A Reading Life (prt. 15): Memiors Among Us

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.

In the afterword of my recent book, A Whispering Call, I outline the waning market for first-person narration.  Jonathon Franzen, guest editor for the Best American Essays anthology of 2016, states that we stand in the Golden Age of memoirs; while Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker lamented that the “personal essay boom” has come to an end.

Regardless of various naysayers, I personally love memoirs.  Memoirs record the inner journey of the soul while affirming the resiliency of lives who carry the burdens born of both tragedy and comedy.

I just finished reading, God Underneath, by Catholic priest, Edward Beck.  In his own afterword, he wrote that his memoir aims to help people see the priesthood differently, past the clergy collar.  He wanted to humanize his position while helping his readers realize that God is in all the details of life.

Only the memoir genre allowed him to tell his story and express all of the settings in which a priest may find himself.

Perhaps I like memoirs because I have spent decades reflecting on my own journey of faith and vocation.  Hearing God’s call, fashioning a community that knows how to discern God’s call, and responding to God’s call have to be the best parts of my ministry.  Heck, vocation is the undercurrent of my newest book and of this blog series!

Memoir makes for great sermons too.  In reading Beck, I was reminded of my own struggle with pastoral presence and image, and how I have incorporated that into my preaching.  I am familiar with the feeling he expresses about needing to lose the frock to deepen friendships.  I resonated with his efforts of encouraging others to relate to him as a normal individual, pushing towards a more “confessional” style that connects with congregations.

I agreed that when people put us ministers on pedestals, it is easier for that kind of idol to fall and break into a million pieces like Dagon before the ark of the covenant.  Memoir can turn tragic real fast when people place unrealistic expectations upon you.

And memoirs remind us that we are all made in God’s image and called to be priests in one form or fashion.  My Baptist tradition specifically grants us the mantle of the priesthood of believers.  Dismantling unrealistic images of the ministry does not lessen how people see me, but lifts people up and persuades them to seize God’s destiny in their lives.

Recently, one of our youngest children at church asked whether our music minister was Jesus.  One Sunday, when the minister came off of the stage during worship, the little girl reached over to my wife, bright-eyed, and whispered, “That’s Jesus!”

My wife tried to tell her who Jesus is (and who he isn’t), but it got a great belly laugh out of all of us.  My music minister now has a lot to live up to!

Edward Beck mentions that people ask him about his calling: “When did you receive your call, Father?” And every time, he responds, “I am still receiving it!”  God’s call continually provides opportunities for us to bear witness to Christ’s love.

Are we willing to move beyond our own self-image and see ourselves through Christ’s eyes, then see others as Christ sees them?  What memoir might we write, and how does God show up in it?

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A Reading Life (prt 14): Own your Writing

two books on wood plank

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 got more copies of my book A Whispering Call to sell around town. I haven’t been in possession of the final draft in a while, so, upon receipt, I started to read it.

There is something about reading your work months after you wrote it that makes you pause–there is a great deal of self-doubt, and you wonder whether the final copy is any good.

I read the first page of the introduction, and I was stuck. The transition from the first two paragraphs to the third was awkward. I read it again, and I tried to get into where my head was months ago: What was I thinking when I segued from one paragraph to the other?

A long time ago, someone told me it was hard for her to follow my sermons. I lost her, she said, when I was transitioning from one subject to the next. She said that my transitions left people behind or confused. Although I dealt with that issue over time (it was a valid critique), it seems that some of my writing still carries that burden.

But I am also a big believer that a new paragraph begins a new topic. That’s what I learned in grade school, at least. Its not my fault that our digital, short-form world breaks everything into paragraphs after only a few sentences just because readers lose interest if a paragraph is too long. (I learned this the hard way as a syndicated columnist–paragraphs are only two or three sentences long not because of the topic, but because of how it appears on the page; the internet is no different.)

I decided that my writing was just fine, and it hit me: I have to own my writing. I have to take responsibility for my idiosyncrasies and trust in the work.

Ernest Hemingway inspired me in this. I am currently reading A Farewell to Arms, and its been a while since I’ve read Hemingway. His writing is unique–its short, brisk, and choppy. At times he is repetitive. He doesn’t fill in all the gaps, and his dialogue communicates basic information.

On the back of the book’s dustcover, it boasts that Hemingway “did more to change the style of English prose than any other writer in the twentieth century.” He was, of course, a Pultizer winner for The Old Man and the Sea.

I wonder if Hemingway doubted his writing. I wonder if he thought, “I hope people don’t think I write like a fifth-grader.” But fans of his work will quickly note that, as concise as he may be, he communicates an entire vista within just a short economy of words. He is amazing, and I like to think that he was unapologetic for his unique writing style. He owned his writing.

My reflections on writing conjured the works of other off-beat authors. Annie Dillard comes to mind–she is downright difficult to read, but oh! how she makes for majestic reading!

The first time I picked up Frank McCourt, with his long run-on sentences and lack of quotation marks, it was almost the last time I picked it up–not because it wasn’t good, but because I couldn’t put it down!

Preachers also tend to have their own style–the good ones, at least. The late Fred Craddock is probably the most famous idiosyncratic preacher. When he preached you forget that he was preaching, and by the time he finished (and he finishes whenever he wants), you think you’ve had a conversation with a best friend.

Brett Younger, pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn (and one of my old professors), is also unique. He weaves together comedy and tragedy and sacred text in ways that few can emulate.

Then there is Joel Osteen. I don’t care what you think of his theology, but the man is an amazing storyteller. Whenever I listen to him on XM radio, I feel better, like all is well with the world.

So take ownership of your writing. No one is going to express what you need to say for you, and your silence may disenfranchise the world. It may need another point of light in the darkness, so shine brightly for others to see. Don’t mimic voices of others, come up with your own. Take responsibility for your writing. As long as you follow the basics in grammar, you should be fine–and empowered to keep on keeping on.

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.