A Reading Life (pt 9): Manuscript Melancholy

By Joe LaGuardia

By the time I graduated college and entered seminary, I burned out on biblical academia.  The start of the my three-year Masters of Divinity program was the next step towards ministry, but I was not interested in the work or for working in ministry in general.  Its not that I abandoned my call; I just needed a break.

When placement officers at seminary asked what church I wanted to serve, I declined.  Instead, I went to work for Chik-Fil-A for that first year.  When classes assigned books, I read them through for routine rather than for sport.  When a professor assigned an essay, I wrote blindly.  My heart was not in it, not entirely.

I enjoyed my seminary years, don’t get me wrong–its just that I hit a season of melancholy in which the religious studies exhausted me.  I felt that I lived in a bubble, and I couldn’t find my way out.

Over the summer, when my wife and I traveled back to Florida to visit family, I expressed these feelings to Kristina’s grandmother.  Her grandmother (whom we called Granny) was a Bible-believing Baptist prayer warrior whose love for the Lord was matched only by her love for the church.  She played piano for many years at the First Baptist Church of Tequesta, Florida, and served as volunteer secretary for many years more.  She was a Renaissance woman of sorts who read everything from church history and church architecture to theology and mysticism.

Granny was a mentor to Kristina and, later, to me, when it came to intercessory prayer–she was, unlike many Baptists I had met, “Spirit-filled,” meaning that she regularly attended charismatic services around town.  It made her special and her wisdom contagious.

When I told her of my malaise, she knew what I needed.  She took my hand and asked me to take her to the bookstore.  We went, and she dragged me over to the religion section.  I was not very pleased–the only religious books you find at those places are the pop culture books that focus more on self-help than biblical insight.

She scanned the shelves and found what she was looking for: Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart.  I was not familiar with Nouwen’s books aside from one on discipleship I read in college (Creative Teaching).  She handed me a copy and told me to read it.  She wasn’t recommending it, she was telling me to do it.  She purchased it and sent me on my way.

When I read The Way of the Heart, I found myself in a place that I hadn’t been before–Nouwen’s writings on the early church fathers and the importance of silence and solitude in the spiritual life, as well as his acute insights as to the role that suffering and servanthood plays in ministry, were among the most profound insights I had read.

Nouwen spoke of crises of faith as places of wilderness where we face our demons and rely fully on the Holy Spirit for survival.  He spoke of the Christian life as a series of conversions rather than one single conversion experience, allowing me to see that I was being converted (yet again) in the reading of this little, 70-some-odd page book.

I found a book that spoke directly to my soul: It did not provide cliché answers to hardship, and it informed readers that we must find Christ with unyielding faith–not with the head, but with the heart.  My prayer life caught fire.

From Nouwen: Jesus’ invitation to lay down my life for others has always meant more to me than physical martyrdom. I have always heard those words as an invitation to make my own struggles, my doubts, my hopes, my fears, my joys and my pains and my moments of ecstasy available to others as a source of consolation and healing.”

After that book, I picked up The Gennessee Diary and Wounded Healer, both Nouwen classics.  I read both of those books three times each over the years, and I taught a small-group book study on The Way of the Heart twice in eight years while working at Trinity Baptist Church.  My copy was so worn down, I had to purchase a new one.

Granny’s investment in me — and her ability to give me the book I needed most — guided my ministry, brought me back to Christ, and re-aligned my heart.  It gave me purpose and clarity of calling, and focused my attention on the field in which I eventually gained a doctorate.  It gave birth to this blog nearly fifteen years ago!

Of all the books that have shaped my life, The Way of the Heart came the closest to the Bible in saving my life– Nouwen helped me meet Jesus in a new way and convicted me to commit my entire life to prayer and Spirit-filled living in all I do, just as Granny had lived.

 

 

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The Mystics and the “Middles” of Life

By Joe LaGuardia

I attend a Baptist pastor’s meeting every so often in which we have a time of prayer, as well as listen to a one-hour presentation from a guest speaker.  There is always a speaker, and although it is meaningful, we are never left to talk among ourselves—to share, to compare notes, to engage one another, or wrestle with things that are happening in our community.  It is always someone from the outside, some church planter, consultant, or church leader.

Every leader sounds the same: to persuade us to take on new ideas, fresh starts, new programs all designed grow the church, make ministry effective, be relevant, increase giving and tithing, bring revival, save the lost, be true to doctrine, and on and on it goes.

No one ever addresses how to do what I call “The Middle”—that long expanse of ministry in which you are pursuing an idea or program that you were excited about starting a while ago.  No one ever addresses on finishing well either.  We like beginning new things, starting new ministries, buying new things, and getting fresh ideas; but where do we find encouragement just to do what we are doing, stick with things, and bring certain seasons to an end in a way that celebrates the meaning of that season in the first place?

For those of us familiar with the Christian Calendar, we know that “middles” are just as much a part of our walk with Christ as are the beginnings of things (like Christmas) or the end of things (like funerals).  The “middle” is what we observe in the church season known as “Ordinary time,” which goes from Pentecost to Advent. It is the longest season of the church calendar, and sometimes Ordinary Time seems to go on forever.  People get bored, we get anxious; we wonder if this whole thing is a waste of time!

The fact of the matter is that our society has capitalized on beginnings, new things, change, and convincing people that boredom and unrest can be met only with the newest craze, fad, or gadget.  No one knows how to live in the “middle” anymore—to work, eat, sleep, care for family, play with kids, go to church; and to do that over and over and over again.

For me, none other than (and most ironically) the Mystics from the Middle Ages are what have helped me get through my middles and Ordinary Times.

The Middle Ages were a time of great change in Europe, so there were many new things erupting in towns all over the known world.  Universities met the needs of the increasingly curious and ever-growing population of the merchant, “Middle” class.  Monasticism promised an escape from the world, harkening opulent and flamboyant Catholic Churches back to simpler times.  A new movement of mysticism exposed the notion that all this new wealth and learning and concentration of resources were not an end-all of things.

Several mystics marked the 13th and 14th centuries with writings, guidance, and spiritual direction that reminded people that “boring” can be just as spiritual as “the new,” that God works just as much in the mundane routine of life as God does in the “urgent.”

Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, reformed his monastery by returning to the simplicity of Benedict’s Rule of Life.  He claimed that our hope is not always found elsewhere, say, in the bliss of heaven, but in creation as well—his writings focus on the incarnation of Christ.  Jesus saw it fit to become flesh and blood like us, so there is value in this life, value in our ability to love God and others.

Hildegard of Bingen was a renaissance woman of sorts whose art, music, teaching, preaching, and prophetic witness sought to marry spiritual ecstasy with creativity rooted in earth, rules and routine.  For all practical purposes, she was the West’s first female naturalist—she was able to pay attention to the little things rather than be swept away by the shiny big things that captivated one too many hearts.

Julian of Norwich was also a romantic.  Her writings show a deep spiritual love for Christ grounded in the mundane routine of living, of loving passionately, and of seeking Jesus’ face for the sake of obeying Christ.  She suffered from ailments that became for her sources of spiritual growth.

All of these mystics teach us what Marilyn Robinson calls the “inexhaustible ordinary.”  It has been my passion to teach my congregations this truth: That if you are always looking for excitement at church, or a new program to jumpstart your faith, or the newest purchase to fill that restless hole in your heart, then you are missing the point of Christian discipleship.  It was Augustine who told us that our hearts are restless until it rests in Christ.  But the key word there is to rest—to Sabbath, to enjoy, and to see routines and daily habits as that gift that God gives us to live with intentional purpose and blessing and peace.

Take with you five values that the mystics taught us along the way:

  1. The mystics valued the incarnation of Christ: Make Christ the Lord of your routine (read Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, if you haven’t already!). In Old Paths, New Power, Daniel Henderson points out that Jesus did not pray as a part of his ministry, he ministered out of a life of prayer.
  2. The mystics valued incarnational ministry: Become a naturalist and develop a sense of interiority that grows outward and beyond you—honing the ability to grow in awareness, empathy, observation, attentiveness (a new(!) book by Samuel Wells, Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church, addresses this.)
  3. The mystics valued the rhythms of life. Celebrate blessings; accept crises of faith as gifts.  Ministry brings times of joy as well as hardship; do not avoid them, but treat them as potential opportunities to grow in Christ even when others around you fail to grow.
  4. The mystics valued the naming of experiences, even if it meant making up images, words, phrases to best express them (like Julian of Norwich, who coined the curious moniker,  “Mother Christ”). Learn how to articulate your personal experiences of Christ, and offer that gift to help others describe the movements of the Spirit in their life.  Read often to emulate how to wield language and construct alternative narratives whereby others can live.
  5. The mystics valued routine: Incorporate a Rule of Life. It’s healthy, it puts feet to your faith, and it promotes self-care.

Sabbath happens when we reach the end of our words (and worlds)

By Joe LaGuardia

“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

All that we do
Is touched with ocean, yet we remain
On the shore of what we know.
(Richard Wilbur)

pad

I.

Words are the most valuable resources we pastors have.  I agree with Walter Brueggemann who wrote that we use words to “engage in world making.”  Our words carry great power.  They dismantle, dismember, and deconstruct; they rebuild, plant, co-create, and heal.  Words breathe into being new worlds, new realities, new beginnings.  They midwife opportunities for second, third, and infinite chances.

That is what happens when we use words with our congregations and in the public square.  We write our prayers, draft manuscripts.  Some of us are so good at preaching only an outline is needed.  Words nevertheless. We interpret the Bible–more words stacked upon mere ancient words.  I am at a word processor this very moment wrapping a gift yet again; this time for you, dear reader.

But what happens when we go before God in our personal life?  What happens when we enter our interior space where time rather than words carry greater power?  How do we utter words before God, before our family?  For, in the presence of God, our words and wisdom wither into foolishness.  Our power crumbles like idols before a cross that is symbol to God’s power; weakness turned on its head for sure.

We are silenced, and it is Sabbath that shuts our mouths.  Sabbath replaces our confidence with uncertainty, it sends our cliches out to sea.  God confronts our solutions with ever deeper Mystery and the work of unwording.

The goal of Sabbath is summed up in Palm 46: “Be still and know that I am God” (v. 10).

This is difficult for pastors who make a living doing ministry and engaging in church as a career.  It’s easier to avoid Sabbath because when we enter into it, God forces us (like a stubborn musician teaching her apprentice) to play (with) the silences as well as the notes.

It is Sabbath–and unwording silence–that we fear most because in Sabbath our words lose meaning and the ability to control.  It’s where we face what T. S. Eliot calls the “undisciplined squads of emotions.”  Words fail us, and our boats bump up against the horizon like Truman Burbank’s boat did in The Truman Show.  “Silence,” opined Mark Burrows, “is the primary condition of our beginning and ending” that forces us to face our fragility and fate.

Question: So what do we do when we are confident with only one-half of our calling (to lead congregations and do contextual ministry), but constantly (and consistently) shy away from the other half of our calling–to journey into ourselves, confront Divine Mystery, be silenced, and remember who and whose we are?

Answer:  We must keep practicing it.  Only when we row that boat do we break through and go beyond the horizon that we’ve made for ourselves.  We put down our blueprints, our hammers and utility belts and give them back to God.  We have to toss the pencil that rests behind our ears or the pen that finds a warm home in our breast pocket.  We must enter into the Architect’s home instead and relearn what it means to be malleable in the hands of the Potter.

II.

There are three steps that help us confront and enter Sabbath.  The first step is to realize that the cultivation of an interior life–the life that Sabbath is all about–is a part of our calling.  Our calling to lead is not divorced from our calling to follow no more than our calling to surrender is no less important than our calling to serve.

Prayer, lectio divina, devotions, personal worship, journaling, silence, meditation, “quiet times,” and other spiritual disciplines of the church are just as important as our words.  They, too, make us who we are–and we get paid to practice them if not master at least one or two of them.

Yes, we are prophets, preachers, pastors–but ordained ministry is also about being mystic.  If we don’t practice Sabbath, we are abusing our church’s trust, deceiving the human resources department, and getting a full-day’s paycheck but only doing half the work.

The second step is to reorient our ministry to lead, preach, and pastor outward from Sabbath.  This is difficult for us Protestants who see Sabbath as the last day of the week rather than the first day of the week.  Sabbath is not an afterthought so much as it is the very center from whence God sends us.

We follow the likes of…

Brother Lawrence, who asked God to invite him into the world of ministry, joined God, and then, in turn, invited God to join him in the mundane tasks and routines of every-day living.

Henri Nouwen, who sought silence as the only real way to hear a word from God.  “The Word of God,” he wrote in The Way of the Heart, “is born out of the eternal silence of God.”  It was silence that was the pregnant mystery from which God gives our next marching order, and it is only silence that can teach us how to speak: “A word with power is a word that comes out of silence.”

St. John (of Patmos) whose ministry to the seven churches of Asia Minor erupted and founds its inspiration from a Revelation he received in a cave–a symbol of the interior life if there ever was one.

Jesus, who ministered only after meeting God in the solitude and lengthy Sabbath of carpentry, baptism and wilderness.

The Israelites, who had to learn what it meant to trust in God with nothing more than rock-tainted water and damp manna before becoming a people holy enough to settle into promised land.

The third step is to simply practice Sabbath and make time for it.  Henri Nouwen wrote that we talk and think often about God, but our hearts are far from God (he called this notion the “crisis of our prayer life”).  Eventually, we have to stop reading, talking, doing, and ministering.  We have to put everything down and push everything aside . . .and simply do Sabbath…

“Be still and know that I am God.”

To add words to that verse is to realize that there is nothing more to say, to come upon “a different kind of failure” (T. S. Eliot).

III.

Exercise 1: Sit in silence for 5 minutes.  Introduce time with music for several minutes and keep time thereafter (officially starting your 5 minutes) with an alarm clock (this keeps you from looking at your watch or a clock and lets you rest easy).

Exercise 2:  Write down your weekly schedule for each hour of each day, Sunday through Saturday.  Include routine activities and family/personal obligations.  Do you pencil in Sabbath?  If so, where?

Exercise 3: Consider these questions for reflection:

  • Where do you lack Sabbath in your weekly schedule?
  • How do you practice Sabbath?  When?
  • How does your family play a part in your Sabbath?
  • What decisions and commitments do you need to make in order to reclaim Sabbath?

Resources:

Walter Brueggemann, The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 96.

Mark Burrows, “‘Raiding the Inarticulate’: Mysticism, Poetics, and Unlanguageable,” in Minding the Spirit, ed. Elizabeth Dreyer and Mark Burrows (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005), p. 341-361.  (All poetry cited in this article is from Burrow’s essay.)

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart (New York: Ballantine, 1981).

Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958).

(Author’s note: This was written for presentation at a pastor’s retreat, going on in mid-April 2013.)