Getting back to basics

By Joe LaGuardia

It is important for Christians — clergy included — to get back to basics sometimes.  You go through the journey of faith, learn new things, meet new people, take on new ministries and adventures.  Life happens, and it seems that life happens too quickly.  You have to slow down.  You may need a season to get back to basics.

This happens to me about once a year.  I read books, write sermons, have conversations, go on retreats, pray and do Bible studies–personally and in groups–but then I hit a personal spiritual wall, and I long for simpler times.  I usually devote a few months to read something that is basic, a beginners-type of book.  Sometimes it is on the Bible, other times it is on spiritual formation–usually something tied to fields related to my doctoral work.

A couple years ago, I read Spiritual Theology by Diogenes Allen.  I picked it up from a Catholic bookstore in Georgia, and regretted that I did not know the book existed before then.  It would have been mighty useful for my dissertation (on spiritual formation and caregivers) back in 2008-2009.  It was a great, basic book on spirituality.  It brought be back to the basics, a good refresher in more familiar waters.

This past season I’ve been reading An Introduction to the Old Testament by James King West.  Published in 1980, some of the scholarship is dated and it is from an ecumenical school of thought, but the writing is good and I am enjoying West’s archeological and anthropological insights.

I am editing and publishing a book of essays on the Old Testament, so I am also reading the introduction to make sure I have all of my facts straight.  Thanks to this basic book, which I picked up at my local used-book store for a dollar, I already found one error in my own book– it was Amnon, not Absalom, who raped Tamar.  If I remember correctly, I think Absalom might have killed Amnon for it.

Getting back to basics helps us remember information that can get lost in translation over time.  It can also correct falsehoods that entangle us or befuddle us–not because we intend to believe things that are false, but because when we juggle too much information, it tends to meld together.  It helps us re-align our priorities and put first-things first.  For a preacher who has a head full of stuff, I find that getting back to basics helps me de-clutter in my brain.

This is not just for preachers.  A seasons-cleaning can help us in our relationship with Jesus too.  Sometimes we study about Jesus so much, we forget to spend time with Jesus in a personal way.  We talk about God or study God’s Word often, but forget to make time for God in prayer and worship.  Getting back to the basics strips us of all the chaff that clogs our spiritual arteries in this information, hyper-technological age.

What do you need to do to get back to basics?  What does Jesus want you to jettison in your knowledge about him because it gets in the way of getting closer to him?

Advertisements

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.