Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

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Barrelling Forward

What happens when you commit yourself to an 800 word newsletter/podcast to be released three times each month?

Nothing much else.

As I announced back in April elsewhere and on this blog in June, I’ve started a thrice monthly publication aimed at pastors and those who care for pastors. Greatheart’s Table, as it is named, has received a modest reception. Numbers are really hard to get or understand. But it’s pretty clear heavy hitters like Joel Osteen or Brene Brown have nothing to fear from this, the new kid on the block.

Neverthess the response I have received has been sufficiently fulfilling to keep me plugging away. One listener said,

“I listen and have friends who listen. We talk about it. They look forward to it and I think it has been one of the things that has helped my friend process his grief from a super bad church situation. He said he looks forward to each episode.”

Another commented,

“Stumbling across your writing has been a tremendous blessing.”

A surprising volume of positive input has come from non-pastors. Apparently, Greatheart’s Table touches on realities felt by engineers, teachers, and others as well as pastors.

But it has required focus. I’ve published nearly 15,000 words in the past six months, all on Greatheart’s Table. Other projects—such as the nearly completed memoir (a story I really want to tell), essays on corporal punishment, on the audience of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, on rethinking the meaning of headship, and the long dreamed of book on the intersection between pastoral ministry and sanctification—these all sit on the bench. I don’t know how to summon them into the game as long as Greatheart’s Table is barreling forward and as long as I have a congregation wanting me to be their pastor. I hope to figure that out. (Though I cannot help but note that the metaphor of “barrelling forward” has somewhat concerning connections with Niagra Falls.)

If you’ve been wondering whether I’ve died, retired, or run away to farm okra in Michigan, I’ve done none of that (though the okra farm sounds fun). I’m slogging away and spreading my thoughts elsewhere.

I’d be encouraged if you join me there for this part of my journey.

For a general introduction to Greatheart’s Table you can go here.

Subscribe to the newsletter here.

The podcast, whose content is identical to the newsletter, is available at all the usual podcast outlets such as Apple, Spotify, Google, and Amazon – or by searching for “Greatheart’s Table.”

Listen on Apple Podcasts

The Saints in the Land

I was mopping today thinking good thoughts of a dear friend. That’s what she always called me. A dear friend. I was her pastor once and I suppose with a friend like her one is always her pastor. She called me Tuesday because I had failed to respond to a few emails – emails I assumed were newsy and could wait, but perhaps emails the contents of which I somehow instinctively feared. So we talked, Adri and I, and laughed, and she cried as she shared the news of her liver cancer diagnosis, the subject of the unread emails. We talked of death. She said, “I’m not afraid of death; it’s the process that scares me.”

Gus and Adri, April, 2011

I was thinking good thoughts of our lives together – her unwavering support, her immense trust in me, her unflagging zeal for the things of God. I thought of the blonde jokes I delighted in telling her, and the verbal jabs I’d receive back. I thought of her laugh and her smile. I thought of her deep devotion to her family and her insistence that her youngest son was to be called “Nathaniel,” not “Nate,” as he is known to the rest of the world. I thought of how she would arm herself with pictures of her grandchildren to show me and her feisty resistance when I joked that all babies are ugly at the start. She won that one. I lamented how she, of that wonderfully inquisitive and thoughtful mind, often would disparage herself as stupid.

It is sad what it takes to stimulate meditation on the value of a person. I was thinking good thoughts of my dear friend Adri and her devoted husband Gus because I received word Friday that Adri had suddenly taken ill and was in the ER in critical condition. Why, we don’t yet know. But she wanted me to know she was there. She told her sister who took her to the ER, “Get Randy’s phone number. He doesn’t answer his emails.”

That was Friday. By Saturday morning I received word that her sons had agreed to a DNR order and the ventilator was being removed. She had been showing no signs of any ability to breath on her own. She was afraid of the process of dying, not death. God knew that and showed her grace. Her battle is over. The rest of us grieve.

Paul Miller in his book A Praying Life encourages us to create prayer cards for those for whom we pray. On these cards are to go the names of the people, the things we pray for, and any scripture that in some way represents the person or persons or guides our prayers for them. When I prepared the card for Gus and Adri, years ago, I could only think of Psalm 16:3.

“As for the saints in the land,
they are the excellent ones,in whom is all my delight.”

And now, there is one less saint in the land.

In my study hangs a needle work piece that Adri made for me years ago of the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. It is fitting to end with that. This indeed was Adri’s only comfort in life, and in death.

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own,
but belong-body and soul in life and in death-
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together
for my salvation.
Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing
and ready from now on to live for him.

Theodicy and the Cross

Tuesday morning my wife and I read together these words:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1, 2)

In my experience, “How long” questions generally morph into “why” questions and when those who ask them don’t hear an answer from God they often ask their pastor. When asked I would love to answer with words that make the pain disappear. I listen and empathize as a fellow struggler.

That day that began with these questions ended with the terrible news of a friend’s tragic and sudden death.

Kevin Collins was a faithful minister of the Gospel, a servant who had given his life (that part not irretrievably captured by his love for the University of Tennessee!) to Christ and his church. As such he had loved and ministered to me and served and strengthened the church I pastor. His kindness was legendary and his pastoral heart irrepressible. I was shaken by this and was reminded how often death steals from us the things, the people, we love.

Why, God? How long shall our enemy be exalted over us?

Our souls cry out for explanations that satisfy our hearts. We want what theologians call a theodicy, a justification of the ways of God, an explanation of how evil can seem to still exert sway in a world purportedly governed by a loving God. We want a word to satisfy the ache in the heart caused by death.

God, however much we might plead, chooses not to answer all our questions. The scriptures do not exist to assuage our curiosity but to ensure our salvation. What we are told is that in the light of the cross, no matter how great the inexplicable evil around us, there are no grounds for questioning the love of God for us nor his devotion to our welfare. The God whose ways we so often question leaves us no question of his love for us.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…. (1 John 3:16)

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

No matter what we face, we need to be once again stunned by the depth of the love of God in the cross.

“We learn from John [1John 3:16, 4:10], then, that although in this world our attention is constantly arrested by the problems of evil and pain, which seem to contradict God’s love, we will be wise not to allow it to be deflected from the cross, where God’s love has been publicly and visibly made manifest.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ)

God’s love has been revealed to us in a dazzling and objective display of sacrifice. Will he who died for us not care for us in every other way?

We will still not understand the evil we experience. Life will continue to confuse us. Hard things will come. Questions will be asked. We will not get the answers we want. It is then we must look to the cross and know the unwavering love of God for us.

A Lot of Jesus

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

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

“Yes,” I replied. “It’s Sunday.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heaven knows, we need it.

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

Helping “Somber and Dull” Find its Future

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

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

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


The Future of “Somber and Dull”

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

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

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

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

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

In Debt to Our Trespasses

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Time to Refrain from Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Nice, Flan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello, World

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

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

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

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