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.

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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.

Going Home, Looking Forward

By Joe LaGuardia

Since moving to Florida over a year ago, I have been reflecting on some aspects of my past: high school, college, my calling, friends with whom I’ve lost contact, and other nostalgic reminiscing.  With each memory I seek to “take every thought captive for Christ,” assessing what role the memory plays in my life and how it might shape my life now.  I was in Georgia for almost two decades; I moved from Florida where I had lived since childhood.  Now I’m back.

Writing about the sacredness of places and upbringing, author and poet Natalie Goldberg notes,

We hear about people who go back to their roots.  That is good, but don’t get stuck in the root.  There is a branch, the leaf, the flower–all reaching toward the immense sky.  We are many things.

My return to Florida has been a return to my roots.  Many of these roots, however, have become dormant.  Some have died out altogether–time spent with cousins now divorced, going to car shows with the old ’84 Camaro.  My “home church” in Pompano Beach is still active but too far to visit when I’m not in the pulpit at First Baptist.

Yet there are branches and leaves and flowers, as Goldberg puts it, that reminds me that there is new growth and new frontiers.  The “immense sky” is open to so many new opportunities, but I can’t help but notice that my writing, preaching, and prayers have been caught in a time loop, almost paralyzed by the past in some ways.

I wonder whether this “time loop” is a result of nearing 40 years of age.  I have heard of mid-life crises, and though I have no inkling to purchase a Porsche or travel to Europe to find myself, I hear the bells that toll at the end of one’s life a little louder than before.  Aches and pains in my back beckon the belfry on the horizon.

I have a long way to go–my congregation would laugh at me if I spoke of age at this point in my life–but my move to Vero Beach has captured me in a time stasis, hanging between my past–what once was–and my future, what God has in store as I continue to plug away at working with a great church to build a great and vibrant ministry that will last, I hope, for centuries.

These reflections were held in bold relief when I awoke from a bizarre nightmare this morning.  It was not a normal “pastor’s nightmare,” like the ones in which you start to preach only to have people walk out on you or you show up at church only to realize that you’re in the wrong church.  There weren’t any ghosts or ghouls or monsters.

Rather, I was sitting in the home of a parishioner who scolded me for hiding for hours in my office, not doing anything useful.  “Every day,” she said, “You sit in your office for two hours, and I don’t know what you do–you just sit there and twiddle your thumbs.  Four days a week, eight hours total every week–a whole work day of doing nothing.”

I can’t explain why that particular dream struck me, although I have always taken pride in my vigorous work ethic, but I can tell you that it has to do with time.  If I pray and all I think of are memories of times past while failing to cast a vision for what God has in the future, then I am stuck for sure.

“Don’t get stuck,” Goldberg says, like angels who once told the disciples to move things along when the disciples got stuck eyeing the heavens when Jesus ascended (“As they strained to see him rising…” the NLT states in Acts 1:10).  Don’t get stuck, move it along, look for new opportunities, new growth, it is all around us and it speaks to God’s beauty and activity in our life today.

For years I have had a guilty pleasure of watching Michael Mann’s 2006 Miami Vice with Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell.  I enjoyed watching it because it shows a slice of life in Florida, to which I wanted to return.  I realized yesterday, while sitting on the beach and watching my wife and duaghter search for shells and my son dodge waves, that I no longer wanted to watch the movie.  I do not crave Miami Vice anymore because I’m here, I’m home and the flowers are blooming.