Standing in God’s Greatest Commandment

By Joe LaGuardia

This was presented at a Stand on the Side of Love gathering at the Vero Beach Courthouse on 16 August 2017 with neighbors, friends, and concerned citizens.

Here I stand.  I am the third-generation son of Italian refugees who escaped poverty, injustice, and fascism in Europe in order to seek a better life for themselves and their family.  They did not speak any English and their customs differed from many Americans at the time, yet Lady Liberty greeted them all as equals and with dignity as she had in years past and for a people vast.

When my family arrived in America, things were not perfect.  They ventured into ghettoized neighborhoods with other Italians, relegated to deplorable, cloistered tenement houses in New York.  And yet, in that place, they made it.  The American dream had become reality.

It is this type of liberty that defines who we are as American citizens and it is this type of hospitality and love that defined my family and shaped who I am as a minister of the Gospel.

But not all of our citizens had been afforded this kind of liberty.  Though foreign and different, my family had champions and advocates who fought for our rights as Italians—like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who represented ethnic communities in Manhattan and shamed a nation bent on spending more money on the military than on feeding poor children in one of the largest urban centers in the US.

And we also had the color of our skin going for us too.  Though I was raised in a family in which everyone, friend and stranger alike, had a place at the table, the stain of racism had reached into my neighborhood.  I grew up in a neighborhood segregated by streets and blocks, and the truth that liberty had not reached into communities of color was something I realized as I matured.  Who advocated for the “other” who were ghettoized and held captive by the projects and a crumbling education system?

For all the talk of statues and history in the news, of “us vs. them” and “who’s right and who’s wrong,” our public discourse largely misses the point: Much of our nation—the very one that welcomed my family with open arms while oppressing large populations of others—was founded not on a faulty democracy, but on a defunct medieval theology that pitted some people against others, declaring that some are superior humans deserving of all the rights afforded by our Constitution while others are only worthy for subjugation, a theology that insisted on a divine mandate that “This is God’s will for us.”

This theology continues to dominate and rear its evil head in the fabric of our communities even today, and it continues to justify inequality in our relationships just as it had for over four centuries by way of imperial-inspired sermons, seminaries, and church cultures that perpetuated colonialism, Manifest Destiny, slavery and Jim Crow, a biased criminal justice system and systemic discrimination in housing, public education, and fair-wage opportunities.

Standing on the side of love means first standing in a position of repentance, for we cannot be united by love—God’s love—without first recognizing our own lack of love, our own depravity as flawed creatures, our silence to push against this defunct theology and its ingrained toxins.  So I am a proud Italian-American, and I am a proud Baptist, and I am proud to serve Christ my Savior—but not so proud that I do not ask forgiveness for the racism and oppression and injustice that reside in my own heart.  I repent of the many ways my mind makes thousands of subconscious judgments against those who are different than I, or who speak differently or think differently or vote differently than I.

When I say “Here we stand,” I do so in humble submission to our Creator and in service to our community.  And I promise to love and respect you more today than I might have yesterday, and hope to love and respect you more tomorrow than I do today.

Speaking God’s Language: An Advent Reflection

b_tdfgfugwa-murray-campbellBy Joe LaGuardia

One of my childhood dreams was to speak a different language and adventure across Europe like one of those old spy or action heroes I watched on television.  My favorite was Indiana Jones, who spoke many languages and read hieroglyphics, many found in his father’s journal, enabling him to foresee traps and dangers along the way.

Others I know have had similar dreams.  Some imagined that they were heroes from one of those old Zane Grey novels, able to speak the native tongue of Cherokees across the west in order to defeat maniacal villains bent on greed and blood lust.

I am personally fond of the late Atlanta writer, Lewis Grizzard, who said that sometimes our actions speak louder than words.  He recalls a time when he was delayed in an airplane on the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport tarmac.  When he looked out of his little port window, he saw a Delta mechanic starring quizzically at his plane, scratching his head with a wrench.

In high school, my childhood dreams quickly faded as I realized I didn’t have a knack for languages.  I almost failed Italian.  Twice.  And I am full-blooded Italian.

Some people are good at learning new languages, some are not.  What I do know is that Advent is the season when we come together as a church and learn an entirely different language altogether: God’s language, the language of time.

The New Testament uses two Greek words for “time”.  One is chronos, where we get the word chronometer, which points to human, linear time — the passing of hours and days, minutes and seconds.

The second word is Kairos, which points to time that transcends the linear passing of hours.  It is the time of divinity, so to speak, where Trinity and spirit exist apart from what we know of as human beings.

It is larger than any calendar, it is cosmic and entails the entire fabric of creation, the heavens and the earth, and who we are as God’s people.

In Romans 13, Paul stated that we believers know what time—what Kairos—it is because we speak God’s language of time: one laden with hope and joy, anticipation rather than anxiety, one in which we know that our life is not our own.

It is kairos caught up in the larger drama of God’s redemption found in scriptures of old, and finding its fullest reach in the person of Jesus Christ, who submitted himself to our chronos, our span of life, in order to die and rise again, to bend time towards justice by giving us all the gift of overcoming time too, to taste none other than eternal life.

Do we speak that kind of language?  Do we know what time it is?

The world seems so anxious about time.   Some want more of it; others have too much of it.  We are anxious about those things that create a sense of urgency in our life.  Other times, we foretell the “end of the world,”perhaps with the election of a new president or the advent of a new millennium.

People who face their fragility and the extent of their time on earth plunge into despair, the acute recognition that death is around the corner.  That is the type of language the world speaks; it falls short on hope and the promise of eternal communion in the presence of God.

When Paul tells us that we know what time it is, that we are to live as people not anxious about time, we are awakened to our liberty in Christ, to have an understanding that transcends 24 hours and 7 days a week.

‘Tis the season to move beyond the seasons.

God’s language also celebrates at least three “times” in our life:

  • The time to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, born to a virgin long ago in a far off place of Galilee which up to that point only provided the world with peasants rather than a prince of peace, King of kings.
  • A time to celebrate God’s in-breaking in our life today as we witness Christ born anew in our hearts, and also allowing us to be born unto God. To be able to birth the hope and love of Christ in world that only knows the pain of birth pangs.
  • A time to anticipate the return of Jesus Christ to the earth, His Second Coming when he will judge the living and the dead, unfurl the great scroll of the book of life, and then grant us new, imperishable bodies in which we live in God’s new heaven and new earth, where tempest waters are as still as glass, where lion and lamb slumber together, and where children play with the likes of asps and vipers.

It is in Advent when we experience Jesus as our hero, one who teaches us a new language and speaks God’s kairos, a hero that puts to rest the anxiety we all feel when worrying about what tomorrow might bring.

It is about what is “now”, and salvation in Christ’s ultimate judgement and redemption that is the “not-yet”.

And in that tension of “now-and-not-yet,” we find hope to love deeply, worship richly, and live our life by walking to the beat and time signature of a different drum.

For many, time represents what one poet calls the “long unrest.”  But for us who live into Advent and celebrate Christ’s birth and life, we allow that long unrest to turn into wakeful celebration.  We may not know French or Russian, but we know what time it is!

In Him the long unrest is soothed and stilled; in Him our hearts are filled.”

Amen.

 

Focusing on God’s magnificence

magnificentBy Joe LaGuardia

Psalm 90, penned by Moses according to the superscription, is a reflection on humanity’s fragility and God’s omniscience.  It challenges us to meditate on God’s magnificence, providence, and gift of time.

The first verse affirms that God is our dwelling place–a safe refuge for all generations.  But then the psalm quickly moves to a meditation about the frailty of humanity, the brief existence we all share, and the toil that consumes most of our days.

Whereas one day is as “a thousand years” in God’s sight, a person’s life may span seventy to eighty years and then “fades and withers.” Our days are but a dream.

Although Psalm 90 seems melancholy at best and depressing at worst, the poem is actually a reflection not to be taken as negative or morose, but as a re-focusing on God’s intimacy with us.  Yes, our lives are but a breath, but God pays attention to us anyway.  The hours of the day may pass by quickly, but God’s love still kisses us awake every morning with new life (v. 14).

The challenge is one not of resignation, but of focus.

Psalm 90 challenges us to focus not on our lack, but on God’s magnificence.

The creation theme that runs throughout the psalm reminds us of God’s majesty and power.  God’s careful attention to us brings with it awe, as well as a sense of discipline and testing (v. 7).

This is an attribute of God’s magnificence, an acknowledgement that the same God who created the heavens and the earth cares about us, cares so much in fact, that God is willing to keep us accountable to being holy and a righteous people.  What parent who cares for her child does not discipline that child and invest in the character and integrity with which that child approaches all of life?

God is so amazing, even God’s discipline inspires a sense of magnificence of who God is in our life, the world, and all of history and the cosmos.

Psalm 90 challenges us to focus not our limits, but on God’s providence.

According to vv. 5-6, God has the power to sweep away all our days.  With a divine thought or a command, God can end everything right here and right now.  What is to say that we don’t deserve it, with all of the messes we get ourselves into — from our inability to fight on behalf of justice for the oppressed, to form a comprehensive and intentional approach to ecological sustainability, to combating poverty and oppression that wreaks havoc on communities local and global, to our penchant for violence in the face of adversity or war?

Yet, God chooses (I think) to renew our days as grass is renewed in morning.  God gives us new life in which to flourish, to experience steadfast love and have a second chance.

Satisfy us, O Lord, in the morning with your steadfast love…” (Ps. 90:14)

Although we may blow our opportunity at joining God at work in the world over and over again (“For we are consumed by your anger!”), we have the ability to learn what the Spirit will have us to learn about our world and our neighbors (v. 12).  We have to be open to the lessons God has in store for us: “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

Psalm 90 challenges us to focus not on our toil, but on God’s gift of time.

Sometimes we forget that work and toil are God’s punishment for Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden.  Although many of us enjoy our jobs, we still complain that working means spinning our wheels, trying to make ends meet, belaboring day after day to provide for our families, our retirement accounts, even our churches.

Yet, the emphasis of this psalm–from God’s point of view, and ours–is that of time.  Time is short, time is valuable.  Time is a gift, and we are to make the most of our time by responding to God, living for Him (v. 16a), and living in the power of the Spirit that we might prosper in both our mission for God and our ministry in life.

Let your work be made manifest to your servants…Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper the work of our hands.”

In closing, there are three major movements in Psalm 90: One, of God’s power and majesty; two, of our fragility; and, three, of the fact that as a people of God, we still have work to do and can do it joyfully.

It is about focus and intentionality, about acknowledging that God still cares deeply for us.  Let us, in the wake of Psalm 90, meditate on God’s magnificence, on God’s providence, and on God’s gift of time.