A Reading Life (pt 9): Manuscript Melancholy

By Joe LaGuardia

By the time I graduated college and entered seminary, I burned out on biblical academia.  The start of the my three-year Masters of Divinity program was the next step towards ministry, but I was not interested in the work or for working in ministry in general.  Its not that I abandoned my call; I just needed a break.

When placement officers at seminary asked what church I wanted to serve, I declined.  Instead, I went to work for Chik-Fil-A for that first year.  When classes assigned books, I read them through for routine rather than for sport.  When a professor assigned an essay, I wrote blindly.  My heart was not in it, not entirely.

I enjoyed my seminary years, don’t get me wrong–its just that I hit a season of melancholy in which the religious studies exhausted me.  I felt that I lived in a bubble, and I couldn’t find my way out.

Over the summer, when my wife and I traveled back to Florida to visit family, I expressed these feelings to Kristina’s grandmother.  Her grandmother (whom we called Granny) was a Bible-believing Baptist prayer warrior whose love for the Lord was matched only by her love for the church.  She played piano for many years at the First Baptist Church of Tequesta, Florida, and served as volunteer secretary for many years more.  She was a Renaissance woman of sorts who read everything from church history and church architecture to theology and mysticism.

Granny was a mentor to Kristina and, later, to me, when it came to intercessory prayer–she was, unlike many Baptists I had met, “Spirit-filled,” meaning that she regularly attended charismatic services around town.  It made her special and her wisdom contagious.

When I told her of my malaise, she knew what I needed.  She took my hand and asked me to take her to the bookstore.  We went, and she dragged me over to the religion section.  I was not very pleased–the only religious books you find at those places are the pop culture books that focus more on self-help than biblical insight.

She scanned the shelves and found what she was looking for: Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart.  I was not familiar with Nouwen’s books aside from one on discipleship I read in college (Creative Teaching).  She handed me a copy and told me to read it.  She wasn’t recommending it, she was telling me to do it.  She purchased it and sent me on my way.

When I read The Way of the Heart, I found myself in a place that I hadn’t been before–Nouwen’s writings on the early church fathers and the importance of silence and solitude in the spiritual life, as well as his acute insights as to the role that suffering and servanthood plays in ministry, were among the most profound insights I had read.

Nouwen spoke of crises of faith as places of wilderness where we face our demons and rely fully on the Holy Spirit for survival.  He spoke of the Christian life as a series of conversions rather than one single conversion experience, allowing me to see that I was being converted (yet again) in the reading of this little, 70-some-odd page book.

I found a book that spoke directly to my soul: It did not provide cliché answers to hardship, and it informed readers that we must find Christ with unyielding faith–not with the head, but with the heart.  My prayer life caught fire.

From Nouwen: Jesus’ invitation to lay down my life for others has always meant more to me than physical martyrdom. I have always heard those words as an invitation to make my own struggles, my doubts, my hopes, my fears, my joys and my pains and my moments of ecstasy available to others as a source of consolation and healing.”

After that book, I picked up The Gennessee Diary and Wounded Healer, both Nouwen classics.  I read both of those books three times each over the years, and I taught a small-group book study on The Way of the Heart twice in eight years while working at Trinity Baptist Church.  My copy was so worn down, I had to purchase a new one.

Granny’s investment in me — and her ability to give me the book I needed most — guided my ministry, brought me back to Christ, and re-aligned my heart.  It gave me purpose and clarity of calling, and focused my attention on the field in which I eventually gained a doctorate.  It gave birth to this blog nearly fifteen years ago!

Of all the books that have shaped my life, The Way of the Heart came the closest to the Bible in saving my life– Nouwen helped me meet Jesus in a new way and convicted me to commit my entire life to prayer and Spirit-filled living in all I do, just as Granny had lived.

 

 

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The Difficulty with Submission in Lent

By Joe LaGuardia

Several years ago–has to be nearly a decade by now–the Holy Spirit convicted me that I needed to learn a thing or two about submission and obedience.  I had been a Christ-follower for some time, but I have always had a flavor for independence and strong-willed stubbornness.

In fact, I became a Baptist not 10 years earlier precisely because I did not want to answer to a bishop, pope, or diocese bureaucracy.  A Baptist minister only answers to his or her congregation, but that’s different: there is a relationship; things are contextual; there is room for understanding and dialogue.  Joe LaGuardia was not going to have to explain his philosophy of ministry to some fool who lives tens of hundreds of miles away.

You can see where my problem and attitude can get the best of me here.

So the Holy Spirit convicted me.  God was going to bend my will towards His own one way or another, and it was going to be during none other than the season of Lent.  I had practiced Lent before, but not as seriously as I should have or could have.

The Holy Spirit showed me the first steps: I felt led to go to a nearby monastery and seek out one of the fathers for spiritual direction.  The Holy Spirit did not give me much of anything else, but that’s the marching orders that I got, so I stuck with it.

When I made the appointment, I was assigned to Father Francis once a month.  His specialty (and the monks do have specialties) was centering prayer, and he wanted to instruct me on this ancient practice–a time of silence and solitude, of centering, of meeting with God for nothing more than to spend time with my beloved Creator–every time we met.

Father Francis gave me a card with instructions, and for the next four months he instructed me on various ways to pray.  I was the one seeking spiritual direction, but I did not get a word in edgewise.  Yet, every time I became frustrated with my sessions with the Father, the Holy Spirit jumped in and reminded me why I was meeting in the first place: this was not about me, it was about submission.  It was about obedience.

I was to obey all of the instructions that Father Frances gave me with no questions asked.

I did.  For the entire season of Lent and throughout that summer, I followed those instructions.  I sat in silence and prayer for about 15-20 minutes a day.  I practiced saying my “prayer word,” and sought to master the nuances of apophatic prayer (those of you who studied this stuff know what I mean).  I did my homework.

I was moved.  I was heart-broken (in a good, cathartic way). I was frustrated.  I was angry– all of the paradoxical feelings that confront us when we fast and submit to the kind of life in which God makes us step out of the throne of our hearts so that Jesus can take his place as Lord of our lives. This prayer-stuff was hard work.

I say all of that now because those feelings still arise in me every Lent.  Although I have done something serious and intentional for the season every year since that time–not to mention writing a dissertation on spiritual disciplines and spiritual direction, of which all of this prayer work and submission had been a part–it is still difficult for me to move over and let God direct my life.

It seems that this season is made more difficult because the Holy Spirit is reviving in me some old wounds that I have not faced in a long time–mostly surrounding some squabbles I had with Baptist clergy several years back.

I won’t bore you with the details, but I am not sure I forgave some fellow pastors who have hurt me during that time.  And, apparently, that hurt still abides; so God is bringing me back to the drawing board again–and its about submission.  It is always about submission.  How else are we to travel through Lent and to the cross of Christ, the very place where we crucify our old selves, false selves, ego, and pride that ensnare us and get in God’s way?

Its a terrible, terrible job (just being honest), but we have to do it.

This year, in order to teach me the full weight of obedience again, God pinned me down on my love for XM radio in the car, to which I’ve subscribed since 2008.  As a result, I will be…..(I can’t even write it but I will)……discontinuing….(oooh, ouch!)…..my subscription….(doh!)…..for a time, and that’s the one thing (the Holy Spirit ALWAYS finds the ONE thing!) that I don’t want to let go of most.  So that’s that.

Perhaps those old wounds–and that clergy battle from years ago–is merely a scapegoat.  I don’t want to cast my love for XM radio at the foot of the cross of Christ, so I’d rather put them there.

So here we go again…

 

 

Failure: A Successful step in Following Christ

By Joe LaGuardia

In the new Supergirl television show starring Melissa Benoist as the other Caped Crusader, Supergirl must prove to friends and family that she and she alone is responsible for her power and place in the universe.  Her youthful demeanor and gender work against her; everyone feels a need to protect her from danger, failure, or death.

She pushes back with ferocity and fierce independence, defying gender and generational stereotypes along the way, even when it means failing to get the job done.

The subplot expresses an important lesson to viewers: Failure is a part of the learning experience, and taking risks must include the cost of danger now and then.

This theme reminded me of a time not long ago when our young son took a test in karate.  My wife was nervous about him getting his “forms” (as they are called) right and passing to the next belt level.

Her anxiety was well-placed: We pay good money for karate; he needs to study and do well!

However, we needed to realize that even if he did not get everything right, he still benefitted from the program.  Failure is just as important a lesson as is success.

Failure is just as important a lesson as is success.

In fact, without failure, it is difficult for us to grow and learn from our mistakes.

I learned this lesson when I did my research and field tests for my doctorate, of which failure is an inherent part.  Whenever I outlined my failures in my dissertation, I was proud to contribute to my field and expose other researchers to my mistakes, lest others be doomed to repeat them.

Nevertheless, failure is something people frown upon these days.  Failed politicians refuse to apologize; failed CEOs wiggle their way out of responsibility for bad choices or moral scruples; our young people who fail time and again find adversity an impossible hindrance and give up all too easily.

It was President John F. Kennedy who once said that, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

What would it be like if Jesus’ disciples saw failure as a roadblock to learning and following Jesus?  Peter, the greatest of all failures among Jesus’ followers, became the bedrock of the church precisely because of the lessons he learned.

He tried to walk on water to greet Jesus only to doubt and sink (Matthew 14:22-33).  Yet, it was Peter who took the step out of the boat in the first place, a courageous act that set him apart from the other disciples.

When Jesus foretold his trial and death, Peter rebuked him and told him that surely God’s plan was not for Jesus to end up on a cross (what Peter perceived as failure!).  Ironically, Peter failed to understand Christ’s mission, and Jesus called Peter satan, or “adversary,” who acted against the greater purposes of God (Matthew 16:21-23).

Who can forget about Peter’s failure to claim Jesus as his master when Jesus did eventually go to the cross?  On the night Jesus was tried for treason against the state, Peter denied him not once but thrice (John 18:15-27).

When the cock crowed, Peter awakened to his mistake and deeply regretted his decision.  He went on to lead the disciples and the early church, and it was Peter’s sermon at Pentecost that inspired thousands of people to convert to follow Christ (Acts 2-3).

For the Christian committed to growing in Christ, failure is a part of the equation in one’s spiritual journey, not something to avoid.  And not every failure is tantamount to sin.

Failure is just another resource in our spiritual walk that moves us forward, upward, and onward towards the heart of God.

As we journey with Christ, let us–like Peter–recognize that when we doubt, deny Christ, or mistake God’s mission in life, we are to repent and mature, not double-down in our ignorance and deny that we made a mistake, for that is the greatest failure of them all.