A Reading Life (pt. 2): Choose your own Adventure

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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 in ministry.  Find the introduction here.

I rarely enjoy predictable endings. One of the hardest things about being a preacher is that you can’t conclude a sermon without mentioning Jesus and redemption. Congregations do not like ambiguous endings; they are not accustomed to solving puzzles. If you don’t end a sermon with Jesus, then what is the point of going to church?

I once preached a sermon on Job that did not end with Jesus. Sure, God restored Job’s fortunes, but that did little to erase Job’s trauma after losing his children, their families, and most of his crops. Job said that life is not fair, and sometimes life is not fair. The sermon mentioned that we are not guaranteed easy answers, cliché religious sayings, or clean conclusions in life. After, a retired Lutheran pastor came up to me and said, “Joe, I did not like that sermon. Jesus was not mentioned.”

When I was young, I had similar feelings about television and books. I can’t tell you how many times I watched Scooby Doo hoping that the bad guys would win. The show ended the same every time: “I would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you pesky kids!” Just once I would like to see Scooby and the Get-Along-Gang get their just desserts for putting their noses where they didn’t belong!

Books were similar. My favorite books consisted of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. These were the best because each book had multiple endings. It depended on your choices, and if you didn’t choose the right storyline, your hero or heroine could meet certain doom. That was exciting!

One of my Choose Your Own Adventure books was based on Indian Jones. I remember skipping to the back of the book and finding the ending in which Indie would be trapped or squashed under a big, rolling bolder. Once I spotted it, I went back to the beginning of the book and spent days trying to weave my way to that ending! I was a dark child.

What I did not know at the time was that my preference for ambiguity came from a deep intuition that life was more complex than my little, adolescent brain was able to understand. I had an easy life– both parents in the household with Dad’s steady job, clean clothes, good food, loving family, and supportive older sisters– but I somehow knew that life was not that simple. How could every day end like an episode of Scooby Doo where everyone lives happily ever after?

I always felt that this gave me an edge as a pastor. I never told people who faced trauma that “Everything will be ok.” I don’t make excuses for God when people are angry with God. I don’t feel the need to give cheap answers to complex questions. I am not afraid to tell my church, “I don’t know.” Sometimes not knowing is healthy–it acknowledges that life is mysterious, and we cannot domesticate God. God alludes us when we try to box him in.

My earliest books were most fascinating when they were complex and suspenseful. Predictable storylines bored me, and I loved to read things that kept me on the edge of my seat. But life is like that and, come what may, I am just glad that Jesus will “neither leave” me nor forsake me no matter what adventure life might bring. I can’t always choose my own fate, but I can choose to love God each and every day. So, I guess, it is hard to end without Jesus after all.

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When silence is the only language you can speak

Photo by Samara Doole

By Joe LaGuardia

I did not preach much Sunday, September 3.   I tried, but all I was able to do was give testimony.  When we preachers have nothing to say about a biblical text, it is just best to testify.  It does not have to be scholarly or well-organized, but it does have to be true.

My week was like that: A cycle of trying and failing, of finding words to say and confronting silence instead.

I began the week excited about joining my sisters in Orlando for a few days.  It was the first time our families got together in years: Three days with nieces, nephews, and the big Mouse at Bueno Vista.

Over the weekend, however–the weekend before my vacation–I received word that one of our parishioners fell victim to cancer and passed away.  I was heartbroken for the family.  It was sudden.  The man had one son, so when I met with the family and he spoke about his father, I was reminded about the loss of my own dad.

Funerals have a way of keeping us preachers nimble.  Instead of having one sermon to write before I went to Orlando, I now had two: one for Sunday and another for the funeral, which was scheduled for the day after my return.

I did something a little different for the funeral sermon: I wrote an outline. I always write manuscripts for funerals to insure that each word is intentional, thoughtful, sensitive and concise.   But I did not want a complicated sermon.  I was co-officiating and eulogies were planned, so what more needed to be said?

With sermons out of the way, I went off to Orlando. My trip  went well except for the fact that, now, every time I get together with my sisters, there exists the lingering absence of my father who had passed four years ago this August 5th.

My sisters and I had fun.  We laughed.  There were no conflicts, but our father was missing.  We didn’t have anyone to complain to about our jobs, our finances, about one another.  My dad was good about that, he absorbed everyone’s trials and tears and hardships.

I was quiet most of the trip as a result of my melancholy.  Why was I so quiet?  I hadn’t seen my sisters in ages, there must be more to talk about.

After I returned from Orlando, I headed to the funeral for our parishioner, but another oddity happened, although I am not sure if anyone noticed: I did not finish preaching my funeral sermon.  No, really–literally!  I literally stopped short in the middle of the homily!  I blanked out and I left off the conclusion before stopping mid-sermon and calling the congregation to join me in a closing prayer.

Later that afternoon, home with Kristina, I broke.  My wife and I had a long discussion about my anxieties and stress, about missing my father, and about how my words kept failing me–on my trip, at the funeral, in expressing a cloud that followed me all week long.

Sunday morning came, and off to church I went with two services to preach.  But as I mentioned already, I did not preach.  I testified.  I did not speak of my trouble with words.  I did not confess that I blanked out during the funeral sermon.  I only told a story about trying to find joy in unexpected places and about how one person from church with whom I met the previous week (who had lost her husband three months ago) ministered to me in the midst of my own hardships this week.

This evening I continued reading a book that I can never read for long sittings.  Its one of those books where you savor a sentence or two (or a whole page if you’re lucky), and then you have to stop and pray and reflect or wipe tears to see more clearly.  Its When God is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor, and what I read tonight resonated.  In fact, it sums up my emotions this week perfectly, although the situation is different:

I met a man last summer–a preacher–who nursed his wife until her death, at fifty-something, from cancer.  When she stopped breathing, he said, the silence in the room destroyed all language for him.  No words could get into him and none could get out. . . Months and months later, his voice is still raspy. . . He did not sound angry when he said that.  He sounded like someone who had been scorched by the living God and who knew better than to try and talk about it.”

I think that is my problem, one that Taylor sums up well.  There are times when I encounter God and I, along with many others, expect that I can put that into words.  I don’t blame anyone–that’s my vocation, after all.  But sometimes I need to know better.  Sometimes I need to stop trying so hard to talk about things that I can’t talk about.

My only regret is that I had some collateral damage along the way: A funeral sermon brought to a screeching halt, an online prayer I since deleted because it turned into a debate that was a waste of time anyway, and a Sunday sermon-testimony I hoped did not ramble on as much as I had feared.

Sometimes we are scorched and it just best to let the Holy Spirit speak in the silence instead.

Proclaiming Truth in a Post-Truth World

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By Matt Sapp

2016 wasn’t a great year for truth, and the first days of 2017 don’t appear to have offered any improvement. When Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005 everyone laughed. Few are laughing now.

Colbert used the word to mean something we understand to be true because it “feels” right or because our gut tells us it ought to be true.  Truthiness means that facts are secondary to emotion and that wishful thinking somehow has the power to bend the truth.

The idea behind truthiness is closely related to confirmation bias, the idea that we are more likely to accept ideas or opinions as true if they tend to reinforce what we already believe.

During the 2016 presidential election we discovered an electorate primed for confirmation bias and truthiness. And our presidential candidates quickly proved ready to take advantage of the new reality by intentionally seeking to obscure the truth by muddying the waters about the basic standards of truth and by constantly calling into question what we previously accepted as reliable sources of truth — in the media, the scientific community, and the government.

Truthiness and confirmation bias are not, of course, only political phenomena.  Religious leaders and constituencies fall prey to the same fallacies.  In fact, there are few, if any, areas of our lives where basic standards of truth haven’t begun to erode.  That’s why we find ourselves liking and re-posting things on Facebook that turn out not to be true—whether it relates to football teams or to political candidates.

All of this leads many to conclude that we are living in a “post-truth” America.  In fact, “post-truth” was named the 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries.  In a post-truth world we seek out and lend credence to only those sources of information that tend to confirm our biases, and we begin to reject the idea that there are any unbiased, objective sources of truth.

When information bubbles and echo chambers become so exclusionary and loud, when confirmation bias and wanting to “feel” right become more important than facts, and when we become so factionalized and entrenched in our ideological ghettos, that winning an argument or an election—that power and victory—become more important than truth, then we live firmly in a post-truth society.

To the extent that what I’ve just described is happening, we are in real trouble. And a post-truth society presents a distinct challenge to Christians because we believe that Christ is the truth (John 14:6).

So how exactly does a post-truth world present a challenge to the gospel?

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44)—those are basic Christian truths. But in a post-truth world people sit in the pews and wonder if those truths “feel” right. Do they line up with what I heard on the radio or TV last week?  Do they tend to confirm my biases?  Because, if not, in a post-truth world, we are being conditioned to hold those ideas as suspect.

So we start to interpret the truth into something more akin to truthiness.  We think, “In some situations loving your enemies means killing them and praying for those who persecute you means praying for God to destroy them.”

“Doesn’t that feel more right,” we think, “Let’s make that the truth.”

The last shall be first.  You can’t serve God and money.  Blessed are the peacemakers.

“Nice try preacher,” we think, “but that doesn’t feel right.  Self-promotion feels better. My gut instinct tells me I can serve two masters. Bomb the hell out of ‘em. Sometimes peace is made at the end of a sword.”

Those ideas “feel” great, and in today’s world we’re learning that if it feels right, it’s true.  If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t.

In this way the Sermon on the Mount isn’t outright rejected.  We just question it around the edges and reinterpret it until it takes on the form of truthiness, until it becomes something that “feels” right in our gut—and until it becomes something less than true.

So how do we preach truth in a post-truth world?

First, we should preach the truth calmly and persistently, prayerfully and deliberately, and intentionally, so that we guard ourselves against a drift toward truthiness.

Second, we shouldn’t preach the truth only reactively—the truth must be more than just a response to every “post-truth” flare up.

Instead, with courage and dignity and diligence we should preach proactively that humility is a virtue and meekness a strength, that looking out for the little guy and caring for the downtrodden are their own rewards. That all of God’s children are equal in the eyes of God.

In a post-truth world we should confidently proclaim that there is such a thing as truth, that it has a unique and unrivaled power, and that it wins in the end.

No amount of post-truth yelling or anger or violence or money or intimidation or religious chest-thumping or political browbeating can keep truth down.  The truth will come out. It will come to light.

Truth is like yeast in the dough or the faith of a mustard seed—and, like Shakespeare’s Hermia, though it be but little, it is fierce!  So truth doesn’t need us to defend it, but it does need us to let it out into the world.  It does need to be insistently and persistently proclaimed.

The truth doesn’t have to “feel” right.  It is right.  It doesn’t have to shout to win an argument. And, as hard as it may be for us to understand, it doesn’t have to win every day, every battle, every election or even every decade. Our faith teaches us that it’s already won the war.

There’s another thing truth has done. It has set us free (John 8:32)—free to be right, even if it doesn’t always “feel” right.