Final Farewells and wishes of peace

Paul in prisonBy Joe LaGuardia

The following article is reprinted from The Rockdale Citizen.  Please note that although Joe LaGuardia will no longer publish in the Citizen after April 29th, he and a community of Baptists will continue to publish for Baptist Spirituality and other publications.  Please be sure to subscribe to our blog to keep up on our inspiring and thought-provoking publications. 

***

Over the last week, I’ve been reading the “farewell remarks” from St. Paul’s epistles.  Although he writes to a variety of communities, each remark sounds similar, such as the one penned in his second letter to the Corinthians:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.  Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (13:11).

In others, he includes a challenge for the saints to be an encouragement one to another, to speak with words of wisdom rather than malice, and greet each other with a holy kiss.

As I plan to depart from Conyers and move to Florida next week, I can’t help but keep Paul’s farewell words in mind.  That doesn’t mean I consider myself to be like Paul–he’s a saint for a reason, you know–but I do think his concluding challenges are something to ponder.

For one, he encourages churches to live in peace.  Too often, our communities are so fractured that people cease to speak to one another or get together.  We forget that, like families, churchgoers fight every now and then, but are expected to reconcile.

Reconciliation is not the same as reprimanding.  The world is good at reprimanding: our justice system and courts tell us what we’ve done wrong, and we are reprimanded as punishable by law.

Reconciliation provides the space for people to speak with each other, confront each other, and open a space for repentance.  Without the opportunity to repent and apologize–to ask forgiveness–true reconciliation does not occur.  Our peace may be a false one otherwise.

I learned this the hard way after my father’s death.  The person who shot my father and two other people at a town hall meeting some three years ago was sentenced to three life sentences.  The perpetrator will never get out on parole and he escaped the death penalty only because his state governor put a moratorium on capital punishment.

As I have worked through my grief, I have forgiven the man and moved on.  But that is not reconciliation.  Until he repents of his crime and apologizes (he gave a sort of apology when he was sentenced in court, but refused to take full responsibility for his crimes), he has robbed me (and himself) of reconciliation.

Being the church means being places of peace and peacemaking.  We are to follow Jesus’ example by putting others before self, reaching out with unconditional love, and forgiving rather than retaliating against others.

A second challenge that Paul gives the church is to be people of encouragement.  Christian encouragement does not originate from a “You’re okay, I’m okay” mentality.

Rather, encouragement originates from a deep-seated confidence and knowledge that we are blessed by God and are, in turn, called to bless–and be a blessing–to others.

Encouragement comes from the words we speak.  We are to avoid chatter and gossip, and distance ourselves from those who do. God’s blessing–his love and peace–are to shape our words and actions towards others.

After all, as Christians, we’ve inherited God’s promise to Abraham so long ago, an inheritance to be a blessing to all the nations of the world (Genesis 22:18).

Last, Paul challenged the church to greet each other with a holy kiss.

I don’t recommend this action these days any more than I recommend living by all the 600 laws as outlined in the Old Testament book of Leviticus.  Nevertheless, there is a truth behind this statement.

We are to make sure that our departure from one another–whether we part permanently or temporarily–is inspired by our willingness to embrace each other the next time we meet.

No matter how much Christians fight, disagree, celebrate, praise and pray, we are to look forward to that next meeting, in this world or the next.

A holy kiss is but a cultural gesture of that embodied peace, a sign that the community is under the lordship of Christ.  It implies that we are family and suggests that we are not saying “Goodbye,” but “See you later.”

It is as the old hymn states, “God be with you ’till we meet again, by his counsels guide, uphold you.”

Advertisements

Simple Truth: “God is Love; Jesus Saves”

god-is-love

By Joe LaGuardia

This is the tenth anniversary of my seminary degree.  I went to seminary with a love for the Bible; and, although some Christians warned me about learning too much in higher education, I left with a deeper love than I had before.

I grew up in a household in which learning was simply another step in becoming a life-long learner.

In the academy I learned about the language of the Bible, theology, traditions, history, and Bible interpretation.

In my personal devotion, I learned that the Holy Spirit moves where it will and that God will forever require us to be holy as He is holy.  No amount of learning can replace one’s responsibility for cultivating an abiding relationship with the Lord.

In the church, I learned how to listen to people and how to make room for others with patience and prayer.  The church has been for me an incubator of mutual learning and sharing, inculcating the rich ways of God and of faith centered around liturgy and congregational celebration.

And, yet, even with all of this learning, I am impressed with the utter simplicity of our faith.

I have hundreds of books in my personal library.  They all express different things for different reasons.  But no matter what I read, I always return to one truth about how the world works, a  truth summarized in John 3:16-17.

In the passage, Jesus, speaking to an educated rabbi, Nicodemus, says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

It expresses a beautiful and simple truth that “God so loved the world.”  God is not a distant being who set in place the laws of nature only to leave nature to its own devices.

God is a creator–love itself–that seeks a relationship with all living things.  Whereas some see the world “going to hell in a handbasket,” God sees the potential in every soul to turn back to him in an attitude of repentance and belief.

God loved us so much, God gave us His son.  This theological quip has caused great debate for decades, but its simplicity cannot be overlooked.  Jesus came to be God in our midst that we might know, obey, and worship God.

Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection point to that higher calling of sacrifice and glory in which God wants all of us to share.

God does not want anyone to perish, but share in eternal life.  For those who do not know Christ, life is a fatalist enterprise.  Sure, we can enjoy life to the fullest and build great relationships and fulfill vast accomplishments; but, without the promise of eternal life, all our years on earth are fleeting.

There is an old joke that reminds us, “Death visits us all. I know I’m going to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

When you believe in Jesus and experience the blessing of knowing eternal salvation, life no longer seems fearfully short.  It becomes grand and full of surprises.

God does not condemn the world.  Too often, God’s followers are quick to condemn everything about the world.  Christians rush to judgment; they tend to exclude others who don’t think, believe, or behave like they do.

God shows us a better, inclusive way.  God embraces the world in all its fragility and failure and gives the gift of grace where it is most undeserved.

God is not pushy.  God does not coerce or force people to accept that gift of life; it must be freely chosen and received by the one who surrenders to God in sincere belief.

For all of the stuff I learned over the years, this simple truth–that God is love, that God gives us Jesus, and that belief in Jesus leads to eternal life–is far more precious than anything I’ve taken away from any book, class, or mentor.

 

Take time to be with loved ones

Japanese MapleI have spent a lot of time in gardens this year, more time than ever before.

One of them was a large garden–Gibb’s Gardens up in Canton–and the others were gardens of those who attend my church.  At church, we have been working on a prayer garden of our own for our 30th anniversary as a congregation.

Each garden I visit, I have to remind myself to slow down, enjoy the view, smell the flowers, and appreciate the beauty and wonder of all that God has created.

The other day, for instance, I was visiting Fox McCarthy’s garden.  You may know him as the man who ran a Japanese Maple nursery in town.  He must have upwards of 100 Japanese Maple trees on his land right now, and for almost every one of them he stops and says, “Isn’t that the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

Before, I would have simply said, “It looks just like the last 99 trees you showed me;” but, now, I have learned (and the secret to enjoying a garden is learning and listening!) to see every tree and every flower as unique and beautiful, a result of mother nature and God in partnership with one another.

It was during this same trip that Fox and I were remembering some people who passed away this last year.  His wife, one-time county commissioner Barbara McCarthy, and my father died within 8 months of each other.  (This Saturday would have marked my parent’s 44-year wedding anniversary.)

We recalled the great things we remember about their lives, and we recalled all of the people that we’ve met at the different funerals and memorials we attended.

Fox asked a question I won’t easily forget: “At these memorial services, you meet all of the people who were touched by the lives of the deceased.  Why haven’t we met half of them before that day?”

In other words, why do we turn out in droves when someone dies and come together as a family only after someone leaves our presence on this earth?

I thought about this more, and I realized that the very same patience with which I enjoyed those gardens is the same patience I need in the relationships I have in my life.

My family should not have to wait for me to die in order for all of us to enjoy the company of good friends and family no matter how much distance separates us.

We need to put our relationships with others back on our top-priority list.  If you’re like me, you’ve been working too hard and for too many hours to spend time with loved ones.  You make excuses, and you let days or even years pass before you call a cousin or a friend with whom you needed to connect.

Ever since my father’s passing, I have made an intentional commitment to spend more time calling my cousins, siblings, and family or by writing letters to them every so often.

There is something special and intimate when you take time to write or call someone just because you are thinking about them.  On holidays, such contact is expected; but, on ordinary days like today or tomorrow, it comes off as a real blessing.

As Fox and I stood in the midst of those uniquely, well-adorned Japanese Maples, I realized that I stand in the midst of people whom I have failed to keep in touch with.  I have failed to encourage people and remind them of their unique beauty in the Lord too.

The poetic, Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes encourages readers to enjoy one another and let tomorrow worry about itself for “two are better than one…for if they fall, one will lift up the other” (4:9, 10).

As we enjoy all that spring and summer affords us, let us foster the friendships and family relationships that have long been torn asunder by time, distance, and seasons of separation.