A Pastor appreciates the hymns: “Be Still, My Soul”

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

When my father passed away tragically four years ago and we were planning his service with ministers at his home church in Staten Island, New York.  I had only one request.  I did not want to speak, preach, or pray.  I did not want to give a eulogy or read scripture.

All I wanted was one congregational hymn to be played since I knew that the rest of the service incorporated contemporary music.  I chose Be Still, My Soul, set to the tune of Finlandia.

Be Still, My Soul certainly seemed out of place at the time.  The rest of my family did not know it.  Its slow–(and, I would argue, haunting)–cadence threatened to slow down an otherwise long funeral.  Why sing something nobody heard of, and why sing a song that was set to Irish, nineteenth-century music?  We even had doubts that the minister of music would be able to play it, let alone fit it into the Order of Worship.  But, as I mentioned, it was my one and only request.

During the funeral, people spoke.  The pastor preached for a good while.  We did have praise and worship, and rightly so, for all funerals for believers are worship services to the God who is giver and author of our lives.  But it was Be Still, My Soul that made me feel right at home, right where I belonged.  It was my way of bringing my tradition–my church family (nearly 800 miles away)–into our worship of God that day.

When we sang the song it was lovely.  It was indeed haunting, and it did invoke a theological voice that otherwise would have been lacking.  I barely sang it, and most of the time I held my nephew who wept in my arms.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In every change God faithful will remain.

Here I was, stricken into speechlessness at my father’s death, nearly drowning under a deluge of thoughts that things will never be the same, and the hymn communicated what I did not have the words or strength to say: That although my family and I were facing the worst situation we had ever faced–in the midst of change and grief and pain–God is faithful and God would provide.  We worshiped God together that day, but only this song, this hymn, reminded us about who God is and who we are to God.

The second verse goes on to declare that life is full of mystery, that in darkness we can still stand solidly on Christ who upholds our confidence and hope, to whom waves and wind–the chaos of life–still obey.  The song nurtured me as I nurtured my nephew.  My father died in a dangerous world, but in the embrace of God and each other, we were “safe and blessed.”

I have heard it said that the songs shared at funerals touch the lives of so many people who sing those same songs on random Sunday mornings in worship services and churches across America.  People still cry, for example, when we sing I Come to the Garden Alone because it reminds them of Grandma’s funeral or Father’s celebration of life.

For me, Be Still, My Soul will forever have that peculiar hypnotic hold upon my life.  It is more than captivating, it holds me captive to the Spirit–for it is within this song that I find myself as beloved, as hopeful, or rather hope-filled: “Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.”  Until that day, we have a song to sing, and that’s good enough for now, especially when words fail us.

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Conflict and a Parting of Ways in the Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Being Christ’s Church is no easy task.  As far back as the New Testament, churches have been dealing with weighty matters from Bible interpretation to theological wrangling so much that we should not be surprised when some churches fight and split.

Scripture provides us with a blueprint for how to manage conflicts in church.  The question of gentile inclusion in Acts 15, for instance, reveals a process of discernment that promoted communication, testimonies, Bible interpretation, and compromise that produced healthy church growth.

A later incident in Acts 15 describes what happens when people in churches have irreconcilable differences that discernment cannot overcome.  What happens when the only solution to disagreement is a parting of ways?

Acts 15:36-41 recalls a sharp disagreement between Barnabas and Paul on whether to bring John Mark on a second missionary journey.   They did not come to a compromise and they arrived at an impasse.  Paul and Barnabas parted ways.

A close reading of the text reveals four effective strategies in managing a church conflict in which irreconcilable disagreements did not spell the end of friendships but exposed a new season of ministry inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The first strategy is that Paul and Barnabas keep their focus on God’s mission and don’t make the conflict personal.  The Bible clearly outlines that Barnabas and Paul had different personalities: Barnabas was a bridge-building who longed to keep everyone together.  Mark was family, so there was a willingness to give him a second chance.  Paul was all business.  He was not as forgiving, and God’s mission was at stake.

This strategy shows that when churches do conflict resolution well, they emphasize the mission of the church rather than resorting to personal attacks.

Second, Paul and Barnabas valued communication.  Paul could have easily went along with Barnabas only to flirt with resentment if things went sour later in the journey, but Paul was honest with his friend.  He trusted Barnabas with his concerns, and the “sharp disagreement” shows a deep sense of honor between the two men.  There was mutual respect, and in Paul’s later letter to the Corinthian churches (1 Cor. 9), Paul still considered Barnabas his peer and equal after the division–they may not have agreed, but they still affirmed each other’s mission.

What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common–a zeal to share the Gospel” – St. Crysostom.

A third strategy is to have an understanding of God’s sacred time: there is a season for everything.  What may appear to be discomfort, disagreement, or discord to us may simply be the Holy Spirit’s way of inspiring a new season of ministry.

In this season of ministry, Paul recognized that Mark was not the right guy for the job.  Later, after Mark matured in the faith, Paul recruited him to minister to churches in Colossae as Paul remained in prison (Colossians 4:10).

The focus remained on the mission and Mark was not necessarily the problem–sometimes the problem is with our sense of timing.  When seasons of ministry shift, change and discomfort result from that restless anxiety that tips our hat to the movement of the Spirit.

In times of discomfort or disagreement, we need to STOP, LISTEN, and ASSESS where the Holy Spirit may be at work to break us into a new level of revival, mission, zeal, or ministry.

Last, in parting ways not by discord but by effective conflict resolution, Paul and Barnabas expanded God’s mission.  God’s mission does not collapse or implode or falter.  When we resolve conflict by our own strength and design, churches split and bring some ministries to an end.  When God’s mission remains our focus and we make decisions because we are in tune with the Holy Spirit, God replicates and multiplies church communities.

As a result of their parting of ways, Barnabas and Mark ministered in Cyprus while Paul began a second missionary journey that ventured as far as Macedonia.  St. Crysostom wrote about this text, “What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common–a zeal to share the Gospel.”

When conflicts arise, our first step as Christians should be to put in place a process of spiritual discernment that seeks to bring reconciliation and restoration in the church and the church’s mission.  When irreconcilable differences occur, however, we must put in place a process of a different kind; yet, our concern should always be the same: Are we living deeper into God’s holiness and are we proactively reaching the lost with every decision that is made?

Standing in God’s Greatest Commandment

By Joe LaGuardia

This was presented at a Stand on the Side of Love gathering at the Vero Beach Courthouse on 16 August 2017 with neighbors, friends, and concerned citizens.

Here I stand.  I am the third-generation son of Italian refugees who escaped poverty, injustice, and fascism in Europe in order to seek a better life for themselves and their family.  They did not speak any English and their customs differed from many Americans at the time, yet Lady Liberty greeted them all as equals and with dignity as she had in years past and for a people vast.

When my family arrived in America, things were not perfect.  They ventured into ghettoized neighborhoods with other Italians, relegated to deplorable, cloistered tenement houses in New York.  And yet, in that place, they made it.  The American dream had become reality.

It is this type of liberty that defines who we are as American citizens and it is this type of hospitality and love that defined my family and shaped who I am as a minister of the Gospel.

But not all of our citizens had been afforded this kind of liberty.  Though foreign and different, my family had champions and advocates who fought for our rights as Italians—like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who represented ethnic communities in Manhattan and shamed a nation bent on spending more money on the military than on feeding poor children in one of the largest urban centers in the US.

And we also had the color of our skin going for us too.  Though I was raised in a family in which everyone, friend and stranger alike, had a place at the table, the stain of racism had reached into my neighborhood.  I grew up in a neighborhood segregated by streets and blocks, and the truth that liberty had not reached into communities of color was something I realized as I matured.  Who advocated for the “other” who were ghettoized and held captive by the projects and a crumbling education system?

For all the talk of statues and history in the news, of “us vs. them” and “who’s right and who’s wrong,” our public discourse largely misses the point: Much of our nation—the very one that welcomed my family with open arms while oppressing large populations of others—was founded not on a faulty democracy, but on a defunct medieval theology that pitted some people against others, declaring that some are superior humans deserving of all the rights afforded by our Constitution while others are only worthy for subjugation, a theology that insisted on a divine mandate that “This is God’s will for us.”

This theology continues to dominate and rear its evil head in the fabric of our communities even today, and it continues to justify inequality in our relationships just as it had for over four centuries by way of imperial-inspired sermons, seminaries, and church cultures that perpetuated colonialism, Manifest Destiny, slavery and Jim Crow, a biased criminal justice system and systemic discrimination in housing, public education, and fair-wage opportunities.

Standing on the side of love means first standing in a position of repentance, for we cannot be united by love—God’s love—without first recognizing our own lack of love, our own depravity as flawed creatures, our silence to push against this defunct theology and its ingrained toxins.  So I am a proud Italian-American, and I am a proud Baptist, and I am proud to serve Christ my Savior—but not so proud that I do not ask forgiveness for the racism and oppression and injustice that reside in my own heart.  I repent of the many ways my mind makes thousands of subconscious judgments against those who are different than I, or who speak differently or think differently or vote differently than I.

When I say “Here we stand,” I do so in humble submission to our Creator and in service to our community.  And I promise to love and respect you more today than I might have yesterday, and hope to love and respect you more tomorrow than I do today.