A Reading Life (prt. 15): Memiors Among Us

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.

In the afterword of my recent book, A Whispering Call, I outline the waning market for first-person narration.  Jonathon Franzen, guest editor for the Best American Essays anthology of 2016, states that we stand in the Golden Age of memoirs; while Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker lamented that the “personal essay boom” has come to an end.

Regardless of various naysayers, I personally love memoirs.  Memoirs record the inner journey of the soul while affirming the resiliency of lives who carry the burdens born of both tragedy and comedy.

I just finished reading, God Underneath, by Catholic priest, Edward Beck.  In his own afterword, he wrote that his memoir aims to help people see the priesthood differently, past the clergy collar.  He wanted to humanize his position while helping his readers realize that God is in all the details of life.

Only the memoir genre allowed him to tell his story and express all of the settings in which a priest may find himself.

Perhaps I like memoirs because I have spent decades reflecting on my own journey of faith and vocation.  Hearing God’s call, fashioning a community that knows how to discern God’s call, and responding to God’s call have to be the best parts of my ministry.  Heck, vocation is the undercurrent of my newest book and of this blog series!

Memoir makes for great sermons too.  In reading Beck, I was reminded of my own struggle with pastoral presence and image, and how I have incorporated that into my preaching.  I am familiar with the feeling he expresses about needing to lose the frock to deepen friendships.  I resonated with his efforts of encouraging others to relate to him as a normal individual, pushing towards a more “confessional” style that connects with congregations.

I agreed that when people put us ministers on pedestals, it is easier for that kind of idol to fall and break into a million pieces like Dagon before the ark of the covenant.  Memoir can turn tragic real fast when people place unrealistic expectations upon you.

And memoirs remind us that we are all made in God’s image and called to be priests in one form or fashion.  My Baptist tradition specifically grants us the mantle of the priesthood of believers.  Dismantling unrealistic images of the ministry does not lessen how people see me, but lifts people up and persuades them to seize God’s destiny in their lives.

Recently, one of our youngest children at church asked whether our music minister was Jesus.  One Sunday, when the minister came off of the stage during worship, the little girl reached over to my wife, bright-eyed, and whispered, “That’s Jesus!”

My wife tried to tell her who Jesus is (and who he isn’t), but it got a great belly laugh out of all of us.  My music minister now has a lot to live up to!

Edward Beck mentions that people ask him about his calling: “When did you receive your call, Father?” And every time, he responds, “I am still receiving it!”  God’s call continually provides opportunities for us to bear witness to Christ’s love.

Are we willing to move beyond our own self-image and see ourselves through Christ’s eyes, then see others as Christ sees them?  What memoir might we write, and how does God show up in it?

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With the retirement of Father John Kieran, Rockdale will be without one of its finest pastors

Psalm 133 joyfully declares, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (NRSV)  I have experienced this kind of pleasure whenever I get the opportunity to work with other clergy and Christians in our county.  It is invaluable to be on mission with so many gifted pastors and prophets, missionaries and ministers.

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Recently, in 2011, Father John and I participated in a community Thanksgiving service with St. Simon’s Episcopal Church and Epiphany Lutheran. Funds were collected for Family Promise of Newrock.

Obviously, some are more outstanding than others.  One of the greatest pastors I’ve worked with–and learned from–is Father John Kieran, beloved priest of St. Pius X who recently announced his intention to retire from St. Pius this summer.

I first met Father John back in 2004 when he and I worked together on an inter-faith dialogue related to immigration reform.  It was a contentious time in the life of our nation, and all things immigration was one of the controversial debates going on in the midst of a heated election year.

I had a passion for the topic and grieved that more churches were not weighing in on this important issue, so Trinity arranged for the dialogue to happen with other clergy.  Father John was one of the first ministers on board, and I admired his courage (not many clergy wanted to get involved) to take a stand.  Also, his interest and passion on the subject hit close to home considering that St. Pius had–and has–a significant Hispanic population.

When we held the dialogue, a crowd from St. Pius X attended and outnumbered the Baptists in the room.  It was an honor to be with Father John, hear his own views on the subject (not to mention his passion for justice and human rights), and meet his flock.

Fast-forward about eight years later, when Family Promise of Newrock came upon the scene.  Family Promise, one of the newest non-profit groups in our community, is an organization that works with places of worship in order to house homeless families.  The concept–a simple one that lets so many of us fulfill Christ’s call to serve the poor–attracted the likes of many congregations, St. Pius included.

I joined the board early on; and, in our first year of meeting, Father John was present and passionate about getting the organization off of the ground.  He worked closely with Epiphany Lutheran and the other churches involved; denominational loyalty and Catholic-Protestant issues never became a hindrance or focus in any of the meetings.  He insisted that his church participate in fundraisers year round, including the annual community Thanksgiving worship service.

All this time, I have come to admire Father John’s commitment to his congregation, to our community, and especially to issues surrounding justice, pro-life initiatives, and public policy.  It’s courageous clergy like that who inspire people’s belief in the Living Christ and restore hope in the church.

Whenever I hear someone decry Catholicism from my neck of the woods, I always point to St. Pius X and her Shepherd as a model for Catholic integrity, vibrant missions, and dynamic, ecumenical ministry.

Sure, it hasn’t all been fun and games.  There are many subjects of which Father John and I disagree–there will always be that rich diversity in God’s Kingdom.  And, like this Italian pastor (yours truly) who lets the New York attitude fly every now and then, Father John’s Irish enthusiasm can overwhelm those with whom he disagrees.

Yet, ministry runs deep in that (fighting Irish green!) blood of his, and I have a feeling Father’s retirement won’t mean that he’s leaving the church so much as he is simply bringing the church with him wherever he goes to make new believers, friends, and communities of integrity.

Father John, Trinity Baptist Church and I wish you safe travels, God’s power (to pilot, uphold, and guide you), and blessings for years to come.