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.

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A Reading Life (pt 7): Reading the Life of Christ


Image result for Jesus

Just in time for Christ the King Sunday.

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.  This, the seventh article, was published on Christ the King Sunday, November 2018.

When my wife and I got married, we thought we knew each other well. We loved each other, but we really did not know how much we did not know at the time. At our wedding altar, our officiating minister said, “Joe, love Kristina as God’s tailor-made wife for you; and remember that it will take you a life-time to get to know her intimately.” Now, 20 years later, I see exactly what he means!

I feel the same way about Jesus. When I was baptized in high school, I thought I knew him. I gained comfort from his love and forgiveness, acquired a love for the church and the Bible, and had several spiritual experiences that moved me deeply; but, even then, I did not know him well.

It was not until I got to college that I studied Jesus the man and got to know him for who he was and who he continues to be.  Since then, a large portion of my “reading life” has been invested in studying this man whom I betrothed when I walked the aisle of the First Baptist Church of Perrine so many years ago.

Jesus’ name comes from the Hebrew Yeshua, which means, “he will save.” The root for this word is yasha, which means “to redeem” and “to release.” It hints at liberation–a savior who does not enslave, but releases people to be who God called them to be by opening new doors and opportunities to live in a new way. This is how I felt when I went to college. Jesus was opening my eyes to see him in a new way!

Part of my new-found passion came from a calling to go deeper in my faith, but it also came from studying under religion professors who loved the Bible as much as I.

The professor who influenced me most was New Testament dynamo Daniel Goodman. Anyone who attended Palm Beach Atlantic University School of Ministry in the 1990s will tell you that Dr. Goodman was a big part of their lives. He was enthusiastic, erudite, humorous, relatable, and entertaining. His chalkboard-filled lectures and soaring grammatical feats were things to behold.

When I entered Dr. Goodman’s class, I met Jesus as if for the first time. It was there that I learned about this historical figure who walked the earth, lived in a particular context and culture, and shapes the church and its liturgy today. Goodman’s enthusiasm and quest for Jesus (he was a Q scholar) were contagious, and it was hard not to walk with a pep in your step upon leaving class.

The first book he assigned us was The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders. Sanders, a Jesus scholar out of Duke University who takes a modest view of the Gospels, was a good introduction. His book opened a new world to me. I walked with Jesus and his disciples in the first century; went to temple to study and pray with him; and I confronted my own journey to Calvary, wondering whether I had what it took to “pick up your cross and follow me.”

My admiration of Jesus studies only grew from there. I read anything I could get my hands on related to Jesus and first-century Palestine, from J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright, to Richard Horsley and Luke T. Johnson. My appetite was insatiable, and my passion deepened all the more when Kristina and I traveled to Israel in 2000. I was reading Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus at the time, and what better book to read while traveling the Holy Land and walking in the footsteps of my Lord?

Part of the problem of religious studies is that sometimes the head gets away from the heart, and my love for the Bible grew into an acute cynicism. Why did it take attending college to learn the basics of the faith I thought I knew so well? I remember going back to my home church one summer and grilling the pastor: “Why aren’t you teaching us this stuff? Why am I learning it for the first time?”

I later learned that my anger is natural, a part of the learning process in which faith moves from orientation, to disorientation, and to re-orientation (per Walter Brueggemann). That movement, at least from orientation to disorientation, leads to grief and uncertainty. It heightens fear and anger and stretches critical thinking to a near breaking-point. My many “whys?” to my pastor hinted at this stage of my spiritual pilgrimage.

I can’t remember the answer my pastor provided, by the way.  But now — being a full-time pastor myself — I can see why it is difficult to teach those deeper truths that an academic passion seems to unveil. And when I do preach a new or deeper truth that is unfamiliar to most congregations, especially truths that defy the cookie-cutter, Sunday school answers, people approach me with skepticism, as if learning something new is not biblical. I can’t tell you how many times someone said, “I never heard that before,” and meant it as a negative statement rather than a positive opportunity to grow as a disciple of Christ.

At the same time, I have learned that every sermon should have something new to share–not just a spiritual insight or application, such as “Five ways to improve your marriage,” but rather something new about the world of the Bible–even if its an insight into the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word. Several weeks ago I went to a Bible study for pastors and I did not hear anything new. We are pastors–you have to step up your game if you’re going to teach pastors! Anything less than that is just lazy pontificating.

In college, when I was learning something with every paragraph I read, it was overwhelming. I was confronting a culture in which my Savior lived and moved about and died; and the culture shock still rattles me to this day. If you claim to love Jesus, don’t just know a few things about him–know him and read about his life. Get to know what he values. Take him at his word, and venture beyond the shallows, into the deep end with him!

A Reading Life (pt 6): Second-Hand Books

My 1969 Broadman Commentary with the 1973 RSV Annotated Oxford Study Bible in the background, both second-hand books that I treasure more than most!

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.

Any pastor will tell you that a part of being a minister is receiving books or book recommendations from parishioners.  Most people can attest that they have second-hand books on their shelves, but none more so than clergy.  This is for two reasons: One, we are obliged to take books people give us; and, two, we are too broke to get new books, so we scour unwanted books, church rummage sales, and used book stores whenever we come across them.

So, I have two pieces of advice for freshman pastors:  The first is to avoid telling your church what kind of things you like to read unless you want books pertaining to that subject or genre.  The second is  to befriend pastors nearing retirement because they are likely to give you books they no longer need.

The first piece of advice came in handy when I first arrived in Florida to pastor my current church. I wanted to read Florida history because when I was in Georgia, I read The Archaeology and History of the Native Georgia Tribes by Max White, and it enriched my ministry for years to come.

I mentioned this to fellow naturalists at my church, and the recommendations and books started to flow.  The first recommendation (or affirmation, as it were) was Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ The Everglades: River of Grass.  Since I am a graduate of Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, (yes, that Douglas high school), I always wanted to read Douglas’ work, so I purchased it within the first six months of arriving to Florida.  Another recommendation was Marjorie Rawlings The Yearling, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  After that, however, I was finished reading about Florida but books and recommendations kept coming.

“Here, Pastor Joe, I think you’ll like this,” is commonplace in ministry.  Since I am a book snob to begin with, I have found polite ways of rejecting those books or perusing enough of a book to make light conversation.  In other cases, people will send self-published books that are political or have some crazy agenda.  Those things go right to the “donate” pile.

If you take my second piece of advice, then your library will be full of second-hand books that become gems.  I recently received a long-awaited 1973 Revised Standard Version Annotated Oxford Study Bible from our Associate Pastor who is retiring at year’s end.  It inspired this article, in fact!  What a treasure!

Then there was the white whale for which I longed–that peculiar, sought-after item that one only obtains by prayer, patience, and persistence.  Mine was the original 1969 Broadman Bible Commentary with the Genesis volume by G. Henton Davies.  This volume, along with then-Midwestern Theological Seminary professor Ralph Elliot’s book, The Message of Genesis, launched a near forty-year battle and eventual split between conservatives and moderates in the Southern Baptist Convention (known either as the “Conservative Resurgence” or the “Conservative Takeover,” depending on your point of view) regarding historical-critical approaches to scripture and, more recently, the place of women in ministry.

The Davies “Genesis” commentary set is rare because the Southern Baptist Convention recalled the set shortly after publication and replaced it with a set that replaced the Davies commentary with one by Clyde Francisco.  That made the original “Davies” set hard to come by.

Thankfully, a retired Home Mission Board administrator who was a co-minister at my last church had not one, but two original sets.  Praise God for the Reverend Michael R., who blessed me with one of his First Edition (you read that right!) “Davies sets”–with his marginal notes–when I became pastor of the church in 2010.

Moving forward, I am on to my next prey.  It is a Nelson, cowhide leather Revised Standard Version Bible, circa early 1960s.  There are many RSV Nelson editions circulating out there with vinyl (gag!) or hard covers (many served as pew Bibles), but the leather-bound edition seems near impossible to find.  I got one from a retiring pastor years ago, but (after many funerals and a month-long mission trip to West Africa) it is falling apart, and I would like a replacement.

I think we can all agree that whether a second-hand book is either beloved or loathed, it adds a rich tapestry to any home or office library.  Each book has a story to tell or reflects the character of its original owner, and for that we should be grateful.  Each book speaks to the generosity that defines readers worldwide.  But, take it from me, pastors get the brunt of them, and that’s not always fun!

What are some second-hand books that you either treasure or loathe?  Comment below!