When silence is the only language you can speak

Photo by Samara Doole

By Joe LaGuardia

I did not preach much Sunday, September 3.   I tried, but all I was able to do was give testimony.  When we preachers have nothing to say about a biblical text, it is just best to testify.  It does not have to be scholarly or well-organized, but it does have to be true.

My week was like that: A cycle of trying and failing, of finding words to say and confronting silence instead.

I began the week excited about joining my sisters in Orlando for a few days.  It was the first time our families got together in years: Three days with nieces, nephews, and the big Mouse at Bueno Vista.

Over the weekend, however–the weekend before my vacation–I received word that one of our parishioners fell victim to cancer and passed away.  I was heartbroken for the family.  It was sudden.  The man had one son, so when I met with the family and he spoke about his father, I was reminded about the loss of my own dad.

Funerals have a way of keeping us preachers nimble.  Instead of having one sermon to write before I went to Orlando, I now had two: one for Sunday and another for the funeral, which was scheduled for the day after my return.

I did something a little different for the funeral sermon: I wrote an outline. I always write manuscripts for funerals to insure that each word is intentional, thoughtful, sensitive and concise.   But I did not want a complicated sermon.  I was co-officiating and eulogies were planned, so what more needed to be said?

With sermons out of the way, I went off to Orlando. My trip  went well except for the fact that, now, every time I get together with my sisters, there exists the lingering absence of my father who had passed four years ago this August 5th.

My sisters and I had fun.  We laughed.  There were no conflicts, but our father was missing.  We didn’t have anyone to complain to about our jobs, our finances, about one another.  My dad was good about that, he absorbed everyone’s trials and tears and hardships.

I was quiet most of the trip as a result of my melancholy.  Why was I so quiet?  I hadn’t seen my sisters in ages, there must be more to talk about.

After I returned from Orlando, I headed to the funeral for our parishioner, but another oddity happened, although I am not sure if anyone noticed: I did not finish preaching my funeral sermon.  No, really–literally!  I literally stopped short in the middle of the homily!  I blanked out and I left off the conclusion before stopping mid-sermon and calling the congregation to join me in a closing prayer.

Later that afternoon, home with Kristina, I broke.  My wife and I had a long discussion about my anxieties and stress, about missing my father, and about how my words kept failing me–on my trip, at the funeral, in expressing a cloud that followed me all week long.

Sunday morning came, and off to church I went with two services to preach.  But as I mentioned already, I did not preach.  I testified.  I did not speak of my trouble with words.  I did not confess that I blanked out during the funeral sermon.  I only told a story about trying to find joy in unexpected places and about how one person from church with whom I met the previous week (who had lost her husband three months ago) ministered to me in the midst of my own hardships this week.

This evening I continued reading a book that I can never read for long sittings.  Its one of those books where you savor a sentence or two (or a whole page if you’re lucky), and then you have to stop and pray and reflect or wipe tears to see more clearly.  Its When God is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor, and what I read tonight resonated.  In fact, it sums up my emotions this week perfectly, although the situation is different:

I met a man last summer–a preacher–who nursed his wife until her death, at fifty-something, from cancer.  When she stopped breathing, he said, the silence in the room destroyed all language for him.  No words could get into him and none could get out. . . Months and months later, his voice is still raspy. . . He did not sound angry when he said that.  He sounded like someone who had been scorched by the living God and who knew better than to try and talk about it.”

I think that is my problem, one that Taylor sums up well.  There are times when I encounter God and I, along with many others, expect that I can put that into words.  I don’t blame anyone–that’s my vocation, after all.  But sometimes I need to know better.  Sometimes I need to stop trying so hard to talk about things that I can’t talk about.

My only regret is that I had some collateral damage along the way: A funeral sermon brought to a screeching halt, an online prayer I since deleted because it turned into a debate that was a waste of time anyway, and a Sunday sermon-testimony I hoped did not ramble on as much as I had feared.

Sometimes we are scorched and it just best to let the Holy Spirit speak in the silence instead.

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Going Home, Looking Forward

By Joe LaGuardia

Since moving to Florida over a year ago, I have been reflecting on some aspects of my past: high school, college, my calling, friends with whom I’ve lost contact, and other nostalgic reminiscing.  With each memory I seek to “take every thought captive for Christ,” assessing what role the memory plays in my life and how it might shape my life now.  I was in Georgia for almost two decades; I moved from Florida where I had lived since childhood.  Now I’m back.

Writing about the sacredness of places and upbringing, author and poet Natalie Goldberg notes,

We hear about people who go back to their roots.  That is good, but don’t get stuck in the root.  There is a branch, the leaf, the flower–all reaching toward the immense sky.  We are many things.

My return to Florida has been a return to my roots.  Many of these roots, however, have become dormant.  Some have died out altogether–time spent with cousins now divorced, going to car shows with the old ’84 Camaro.  My “home church” in Pompano Beach is still active but too far to visit when I’m not in the pulpit at First Baptist.

Yet there are branches and leaves and flowers, as Goldberg puts it, that reminds me that there is new growth and new frontiers.  The “immense sky” is open to so many new opportunities, but I can’t help but notice that my writing, preaching, and prayers have been caught in a time loop, almost paralyzed by the past in some ways.

I wonder whether this “time loop” is a result of nearing 40 years of age.  I have heard of mid-life crises, and though I have no inkling to purchase a Porsche or travel to Europe to find myself, I hear the bells that toll at the end of one’s life a little louder than before.  Aches and pains in my back beckon the belfry on the horizon.

I have a long way to go–my congregation would laugh at me if I spoke of age at this point in my life–but my move to Vero Beach has captured me in a time stasis, hanging between my past–what once was–and my future, what God has in store as I continue to plug away at working with a great church to build a great and vibrant ministry that will last, I hope, for centuries.

These reflections were held in bold relief when I awoke from a bizarre nightmare this morning.  It was not a normal “pastor’s nightmare,” like the ones in which you start to preach only to have people walk out on you or you show up at church only to realize that you’re in the wrong church.  There weren’t any ghosts or ghouls or monsters.

Rather, I was sitting in the home of a parishioner who scolded me for hiding for hours in my office, not doing anything useful.  “Every day,” she said, “You sit in your office for two hours, and I don’t know what you do–you just sit there and twiddle your thumbs.  Four days a week, eight hours total every week–a whole work day of doing nothing.”

I can’t explain why that particular dream struck me, although I have always taken pride in my vigorous work ethic, but I can tell you that it has to do with time.  If I pray and all I think of are memories of times past while failing to cast a vision for what God has in the future, then I am stuck for sure.

“Don’t get stuck,” Goldberg says, like angels who once told the disciples to move things along when the disciples got stuck eyeing the heavens when Jesus ascended (“As they strained to see him rising…” the NLT states in Acts 1:10).  Don’t get stuck, move it along, look for new opportunities, new growth, it is all around us and it speaks to God’s beauty and activity in our life today.

For years I have had a guilty pleasure of watching Michael Mann’s 2006 Miami Vice with Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell.  I enjoyed watching it because it shows a slice of life in Florida, to which I wanted to return.  I realized yesterday, while sitting on the beach and watching my wife and duaghter search for shells and my son dodge waves, that I no longer wanted to watch the movie.  I do not crave Miami Vice anymore because I’m here, I’m home and the flowers are blooming.

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.