And the Church went away, grieved


By Joe LaGuardia

In Mark 10, a rich young man asked Jesus how to possess eternal life.  Jesus told him to follow through on the Ten Commandments.   The man was religious and had a routine.  He served God and made charitable contributions to society.  “But there is one thing you lack,” Jesus told him, “Sell all you have…”

The lesson is filled with irony.  A rich man had lack, and the lack was the willingness to part with all of the things that got in God’s way.  Being religious was not enough.  Doing good works was not enough.  The man was so busy consuming things that he thought eternal life was just another commodity to own.  But eternal life is not a product; it is a gift to receive with an open and expectant heart.

The man did not understand Jesus’ command.  How did he lack something?  He owned everything–and the Bible says that he walked away from Jesus “grieved.”  He failed to understand something St. Augustine learned long ago, that sometimes, “Our hands are so full of things, there is nowhere for God to put new blessings.”

I studied this portion of scripture at the same time that I have been reflecting on the role of grief in the lives of churches.  This idea of church grief came out of a pastor’s retreat I attended in late September.  Bill Wilson, director of the Center for Healthy Churches and facilitator of said retreat, mentioned that there was a consultant working with churches that emphasized grief in the lives of congregations.  Pastors new to a congregation or pastors exiting one need to know how grief shapes community.

The notion is very simple: Churches grieve during transitions (both clergy transitions as well as ministerial ones), and churches do not instinctively know how to handle grief.  There is little conversation about what hurts, and grief comes in the form of lament: Why do we not have the same amount of people in the pews as when the church was in the “Golden Age”?  Why has the church lost so much cultural influence in society?  Why are we losing entire generations–“Where are all of the young people?”  These are questions born out of grief, not out of intentional strategic outreach.

They are symptomatic; but as all grief turns out to be, they can lead to greater opportunities rather than hindrances.  Grief can be life-giving or a burden; it is all based on how we respond to it–and most churches do not respond appropriately.

Ministers who miss these emotional cues are ill-prepared to help churches transition into new, life-giving seasons of ministry and missions.  Churches that get stuck on the past forget what God calls them to be in the future.  Congregations turn insular, power struggles erupt, and conflict damages outreach.

“There is one thing you lack…” is not only a call for individuals, it is a challenge for churches to let go of the things that no longer work or sustain growth.  Our congregations are so filled with baggage and programs of yesteryear there is no room–and no vision–for God to give the new blessings that propel churches into a new era of ministry.

Ministry is not going to look the same as it did decades ago.  The church must now work from the margins of society, not the center of it; and it must advocate for an outward-focused mission that joins others on the margins rather than cozying up with people and politicians who wield power from the center.  Centralized power exploits, discriminates, and sustains status quos at the expense of justice and liberation.  The church stumbles when it forgets its place; it is not rich, and it lacks that posture of open hands and hearts in which we look to God for our strength.

We have become the church of Laodicea, not Philadelphia.  We think we are rich, and we have pushed Jesus out of our churches because we are too full of our own pride.  But Jesus stands at the door and knocks.  Hope is not lost yet.

Pastors have to play two roles in the church these days: one is the role of visionary prophet who dreams new dreams and casts new visions.  The other is to be a grief counselor that helps put old ways of doing things to rest, to purge us of baggage that takes too much attention or that fills time and hands.  It is as Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Pastors must facilitate life and death.  The only other alternative is to remain stagnate, to walk in perpetual grief.

 

Advertisements

A Pastor appreciates the hymns: “Be Still, My Soul”

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

When my father passed away tragically four years ago and we were planning his service with ministers at his home church in Staten Island, New York.  I had only one request.  I did not want to speak, preach, or pray.  I did not want to give a eulogy or read scripture.

All I wanted was one congregational hymn to be played since I knew that the rest of the service incorporated contemporary music.  I chose Be Still, My Soul, set to the tune of Finlandia.

Be Still, My Soul certainly seemed out of place at the time.  The rest of my family did not know it.  Its slow–(and, I would argue, haunting)–cadence threatened to slow down an otherwise long funeral.  Why sing something nobody heard of, and why sing a song that was set to Irish, nineteenth-century music?  We even had doubts that the minister of music would be able to play it, let alone fit it into the Order of Worship.  But, as I mentioned, it was my one and only request.

During the funeral, people spoke.  The pastor preached for a good while.  We did have praise and worship, and rightly so, for all funerals for believers are worship services to the God who is giver and author of our lives.  But it was Be Still, My Soul that made me feel right at home, right where I belonged.  It was my way of bringing my tradition–my church family (nearly 800 miles away)–into our worship of God that day.

When we sang the song it was lovely.  It was indeed haunting, and it did invoke a theological voice that otherwise would have been lacking.  I barely sang it, and most of the time I held my nephew who wept in my arms.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In every change God faithful will remain.

Here I was, stricken into speechlessness at my father’s death, nearly drowning under a deluge of thoughts that things will never be the same, and the hymn communicated what I did not have the words or strength to say: That although my family and I were facing the worst situation we had ever faced–in the midst of change and grief and pain–God is faithful and God would provide.  We worshiped God together that day, but only this song, this hymn, reminded us about who God is and who we are to God.

The second verse goes on to declare that life is full of mystery, that in darkness we can still stand solidly on Christ who upholds our confidence and hope, to whom waves and wind–the chaos of life–still obey.  The song nurtured me as I nurtured my nephew.  My father died in a dangerous world, but in the embrace of God and each other, we were “safe and blessed.”

I have heard it said that the songs shared at funerals touch the lives of so many people who sing those same songs on random Sunday mornings in worship services and churches across America.  People still cry, for example, when we sing I Come to the Garden Alone because it reminds them of Grandma’s funeral or Father’s celebration of life.

For me, Be Still, My Soul will forever have that peculiar hypnotic hold upon my life.  It is more than captivating, it holds me captive to the Spirit–for it is within this song that I find myself as beloved, as hopeful, or rather hope-filled: “Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.”  Until that day, we have a song to sing, and that’s good enough for now, especially when words fail us.

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.