Moving On: An Ascension Sunday Reflection

By Joe LaGuardia

I once watched my father knock his brother half-way across a boxing ring with a single right cross.

I saw it on one of those old black and white films, homemade from some ancient camera and later transferred to a DVD.  There they were, sparring: My dad, the short, stocky 18-year old with what we–his kids–liked to call his Popeye arms; and my uncle, the tall, athletic Golden Gloves champ.  They were both in their signature Everlast trunks.

My uncle had the awards, the height and the reach.  He is beautiful to watch in the ring, like Muhammad Ali, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”  My dad, however, was the slow one, more passive.  All he had to go on were the size and strengths of his short arms.

In the film, I saw my uncle dancing around my dad.  Jab, jab, jab.  Body blow, slap to the helmet.  Jab, some missed crosses.

Then I saw it: a split second and a misstep by my uncle.  He got too close, and bang!–my dad’s right cross, like a cobra strike.  My uncle went across the ring into the ropes.  I’d never seen anything like it.

****

When I was young, I asked my father why he didn’t become a boxer like his brother or his father, Grandpa being the one in the family who coached his kids and the neighborhood kids, who trained the likes of Tony Danza and others who lived in their Brooklyn community.

Dad gave all kinds of excuses: bad knees, too smart to box, too busy, spending too much time chasing the women and marrying my mother.

When I pressed him again years later, the truth finally came out:

“I couldn’t hit another man,” he said, “I felt bad about it.”

The fact is that the man, my father, had hands of stone, but he couldn’t put them to good use in the ring.  He wasn’t at home there.  It was familiar, but foreign.

That’s how I feel when I look at the disciples on the day of ascension in Acts 1:1-11.  There Jesus was–back from the dead, a miracle, and the disciples did what all of us who lost a loved one only dream about doing: they held his hand again, was able to hug him and heard his voice.

But just as soon as Jesus came, it seemed, he left again and they thought all was lost.  It happened again, but this time Jesus whisked away into thin air.  Jesus couldn’t stay; he wasn’t at home on earth, not yet at least.  It was time for him to ascend to his father in heaven.  Just as Christ birthed the divine life into this world, it was time for him–as Barbara Brown Taylor once noted–to birth flesh into God’s world.

And just as my father wondered what good it was to have hands of stone without being able to use them, the disciples were left with hopes and dreams and an anticipation that seemed all but lost yet again.

They asked Jesus, “Now will you restore God’s kingdom of earth?”  And Jesus left them.

How do you live after a miracle like that?  How do you take the next step when that kind of question goes unanswered?

It was at that very moment that two angels showed up and tapped the disciples on the shoulders.

“What are you doing?  What are you looking at?” They asked, like divine security guards waving people on, “Nothing to see here, folks, keep it moving!”

The disciples, however, were just in the ring with Jesus.  Jesus was on their side, a spirit of stone, but now Jesus was gone just like that.  No butterflies and no bees.

*****

I think that the disciples did what any of us would have done: They headed back to a familiar place, an upper room in Jerusalem.  Maybe they figured that since Jesus appeared to them in this room after he resurrected from the dead, that maybe he will appear to them there again.  They stayed there and devoted themselves to prayer.

Peter seemed to be the first to speak, but its not about the future and there is no sign of some anticipation of things to come–that doesn’t come until Pentecost.  Rather, Peter seems to be just filling the time to do something, which is often better than doing nothing.  He speaks about Judas, talks about the scriptures for a few minutes, and gets down to business.

There, between Jesus’ ascension and the downpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we have what may have been the first Nominating Committee meeting in the church: They have to replace Judas, twelve is such a godly, biblical number after all.

There doesn’t seem to be any power in it, though.  There is no life, no authority–and theologically, that’s correct.  Jesus had yet to send the Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus promised would give the church power and authority to do what Christ did, to change the world, and continue to bridge heaven and earth.

The disciples had hands of stone, but no use for them yet.  They had a ring, but no authority to wipe the floor with their greatest nemesis, Satan.  And, although we feel badly for them, we get this eerie feeling that we somehow know exactly how they felt.

Who among us hasn’t had a dry spell?  Who hasn’t had a day or even a season in which we felt powerless, short-sighted, a day in which we only piddled around with busy work rather than anything exciting that has the power to change the world?

****

In a sermon on this passage of Scripture, one-time priest Barbara Brown Taylor commented that we feel for the disciples because we are no different from them half of the time.  We join them on that mountain with our necks crooning up towards heaven, and we wait.  We become aware that, at times, God seems absent, as if we are left in the ring to fight life’s fights alone.

But it is that very absence that also has the power to provide a sense of wonder and awe, that, in Taylor’s words, “brings us to church in search of God’s presence,” to go back to that sacred, familiar place again and again, where we saw Jesus last, “to recall best moments and argue about the details, to swap all the old stories until they begin to revive again,” to remember, to pray and rejoice.

Another scholar, John Polhill affirms that this text reveals a major plot thread in the book of Acts.  Acts does not have endings or conclusions.  Even as far as the last chapter, the book does not really end.  Rather, the book shows intermissions, followed by opportunities, promises, and new beginnings.   We are never sure whether church is an intermission or a new beginning, or both.

It is in that very search as a community of God’s people, however, in that recollection and retelling of the old, old story, that extraordinary things begin to happen because we do have an Advocate who fights on our behalf.  In a week, when we recall another old story of Pentecost, we will be reminded that we are not in the ring alone — we have all the power and authority that heaven can muster.  We will learn how God will put our hands of stone back to work, not to harm or punch or hurt, but heal and deliver and reconnect.

****

For now, I guess we just have to live with the fact that we are looking up.  Angels may come and tap us on the shoulders and tell us to move on, move on because when we get stuck looking up, we fail to look around.

When you look around, that’s when you start to notice things–that’s when you begin to see Jesus working in your midst, when you sense the Holy Spirit ready to empower you.

It may not lead to living into the New Heaven and the New Earth that is promised us just yet, but we’re getting awfully close.  Awfully close.

“People of God, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven….Keep it moving, keep it moving.  Nothing to see here.”

4 Easy Ways to Support Your Church Staff

By Joe LaGuardia

In the mid-1990s, G. Lloyd Rediger published Clergy Killers, which argued that some churches are so destructive and dysfunctional that they have actually persuaded some staff to give up ministry altogether.   Churches not adept in conflict management or basic communication skills run the risk of abusing staff or, in the least, draining staff energy to the point of burn-out.

Sometimes this happens when congregations wield power over staff with little risk to the parishioners’ own well-being.  Unlike employers who have shareholders and CEOs to answer to, parishioners try to call the shots aggressively or passive-aggressively without having to risk their own financial or personal resources.  It is an unfair advantage that congregations have over the staff they employ.

Many churches, however, are wonderful congregations to call home.  Many treat staff fairly, have appropriate policies that protect all parties involved, and are intentional in building healthy communities that minimize dysfunction and distrust.  How to do that?  I’m glad you asked.  Here are four easy ways to support your staff at church:

Understand the job.  Jobs at church–from administrator or accompanist to pastor or pastoral counselor–are not the same as jobs in the secular world.  Every staff position in a church is designed to achieve specific goals while creating a sacred space for people to meet Christ while on campus.

Consider the average job–a mechanic, say.  What if you were a mechanic, and someone “dropped in” on you to chat with you about a concern every five minutes?  You would not be a productive mechanic.  Dropping in on staff at a church, however, is a regular part of our jobs.  We make time for it because we know that ministry takes place most often in the interruptions of life rather than in the daily routines.  A mechanic’s time is valuable, and problems can be handled in specific ways.  Church staff is no different!

Understanding the job also means knowing what it takes to do a particular job.  For instance, a pastor may “hide” in her office for ten hours a week and some parishioners may feel slighted, but how else might a pastor preach a great sermon if she does not have time to prepare and write one?  Do not use your own experiences to tell a staff person how to do his or her job.

Build trust.  Church leaders learn that building trust with a congregation is the first step in effective ministry.  Trust is the catalyst for growth and the linchpin for getting things done for the Kingdom of God.

Trust must be earned, and trust goes both ways!  Parishioners must behave and communicate in a way that builds trust with staff–to be people of their word, to keep confidences, to pray for staff.

Trust comes by being interested in staff personally.  You don’t have to be a staff member’s best friend, but why not ask how his child is doing in school or about any new movies he has watched lately?  Talk about something other than church, and listen intently.  Be concerned.  It builds trust, and when you have an issue, your ability to handle it with staff will go much more smoothly if your previous interactions were positive, personal ones.

Think like an employer.  For all practical purposes, congregations employ staff.  That means that the staff at a church–even the senior pastor–does not have a traditional employer that can help negotiate the rigors of the job.  If you were to think like an employer, what would change about how you treat your staff?  Let me give a few suggestions:

Employers lean on policies to protect employees.  For church staff, that means encouraging staff to take their vacations, find time to spend with family, but also be held accountable for punctuality, professionalism, and preparedness in their job.

Employers work with employees to maximize strengths and curb weaknesses.  Church staff is no different–members have strengths and weaknesses that define who they are and how they work.  Do not micromanage staff, but work with each one in order to encourage professional development by having room for people to be who they are in all of their idiosyncrasies.  Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Employers celebrate employees.  Form a staff support team that handles all of the special holidays and birthdays of your church’s staff.  Shower the church administrator when its Administrator Appreciation Week, for instance.  Collect a few gift cards, balloons, and cupcakes when a staff member has a birthday.  Write cards of encouragement and let your staff know that you are praying for them.  It makes a difference!

Stay invested.  The worst thing that can happen is that a parishioner goes to another church when that parishioner does not get her way.  If you have an issue with a staff member, deal with it directly, immediately, and honestly; but, be prepared for the response.  If you want a specific outcome to a problem, help the staff member address it, but know that you may not always get your way!

In fact, the church does not revolve around you, your expectations, or your personal preferences.  But you are a part of the discerning community that makes the church a part of the Body of Christ.  Discern and pray with staff as things arise, don’t be antagonistic or petty.  Be patient and have an openness of heart.  You and your staff are on the same team, there is no room for hostility or animosity.

At the end of the day, church is supposed to be a source of joy and comfort, of fulfilling the Great Commission and of ministry not misery.  If something is not going well, it is usually not because God is not present or the Spirit is not at work.  It is likely because we have done something to railroad the human relationships that keep the wheels of the church going in a forward, harmonious and productive direction.  I hope that these four tips will make a difference!

3 Reasons why the Christian Calendar is Meaningful for today’s Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Our church, First Baptist of Vero, is hosting a short-term study on the Christian calendar during the season of Lent.  Although the sacred calendar has always been a part of First Baptist’s 101-year history, the church has often made an effort to educate the congregation on the importance and meaning of the Christian year.

Much of this work has come under the 20-year tenure of the Reverend Dr. Michael Carter, our music minister, who received a doctorate under the leadership of Robert Webber, a name church liturgists associate with the Christian calendar and ancient-future worship.

When I interviewed with First Baptist over a year ago, I was delighted that Dr. Carter was the resident theologian on liturgy.  I fell in love with the Christian calendar while attending a Presbyterian church in high school and Palm Beach Atlantic University, a Baptist college out of the Charleston tradition–a tradition that champions both biblical scholarship and orderly, liturgical worship.

On the heals of Ash Wednesday and while sitting under Dr. Carter’s teachings this past Sunday as he began his study on the Christian calendar, I remembered all of the reasons why I–and the churches I have belonged to and have known–cherish the sacred year.

First, the Christian Calendar reminds me that my faith in and with Christ is not all about me.  I grew up in a northern evangelical church that promoted a simple, but strong Protestant faith devoid of anything “ritualistic.”  We celebrated Christmas and Easter, but outside of that we tried to live by the adage that our Christian witness was more about a relationship with Christ rather than religion.

But something was missing in my Christian upbringing.  By the time we moved to South Florida when I was a boy, we were so “spiritual but not religious,” that it turned out that we were neither spiritual nor religious.  In fact, my tradition was so devoid of any ritual, my only memories of spiritual experiences were limited to attending Miami Dolphins football games and that one time I walked down the aisle to make a decision for Christ at First Baptist Church of Perrine.

When I started attending New Covenant Presbyterian Church during high school and, later, PBA, I experienced all of the nuances of the Christian year.  It did not come off as ritualistic, but a way of bolstering my relationship with Christ.  I felt that I was part of something larger than myself, part of a movement–the Christian faith–that stretched two millennia into the past and connected me to the larger story of God.

As Dr. Carter stated last Sunday, “The Christian year is about sacred time that tells of God’s story, about fusing our story with God’s story, and about making the Christ event the center of that story.”

I had a strong faith from my upbringing, but now I had the skeleton to hang–and to build–some serious Christian muscles in my walk with Christ.

Second, the Christian Calendar sustains me during seasons of spiritual drought.  We all have seasons in our walk with Jesus.  Sometimes we are on fire; other times, we feel distant from God, as if we are only stepping into each day with little connection to God.  That is natural; there is a rhythm to our faith that often mimics the four seasons of the very creation of which we are a part.

It is during those times of drought and “winter” of my soul that I come to rely on the Christian year.  The rhythm of sacred time gives me the bearings and the strength to keep walking, keep at it, to hang in there.  It encourages me to keep going because, though “sorrow may last for the night, joy cometh in the morning.”

It’s like brushing teeth.  We brush our teeth because its more than a routine, it keeps us healthy and keeps cavities away.  So too the Christian calendar is good for the soul; it keeps our hearts focused on God even when God seems far from us.

I found this out the hard way after my father died tragically as a result of gun violence.  After his death, I could not pray.  I could not focus.  I did not return to the pulpit for over a month.

The liturgy–specifically the hymnody, doxology, and congregational singing–was the only thing that got me through that time of grief and heartache.  If Jesus was hard to find in the midst of tragedy, I certainly found him in the midst of song–of hearing the congregation sing, and in following those notes sprawled across that trusty Baptist hymnal.

Third, the Christian Calendar teaches us good theology. At best, theology in the contemporary church is piecemeal, the sum of a thousand topical lessons and sermons that often fail to communicate the entirety of scripture.  I have heard this first hand–a 45-minute sermon in which the pastor presents a topic or thesis, and then strings together a barrage of scriptures as if those scriptures stood independently from the context of their respective books and of the scriptural canon as a whole.

The church year walks us through the entire Bible–starting with creation, the fall of humanity, climaxing with the birth, life, death, and resurrection in Christ; and culminating with the hope of the Second Coming of Christ.  It does not stumble from Christmas to Easter and to the next topical sermon; rather, the story of Christ stands central as we learn to be born again with him, pick up our own crosses, follow Jesus into baptismal waters, through hardship of Lent and finally the joy of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Dr. Carter quoted Robert Webber as stating, “The life, death, and resurrection of Christ stands at the center of time.”  This is not an event divorced from the rest of God’s story, but entangled with the whole of scripture.

I am far from idealistic.  I will continue to visit with churches and Christians who have no place in their life for the Christian year.  That is okay; people walk with Christ on their own terms.  But for me and my family, being intimately bound with a story much larger than the “LaGuardia” story brings liberation, healing, a sense of purpose, and theology that corrects and rebukes and reproves.

It is sacred, and that is something to behold.