By Joe LaGuardia
A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.
In the afterword of my recent book, A Whispering Call, I outline the waning market for first-person narration. Jonathon Franzen, guest editor for the Best American Essays anthology of 2016, states that we stand in the Golden Age of memoirs; while Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker lamented that the “personal essay boom” has come to an end.
Regardless of various naysayers, I personally love memoirs. Memoirs record the inner journey of the soul while affirming the resiliency of lives who carry the burdens born of both tragedy and comedy.
I just finished reading, God Underneath, by Catholic priest, Edward Beck. In his own afterword, he wrote that his memoir aims to help people see the priesthood differently, past the clergy collar. He wanted to humanize his position while helping his readers realize that God is in all the details of life.
Only the memoir genre allowed him to tell his story and express all of the settings in which a priest may find himself.
Perhaps I like memoirs because I have spent decades reflecting on my own journey of faith and vocation. Hearing God’s call, fashioning a community that knows how to discern God’s call, and responding to God’s call have to be the best parts of my ministry. Heck, vocation is the undercurrent of my newest book and of this blog series!
Memoir makes for great sermons too. In reading Beck, I was reminded of my own struggle with pastoral presence and image, and how I have incorporated that into my preaching. I am familiar with the feeling he expresses about needing to lose the frock to deepen friendships. I resonated with his efforts of encouraging others to relate to him as a normal individual, pushing towards a more “confessional” style that connects with congregations.
I agreed that when people put us ministers on pedestals, it is easier for that kind of idol to fall and break into a million pieces like Dagon before the ark of the covenant. Memoir can turn tragic real fast when people place unrealistic expectations upon you.
And memoirs remind us that we are all made in God’s image and called to be priests in one form or fashion. My Baptist tradition specifically grants us the mantle of the priesthood of believers. Dismantling unrealistic images of the ministry does not lessen how people see me, but lifts people up and persuades them to seize God’s destiny in their lives.
Recently, one of our youngest children at church asked whether our music minister was Jesus. One Sunday, when the minister came off of the stage during worship, the little girl reached over to my wife, bright-eyed, and whispered, “That’s Jesus!”
My wife tried to tell her who Jesus is (and who he isn’t), but it got a great belly laugh out of all of us. My music minister now has a lot to live up to!
Edward Beck mentions that people ask him about his calling: “When did you receive your call, Father?” And every time, he responds, “I am still receiving it!” God’s call continually provides opportunities for us to bear witness to Christ’s love.
Are we willing to move beyond our own self-image and see ourselves through Christ’s eyes, then see others as Christ sees them? What memoir might we write, and how does God show up in it?