A Reader’s Life (prt. 16): Words that Defy

https://i0.wp.com/news.belmont.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Barbara-Brown-Taylor.jpg

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.

The greatness of writing–and the power of a word–is measured by how well that word (and, when I say “word,” I mean it metaphorically as a body of work or writing) defies other words.  A meaningful word lingers and lasts; it pierces or inspires.  A powerful word bears fruit, sometimes violently or without regard to our sensibilities.  The Bible says that God’s word, which has the power to create and destroy and shape, does not come back void.  It defies competing narratives.

My favorite writers have accomplished this feat in their writing.  Among them is Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopal priest turned writer and spiritual guide.  Her books, namely Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, have impacted me with a word that lasts, that refuses to come back void.   Her writing resonates.  It spelunks in the heart.  It is like a sonar that sends signals to map an unknown landscape, that penetrates the soul to lay out a geography of the spiritual life.

Other authors have had this powerful sway over me–Annie Dillard and Henri Nouwen stand out.  They write in a way in which the writing itself is a spiritual exercise.  They do not write about something so much as write from within that experience of the thing itself.  Like mystics of old, their writing–that slow, often time painful process of putting one word in front of another, and one sentence upon the other– is the spiritual experience itself.

I have reflected on my preaching as a result of this lesson.  When I preach, do I merely talk about God, or do I express my experience of God?

Some say you can do both, but I am not so sure.  I hear many sermons about God; but few have the courage or prophetic power to preach from within the experience.  This morning I read Ezekiel 4.  God asked Ezekiel to act out a prophetic word of judgment against Israel and Judah by making a clay tablet picture of the city under siege.  God told him to lie on his side every day for over a year.

When God told Ezekiel to eat a scroll the chapter before, it wasn’t just to regurgitate it, it was to feast on it, find nourishment, embody it, and take on its physical presence.  No wonder that John says that when God visited us in the person of Jesus, it was God’s creative Word taking on flesh.

I think this is why Taylor’s writing is so poignant.  It comes from two avenues of experience–the author as artist, and the preacher as homiletician.  Taylor has taught both subjects — from her full-time work at Piedmont College in the north Georgia foothills, to her adjunct work teaching preaching at Emory University and elsewhere in the urban milieu of Atlanta.  I am going to a conference next week to see her give a presentation on “How I Have Changed my Mind About Preaching” at Mercer University.  I am bringing her latest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark to get her signature.  I look forward to receiving God’s word from her yet again.

We writers have a bad habit of trying to mimic our favorite authors.  Rarely does this work out; it comes off as phony or insincere.  I did this once.  I wanted to write like Taylor–pen and paper in hand, I wanted to hand-write my next book like she does her own.  And I wanted to write like Dillard–not merely talk about something, but write poetic prose that penetrates the very thing in my experiences of it.

I tried this (spiritual) practice–mainly at the beach.  I brought my spiral notebook and my mechanical pencil.  I sat for long periods of time watching the waves and my children looking for seashells, trying to craft each sentence with love, care, and wonder.  I paused, watched the hasty activity and listened to the conversation of the sandpipers so ubiquitous on our coast.  And I wrote.

I wrote for about a dozen or so pages on different topics over the course of a month– on fatherhood, spirituality, vocation, ministry.   Then, I fizzled out.  It didn’t sound right, it didn’t feel right, and it was not even worth transferring the material into my journal.  I buried the notebook in one of my desk drawers at home.  I pull it out sometimes if I need paper to write a sermon, otherwise it remains hidden.

Powerful words are such because they do defy other words.  Writers know the hardships of having so many words–too many, in fact–fall to the ground, shrivel and die.  Yet, there are those beautiful moments–in an article or a sermon that sounds just right, when the word goes out and never returns.  It spreads its wings and leaves the nest, and finds its way into someone else’s heart to build a nest there and give birth to something new.  It is beautiful, like Taylor’s and Dillard’s writing; but it is a rare word indeed.  Most of the time, our words remain hidden in our desk.

Advertisements

A Reading Life (pt 9): Manuscript Melancholy

By Joe LaGuardia

By the time I graduated college and entered seminary, I burned out on biblical academia.  The start of the my three-year Masters of Divinity program was the next step towards ministry, but I was not interested in the work or for working in ministry in general.  Its not that I abandoned my call; I just needed a break.

When placement officers at seminary asked what church I wanted to serve, I declined.  Instead, I went to work for Chik-Fil-A for that first year.  When classes assigned books, I read them through for routine rather than for sport.  When a professor assigned an essay, I wrote blindly.  My heart was not in it, not entirely.

I enjoyed my seminary years, don’t get me wrong–its just that I hit a season of melancholy in which the religious studies exhausted me.  I felt that I lived in a bubble, and I couldn’t find my way out.

Over the summer, when my wife and I traveled back to Florida to visit family, I expressed these feelings to Kristina’s grandmother.  Her grandmother (whom we called Granny) was a Bible-believing Baptist prayer warrior whose love for the Lord was matched only by her love for the church.  She played piano for many years at the First Baptist Church of Tequesta, Florida, and served as volunteer secretary for many years more.  She was a Renaissance woman of sorts who read everything from church history and church architecture to theology and mysticism.

Granny was a mentor to Kristina and, later, to me, when it came to intercessory prayer–she was, unlike many Baptists I had met, “Spirit-filled,” meaning that she regularly attended charismatic services around town.  It made her special and her wisdom contagious.

When I told her of my malaise, she knew what I needed.  She took my hand and asked me to take her to the bookstore.  We went, and she dragged me over to the religion section.  I was not very pleased–the only religious books you find at those places are the pop culture books that focus more on self-help than biblical insight.

She scanned the shelves and found what she was looking for: Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart.  I was not familiar with Nouwen’s books aside from one on discipleship I read in college (Creative Teaching).  She handed me a copy and told me to read it.  She wasn’t recommending it, she was telling me to do it.  She purchased it and sent me on my way.

When I read The Way of the Heart, I found myself in a place that I hadn’t been before–Nouwen’s writings on the early church fathers and the importance of silence and solitude in the spiritual life, as well as his acute insights as to the role that suffering and servanthood plays in ministry, were among the most profound insights I had read.

Nouwen spoke of crises of faith as places of wilderness where we face our demons and rely fully on the Holy Spirit for survival.  He spoke of the Christian life as a series of conversions rather than one single conversion experience, allowing me to see that I was being converted (yet again) in the reading of this little, 70-some-odd page book.

I found a book that spoke directly to my soul: It did not provide cliché answers to hardship, and it informed readers that we must find Christ with unyielding faith–not with the head, but with the heart.  My prayer life caught fire.

From Nouwen: Jesus’ invitation to lay down my life for others has always meant more to me than physical martyrdom. I have always heard those words as an invitation to make my own struggles, my doubts, my hopes, my fears, my joys and my pains and my moments of ecstasy available to others as a source of consolation and healing.”

After that book, I picked up The Gennessee Diary and Wounded Healer, both Nouwen classics.  I read both of those books three times each over the years, and I taught a small-group book study on The Way of the Heart twice in eight years while working at Trinity Baptist Church.  My copy was so worn down, I had to purchase a new one.

Granny’s investment in me — and her ability to give me the book I needed most — guided my ministry, brought me back to Christ, and re-aligned my heart.  It gave me purpose and clarity of calling, and focused my attention on the field in which I eventually gained a doctorate.  It gave birth to this blog nearly fifteen years ago!

Of all the books that have shaped my life, The Way of the Heart came the closest to the Bible in saving my life– Nouwen helped me meet Jesus in a new way and convicted me to commit my entire life to prayer and Spirit-filled living in all I do, just as Granny had lived.

 

 

A Reading Life (pt 8): Crisis of Faith and the Dark Night of the Soul

Image result for experiencing god henry blackabyBy Joe LaGuardia

Have you ever read a book because everyone else is reading it?  Harry Potter.  Twilight.  Tuesdays with Morrie.  The Purpose Driven Life. Fifty Shades of Grey.  Well, maybe not that one…  I have never been one to read what everyone else is reading, except this one time when I went through Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby.

Experiencing God is a great study.  It is in-depth and moving; it awakens faith and puts it into action.  But when it comes to putting that powder keg into the hands of a college student who also, by chance, is experiencing a crisis of faith, it can become dangerous.

A crisis of faith erupts when people move (in the words of Walter Brueggemann) from orientation to disorientation.  This is how it works: When a person grows up believing things that she has been taught, those things solidify into a worldview.  When the person confronts things as an adult that conflicts with those beliefs, it threatens the worldview and forces a re-evaluation of those facts.  This creates grief, anger, and crisis.  It can also lead to hurt, confusion, and rebellion (as in a season that includes coming-of-age).  The person moves from orientation to disorientation and, like heroes who must confront monsters from the past or from within, find that she is far from home.  A cross-roads arises, and the choice is to move forward in uncertainty and greater faith, or return to the adolescent mind in which naivety requires ignoring new information.

College is a time of disorientation for many people.  Students are learning new things, learning how to think critically, and questioning truths that they have assumed for years.  For Christians, this movement can result in a crisis of faith, what St. John the Cross called a Dark Night of the Soul.  It can be, if someone finds a coach or spiritual guide, a rite of passage that broadens faith, creates empathy for a hurting world, and opens people up to a God who is much bigger than they first assume God to be.

My second year of college was one long Dark Night.  I was learning new things in my religion classes, while questioning the faith of my youth.  I was confronting the doctrines of my home church–a Presbyterian church–and discovering a new Baptist paradigm.  I was trying to learn the Reformed theology of that tradition (Presbyterian) and coming up short.  Like Martin Luther whose faith waned under hardship of his Catholicism, I was reforming faith and a very different journey.

Enter Experiencing God, which intends to ignite a new way to live by faith.  Blackaby’s premise is that God is calling people to join Him at work in the world, and you cannot stay in the same place you’ve lived for your entire life.  You must, like Moses or Abraham, hear God’s call, respond, and move into a place in which the Holy Spirit guides you.

At the time, I took this a little too literally — again, the adolescent mind cannot always understand deep spiritual truths and differentiate it from metaphor — and I thought God was calling me somewhere else.  I was searching for answers: Is God calling me to the mission field, to leave a life of biblical scholarship behind?  Was Jesus asking me to deny my family and go into the ministry in some far-off land?  How was I to leave my old life behind–toss my CD collection?  Stop watching movies?  “Kiss dating goodbye”?

At the time I was dating the woman who would become my wife, and she received the short end of the stick of this journey of faith.  I waffled in my relationship with her, and my emotions ebbed and flowed about marriage.  One week I knew I couldn’t live without her; the next week, I thought I heard God telling me to leave everything–and everyone–and go to Africa.  It was a crazy time.  Experiencing God was not helpful.  At all.

My best friend and my father had to step in and coach me.  My best friend endured my insecurities and venting, and comforted me in all hours of the night.  He told me that God leaves a lot up to us, that the Christ-follower actually has a great deal of agency in decisions.  If I chose to be with Kristina, then so be it–it wasn’t as if there was that one “perfect girl” out there for me; I had to choose to commit to her, and that choice–rather than some predestined relationship–would be more valuable anyway.

A few months later, sensing my anxiety and Kristina’s frustration, my father sat me down for a serious talk.  He, an armchair theologian who rarely cracked open a Bible, laid it out straight: “Joey,” he said, “This girl ain’t going to stick around too much longer if you keep going back and forth.  She is a great one, and you should marry her.  She is special.”

When I brought up my feelings about God, he persisted: “All I know is that when I watch you two together, there is something special.  Don’t let Satan deceive you, and don’t let go of her.  Ever.”

That conversation sealed the deal.  I did end up going on a short-term mission trip to Africa for a month, to get my foot in the waters of missions, only to come back and clarify that a life of travel was not for me!  Two weeks later, on August 13th–my wife’s birthday–I asked Kristina to marry me.

I tossed Experiencing God, and I learned how to trust in the Holy Spirit, my intuition, and my support system.  I also learned that confusion, disruption and deception are the weapons of Satan, the Father of Lies.  I got through that crisis of faith, and became a whole new person.  I wrestled with God and became a man.