The Outdoors is for the Birds

Image result for st. francis of assisi

By Joe LaGuardia

St. Francis of Assisi is not my patron saint. You remember St. Francis? He was the 13th-century monk who preached to all of nature, including animals. He spoke of creation in moving prayers and poetry. He celebrated God’s care over all creation, including Brother Sun and Sister Moon. If you’re interested, you can purchase a statue of St. Francis at your local hardware or garden store.

But St. Francis is not for me. Don’t get me wrong, I like to garden. I spent several weekends this month working on my garden. When we have work days at church, the mulching is always my job.

For all that enjoyment, however, I have yet to make gardening the spiritual exercise it is for many Christians who echo the sentiments of St. Francis. When I weed, I curse the ground of my toil–namely, calling the weeds, “Idiots!” for being there in the first place. Some of the weeds look beautiful, actually, but they are stupid because they keep growing. And why do weeds grow so much better and faster than the things that I want to grow in the garden?

Today, when I was laying mulch in my front yard, there was a brief rain shower. This is what happens in a typical coastal Florida shower: It is a beautiful day that turns more beautiful when it becomes slightly overcast. A welcome breeze comes through for a few minutes, ushering in the clouds. It rains for a few minutes and stops as abruptly as it began.

Then things change. The beauty ceases, the breeze stops, and it turns deathly humid. You are drenched not from the rain, but from heavy moisture in the air. Your shirt clings to your body, and the mulch-stains on your shorts become mud stains, and you can’t wear your glasses because they become foggy, and you can’t wipe your brow because your arms are like slip-n-slides, and although the sun still isn’t out, the heat rises from concrete and from the damp, and you get a taste of what hell is like.

It is then that I realized I was not a Franciscan at heart. I do better with my nose in a book while in air-conditioned housing then in the beauty of nature that turns bleak and cranky.

St. Francis can guard other gardens, thank you very much. Instead, I’ll stick with a saint I fell in love with long ago, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius popularized using one’s imagination while reading the Bible, and his daily “spiritual exercises” include reflecting on the day as a contemplative form of prayer– a prayer best served indoors.

I had an email bearing Ignatius’s name at one point in my life, when Hotmail was all the rage. And although he is Spanish and I am Italian like St. Francis, I still think that the Jesuits have done more for the Catholic Church than most monastic movements in recent days.

So let St. Francis preach to the birds. I’d rather spend time asking where I find myself in scripture and reflecting on the face of Christ during long periods of solitude and silence. At least I won’t smell like a big, wet sock and have to bath seven times a day.

The weeds will have to contend with another nemesis for now, but at least they won’t face the verbal abuse that I hurl in their direction. Stupid weeds.

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A Reading Life (prt 11): The Bible, from a different point of view

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.  

I attended a pastor’s Bible study recently and did not learn anything new.  If you are going to bring pastors together, then have something new up your sleeve: a new insight into reading the text, an esoteric resource that garners a cutting-edge interpretation of scripture, a new twist on an old tale.  But don’t spout lessons we have likely taught for years in Sunday school.

One of the greatest compliments I get as a preacher is not that a sermon was interesting or exciting, but that something new was learned.  “I never heard that before,” or “I’ve never read the passage like that,” is music to my ears.  It is impossible to hit a sermon out of the park every Sunday morning, but not to have at least one thing unique to each sermon–a new reading, an insight that is not cliché, a way to enliven the imagination.

I came into seminary with a formidable religion degree from college.  Classes were basic, therefore, and getting at something new was difficult.  But when I got into a New Testament course with a professor by the name of Dr. Carson, I got hooked on his methodology of reading the text.  I’ve never read the Bible that way!

Dr. Carson was from Union Theological Seminary and Southern Seminary, so he was able to bring a reading from two very different points-of-view.  As a way of protest, he threw out many tried and true historical-critical interpretations of scripture because of faulty foundations of reading, and relied on the purity of reading a text for what it says and how it is said, not from a translation.

Dr. Carson emphasized socio-rhetorical criticism, which was new to me.  Socio-rhetorical criticism explores how authors write what they write, why they write, how they write, and what they exclude.  The critic reads the Bible, noting that the order, shape, and context of the original language says something about the intent of the writing.

Rhetoric is the “art of persuasion,” and it asks questions of persuasion in the text.  Socio-historical criticism looks at the world of the text and how culture shapes literature, speech, and language.  It is a fairly recent criticism, only some forty years old.

This was a life-giving methodology for me.  I spent a great deal of time with Dr. Carson after that first course, and his recommendations went to the top of my reading list.  He recommended Vernon Robbins’ The Texture of Texts; socio-historical criticism by the likes of Bruce Malina, Jerome Neyrey, and others from the “the Context Group”; and a pithy book, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition, by Columbia University professor Kathy Eden.

Since I love words and writing, a focus on the function and dynamics of rhetoric opened a new world of joy and wonder.  It added depth to the biblical story, and it provided applications that made sense and applied to real life.  It brought Jesus to life, too, and painted a picture in both testaments that sit squarely in a mysterious culture foreign — and yet similar — to our own.

As a Baptist, I like how that type of reading pushed against the powers of interpretation and the privileges of the academy.  It exposed assumptions of historical biblical criticism and up-ended mistaken interpretations–often perpetuated by those in power and the academic establishment–that failed to take the ancient world seriously.  It also has a global leaning, allowing other voices to shape how the text–and the persuasion and arguments therein–apply to a variety of cultures in our own day and age.

I am deeply indebted to Dr. Carson because he opened a new window of biblical exploration, and that interpretation plays heavily on my preaching and teaching.  If you ever visit my church there’s a good chance that you may not always agree with the content, but you will learn something new.

 

“A Whispering Call” now available in paperback

In A Whispering Call, Joe LaGuardia explores the treasure of God’s unfolding drama of salvation from the earliest pages of Genesis to the advent of Jesus Christ.  It is a celebration of scripture and a plea to take a renewed interest in the First (Old) Testament.

“By way of neglect,” LaGuardia writes, “the church has lost the ability to read the Old Testament independently from the Jesus whom Christians serve…The breadth and depth of the Old Testament solicits as much, and begs a closer reading by Christians, various faith groups, and people of no faith at all.”  A Whispering Call seeks to let the Testament stand on its own, to hear ancient voices for a new day, and rediscover the hope that launches the greatest story ever told.

A Whispering Call is LaGuardia’s second anthology of essays on sacred scripture, and it is sure to encourage, challenge, and inspire readers in the journey of faith.  It promises to bring biblical principles to life and affirm God’s mission in the world.

Every essay pays careful attention to biblical research and cultural insights, and each includes a series of study questions perfect for private devotions or public use.  Read them for group discipleship, incorporate them in the classroom, peruse them to prepare for that next sermon.  They promise to enlighten and entertain.

Order your copy today!

Here are some excerpts from the book…

On scripture…

God’s Word is not a sounding board that reinforces our cliché beliefs about Jesus; nor it is an echo chamber as cheap as social media platforms sometimes assume…Regardless of contemporary, common arguments about the nature and inspiration of scripture, the ancients believed that the Bible was a dangerous book, one that beheld the mystery of God and reinforced the fragility and myopia of God’s people. 

Its radical message had the power to transform lives, communities, institutions, and nations.  In the words of Barbara Bowe, savoring scripture makes the difference between admiring the flame of a candle and touching the flame of a candle so as to engage that which is dangerous, purifying, and–in many ways–scathing.

On sexual abuse and #MeToo in the Old Testament…

Although forgiveness [in the Bible] breaks cycles of violence, forgiveness does not exclude speaking out, protesting, and resisting personal or systemic abuse.  It does not condone violence or look in the other direction.  Jesus’ forgiveness does not give us an excuse to continue to see, seize, and subdue like Shechem did with Dinah.  Rather, the act of forgiveness calls us all to holiness, restoration, and healing.  It gives the oppressed a voice–all who are at the center of our texts of terror–and empowers those of us on the sidelines, that we might intervene…It is not enough to say “I’m sorry,” we must right wrongs so that reparations can prevent future abuses and exploitive practices.

On the state of the church…

Many people claim that today’s church is worse off than ever before and in need of reform…Some Christian scholars believe that this is not the end of the church, but only another beginning–the Holy Spirit is moving the church from the laurels of comfort and inspiring a new movement of outreach and missions that pivots God’s people from an inward-focused ministry to an outward-focused missional agenda.  Fundamentalism will collapse in on itself, exposing the false gods of nationalism and tribalism, while the God of Pentecost–always breaking boundaries of ethnicity, gender, race, and economics-is moving well beyond the walls of the church.

On justice in the Bible…

If there is any voice for justice crying in the biblical wilderness, it is the prophet Isaiah. Throughout his message to Israel, he called for people to “do justice” (1:17). Echoing other prophets, such as Micah and Amos, he challenged people to have mercy. This was not only for personal enrichment, it was a community ethic in which relationships were set straight, economic injustices repaired, and people long-neglected were protected and honored. Justice was not about having one’s head in the clouds, but about making space for others in one’s own living room. It was not a reach beyond community, it was a diligent plan to make community one of integrity and compassion—an organic, living model built on the theology that all people are part of God’s creation, even if some people do not believe in that fact.

For Isaiah, justice means caring for the refugee, widow and orphan. It means insuring economic opportunity, minimizing debts, sustaining land ownership, and understanding that if things are not right between neighbors, then things with God will not be right.