Holding Hands

By Joe LaGuardia

In our professionalized American culture, we do not often hold hands.  Holding hands is reserved for couples in love or, in a brief welcome of mutual greeting, in the shaking of hands of a colleague.  Sometimes you don’t even get that — the “fist bump” is quickly becoming the in thing as people are weary of spreading germs, especially during flu season.

Other cultures are not as hesitant as ours.  When I traveled to Ghana, Africa, during a mission trip, I learned that friends hold hands.  It was jarring to see people holding hands everywhere as they did business, walked down the street, or simply spent time together.  When we ministered to children, all they wanted to do was hold hands.  All I wanted to do was protect my space.

By now, there is enough research to show that holding hands–the power of touch–has a powerful healing quality to it.  In fact, there is an entire research institute at the University of Miami devoted to studying the effects of touch in medicine and therapy.

Jesus also knew the value of touch–consider his willingness to place his hands upon the eyes of a man born blind (John 9), or his embrace of children who were usually seen but not heard (Matt. 19:13).  In one instance, a women was healed of a life-long bout of hemorrhaging because she touched his robe (Matt. 9:21).

My guess is that we do not touch often because we have a thing about personal space here in the West.  We fear that if touch goes too long that it is creepy at best and a threat of harassment at worst; yet, in ministry and community, we claim that we are to be the “hands of Christ” because we insist that touch and proximity have the power to heal and transform.

Two recent instances of holding hands has been especially meaningful to me.  The first was when I had to escort an elderly woman–a parishioner at our church–who needed help walking across an uneven, grassy yard.

She suffers from memory issues, but she is faithful in attending church and Bible study.  For one such study, we changed the location to the music building, and she parked on the other side of campus.  When I saw her going to the wrong building, I met her and told her of the new location.  When she saw the expanse of field, she feared that she might fall.

I told her I would hold her hand as she walked the field, and we had a delightful time talking and walking together as I guided her step-by-step across grass, over roots, and around anthills.

“Last time I held hands with a handsome man like you, I was a teenager,” she said.  I was flattered, but regardless of the compliment, we made each other’s day in that moment of friendship.  Joking aside, there was deep meaning and healing for this widow who lived alone for years and relied on brief hugs and handshakes at church for affirmation and support.

“For some elderly people, shaking hands with the minister on the way out of service is the only human touch they receive for weeks on end” –Oswald and Jacobson, The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, p. 103.

The second instance happened (and happens) whenever I meet with another parishioner, Ace, who had a fall this past week.  Ace is quickly becoming my hero because of his joy, positive spirit, and loving presence no matter what situation he finds himself in.

Ace is the patriarch of a large Vero Beach family and is father to more people than just his children.  He is an uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend to many, and he is known for encouraging people and being a faithful, listening ear to those in need.

As I have gotten to know him, I have found that he has a big smile that can light up a room–even if its a hospital room (I visited him in the ER last month, and I was greeted with that smile–thus, he is now my new hero!).

I visited with him this past week, and I was again greeted with a smile.  He is having trouble walking and maintaining his balance; his daughters have been staying with him around the clock.  But he smiles.

And Ace likes to hold hands. When I first met him, I would shake his hand like everyone else, but found that he doesn’t let go.  Sometimes, after you shake his hand, he offers his left hand and expects you to take it–not for another handshake, but to hold it and have some conversation.

In these moments, I have found that I — the minister who is called to provide a healing presence for others — have been ministered unto.  His smile and hand offer blessings that you have to experience (first-hand?!) to understand.

There is indeed something healing about touch, something deeply moving about holding hands that embodies the love of Christ and stresses the incarnate presence of God in human relationships and the spiritual bonds that brothers and sisters in Christ ought to share with one another.

It is not uncommon for me to be accused of being too Pollyannaish, of being mushy at times.  I grew up in a large, Italian family who knows the value of hugs and the healing power of affection.  We are all, for instance, “momma’s boys” in the LaGuardia clan, and that is more Christian–more Christ-like–than we’d like to think.

I doubt that our culture will ever become the hand-holding one that defines places like Ghana, and for many the “fist-bump” will be more than enough intimacy between friends, thank you very much.  But in those moments of ministry, holding someone’s hand can make a day, transform lives, and work miracles that go beyond expectations.

Gratitude for so Great a Cloud of Witnesses

FamilyBy Matt Sapp

Have you ever noticed how the right people end up in the right place at the right time in your life?  Every so often I stop to count my blessings, and one of God’s greatest blessings is each person God has put in my life.

According to the writer of Hebrews, we are surrounded by a heavenly cloud of witnesses who cheer us on in our race through life. I’m grateful to them and to God for their presence and influence in my life.

I’m grateful for the mentors among us.  I attended Founder’s Day at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology last week. While I was there I spoke with professors, pastors, and former bosses.   I talked to fellow church ministers, some who started their ministerial journeys with me and some who are further down the road.

All of them smiled, shook my hand, gave me a hug, and said something encouraging. These are people who in one way or another have invested themselves in me or are sharing in my experience.  Connecting with them encourages me.  Their kind words mean something to me. They fill me up, and I am grateful.

I’m grateful for the young people in our midst.  I went to Six Flags with students from Heritage recently.  Teenage enthusiasm is infectious. They are open and honest, and they haven’t quite learned to be cautious and closed off yet.

Young people trust the world and believe the best about people.  They still know that things will work out okay in the end.

We sometimes laugh when children are afraid of Santa Claus or monsters under the bed.   But adults build all kinds of imagined fears that box them in, too.  Teenagers, on the other hand, live in that magical, mystical middle, unencumbered by fear.

It’s refreshing. You can learn a lot by hanging out with teenagers.

I’m grateful for family.  That includes family I see in person or talk to on the phone or by text message.

My family includes close friends too.   One friend sent me a funny email when I needed a laugh.  Another sent a text message about a new rock band in Atlanta.  Each touch reminds me that there are people out there willing to share their lives with me, that I am not alone.

Even when we don’t feel particularly lonely or isolated, friendship is encouraging.  We are, all of us, gifts from God to one another.

I’m grateful to be among church family. One woman who’s been like a grandmother to me for 34 years came to church to see me last Sunday.  She lives in Acworth and had to make arrangements to be away from her Sunday School class.   Now in her 80s, she still teaches preschoolers every week.

I’ve known my current church family for less than a year now, but I know how lucky I am.  They choose each day to reflect the love and graciousness of Christ in their encouragement and affirmation of me, so I work each day to live up to and into the shared vision that we’re building together.

The people in our lives make a difference. Ultimately, it’s our relationships with others that determine the quality of our lives.

I’m incredibly lucky to have relationships that bring health and balance to my life.  I bet you have similar relationships in your life, too. Take some time to think about it.

I bet you’ll discover that you’ve got more people on your side than you ever imagined.  That’s what I’ve discovered. Here’s my advice: Treasure those people.  Be there to encourage and support them, too.  And thank God every day for them.

The Rise of the Nuns

Sister Cristina Scuccia performs during the Italian State RAI TV show final "The Voice of Italy" in Milan on June 5, 2014. The 25-year-old nun is already a talent show sensation thanks to her habit-clad performances but also has on her side the critics, who say her popularity stems from novelty value.  AFP PHOTO / MARCO BERTORELLO        (Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)

Sister Cristina Scuccia performs during the Italian State RAI TV show final “The Voice of Italy” in Milan on June 5, 2014. AFP PHOTO / MARCO BERTORELLO (Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)

By Joe LaGuardia

Everyone is making a stink out of the rise of the “nones,” people who do not subscribe to any organized faith or denomination.

What about the rise of the “nuns”?

A bad pun with a nun?  Not quite.  The Catholic Church in England and Whales is claiming a 25-year record for women recruitment in holy orders.   Seems that the Catholic Church is growing in a most unusual way.

Here in Rockdale County, I heard that Father Randy was leaving us and departing St. Pius X Catholic Church.  When the news broke, I wondered how long St. Pius might hobble along without a priest.  It is no mystery that the number of priests has waned in recent years, although the number of seminarians preparing for the priesthood has increased and posit a more hopeful future for tomorrow’s Catholic church.

Other thoughts ran through my head:  If the Vatican would only let priests get married, maybe more would become available.

And if the Vatican ever allowed women to be ordained to the priesthood, there might not be any shortage at all.   According to my friend in Decatur, a nun of some 60 years, I am not alone in this assessment.

Little did I know that women have been entering convents and other “contemplative communities” in record numbers across the Pond.  Reasons and theories vary:

Some say its because people realize that the meaning of life can only be found in the womb of the church.

Higher-ups in the Church pat themselves on the back and claim that charismatic priests and bishops are monopolizing and marketing the strengths of cloistered living, including the trendy notion that the priesthood can change the world in ways that can be quantified and qualified.

Others cite frustrations surrounding relationships, sex, and intimacy (or lack thereof).

An article with the BBC quotes novice Theodora Hawksley as saying,  “If our society is obsessed with money, sex and power and the games people play with them, then vows of poverty chastity and obedience represent a profound freedom. That’s what has drawn me to religious life.  It’s not a fleeing from the world – it’s a finding your place in it.”

Nor can we keep God out of the picture.  For all of the ways (and often times, the gimmicks) churches use to grow, gain members, and attract people to full-time ministry, its the Holy Spirit that does the transforming, convincing, and convicting.

We saw this years ago at Trinity Baptist Church when we were affirming our core values of being a place that emphasized inter-generational worship, social justice, and inclusivity.

Back then, we felt we were going against the grain of congregational development and growth, but now we find numerous articles describing how young people are attracted to churches that have similar core values in place, Catholic Churches not withstanding.

Perhaps I’m getting too spiritual here.  Maybe its just something in the water in England.  Perhaps there is just the right group of women who came along at the right time to convince so many other women (many under the age of 30) to enter an alternative life that values celibacy, obedience, and poverty.

We are not sure, but we are certain that trends are finicky things — (Have you heard about the African American lesbian physical fitness trainer in Philadelphia who is finishing her last year of seminary to become a rabbi?  You’ll have to Google that one yourself.)

And, at the end of the day, I’m just a Baptist.  When it comes to all things Catholic, what do I know?  It’s none (or, is it “nun”?) of my business anyway.  (Now that was a bad pun!)

On behalf of Trinity Baptist Church, we want to welcome Father Greg Goolsby to St. Pius X.  May we share ministry together, transform our community for the sake of Christ, and work for the common good of all, attracting people to the light of God rather than our own agendas.  Amen.