The Power of Words

Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, which I’ve been working through slowly, tells a story the conclusion of which is worth extracting for our public rumination.

At a time of spiritual struggle in her life, she struck up a correspondence with a Benedictine monk. Though he thought he had no wisdom to share, his replies to her were rich with spiritual insight and sober sense. She was moved and deeply impacted by his words.

Later, she had an opportunity to tell him how significant in her life his words had been. He attempted to deflect her praise, being humble and uncomfortable hearing it. She was finally able to get him still long enough to listen.

“Well, this is good to know,” he said, giving me a quick, sidelong glance, and then looking off into the distance, “I mean, that my words have done some good. I’ve certainly devastated enough people with them.” Then he walked briskly away.

Public Apology

I rarely have opportunity to read all that’s being conflicted on the internet, much less to comment on it, even when it is within my own ‘tribe’. So, though I can’t speak in any way to the actual content fueling the public breakup between Tullian Tchividjian and The Gospel Coalition, I can commend Tchividjian for his reflective and gracious public apology for some of what has happened. You can read that here.

You need be aware of none of this, however, to learn something about the nature of apology and the asking of forgiveness. A few notes seem worth making.

1) When we sin publicly, we need to confess that sin publicly. When our offense to a person is public, a private confession of that sin is not sufficient. It should be made publicly if at all possible. If I sin against my wife in front of my children, I need to ask her forgiveness in front of my children, not just privately to her. If I read this correctly, this is Tchividjian’s spirit in this post. That is commendable.

2) The Westminster Confession of Faith has a quaint and memorable turn of phrase in speaking of repentance. It says that a mere general repentance is not sufficient, but that we should repent of “particular sins particularly”. If I say something that ridicules my wife’s intelligence, it is not sufficient to later tell her, “I’m sorry I’m such an ass.” Such is probably appropriate, but I should also ask her specifically to forgive me for specifically the words I spoke or the actions I performed that offended her. Anything else is not owning the sin.

It’s here that I think Tchividjian is wanting to go, but is having a hard time going in the space of his post. There is much general repentance (“I’m such an ass.”) but not much repentance for particular sins particularly.

3) There is a huge difference between saying, “I’m sorry” and asking for forgiveness. To ask for forgiveness requires me to identify what I’ve done to poison or hurt a relationship. To apologize may be to no more than express regret over the status of the relationship. To tell my wife that I’m sorry that what I did upset her is, in a sense, to put the blame on her for getting upset at me. But it does not have the healing power of my saying, “I failed to love you well by leaving the window of your car rolled down in the rain and I need you to forgive me for that.”

I hear a lot of “I’m sorry” in this post. I want to hear more “Please forgive me for __________.”

I don’t want these observations to take away from the tone and spirit and intention of Tchividjian’s post. I don’t question his heart; I don’t question his desire for genuine reconciliation. And I reflect on how his words carry far greater grace than many I’ve spoken over the years. I see him reaching out to seek peace as far as it depends on him.

I just know that what he is doing is hard, hard for me, hard for him, and hard for us all. I don’t bring this to light to criticize a brother. I bring it to light so that all of us might further reconciliation in our less than public worlds by owning our sin and humbly seeking the grace of forgiveness from those we offend.

Watching and Reading

Art or literature or music or movies are community possessions. They are meant to be experienced and then discussed in community and conversation. Finding those people with whom these can be discussed and experienced can be a difficult thing, especially if ones tastes are as eclectic as mine.

The other day a friend and I were sitting at Starbucks when I flagged down a man who had been seated next to us and was beginning to leave. I had seen him reading there before and so I stopped him and asked what for him would be his ‘go to’ books, books or authors he loved to read and to which he often returns. He pulled up a chair and we talked for 15 minutes or more. It was not even until the end of the conversation when I realized that I did not even know his name.

A few days later he passed my table at Starbucks to ask me about a couple more books, and we found out that after the previous conversation, I had ordered a book he had recommended and he had ordered one I had recommended. This is the way, it seems to me, art of whatever variety is meant to be appreciated.

Notes for those who must know details:

He favors mature, classic authors – George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky. He managed to get Middlemarch back onto my ‘must read’ list.

He mentioned a passing interest in the Kennedy assassination, and so I recommended to him Stephen King’s 11/22/63. He found out I was a Presbyterian pastor (we both had read and loved Gilead by Marilyn Robinson) and he recommended, and I ordered, Amazing Grace by Kathleen Norris.

And, I should add, that the friend with whom I was sitting was a passing acquaintance until the day I saw him at Starbucks reading King’s On Writing. We bonded immediately.

Love and Marriage

“Love” and “marriage” may go together like “baby” and “carriage” but the relationship between the two is obviously a lot more complicated than our 90 minute romantic comedy fairy tales suggest. (I, by the way, like a good romantic comedy.)

Over lunch recently a friend pointed out how his wife and he, after several years of marriage, were working on and addressing issues that they never new existed prior to marriage. It was hard work, but they were getting through them. They are an example of the old maxim that says that no matter how well we know someone, and how much effort we invest in getting to know someone, before marriage, when we marry, we are still marrying someone who is largely a stranger to us. We have a lifetime to get to know each other, and in that lifetime we will learn to love a person we only marginally knew before. And that takes a significantly deep commitment.

Romantic love is a wonderfully warm and endearing thing, but it is no guide to deep and lasting relationship in marriage. We have to learn to love, and learning to love means sacrificing ourselves for the sake of another. Since that is something most of us are loathe to do, marriage vows are imminently wise, and deeply helpful when taken seriously. Without the commitment to love someone, we might not actually come to love that person in the way that they need to be loved.

I’ve always been touched by the wonderful segment, called ‘Bastille‘ in the movie Paris, je t’aime. Thought the overall story is sad, the confession that ‘by acting like a man in love, he became a man in love again’ has always seemed just right to me.

Poor Randy’s Almanac #2

We begin with two axioms (“…a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true”):

All boys are stupid and are liars.

All girls are fickle and are cruel.

But then…

A boy meets a girl around whom he can be nothing but honest. With encouragement he pursues her.

The girl is so taken that her fickle heart is steadied into faithfulness and her cruelty melts away into kindness.

This is magic. Something good can be made of this.

Great Romances

In my wanderings last week, I heard about a PBS series called Great Romances of the 20th Century.
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Great Romances of the 20th Century examines many passionate love affairs, including those of Jackie Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Juan and Evita Peron, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Great Romances unlocks the secrets that were behind some of the world’s most famous and rapturous relationships.

I suppose those ‘secrets’ would be fun to hear, but this is really not about ‘great’ romances, but ‘celebrity’ romances and celebrity romances, as Donkey so unceremoniously pointed out, watching the dragon spit out Lord Farquaad’s crown, never last.

Hollywood is not the first place I’d look for great romances or for secrets of their longevity. More likely are such to be found at the tables around us at church dinners populated by broken people who have learned to love one another ‘for better or for worse’. More likely they are to be found in the lives of the old couple walking hand in hand on the beach. These relationships might not make good TV, but they would make a great study for those newly married or contemplating marriage.

A year ago, I surveyed a half dozen couples who had reached at least thirty years of marriage. These are not couples who have faced an idyllic life. They have experienced shattered careers, cancer, and near divorce. But they are together and thriving and I asked them why? Their answers, which are really no secrets, are wonderful and inhabit my hard drive still awaiting processing and posting.

While that waits a future day, on this one which will expose some of us husbands as being thoughtless and others as sweetly romantic, which will cause some to celebrate the ‘in relationship’ tag on Facebook and others to curse it, we remember that great relationships are not built upon romance at all, but on love, which is something far greater and deeper and harder.

Happy Valentines Day!

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Bullies at the Table

In a nearby community, recently, a father was walking his daughter, who has cerebral palsy, to the bus stop for school when in tears she confessed to him how others on the bus treated her. Admittedly not handling the situation in a proper way, he stormed on to the bus issuing profanity laden threats to the other students and the driver of the bus. He was arrested and later apologized for behavior that most of us fully understand.

Today, a woman from a nearby church issued a grace filled statement reflecting not only a deep understanding of the situation, but also a knowledge of the Gospel that brings both bullies and the tormented together.

“I am comforted by the thought that one day, those of us who’ve come to realize our need for Him will sit together at the Master’s table—those who have been bullied and those who were the bullies.”

The whole is printed below:

All month, I have been following the story of James Jones, the Florida dad who was compelled to stand-up for his teenage daughter who lives with cerebral palsy. Running on emotion and leaving his logic behind, he stormed onto a Seminole County school bus to confront the kids who were bullying his daughter.

It’s so sad and frustrating to see kids who are different being bullied today. I understand this better than most. I have Cerebral Palsy. I was teased and bullied all through school. As a small child, kids compared me to the Weebles from a toy commercial during the early 70s. “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” Thirty-five years later, and I still feel as if people are going to sing that song to me when I enter a room.

As a student high school, it was so much worse—with kids breaking the equipment I needed to be successful. My sophomore year, three different tape recorders were destroyed. The last straw for my mom was when I came home in tears because the boys were throwing one-inch nuts and bolts at my head. When my mom went to speak to the teacher, he said he would not have the problem if I were not in the class! The following year, I went to private high school, where I was on the homecoming court and was prom queen! Ok, so my graduating class was small.

I say this all to say this has gone on for decades. Sadly, it’s what kids do. What I’ve come to realize is that God is bigger than people and holds each of us in the palm of His hand. I wish it were different and that we would all see the value of people for who they are.

We’re all sinners in need of a Savior. I am comforted by the thought that one day, those of us who’ve come to realize our need for Him will sit together at the Master’s table—those who have been bullied and those who were the bullies. The Master loves us equally, and that is more than I can fathom.

A Final Status Update

The following showed up in my Facebook news feed this morning. And it made me sad:

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For most of you, that means little. For me, it meant the passing of another one of those faithful models whose lives have kept mine true. I don’t know where I would be if God had not brought my life and his together some 35 years ago.

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I was a sophomore at Michigan State University and though a Christian, I had tried to live my Christian life without the support of others. It wasn’t working and so a fellow student drug me to some meetings of the campus ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, and my world began to expand.

During one of those meetings there was a special speaker, a visiting professor of geography named Reuben Brooks. Lee, my friend, and I were strangely moved by the prospect of having a professor who also served Jesus. I’m sure there were many on such a large campus. But we knew none.

Soon, Lee and I registered for a class with Dr. Brooks. We had no special interest in geography, no need to fill out our transcript with such a class, no vision of the class’s usefulness. We just wanted to take a class with a Christian professor.

The end of my sophomore year found me still wrestling with choosing a major, and so Lee and I scheduled a time to visit with Dr. Brooks in his office. The counsel received from him was wise and directive, and played a role in the choices eventually made, but that is not what made this visit so momentous.

In the course of that conversation, I asked Dr. Brooks what was the most significant book he had ever read. I don’t know what made me ask that question. I cannot remember ever asking that of anyone else. Dr. Brooks did not hesitate a moment with his answer: “Knowing God by J. I. Packer.” I soon bought it (at a bookstore – remember those?) and read it carefully. My view of God, my appreciation of His care, my comfort in Him, all were matured, strengthened, and deepened by this book.

This was significant in my life, but I never saw Dr. Brooks again. Subsequent to that, many years passed. I told a number of people of the significance of Knowing God in my life, and how I came to first be aware of it. But over time I even forgot the professor’s name. For thirty years.

Then, one day, for no apparent reason, his name came to mind. I did an internet search and found him at a university in Nashville, TN. I was able to email Dr. Brooks, and that initiated a regular correspondence. Eventually, we were able to meet again, have lunch, and catch up with one another. That was a delight, and we have stayed in touch for as long as he has been able.

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I’ve often said that the book was how Dr. Brooks changed my life forever. But as I’ve reflected on the nature of influence, I’m not sure I am correct.

Early in our correspondence, I was shocked and humbled to have Dr. Brooks tell me this:

“I’ve made it a habit, Randy, to pray for you every weekday, at least.”

This man whom I have not seen for thirty years was committed to praying for me EVERY WEEKDAY. Was it the book that changed my life? I can never measure the impact of those prayers.

What will I now do without those prayers? I must leave it to God to raise up others. For now, he has taken to Himself a man who delighted in serving Him. Delighted in that. I would be thrilled to have half the delight, faithfulness, and love for Jesus as Reuben Brooks. May he find joy in the Lord he loves.

Of Precious Brownies and Tire Swings

Life is out of sync, so things I may have wanted to say weeks ago are only now being said. Forgive me, therefore, if this post seems painfully out of date.

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The joy of coming to know students was one of the great privileges of ministry in the Bradenton/Sarasota area. In addition to the commuter based State College of Florida and the Sarasota campus of the University of South Florida, there are three small but prominent residential schools: Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Ringling College of Art and Design, and New College of Florida. Students we have met from each school have become friends we will treasure forever. And of all the expressions of gratitude we received before leaving Bradenton, two from students were especially touching.

For the past year, I had the delight of meeting with a few students from New College for prayer every Friday morning. This was nothing dramatic, and the crowd was always small. But the time was something I looked forward to every week.

On the last day of prayer for the semester, and the last Friday that I would be in Bradenton, having accepted the call to Oviedo, the students made me brownies and a cake. I was expecting nothing and looking for nothing. But this was something.

The brownies may not have meant much to the students – they apologized for their quality. But as they were a gift to me from the heart of these students, they were the most precious brownies I ever ate.

Thanks, guys!

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One of the friends we have made is Jenny, a graduate of Ringling still living in the area. Having artists as friends has its unique charms.

In a sermon preached not too long before I left Bradenton, I made reference to the tire swing behind our house and that our ‘faith’ in the rope is what enables us to put our weight in the tire.

Before leaving, then, Jenny presented me with this drawing in her own gentle style. The inscription, if you cannot read it, says, “Faith is like a tire swing.”

Thanks, Jenny.

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I was touched by both gifts, and many others which came our way. To all, please know, you have showered upon us evidences of God’s grace to those who don’t deserve it.

We are humbled and glad.

Thanks.

"Magic"

Do you believe in magic? – John Sebastian

Could it be magic? – Barry Manilow (with help from F. Chopin)

It was like… magic. – Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks)

Don’t trust the magic. – Randy Greenwald

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Leave it to me to be the buzz killer. But actually, in my weekend article for the Bradenton Herald, my intention is to add stability to the spark, not to extinguish it.

Below is the article. Here it is online, though it will be accessible for only a limited time.

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A Few Words about ‘the Magic’

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend – a commercial reminder to those who want a relationship that they don’t have one, and an occasion for those in a relationship to enjoy some ‘magic’.

My counsel to singles: Watch The Return of the King, encourage Frodo up Mount Doom, cheer “I am no man!” Eowyn as she slays the Nazgûl. Eat some popcorn and trust the providence and wisdom of a good God.

To those in relationship, my counsel is different. Do what is appropriate to the day and your relationship status, but do NOT trust the ‘magic’.

In the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks movie Sleepless in Seattle what Annie (Ryan) is looking for and not finding in her relationship with her fiancé Walter is, we find out, ‘magic’. We are left to assume that she finds that magic with Sam (Hanks).

‘Magic’, that surge of romantic energy and emotion, is a wonderful thing. But don’t trust it.

It is possible to generate and program ‘magic’ by the right element of thoughtfulness, conversation, chivalry, and charm. And certainly a good and long term relationship will have sparks of ‘magic’ woven throughout.

But if all you see is ‘magic’, don’t trust it. Long term relationship is not about the ‘magic’. It is about commitment, devotion, and faithfulness.

Long tern love is a matter of daily wanting to have conversation with the one you love. It is a matter of forgiving one another daily. It is about refusing to go to bed angry, daily. It is about serving one another daily. It is about doing all of these things whether one feels like it or not.

Some days ‘magic’ will accompany service and forgiveness and conversation. Most days it won’t.

The movie Marley and Me is purportedly about a dog. But the real beauty of that film is the relationship portrayed by Jennifer Anniston and Owen Wilson as they grow together over time. Yes, there is ‘magic’. But there is also tension and argument and strife, as in any marriage. But there is also conversation, sacrifice, and forgiveness.

I overheard a family talking about seeing Marley and Me. A child commented that he did not think it was real. “The parents kissed too much,” he said.

Too much? I don’t think so. But that they kissed at the beginning and at the end of a long relationship was due more to the work they put into being friends than it was to magic.

Don’t trust the magic.

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UPDATE: I surveyed a number of insightful friends for help on this article. I want to pass on my thanks to them!