A Reading Life (prt 12): An Impasse and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Image result for lucy psychiatric booth christmas

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 must apologize, everyone. I have not been in the mood to read or write lately. I blame it on the recliner and cold weather. My cat may be in on this too.

Its been an arid month: no inspiration to read anything, no impetus to write. I had an existential crisis just today: How come I don’t feel like reading? What about my “A Reading Life” blog series?

It was just, “Meh.” I suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder when I lived in the north, but haven’t since I moved south. This is nowhere near as bad, but I have a feeling that people who do suffer with SAD during winter can relate. Where has all that passion gone?

Now I just sit in my recliner when I am not cleaning, exercising, playing, cooking, or doing churchy things. I read a devotional. I catch up on the news. I (gag) scroll through social media. I fall asleep with my cat on my lap, a cat who finds her way over to me whenever I am in a resting position.

This is not new for me just as I’m sure it inflicts other bibliophiles. You’re in between books. You pick up a book here or there and nothing really captures your heart. There are false starts and impassioned leafing through of pages. No titles catch your attention. You wonder why half the books on your “to read” pile are there in the first place.

Even the old love affair with book catalogues grows stale, and your eyes wander to other things. I started watching a lot more television. That’s always a bad sign.

I don’t know how it is for others, but for me, reading and writing go hand-in-hand. If I am reading a lot then I tend to write a lot. If my reading tarries, my writing dries up. The muses fall silent. The Television turns on, and it is a distraction.

I decided today that I must move on. I can’t stay in this malaise forever, and I need something to get out of this rut. We went to our local used-book store (a weekly routine), and I determined to find something to read.

Sure enough, I returned to that genre that has saved me on more than one occasion: long-form essays, usually in the tune of a memoir or travel narrative, which have appealed to me during times of melancholy. They are short so there is no serious commitment. They are not laborious, so they tend to be compelling and artistic. They inform, but are personal enough to get me out of myself–to move my sense of consciousness beyond my little world and into the larger world where life moves on.

Essays have always been an easy and quick escape in my reading repertoire. There are essays by Marilyn Robinson and Annie Dillard. There are anthologies, such as the annual The Greatest Essays publications. Several years ago I picked up This is New York by E. B. White, an essay that originally appeared in a travel magazine. That was SOME essay–an amazing tapestry of words and thoughts, and probably one of the best things I’ve ever read in my life.

It took me a while to find the right book. I perused travel, biographies, classics, mysteries, and the religious sections. I was tired, so I sat in a plastic lawn chair among the memoirs. I spotted an autobiography by Ephriam Tutt, Yankee Lawyer. I don’t know who Tutt is, but the inscription on the inside was to an “Uncle Harry” and dated Christmas day, 1943.

Parker Palmer’s Listen to Your Life was nearby, and it too had an inscription from Jen to Mitch: “Food for thought along your vocational journey.” It was dated January 25, 2002. Not quite Christmas day, but close.

I spotted some books I donated several months ago. I picked up several of them and saw my own notes throughout their pages. It is odd to see your handwriting in a book that is for sale, as if it was inscribed by some alien life force and is now staring back at you from across the galaxy. (If you go to the religion section and you find the print “The Library of J. V. LaGuardia”, wonder no more.)

And, back in the memoir section, I finally found a book worth reading. It is an essay just as I preferred, and published originally in Vanity Fair or some such magazine. It is by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist William Styron, Darkness Visible, about his bout with clinical depression. The subtitle (“A memoir of madness”) did not catch my attention so much as the writing did; and I didn’t get it because of my own lethargy. I got it because of its brevity and its well-written prose. It will do.

I realize now that my feelings of lassitude is not uncommon around this time of year. Many people get a little angst around the holidays. Charlie Brown bemoans of his own existential crisis to Lucy (psychiatric help for a nickel!) in the Christmas special my children and I watched earlier today.

But ’tis the season, and books will always find a way to speak into our lives. We will eventually move off the recliner and into worlds that words construct or conjure. It takes some time, and in only a few days that Christ Light will shine in the darkness of all our nights. And, eventually, this too shall pass.

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Songs of Christmas, Part 2

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.

So the shepherds went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed” (Luke 2:16-18).

Christmas is a magical time of year.  Many people decorate with lights and greenery.  Ugly seasonal sweaters are common and unashamedly adorned, and the smell of hot chocolate and peppermint fill the air.  There is something communal about the season, and even Black Friday–which stands a week before Advent–has a charm to it as people begin their gift collecting.

Yet, the hustle and bustle of Christmas can be overwhelming and distracting.  Just as Christmas gifts collect under Christmas trees, crowding the porcelain nativity and keeping it from view, so too our shopping and cooking rituals–and all the Christmas parties!–can get in our way of remembering the reason for the season.  It does not take store clerks and coffee cups to remind us to put “Christ” back in Christmas–we need to do it for ourselves: Don’t worry about putting Christ back in “Christmas”; we should be focused on putting Christ back in “Christian.”

Lessons and carols that we hear and sing during this time draw our attention back to Jesus.  In fact, very many of the most beloved hymns of the church are those that we sing at Christmas time.  For some of us, that means rushing to church on Christmas Eve–(for others, its the only time to go to church–a travesty, by the way!)–to sing our favorite carols such as It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and Silent Night, Holy Night.

Even then, the more we sing these songs over the years, the more they seem to lose their meaning.  (Some songs have words that lost their meaning ages ago: Take The First Nowell, for instance — we have no idea what a “nowell” is!)

We need to take a second look at these hymns too.  A deeper look reveals the rich theological tradition that accompanies Christmas, the many reasons why we should be at church and put Christ back in focus.  This theology is more than the stuff of a greeting to the grocer or a pithy poem on a Hallmark card, it makes up the difference between a life short-lived and an eternal life well-lived in which God embraces us in the person of Jesus our Lord and Savior.

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is one of my personal favorites.  It is a perfect song to sing in the solemn shadows of a sanctuary on Christmas Eve, an expression that peace comes with the coming Prince of Peace to a world that toils with fragile haste.

This song has everything you might expect in a Christmas carol: Angels singing, heavenly music, peace on earth, ancient splendors, and glad and golden hours.  Its invitation to “rest beside the weary road” challenges us to put aside the hot chocolate and the latest fads we purchase for our children, and reflect on Jesus, our Lord.

What makes this hymn so unique, aside from its content, is that it is uniquely American.  Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister penned the poem in 1849, with an emphasis on the work that Christmas inspires–not a work that is toilsome, but one that promotes “peace on earth and goodwill toward” others.  This, in opposition to the pain and suffering in a world that is lowly, crushing, and painful.

I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.  Your new moons and appointed festivals, my soul hates…Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:13C-14a; 17).

Oddly enough, Jesus is nowhere mentioned in the hymn.  For me, this reminds me of nativities under our trees that are crowded out and hidden by the hullabaloo of Christmas.  The angels sing just as we sing, but we need to look carefully and find Christ behind the veil of our seasonal traditions.  Christ may not be in the hymn as an explicit Savior, but the hymn affirms that the Savior is present if we slow down and experience the stillness that we only find in that lowly manger.  Then, and only then, will our darkness and midnight of the soul become ever “clear.”

All this talk of stillness, silence, and midnight reminds me of another favorite hymn appropriate for Christmas day: Silent Night, Holy Night.  Among the most popular of Christmas carols, this hymn comes to us from the darkest pinnacles of the Alps, the very geography from whence our traditions of evergreens and Christmas trees arose.

It was there that two clergymen, Joseph Mohr and Francis Gruber, wrote and scored the hymn in 1818.  Silent Night, Holy Night actually came about by accident.  Before service, they found the organ broken, and Father Mohr went for a walk to clear his head.  On the journey, he enjoyed the silence of the evening and wrote the poem that very night.  The next day, Francis Gruber wrote the score with his guitar, and the two men saw it as a gift to the community and the “perfect Christian hymn” for Christmas Mass (Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 222).

When the repairman came to repair the pipe organ, he took copies of the music and spread it across Austria in his travels.  An English translation came two years later at the gifted hands of Episcopal priest John Young (Bishop of Florida), and it became an instant Christmas classic.

People who gather at candlelight services and get to sing Silent Night, Holy Night acapella have experienced first-hand the power of this famous carol.  It puts us in the Christmas story, sets us beside the Christ child, encourages us to feel shepherds quaking, and implores us to see that wondrous star that wise men beheld so many centuries ago.  Its repetition of the simple refrain, “Christ the Savior is born” is a truth that echoes through the ages and rings deep in our hearts.  It is a truth that is personal, yet grand, filling all of creation–if not the entire cosmos–with the beauty of Christ’s birth.

The song is not merely reflective; it also demands a response.  In its singing, we are to quake too.  We are to receive Christ’s light and love, to look upon his gleaming face and discover radiant beams of a personal relationship with him.

Our response can be spurned by questions: Will the dawn of God’s grace rise in your heart this season?  Will you finally push aside the busyness and consumerism that plagues your life that you may be filled with God’s love?  Will you come to the manger in silent repose, focusing on Christ, and humbly submitting your life to the Savior born unto us, God with us, Redeemer for us?

Our response can be inspired by shepherds.  In The Stories Behind the Magic, Luke and Trisha Gilkerson write:

The song describes the moment when the shepherds stood before the baby Jesus and all was silent.  They just stood in awe thinking about the angels and staring into the face of the baby Jesus…How could someone so important be so small, so helpless, so sweet? (p. 47)

So the shepherds don’t remain at the manger; rather, they go and tell others about Jesus.  Just as a traveling pipe-organ repairman took Silent Night, Holy Night to churches across Austria, so too does God challenge us to spread the gospel to a land in need.

Seeing Miracles…Beyond Christmas!

By Joe LaGuardia

During our Pastor’s Bible Study last Sunday evening (November 27), someone mentioned that we tend to talk about miracles only around the Christmas season.  We speak of the miracles surrounding Christmas: angels displayed in heavenly praise, heavenly hosts communicating with shepherds and Joseph and Mary, visions for magi, and the greatest miracle of all: the virgin birth of Jesus our Lord and Savior.

It is around this season that we also liken miracles to gifts–God’s gifts to us, from the gift of our Savior to that of God setting us apart to do His will–are miracles that we recognize and affirm.

Why do we not speak of miracles more often?  Do miracles only happen around the holidays–and only those that happened as recorded in the Bible?  Does God still perform miracles even today, even if today is mundane and ordinary?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I still believe in miracles, and the God that I serve, love and worship still performs miracles in season and out.  We simply need to wake up and see them, to be thankful, to have God first on our mind (not an afterthought), and acknowledge that even the slightest, smallest gift a miracle of God can erupt!
When I worked with senior citizens as a chaplain in Atlanta, I learned that even the air we breathe is a miracle.  I often asked people in my visitations, “How are you today?” and they responded, “I am up and I am breathing, its a gift and God’s miracle for me!”

I think that if we do not experience God’s miracles that is not God’s problem, its our problem.  We take God for granted, we forget the sanctity of life, and we tend to ignore (or we totally fail to see) opportunities that the Holy Spirit has for us.On a recent morning, my son Hayden told of being awoken by a still, small voice in the middle of the night right before a thunderstorm came over our home.  The voice said, “Go to mommy!” and while he was walking sleepily to our bedroom to do just that, a loud thunderous boom crackled outside!

Hayden told us that he never heard a voice like that, so clear and commanding–he had to obey it!  I said that it was none other than the Holy Spirit keeping him safe.  Who else would’ve known that a lightning bolt was to strike right outside of the window?  That was a miracle, and my son’s openness to obey the Holy Spirit was a miracle too.

Jesus once told his disciples that when they approach God it is best to do so as children.  Children have that sense of awe we tend to lose as the years pass.  Children expect to be surprised and find joy in learning new things.  Our ability to experience and acknowledge miracles–not just around Christmas, but always!–really depends on our ability to come to God with this same innocent wonder and amazement as our children!

‘Tis the joy of the season and the joy of knowing the God of miracles!