A Pastor appreciates the Hymns: “God of Grace…”

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

Most ministers I know pray for courage on a daily basis.  Ministry is a sacrificial act that requires risk, reconciliation, and intuition.  It is a craft that pastors shape over time, a vocation forged in the throes of experience and ever-evolving knowledge.  So goes the prayer in God of Grace and God of Glory in which the author, Harry Emerson Fosdick implores the Lord, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage.”

Penned soon after the First World War, God of Grace and God of Glory  was Fosdick’s confession of having supported the “War to end all Wars,” only to realize that violence only begot more violence (what one writer calls the postindustrial “liberal myth of progress”).  Like other progressives of his time, Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York, repented of his ideals and wrote this hymn in which he asked God to “cure thy children’s warring madness.”

Fosdick’s beloved hymn captures the spirit of historic progressivism in its lofty lilt, set to the music of John Hughes, while birthing notions of non-violence that shaped much of the progressive church into recent days.  In fact, after Fosdick, Riverside Church became a beacon for peace and non-violence. One of the church’s pastors, William Sloane Coffin, gained notoriety for preaching against the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation in the 1970s Riverside pulpit.

It is this legacy that spurned controversy over Fosdick’s hymn in the first place.  If you look at hymnals from the Vietnam War era onward, notably hymns published in the 1970s, such as the 1975 Baptist Hymnal, many editors removed the third verse which asks God to undo a nation’s penchant for war.

Even moderate-leaning hymnals of late, including the Celebrating Grace hymnal published in Macon, Georgia, in 2010 excludes the verse in favor of asking God to “set our feet on lofty places.”  This contemporary spin is more a hymn for hikers than it is one that shapes theological engagement of peacekeepers for the 21st century.  (The 2008 Baptist hymnal by Lifeway does include the classic 3rd verse.)

I have grown to love the historic version of God of Grace and God of Glory for both its musical artistry and its message ever since my earliest years in seminary.  It was then that I studied Fosdick and his historic tenure at Riverside.  I learned how he moved his church into the “Christian century”, battled the shortfalls of religious fundamentalism, and gave rise to a new style of homiletics that inspired preachers to utilize sermons as “pastoral care on a group scale.”

I got a hold of Fosdick’s memoir, For the Living of These Days, and read about his own struggles in ministry.  For all his boldness in the public square–he had his own radio show and all–he had a fairly weak constitution that led to multiple nervous breakdowns.  He did not just preach God’s Word, he wrestled with God’s Word.  His movement from warmonger to non-violent activist evolved out of one such struggle.

Whenever I face difficult times in ministry, I often find myself praying Fosdick’s words.  It is comforting that hundreds of thousands of Christians have sung this song, and it is in the company of saints that I still sing (or pray!) to ask God to grant me wisdom and courage for the facing of difficult hours.  It is a prayer for the soul as well as the church, which is the womb of Christ’s budding story.

In a world that debates left versus right, liberal versus conservative, one political party versus another, Fosdick, his legacy, and his hymn remind me that all our Christian leanings, wielded over a hundred years, have all contributed greatly to a magnificent Church, a rich tapestry of worship, and an artistic depth to hymnody and liturgy that still wrestles with text and scripture even today; for, at the end of the day, God is still One who is both grace-filled and glorious!

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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.

Politics, Bluegrass, and Punishment: A Longing for Lent (again)

By Joe LaGuardia

I came off of a very productive Lent this past season.  My Lent involved fasting from politics–from listening, watching, reading, and, well, reading anything having to do with politics (and, in many cases, religion).

That was a good exercise.  Before Lent, I was up too late watching CNN, wasting away in the midnight hours reading The Washington Post, and subjecting my family to the XM politics station during road trips.  It was bad.

Lent is not only a time to give up something just to give it up, but to consider why that which you are giving up has detrimental effects in your life.  While I fasted from politics and yearned for the XM, I had plenty of time to pray and reflect on my politics addiction.  The news was definitely affecting my life, setting me up for exhaustion, and (at worst) producing in me a moodiness that rippled through my whole family.

I decided that once Lent came to an end, I would limit my access to that kind of toxin.  It has been about three days now, and I have not watched CNN or Fox. I only stayed up late one night to watch clips from The Daily Show and read articles on my cellphone.  I’ve listened to the XM channel, but not while my family was in the car.  Fair enough.

Yet, as I have taken in only a spoonful of the news, I have already seen the affects draw on my mood.  Since Sunday, I’ve been annoyed by a terrible United Airlines incident, frustrated with a misstatement (and I’m being polite here) about the Holocaust from Sean Spicer, and flustered by an inability to assess a coherent foreign policy strategy from the State Department as it relates to our allies and those not so friendly to the United States.  I can’t make heads or tales of it.

But in catching up and staying abreast of the news (as minimally as possible, mind you!), I have come to realize something that frightens me a bit: It seems that many policies and the politics of the day have not turned a corner to bring about the type of bipartisan compromise and legislation that I had hoped for since the election in November.  Rather, there seems to be a reckoning or sense of punishment in contemporary politics that has stifled the promise of good, modest governance.

Could it be that healthcare reform–much needed, for sure–did not happen not because there weren’t better plans on the table, but because the spirit in which reform arose was out of an eagerness to punish the opposing party?  And, by way of that, appearing to punish people who have benefited from the Affordable Healthcare Act?

Could it be that a coherent foreign policy has not surfaced because we are still trying to punish belligerent nation-states that stand in the way of peace and progress throughout the world?

The election is now five months over, and I am still hearing about emails, Benghazi, healthcare, financial crises, conflicts of interest, careless rhetoric, and unwieldy town hall meetings even this week alone–Holy Week!  I watched a video in which an innocent doctor was bludgeoned and punished for not volunteering his seat for which he reserved and paid on an airplane.

So, please give me Lent again.  Put me into a cave, bury my head in the sand.  Let me live in the dark where I can stumble on my own with as little damage to others as I can possibly muster.  I’ve even started listening to bluegrass more than politics in the car to stay grounded, to live into a sense of being at home as I recall the many vacations and sabbaticals that we took from the world by venturing in the foothills of North Georgia.

But then again, its Easter.  My sermon for Sunday quotes Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  That’s not just about evil–(don’t read into my quote, ya’ll; this is not a partisan article!).  Its about the choice of either doing nothing or working constructively–together–to bring about the change and transformation we all long to see in the world.

Right now, we have to change the tone of our politics.  We have to move from punishment to progress, from bickering and hostility to conversation and compromise, from one-upsmanship to friendship.  It doesn’t take an act of congress, it only takes a commitment to get over ourselves and do what is right, for people to stand up to corporate and big-money interests, and for voters and constituents to be involved in the workings of government.  As the adage goes the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and the only way to be the presence of Christ in the world is to be present in the world.

I guess the cave will have to wait.  Christ calls me to live in the light, not the darkness of the tomb.  Christ calls me — and you — to live into God’s future by God’s miracles, not the present realities that stumble along by happenstance and coincidence.  Its a word of hope, but easier said than done.  As Holy Week unfolds, I’ll still wrestle with that whole notion.  I have a feeling that bluegrass will continue to soothe my aching ears and heart until then.