Ministry for the Sake of Christ and the World

By Joe LaGuardia

I had a conversation with a Navy veteran yesterday who served as a flight-deck officer for nearly 25 years.  I thanked him for his service and was grateful that he had sacrificed his safety in order to protect our freedom.

He reminded me of the time I wanted to serve in the armed forces too.

I was a senior in high school when recruiters visited our classes and encouraged us to make a sacrifice for our country.  They visited on behalf of the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard.  My uncle had served in the Air Force, and I felt compelled to look into serving in that particular branch.  I am afraid of heights, but since I wore glasses I figured that they would not let me fly airplanes anyway.

When I came home to tell my father, he was not happy.  I did not understand why he was frustrated, and I began to explain all of the great things that can result from serving our country, and Uncle Joe served so why not?  Dad wanted me to go to college instead.

Although I trusted and followed my father’s advice, I still remember clearly–more clearly than ever when I spoke with that Navy vet yesterday–of the feelings I had in wanting to serve in something bigger than me, to make a sacrifice on behalf of a nation I loved and people that I longed to protect.

Since then, there were only two other times when I had that profound feeling of being called to something so profoundly inspiring.  One time was when I worked as a teacher assistant for an online college course through Ashford University.  It was a writing class, and many students I assisted were in the military or just released from the military.  Educating our troops and vets was my way of helping our nation yet again.

The second time came in college when I heard Christ calling me into the ministry.  I had gone through a litany of career options, praying for the right job that would allow me to serve others while supporting a family.  When it came down to either vocational ministry or practicing law, I met with my New Testament professor, and he gave me the lecture most of us ministry students receive.  Its the advice from the old Buechner adage that says that your calling is found where your deepest passion intersects with the world’s deepest needs.  I plunged headlong into ministry.  My father was happy.

Although I love church and ministry–I know I’m called to this because I cant’ do anything else–I often forget why I got into this business in the first place.  Yes, the Holy Spirit swayed my heart and Christ compelled me to serve His church as a full-time minister.  But there was also that profound feeling of serving others, the very same feelings I had when I spoke with those Air Force recruiters in the halls of Stoneman Douglas High School.

I think that when we ministers forget the source of our inspiration and the emotional reasons why we responded to God’s call–logic aside!–we forget the joy and passion that we are to bring to our vocation in church.

And I wonder if one of the reasons why churches plateau or die is partly because of us: We somehow lose that feeling of joining God at work for the sake of the world, and we fail to inspire others as our own passion dies a slow death under the weight of sermon preparation, balancing a congregation’s expectations with being true to yourself, and doing the busy administrative work that churches require.

I figure that if you do not have a love for every aspect of church and forget to rely on Christ’s love to fill you–whether visiting someone in the hospital or making a copy of your time sheet for your church administrator–then you might as well close shop and go home.

I enjoyed my conversation with that old veteran yesterday, and together we enjoyed a good meal as we celebrated a newlywed couple whose wedding I had just performed.  More significantly, I enjoyed what the conversation reminded me of: That we who call Christ Lord are to give of ourselves, and that there is no higher calling than to serve Jesus…To give one’s life for the sake of others, for there is no greater honor and privilege.

The Meaning of True Love: Beyond the Rose

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By Joe LaGuardia

In the next few weeks, the season finale of The Bachelor will air without little drama.

If you’ve never watched the show, I’ll fill you in on the plot: Basically, a bachelor spends two months with a few dozen women to find the love of his life.  During the show, he eliminates a woman until one lucky lady is left to marry.

Ever since I heard about The Bachelor, I thought it preposterous.  Who would sign up for a show like this?

Now, some 15 seasons later, we see that there are many people who are eager to find the love of their life by flaunting their passion on prime-time television.

I have watched only a few minutes of this past season, and it seemed to have changed very little from previous years:  Women go around telling the cameras how much they love the Bachelor.   She loves him, and she loves him, and she so completely loves him. (There’s a lot of love on that show.)

Then there’s the bachelor:  He doesn’t want to hurt this one’s feelings or break that one’s heart, but its inevitable.  It’s always a wonder, he says, how a person can love two women at the same time.  That’s how affairs begin, dummy.

Our favorite moments of the show happen when a contestant just loves the bachelor–she wants to spend the rest of her life with him, she wants to have his babies.  Then, as soon as she is eliminated and is driving home in the limousine, she changes her tune:  The Bachelor is the biggest jerk in the world.

I think the real mockery in all of this is that the show confuses what true love is really all about.

Have we as a society become so shallow as to think that love is something you can just find on a reality show, something that is entirely driven by emotional responses to what amounts to nothing more than sensual desire?

Striving for love is something that has been around a long time.  We even see it as far back as the Old Testament:  God is indeed a God of love more than God is something of the myth that claims the Old Testament God is a God of wrath, but Israel fails to realize that.

God tries to convince Israel over and over again that God’s first commitment is to His people is a posture not of fleeting, emotional love, but of “steadfast love.”  The Hebrew word is hesed, and it implies the same kind of compassionate, self-giving love as the Greek word, agape.

Yet, we find people in the Old Testament about as anxious as our lovely contestants on that reality show.  They know they want love.  They strive, and they long, and they reach for love, but find it in all the wrong places.

It begins in the Garden of Eden. God “walked with Adam and Eve,” and spoke to them in the cool of the evening breeze.  There is an intimacy there.

But then sin happened and humans get eliminated—no roses for them.  They get into a limousine, and they tell the camera, “Oh, who does God think he is?  That God isn’t about love after all!”

Since the very beginning of the New Testament, however, something happens.  God confounds our notions of love by becoming a person, Jesus Christ, who lives among us.

In Jesus, God heals the brokenhearted, interacts with the lonely and left-out, cooks breakfast on the shores of the Galilean sea and gathers disciples around the table.

And it is Lent that reminds us of true love: God’s love doesn’t come in the form of a rose, but a cross.   God suffers and experiences death in one of the most humiliating ways ever in order to express three simple words to us: “I love you.”

There was something that God had to do, and that was to experience suffering and testing and temptation on our terms.  It is not love built on lust, but sacrifice, for as scripture tells us: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

Abstinence as a Rite of Passage

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By Joe LaGuardia

There is something to be said about the importance of rites of passage in a person’s growth and development.   A rite of passage is the act of crossing a threshold–traditionally going from adolescence to adulthood–by way of ritual, self-sacrifice, crisis, or sacrament.

As such, most rites of passage require some sense of suffering and decision.  Baptism, for example, has been a historic rite of passage for Christians.  In getting baptized, we recognize our choice to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow Jesus.

Every world religion and culture has some sort of rite of passage that thrusts young people into a life of sacrifice and obedience.   Each rite communicates that people are interconnected and that valor is a virtue to be cherished rather than scorned.

Why is it, then, that our modern society tends to downplay rites of passage?  We no longer ask our young people to sacrifice something for a greater cause; we buy or consume whatever we need without suffering through delayed gratification; we rarely say “no” to demands that far outweigh the benefits of the many; and we avoid suffering in everything we do–from marriages to careers.

There was a day when you had to earn a living by hard work, stay in a marriage even it didn’t meet expectations, and remain faithful to one career even if it was boring.  Loyalty is no longer the norm.

When I was a teenager, the biggest rite of passage that tested one’s muster was not body piercings or tattoos.  It wasn’t some solo adventure in the wilderness with a match and canteen of water.  Even baptism was easy and fun–it was more party than imposition.

No, my rite of passage was abstinence.  It was having to wait until marriage before being able to satisfy all of those natural desires that hormones inspire.

There were two or three Christian retreats I went on during high school that promoted abstinence before marriage.

I recall one in particular in which we all pledged to remain virgins until marriage on the first night of the retreat.  Then, on the next night, when the preacher was going on about the Second Coming of Christ, we all regretted taking that pledge.  Hey, if Jesus was going to come back tomorrow, then why wait?

We prayed a very specific prayer after that night: “Lord, we want you to come back, but can you at least wait until after we’re married?”

I won’t lie: Abstinence was rough.  It was the “narrow way” for all of us who followed Jesus in our youth.  We suffered.  We had to “deny ourselves” although our sexually active peers seemed so happy.

Abstinence required leaving the party early, avoiding certain people who didn’t share the same values, and putting up with an overabundant sense of teenage angst.  It also required a circle of friends that kept us accountable.

It was a pledge that we barely kept; but, by God, it was a rite of passage that toughened us up in the long run.  We were better for it.

These days, there are many opponents to abstinence.  Some cite psychological or emotional reasons for why its “unhealthy” to deny the body its natural courses in life.

Some argue that abstinence keeps people from “experimenting” and learning about their bodies.  I guess the notion is that if we “experiment” before marriage, we will avoid marrying someone who is not compatible.

Nonsense.  The safest sex is no sex, and for once I think that we need to keep abstinence as a rite of passage in a world in which rites are scarce.  Scripture tells us, “Discipline yourselves. . .Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance.  Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:13, 14-16).

God calls all of us to be holy through discipline, righteous living, and self-control.  Let’s not abandon every practice in which we have to sacrifice our desires.

A sense of value and strength comes from obeying God, especially when God is calling us into an adulthood in which Christ–and not our every emotional or physical whim–is Lord.