Going Home, Looking Forward

By Joe LaGuardia

Since moving to Florida over a year ago, I have been reflecting on some aspects of my past: high school, college, my calling, friends with whom I’ve lost contact, and other nostalgic reminiscing.  With each memory I seek to “take every thought captive for Christ,” assessing what role the memory plays in my life and how it might shape my life now.  I was in Georgia for almost two decades; I moved from Florida where I had lived since childhood.  Now I’m back.

Writing about the sacredness of places and upbringing, author and poet Natalie Goldberg notes,

We hear about people who go back to their roots.  That is good, but don’t get stuck in the root.  There is a branch, the leaf, the flower–all reaching toward the immense sky.  We are many things.

My return to Florida has been a return to my roots.  Many of these roots, however, have become dormant.  Some have died out altogether–time spent with cousins now divorced, going to car shows with the old ’84 Camaro.  My “home church” in Pompano Beach is still active but too far to visit when I’m not in the pulpit at First Baptist.

Yet there are branches and leaves and flowers, as Goldberg puts it, that reminds me that there is new growth and new frontiers.  The “immense sky” is open to so many new opportunities, but I can’t help but notice that my writing, preaching, and prayers have been caught in a time loop, almost paralyzed by the past in some ways.

I wonder whether this “time loop” is a result of nearing 40 years of age.  I have heard of mid-life crises, and though I have no inkling to purchase a Porsche or travel to Europe to find myself, I hear the bells that toll at the end of one’s life a little louder than before.  Aches and pains in my back beckon the belfry on the horizon.

I have a long way to go–my congregation would laugh at me if I spoke of age at this point in my life–but my move to Vero Beach has captured me in a time stasis, hanging between my past–what once was–and my future, what God has in store as I continue to plug away at working with a great church to build a great and vibrant ministry that will last, I hope, for centuries.

These reflections were held in bold relief when I awoke from a bizarre nightmare this morning.  It was not a normal “pastor’s nightmare,” like the ones in which you start to preach only to have people walk out on you or you show up at church only to realize that you’re in the wrong church.  There weren’t any ghosts or ghouls or monsters.

Rather, I was sitting in the home of a parishioner who scolded me for hiding for hours in my office, not doing anything useful.  “Every day,” she said, “You sit in your office for two hours, and I don’t know what you do–you just sit there and twiddle your thumbs.  Four days a week, eight hours total every week–a whole work day of doing nothing.”

I can’t explain why that particular dream struck me, although I have always taken pride in my vigorous work ethic, but I can tell you that it has to do with time.  If I pray and all I think of are memories of times past while failing to cast a vision for what God has in the future, then I am stuck for sure.

“Don’t get stuck,” Goldberg says, like angels who once told the disciples to move things along when the disciples got stuck eyeing the heavens when Jesus ascended (“As they strained to see him rising…” the NLT states in Acts 1:10).  Don’t get stuck, move it along, look for new opportunities, new growth, it is all around us and it speaks to God’s beauty and activity in our life today.

For years I have had a guilty pleasure of watching Michael Mann’s 2006 Miami Vice with Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell.  I enjoyed watching it because it shows a slice of life in Florida, to which I wanted to return.  I realized yesterday, while sitting on the beach and watching my wife and duaghter search for shells and my son dodge waves, that I no longer wanted to watch the movie.  I do not crave Miami Vice anymore because I’m here, I’m home and the flowers are blooming.

The sacredness of space, and the writing life

sacredspaceBy Joe LaGuardia

It has been some time since I last wrote an article.  I no longer write a weekly column for the newspaper, so that has not helped my cause.

I also moved to a new state, started pastoring a larger church, tried to figure out how to get around town, and sold one house only to purchase another.  Life has not been easy; writing has been harder still.

My hectic schedule and lack of routine is no excuse.  I was just as busy in my old life in Georgia, but still managed to write two or three articles on a good week.

What is an excuse, however, has to do more with preferences than priorities: I don’t have a sacred space in which to write.

I believe it was Anne Lamott who once said that every writer has a talisman that helps inspire the muses.  Some have a special pen or brand of pencil; others use a particular sized notepad.  Barbara Brown Taylor writes everything in longhand; movie director Quentin Tarantino types scripts with a 30-year old Smith Corona; Annie Dillard locks herself in cells and cellars.

For me, spaces have always served as talismans.  One space was in my old house, a writing desk across from the foot of my bed.  I’d wake up early in the morning before the children arose and started typing away.

Another space consisted of the second to the back booth at my favorite chicken wings eatery, where I often read The Christian Century or innumerable books that provided fodder for article and sermon alike.

Moving to a strange land and living in a strange place (we are privileged to stay in a furnished condo until we close on our new home), I have not had a dedicated writing desk set up yet.  I have not found a local restaurant to call home.  I am still waiting for the good folks at The Christian Century magazines to change my mailing address (thank goodness the secretary at my old church loves me enough to mail me back issues!).  I can hardly write.

I may seem odd, but I am not alone in considering the sacredness and utility of space in the grand scheme of practicing my spiritual disciplines, writing included.   In fact, Christians have always considered the importance of sacred spaces.

The earliest space God in-dwelled was a garden, a very fit environment for a Creator whose greatest contribution to time and, well, space is the very act of calling things into being, some of which put us humans here in the first place.

Next was a tabernacle–God’s “throne room”– that was nothing short of a tent that moved with a nomadic people who escaped Egypt and ventured towards– you guessed it– a “promised land”.

In the person of Christ, God chose to “tabernacle” and live among us, declaring that even humans are sacred enough to call home: “And the word became flesh,” John’s gospel reminds us.

“Churches” grew soon after Christ’s death and resurrection, first in the homes of believers (Acts 20:20 tells us that the early Christian movement grew “from home to home”), and then to meeting places throughout the Roman empire.

Brick-and-mortar Churches resulted from a greater concentration of wealth among Christians.  The earliest edifices started as simple stone structures and then evolved into elaborate cathedrals still celebrated today.

Some Christians, tired of being too wealthy and privileged, chose to abandon their belongings and city life for the deserts of Egypt and Arabia.  These desert mothers and fathers noted that the very wilderness in which they sojourned merely reflected the wilderness of all our hearts–sacred spaces were just as important in the “interior” of the soul as exterior spaces were for gathering believers who longed to worship God.

Perhaps the creepiest spaces that Christians occupied were the catacombs of Europe in the darkest ages of Christian history.  Persecuted Christians took up residence among the buried dead to sing praises and proclaim a hope in the resurrection of the Lord.

Now, Christians have diversified sacred spaces so much that people forget the importance of space altogether.  Christians meet in bars, bookstores, coffee shops, cigar shops, beaches, abandoned banks, and “auditoriums.” Even then, regularly scheduled gatherings of believers only prove how ambiance shapes faith communities.

Spaces, whether we recognize it or not, have a sacredness to them that sometimes go unnoticed.  Just try to move states, sell a home, miss a favorite eatery, or close up a church and you will quickly understand how much space creates a place to belong as well as intimate settings where people meet God, hear from the Spirit, and find hope for a new day filled with ever expanding frontiers begging for the Gospel’s invitation.

I was lucky to write this article–I’m still not in a permanent home yet, and in many ways we are homeless until that time comes (but, lo, my cat still found her way onto my laptop keyboard, trying to get a backrub and leaving a wake of odd letters, numbers and symbols on the computer monitor…).    Yet, it helps to note that when we appreciate the spaces that are special in our lives, we can always make room in our hearts to help us along the way when we find ourselves “in between” those times and places most sacred in our life.

After all, we don’t invite Jesus into our houses.  We invite him into our hearts, for each home is where the heart is.

Ending a Sermon on Time

stop-sign-2By Joe LaGuardia

Several weeks ago, I wrote that it takes nothing short of a miracle for a pastor to write a sermon every week.

It is true that sermons are the stuff of miracles, and I stand by my premise.  Yet, for far too many sermons, it seems that the miracle runs its course before the sermon ends.

Concluding a sermon is difficult, and (as many sermons out there attest) I’m not the only one who has a hard time with this.  I pity the congregation whose pastor does not know how to finish a sermon well.

“You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first,” William Zinsser noted in On Writing Well, but far too many pastors preach for far too long, some exceeding 40 minutes of sermonizing.

For the late Fred Craddock, one of the masters at sermon conclusions, twenty minutes was good enough.  Without a manuscript to hold him down, he ended his sermons when the time seemed right, even if it meant leaving a few questions unanswered.

“I am not sure even Craddock knows when he is going to end his sermon,” Barbara Brown Taylor once noted, “but nine times out of ten it takes my breath away.”

Now, don’t let me fool you. Just because I’m writing this article doesn’t mean I know something about it myself.

One time when I was preaching, someone’s cellphone alarm went off.  I asked if there was a ringing in the room.  Someone affirmed that there was indeed a ring.

Another parishioner chimed in and said, “It means your time is up.”  We shared a laugh that day, but that parishioner was right.  It was time to get to the point.

Frankly, there is no right way to end a sermon, although theories exist.  Homiletician Eugene Lowery believes that a conclusion to every sermon should raise the heart heavenward and inspire the church to see Christ anew.

His sermons usually consist of three movements: The beginning plunges his audience into a conflict.  The middle digs deep into the biblical text and discovers how God uses reversal and redemption (what he calls the “narrative loop”) to save us from said conflict.  The conclusion lifts us up out of our human condition and sets us on the path of the Risen Christ.

Other preachers reserve life applications for the end.  Andy Stanley feels, for instance, that sermons should help people see why change is needed in the world.

“You close,” he wrote of preaching, “with several statements about what could happen in your community, you church, or the world if everybody embraced that particular truth.”

Other preachers feel that a proper conclusion consists of a summary of things already stated.  Unfortunately, many pastors take so much time on the summary that a great 25-minute sermon turns into a dismal 45-minute sermon.

Another observation from Zinsser rings true:  “A series of conclusions which never conclude . . . is ultimately a failure.”

Lastly, there are preachers who believe that the conclusion should have the congregation wanting more, like a thriller with a cliffhanger.

“The conclusion of a sermon should move like a river, growing in volume and power,” John Broadus noted in On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, “It should not be like a stream that loses itself in a marsh.”

Preachers who exert power in their conclusions rely on emotion and inspiration, usually bringing their audience to its feet and raising both voice and hands to inspire people to take action.  Repetition, rhythm, singing, chanting, and (in some traditions) hooping are tools in this preacher’s tool box.

As for me, I am honest with parishioners.  I let them know I can’t hit a home run every Sunday, but at least I will get them out of church on time.  I may not always inspire, but I will respect them.

A sermon that ends well communicates as much.