The Outdoors is for the Birds

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By Joe LaGuardia

St. Francis of Assisi is not my patron saint. You remember St. Francis? He was the 13th-century monk who preached to all of nature, including animals. He spoke of creation in moving prayers and poetry. He celebrated God’s care over all creation, including Brother Sun and Sister Moon. If you’re interested, you can purchase a statue of St. Francis at your local hardware or garden store.

But St. Francis is not for me. Don’t get me wrong, I like to garden. I spent several weekends this month working on my garden. When we have work days at church, the mulching is always my job.

For all that enjoyment, however, I have yet to make gardening the spiritual exercise it is for many Christians who echo the sentiments of St. Francis. When I weed, I curse the ground of my toil–namely, calling the weeds, “Idiots!” for being there in the first place. Some of the weeds look beautiful, actually, but they are stupid because they keep growing. And why do weeds grow so much better and faster than the things that I want to grow in the garden?

Today, when I was laying mulch in my front yard, there was a brief rain shower. This is what happens in a typical coastal Florida shower: It is a beautiful day that turns more beautiful when it becomes slightly overcast. A welcome breeze comes through for a few minutes, ushering in the clouds. It rains for a few minutes and stops as abruptly as it began.

Then things change. The beauty ceases, the breeze stops, and it turns deathly humid. You are drenched not from the rain, but from heavy moisture in the air. Your shirt clings to your body, and the mulch-stains on your shorts become mud stains, and you can’t wear your glasses because they become foggy, and you can’t wipe your brow because your arms are like slip-n-slides, and although the sun still isn’t out, the heat rises from concrete and from the damp, and you get a taste of what hell is like.

It is then that I realized I was not a Franciscan at heart. I do better with my nose in a book while in air-conditioned housing then in the beauty of nature that turns bleak and cranky.

St. Francis can guard other gardens, thank you very much. Instead, I’ll stick with a saint I fell in love with long ago, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius popularized using one’s imagination while reading the Bible, and his daily “spiritual exercises” include reflecting on the day as a contemplative form of prayer– a prayer best served indoors.

I had an email bearing Ignatius’s name at one point in my life, when Hotmail was all the rage. And although he is Spanish and I am Italian like St. Francis, I still think that the Jesuits have done more for the Catholic Church than most monastic movements in recent days.

So let St. Francis preach to the birds. I’d rather spend time asking where I find myself in scripture and reflecting on the face of Christ during long periods of solitude and silence. At least I won’t smell like a big, wet sock and have to bath seven times a day.

The weeds will have to contend with another nemesis for now, but at least they won’t face the verbal abuse that I hurl in their direction. Stupid weeds.

A Reading Life (prt. 17): Old Words with New Hope

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By Joe LaGuardia

I started collecting vintage religious books some time ago. These books, primarily on preaching or prayer, have become treasures and sources of encouragement. They have also become a way to go “treasure hunting” in used book and thrift stores. (Its exciting to have a niche collection.)

There is something about the artistry of language and the writing in books of yore we don’t get today. Contemporary writing comes to us by concise, brief sentences. When I was writing my book on the Old Testament, I tried to mimic this style of writing–people claim its Hemingwayesque– and, besides, people want fast reads.

People don’t spend time on books anymore, they say, so if an author can’t move readers through the page fast enough, they will likely put the book down. If the language is too lofty or esoteric, you threaten to leave people behind. Few people remember their SAT words from high school, so its not wise to use words with too many syllables.

Concise writing is, I think, collateral damage created by our short-form world in which we publish 140-character Tweets or social media “posts”. Even blogs have to be short, sweet, and to the point. Yet I am reminded that good writing will always be good writing, regardless of the style, and I am deeply aware of that. However, venture into most Christian books stores–or peruse the Christian section of your local book store–and you will find that concise writing has translated into shallow content.

It’s regretful just how cliche our writing sounds these days, and even facts are scrutinized by readers. We teeter on the edge of becoming an idiocracy our comedians envisioned for us so long ago.

I went into a Lifeway book store three times in the past year–and I could not find anything that spoke to me. The books have captivating covers and catchy titles; but, get into the writing, and it comes off as grade-school reading. Even the “scholarly books” sound like amateur-hour Sunday school lessons.

Pick up a book from the mid to early 20th century, however–say, those by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Scherer, or Glenn Clark– and they sparkle with jewels of writing and content. My friend, who gained the same sentiment over a year ago, reads Leslie Weatherhead and Norval Pease, writers of several devotionals from that era. I have read Old Testament textbooks from the 1960s, including one by Rabbi Solomon Freehof. Last week I finished a memoir from Somerset Maugham on his travels through southeast Asia published around 1935. It wasn’t religious, but it certainly didn’t insult the intelligence!

Commentaries, though dated, also contain writing that is rich and moving. I regularly refer to the original Interpreter’s Bible set for sermon prep, especially if I lack inspiration on any given week. The Broadman Bible Commentary still stands as a Baptist classic. I have used F. B. Meyer’s Our Daily Homily, published in 1966, as my devotional of choice on a daily basis and occasional reference for sermons.

Just this morning, I read this moving insight by Meyer:

“When Jesus subjects us to a trial, it is only because, amid all our dross, his keen eye detects the precious gold which cost Him Calvary, and is capable of becoming his ornament of beauty forever.”

Books on prayer also ring true with warmth and majesty. Although not the most theologically acute of religious authors, Glenn Clark has been a writer I’ve read recently, thanks to a trove of Clark books bequeathed to us from one of our beloved “church mothers”.

Check out this whopper of a paragraph by Glenn Clark on prayer:

“As all the seven seas are stirred to fill the little well that the child has dug in the seashore sand, so all heaven is stirred from its heights to its depths to fill the heart that truly hungers after God. Christ, whose great heart seeks and hungers for us, even more than our hearts hunger for Him, permits neither principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other creature, to separate us from the most tender, the most virile, the most irresistible expression of the love of God, that man has ever known” (I Will lift Up Mine Eyes).

Who writes like that anymore?

I can only think of a handful of writers who can get close, and I’m sure you have your contemporary favorites as well. But I don’t think its solely the strength of the content that moves us. It is the writing, and in our sound-byte world in which children no longer learn penmanship and long-hand, and where we don’t have the patience or persistence to demand better writing, something has been lost along the way.

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.