3 Reasons why the Christian Calendar is Meaningful for today’s Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Our church, First Baptist of Vero, is hosting a short-term study on the Christian calendar during the season of Lent.  Although the sacred calendar has always been a part of First Baptist’s 101-year history, the church has often made an effort to educate the congregation on the importance and meaning of the Christian year.

Much of this work has come under the 20-year tenure of the Reverend Dr. Michael Carter, our music minister, who received a doctorate under the leadership of Robert Webber, a name church liturgists associate with the Christian calendar and ancient-future worship.

When I interviewed with First Baptist over a year ago, I was delighted that Dr. Carter was the resident theologian on liturgy.  I fell in love with the Christian calendar while attending a Presbyterian church in high school and Palm Beach Atlantic University, a Baptist college out of the Charleston tradition–a tradition that champions both biblical scholarship and orderly, liturgical worship.

On the heals of Ash Wednesday and while sitting under Dr. Carter’s teachings this past Sunday as he began his study on the Christian calendar, I remembered all of the reasons why I–and the churches I have belonged to and have known–cherish the sacred year.

First, the Christian Calendar reminds me that my faith in and with Christ is not all about me.  I grew up in a northern evangelical church that promoted a simple, but strong Protestant faith devoid of anything “ritualistic.”  We celebrated Christmas and Easter, but outside of that we tried to live by the adage that our Christian witness was more about a relationship with Christ rather than religion.

But something was missing in my Christian upbringing.  By the time we moved to South Florida when I was a boy, we were so “spiritual but not religious,” that it turned out that we were neither spiritual nor religious.  In fact, my tradition was so devoid of any ritual, my only memories of spiritual experiences were limited to attending Miami Dolphins football games and that one time I walked down the aisle to make a decision for Christ at First Baptist Church of Perrine.

When I started attending New Covenant Presbyterian Church during high school and, later, PBA, I experienced all of the nuances of the Christian year.  It did not come off as ritualistic, but a way of bolstering my relationship with Christ.  I felt that I was part of something larger than myself, part of a movement–the Christian faith–that stretched two millennia into the past and connected me to the larger story of God.

As Dr. Carter stated last Sunday, “The Christian year is about sacred time that tells of God’s story, about fusing our story with God’s story, and about making the Christ event the center of that story.”

I had a strong faith from my upbringing, but now I had the skeleton to hang–and to build–some serious Christian muscles in my walk with Christ.

Second, the Christian Calendar sustains me during seasons of spiritual drought.  We all have seasons in our walk with Jesus.  Sometimes we are on fire; other times, we feel distant from God, as if we are only stepping into each day with little connection to God.  That is natural; there is a rhythm to our faith that often mimics the four seasons of the very creation of which we are a part.

It is during those times of drought and “winter” of my soul that I come to rely on the Christian year.  The rhythm of sacred time gives me the bearings and the strength to keep walking, keep at it, to hang in there.  It encourages me to keep going because, though “sorrow may last for the night, joy cometh in the morning.”

It’s like brushing teeth.  We brush our teeth because its more than a routine, it keeps us healthy and keeps cavities away.  So too the Christian calendar is good for the soul; it keeps our hearts focused on God even when God seems far from us.

I found this out the hard way after my father died tragically as a result of gun violence.  After his death, I could not pray.  I could not focus.  I did not return to the pulpit for over a month.

The liturgy–specifically the hymnody, doxology, and congregational singing–was the only thing that got me through that time of grief and heartache.  If Jesus was hard to find in the midst of tragedy, I certainly found him in the midst of song–of hearing the congregation sing, and in following those notes sprawled across that trusty Baptist hymnal.

Third, the Christian Calendar teaches us good theology. At best, theology in the contemporary church is piecemeal, the sum of a thousand topical lessons and sermons that often fail to communicate the entirety of scripture.  I have heard this first hand–a 45-minute sermon in which the pastor presents a topic or thesis, and then strings together a barrage of scriptures as if those scriptures stood independently from the context of their respective books and of the scriptural canon as a whole.

The church year walks us through the entire Bible–starting with creation, the fall of humanity, climaxing with the birth, life, death, and resurrection in Christ; and culminating with the hope of the Second Coming of Christ.  It does not stumble from Christmas to Easter and to the next topical sermon; rather, the story of Christ stands central as we learn to be born again with him, pick up our own crosses, follow Jesus into baptismal waters, through hardship of Lent and finally the joy of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Dr. Carter quoted Robert Webber as stating, “The life, death, and resurrection of Christ stands at the center of time.”  This is not an event divorced from the rest of God’s story, but entangled with the whole of scripture.

I am far from idealistic.  I will continue to visit with churches and Christians who have no place in their life for the Christian year.  That is okay; people walk with Christ on their own terms.  But for me and my family, being intimately bound with a story much larger than the “LaGuardia” story brings liberation, healing, a sense of purpose, and theology that corrects and rebukes and reproves.

It is sacred, and that is something to behold.

Cornbread, Biscuits and the Bread of Life

breadBy Rev. Jane Weston

Rev. Weston is priest of St. Simon’s Episcopal Church.  This was her sermon at the annual Community Thanksgiving service in Rockdale County, Georgia.  Rev. Weston grew up Southern Baptist in Kentucky.

A couple of years ago I was looking through a stack of magazines and came across a poll where readers were asked, “Are you a biscuit or a cornbread person?” This debate was revived in the middle of our presidential election.

As someone who enjoys cooking, I was drawn into the debate and concluded that I side with the biscuit people. Before you criticize, understand that there are valid reasons why I choose biscuits.

I come from a long line of biscuit people. My grandmother was a biscuit person who treated her grandchildren to pans of biscuits hot from her oven. She even used locally milled flour. I inherited her biscuit cutter, an old snuff can with a dent in the cutting edge. To this day, my biscuits have a dimple in their sides. My mother’s biscuits were even better, and her stainless bowl and pastry blender are revered tools in her kitchen. She’s taught four generations how to handle dough for feather-light biscuits.

So, I come to the biscuit allegiance honestly.   I’ve picked my side. Biscuits are my southern bread of choice.

Now, understand that I know that the biscuit versus cornbread debate is a good-natured one.   Further, I’m hopeful that my recitation of family biscuit lore suggests we come to our positions in life based on our own heritage and life experiences. Yet, this “debate” points to an unfortunate trend.   Do we have to be a biscuit or cornbread person and nothing in between?

We’ve come to a point in our common lives where we are constantly being asked to pick sides, and take one position against another. Unfortunately, this has often led to taking a position against another person and not just against that person’s ideas.

A new Gallup poll suggests that 75 percent of Americans believe that we are divided as a country. News stories tell us that more people than ever do not want to be with family this Thanksgiving because they do not want to fight about politics. One person suggested that instead of having an adult table and a kids’ table, families should have a red table and a blue table to keep the peace.

Instead of engaging in healthy conversations about our national life, we have been polarized to such a degree that we refrain from talking about our common life because we are afraid of igniting an argument –even with those we love the most. What a sad and tragic commentary that families do not want to be together this holiday.

Our reading from the Gospel of John 6:25-35 offers good news because it offers a way forward. Have you noticed that Jesus always offers us a way forward? But note this: Jesus clears up any wrongful assumptions by the crowd that Moses fed their ancestors in the wilderness. Jesus reminds them, that the Father gives the true bread from heaven.

Transpose that to our situation today.   Jesus reminds us that it is not our earthly leaders that provide the ultimate sustenance for us, but it is God.   And in the real kicker, Jesus tells the crowds, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Somehow that puts our current affairs in the right order.

When we find ourselves inclined to hunker down in our respective camps, we should take a deep breath, elevate our vision and remind ourselves that we are followers of Jesus, and that he is our ultimate bread of life.

Oh, and we should be really careful that we don’t try to turn Jesus into cornbread or biscuits. Let’s not try to form the Almighty into our image.

Jesus gives us a way forward. Jesus tells us to love God and love our neighbor. His is the voice we should listen to this Thanksgiving when the temptation is to throttle Uncle Fred when he crosses the line and says something inflammatory.   Instead of reacting negatively, give Uncle Fred a hug because you love him. It will shock him, and who knows, it might shut him up, too!

Jesus doesn’t give us a way forward just to get us through the holidays. He gives us what we need to move into the next year and beyond. As Christians we should acknowledge that we follow his higher calling and refuse to sink to the lows have been set before us. As followers of Jesus, we are the ones who can change the tide of negativity that is bringing us down.

In our baptism service, Episcopalians promise that with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. We promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

It seems that when we start really listening to those we consider opponents, we hear that for the most part, we want the same things. We in smaller towns especially know this to be true. We want opportunities for our families, safe communities, and justice for all. We may have different ideas on how to achieve these things, but that’s okay and even necessary. When we listen, we find that we are closer to our “opponents” than we think.

In fact, if you and I talk, you’ll learn that I like cornbread, and my cast iron skillet is seasoned to perfection. I might even share my Mom’s recipe for dressing. You see, she learned years ago that dressing made from biscuits is too heavy, and one made with cornbread is too crumbly. However, when you get the right mix of cornbread and biscuits, you get structure and texture. When the two breads come together in harmony, it is a thing of beauty. Perhaps I should send Mom’s dressing recipe to our national leaders!

This holiday season, God bless you and your family, our community, and our churches, and God bless this country of ours.

Speaking God’s Language: An Advent Reflection

b_tdfgfugwa-murray-campbellBy Joe LaGuardia

One of my childhood dreams was to speak a different language and adventure across Europe like one of those old spy or action heroes I watched on television.  My favorite was Indiana Jones, who spoke many languages and read hieroglyphics, many found in his father’s journal, enabling him to foresee traps and dangers along the way.

Others I know have had similar dreams.  Some imagined that they were heroes from one of those old Zane Grey novels, able to speak the native tongue of Cherokees across the west in order to defeat maniacal villains bent on greed and blood lust.

I am personally fond of the late Atlanta writer, Lewis Grizzard, who said that sometimes our actions speak louder than words.  He recalls a time when he was delayed in an airplane on the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport tarmac.  When he looked out of his little port window, he saw a Delta mechanic starring quizzically at his plane, scratching his head with a wrench.

In high school, my childhood dreams quickly faded as I realized I didn’t have a knack for languages.  I almost failed Italian.  Twice.  And I am full-blooded Italian.

Some people are good at learning new languages, some are not.  What I do know is that Advent is the season when we come together as a church and learn an entirely different language altogether: God’s language, the language of time.

The New Testament uses two Greek words for “time”.  One is chronos, where we get the word chronometer, which points to human, linear time — the passing of hours and days, minutes and seconds.

The second word is Kairos, which points to time that transcends the linear passing of hours.  It is the time of divinity, so to speak, where Trinity and spirit exist apart from what we know of as human beings.

It is larger than any calendar, it is cosmic and entails the entire fabric of creation, the heavens and the earth, and who we are as God’s people.

In Romans 13, Paul stated that we believers know what time—what Kairos—it is because we speak God’s language of time: one laden with hope and joy, anticipation rather than anxiety, one in which we know that our life is not our own.

It is kairos caught up in the larger drama of God’s redemption found in scriptures of old, and finding its fullest reach in the person of Jesus Christ, who submitted himself to our chronos, our span of life, in order to die and rise again, to bend time towards justice by giving us all the gift of overcoming time too, to taste none other than eternal life.

Do we speak that kind of language?  Do we know what time it is?

The world seems so anxious about time.   Some want more of it; others have too much of it.  We are anxious about those things that create a sense of urgency in our life.  Other times, we foretell the “end of the world,”perhaps with the election of a new president or the advent of a new millennium.

People who face their fragility and the extent of their time on earth plunge into despair, the acute recognition that death is around the corner.  That is the type of language the world speaks; it falls short on hope and the promise of eternal communion in the presence of God.

When Paul tells us that we know what time it is, that we are to live as people not anxious about time, we are awakened to our liberty in Christ, to have an understanding that transcends 24 hours and 7 days a week.

‘Tis the season to move beyond the seasons.

God’s language also celebrates at least three “times” in our life:

  • The time to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, born to a virgin long ago in a far off place of Galilee which up to that point only provided the world with peasants rather than a prince of peace, King of kings.
  • A time to celebrate God’s in-breaking in our life today as we witness Christ born anew in our hearts, and also allowing us to be born unto God. To be able to birth the hope and love of Christ in world that only knows the pain of birth pangs.
  • A time to anticipate the return of Jesus Christ to the earth, His Second Coming when he will judge the living and the dead, unfurl the great scroll of the book of life, and then grant us new, imperishable bodies in which we live in God’s new heaven and new earth, where tempest waters are as still as glass, where lion and lamb slumber together, and where children play with the likes of asps and vipers.

It is in Advent when we experience Jesus as our hero, one who teaches us a new language and speaks God’s kairos, a hero that puts to rest the anxiety we all feel when worrying about what tomorrow might bring.

It is about what is “now”, and salvation in Christ’s ultimate judgement and redemption that is the “not-yet”.

And in that tension of “now-and-not-yet,” we find hope to love deeply, worship richly, and live our life by walking to the beat and time signature of a different drum.

For many, time represents what one poet calls the “long unrest.”  But for us who live into Advent and celebrate Christ’s birth and life, we allow that long unrest to turn into wakeful celebration.  We may not know French or Russian, but we know what time it is!

In Him the long unrest is soothed and stilled; in Him our hearts are filled.”

Amen.