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.
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When silence is the only language you can speak

Photo by Samara Doole

By Joe LaGuardia

I did not preach much Sunday, September 3.   I tried, but all I was able to do was give testimony.  When we preachers have nothing to say about a biblical text, it is just best to testify.  It does not have to be scholarly or well-organized, but it does have to be true.

My week was like that: A cycle of trying and failing, of finding words to say and confronting silence instead.

I began the week excited about joining my sisters in Orlando for a few days.  It was the first time our families got together in years: Three days with nieces, nephews, and the big Mouse at Bueno Vista.

Over the weekend, however–the weekend before my vacation–I received word that one of our parishioners fell victim to cancer and passed away.  I was heartbroken for the family.  It was sudden.  The man had one son, so when I met with the family and he spoke about his father, I was reminded about the loss of my own dad.

Funerals have a way of keeping us preachers nimble.  Instead of having one sermon to write before I went to Orlando, I now had two: one for Sunday and another for the funeral, which was scheduled for the day after my return.

I did something a little different for the funeral sermon: I wrote an outline. I always write manuscripts for funerals to insure that each word is intentional, thoughtful, sensitive and concise.   But I did not want a complicated sermon.  I was co-officiating and eulogies were planned, so what more needed to be said?

With sermons out of the way, I went off to Orlando. My trip  went well except for the fact that, now, every time I get together with my sisters, there exists the lingering absence of my father who had passed four years ago this August 5th.

My sisters and I had fun.  We laughed.  There were no conflicts, but our father was missing.  We didn’t have anyone to complain to about our jobs, our finances, about one another.  My dad was good about that, he absorbed everyone’s trials and tears and hardships.

I was quiet most of the trip as a result of my melancholy.  Why was I so quiet?  I hadn’t seen my sisters in ages, there must be more to talk about.

After I returned from Orlando, I headed to the funeral for our parishioner, but another oddity happened, although I am not sure if anyone noticed: I did not finish preaching my funeral sermon.  No, really–literally!  I literally stopped short in the middle of the homily!  I blanked out and I left off the conclusion before stopping mid-sermon and calling the congregation to join me in a closing prayer.

Later that afternoon, home with Kristina, I broke.  My wife and I had a long discussion about my anxieties and stress, about missing my father, and about how my words kept failing me–on my trip, at the funeral, in expressing a cloud that followed me all week long.

Sunday morning came, and off to church I went with two services to preach.  But as I mentioned already, I did not preach.  I testified.  I did not speak of my trouble with words.  I did not confess that I blanked out during the funeral sermon.  I only told a story about trying to find joy in unexpected places and about how one person from church with whom I met the previous week (who had lost her husband three months ago) ministered to me in the midst of my own hardships this week.

This evening I continued reading a book that I can never read for long sittings.  Its one of those books where you savor a sentence or two (or a whole page if you’re lucky), and then you have to stop and pray and reflect or wipe tears to see more clearly.  Its When God is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor, and what I read tonight resonated.  In fact, it sums up my emotions this week perfectly, although the situation is different:

I met a man last summer–a preacher–who nursed his wife until her death, at fifty-something, from cancer.  When she stopped breathing, he said, the silence in the room destroyed all language for him.  No words could get into him and none could get out. . . Months and months later, his voice is still raspy. . . He did not sound angry when he said that.  He sounded like someone who had been scorched by the living God and who knew better than to try and talk about it.”

I think that is my problem, one that Taylor sums up well.  There are times when I encounter God and I, along with many others, expect that I can put that into words.  I don’t blame anyone–that’s my vocation, after all.  But sometimes I need to know better.  Sometimes I need to stop trying so hard to talk about things that I can’t talk about.

My only regret is that I had some collateral damage along the way: A funeral sermon brought to a screeching halt, an online prayer I since deleted because it turned into a debate that was a waste of time anyway, and a Sunday sermon-testimony I hoped did not ramble on as much as I had feared.

Sometimes we are scorched and it just best to let the Holy Spirit speak in the silence instead.

Ministry for the Sake of Christ and the World

By Joe LaGuardia

I had a conversation with a Navy veteran yesterday who served as a flight-deck officer for nearly 25 years.  I thanked him for his service and was grateful that he had sacrificed his safety in order to protect our freedom.

He reminded me of the time I wanted to serve in the armed forces too.

I was a senior in high school when recruiters visited our classes and encouraged us to make a sacrifice for our country.  They visited on behalf of the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard.  My uncle had served in the Air Force, and I felt compelled to look into serving in that particular branch.  I am afraid of heights, but since I wore glasses I figured that they would not let me fly airplanes anyway.

When I came home to tell my father, he was not happy.  I did not understand why he was frustrated, and I began to explain all of the great things that can result from serving our country, and Uncle Joe served so why not?  Dad wanted me to go to college instead.

Although I trusted and followed my father’s advice, I still remember clearly–more clearly than ever when I spoke with that Navy vet yesterday–of the feelings I had in wanting to serve in something bigger than me, to make a sacrifice on behalf of a nation I loved and people that I longed to protect.

Since then, there were only two other times when I had that profound feeling of being called to something so profoundly inspiring.  One time was when I worked as a teacher assistant for an online college course through Ashford University.  It was a writing class, and many students I assisted were in the military or just released from the military.  Educating our troops and vets was my way of helping our nation yet again.

The second time came in college when I heard Christ calling me into the ministry.  I had gone through a litany of career options, praying for the right job that would allow me to serve others while supporting a family.  When it came down to either vocational ministry or practicing law, I met with my New Testament professor, and he gave me the lecture most of us ministry students receive.  Its the advice from the old Buechner adage that says that your calling is found where your deepest passion intersects with the world’s deepest needs.  I plunged headlong into ministry.  My father was happy.

Although I love church and ministry–I know I’m called to this because I cant’ do anything else–I often forget why I got into this business in the first place.  Yes, the Holy Spirit swayed my heart and Christ compelled me to serve His church as a full-time minister.  But there was also that profound feeling of serving others, the very same feelings I had when I spoke with those Air Force recruiters in the halls of Stoneman Douglas High School.

I think that when we ministers forget the source of our inspiration and the emotional reasons why we responded to God’s call–logic aside!–we forget the joy and passion that we are to bring to our vocation in church.

And I wonder if one of the reasons why churches plateau or die is partly because of us: We somehow lose that feeling of joining God at work for the sake of the world, and we fail to inspire others as our own passion dies a slow death under the weight of sermon preparation, balancing a congregation’s expectations with being true to yourself, and doing the busy administrative work that churches require.

I figure that if you do not have a love for every aspect of church and forget to rely on Christ’s love to fill you–whether visiting someone in the hospital or making a copy of your time sheet for your church administrator–then you might as well close shop and go home.

I enjoyed my conversation with that old veteran yesterday, and together we enjoyed a good meal as we celebrated a newlywed couple whose wedding I had just performed.  More significantly, I enjoyed what the conversation reminded me of: That we who call Christ Lord are to give of ourselves, and that there is no higher calling than to serve Jesus…To give one’s life for the sake of others, for there is no greater honor and privilege.