And the Church went away, grieved

By Joe LaGuardia

In Mark 10, a rich young man asked Jesus how to possess eternal life.  Jesus told him to follow through on the Ten Commandments.   The man was religious and had a routine.  He served God and made charitable contributions to society.  “But there is one thing you lack,” Jesus told him, “Sell all you have…”

The lesson is filled with irony.  A rich man had lack, and the lack was the willingness to part with all of the things that got in God’s way.  Being religious was not enough.  Doing good works was not enough.  The man was so busy consuming things that he thought eternal life was just another commodity to own.  But eternal life is not a product; it is a gift to receive with an open and expectant heart.

The man did not understand Jesus’ command.  How did he lack something?  He owned everything–and the Bible says that he walked away from Jesus “grieved.”  He failed to understand something St. Augustine learned long ago, that sometimes, “Our hands are so full of things, there is nowhere for God to put new blessings.”

I studied this portion of scripture at the same time that I have been reflecting on the role of grief in the lives of churches.  This idea of church grief came out of a pastor’s retreat I attended in late September.  Bill Wilson, director of the Center for Healthy Churches and facilitator of said retreat, mentioned that there was a consultant working with churches that emphasized grief in the lives of congregations.  Pastors new to a congregation or pastors exiting one need to know how grief shapes community.

The notion is very simple: Churches grieve during transitions (both clergy transitions as well as ministerial ones), and churches do not instinctively know how to handle grief.  There is little conversation about what hurts, and grief comes in the form of lament: Why do we not have the same amount of people in the pews as when the church was in the “Golden Age”?  Why has the church lost so much cultural influence in society?  Why are we losing entire generations–“Where are all of the young people?”  These are questions born out of grief, not out of intentional strategic outreach.

They are symptomatic; but as all grief turns out to be, they can lead to greater opportunities rather than hindrances.  Grief can be life-giving or a burden; it is all based on how we respond to it–and most churches do not respond appropriately.

Ministers who miss these emotional cues are ill-prepared to help churches transition into new, life-giving seasons of ministry and missions.  Churches that get stuck on the past forget what God calls them to be in the future.  Congregations turn insular, power struggles erupt, and conflict damages outreach.

“There is one thing you lack…” is not only a call for individuals, it is a challenge for churches to let go of the things that no longer work or sustain growth.  Our congregations are so filled with baggage and programs of yesteryear there is no room–and no vision–for God to give the new blessings that propel churches into a new era of ministry.

Ministry is not going to look the same as it did decades ago.  The church must now work from the margins of society, not the center of it; and it must advocate for an outward-focused mission that joins others on the margins rather than cozying up with people and politicians who wield power from the center.  Centralized power exploits, discriminates, and sustains status quos at the expense of justice and liberation.  The church stumbles when it forgets its place; it is not rich, and it lacks that posture of open hands and hearts in which we look to God for our strength.

We have become the church of Laodicea, not Philadelphia.  We think we are rich, and we have pushed Jesus out of our churches because we are too full of our own pride.  But Jesus stands at the door and knocks.  Hope is not lost yet.

Pastors have to play two roles in the church these days: one is the role of visionary prophet who dreams new dreams and casts new visions.  The other is to be a grief counselor that helps put old ways of doing things to rest, to purge us of baggage that takes too much attention or that fills time and hands.  It is as Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Pastors must facilitate life and death.  The only other alternative is to remain stagnate, to walk in perpetual grief.


Titus: A Model of Joy-filled and Passionate Missions

Old vintage retro golden compass on ancient map

By Joe LaGuardia

You remember Titus, don’t you?  He’s the one who has an epistle in the New Testament bearing his name?

I didn’t remember him either.  We rarely read about minor characters in the Bible such as Titus.  When was the last time your pastor preached a sermon on him?

Titus, as minor as he seems, was actually a critical figure in the early Christian missionary movement under St. Paul’s leadership.  He founded, led, and organized churches.  His ability to bring people together and build coalitions for the cause of Christ is well documented.

In other words, there is much to learn from Titus, and we Christians would do well to follow his example in living the type of evangelism his life espoused.

According to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Titus was an early convert to the Christian faith.  He was Greek and, therefore, avoided conformity to the Jewish Law while becoming a believer in Christ (Gal. 2:2).  He was Paul’s partner in spreading the Gospel in Macedonia, Corinth, Crete, and Dalmatia.

Further investigation affirms that Titus’s evangelism methods had qualities worthy of mimicry.

Titus, for instance, represented a type of evangelism that was filled with consolation and encouragement.  In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote that his tumultuous relationship with the Corinthian churches found some healing in the wake of Titus’ efforts (2 Cor. 7:1-7).

Titus consoled the community of Corinth and, in turn, consoled Paul.  He was an agent of reconciliation between two parties that didn’t see eye to eye.

Evangelism that makes a difference is always one that brings consolation to those who are at odds with God.  Too often, evangelists use hostile or harsh words to coerce audiences into a place of conviction.  Consolation, on the other hand, allows people to experience the love of Christ in a way that compels them to follow Christ with sincerity, hope, and sustainable discipleship.

Titus was also a person of joy and enthusiasm (2 Cor. 7:13, 8:16).  Keen readers of the Bible get the sense that Titus’ life was so transformed by the love of Christ that his passion for the gospel became contagious.

Titus confronts those of us who live life in a state of melancholy and despair.  Christ’s salvation should fill us with an unyielding joy that cannot help but affect our life and the lives of others.

Titus promoted a type of evangelism that emphasized personal responsibility and generosity.

According to the Corinthian correspondences, a part of Paul’s conflict with Corinthian Christians was their lack of supporting an offering for the poor in Jerusalem.  Paul sent Titus to persuade the Corinthians to give out of their abundant wealth and love for God (2 Cor. 8).  After all, if God gave them the gift of salvation, how much more should they give to those in need of material resources.

Titus did not let these disciples skate through their faith without taking responsibility in participating on behalf of social justice.  He knew that following Jesus was a task resulting in joy and redemption, but he also knew that it was a task requiring sacrifice, charity, work, missions, and some hard life changes.

In a personal correspondence, Paul encouraged Titus to remember God’s grace and train others “to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (Titus 2:11-12).  This discipleship was no watered-down gospel free from the obligations of the cross-shaped life.

Although Titus is a minor character in the bigger plot of God’s salvation, he has much to teach us even today.  Like him, our evangelism and discipleship can take the shape of the joy, enthusiasm, responsibility and generosity that made Titus such a trusted figure in the Bible and the early church.


Look not unto Jesus

JesusBy Joe LaGuardia

Several months after Kristina and I moved to Georgia, I was throwing trash away in our apartment complex dumpster when I spotted a painting of the Last Supper of Christ.  Unlike the Da Vinci paintings I had seen before, this one was different: all of the disciples and Jesus were people of color.

I took the painting home and showed my wife, wiped off the dust that had collected on the canvas, and put it in my home office.

When we moved to Georgia, we were astounded at how many Baptist churches were segregated between black and white congregations–we came from a multicultural, diverse church.

That day, I realized that some churches segregated Jesus too.

I can’t blame some communities for portraying Jesus as black (or Latino).  A white Jesus, inspired by European artists, is just as mythic.  Jesus was probably a stereotypical Mediterranean with olive-skinned complexion, dark hair, dark eyes, and skin tanned and cracked by the harsh middle eastern sun.

And who would want a white Jesus in a predominantly African-American place of worship in the first place, a constant reminder of the prevailing white hegemony of the last three centuries of American history?

In fact, it was white theologians in the eighteenth century, not black ones, who questioned whether there were two Adams–one for white people, and one for people of color–in which only one Adam (I’ll let you guess which one) begot the true human race.  So having a white or black Jesus is a significant symbolic choice, especially after the Black Liberation Theology movement in the 1960s.

A few weeks ago, I preached on Luke 14 at church.  It recalls the story when Jesus went to a Pharisee’s house for dinner and told the guests that if they ever threw another dinner party, to invite not the righteous and healthy folks, but the blind, crippled, poor, and beggars.

When I was praying about this story, my mind focused on Christ as honored guest at this dinner party.  I tried to picture Jesus sitting there eating, talking, challenging, and storytelling, because I really wanted to get into the drama of the whole thing.

I was surprised when I reflected not on the Jesus I am used to envisioning in my prayers, but Black Jesus in that painting from so long ago.  Distracted for a minute, I soon realized Jesus did not want me to look at him at all.  He wanted me to look around, beyond the table to the very people Jesus described as on the margins of society, those who are poor, broken, and outcast.

We look to Jesus for many things, and we see him many different ways.  We love Jesus and want more of him in our prayer life and in the daily journey of faith.  But sometimes our fixation with Jesus overwhelms our outreach to those for whom Jesus cared most.  After all, he said that when we help those in need, it is as if we are helping him.

Where do we find Jesus but in the face of the poor, in the disfigurement of the crippled, and in the wounds of the brokenhearted?  In our suffering neighbor, the Lord comes to us as the suffering servant, a figure upon the cross who sought to heal and restore those who bear their own crosses.

Look at Jesus, but don’t look at him too long.  Look around.  Next time you throw a party, invite those who cannot repay you and who will become Jesus to you.  When we serve the least of these, we serve Christ himself.