A Reading Life (prt. 10): Sci-Fi, Star Trek, and Junk Fiction

Related imageBy 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 my previous post, I wrote of the melancholy I experienced in seminary.  I burned out on biblical academia, and inspiration was hard to come by.  I found solace in the writings of spiritual authors such as Henri Nouwen, but I had to find ways to get out of the biblical bubble of full-time school.

This reached a head in my last year of seminary.  We had our first child, a precious gift, but it was a difficult transition from newlyweds to new parents; and I was facing dead ends in applying for jobs and a PhD. program.  Doors were closed, and I could not see light at the end of the tunnel.  I started seeing a counselor for a season.  I was depressed (for reals).  I needed a hobby.

When I finally graduated seminary, I only had a part time job while my wife worked full time in education, so I became the stay-at-home dad for our first born.  When my wife came home from work, I went off to my part-time job at church.

My daughter and I had fun every day, but when it was nap time I was happy to have some quiet time to watch television.  I started watching the old Star Trek: The Next Generation series, which my father watched when I was a child.

I watched it religiously every day at 1 PM.  I got caught up in the plot, the characters, and the action.  I did not appreciate the show when I was younger, but for some reason it struck a chord and I got hooked.

Enter junk fiction.  Junk fiction is my moniker for fiction that has absolutely nothing to do with ministry.  It is neither religious nor informative; it neither enlightens nor inspires.  It is fiction through and through, and it is “junk” because you can find it anywhere–from used book stores to yard sales.

I started purchasing Star Trek TNG books for a quarter a piece at an Atlanta bookstore.  The plot lines were as cheesy as the show, but enjoyable.  The first book I purchased was a trilogy, The Q Continuum by Greg Cox.  Since Q had been one of my favorite characters (he had me at Farpoint), I enjoyed it thoroughly.

My collection of junk fiction expanded.  I purchased old Twilight Zone anthologies by Rod Serling, dime-store capers, the Enders series (more on that in a future post!) by Orson Scott Card, and (at a friend’s recommendation) novels by Barbara Kingsolver.  I stumbled upon the off-beat works of T. C. Boyle.

To this day, I watch TNG episodes on Netflix while I fold laundry.  I enjoy the new iteration of movies by J. J. Abrams et. al.  And it is not uncommon for me to read one of those twenty-five-cent novels that are still stacked on my workbench in the garage.  Every Christmas I indulge by purchasing a new TNG book (Paramount still publishes about three or four novels a year), and I still get excited when I hear that soaring theme song (it was my ringtone for a while).  Its junk, but its fun–and it helped pull me out of that depression after all.

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A Reading Life (pt 8): Crisis of Faith and the Dark Night of the Soul

Image result for experiencing god henry blackabyBy Joe LaGuardia

Have you ever read a book because everyone else is reading it?  Harry Potter.  Twilight.  Tuesdays with Morrie.  The Purpose Driven Life. Fifty Shades of Grey.  Well, maybe not that one…  I have never been one to read what everyone else is reading, except this one time when I went through Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby.

Experiencing God is a great study.  It is in-depth and moving; it awakens faith and puts it into action.  But when it comes to putting that powder keg into the hands of a college student who also, by chance, is experiencing a crisis of faith, it can become dangerous.

A crisis of faith erupts when people move (in the words of Walter Brueggemann) from orientation to disorientation.  This is how it works: When a person grows up believing things that she has been taught, those things solidify into a worldview.  When the person confronts things as an adult that conflicts with those beliefs, it threatens the worldview and forces a re-evaluation of those facts.  This creates grief, anger, and crisis.  It can also lead to hurt, confusion, and rebellion (as in a season that includes coming-of-age).  The person moves from orientation to disorientation and, like heroes who must confront monsters from the past or from within, find that she is far from home.  A cross-roads arises, and the choice is to move forward in uncertainty and greater faith, or return to the adolescent mind in which naivety requires ignoring new information.

College is a time of disorientation for many people.  Students are learning new things, learning how to think critically, and questioning truths that they have assumed for years.  For Christians, this movement can result in a crisis of faith, what St. John the Cross called a Dark Night of the Soul.  It can be, if someone finds a coach or spiritual guide, a rite of passage that broadens faith, creates empathy for a hurting world, and opens people up to a God who is much bigger than they first assume God to be.

My second year of college was one long Dark Night.  I was learning new things in my religion classes, while questioning the faith of my youth.  I was confronting the doctrines of my home church–a Presbyterian church–and discovering a new Baptist paradigm.  I was trying to learn the Reformed theology of that tradition (Presbyterian) and coming up short.  Like Martin Luther whose faith waned under hardship of his Catholicism, I was reforming faith and a very different journey.

Enter Experiencing God, which intends to ignite a new way to live by faith.  Blackaby’s premise is that God is calling people to join Him at work in the world, and you cannot stay in the same place you’ve lived for your entire life.  You must, like Moses or Abraham, hear God’s call, respond, and move into a place in which the Holy Spirit guides you.

At the time, I took this a little too literally — again, the adolescent mind cannot always understand deep spiritual truths and differentiate it from metaphor — and I thought God was calling me somewhere else.  I was searching for answers: Is God calling me to the mission field, to leave a life of biblical scholarship behind?  Was Jesus asking me to deny my family and go into the ministry in some far-off land?  How was I to leave my old life behind–toss my CD collection?  Stop watching movies?  “Kiss dating goodbye”?

At the time I was dating the woman who would become my wife, and she received the short end of the stick of this journey of faith.  I waffled in my relationship with her, and my emotions ebbed and flowed about marriage.  One week I knew I couldn’t live without her; the next week, I thought I heard God telling me to leave everything–and everyone–and go to Africa.  It was a crazy time.  Experiencing God was not helpful.  At all.

My best friend and my father had to step in and coach me.  My best friend endured my insecurities and venting, and comforted me in all hours of the night.  He told me that God leaves a lot up to us, that the Christ-follower actually has a great deal of agency in decisions.  If I chose to be with Kristina, then so be it–it wasn’t as if there was that one “perfect girl” out there for me; I had to choose to commit to her, and that choice–rather than some predestined relationship–would be more valuable anyway.

A few months later, sensing my anxiety and Kristina’s frustration, my father sat me down for a serious talk.  He, an armchair theologian who rarely cracked open a Bible, laid it out straight: “Joey,” he said, “This girl ain’t going to stick around too much longer if you keep going back and forth.  She is a great one, and you should marry her.  She is special.”

When I brought up my feelings about God, he persisted: “All I know is that when I watch you two together, there is something special.  Don’t let Satan deceive you, and don’t let go of her.  Ever.”

That conversation sealed the deal.  I did end up going on a short-term mission trip to Africa for a month, to get my foot in the waters of missions, only to come back and clarify that a life of travel was not for me!  Two weeks later, on August 13th–my wife’s birthday–I asked Kristina to marry me.

I tossed Experiencing God, and I learned how to trust in the Holy Spirit, my intuition, and my support system.  I also learned that confusion, disruption and deception are the weapons of Satan, the Father of Lies.  I got through that crisis of faith, and became a whole new person.  I wrestled with God and became a man.

Jack of all trades, master of none

pastors

By Joe LaGuardia

An advertisement from a church looking for a new pastor read:

“Wanted: Pastor for small church.  Must excel in preaching, teaching, pastoral care, administration, leadership, vision setting, missions,  ministry, church growth.  Also, ten years experience a must.”

A satirical ad, similar in tone, added: “Pastor must know politics, how to dry tearful eyes, handle every major life crisis, and have the answer to life’s hardest questions.”

All kidding aside, I know churches that expect all of this — and more — from their pastors.

I am convinced that full-time pastoral ministry is one of the last professions in the world in which a person has to practice multiple skill sets for a salary well below that of other professional occupations.

And I have heard stories from pastors in which they have not lived up to these expectations and experienced depression and anxiety.  So, why do thousands still take this job?

Leading a church is exciting and fulfilling.  We preach even if it means having to administrate sometimes, and we like to be present during life’s greatest challenges and celebrations even if we can’t answer all of life’s questions.

Yet, we pastors must be clear when things get out of hand.  I knew a pastor in Atlanta who had his secretary schedule everything for him.  That way, the pastor never had to tell anyone “no” when a request was made.

If there was a death, however, the pastor did everything to be present.  He would cut vacations short or fly home.  He would cancel seminars in which he was key-note speaker.

“The only time you are excused from being with family during a death is if you’re on a cruise in the middle of the ocean,” he stated.

Times have changed since that pastor led a church.  Now, pastors are not the first people called during crises.  In fact, many pastors find out about life transitions or hospital stays from second- or third-parties, or even social media.

Gone are the days when the pastor came immediately to the hospital in an emergency because many pastors have to negotiate their time with co-rearing children or holding another job to make ends meet.

Expectations still linger nevertheless, and I have a personal anecdote that still bothers me to this day.

Years ago, I got an email from a grandparent whose grandchild was in critical condition.  This was before smartphones, so I didn’t intercept the email until mid-afternoon.

Also, I was busy all day caring for my son who had a high fever while my wife was at work.  I checked the email right before we left for the doctor.

My plan was to check in with the family as soon as we got back home, but when I checked again I found that the grandparent left an irate email.

He was hurt.  He felt abandoned.  He asked where I was in their family’s greatest time of need.

Then: “Never talk to me or speak to me again.  You are no longer my pastor.”

My church knows my persistence when it comes to relationships, so I didn’t give up.  I tried to reach the family all week.

Despite my efforts, I haven’t heard from them since.

Although many pastors are now trained to set boundaries, give clear expectations, and adhere to well-developed human resource handbooks that establish contact protocols, we still try to be all that we can be.

Other times, we simply fail to meet expectations.

When most of us come to a new church, the first thing we do is find ways to make our church have more realistic expectations.  It’s better for a church to have a pastor that sets boundaries than to be a church who gets stuck with all of the pastor’s therapy bills.  Boundaries benefit all of us.