A Pastor appreciates the Hymns: “God of Grace…”

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

Most ministers I know pray for courage on a daily basis.  Ministry is a sacrificial act that requires risk, reconciliation, and intuition.  It is a craft that pastors shape over time, a vocation forged in the throes of experience and ever-evolving knowledge.  So goes the prayer in God of Grace and God of Glory in which the author, Harry Emerson Fosdick implores the Lord, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage.”

Penned soon after the First World War, God of Grace and God of Glory  was Fosdick’s confession of having supported the “War to end all Wars,” only to realize that violence only begot more violence.  Like other progressives of his time, Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York, repented of his ideals and wrote this hymn in which he asked God to “cure thy children’s warring madness.”

Fosdick’s beloved hymn captures the spirit of historic progressivism in its lofty lilt, set to the music of John Hughes, while birthing notions of non-violence that shaped much of the progressive church into recent days.  In fact, after Fosdick, Riverside Church became a beacon for peace and non-violence. One of the church’s pastors, William Sloane Coffin, gained notoriety for preaching against the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation in the 1970s Riverside pulpit.

It is this legacy that spurned controversy over Fosdick’s hymn in the first place.  If you look at hymnals from the Vietnam War era onward, notably hymns published in the 1970s, such as the 1975 Baptist Hymnal, many editors removed the third verse which asks God to undo a nation’s penchant for war.

Even moderate-leaning hymnals of late, including the Celebrating Grace hymnal published in Macon, Georgia, in 2010 excludes the verse in favor of asking God to “set our feet on lofty places.”  This contemporary spin is more a hymn for hikers than it is one that shapes theological engagement of peacekeepers for the 21st century.  (The 2008 Baptist hymnal by Lifeway does include the classic 3rd verse.)

I have grown to love the historic version of God of Grace and God of Glory for both its musical artistry and its message ever since my earliest years in seminary.  It was then that I studied Fosdick and his historic tenure at Riverside.  I learned how he moved his church into the “Christian century”, battled the shortfalls of religious fundamentalism, and gave rise to a new style of homiletics that inspired preachers to utilize sermons as “pastoral care on a group scale.”

I got a hold of Fosdick’s memoir, For the Living of These Days, and read about his own struggles in ministry.  For all his boldness in the public square–he had his own radio show and all–he had a fairly weak constitution that led to multiple nervous breakdowns.  He did not just preach God’s Word, he wrestled with God’s Word.  His movement from warmonger to non-violent activist evolved out of one such struggle.

Whenever I face difficult times in ministry, I often find myself praying Fosdick’s words.  It is comforting that hundreds of thousands of Christians have sung this song, and it is in the company of saints that I still sing (or pray!) to ask God to grant me wisdom and courage for the facing of difficult hours.  It is a prayer for the soul as well as the church, which is the womb of Christ’s budding story.

In a world that debates left versus right, liberal versus conservative, one political party versus another, Fosdick, his legacy, and his hymn remind me that all our Christian leanings, wielded over a hundred years, have all contributed greatly to a magnificent Church, a rich tapestry of worship, and an artistic depth to hymnody and liturgy that still wrestles with text and scripture even today; for, at the end of the day, God is still One who is both grace-filled and glorious!

Advertisements

Standing in God’s Greatest Commandment

By Joe LaGuardia

This was presented at a Stand on the Side of Love gathering at the Vero Beach Courthouse on 16 August 2017 with neighbors, friends, and concerned citizens.

Here I stand.  I am the third-generation son of Italian refugees who escaped poverty, injustice, and fascism in Europe in order to seek a better life for themselves and their family.  They did not speak any English and their customs differed from many Americans at the time, yet Lady Liberty greeted them all as equals and with dignity as she had in years past and for a people vast.

When my family arrived in America, things were not perfect.  They ventured into ghettoized neighborhoods with other Italians, relegated to deplorable, cloistered tenement houses in New York.  And yet, in that place, they made it.  The American dream had become reality.

It is this type of liberty that defines who we are as American citizens and it is this type of hospitality and love that defined my family and shaped who I am as a minister of the Gospel.

But not all of our citizens had been afforded this kind of liberty.  Though foreign and different, my family had champions and advocates who fought for our rights as Italians—like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who represented ethnic communities in Manhattan and shamed a nation bent on spending more money on the military than on feeding poor children in one of the largest urban centers in the US.

And we also had the color of our skin going for us too.  Though I was raised in a family in which everyone, friend and stranger alike, had a place at the table, the stain of racism had reached into my neighborhood.  I grew up in a neighborhood segregated by streets and blocks, and the truth that liberty had not reached into communities of color was something I realized as I matured.  Who advocated for the “other” who were ghettoized and held captive by the projects and a crumbling education system?

For all the talk of statues and history in the news, of “us vs. them” and “who’s right and who’s wrong,” our public discourse largely misses the point: Much of our nation—the very one that welcomed my family with open arms while oppressing large populations of others—was founded not on a faulty democracy, but on a defunct medieval theology that pitted some people against others, declaring that some are superior humans deserving of all the rights afforded by our Constitution while others are only worthy for subjugation, a theology that insisted on a divine mandate that “This is God’s will for us.”

This theology continues to dominate and rear its evil head in the fabric of our communities even today, and it continues to justify inequality in our relationships just as it had for over four centuries by way of imperial-inspired sermons, seminaries, and church cultures that perpetuated colonialism, Manifest Destiny, slavery and Jim Crow, a biased criminal justice system and systemic discrimination in housing, public education, and fair-wage opportunities.

Standing on the side of love means first standing in a position of repentance, for we cannot be united by love—God’s love—without first recognizing our own lack of love, our own depravity as flawed creatures, our silence to push against this defunct theology and its ingrained toxins.  So I am a proud Italian-American, and I am a proud Baptist, and I am proud to serve Christ my Savior—but not so proud that I do not ask forgiveness for the racism and oppression and injustice that reside in my own heart.  I repent of the many ways my mind makes thousands of subconscious judgments against those who are different than I, or who speak differently or think differently or vote differently than I.

When I say “Here we stand,” I do so in humble submission to our Creator and in service to our community.  And I promise to love and respect you more today than I might have yesterday, and hope to love and respect you more tomorrow than I do today.

Debating the Bible is Good for the Soul

By Joe LaGuardia

In a sermon on Genesis, the Reverend Lillian Daniel told of an Israeli program that required rabbis to study the Torah in groups and learn how to debate its meaning.  Debate was not something to avoid, but significant because, as the theory goes, sacred scripture is too sacred not to debate.  Like weighty family matters that require push-and-pull negotiation, these rabbis are forced to negotiate a text that is often more dangerous than delicate.

We American Christians seem to do the opposite and avoid debate at all costs.  We do not want to seem pushy, mean, or antagonizing.  We do not want to offend, and we tend to spend more time with people that agree with us than those who cause discomfort because we can’t get along.

Our churches tend to instill this in us, and debates are few and far between in congregations for several reasons:

  • We have the mistaken view that the pastor has all of the answers.  We do not want to confront or contradict our spiritual leaders–they’ve been trained in this stuff, after all–and we do not want to offend their sensibilities or insult their intelligence.  Its easier to go along with the crowd, keep quite, or do what most Christians do, simply migrate from church to church.
  • We do not want to sow a “seed of discord,” and people confuse differences of opinion or theological beliefs with disunity.  If we all agree that scripture is sacred, regardless of some conclusions we draw about the text, then our debates are not the same as discord.  It is our scheming, disrespect, and distrust of one another that are the real culprits behind church splits.
  • We make debates synonymous with hostility.  Given what we see in politics and on television, this is no surprise.  We believe that if there is a debate to be had, then we better dig in our heals and make it personal.  We do not know how to have a civil conversation in which disagreements occur because we think that differences of opinion lead to sundered friendships.
  • We think we are right, so debates are a waste of time.  If you think you know it all and God is on your side, and you see every debate as a competition to win, then, yeah, you will not be very fun to debate.  I have met many people who think this, and they often confuse being right with being a jerk, and no one likes a jerk.
  • We believe that it is somehow a sin to change our minds.  From the time of Adam and Eve, we humans have been trying to play God.  Since much of our Christian theology rests on the belief that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, then we assume that we have to be unchanging too.  What if you read something that goes against your knowledge, and you change your mind about something?  We have made transformation and conversion into weakness and lack of conviction.  If we refuse to change our minds, then why even study the Bible at all?

As a minister that has served Christ’s Church for over two decades, I believe that a little bit of healthy debate would go a long way.  The most significant issue, however, is that–even given the opportunity–we do not know how to debate.  We do not know how to draw boundaries, de-escalate rifts, untangle theological convictions from threats of excommunication.  We mistreat God’s Word by either sanitizing our conversation or avoiding deeply held beliefs and issues that we may actually need to revise or jettison altogether.

We’d rather stick with our tribes, relegate ourselves to like-minded niches, go to churches that preach and pray according to our preferences.  We stop growing as disciples and merely become echo chambers of our own making.  We don’t seek each other for new information, we watch the nightly news, which ends up shaping our theology more than the Good News of Jesus shapes our theology.

Here are a few tips that might bring back the spiritual discipline of debate.  If anyone has any testimonies about any of these, I encourage you to comment below:

  1.  Make space for conversation about the Sunday sermon in a well-facilitated environment.  Some churches no longer meet on Sunday evenings, but this would actually be a good time for pastors to meet with parishioners in a study group to go deeper, build off of the sermon, and invite conversation in which differences are examined and even celebrated.
  2. Set boundaries in Sunday School classes or Bible study groups that help people present alternative arguments or opinions about the scriptures being studied, while learning how to hear opposing viewpoints.  Getting to a place where people do not feel the need to have the final word might be a healthy goal!
  3. Set a goal for debates.  Agree that when you reach a certain time or achieve a certain goal, you and your friend(s) will cease and desist in talking about the Bible.  Go get some coffee and share something else in common.  Go bowling, complain about your spouses, go for a hike, go birding.  The sum of our belief in Christ is more than our ability to have an opinion about the Bible–we need to get out of the church and do things together, to learn what makes us who we are as individuals.

Take it from the rabbis: In a polarized world, we cannot afford to talk past each other or avoid each other.  We need to strike a balance–the Bible is too valuable to avoid debate.  Let’s get into it, let’s discover where we stand, and let’s move–together–closer to the God who exists above and beyond all our opinions, arguments, and beliefs.  We are to be conformed to Christ, not the notions married to our limited knowledge.