3 Reasons why the Christian Calendar is Meaningful for today’s Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Our church, First Baptist of Vero, is hosting a short-term study on the Christian calendar during the season of Lent.  Although the sacred calendar has always been a part of First Baptist’s 101-year history, the church has often made an effort to educate the congregation on the importance and meaning of the Christian year.

Much of this work has come under the 20-year tenure of the Reverend Dr. Michael Carter, our music minister, who received a doctorate under the leadership of Robert Webber, a name church liturgists associate with the Christian calendar and ancient-future worship.

When I interviewed with First Baptist over a year ago, I was delighted that Dr. Carter was the resident theologian on liturgy.  I fell in love with the Christian calendar while attending a Presbyterian church in high school and Palm Beach Atlantic University, a Baptist college out of the Charleston tradition–a tradition that champions both biblical scholarship and orderly, liturgical worship.

On the heals of Ash Wednesday and while sitting under Dr. Carter’s teachings this past Sunday as he began his study on the Christian calendar, I remembered all of the reasons why I–and the churches I have belonged to and have known–cherish the sacred year.

First, the Christian Calendar reminds me that my faith in and with Christ is not all about me.  I grew up in a northern evangelical church that promoted a simple, but strong Protestant faith devoid of anything “ritualistic.”  We celebrated Christmas and Easter, but outside of that we tried to live by the adage that our Christian witness was more about a relationship with Christ rather than religion.

But something was missing in my Christian upbringing.  By the time we moved to South Florida when I was a boy, we were so “spiritual but not religious,” that it turned out that we were neither spiritual nor religious.  In fact, my tradition was so devoid of any ritual, my only memories of spiritual experiences were limited to attending Miami Dolphins football games and that one time I walked down the aisle to make a decision for Christ at First Baptist Church of Perrine.

When I started attending New Covenant Presbyterian Church during high school and, later, PBA, I experienced all of the nuances of the Christian year.  It did not come off as ritualistic, but a way of bolstering my relationship with Christ.  I felt that I was part of something larger than myself, part of a movement–the Christian faith–that stretched two millennia into the past and connected me to the larger story of God.

As Dr. Carter stated last Sunday, “The Christian year is about sacred time that tells of God’s story, about fusing our story with God’s story, and about making the Christ event the center of that story.”

I had a strong faith from my upbringing, but now I had the skeleton to hang–and to build–some serious Christian muscles in my walk with Christ.

Second, the Christian Calendar sustains me during seasons of spiritual drought.  We all have seasons in our walk with Jesus.  Sometimes we are on fire; other times, we feel distant from God, as if we are only stepping into each day with little connection to God.  That is natural; there is a rhythm to our faith that often mimics the four seasons of the very creation of which we are a part.

It is during those times of drought and “winter” of my soul that I come to rely on the Christian year.  The rhythm of sacred time gives me the bearings and the strength to keep walking, keep at it, to hang in there.  It encourages me to keep going because, though “sorrow may last for the night, joy cometh in the morning.”

It’s like brushing teeth.  We brush our teeth because its more than a routine, it keeps us healthy and keeps cavities away.  So too the Christian calendar is good for the soul; it keeps our hearts focused on God even when God seems far from us.

I found this out the hard way after my father died tragically as a result of gun violence.  After his death, I could not pray.  I could not focus.  I did not return to the pulpit for over a month.

The liturgy–specifically the hymnody, doxology, and congregational singing–was the only thing that got me through that time of grief and heartache.  If Jesus was hard to find in the midst of tragedy, I certainly found him in the midst of song–of hearing the congregation sing, and in following those notes sprawled across that trusty Baptist hymnal.

Third, the Christian Calendar teaches us good theology. At best, theology in the contemporary church is piecemeal, the sum of a thousand topical lessons and sermons that often fail to communicate the entirety of scripture.  I have heard this first hand–a 45-minute sermon in which the pastor presents a topic or thesis, and then strings together a barrage of scriptures as if those scriptures stood independently from the context of their respective books and of the scriptural canon as a whole.

The church year walks us through the entire Bible–starting with creation, the fall of humanity, climaxing with the birth, life, death, and resurrection in Christ; and culminating with the hope of the Second Coming of Christ.  It does not stumble from Christmas to Easter and to the next topical sermon; rather, the story of Christ stands central as we learn to be born again with him, pick up our own crosses, follow Jesus into baptismal waters, through hardship of Lent and finally the joy of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Dr. Carter quoted Robert Webber as stating, “The life, death, and resurrection of Christ stands at the center of time.”  This is not an event divorced from the rest of God’s story, but entangled with the whole of scripture.

I am far from idealistic.  I will continue to visit with churches and Christians who have no place in their life for the Christian year.  That is okay; people walk with Christ on their own terms.  But for me and my family, being intimately bound with a story much larger than the “LaGuardia” story brings liberation, healing, a sense of purpose, and theology that corrects and rebukes and reproves.

It is sacred, and that is something to behold.

Thoughts on Psalm 91

Caves throughout Palestine are big enough to shelter hundreds of troops. According to 1 Samuel, David and his Mighty Men used caves extensively to escape King Saul.

Caves throughout Palestine are big enough to shelter hundreds of troops. According to 1 Samuel, David and his Mighty Men used caves extensively to escape King Saul.

By Joe LaGuardia

For preachers who use the lectionary, Psalm 91 is scheduled for the First Sunday of Lent in Year C.  This article comes a bit early for that, and you may not find this until you research for that particular cycle, but I have some insights that may benefit you.

Many scholars argue that Psalm 91 is a hymn that pilgrims recited while entering the Temple in Jerusalem.  One commentator, for instance, posits that pilgrims sang verses 1-13 while entering the gates of Jerusalem, only to have priests recite verses 14-16 back as a “response” that confirms God’s provision.

Several clues tip the scales in this theory’s favor: In v. 1, the language of “shelter” is synonymous with the Temple.  “Pinions” and God’s “wings” might allude to the cherubim that decorated the top of the ark of the covenant, wings that–according to some OT visions–“shielded” God’s radiance and blinding brilliance from humanity’s view.  Verse 10 mentions a tent, that which pilgrims used as they traveled from afar.

Satan recited parts of Psalm 91 when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:5-7).  It was upon the “pinnacle of the Temple” where this temptation took place.

What if Psalm 91 was not a liturgy for Temple, but instead was a sort of battle hymn for soldiers heading to war?  Perhaps the “refuge” and “pinions” did not refer to fixed objects of Temple, but to God’s ark and tabernacle that accompanied the wandering Israelites in battles over the Promised Land.

Surely, soldiers stayed in tents and took refuge–as David did throughout 1 Samuel–in caves, “secret places” (KJV, v. 1), and “fortresses.”

The mention of fallen soldiers, shields, and arrows also point to a violent, uncertain context in which this Psalm may have been recited.  Perhaps it was a liturgy, not of parishioner and priest, but of soldier and commander, a battle march with the familiar 3+3 poetic cadence with which the Hebrews were familiar.

A uniquely divine hope certainly surfaces in the last section of the psalm (verses 14-16), as the poet sings God’s prayer back to us.  Preachers who use various translations may want to pay close attention to v. 14: The NRSV reads, “Those who love me, I will deliver.”   In attempting to keep things gender neutral and change the singular pronouns to plural, the translation misses the beautiful language that this verse evokes regarding our intimacy with God and God’s intimacy with us.

Better is the Revised Standard Version: “Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him.”  Sure, its gender exclusive, but certainly you can take liberty with that in your sermon to get at this amazing language of abiding, cleaving, and seeking.  It is where the psalm’s spiritual impact comes to a crescendo and climax.

Whether the psalter designed this psalm for worship at Temple or the battlefield, it became a comforting hymn that has spanned the life of God’s people in Palestine as well as Christ’s Church.  Even Athanasius, one-time bishop in the early church, stated that Christians who wish to know confidence and make the mind fearless would do well to rehearse Psalm 91 as a part of their worship and liturgy to God.

Indeed, regardless of our garb–battle fatigues or clerical robes–we can all take comfort in God’s provision and presence with us as we abide with God in the shadow and care of His love.

Easter Justice and a thirst for righteousness

 

One of last things Jesus said before he died on the cross was, “I thirst.”  It is hard to imagine the very Savior who promised a woman by the well (John 4) everlasting water being thirsty, but he was.  Perhaps there is a deeper meaning to this illusive Easter text.

We live in a desolate and parched time.  The government is gridlocked; ISIS is sweeping across Africa and the Middle East; a precarious presidential election has nearly nose-dived into the gutter.  Black lives matter; gay and lesbian youth are committing suicides at an unprecedented rate due to bullying and discrimination.  Income inequality is at its greatest since the Great Depression.  Businesses and churches are surviving against all odds.

I can’t understand why Jesus thirsted, but I know why I thirst.  I thirst because we still have to live in a world in which Jesus’ Kingdom-vision, one of peace, liberation, redemption, and embrace has yet to be realized.

Easter happened.  Jesus arose from the grave.  He promised eternal life to those who believe; but, we are still living in the times between Good Friday and silent Saturday of our own souls.  We haven’t experienced resurrection with our Savior yet.  We stand, instead, between death and Jesus’ Second Coming.

Until Jesus comes with a final trumpet sound to inaugurate once and for all God’s reign on heaven and earth, I thirst.

I guess that when Jesus said “I thirst,” he was referring to Psalm 69.  At least that’s what the notes in my Study Bible say. But what if Jesus had Psalm 42 in mind instead?

As a deer longs for flowing water, so my souls longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and behold the face of God?  My tears have been my food day and night” (v. 1-3).

What if Jesus said “I thirst” because he wants us to remember his Sermon on the Mount?   While we mourn at the cross, we may recall that Jesus’ Sermon mandated that we still have work to do, even in the midst of our own thirst: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6).

Righteousness is a biblical term that means “to be in right relationship with,” and it is a benchmark of God’s activity on earth.  Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, God’s desire was to reconcile that ruptured relationship, to put things right.

Jesus must have thirsted for righteousness because his death was the next step in this process of reconciliation.

I too thirst for righteousness that includes advocating for justice and mercy and kindness in a world very much in need of repairing.

I thirst for righteousness because I want to fight for what’s right in the world in order to see balanced budgets, terrorism abated, peaceful conclusions to war, and a more equitable tax code and quality of life for all lives.

Before he was crucified, Jesus told parables and healed the sick and ate with tax collectors and sinners.  He said that the reign of God–the very kingdom of God–had come to earth and was in our midst.

This reign was more than a fancy idea or personal wish; the reign drew heaven’s goal and earth’s future closer together so that God’s will would be accomplished “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Although I thirst still, I am thankful that Jesus is indeed the Everlasting Water who gives us a chance to spread God’s righteousness even in the least expected places, like at the local halfway house or in Congress.

I thirst, but it is God who nourishes us with hope that one day even broken legislatures and warring enemies will eventually bow to His lordship.