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.

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It takes a village to raise a minister

By Matt Sapp

This reflection is in response to the Reverend Sapp’s move to a new pulpit at Central Baptist Church, Newnan, Georgia.

It takes a village to raise a minister. Transitions are natural times for reflection, so as I’ve packed up books and files this week to get ready to move from one church to another, I’ve been reminded of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by the people who support me. I have a pretty great village.

Books on my shelves, now in boxes, remind me of college professors whose classroom lectures changed my life–people who were passionate about the things I was passionate about and who awakened new passions within me.

I’ve packed away papers that remind me of seminary professors whose critique and editing of my writing showed careful attention to my work and encouraged me in my thinking and study.

I ran across a file from Professor Peter Rhea Jones who offered this advice on my first day of seminary: When someone offers you any chance, however small, to preach or teach, say yes if you can. I took his advice to heart and it has been invaluable.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

This week, I packed up a ministerial robe that was given to me by minister and mentor George McCune. I met him at Wieuca Road Baptist Church. He’s passed away now, but he used to take me to lunch, write me notes, and call me on the phone just to say how much he appreciated me and that he was praying for me.

Later, when I moved to Canton and doctor’s appointments brought him my way, he would call to let me know he would be in town and come by just to say hello. During my first few months at HERITAGE he and I stood alone one morning in the sanctuary and he prayed over me and for my ministry. It was holy moment.

His profound faith and deep spirituality left a mark on me. I’m proud to wear his robe.

The robe still hangs from a Muse’s hanger, which lets me know that it was ordered and altered by George Henry. I never knew Mr. Henry, but his children and grandchildren continue to be important parts of my village, and I remember them, too, every time I put my robe on.

Before Rev. McCune offered me his robe I was fortunate enough to wear the robe of Oliver Wilbanks, the late father of my mentor and former boss, Mark Wilbanks. As the associate pastor at Wieuca Road Baptist Church, Rev. Wilbanks wore that robe to marry half of Buckhead, GA in the 1970s.

To have worn the robes of great men and ministers like Rev. Wilbanks and Rev. McCune makes me feel ten feet tall and very lucky.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

It takes a village.png

As I’ve packed up my office I’ve seen gifts and notes from long-time family friends who in different ways and at different times have been great encouragers to me.

I’ve been reminded of friends from childhood, high school and college whose continued interest in my work and ministry provides a steady drip of encouragement that keeps me going.

I’ve remembered those who regularly encourage my writing and preaching by reading and listening—family members, friends, partners in ministry and fellow travelers now scattered across the globe.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

I’ve thought of all the people who have been patient with me as I found my way, who nurtured and taught me, and whose examples of leadership continue to make me a better minister.

I’ve paused to be grateful for my peers in ministry who invest in me by taking the time to listen, encourage, support and advise—and who provide a necessary outlet for laughter and commiseration!

And, I’ve thought, of course, of family. My wife and her family. My parents, my brother, my sister-in-law. Cousins and aunts and uncles.

It takes a village to raise a minster.

The one group of people I haven’t mentioned so far is my current church. There is no single group of people more important to my formation as a pastor than the people of HERITAGE Fellowship. In a thousand ways, large and small, the care and love of HERITAGE has formed me.

I can say without exaggeration that each member at HERITAGE has shaped me in a unique and specific way–so much so that to mention even one person by name would force me to mention them all.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

As I reflect on my village, I have a question for you: Who is in your village and when have you last paused to be thankful for them?

And even more importantly, how can you be a part of someone else’s village?

The most remarkable thing about the influence that so many important people have had on my life is how meaningful seemingly small gestures of encouragement have been to me.

There is no such thing as an insignificant act of kindness.

Never underestimate your ability to change a life. Today I’m grateful for the village of people who have changed mine.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

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.