When silence is the only language you can speak

Photo by Samara Doole

By Joe LaGuardia

I did not preach much Sunday, September 3.   I tried, but all I was able to do was give testimony.  When we preachers have nothing to say about a biblical text, it is just best to testify.  It does not have to be scholarly or well-organized, but it does have to be true.

My week was like that: A cycle of trying and failing, of finding words to say and confronting silence instead.

I began the week excited about joining my sisters in Orlando for a few days.  It was the first time our families got together in years: Three days with nieces, nephews, and the big Mouse at Bueno Vista.

Over the weekend, however–the weekend before my vacation–I received word that one of our parishioners fell victim to cancer and passed away.  I was heartbroken for the family.  It was sudden.  The man had one son, so when I met with the family and he spoke about his father, I was reminded about the loss of my own dad.

Funerals have a way of keeping us preachers nimble.  Instead of having one sermon to write before I went to Orlando, I now had two: one for Sunday and another for the funeral, which was scheduled for the day after my return.

I did something a little different for the funeral sermon: I wrote an outline. I always write manuscripts for funerals to insure that each word is intentional, thoughtful, sensitive and concise.   But I did not want a complicated sermon.  I was co-officiating and eulogies were planned, so what more needed to be said?

With sermons out of the way, I went off to Orlando. My trip  went well except for the fact that, now, every time I get together with my sisters, there exists the lingering absence of my father who had passed four years ago this August 5th.

My sisters and I had fun.  We laughed.  There were no conflicts, but our father was missing.  We didn’t have anyone to complain to about our jobs, our finances, about one another.  My dad was good about that, he absorbed everyone’s trials and tears and hardships.

I was quiet most of the trip as a result of my melancholy.  Why was I so quiet?  I hadn’t seen my sisters in ages, there must be more to talk about.

After I returned from Orlando, I headed to the funeral for our parishioner, but another oddity happened, although I am not sure if anyone noticed: I did not finish preaching my funeral sermon.  No, really–literally!  I literally stopped short in the middle of the homily!  I blanked out and I left off the conclusion before stopping mid-sermon and calling the congregation to join me in a closing prayer.

Later that afternoon, home with Kristina, I broke.  My wife and I had a long discussion about my anxieties and stress, about missing my father, and about how my words kept failing me–on my trip, at the funeral, in expressing a cloud that followed me all week long.

Sunday morning came, and off to church I went with two services to preach.  But as I mentioned already, I did not preach.  I testified.  I did not speak of my trouble with words.  I did not confess that I blanked out during the funeral sermon.  I only told a story about trying to find joy in unexpected places and about how one person from church with whom I met the previous week (who had lost her husband three months ago) ministered to me in the midst of my own hardships this week.

This evening I continued reading a book that I can never read for long sittings.  Its one of those books where you savor a sentence or two (or a whole page if you’re lucky), and then you have to stop and pray and reflect or wipe tears to see more clearly.  Its When God is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor, and what I read tonight resonated.  In fact, it sums up my emotions this week perfectly, although the situation is different:

I met a man last summer–a preacher–who nursed his wife until her death, at fifty-something, from cancer.  When she stopped breathing, he said, the silence in the room destroyed all language for him.  No words could get into him and none could get out. . . Months and months later, his voice is still raspy. . . He did not sound angry when he said that.  He sounded like someone who had been scorched by the living God and who knew better than to try and talk about it.”

I think that is my problem, one that Taylor sums up well.  There are times when I encounter God and I, along with many others, expect that I can put that into words.  I don’t blame anyone–that’s my vocation, after all.  But sometimes I need to know better.  Sometimes I need to stop trying so hard to talk about things that I can’t talk about.

My only regret is that I had some collateral damage along the way: A funeral sermon brought to a screeching halt, an online prayer I since deleted because it turned into a debate that was a waste of time anyway, and a Sunday sermon-testimony I hoped did not ramble on as much as I had feared.

Sometimes we are scorched and it just best to let the Holy Spirit speak in the silence instead.

Celebration & Grief: A Season of “Firsts”

4c683-1442521114085

By Joe LaGuardia

As I am writing this, the weather is a warm 80 degrees, and my wife and children are at the beach collecting shells.  There is a slight breeze.  I can tell by the waving palm trees just outside my office window.

All of this is a reminder that I am not in Georgia anymore.  After serving in ministry there for over a dozen years, I will spend my first Christmas season in Florida since we moved to Atlanta in 2001.  Something feels askew, and my biological clock is confused by the lack of changing leaves, “sweater weather”, and frequent wintry trips for hot coffee at Dunkin Donuts.

As my body adjusts, I have become mindful that as I spend this “first” Advent and Christmas at my new church, First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, other people will be spending their holidays with “firsts” as well.  In the last year at FBC, there have been several deaths that have shaped the community in significant ways.

One person who passed, “Chubby” Bass, was well-known for his leadership and commitment to the church.  I am currently in the Sunday School class he once taught.  I gather from the group that he was a legend, and I assume its for good reason.

Another person, Hiram Henderson, was chair of the FBC Pastor Search Committee.  I had two in-person interviews with the Search Committee, and both afforded me some time with Hiram.  He was a sweet and gentle person, and he listened intently as I told the committee of my philosophy of ministry and vision for my future at FBC.  I don’t remember a time when he did not have a big smile on his face–very assuring for me, a candidate nervous about his next call.

When I came to preach in view of a call, there were only a few empty seats in the crowded sanctuary.  One was next to Hiram.  He and I shared a hymnal, and I remember him embracing me strongly, despite his failing health, in the wake of an affirmative vote.  It was the last time I saw him.

Today I visited with a family members who stood sentinel with their mother, grandmother.  She passed away peacefully and seemed as beautiful as she was on the first day I met her six months ago.  She was 103 years old and had been the oldest living member of First Baptist Church.

There are countless other individuals I can think of who will be grieving a lost loved one this season: Families of Pappy Kouns, a local baseball legend in these parts, and Dana Howard, to name a few.  Then there are friends and families in the church who lost loved ones in the wider Vero Beach community.  I may not have officiated these funerals, but attending them has made me experience the depth of love and grace that exists in this place I now call home.

When I lost my father some three years ago, I knew from experience that the first year is often the hardest. Shit hits you over and over again like those constant waves my kids are spying at the beach right now.

Every birthday, holiday, season, and transition can bring back both the celebration that memories evoke, as well as the sadness of grief which seems just as fresh as on the first day of a person’s loss.

Coincidentally, the Advent and Christmas theme at FBC this year is “‘Tis the Season,” and it certainly is.  It is the season for many firsts.  All we can hope for is that there will be those who walk alongside us, helping us find a sure footing even when we may only have enough strength to put one foot in front of another.

Christmas is a Seaon of Grief and Hope

Lights and bells, tinsel, toy soldiers and gingerbread cookies. Such is the magic of the holiday season. It is easy to sing “Joy to the World” when we get to celebrate Jesus’ birthday in the presence of decked-out trees, warm fireplaces and excited children.

But the very first Christmas was not so pleasant. Consider that Mary, still pregnant with child, had to run to Egypt as a refugee to escape Herod’s slaughter-every-firstborn policy. When it was finally safe to return home, she gave birth to her first son in a manger. It was no Rockdale Medical Center; there was no room service.

Jesus was born in a time of hardship and grief. Israel’s peasantry wondered if God was ever going to liberate them from the Romans and lead them into a new day of victorious blessing. Instead of gingerbread cookies, many of those Israelites feasted on “a bread of tears” (Ps. 80:5).

There are many people who can relate to the grief that pervaded that first Christmas season because of their own sense of loss during the holidays. Those who cannot celebrate Christmas with a loved one feel grief acutely.

Whenever I visit New York on Christmas, Grandpa is not around to sleep on the living room floor after the turkey dinner. Cousin Jim’s defeat in his battle against cancer means that his family cannot celebrate the season with their father and husband.

In Christmas, we find ourselves thick in grief, but rich in hope. Yes, Israel was filled with darkness and grief when Jesus was born. The manger is a stark reminder of that reality; however, Mary and Joseph clung to a hope that bore witness to a God that raises the lowly and feeds the hungry (Luke 1:46-55).

That first Christmas also lets us know that hope is not only reserved for individuals. Nations also grieve, and hope and healing can erupt on a national scale. The rancor found in our national dialogue, the endless wars in the Middle East, and vast economic peril embody our corporate grief and reveal the deep need for God’s mercy.

There is an old story about grief and hope from Eastern Europe. An orthodox monastery found itself within a dying community. There were no new recruits to sustain the monastery, and the number of monks eventually dwindled down to a half dozen or so.

In desperation, the abbot went to a local rabbi and asked him what needed to be done to save the monastery. The rabbi expressed that his synagogue was also struggling to stay vibrant. “The spirit has gone out of the people,” the rabbi said as he and the abbot wept together.

Before the abbot left, the rabbi told him that he should not lose hope and that there was a messiah in their midst. The abbot took this wisdom back to the monastery and shared the rabbi’s answer.

For the next month, every one of the monks was trying to unravel who among them was the mysterious messiah. They could not figure it out, so they simply treated each other as if they were all supposed to be the ones destined to save their little community.

Their compassion for one another grew so great and so contagious that the townspeople took notice. People started to come to the monastery to meet the monks and hear the Gospel. Soon, the monastery flourished and became a robust community of faith.

The first Christmas was a humble one, but in that makeshift nursery we recognize our deepest grief, engage the richness of God’s hope and potentially find healing for ourselves and our nation.