A Pastor appreciates the hymns: “Be Still, My Soul”

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.

When my father passed away tragically four years ago and we were planning his service with ministers at his home church in Staten Island, New York.  I had only one request.  I did not want to speak, preach, or pray.  I did not want to give a eulogy or read scripture.

All I wanted was one congregational hymn to be played since I knew that the rest of the service incorporated contemporary music.  I chose Be Still, My Soul, set to the tune of Finlandia.

Be Still, My Soul certainly seemed out of place at the time.  The rest of my family did not know it.  Its slow–(and, I would argue, haunting)–cadence threatened to slow down an otherwise long funeral.  Why sing something nobody heard of, and why sing a song that was set to Irish, nineteenth-century music?  We even had doubts that the minister of music would be able to play it, let alone fit it into the Order of Worship.  But, as I mentioned, it was my one and only request.

During the funeral, people spoke.  The pastor preached for a good while.  We did have praise and worship, and rightly so, for all funerals for believers are worship services to the God who is giver and author of our lives.  But it was Be Still, My Soul that made me feel right at home, right where I belonged.  It was my way of bringing my tradition–my church family (nearly 800 miles away)–into our worship of God that day.

When we sang the song it was lovely.  It was indeed haunting, and it did invoke a theological voice that otherwise would have been lacking.  I barely sang it, and most of the time I held my nephew who wept in my arms.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In every change God faithful will remain.

Here I was, stricken into speechlessness at my father’s death, nearly drowning under a deluge of thoughts that things will never be the same, and the hymn communicated what I did not have the words or strength to say: That although my family and I were facing the worst situation we had ever faced–in the midst of change and grief and pain–God is faithful and God would provide.  We worshiped God together that day, but only this song, this hymn, reminded us about who God is and who we are to God.

The second verse goes on to declare that life is full of mystery, that in darkness we can still stand solidly on Christ who upholds our confidence and hope, to whom waves and wind–the chaos of life–still obey.  The song nurtured me as I nurtured my nephew.  My father died in a dangerous world, but in the embrace of God and each other, we were “safe and blessed.”

I have heard it said that the songs shared at funerals touch the lives of so many people who sing those same songs on random Sunday mornings in worship services and churches across America.  People still cry, for example, when we sing I Come to the Garden Alone because it reminds them of Grandma’s funeral or Father’s celebration of life.

For me, Be Still, My Soul will forever have that peculiar hypnotic hold upon my life.  It is more than captivating, it holds me captive to the Spirit–for it is within this song that I find myself as beloved, as hopeful, or rather hope-filled: “Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.”  Until that day, we have a song to sing, and that’s good enough for now, especially when words fail us.

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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!

The violence of Pentecost and the peace of the Gospel

By Joe LaGuardia

Its not everyday that I get to try a new hermenuetic on for size.  Hermenuetics is the study of interpretation.  Like scientists who can switch out microscope lenses to vary magnifications, we Bible geeks can swap out various interpretative lenses in order to read scripture differently.

I stumbled upon a review by Tony Jones of Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana that offers a new lens.  Goldsworthy claims that we westerners have understood Roman culture and politics through the eyes of the New Testament for far too long.  The review recommends switching the lens, to read the New Testament through the larger worldview of citizens of ancient Rome instead.

Goldsworthy argues that Palestine was quite insignificant to the Roman Empire.  It was too small to call a “true province,” too poor to justify a Roman legion to police the area, and too unwieldy to pay too much attention to policies that affected the area.  Palestine was, in fact, too hostile and violent to create anything other than a modest military presence that quelled protests every now and then.  Jones notes,

“The internal strife in Judaea was among the worst in the empire: Jews hated Samari­tans, Samaritans hated Jews, and they both hated gentiles. Constant civil conflict in the territory vexed the governing Romans.”

In other words, Romans had prejudices against Palestine and its people.  This may be helpful in reading the Bible in general and the Book of Acts in particular.

According to tradition, Luke authored both the gospel and the book of Acts as a two-part work to a mysterious benefactor named Theophilus (although some scholars argue that Theophilus is a community rather than an individual; I beg to differ), who was likely a gentile–Roman, in fact!–who stood on the verge of making a decision about either hosting a Christian church or funding church starts in his community.

The fact that Luke’s Gospel includes more teachings on money, resources, and hospitality than any of the other three gospels combined points to this rhetorical thrust in Luke’s motivation.

Yet, if Theophilus was indeed the gentile that we all assume he was, then it is also safe to assume that his outlook on Palestine, and the Jews that made up this early Christ movement, included the very  same prejudices Rome espoused.  There is little reason not to think that Theophilus, like others in his time, saw Palestine as a place of hostility, conflict, and discrimination.

There is little reason not to think that Theophilus, like others in his time, saw Palestine as a place of hostility, conflict, and discrimination.

The first two chapters of Acts affirms this reading of Palestine in several ways.  In the first chapter, for instance, the disciples are still set on having Jesus–now risen from the dead–to recruit an army and usher in the kingdom of God.  This is not unique to Jesus’ disciples.  Other Jewish movements sought to inaugurate God’s kingdom, which meant funding and recruiting an army, overthrowing the Roman Empire, and establishing a theocracy once and for all with Jerusalem at the center.

In Acts 1:6, the disciples asked Jesus, “Is now the time that you will restore God’s kingdom?”  It is the “now” and the “restore” that tip us off to the violent intentions of the disciples.   John Polhill quoted R. Pesch when he wrote that Jesus did not reject restoration; rather, Jesus “depoliticizes it,” moving an agenda of restoration out of the purposes of the disciples and into the providence of God.

Let me put it another way: Even if the disciples didn’t have violent intentions, there is good reason for us to assume that Theophilus likely surmised as much.

In God’s economy, Jesus flipped the coin on its head.  Just as Jesus argued in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus here posited that the reign of God is neither bound by region nor vested in the violent protest of an army with sword and spear.  Judas’ failed attempt at trying to force Jesus’ hand was in the past–his replacement in Acts 1 points to the fact that Judas’ own motivations stood firmly on the forefront of the minds of the disciples.

In addition, Luke clearly utilizes the rhetoric of violence, hostility and discrimination to reinforce Jesus’ peaceful and non-violent gospel message in a way that further turns violence on its head in Acts 2.

Acts 2:1, for instance, describes the advent of the Holy Spirit as a “violent” or “mighty” wind.  This is not accidental or a mere poetic word choice; it is a purposeful rhetorical device that calls into question the type of violence that God’s reign enforces.

Second, the Spirit fell on the disciples like a fire.  Fire was a common weapon of war that would have certainly been used to raze villages and incite destruction and intimidation (see Joel 1:19-20; 2:3).  If the symbol was there merely to reflect the life-giving nature of the Spirit, why not use water  (Joel 2:23) or another natural element more fitting for the birth of the church?

Third, the Spirit empowered the disciples to cut across lines that Jewish discrimination would have perpetuated.  The disciples spoke in languages shared not by their families or villages, but by regions that Jews would have perceived as enemies, the Parthains, Medes, Cretans and the like.

Pentecost is an assault on nationalism, racism, sexism, classism–every way in which we separate one another…It is a surge of the Spirit that pushes the church out of the building and into the neighborhood.  –Rev. Dr. Brett Younger, Plymouth Church, Brooklyn

Acts 2 recalls that a crowd gathered as a result of what appeared to be the formation of a violent uprising in an upper room in Jerusalem during a high holy day.  Certainly, Pentecost, like other Jewish holidays that attracted pilgrims, created a hot bed for violent protests.

Peter spoke with brilliance not common among illiterate fisherman in the first century, and he quoted Joel to articulate the kind of movement for which Christ’s church will become known.  It was neither violent or hostile; rather, it was an inclusive message in its embrace, and peaceful in its purpose.

The words of Joel’s poetry reinforces what Jesus preached all along: God’s reign would not be defined by the prejudices, conflicts, and violence for which Palestine was known.  Rather, it would be a reign that disrupted status quo, turned the world upside down (a blood moon!), and broke down gender, generational, and socio-economic, class boundaries.

From Joel’s point of view (see Joel 3:9-10), this is a call to war as a result of God gathering nations for the purpose of executing judgment.  Peter’s rhetoric, combined with Jesus’ vision of salvation and community, declared different terms for peace– a peace brought not by weapons of destruction, but by life-giving proclamation, visions, dreams, and “portents”.

Judgment was on its way, but not before the work of the church was fulfilled.  Pentecost was a “day of the Lord” in which the church was born to reach across all boundaries, to communicate with urgency the coming of another “day of the Lord” in which God and Jesus would administer justice upon the earth.

Luke wrote his gospel and Acts to a Roman audience, an audience that held certain prejudices towards Palestine, the Jews, and, naturally, Christ-followers who made their way out of Jerusalem and Galilee.  It is no wonder that Luke utilized the rhetoric of conflict and violence, not to perpetuate a caricature of a violent Jewish community, but to redefine Christ’s Church and its mandate according to the peace, hope, love, and joy that resulted from being a follower of Christ, a Savior who knew–and knows–no bounds, who longs to save all who are both near and “far away” (Acts 2:39).