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The Most Dangerous Sunday of the Year

May 10, 2013

I was always a sensitive boy. I remember sitting on the bench outside my dad’s church on Mother’s Day, wishing each mother blessings on the way in, and proffering the provided roses. I was so excited about my job, that I accidentally wished a childless woman a happy Mother’s Day, and had to be gently reminded by her that she wasn’t a mother. I can’t imagine how that must have felt, knowing as she did that my heart was joyful and longing to bless, yet having an overly enthused eight year old remind her that she would not have her own eight year old.

This childlike sensitivity grew into an appreciation for the fairer sex bordering on awe when puberty taught me that women were all of a sudden fascinating. I had far more female friends than guys, I just found their company more interesting, less competitive. At this point I had 5 brothers and sisters, and I loved having my big, chaotic family. I dreamed of the day where I’d have one of my own. Time passed, and this sensitive and timid young man grew more and more desperate for family. Like Abraham, I tried to take the reigns of my life into my own hands. Thankfully(I think), this didn’t result in a child in what would have been a disastrous relationship, and I came back to my Savior, a bit humbler and more ready to have my big family on his terms.

So I waited.

Then I met Amy. She was a pastor’s kid, just like me, and she knew all the words to the Vegi Tales “Lip Song”, just like I did. It was a perfect match. 12 months after “Hi, I’m Seth!” I was saying “Hello, Mrs. Greenwald!” We had great plans. Anytime anyone asked about kids, I told them that Amy and I were divided on the subject, I wanted 6, while she only wanted 4. After a few months, we decided that a year would be sufficent between marriage and baby, so we quit birth control, and waited.

And waited.

And waited. On month, she was at 42 days. We were so stoked! We ran out to Cracker Barrel and bought two of the “Mother and Child” Willow figurines, and had them gift wrapped, one for her mother and one for mine, our way of announcing our good news. The very next day, we got our own bit of bad news. No pregnancy.

Amy and I were married on August 9th, 2003. Some things have changed, true. Neither of us give a hoot about 6 or 4. We’d be beside ourselves over 1. Some things haven’t changed, though. No children. We have watched my younger brother get married and have a son. Twice. My older sister got married 3 years or so after we did, and promptly had a honeymoon baby. Two years after that, she had another son. Last fall we celebrated my mother’s retirement from being our teacher for 25 years of homeschooling, and as a gift, my older sister gave her a pregnancy test showing positive. Number 3 is on its way. About a month after that, my younger sister called me out of the blue, letting me know that she had gotten pregnant. Her fiancé is a single dad, so she is sort of having twins. 7 nephews and nieces is an amazing part of our lives, and we love each of them fiercely. But when I learned of my older sister’s third, I quietly walked around a room divider and even more quietly wept my heart out of my chest and onto the floor.

Amy and I have bitterly joked with each other that we should have given in to the incredible temptation to come together before we were married, because at least that way we’d have gotten pregnant. But as it stands, we will be at church on Sunday, holding our breath praying that the pastor doesn’t make a big deal about motherhood. We can’t even skip, because we are on the music team. We will be there before and after the service, trying in vain to not hear the clueless happy couples with their beautiful offspring congratulating each other on their ability to procreate. We will be leaving as quickly as humanly possible.

I speak from experience when I say that the issue runs far deeper than Mother’s Day, that’s only when it is closest to the surface. People in general, and the church in particular, don’t think about the brokenness that surrounds family relationships, other than the highly visible ones such as divorce. Barren couples aren’t even on the radar of the majority of people. Lonely singles don’t make a blip. The widow who’s children don’t call her sits in her pew, praying for health and traveling mercies, the two requests that are acceptable to make publicly. Believers don’t know how to share each others burdens. When true pain and very real wounds are shown, people shut down. At best, the leaders say “Thanks for being vulnerable”, which is code for “Moving on, now.” At worst, they call everyone over and pray over the empty womb, claiming a pregnancy within the year. There is an awful lot of talk of carrying burdens, and little lifting. Sometimes we need less words, and more hugs. Cry with us. Get angry with us. Don’t just shuffle your feet and look like you’d rather be anywhere else.

To me, Mother’s Day is too fraught with pain to be a valuable holiday. Father’s Day too, although Mother’s Day hurts more, for some reason. The heart of eight year old me must still be in there somewhere. I wish we would take many moments throughout the year to make our mother’s feel special, and render this one day obsolete.

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Dreaming, Gospel Style

May 25, 2011

I have been thinking about contentment recently. Probably because being content is one of my biggest challenges. My wife Amy says that I have a grass is greener problem. I dream too big, too much. I need to be more realistic with what I long for. It’s hard, though, when there are so many things that I would love to have in my life! I want to go back to school and get my Master’s in Architecture. I want to work in a design firm where people are NOT treated like cattle. I want to own an architecture firm designing beautiful houses for wonderful clients. I want to wake up every morning and go to work saying, ‘I can’t believe I get paid to do this!’ All of these things are good, yet none are a reality right now. What does this tell you? I have a major work/success idol.

I have rebelled against contentment mainly because I have seen it as a requirement to take your dreams and stick them in the back of your closet, in the box with your high school yearbook and you stuffed animal from way back when. The thought of doing that makes my brain numb. Recently I have been coming to a different conclusion. In his sermon Sunday our pastor said “The worst thing that God could do to a person is give him exactly what he wants.” This struck a nerve. God wants to give us the best that he has, and that best is Himself. And he gave that to us in his Son. So how could God giving us our deepest desire be a good thing, unless that deepest desire is Him?

So I am praying for a different perspective. I want to recenter my deepest desire on the only thing that truly fulfills all I could ever need and more. In doing so, the strangest thing happens. When I let go of my dreams as being the thing that satisfies me, I GAIN the freedom to dream even bigger than before! If I long for something good, like an architecture firm, and I don’t get it, but I have God, how is that a loss? I have a God who loves me! I am now able to dream for the stars, because I already have the maker of those stars.

Now to remind myself of that daily….

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Character Studies; Man #1

February 3, 2011

I have been wanting to write about people. I decided in order to do so, I should write about ACTUAL people, ones that I see with my physical eyes. So today I started doing this. I sat down at Starbucks, picked a man at random, opened my notebook and wrote the following. Ok, so I edited it a little bit when I typed it up… sue me.

Man #1

He was clothed completely in black, like a stocky shadow pooling in the overstuffed leather armchair. Button-down with sleeves rolled to the elbows, strap-shouldered vest, denim pants, with pewter studded boots jutting from tattered hems. The little hair he had left was grown long, pulled back from his temples in a tail, one last-ditch effort to stave off the aging process. His five-o-clock shadow melted into a tight, salt and pepper goatee, clinging to his chin like moss. White headphones sprouted from his ears, chords a stark contrast to his somber attire. His black laptop was perched on one crossed knee, and his expression crackled with a peculiar intensity. His watery blue eyes were fixed on the screen with a concentration bordering on anger.

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Wilson Dougan, Renaissance Man

January 27, 2011

Wilson Dougan, Renaissance Man

By Seth Greenwald

Wilson was a man of ambition. He knew it was so because of the fire in his gut. He felt heat every time he saw a great painting. He would be a painter. He burned at reading each great book. He would be a writer. He smoldered upon entering a great building. He would be an architect. He would do great things, he was sure of it.

Wilson went to the art store. His heart leaped at the sight of the raw material for his masterpieces. His hands itched to touch it all, buy it all. He leafed through sketchbooks, his sketches already inhabiting the pages. He strolled among the paints, feeling the smoothness of each brushstroke as it flowed from his hand. He stood before the canvases, already framed and hung.

Wilson stepped into the museum. A retrospective, the sign read. ‘The Paintings and Drawings of Wilson Dougan’. The first room held sketches. On the wall were row after row of pages, framed, yet empty. He walked up to the plaque.

Wilson Dougan never produced anything of quality, so in order to not offend your eyes, we framed these blank pieces of paper. The texture of each page is infinitely more interesting than anything Dougan actually drew. Notice the consistency and purity of each page. Dougan’s actual sketches, both of them, didn’t add anything to enhance the page. So we left them in archive.

Wilson jumped back, stung. “Well that’s… that’s… they can’t mean…”, he sputtered. He quickly moved off to the next gallery, housing the paintings. There was only one. He didn’t recognize it. It was a two-dimensional representation of a house, door centered, with windows flanking. A chimney jutted from the left slope of the roof, a curl of smoke from the chimney. To the right of the house was a family of stick figures; a daddy, a mommy, and a little girl. She was holding a flower, while a doggy sat next to her. The painting was finished by a tree, complete with hole and bee, and a grinning sun.

Wilson Dougan was an even worse painter than he was a sketch artist. We decided that it would be better to grab this finger painting, by the curator’s five year old granddaughter, off of his refrigerator and hang that.

Wilson gave a start. He looked around. He was still in the art store, holding a blank canvas, stretched and triple primed. He stared at it for a long moment. He put it back, turned, and strode out of the store.

Wilson sat down with his latte, opened his laptop, and cracked his fingers. He took a sip as the word processor loaded. The blank page and blinking cursor gave him a shiver of anticipation. He could see the words of his novel filling the screen, characters so real that they leapt from the page. He smiled and placed his hands on the keys.

Wilson stood in the New Release section of Barnes and Noble. On the shelf was a row of books. He picked one up. The cover read:

Blank

A Novel

By Wilson Dougan

abridged

He grinned to himself as he flipped the book over in his hands, relishing the feel of it, the smell of it.

There is no way to describe what Wilson Dougan has done to the world of American fiction.

— The New York Times

One of the worst crimes against literature to be perpetrated in the last 500 years.

— The Washington Post

Anyone want to roast some marshmallows? I’ve got kindling.

–Dave Barry

Mystified, he flipped to the first chapter.

Disclaimer:

Dear reader,

During the editing process we realized that there wasn’t anything salvageable in Dougan’s manuscript. In order to fulfill contractual agreements, and to limit loss of money and reputation, we decided it would be in our best interest to print a blank book. We apologize for any incontinence that this may have caused, and we hope that you will still consider purchasing other books that we publish in the future.

Sincerely,

Acme Publishing

P.S. Yes, we meant incontinence.

With trembling hands, Wilson looked up from the blinking cursor, and out the window. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and gently closed the lid on his laptop. Staring into the distance, he finished his latte, gathered his things, and left.

The smooth white surface of his drafting table soothed Wilson as he contemplated his next move. He would not be deterred so easily. He still felt that fire. Looking over the tools of the trade, he selected a pencil and let his hand hover over the tracing paper affixed to the table.

Wilson picked up the newspaper from his front step, pulling his bathrobe tight against the early morning chill. The steam off of his coffee curled and writhed, fragrant. He sat down on the front porch couch, ready to see what was new in the world.

Collapse Catastrophe

Architect incompetence sited in the deaths of 142 people when a building suddenly imploded.

“ENOUGH!!!” He roared, slamming his hand down on the drafting table, snapping the pencil in two. Shards of wood and graphite flew in all directions. Wilson stomped out of his studio and headed back to the house, shaking the sting out of his hand. “Time to do something that I know I will succeed at.” he muttered as he rounded into the kitchen.

Wilson poured a beer and picked up the remote.

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The Lost and the Found

January 24, 2011

The Lost and the Found

Seth Greenwald

“What am I doing here?” He said, blindsided by his own question. What indeed? He had had a good run, he supposed. He had lived the life he had always dreamed of, hadn’t he? Sure, he tried not to think of how he had gotten there, the look in the old man’s eyes when… But that’s not important right now. He leaned back, for the moment lost. Man, I could throw one hell of a party, he mused, thinking of his condo, with it’s view of the city, lit up like someone tripped, spilling a bucket of stars across the landscape. Who else in this fucking city threw a party with ice sculptures? No one. He wished he could remember more of these parties, to tell the truth. Judging by the messes he had paid to clean up, though, they must have been epic.

 

 

He rubbed his eyes, blinking to ease the grit.

“No matter how many columns I add, there is always another,” He complained. Running the family business was no joke. He had had to scramble after that old fool nearly beggared them when that ungrateful prick left. At least he was there to hold the pieces together, he thought, ruefully. And how those pieces had grown! Sure, it was mostly the old man’s ideas that had turned things around, but he had implemented them. Without his ability to handle the nuts and bolts, they would have been sunk, he determined, swelling. Instead, they had made up for lost time, and even pulled ahead. He took another sip of his coffee, steaming and black, and started in on the next column.

 

 

Nothing. He sighed, flipping his MacBook closed, and glancing at the cell phone sitting silently on the table next to his latte. All this time, and not a call, not an email, not even a text message. He glanced out of the window of the Beanery, where he set up vigil each morning.

“Would you like your second latte now, Mr. Loggins?”

He gave himself a shake, pushing back from the table.

“No, thank you, Stacey.” He said, wincing at the twinge in his knees as he rose. His joints had formed a conspiracy against him, he was sure of it. He stood beside his usual seat at his usual table, considering the two other chairs, empty. As usual, he thought taking a deep breath. He looked across the street at the front of Loggins and Sons, the small town accounting firm that he had run for 40 years. The shade was drawn in the upstairs window, although he knew the office would be occupied. The firm’s front door didn’t open. He shifted his gaze down Main Street, in the direction of the interstate. The motorcycle didn’t come. He sat back down.

“On second thought, Stacey, I think I will have that latte.”

“Coming right up, Mr. Loggins.”

Nothing, he thought again. But no obituary either. That means there is always tomorrow.

 

 

The girls, oh, the girls, he thought. Who could forget them? There had certainly been plenty. Most were friends of friends, a few he had only seen once. Some he had bought with jewelry, some with alcohol. Some he had even bought with cash. But that had dried up. Like a puddle on a sidewalk, his world had shrunk with the dwindling balance in his bank account. After his credit cards started being declined when he offered to pay for lunch, soon there wasn’t anyone to go to lunch with anyway. He didn’t really start to worry until having lunch itself was questionable. That was when Phil had given him the job in that shit hole he liked to call a bar. With how much cash he had spent on drinking beer, you’d think that there would be more for the guy pouring it, he wondered, grimacing at the bowl of ramen in front of him. It was the same thing he had eaten for weeks. He couldn’t even afford one of the beers he slung for the pigs down at Phil’s. It was bad when one of the ‘patrons’ drank too much and puked all over one of the stalls in the bathroom, and he had to clean it up. It was worse when the girls who frequented the bar flirted so aggressively, yet their only intention was fishing for free drinks. The worst was when his old so-called friends came into the bar, and looked at him with a mixture of disdain and relief that it was him behind the bar and not them. What am I doing here? He asked again. Back home, even the guys in his dad’s mailroom made twice what Phil paid, and they got free lunch on Fridays. In that instant he made a choice. He walked over to where Phil was leering at a pretty girl who made the mistake of wandering into the bar and getting drunk.

“Get back to the bar, jackass.” Phil growled. “And while your at it bring us a round of tequila shots. I don’t pay you to wander your lazy ass all over the fucking bar.”

The girl laughed, too loudly.

“Do it yourself.” He said, tossing his apron and rag onto the table. “I quit.”

 

 

He took a sip of his latte, sighing with pleasure.

“Perfect, Stacey, as usual.” He dropped a dollar into the tip jar.

“Aw, thanks, Mr. Loggins! As usual.” Stacey replied.

Another day, he thought as he settled into his chair and opened his MacBook. As he picked up his latte for another sip, he glanced down Main Street. There, in the distance, was a man pushing a motorcycle. Toward town. With a strangled cry and a violent jerk, he dropped the latte, spilling it’s contents all over the MacBook’s keyboard. He leapt to his feet, knocking his chair backwards, and flew out the door, oblivious to the wreckage behind him.

“Mr. Loggins!” Stacey cried. “Are you ok? What happened? Mr. Loggins!”

The only answer she received was the soft jangle of the bell above the door.

 

 

He had run out of gas on the off ramp. The last of his meager cash had been spent on that gas. His head was an endless loop of the last conversation he had had his father. He explained that he had his own life to live, and how he wanted nothing to do with accounting. What’s more, he needed his portion of the business to finance his way. The pain in his father’s eyes at those words was a lance that pierced his heart with every plodding step, a lash that tore at his soul.

“I’ll just see if he has an opening in the mailroom,” he said aloud, if only to silence the litany inside his head. “He always found a way to give a job to all who asked.”

As he neared the outskirts of town his step slowed. An elderly man was running toward him with the speed of a man twenty years his junior. The man was weeping as he ran, reckless, with his arms thrown wide, his tweed blazer flapping behind him. The younger man dropped the bike and stood stock still, overwhelmed with the compulsion to run as well. His uncertainty as to which direction rooted him in his spot.

“Jonathan! Jonathan!” he heard the old man cry as he ran, over and over and over.

He broke. His legs gave way, spilling him to his knees. He wept, great wracking heaves, nearly unable to breathe. His father reached him and, in one smooth motion, dropped to his knees and wrapped his son in his embrace, heedless to the tears in his trousers caused by the rough gravel. They knelt there, rocking back and forth, a man comforting his child who had been lost. No different than if the boy had been six. After a time, Jonathan’s sobs began to subside. Still pressed to his father’s heart, he spoke.

“I was wondering if you might have an opening in the mailroom. I know I don’t deserve…”

“Jonathan.” his father cut him off. “Are you joking? You come home to me and the first thing you mention is work? I don’t care about that! You are home! Your place is already here for you. You owe me nothing. You are home. We are going to throw the biggest party this town has ever seen.”

 

 

He was partway through reading the annual earnings report for Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s hardware store. Yes, tax season was in full swing. All of a sudden he heard music emanating from that coffee shop across the street, his father’s favorite ‘office’.

“Cynthia,” he called. “What the hell is going on across the street? Don’t they know that some people are trying to get some real work done?”

“You are never going to believe this, Mr. Loggins!” Cynthia exclaimed, unable to hide the excitement in her voice. She burst into the office, her round, good-natured face flushed. “Jonathan has come home! Your dad is calling everyone in town to come to Main Street for a barbecue! The Chief of Police has even shut down the road, if you can believe it. It’s a regular festival! The party has already started over at the Beanery. Come on, we’re missing it!”

“I don’t fucking believe it.” He muttered under his breath. A pause hung uneasily in the air between them. “Thank you, Cynthia, you may go. Please shut my door behind you. It’s tax season, as you know, and I’m quite busy.”

 

 

He was standing at the window, shade up for the first time since he had taken over the office. He didn’t turn around when his father spoke.

“Timothy, please come join us.”

“Why should I?” he spat, whirling around. “That prick of yours nearly ruined this firm so he could ‘invest in life’ as he called it! And what had he gotten as a return for that investment? Several rather nasty STDs, no doubt.” He paused, breathing heavily. “I, on the other hand, have been practically chained to this desk, working tirelessly to put even your most hair-brained of business ideas into practice. And I have made it a success. We have recovered all that that moron squandered, and more. How do you thank me? Have you thrown me even a small party? Never.” He bit off the last word, choking on the bitterness.

 

 

He let out a long breath.

“Oh, Timothy.” He said quietly. “When I am gone, everything that we have worked for these many years will be yours. All of it! But your brother. But Jonathan. He’s alive, Timothy! We both know the dangerous behavior he has been indulging, yet he still lives. And what’s more, he’s home! He is my son, Timothy. You are my son. I love you both, wherever you are and whatever you have become. Come home too, Timothy.”

 

 

The torrent of anger that was fueling his rage abandoned him so quickly that it left him weak and light-headed. The press of his father’s love for him surged against his weakened defenses and they crumbled. He hung his head. A tear slid down his nose and fell to the rug.

“Dad, I…”

In one sure step, the old man was there. He wiped the tears from his son’s eyes with a gentle thumb and pulled him into his arms.

 

 

Jonathan and Timothy stood side by side on the sidewalk in front of Loggins and Sons. They surveyed in stunned silence what a small town can do in the span of a few hours when the words ‘barbecue’ and ‘Main Street’ and ‘party’ are all used in the same sentence. Everyone they had ever known from their childhood was before them. Six grills of differing size filled the air with sweet incense. An impromptu band had formed in front of the Beanery. An impromptu dance floor in front of the band. They looked at the scene, at the sidewalk, at each other.

“What are we doing here?” they said, in unison. Timothy reached out and took Jonathan’s hand, who smiled at his older brother. Together the stepped off the curb, joining the celebration.

They began to laugh.

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Rome

January 20, 2011

A friend of mine is in Rome right now. I got a little jealous and wrote this.

Rome

When roaming Rome,
Don’t think of home.
Don’t blink, you’ll miss the famous dome!
The Pantheon, with floor of stone,
And oculus set high above!

The fountain with equine motif,
With waters’ gurgle, splash, and foam;
The Eternal City bids you come,
From other places you have gone,
If with back to fountain, face to square,
You toss a coin into the air,
O’er shoulder into Trevi’s pond.

And who can miss the famous place,
With Adam’s Birth and Judgement Last,
The masterful artistic grace
Imbued in every frescoed face!
Four years of painful toil went past
E’er Julius’ demands were met.
And while we weren’t there to see it done,
We all owe Michelangelo a debt.

So when in this ancient metropolis,
Remember all who have not been.
Remember all that you have seen
And share with those who had to miss.
Perhaps one day, before too long,
You’ll hear that Latin siren’s song,
And leave again your hearth and home,
To journey back, once more to Rome.

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The Intersection of Grace and Effort

February 16, 2010

I don’t know if you knew this, but I sin. A lot. I have for quite some time now. And if you are anything like me, you probably do to. And if you are anything like me, there are sins in your life that you have fought for a very long time, years perhaps. Knowing that I am a new creation has somehow seemed to have little effect. My efforts to fight sin have been woefully pitiful, at best. I have seen my strength fail more times than I can count. I know that my salvation is not based on my own actions, but I how can I be a Christian and sin so much? Shouldn’t I try to not sin?

This struggle leaves us with two options. Try and fail, or don’t try and wait for God to change you. I have been alternating between these for 28 years. But there is another way.

John 10:28 says that Jesus gives his people eternal life, “and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” We are secure in Christ, apart from what we do. Yet Philippians 2:12 tells to “work our your salvation with fear and trembling.” How do these work together? The often stated doctrine of ‘once saved, always saved’ does NOT mean that we are free from a requirement of constant effort in order to be saved (even though this is true). We are called to constant effort, after all. What it means is that that effort is guaranteed to succeed! How? Because Philippians 2 doesn’t stop there. The next verse says that “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”. God is the initiator of the desire and the ability to ‘try’! He is also the sustainer of that very same effort.

Those of us familiar with Reformed theology have no problem acknowledging that when God initiates salvation, he gives us a new nature and a new will, so that we can choose to cry out to him in faith and repentance. We understand that this is an act of God as well as a real choice on our part, both at the same time. Similarly, God working in us, turning our hearts away from sin and giving us strength to resist temptation, does not negate the fact that it is a real effort on our part! It is simply an effort that is backed and secured by the perfect effort of Jesus Christ.

The Christian life will be a sweaty, bloody affair. We will have broken bones and healed scars. We will have fatigue and adrenaline rushes. We will cry out in our effort, straining with every fiber of our being to cling to Christ. And our efforts will succeed. If it is God doing the work in our hearts, how can it fail?