Final Farewells and wishes of peace

Paul in prisonBy Joe LaGuardia

The following article is reprinted from The Rockdale Citizen.  Please note that although Joe LaGuardia will no longer publish in the Citizen after April 29th, he and a community of Baptists will continue to publish for Baptist Spirituality and other publications.  Please be sure to subscribe to our blog to keep up on our inspiring and thought-provoking publications. 

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Over the last week, I’ve been reading the “farewell remarks” from St. Paul’s epistles.  Although he writes to a variety of communities, each remark sounds similar, such as the one penned in his second letter to the Corinthians:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.  Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (13:11).

In others, he includes a challenge for the saints to be an encouragement one to another, to speak with words of wisdom rather than malice, and greet each other with a holy kiss.

As I plan to depart from Conyers and move to Florida next week, I can’t help but keep Paul’s farewell words in mind.  That doesn’t mean I consider myself to be like Paul–he’s a saint for a reason, you know–but I do think his concluding challenges are something to ponder.

For one, he encourages churches to live in peace.  Too often, our communities are so fractured that people cease to speak to one another or get together.  We forget that, like families, churchgoers fight every now and then, but are expected to reconcile.

Reconciliation is not the same as reprimanding.  The world is good at reprimanding: our justice system and courts tell us what we’ve done wrong, and we are reprimanded as punishable by law.

Reconciliation provides the space for people to speak with each other, confront each other, and open a space for repentance.  Without the opportunity to repent and apologize–to ask forgiveness–true reconciliation does not occur.  Our peace may be a false one otherwise.

I learned this the hard way after my father’s death.  The person who shot my father and two other people at a town hall meeting some three years ago was sentenced to three life sentences.  The perpetrator will never get out on parole and he escaped the death penalty only because his state governor put a moratorium on capital punishment.

As I have worked through my grief, I have forgiven the man and moved on.  But that is not reconciliation.  Until he repents of his crime and apologizes (he gave a sort of apology when he was sentenced in court, but refused to take full responsibility for his crimes), he has robbed me (and himself) of reconciliation.

Being the church means being places of peace and peacemaking.  We are to follow Jesus’ example by putting others before self, reaching out with unconditional love, and forgiving rather than retaliating against others.

A second challenge that Paul gives the church is to be people of encouragement.  Christian encouragement does not originate from a “You’re okay, I’m okay” mentality.

Rather, encouragement originates from a deep-seated confidence and knowledge that we are blessed by God and are, in turn, called to bless–and be a blessing–to others.

Encouragement comes from the words we speak.  We are to avoid chatter and gossip, and distance ourselves from those who do. God’s blessing–his love and peace–are to shape our words and actions towards others.

After all, as Christians, we’ve inherited God’s promise to Abraham so long ago, an inheritance to be a blessing to all the nations of the world (Genesis 22:18).

Last, Paul challenged the church to greet each other with a holy kiss.

I don’t recommend this action these days any more than I recommend living by all the 600 laws as outlined in the Old Testament book of Leviticus.  Nevertheless, there is a truth behind this statement.

We are to make sure that our departure from one another–whether we part permanently or temporarily–is inspired by our willingness to embrace each other the next time we meet.

No matter how much Christians fight, disagree, celebrate, praise and pray, we are to look forward to that next meeting, in this world or the next.

A holy kiss is but a cultural gesture of that embodied peace, a sign that the community is under the lordship of Christ.  It implies that we are family and suggests that we are not saying “Goodbye,” but “See you later.”

It is as the old hymn states, “God be with you ’till we meet again, by his counsels guide, uphold you.”

Learn from the Italians: talk over one another!

telephone

By Joe LaGuardia

In the South, it is considered rude to speak over another person.  It is polite to listen and yield to your conversational partner.  After all, Southerners are known to be humble, mannered folk.

Not so for us Italians.  While growing up around a table full of bread, wine, and pasta, I learned that speaking over one another with exuberance was a way of life.

Italians bicker with each other, debate politics, and gossip (just a little) at the dinner table, often, all at the same time.

Our embedded cultures bleed into religious life.  Take funerals for example.  There is nothing like planning a funeral in the South.  Funeral directors around these parts are as close as siblings and as invested in the local church as your favorite deacon.

In the North, planning a funeral is like strong-arming in the Stock Exchange.  When we planned my father’s funeral, I wish I could have transported Scot Ward and company up north just so my mother did not have to fight with the director about whether to make the visitation an sixteen hour or eight hour event.

I was not happy.

Yes, Italians are anything but humble, but when it comes to speaking their mind, they are on to something.

On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit filled the earliest disciples with power and charismatic gifts fit for heaven.

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.”

In other words, a cacophony of voices rose in praise and proclamation to God.  A divine wind blew manners out of the windows, and a chorus of different languages erupted like a fight in an Italian household.

“At this sound,” Scripture tells us, “the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (2:6).

Pentecost, like the Italians, teaches us that we have lost the ability to talk to one another.  I don’t mean to say we’ve lost the ability to be rude, but to say exactly what we mean and to mean exactly what we say.

Italians can get overwhelming at times, but they value communication, which generally leads to intimacy, growth, and honesty.  You may fight, but you’re still family at the end of the day.

We have removed the power of Pentecost not by only silencing voices in our midst, but by congregating (no pun intended!) around people with whom we agree and share a common language.  We forgot how to welcome diversity and talk robustly about things that matter and about which we may disagree.

There is no shortage of topics worth debating at church.  Race relations and violence come to mind.  We need to be frank about how violence has made its way into faith as if violence is a part of faith.

There is the subject of ecology and policies related to global warming.  Did you know that Christians feel differently about these topics, and our theology shapes where we are on matters related to our earth’s future?

How about gun control?  Just because some people want to regulate gun control to curb violence does not mean that people want to curb gun ownership, no more than people who value gun ownership want to shoot everyone who gives them a dirty look.

The sanctity of life demands that we assess honestly the protection of all lives that are made in God’s image, whether guilty of heinous crimes or as innocent as doves.  Talking out our differences is a start.

On that Pentecost day so long ago, the result of disciples talking together — talking over one another even — resulted in a revival that inspired 3,000 people to accept Christ as Savior.  The church has lost something along the way.  We, like the Italians, need to engage in conversations that matter.

Enacting Race Reconciliation for an Eternal Impact

Pastor Layne Fields of Old Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, Conyers.

Pastor Layne Fields of Old Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, Conyers.

By Joe LaGuardia

Last week, I published an article on the importance of collaboration.  This week’s article is on collaboration of a different kind: Working together in a culture of distrust.

We start with the facts.  Rockdale County has experienced a major demographic shift in the last ten years.

If my memory serves me correct, the county consisted of nearly 80% Caucasian residents as of the 2000 census.

By 2010, that number shifted dramatically.  Now, the county is made up of approximately 49% African American and 48% “white” residents.  If you only take “all-white/non-hispanic” residents, the percentage decreases to just over 37% of the county’s population.

This shift has created some tensions within our neighborhoods, although not as profound as what other counties in our nation have experienced.

In fact, community development, economic stability, and recreation in Rockdale has remained largely undisturbed aside from more traffic on the roads (the result of an improving economy).

Our local government, churches, and businesses have done a good job of integrating and reflecting the reality of our neighborhoods.  We do not have a “Ferguson” problem in which one race dominates over another.  And, although government agencies are not always in harmony with one another, things get done quite efficiently–as efficiently as can be expected, at least.

Yet, it is also not a secret that race relations have been strained despite the good efforts of public and private sector efforts.  Regardless of schools and agencies still being rated among the best in the state, there is a still an undercurrent of distrust and (in some cases) fear within communities where segregation persists.

We can see this in the opinion columns in the local newspaper, for instance.  Many people insist that Rockdale County is becoming a hotbed for crime and perceive this community as a place of hostility in the wake of racial change.

The facts, once again, do not fit this erroneous worldview:  Crime rates have actually decreased over the last two years.

Participation in the non-profit sector by the entire community is vibrant and flourishing.  Hospitality, not hostility, has created an environment that I am proud of and that my family enjoys.

This type of trust-building, bridge-building ethos must be intentional.  No person — and no organization — is an island, and we must constantly work to reflect our neighborhoods in our rate of integration and partnerships.

This Sunday, as many celebrate Memorial Day at home and Pentecost at church, we are doing just that.  Trinity Baptist Church and its immediate neighbor, Old Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, will come together for a joint worship service that acknowledges our unity in Christ and the Holy Spirit’s transformative power.

We will read Acts 2 together, which tells the story of the Holy Spirit bringing Christians together from various cultures to birth the church.  We will worship, preach, and fellowship based on this theme.

Although it will last a little over an hour, it will impact our neighborhood with eternal significance: We will stand united in reaching our community for Christ.

This is important now more than ever.  Historically, Trinity Baptist Church has been primarily a “white” congregation, whereas Old Pleasant Hill Baptist has been primarily African American.  Even economic differences have kept these two churches worlds apart although they sit across the street from one another.

Sunday will not be the first joint worship we shared together, but it will be the first in recent memory in which strained race relations have made national news.

In worshiping together, we say that God is One over all creation, and that no one community speaks on God’s behalf.  We boldly declare that, although our worship services may flow differently and our preaching styles vary, we still have a unique and singular mission to reach a community in which 70% of the population is unchurched.

There is only one heaven in which we all share, and only one mission God has given.

We hope you will join us in this effort.  Worship begins at 11 AM at Old Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, and we welcome all who are seeking after God’s own heart in this time and place.