A Reading Life (pt 7): Reading the Life of Christ


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Just in time for Christ the King Sunday.

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.  This, the seventh article, was published on Christ the King Sunday, November 2018.

When my wife and I got married, we thought we knew each other well. We loved each other, but we really did not know how much we did not know at the time. At our wedding altar, our officiating minister said, “Joe, love Kristina as God’s tailor-made wife for you; and remember that it will take you a life-time to get to know her intimately.” Now, 20 years later, I see exactly what he means!

I feel the same way about Jesus. When I was baptized in high school, I thought I knew him. I gained comfort from his love and forgiveness, acquired a love for the church and the Bible, and had several spiritual experiences that moved me deeply; but, even then, I did not know him well.

It was not until I got to college that I studied Jesus the man and got to know him for who he was and who he continues to be.  Since then, a large portion of my “reading life” has been invested in studying this man whom I betrothed when I walked the aisle of the First Baptist Church of Perrine so many years ago.

Jesus’ name comes from the Hebrew Yeshua, which means, “he will save.” The root for this word is yasha, which means “to redeem” and “to release.” It hints at liberation–a savior who does not enslave, but releases people to be who God called them to be by opening new doors and opportunities to live in a new way. This is how I felt when I went to college. Jesus was opening my eyes to see him in a new way!

Part of my new-found passion came from a calling to go deeper in my faith, but it also came from studying under religion professors who loved the Bible as much as I.

The professor who influenced me most was New Testament dynamo Daniel Goodman. Anyone who attended Palm Beach Atlantic University School of Ministry in the 1990s will tell you that Dr. Goodman was a big part of their lives. He was enthusiastic, erudite, humorous, relatable, and entertaining. His chalkboard-filled lectures and soaring grammatical feats were things to behold.

When I entered Dr. Goodman’s class, I met Jesus as if for the first time. It was there that I learned about this historical figure who walked the earth, lived in a particular context and culture, and shapes the church and its liturgy today. Goodman’s enthusiasm and quest for Jesus (he was a Q scholar) were contagious, and it was hard not to walk with a pep in your step upon leaving class.

The first book he assigned us was The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders. Sanders, a Jesus scholar out of Duke University who takes a modest view of the Gospels, was a good introduction. His book opened a new world to me. I walked with Jesus and his disciples in the first century; went to temple to study and pray with him; and I confronted my own journey to Calvary, wondering whether I had what it took to “pick up your cross and follow me.”

My admiration of Jesus studies only grew from there. I read anything I could get my hands on related to Jesus and first-century Palestine, from J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright, to Richard Horsley and Luke T. Johnson. My appetite was insatiable, and my passion deepened all the more when Kristina and I traveled to Israel in 2000. I was reading Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus at the time, and what better book to read while traveling the Holy Land and walking in the footsteps of my Lord?

Part of the problem of religious studies is that sometimes the head gets away from the heart, and my love for the Bible grew into an acute cynicism. Why did it take attending college to learn the basics of the faith I thought I knew so well? I remember going back to my home church one summer and grilling the pastor: “Why aren’t you teaching us this stuff? Why am I learning it for the first time?”

I later learned that my anger is natural, a part of the learning process in which faith moves from orientation, to disorientation, and to re-orientation (per Walter Brueggemann). That movement, at least from orientation to disorientation, leads to grief and uncertainty. It heightens fear and anger and stretches critical thinking to a near breaking-point. My many “whys?” to my pastor hinted at this stage of my spiritual pilgrimage.

I can’t remember the answer my pastor provided, by the way.  But now — being a full-time pastor myself — I can see why it is difficult to teach those deeper truths that an academic passion seems to unveil. And when I do preach a new or deeper truth that is unfamiliar to most congregations, especially truths that defy the cookie-cutter, Sunday school answers, people approach me with skepticism, as if learning something new is not biblical. I can’t tell you how many times someone said, “I never heard that before,” and meant it as a negative statement rather than a positive opportunity to grow as a disciple of Christ.

At the same time, I have learned that every sermon should have something new to share–not just a spiritual insight or application, such as “Five ways to improve your marriage,” but rather something new about the world of the Bible–even if its an insight into the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word. Several weeks ago I went to a Bible study for pastors and I did not hear anything new. We are pastors–you have to step up your game if you’re going to teach pastors! Anything less than that is just lazy pontificating.

In college, when I was learning something with every paragraph I read, it was overwhelming. I was confronting a culture in which my Savior lived and moved about and died; and the culture shock still rattles me to this day. If you claim to love Jesus, don’t just know a few things about him–know him and read about his life. Get to know what he values. Take him at his word, and venture beyond the shallows, into the deep end with him!

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A Reading Life (Pt 5): The Bible

Related imageBy 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.

One of the ways you can tell someone is going to be a minister or go into ministry is if, as a child, that person has an affinity towards the holy.  Some future ministers play church, while others pretend to facilitate the Lord’s Supper instead of playing tea time.  For me, I always gravitated towards the Bible, even when I could not understand it.

When I was growing up, I always had a Bible close to me.  It was on my nightstand.  I had a children’s version of an NIV (still being published!), with pictures throughout.  One year I wrapped my sister’s Bible for Christmas and gave it to her as a gift.  When she opened it and saw that it was her Bible, I said I got it for her because I hadn’t seen her read it.  That was telling!

That NIV stuck with me until I reached high school and really dug deep into God’s Word.  I committed my life to Christ more fully when I was 16.  I purchased an NIV Study Bible, popular back then.  At the age of 18, I purchased a Word in Life study Bible, which ended up being too big to do anything useful.  My youth pastor, my primary mentor at the time, gifted several of us with a Serendipity Student Study Bible that I still use to this day for the middle-school Sunday school class I teach every week at church.  It has my notes from high school in it.

College required the Annotated Oxford Student Study Bible (NRSV), and my love for that particular Bible has been well-documented.  I am on my fourth Oxford NRSV, and I recently purchased a small one for funerals and preaching.  My Associate Pastor, retiring and cleaning out his bookshelf, gave me an Oxford RSV Annotated Bible, a real gem (more on that in a future article on hand-me downs).

Study Bibles aside, my love for the Bible took off in college.  I spent hours reading the Bible every night in my student carrel.  It was my main source of nourishment, and that carried on to the rest of my life.  I am currently reading through the Bible all the way through again, but not in a rushed manner–I read it devotionally and spiritually, praying through every verse.  I accompany the reading with a devotion from F. B. Myers My Daily Homily when I can.

I cannot help connecting my calling to ministry with my love of the Bible.  I went into ministry because of my salvation in Christ, but I majored in religious studies because I wanted to learn everything I could about the Bible.  Even to this day, I purchase introductions to the Bible, namely the Old Testament, just to learn everything I can about it.  I get frustrated when I attend conferences or pastor’s studies and I do not learn something new.  If you are going to lead a study or conference for clergy, make sure you have at least a couple things in your material that are fresh or hot off of the scholarship press–we’ve heard it all, and I don’t need another rote lecture, thank you very much.

The Bible continues to shape my world, as it has shaped the world around us.  And for all of the reading I do, spiritual or otherwise, it is the Bible to which I always return.  You cannot replace reading it for yourself, experiencing the Spirit’s whisper in its pages, and having a daily practice of meditating upon its principles and precepts.

And the Church went away, grieved


By Joe LaGuardia

In Mark 10, a rich young man asked Jesus how to possess eternal life.  Jesus told him to follow through on the Ten Commandments.   The man was religious and had a routine.  He served God and made charitable contributions to society.  “But there is one thing you lack,” Jesus told him, “Sell all you have…”

The lesson is filled with irony.  A rich man had lack, and the lack was the willingness to part with all of the things that got in God’s way.  Being religious was not enough.  Doing good works was not enough.  The man was so busy consuming things that he thought eternal life was just another commodity to own.  But eternal life is not a product; it is a gift to receive with an open and expectant heart.

The man did not understand Jesus’ command.  How did he lack something?  He owned everything–and the Bible says that he walked away from Jesus “grieved.”  He failed to understand something St. Augustine learned long ago, that sometimes, “Our hands are so full of things, there is nowhere for God to put new blessings.”

I studied this portion of scripture at the same time that I have been reflecting on the role of grief in the lives of churches.  This idea of church grief came out of a pastor’s retreat I attended in late September.  Bill Wilson, director of the Center for Healthy Churches and facilitator of said retreat, mentioned that there was a consultant working with churches that emphasized grief in the lives of congregations.  Pastors new to a congregation or pastors exiting one need to know how grief shapes community.

The notion is very simple: Churches grieve during transitions (both clergy transitions as well as ministerial ones), and churches do not instinctively know how to handle grief.  There is little conversation about what hurts, and grief comes in the form of lament: Why do we not have the same amount of people in the pews as when the church was in the “Golden Age”?  Why has the church lost so much cultural influence in society?  Why are we losing entire generations–“Where are all of the young people?”  These are questions born out of grief, not out of intentional strategic outreach.

They are symptomatic; but as all grief turns out to be, they can lead to greater opportunities rather than hindrances.  Grief can be life-giving or a burden; it is all based on how we respond to it–and most churches do not respond appropriately.

Ministers who miss these emotional cues are ill-prepared to help churches transition into new, life-giving seasons of ministry and missions.  Churches that get stuck on the past forget what God calls them to be in the future.  Congregations turn insular, power struggles erupt, and conflict damages outreach.

“There is one thing you lack…” is not only a call for individuals, it is a challenge for churches to let go of the things that no longer work or sustain growth.  Our congregations are so filled with baggage and programs of yesteryear there is no room–and no vision–for God to give the new blessings that propel churches into a new era of ministry.

Ministry is not going to look the same as it did decades ago.  The church must now work from the margins of society, not the center of it; and it must advocate for an outward-focused mission that joins others on the margins rather than cozying up with people and politicians who wield power from the center.  Centralized power exploits, discriminates, and sustains status quos at the expense of justice and liberation.  The church stumbles when it forgets its place; it is not rich, and it lacks that posture of open hands and hearts in which we look to God for our strength.

We have become the church of Laodicea, not Philadelphia.  We think we are rich, and we have pushed Jesus out of our churches because we are too full of our own pride.  But Jesus stands at the door and knocks.  Hope is not lost yet.

Pastors have to play two roles in the church these days: one is the role of visionary prophet who dreams new dreams and casts new visions.  The other is to be a grief counselor that helps put old ways of doing things to rest, to purge us of baggage that takes too much attention or that fills time and hands.  It is as Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Pastors must facilitate life and death.  The only other alternative is to remain stagnate, to walk in perpetual grief.