A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: The Shape of Liturgical Action

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.

I fear that some people see hymns only as a nostalgic remnants from the church of yesteryear, that hymns are only useful to pass the time at funerals or revival services.  Hymns, however, play more of a role than that, and research suggests that hymns contribute to our theology and vision of the world just as much as scripture, prayer, and sermons do on a weekly basis.

Hymns are not the stuff of a stuffy church; rather, they shape beliefs and have the power to inspire ministry and missions with an ever creative God who gives us a song to sing.

I have come to appreciate a group of contemporary hymns (that’s not an oxymoron, people–yes, liturgical artists still write hymns for the church!) that empower and engage congregations, craft theology, and embody God’s mission for the world.  Some are better than others, and most rely on well-known tunes, but they contribute something fresh to a church still in need of a “new song” to sing (Psalm 98:1).

These hymns have in common the theme of justice.  Primarily published in closing pages of the Celebrating Grace hymnal, they speak of God, our relationship to God, and our fundamental Christian concern for God’s world and our neighbors.  They call us to believe, to decide, and to act.

One hymn is Show Us How to Stand for Justice, authored by Martin Leckebusch and copyrighted in 2000.  Set to the tune of “Pleading Savior,” it contains themes that clearly define the hopes and dreams of churches that stand on the cusp of a new century.

The first verse addresses the need for collaboration among Christians in order to reflect an inclusive and grace-filled Gospel.  We “work for what is right” and “walk within the light.”  We admonish each other to share with neighbors and fight against the greed that defined economic bubbles sweeping the late 1990s.  It is collaborative, but pro-life; hesitant with success, but rich with mercy.

The second verse deals with our hearts and minds, knowing all too well that our motives must match the sincerity of our actions.  It places the very essence of justice in the life and sacrifice of Jesus our Savior.

The third verse intends to send out a congregation on mission, mindful that our lifestyles not just at church, but Monday through Saturday, should reflect the love, compassion and grace of the very God we worship on Sunday.  It is not something we do alone, but with the “Spirit’s gracious prompting.”  The theology of this song is not introverted or insular — it assumes that the Spirit is at work in the world, and we are to join God out there.

Another hymn is Let Truth and Mercy Find Here by Ken Medema. I’ve had the privilege of worshiping with Mr. Medema at the helm.  He is a songwriter and musician who, though blind at the very young age, offers music both insightful and full of vision for sacred liturgy.

One of the most powerful ideas in this hymn is its insistence that, by sharing together in the love of Christ, congregations and the church at large have the power to turn strangers into friends.  Whereas “scheming darkness and evil power” may manipulate people, communities, and nations for its own sake, Christ’s “peace and justice” is a mighty stream that can cut through the harshest environments and pave a way for a united, dreaming community.

God’s truth is a “flame” that is “blazing,” one that draws people towards the Gospel, but then enacts the truths of Pentecost.  Spirit-filled people have visions, dream dreams, and prophesy on behalf of others, for the sake of Christ’s compassion, and for the salvation of a world still in need of redemption.  This is not an individual task only–it is the fundamental calling of the church in the 21st century, born out of the need to be Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation.

Hymnody that celebrates God’s provision and encourages God’s people to act justly are nothing new.  These are gems in the mines of a sacred church called from one generation to another to serve the world which “God so loved” and, by doing so, bring justice to bear in season and out.  The words may be new and tunes familiar, but it is a theme that shapes our theology of place, time, and sacred space all the same.

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Conflict and a Parting of Ways in the Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Being Christ’s Church is no easy task.  As far back as the New Testament, churches have been dealing with weighty matters from Bible interpretation to theological wrangling so much that we should not be surprised when some churches fight and split.

Scripture provides us with a blueprint for how to manage conflicts in church.  The question of gentile inclusion in Acts 15, for instance, reveals a process of discernment that promoted communication, testimonies, Bible interpretation, and compromise that produced healthy church growth.

A later incident in Acts 15 describes what happens when people in churches have irreconcilable differences that discernment cannot overcome.  What happens when the only solution to disagreement is a parting of ways?

Acts 15:36-41 recalls a sharp disagreement between Barnabas and Paul on whether to bring John Mark on a second missionary journey.   They did not come to a compromise and they arrived at an impasse.  Paul and Barnabas parted ways.

A close reading of the text reveals four effective strategies in managing a church conflict in which irreconcilable disagreements did not spell the end of friendships but exposed a new season of ministry inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The first strategy is that Paul and Barnabas keep their focus on God’s mission and don’t make the conflict personal.  The Bible clearly outlines that Barnabas and Paul had different personalities: Barnabas was a bridge-building who longed to keep everyone together.  Mark was family, so there was a willingness to give him a second chance.  Paul was all business.  He was not as forgiving, and God’s mission was at stake.

This strategy shows that when churches do conflict resolution well, they emphasize the mission of the church rather than resorting to personal attacks.

Second, Paul and Barnabas valued communication.  Paul could have easily went along with Barnabas only to flirt with resentment if things went sour later in the journey, but Paul was honest with his friend.  He trusted Barnabas with his concerns, and the “sharp disagreement” shows a deep sense of honor between the two men.  There was mutual respect, and in Paul’s later letter to the Corinthian churches (1 Cor. 9), Paul still considered Barnabas his peer and equal after the division–they may not have agreed, but they still affirmed each other’s mission.

What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common–a zeal to share the Gospel” – St. Crysostom.

A third strategy is to have an understanding of God’s sacred time: there is a season for everything.  What may appear to be discomfort, disagreement, or discord to us may simply be the Holy Spirit’s way of inspiring a new season of ministry.

In this season of ministry, Paul recognized that Mark was not the right guy for the job.  Later, after Mark matured in the faith, Paul recruited him to minister to churches in Colossae as Paul remained in prison (Colossians 4:10).

The focus remained on the mission and Mark was not necessarily the problem–sometimes the problem is with our sense of timing.  When seasons of ministry shift, change and discomfort result from that restless anxiety that tips our hat to the movement of the Spirit.

In times of discomfort or disagreement, we need to STOP, LISTEN, and ASSESS where the Holy Spirit may be at work to break us into a new level of revival, mission, zeal, or ministry.

Last, in parting ways not by discord but by effective conflict resolution, Paul and Barnabas expanded God’s mission.  God’s mission does not collapse or implode or falter.  When we resolve conflict by our own strength and design, churches split and bring some ministries to an end.  When God’s mission remains our focus and we make decisions because we are in tune with the Holy Spirit, God replicates and multiplies church communities.

As a result of their parting of ways, Barnabas and Mark ministered in Cyprus while Paul began a second missionary journey that ventured as far as Macedonia.  St. Crysostom wrote about this text, “What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common–a zeal to share the Gospel.”

When conflicts arise, our first step as Christians should be to put in place a process of spiritual discernment that seeks to bring reconciliation and restoration in the church and the church’s mission.  When irreconcilable differences occur, however, we must put in place a process of a different kind; yet, our concern should always be the same: Are we living deeper into God’s holiness and are we proactively reaching the lost with every decision that is made?

Ministry for the Sake of Christ and the World

By Joe LaGuardia

I had a conversation with a Navy veteran yesterday who served as a flight-deck officer for nearly 25 years.  I thanked him for his service and was grateful that he had sacrificed his safety in order to protect our freedom.

He reminded me of the time I wanted to serve in the armed forces too.

I was a senior in high school when recruiters visited our classes and encouraged us to make a sacrifice for our country.  They visited on behalf of the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard.  My uncle had served in the Air Force, and I felt compelled to look into serving in that particular branch.  I am afraid of heights, but since I wore glasses I figured that they would not let me fly airplanes anyway.

When I came home to tell my father, he was not happy.  I did not understand why he was frustrated, and I began to explain all of the great things that can result from serving our country, and Uncle Joe served so why not?  Dad wanted me to go to college instead.

Although I trusted and followed my father’s advice, I still remember clearly–more clearly than ever when I spoke with that Navy vet yesterday–of the feelings I had in wanting to serve in something bigger than me, to make a sacrifice on behalf of a nation I loved and people that I longed to protect.

Since then, there were only two other times when I had that profound feeling of being called to something so profoundly inspiring.  One time was when I worked as a teacher assistant for an online college course through Ashford University.  It was a writing class, and many students I assisted were in the military or just released from the military.  Educating our troops and vets was my way of helping our nation yet again.

The second time came in college when I heard Christ calling me into the ministry.  I had gone through a litany of career options, praying for the right job that would allow me to serve others while supporting a family.  When it came down to either vocational ministry or practicing law, I met with my New Testament professor, and he gave me the lecture most of us ministry students receive.  Its the advice from the old Buechner adage that says that your calling is found where your deepest passion intersects with the world’s deepest needs.  I plunged headlong into ministry.  My father was happy.

Although I love church and ministry–I know I’m called to this because I cant’ do anything else–I often forget why I got into this business in the first place.  Yes, the Holy Spirit swayed my heart and Christ compelled me to serve His church as a full-time minister.  But there was also that profound feeling of serving others, the very same feelings I had when I spoke with those Air Force recruiters in the halls of Stoneman Douglas High School.

I think that when we ministers forget the source of our inspiration and the emotional reasons why we responded to God’s call–logic aside!–we forget the joy and passion that we are to bring to our vocation in church.

And I wonder if one of the reasons why churches plateau or die is partly because of us: We somehow lose that feeling of joining God at work for the sake of the world, and we fail to inspire others as our own passion dies a slow death under the weight of sermon preparation, balancing a congregation’s expectations with being true to yourself, and doing the busy administrative work that churches require.

I figure that if you do not have a love for every aspect of church and forget to rely on Christ’s love to fill you–whether visiting someone in the hospital or making a copy of your time sheet for your church administrator–then you might as well close shop and go home.

I enjoyed my conversation with that old veteran yesterday, and together we enjoyed a good meal as we celebrated a newlywed couple whose wedding I had just performed.  More significantly, I enjoyed what the conversation reminded me of: That we who call Christ Lord are to give of ourselves, and that there is no higher calling than to serve Jesus…To give one’s life for the sake of others, for there is no greater honor and privilege.