Holding Hands

By Joe LaGuardia

In our professionalized American culture, we do not often hold hands.  Holding hands is reserved for couples in love or, in a brief welcome of mutual greeting, in the shaking of hands of a colleague.  Sometimes you don’t even get that — the “fist bump” is quickly becoming the in thing as people are weary of spreading germs, especially during flu season.

Other cultures are not as hesitant as ours.  When I traveled to Ghana, Africa, during a mission trip, I learned that friends hold hands.  It was jarring to see people holding hands everywhere as they did business, walked down the street, or simply spent time together.  When we ministered to children, all they wanted to do was hold hands.  All I wanted to do was protect my space.

By now, there is enough research to show that holding hands–the power of touch–has a powerful healing quality to it.  In fact, there is an entire research institute at the University of Miami devoted to studying the effects of touch in medicine and therapy.

Jesus also knew the value of touch–consider his willingness to place his hands upon the eyes of a man born blind (John 9), or his embrace of children who were usually seen but not heard (Matt. 19:13).  In one instance, a women was healed of a life-long bout of hemorrhaging because she touched his robe (Matt. 9:21).

My guess is that we do not touch often because we have a thing about personal space here in the West.  We fear that if touch goes too long that it is creepy at best and a threat of harassment at worst; yet, in ministry and community, we claim that we are to be the “hands of Christ” because we insist that touch and proximity have the power to heal and transform.

Two recent instances of holding hands has been especially meaningful to me.  The first was when I had to escort an elderly woman–a parishioner at our church–who needed help walking across an uneven, grassy yard.

She suffers from memory issues, but she is faithful in attending church and Bible study.  For one such study, we changed the location to the music building, and she parked on the other side of campus.  When I saw her going to the wrong building, I met her and told her of the new location.  When she saw the expanse of field, she feared that she might fall.

I told her I would hold her hand as she walked the field, and we had a delightful time talking and walking together as I guided her step-by-step across grass, over roots, and around anthills.

“Last time I held hands with a handsome man like you, I was a teenager,” she said.  I was flattered, but regardless of the compliment, we made each other’s day in that moment of friendship.  Joking aside, there was deep meaning and healing for this widow who lived alone for years and relied on brief hugs and handshakes at church for affirmation and support.

“For some elderly people, shaking hands with the minister on the way out of service is the only human touch they receive for weeks on end” –Oswald and Jacobson, The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, p. 103.

The second instance happened (and happens) whenever I meet with another parishioner, Ace, who had a fall this past week.  Ace is quickly becoming my hero because of his joy, positive spirit, and loving presence no matter what situation he finds himself in.

Ace is the patriarch of a large Vero Beach family and is father to more people than just his children.  He is an uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend to many, and he is known for encouraging people and being a faithful, listening ear to those in need.

As I have gotten to know him, I have found that he has a big smile that can light up a room–even if its a hospital room (I visited him in the ER last month, and I was greeted with that smile–thus, he is now my new hero!).

I visited with him this past week, and I was again greeted with a smile.  He is having trouble walking and maintaining his balance; his daughters have been staying with him around the clock.  But he smiles.

And Ace likes to hold hands. When I first met him, I would shake his hand like everyone else, but found that he doesn’t let go.  Sometimes, after you shake his hand, he offers his left hand and expects you to take it–not for another handshake, but to hold it and have some conversation.

In these moments, I have found that I — the minister who is called to provide a healing presence for others — have been ministered unto.  His smile and hand offer blessings that you have to experience (first-hand?!) to understand.

There is indeed something healing about touch, something deeply moving about holding hands that embodies the love of Christ and stresses the incarnate presence of God in human relationships and the spiritual bonds that brothers and sisters in Christ ought to share with one another.

It is not uncommon for me to be accused of being too Pollyannaish, of being mushy at times.  I grew up in a large, Italian family who knows the value of hugs and the healing power of affection.  We are all, for instance, “momma’s boys” in the LaGuardia clan, and that is more Christian–more Christ-like–than we’d like to think.

I doubt that our culture will ever become the hand-holding one that defines places like Ghana, and for many the “fist-bump” will be more than enough intimacy between friends, thank you very much.  But in those moments of ministry, holding someone’s hand can make a day, transform lives, and work miracles that go beyond expectations.

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.