A Reader’s Life (prt. 16): Words that Defy

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By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

The greatness of writing–and the power of a word–is measured by how well that word (and, when I say “word,” I mean it metaphorically as a body of work or writing) defies other words.  A meaningful word lingers and lasts; it pierces or inspires.  A powerful word bears fruit, sometimes violently or without regard to our sensibilities.  The Bible says that God’s word, which has the power to create and destroy and shape, does not come back void.  It defies competing narratives.

My favorite writers have accomplished this feat in their writing.  Among them is Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopal priest turned writer and spiritual guide.  Her books, namely Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, have impacted me with a word that lasts, that refuses to come back void.   Her writing resonates.  It spelunks in the heart.  It is like a sonar that sends signals to map an unknown landscape, that penetrates the soul to lay out a geography of the spiritual life.

Other authors have had this powerful sway over me–Annie Dillard and Henri Nouwen stand out.  They write in a way in which the writing itself is a spiritual exercise.  They do not write about something so much as write from within that experience of the thing itself.  Like mystics of old, their writing–that slow, often time painful process of putting one word in front of another, and one sentence upon the other– is the spiritual experience itself.

I have reflected on my preaching as a result of this lesson.  When I preach, do I merely talk about God, or do I express my experience of God?

Some say you can do both, but I am not so sure.  I hear many sermons about God; but few have the courage or prophetic power to preach from within the experience.  This morning I read Ezekiel 4.  God asked Ezekiel to act out a prophetic word of judgment against Israel and Judah by making a clay tablet picture of the city under siege.  God told him to lie on his side every day for over a year.

When God told Ezekiel to eat a scroll the chapter before, it wasn’t just to regurgitate it, it was to feast on it, find nourishment, embody it, and take on its physical presence.  No wonder that John says that when God visited us in the person of Jesus, it was God’s creative Word taking on flesh.

I think this is why Taylor’s writing is so poignant.  It comes from two avenues of experience–the author as artist, and the preacher as homiletician.  Taylor has taught both subjects — from her full-time work at Piedmont College in the north Georgia foothills, to her adjunct work teaching preaching at Emory University and elsewhere in the urban milieu of Atlanta.  I am going to a conference next week to see her give a presentation on “How I Have Changed my Mind About Preaching” at Mercer University.  I am bringing her latest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark to get her signature.  I look forward to receiving God’s word from her yet again.

We writers have a bad habit of trying to mimic our favorite authors.  Rarely does this work out; it comes off as phony or insincere.  I did this once.  I wanted to write like Taylor–pen and paper in hand, I wanted to hand-write my next book like she does her own.  And I wanted to write like Dillard–not merely talk about something, but write poetic prose that penetrates the very thing in my experiences of it.

I tried this (spiritual) practice–mainly at the beach.  I brought my spiral notebook and my mechanical pencil.  I sat for long periods of time watching the waves and my children looking for seashells, trying to craft each sentence with love, care, and wonder.  I paused, watched the hasty activity and listened to the conversation of the sandpipers so ubiquitous on our coast.  And I wrote.

I wrote for about a dozen or so pages on different topics over the course of a month– on fatherhood, spirituality, vocation, ministry.   Then, I fizzled out.  It didn’t sound right, it didn’t feel right, and it was not even worth transferring the material into my journal.  I buried the notebook in one of my desk drawers at home.  I pull it out sometimes if I need paper to write a sermon, otherwise it remains hidden.

Powerful words are such because they do defy other words.  Writers know the hardships of having so many words–too many, in fact–fall to the ground, shrivel and die.  Yet, there are those beautiful moments–in an article or a sermon that sounds just right, when the word goes out and never returns.  It spreads its wings and leaves the nest, and finds its way into someone else’s heart to build a nest there and give birth to something new.  It is beautiful, like Taylor’s and Dillard’s writing; but it is a rare word indeed.  Most of the time, our words remain hidden in our desk.

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A Reading Life (pt. 2): Choose your own Adventure

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By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call in ministry.  Find the introduction here.

I rarely enjoy predictable endings. One of the hardest things about being a preacher is that you can’t conclude a sermon without mentioning Jesus and redemption. Congregations do not like ambiguous endings; they are not accustomed to solving puzzles. If you don’t end a sermon with Jesus, then what is the point of going to church?

I once preached a sermon on Job that did not end with Jesus. Sure, God restored Job’s fortunes, but that did little to erase Job’s trauma after losing his children, their families, and most of his crops. Job said that life is not fair, and sometimes life is not fair. The sermon mentioned that we are not guaranteed easy answers, cliché religious sayings, or clean conclusions in life. After, a retired Lutheran pastor came up to me and said, “Joe, I did not like that sermon. Jesus was not mentioned.”

When I was young, I had similar feelings about television and books. I can’t tell you how many times I watched Scooby Doo hoping that the bad guys would win. The show ended the same every time: “I would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you pesky kids!” Just once I would like to see Scooby and the Get-Along-Gang get their just desserts for putting their noses where they didn’t belong!

Books were similar. My favorite books consisted of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. These were the best because each book had multiple endings. It depended on your choices, and if you didn’t choose the right storyline, your hero or heroine could meet certain doom. That was exciting!

One of my Choose Your Own Adventure books was based on Indian Jones. I remember skipping to the back of the book and finding the ending in which Indie would be trapped or squashed under a big, rolling bolder. Once I spotted it, I went back to the beginning of the book and spent days trying to weave my way to that ending! I was a dark child.

What I did not know at the time was that my preference for ambiguity came from a deep intuition that life was more complex than my little, adolescent brain was able to understand. I had an easy life– both parents in the household with Dad’s steady job, clean clothes, good food, loving family, and supportive older sisters– but I somehow knew that life was not that simple. How could every day end like an episode of Scooby Doo where everyone lives happily ever after?

I always felt that this gave me an edge as a pastor. I never told people who faced trauma that “Everything will be ok.” I don’t make excuses for God when people are angry with God. I don’t feel the need to give cheap answers to complex questions. I am not afraid to tell my church, “I don’t know.” Sometimes not knowing is healthy–it acknowledges that life is mysterious, and we cannot domesticate God. God alludes us when we try to box him in.

My earliest books were most fascinating when they were complex and suspenseful. Predictable storylines bored me, and I loved to read things that kept me on the edge of my seat. But life is like that and, come what may, I am just glad that Jesus will “neither leave” me nor forsake me no matter what adventure life might bring. I can’t always choose my own fate, but I can choose to love God each and every day. So, I guess, it is hard to end without Jesus after all.

Hymnody and Liturgy, the undercurrents of Christ’s Church

By Joe LaGuardia
Did you know that the pulpit in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Vero Beach is not the original pulpit?  That pulpit is in storage.  When I first came to First Baptist, the “powers that be” gave me a choice between three pulpits: the one in the sanctuary, the original one, and the one my predecessor used in the contemporary service, a plexiglass podium-style pulpit.
I got a good look at the original pulpit, and I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the thing.  Built in 1962, it is three-times as wide as the current one, and a bit higher.  I joke that I can’t see over it; and, if I were to use it, I’d feel like I was lording over the congregation.  It is regal, however, and communicates the majesty of our church’s legacy and the architecture.
The plexiglass pulpit is in our Family Life Center, and we use it for Bible studies and other events.  It communicates a teaching-style of preaching.  That would not work for me (in the sanctuary, that is), and it is too informal for my own preaching style.
The one they had in the sanctuary–the one we currently use–is just right!  It is heavy enough to communicate the weight of the authority of scripture and of our preaching heritage, but it is light enough to move off the stage when we have special events.  It matches the rest of the sanctuary, and I can easily move around it when I preach and want to “connect” with the congregation.  It is an easy pulpit to stand in and to stand beside.  I can see over it, too.  That helps.
The Old-Fashioned Hymn Sing we hosted at church last Sunday reminded me, however, that with all of the pulpits and preachers that pass through churches over the years, it is liturgy–the worship of the people and the hymnody–that sustains churches over the years.  Preaching styles and pulpits come and go, but the Word of the Lord  grounds us, worship unites us, and the Lord strengthens and provides for us.
Singing the hymns last Sunday allowed this feeling of continuity to rise in my heart.  For all that makes us unique and diverse, it is our worship that makes us one Body in Christ.  And for that I am grateful, and for that I can celebrate and know that this God whom we serve has lifted us up and has carried us “through the ages” (Isaiah 63:9).
We don’t sing to be nostalgic, we sing to bring glory and honor to God’s name.  We don’t sing because it makes us feel good (though that happens!), but to declare the mighty works of the Lord and to praise Jesus for being our Lord and Savior.