me over the years because politicians have not wanted to address it sanely. A wall is not a solution, it is a symbol, Frum points out. And symbols are powerful when there are no reasonable solutions being proposed.

If difficult issues go unaddressed by responsible leaders, they will be exploited by irresponsible ones.

I may or may not agree with his conclusions, but at least his presentation is absent the polarizing rhetoric of the Twitter or TV news bite. Worth reading.

The Museum of Disappointments

[These are continuing reflections on the familiar (to some) benediction from Numbers 6. For other posts in this series, click here.]

If you were to draw a map to the conditions under which you would consider yourself ‘blessed’, how closely would it match what God has in mind when he commands the priest or pastor to speak over his people, “The LORD bless you . . . ”?

For me, the path of blessing would circle through days of predictable routine in which there is no conflict, no sickness, and no sorrow. In my land of blessing all my children are happy and my future is secure. All the bills are paid, my church is at peace and growing, and everyone likes me. Your map, though undoubtedly different in the details, probably travels in similar channels.

Artwork by Jessie Thetford – https://www.jessieleethetford.com/a-r-t.html

The desires hinted at in such dreams are not necessarily wrong or bad. They most likely ARE elements of shalom, the things we imagine possessing in a world ordered as it should be. To desire such things is to long for blessing, and in that sense, to desire what God desires to give.

These words of God, this benediction, convey his desire to prosper his church and lead his people to shalom, a desire for which he has spared nothing, not even his own Son.

And yet we often draw insufficient comfort from this. The original people so blessed were a bitter people. They had been marvelously delivered from bondage and were being taken to a land their own spies found to be full of rich and abundant fruit. But they rebelled, and complained, and demanded to be taken back to the place of their hated captivity. That seems a madness that we too often share.

Paisley Rekdal in a poem called ‘Happiness’ says

There is no end to ego,
with its museum of disappointments.

Instead of reveling in God’s promise of blessing we create our own private museum of disappointments. In my museum are displayed the dreams I’ve had to let go of, or the people who have rejected my care, or the loved ones I’ve seen suffer. Israel’s museum would have held displays stocked with abundant food once enjoyed, ample supplies of water once accessible, and visions of stability and certainty.

I have an annual pass to the museum of disappointments, and I make good use of it. As a result I fail to see the good things I have, and I cannot find hope in the promises of blessing yet to be received. Like the church in the desert, I want the fruit of blessing now, and I don’t want to walk through the desert to get there.

But it is, perhaps, in that desert place where we realize that to find contentment in the promise is its own blessing.

Our map to blessing may be skewed, but it’s not far off. God desires our blessing and our happiness. Eternity will be blessing in its fulness. There we will be made “perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.” (The Westminster Shorter Catechism)

The pathway may, in fact will, be hard. It may indeed pass through lands we would rather not visit. But the fact of the blessedness to come, the destination, is never in doubt.

The Romance of Preaching

Every year, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, our small group of Oviedo ministers hosts a shared Thanksgiving service in one of our churches. This past year it was held at Oviedo’s Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Participating were Charles, the pastor of that church, Jayson, the pastor of an independent church, Jon, an Episcopal priest, John, a church planter with a congregational denomination, and Paul, a mainline Presbyterian pastor. Also in attendance were Bobby, a United Methodist pastor, Dan, a former Evangelical Presbyterian pastor who now pastors the Oviedo plant of an Orlando megachurch, and Joseph, a United Methodist pastor and professor at the Asbury Seminary branch here in Orlando. Wonderful men, all of them.

I had been asked to preach which I found terribly intimidating. All of these men are gifted preachers. When each had preached in previous years, my assessment of my own preaching abilities diminished. But they had asked me, and I agreed.

In the weeks leading up to the service, I felt inclined to preach on the subject of lament. At a Thanksgiving service. It was a crazy idea, but I couldn’t shake it. My heart told me that it is hard for the truly sad to endure Thanksgiving. People need to be given permission to lament, if that is where their hearts are, even when everyone else is telling them to be happy. The Psalms, from which I intended to preach, are rich in thanksgiving and lament. Perhaps we needed to learn that thanksgiving is richer and more real when it is expressed through tears and sorrow.

As the service began, and the time to actually preach this sermon drew closer minute by minute, I sat internally scolding myself for choosing such an awful topic for such a joyful occasion. The crowd would be too kind to boo me off the stage, but I was certain that the message would be met with stony silence.

I began, audaciously speaking about the musical genre of the blues to this predominantly black congregation. The “amens” from the gospel choir behind me and joined by the congregation before me encouraged me forward. I felt a comfort and a freedom in the pulpit that made it a surprising joy. The response of many was affirming.

After the service, a woman stood near me as I spoke with others. I could tell she wanted to say something to me, so I finished my conversation and introduced myself to her. She gave me a hug and thanked me. She said, through tears, that she had planned on not coming but at the last minute changed her mind. She explained that her best friend, in Ohio, on the previous Saturday had been killed. She needed to grieve and was afraid that a Thanksgiving service would not allow that. She said that my message was the one she needed to hear. I carefully probed to find out how her friend had died. She said, “Her husband shot her in front of her two children.”

She needed permission to lament, and God, using me, had given that to her. I had not known her, her life, her circumstances, and her need, but God did.

I think it was British pastor Martin Lloyd-Jones who called such experiences the romance of preaching. We never know what the Holy Spirit plans to do with the words we speak.

Sometimes he lets us see.

The sermon, for those interested, is posted here

Five Books Every Pastor Should Read

Of the four practices of pastoral self-care I recommended recently, the final one encouraged pastors to read good books. Of the naming of books, there may be no end, but here are five that I believe every pastor should read. I commend these with absolute seriousness. To practice ministry without the company of these books, to me, is to walk a tightrope without a net. It’s possible, but oh so risky.

1. The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson.

Everything about pastoral ministry drives the pastor to do more and to push harder. The culture of American efficiency is not shed upon ordination, and many pastors land in churches where leaders ask increasingly more of them. Peterson deftly subverts that uncompromising culture inviting pastors rather to a more biblical and bearable ministry of the Word and of prayer. It is one of the few books I’ve read more than twice because its lessons I too easily forget. I recently asked other pastors to weigh in on what books they believed should be read by every pastor. Nearly all mentioned this book. For good reason.

2. The Imperfect Pastor by Zach Eswine

Breathing a spirit similar to that of Peterson, Eswine challenges pastors to see the beauty, power, and value of the ordinary place and the ordinary people among whom they are privileged to serve. Wrong notions of who the pastor is, what his role is, and where his power lies poisons pastoral ministry beyond bearing for many. Eswine gently administers a welcome and Christ-centered antidote.

3. Surviving Ministry by Michael E. Osborne

The first two books shape pastors’ attitudes toward their calling. This (short!) book, expressing the same heart as these, zeroes in on the challenges of ministry when ministry grows hard, as it is prone to do. Mike, a personal friend, is a good pastor who cares deeply for pastors. There is power in his honesty. Born from his humble and gracious mining of the lessons of his own struggles and failure, he offers guidance to the unwary.

4. The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott

John Stott pastored an Anglican church in London for many years. One cannot measure the impact of that legacy or that of his worldwide speaking ministry. But perhaps his greatest gift to the church is this book on the central work of redemption. Pastors are called to preach “Christ and him crucified,” a calling from which we too easily are distracted. Our congregations have no greater need than to hear a clear and consistent preaching of the hope of the gospel which is rooted in Calvary. Too often we send people out with burdens of what they must do without a reminder of what God has done for them. Perhaps the reason for this is that we ourselves have lost sight of this great truth. Stott’s is a deep and stirring call to make what is most important, most important.

5. The Matares Circle by Robert Ludlum

This, like Ludlum’s better known The Bourne Identity, is a spy thriller. So what is it doing on a list of books geared toward pastoral health? Well, first, it’s here because it is really good. But primarily it is here as a placeholder into which pastors may pour all the books that they may want to read for fun, for relaxation, and for escape. Read for these reasons. It’s not just okay. It’s necessary. A pastor recently sent me a screen shot of his Kindle library which was full of mysteries and thrillers like this. The subject line of his email was “Pathetic, huh?” No, not pathetic. Wise. Those who have seen the movie The Shining are aware that all work and no play did not end well for Jack Nicholson. It rarely ends well for pastors either.

More Than Mere Words

The American Library Association has changed the name of the award they give which honors works that make major contributions to literature for children. Formerly the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Award” it is now the “Children’s Literature Legacy Award.” That news moved one widely renowned American poet to tweet, “I hate my literary era.”

Hating the era in which we live, literary or otherwise, can be attractive at times. I’ve been there and often return for a visit, sometimes short and other times protracted.

The blessing we are studying (Numbers 6:24-26 and discussed previously here) was given to be pronounced over the people of God. Repeatedly. Repetition is necessary for those things we are prone to forget. And we can easily forget that the God who blesses and keeps us is the God of all history, even over our current era. Perhaps we need to look at this and every era with renewed eyes.

This blessing is a poem, and poetry serves meaning and memory. In the Hebrew, the first line is three words, the second is five, and the third is seven. The blessing is given with an economy of words exposing a depth of meaning. And so the matters pronounced and the desires longed for occupy our attention. God is commanding his blessing to be upon us, his people, in such a way that we not forget.

This command and the words which comprised it were given many centuries before Christ. It was given in a world and in a setting when all was not the way it was supposed to be. Its content would find resonance when God put flesh to the blessing in the incarnation, sending his Son to deliver his people from the kingdom of death and to bring them into the kingdom of his Son. It would be in the cross that victory over death was secured and in the resurrection that it was confirmed. But all that was far in the future and yet God was in the blessing and knew the way in which he would bless, even when the recipients could not yet see it.

The world in which we live suffers from the death throes of death itself, but the things we despise in it will not prevail. The content of this benediction is not empty. These are not mere words. They touch upon things that God is doing, will do, and cannot fail but do.

As Christians we have no right to be pessimistic. We have no cause to believe the father of lies who invites us to fear. We sorrow over the broken things, we seek the kingdom in our prayers and our work, and we accept the cost that that entails. But we can never forget that the God of blessing, the living God, the God of promise, the God of the empty tomb, is at work.

That we long for one that is yet to come to make all things well does not mean that we must hate the era we are in.

Page 2 of 139

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén