A Reading Life (prt 13): Being a Steward of Stories

 

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.

You may recall the post in which I said I read voraciously in high school, primarily those books in the school library that intrigued me the most.  Because I read so much of what I wanted, I failed to read books assigned to me by teachers. I went for years without touching those classics that most students read: Hawthorne, Lee, Hemingway, or Twain; but it was not a total loss.

My favorite teachers were eleventh- and twelfth-grade English teachers.

My eleventh grade teacher, Mr. Mitchell, taught American literature. He introduced us to Joseph Campbell’s hero myth and drew out all of his lessons on that premise. We watched movies from Star Wars Episode 5 (the best of all Star Wars movies) to The Crucible and The Witness. We read Native American literature and the poems of Dickinson. He introduced us to the plays of Arthur Miller. Death of a Salesman was memorable.

My British lit teacher, Ms. Brunnel, introduced us to Beowulf and Shakespeare in a way I’ve never read them before. We also read The Canterbury Tales, which played into my religious imagination and expanded my idea of the church as a pilgrim community made up of storytellers and stewards of stories.  She also snuck in Greek mythology, which fascinated me to no end–especially her feminist take on Medea.

What these teachers did differently than the rest was assume that we weren’t going to read outside of class. They made time in class so that we can read the books together. This was brilliant because (1) they assumed correctly–I never read assigned texts at home; and (2) reading together taught me the power of being part of a reading and interpreting community.

Little did I know how this practice of corporate reading would shape my understanding of the Bible and of church.  Church is, after all, a reading and interpreting community, and many books in scripture are meant to be acted out, if not in the reading of it, then in the living of it.  We need to remember that ancient Greek practices of playwright and of rhetoric shaped and informed the writing of the New Testament, which is written in Greek.

Reading literature also payed the bills.  When I graduated seminary, I landed a high-school history teaching position at a local Christian academy. I taught history, so it was an easy fit.  By the third year, however, the school needed a literature teacher and asked me if I was interested. I said yes and put Joseph Campbell, community interpretation, and storytelling to work once again. It was a fun and joyful year; and teaching grammar made me a better, more precise writer.

It was the year I caught up on my reading. I picked up books such as The Old Man and the Sea; The Great Gatsby, and Night. I studied the technical and aesthetic aspects of poetry.  I fell in love all over again with the concise art of short stories.  I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which inspired courage in ministry as it related to race reconciliation; and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by the amazingly moving Maya Angelou.  Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt expressed an immigrant’s point of view of poverty, not to mention McCourt’s unique run-on sentence writing style.

I realize now that both my teachers and my teaching of literature ignited a fondness for reading the Bible and of reading in general.  I believe that people who thrive are those who have mentors who shape their worldview and then, in turn, mentor others.

This is what it means to steward stories– to be a caretaker of those narratives that frame and shape our lives, and to encourage others to articulate the deepest notions of what it means to be human, individually and together.

A reading life is a life in community. It is one in which we learn how to read and interpret the words that build worlds. It is a life that leans upon and into others who have taken great pains to be stewards of stories themselves, for in this, the words we have are those in earthen treasures ready to be explored anew.

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A Reading Life (pt. 3): Peretti on a Ferry


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.

What ever happened to Christian fiction author Frank Peretti?  Perhaps he is still writing books; but, since I haven’t looked at a Christian fiction section at the bookstore in a while, I wouldn’t know the difference. What I do know is that, during the 1990s, when I caught snippets of God’s call on my life, Frank Peretti was a big deal.  It was hard to be an evangelical without running into his books along the way.

Frank Peretti was most famous for his “Present Darkness” series, including This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness. Both are takes on small-town America in the throes of larger-than-life spiritual warfare.  Peretti painted a world in which demons and angels are at war.  Humans are mere pawns.  We can only catch glimpses of this spiritual warfare around us, and it is only by prayer and God’s Word that we ward off evil spirits.

Peretti’s books influenced many people in the church.  They framed our life as a battle that we waged on our knees rather than with weapons.  They gave us a spiritual edge that provided a deeper meaning to seemingly random events that unfolded around us.  They added a spice to a stale Christian life that was quickly dwindling well into a booming Clinton economy.

At the time I read Peretti’s books, I was very impressionable.  I was a teenager, and I stood at the cross-roads of life.  During the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, I ventured to Manhattan on a month-long pre-college art class at Parson’s School of Art and Design.

I had my eyes set on art for a long time, but that summer I wasn’t so sure.  I was fulfilling a dream–to make art in the Big Apple, but things did not feel right.  I was torn between my dream of art and a rising call in my life to go into full-time ministry.  My trip to Parsons was, for me, a time of discernment.  Would I go to art school or a private Christian college to get a religion degree?

Since I stayed with my grandmother that summer, I had to commute from Staten Island to Manhattan five days a week. It was a 2 hour round trip.  It required two trains and a ferry. I had a lot of time to read.  I was reading Peretti that summer; it was Peretti on a ferry, for all practical purposes.

Peretti’s writing engaged my imagination as it did other Christian readers; and, with the art culture of New York, my imagination turned towards the spiritual environment in which I lived and moved and had my being. Peretti got me excited about ministry, and I thought that I had unmasked the spiritual darkness that a life of art certainly entailed. When I came home to Florida at the end of summer, my mind had been made up: I was going to apply to a Christian college, meet a nice Christian girl, and go into ministry.

I remember trying to explain this to my Italian teacher the following term.  She tried to talk me out of going to a private school.  I think she was concerned that I would not have the opportunities for a lucrative job; so, in trying to open her eyes to all things Peretti, I invited her to church.  I think she obliged to assuage my fears.  Looking back, I think she took pity on me.  She was a good teacher.

It’s been a long time since the summer of 1996.  I did end up getting a religion degree, a nice Christian girl, and a full-time job in ministry.  But I have matured as a Christian and I have moved past Peretti’s theology.   I do not read him the same as I did, but I do not regret leaving the arts behind though I miss it now and then.

I believe that God provides exactly what we need when we need it.  If I were to read a Peretti book today, I would probably toss it.  Back then, however, it clarified a call, which gave me some of the greatest blessings anyone can ever ask for, including the girl and two children!

And the Church went away, grieved


By Joe LaGuardia

In Mark 10, a rich young man asked Jesus how to possess eternal life.  Jesus told him to follow through on the Ten Commandments.   The man was religious and had a routine.  He served God and made charitable contributions to society.  “But there is one thing you lack,” Jesus told him, “Sell all you have…”

The lesson is filled with irony.  A rich man had lack, and the lack was the willingness to part with all of the things that got in God’s way.  Being religious was not enough.  Doing good works was not enough.  The man was so busy consuming things that he thought eternal life was just another commodity to own.  But eternal life is not a product; it is a gift to receive with an open and expectant heart.

The man did not understand Jesus’ command.  How did he lack something?  He owned everything–and the Bible says that he walked away from Jesus “grieved.”  He failed to understand something St. Augustine learned long ago, that sometimes, “Our hands are so full of things, there is nowhere for God to put new blessings.”

I studied this portion of scripture at the same time that I have been reflecting on the role of grief in the lives of churches.  This idea of church grief came out of a pastor’s retreat I attended in late September.  Bill Wilson, director of the Center for Healthy Churches and facilitator of said retreat, mentioned that there was a consultant working with churches that emphasized grief in the lives of congregations.  Pastors new to a congregation or pastors exiting one need to know how grief shapes community.

The notion is very simple: Churches grieve during transitions (both clergy transitions as well as ministerial ones), and churches do not instinctively know how to handle grief.  There is little conversation about what hurts, and grief comes in the form of lament: Why do we not have the same amount of people in the pews as when the church was in the “Golden Age”?  Why has the church lost so much cultural influence in society?  Why are we losing entire generations–“Where are all of the young people?”  These are questions born out of grief, not out of intentional strategic outreach.

They are symptomatic; but as all grief turns out to be, they can lead to greater opportunities rather than hindrances.  Grief can be life-giving or a burden; it is all based on how we respond to it–and most churches do not respond appropriately.

Ministers who miss these emotional cues are ill-prepared to help churches transition into new, life-giving seasons of ministry and missions.  Churches that get stuck on the past forget what God calls them to be in the future.  Congregations turn insular, power struggles erupt, and conflict damages outreach.

“There is one thing you lack…” is not only a call for individuals, it is a challenge for churches to let go of the things that no longer work or sustain growth.  Our congregations are so filled with baggage and programs of yesteryear there is no room–and no vision–for God to give the new blessings that propel churches into a new era of ministry.

Ministry is not going to look the same as it did decades ago.  The church must now work from the margins of society, not the center of it; and it must advocate for an outward-focused mission that joins others on the margins rather than cozying up with people and politicians who wield power from the center.  Centralized power exploits, discriminates, and sustains status quos at the expense of justice and liberation.  The church stumbles when it forgets its place; it is not rich, and it lacks that posture of open hands and hearts in which we look to God for our strength.

We have become the church of Laodicea, not Philadelphia.  We think we are rich, and we have pushed Jesus out of our churches because we are too full of our own pride.  But Jesus stands at the door and knocks.  Hope is not lost yet.

Pastors have to play two roles in the church these days: one is the role of visionary prophet who dreams new dreams and casts new visions.  The other is to be a grief counselor that helps put old ways of doing things to rest, to purge us of baggage that takes too much attention or that fills time and hands.  It is as Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Pastors must facilitate life and death.  The only other alternative is to remain stagnate, to walk in perpetual grief.