A Reader’s Life (prt. 16): Words that Defy

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By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

The greatness of writing–and the power of a word–is measured by how well that word (and, when I say “word,” I mean it metaphorically as a body of work or writing) defies other words.  A meaningful word lingers and lasts; it pierces or inspires.  A powerful word bears fruit, sometimes violently or without regard to our sensibilities.  The Bible says that God’s word, which has the power to create and destroy and shape, does not come back void.  It defies competing narratives.

My favorite writers have accomplished this feat in their writing.  Among them is Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopal priest turned writer and spiritual guide.  Her books, namely Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, have impacted me with a word that lasts, that refuses to come back void.   Her writing resonates.  It spelunks in the heart.  It is like a sonar that sends signals to map an unknown landscape, that penetrates the soul to lay out a geography of the spiritual life.

Other authors have had this powerful sway over me–Annie Dillard and Henri Nouwen stand out.  They write in a way in which the writing itself is a spiritual exercise.  They do not write about something so much as write from within that experience of the thing itself.  Like mystics of old, their writing–that slow, often time painful process of putting one word in front of another, and one sentence upon the other– is the spiritual experience itself.

I have reflected on my preaching as a result of this lesson.  When I preach, do I merely talk about God, or do I express my experience of God?

Some say you can do both, but I am not so sure.  I hear many sermons about God; but few have the courage or prophetic power to preach from within the experience.  This morning I read Ezekiel 4.  God asked Ezekiel to act out a prophetic word of judgment against Israel and Judah by making a clay tablet picture of the city under siege.  God told him to lie on his side every day for over a year.

When God told Ezekiel to eat a scroll the chapter before, it wasn’t just to regurgitate it, it was to feast on it, find nourishment, embody it, and take on its physical presence.  No wonder that John says that when God visited us in the person of Jesus, it was God’s creative Word taking on flesh.

I think this is why Taylor’s writing is so poignant.  It comes from two avenues of experience–the author as artist, and the preacher as homiletician.  Taylor has taught both subjects — from her full-time work at Piedmont College in the north Georgia foothills, to her adjunct work teaching preaching at Emory University and elsewhere in the urban milieu of Atlanta.  I am going to a conference next week to see her give a presentation on “How I Have Changed my Mind About Preaching” at Mercer University.  I am bringing her latest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark to get her signature.  I look forward to receiving God’s word from her yet again.

We writers have a bad habit of trying to mimic our favorite authors.  Rarely does this work out; it comes off as phony or insincere.  I did this once.  I wanted to write like Taylor–pen and paper in hand, I wanted to hand-write my next book like she does her own.  And I wanted to write like Dillard–not merely talk about something, but write poetic prose that penetrates the very thing in my experiences of it.

I tried this (spiritual) practice–mainly at the beach.  I brought my spiral notebook and my mechanical pencil.  I sat for long periods of time watching the waves and my children looking for seashells, trying to craft each sentence with love, care, and wonder.  I paused, watched the hasty activity and listened to the conversation of the sandpipers so ubiquitous on our coast.  And I wrote.

I wrote for about a dozen or so pages on different topics over the course of a month– on fatherhood, spirituality, vocation, ministry.   Then, I fizzled out.  It didn’t sound right, it didn’t feel right, and it was not even worth transferring the material into my journal.  I buried the notebook in one of my desk drawers at home.  I pull it out sometimes if I need paper to write a sermon, otherwise it remains hidden.

Powerful words are such because they do defy other words.  Writers know the hardships of having so many words–too many, in fact–fall to the ground, shrivel and die.  Yet, there are those beautiful moments–in an article or a sermon that sounds just right, when the word goes out and never returns.  It spreads its wings and leaves the nest, and finds its way into someone else’s heart to build a nest there and give birth to something new.  It is beautiful, like Taylor’s and Dillard’s writing; but it is a rare word indeed.  Most of the time, our words remain hidden in our desk.

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A Reading Life (prt. 15): Memiors Among Us

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

In the afterword of my recent book, A Whispering Call, I outline the waning market for first-person narration.  Jonathon Franzen, guest editor for the Best American Essays anthology of 2016, states that we stand in the Golden Age of memoirs; while Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker lamented that the “personal essay boom” has come to an end.

Regardless of various naysayers, I personally love memoirs.  Memoirs record the inner journey of the soul while affirming the resiliency of lives who carry the burdens born of both tragedy and comedy.

I just finished reading, God Underneath, by Catholic priest, Edward Beck.  In his own afterword, he wrote that his memoir aims to help people see the priesthood differently, past the clergy collar.  He wanted to humanize his position while helping his readers realize that God is in all the details of life.

Only the memoir genre allowed him to tell his story and express all of the settings in which a priest may find himself.

Perhaps I like memoirs because I have spent decades reflecting on my own journey of faith and vocation.  Hearing God’s call, fashioning a community that knows how to discern God’s call, and responding to God’s call have to be the best parts of my ministry.  Heck, vocation is the undercurrent of my newest book and of this blog series!

Memoir makes for great sermons too.  In reading Beck, I was reminded of my own struggle with pastoral presence and image, and how I have incorporated that into my preaching.  I am familiar with the feeling he expresses about needing to lose the frock to deepen friendships.  I resonated with his efforts of encouraging others to relate to him as a normal individual, pushing towards a more “confessional” style that connects with congregations.

I agreed that when people put us ministers on pedestals, it is easier for that kind of idol to fall and break into a million pieces like Dagon before the ark of the covenant.  Memoir can turn tragic real fast when people place unrealistic expectations upon you.

And memoirs remind us that we are all made in God’s image and called to be priests in one form or fashion.  My Baptist tradition specifically grants us the mantle of the priesthood of believers.  Dismantling unrealistic images of the ministry does not lessen how people see me, but lifts people up and persuades them to seize God’s destiny in their lives.

Recently, one of our youngest children at church asked whether our music minister was Jesus.  One Sunday, when the minister came off of the stage during worship, the little girl reached over to my wife, bright-eyed, and whispered, “That’s Jesus!”

My wife tried to tell her who Jesus is (and who he isn’t), but it got a great belly laugh out of all of us.  My music minister now has a lot to live up to!

Edward Beck mentions that people ask him about his calling: “When did you receive your call, Father?” And every time, he responds, “I am still receiving it!”  God’s call continually provides opportunities for us to bear witness to Christ’s love.

Are we willing to move beyond our own self-image and see ourselves through Christ’s eyes, then see others as Christ sees them?  What memoir might we write, and how does God show up in it?

A Reading Life (prt 12): An Impasse and Seasonal Affective Disorder

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By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

I must apologize, everyone. I have not been in the mood to read or write lately. I blame it on the recliner and cold weather. My cat may be in on this too.

Its been an arid month: no inspiration to read anything, no impetus to write. I had an existential crisis just today: How come I don’t feel like reading? What about my “A Reading Life” blog series?

It was just, “Meh.” I suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder when I lived in the north, but haven’t since I moved south. This is nowhere near as bad, but I have a feeling that people who do suffer with SAD during winter can relate. Where has all that passion gone?

Now I just sit in my recliner when I am not cleaning, exercising, playing, cooking, or doing churchy things. I read a devotional. I catch up on the news. I (gag) scroll through social media. I fall asleep with my cat on my lap, a cat who finds her way over to me whenever I am in a resting position.

This is not new for me just as I’m sure it inflicts other bibliophiles. You’re in between books. You pick up a book here or there and nothing really captures your heart. There are false starts and impassioned leafing through of pages. No titles catch your attention. You wonder why half the books on your “to read” pile are there in the first place.

Even the old love affair with book catalogues grows stale, and your eyes wander to other things. I started watching a lot more television. That’s always a bad sign.

I don’t know how it is for others, but for me, reading and writing go hand-in-hand. If I am reading a lot then I tend to write a lot. If my reading tarries, my writing dries up. The muses fall silent. The Television turns on, and it is a distraction.

I decided today that I must move on. I can’t stay in this malaise forever, and I need something to get out of this rut. We went to our local used-book store (a weekly routine), and I determined to find something to read.

Sure enough, I returned to that genre that has saved me on more than one occasion: long-form essays, usually in the tune of a memoir or travel narrative, which have appealed to me during times of melancholy. They are short so there is no serious commitment. They are not laborious, so they tend to be compelling and artistic. They inform, but are personal enough to get me out of myself–to move my sense of consciousness beyond my little world and into the larger world where life moves on.

Essays have always been an easy and quick escape in my reading repertoire. There are essays by Marilyn Robinson and Annie Dillard. There are anthologies, such as the annual The Greatest Essays publications. Several years ago I picked up This is New York by E. B. White, an essay that originally appeared in a travel magazine. That was SOME essay–an amazing tapestry of words and thoughts, and probably one of the best things I’ve ever read in my life.

It took me a while to find the right book. I perused travel, biographies, classics, mysteries, and the religious sections. I was tired, so I sat in a plastic lawn chair among the memoirs. I spotted an autobiography by Ephriam Tutt, Yankee Lawyer. I don’t know who Tutt is, but the inscription on the inside was to an “Uncle Harry” and dated Christmas day, 1943.

Parker Palmer’s Listen to Your Life was nearby, and it too had an inscription from Jen to Mitch: “Food for thought along your vocational journey.” It was dated January 25, 2002. Not quite Christmas day, but close.

I spotted some books I donated several months ago. I picked up several of them and saw my own notes throughout their pages. It is odd to see your handwriting in a book that is for sale, as if it was inscribed by some alien life force and is now staring back at you from across the galaxy. (If you go to the religion section and you find the print “The Library of J. V. LaGuardia”, wonder no more.)

And, back in the memoir section, I finally found a book worth reading. It is an essay just as I preferred, and published originally in Vanity Fair or some such magazine. It is by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist William Styron, Darkness Visible, about his bout with clinical depression. The subtitle (“A memoir of madness”) did not catch my attention so much as the writing did; and I didn’t get it because of my own lethargy. I got it because of its brevity and its well-written prose. It will do.

I realize now that my feelings of lassitude is not uncommon around this time of year. Many people get a little angst around the holidays. Charlie Brown bemoans of his own existential crisis to Lucy (psychiatric help for a nickel!) in the Christmas special my children and I watched earlier today.

But ’tis the season, and books will always find a way to speak into our lives. We will eventually move off the recliner and into worlds that words construct or conjure. It takes some time, and in only a few days that Christ Light will shine in the darkness of all our nights. And, eventually, this too shall pass.