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…

 

 

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The Mystics and the “Middles” of Life

By Joe LaGuardia

I attend a Baptist pastor’s meeting every so often in which we have a time of prayer, as well as listen to a one-hour presentation from a guest speaker.  There is always a speaker, and although it is meaningful, we are never left to talk among ourselves—to share, to compare notes, to engage one another, or wrestle with things that are happening in our community.  It is always someone from the outside, some church planter, consultant, or church leader.

Every leader sounds the same: to persuade us to take on new ideas, fresh starts, new programs all designed grow the church, make ministry effective, be relevant, increase giving and tithing, bring revival, save the lost, be true to doctrine, and on and on it goes.

No one ever addresses how to do what I call “The Middle”—that long expanse of ministry in which you are pursuing an idea or program that you were excited about starting a while ago.  No one ever addresses on finishing well either.  We like beginning new things, starting new ministries, buying new things, and getting fresh ideas; but where do we find encouragement just to do what we are doing, stick with things, and bring certain seasons to an end in a way that celebrates the meaning of that season in the first place?

For those of us familiar with the Christian Calendar, we know that “middles” are just as much a part of our walk with Christ as are the beginnings of things (like Christmas) or the end of things (like funerals).  The “middle” is what we observe in the church season known as “Ordinary time,” which goes from Pentecost to Advent. It is the longest season of the church calendar, and sometimes Ordinary Time seems to go on forever.  People get bored, we get anxious; we wonder if this whole thing is a waste of time!

The fact of the matter is that our society has capitalized on beginnings, new things, change, and convincing people that boredom and unrest can be met only with the newest craze, fad, or gadget.  No one knows how to live in the “middle” anymore—to work, eat, sleep, care for family, play with kids, go to church; and to do that over and over and over again.

For me, none other than (and most ironically) the Mystics from the Middle Ages are what have helped me get through my middles and Ordinary Times.

The Middle Ages were a time of great change in Europe, so there were many new things erupting in towns all over the known world.  Universities met the needs of the increasingly curious and ever-growing population of the merchant, “Middle” class.  Monasticism promised an escape from the world, harkening opulent and flamboyant Catholic Churches back to simpler times.  A new movement of mysticism exposed the notion that all this new wealth and learning and concentration of resources were not an end-all of things.

Several mystics marked the 13th and 14th centuries with writings, guidance, and spiritual direction that reminded people that “boring” can be just as spiritual as “the new,” that God works just as much in the mundane routine of life as God does in the “urgent.”

Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, reformed his monastery by returning to the simplicity of Benedict’s Rule of Life.  He claimed that our hope is not always found elsewhere, say, in the bliss of heaven, but in creation as well—his writings focus on the incarnation of Christ.  Jesus saw it fit to become flesh and blood like us, so there is value in this life, value in our ability to love God and others.

Hildegard of Bingen was a renaissance woman of sorts whose art, music, teaching, preaching, and prophetic witness sought to marry spiritual ecstasy with creativity rooted in earth, rules and routine.  For all practical purposes, she was the West’s first female naturalist—she was able to pay attention to the little things rather than be swept away by the shiny big things that captivated one too many hearts.

Julian of Norwich was also a romantic.  Her writings show a deep spiritual love for Christ grounded in the mundane routine of living, of loving passionately, and of seeking Jesus’ face for the sake of obeying Christ.  She suffered from ailments that became for her sources of spiritual growth.

All of these mystics teach us what Marilyn Robinson calls the “inexhaustible ordinary.”  It has been my passion to teach my congregations this truth: That if you are always looking for excitement at church, or a new program to jumpstart your faith, or the newest purchase to fill that restless hole in your heart, then you are missing the point of Christian discipleship.  It was Augustine who told us that our hearts are restless until it rests in Christ.  But the key word there is to rest—to Sabbath, to enjoy, and to see routines and daily habits as that gift that God gives us to live with intentional purpose and blessing and peace.

Take with you five values that the mystics taught us along the way:

  1. The mystics valued the incarnation of Christ: Make Christ the Lord of your routine (read Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, if you haven’t already!). In Old Paths, New Power, Daniel Henderson points out that Jesus did not pray as a part of his ministry, he ministered out of a life of prayer.
  2. The mystics valued incarnational ministry: Become a naturalist and develop a sense of interiority that grows outward and beyond you—honing the ability to grow in awareness, empathy, observation, attentiveness (a new(!) book by Samuel Wells, Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church, addresses this.)
  3. The mystics valued the rhythms of life. Celebrate blessings; accept crises of faith as gifts.  Ministry brings times of joy as well as hardship; do not avoid them, but treat them as potential opportunities to grow in Christ even when others around you fail to grow.
  4. The mystics valued the naming of experiences, even if it meant making up images, words, phrases to best express them (like Julian of Norwich, who coined the curious moniker,  “Mother Christ”). Learn how to articulate your personal experiences of Christ, and offer that gift to help others describe the movements of the Spirit in their life.  Read often to emulate how to wield language and construct alternative narratives whereby others can live.
  5. The mystics valued routine: Incorporate a Rule of Life. It’s healthy, it puts feet to your faith, and it promotes self-care.

Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards all?

peace-on-earth

By Joe LaGuardia

In a recent article for USA Today, Robert Parham noted the oddity and the timeliness of God’s message of “peace on earth” to Mary and Joseph during the Christmas season.

He stated that peace was a ridiculous notion back then as it is now, a notion hard-pressed in human community filled with violence and vitriol, domination and oppression.

That first-century world was one of utter darkness: Rome was in charge, applying financial pressure through high taxes and a military economy.  Not many politicians were friends to families in Nazareth.  As one observer of Jesus noted, “What good can come out of Nazareth anyway?” (John 1:46).

And shortly after Jesus was born, during Epiphany, an infuriated Herod commanded the genocide of children throughout Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-16).

Peace is certainly ridiculous because it assumes that we aspire to be better than this, to lift ourselves above the fray of retaliation and revenge, and seek avenues of justice and forgiveness instead.  After all, we know more than people did back then.  Ours is the age of Enlightenment, science, and technology.

But it is also ridiculous because it assumes we can follow in the footsteps of Jesus: When tortured and sentenced for crimes he did not commit, he forgave his oppressors, forever breaking the Cycle of revenge and showing us what true reconciliation looks like. No amount of science and social media can inspire that kind of peacemaking.

It is, however, that type of peace we Christians are to proclaim on Christmas, or whenever we are together, really.  In worship, we model what it means to look to God rather than ourselves.  Our praise and proclamation of Gospel is the alternative to a world that is “me first.”  In ministry, we surrender ourselves to learn and walk with that Galilean peasant rather than give in to princes who wield power.

In our missions, we practice restorative justice when we declare that all we own is to be shared with the “least of these,” bringing healing to those places still under the thumb of empire and hardship.

God’s peace in Christ was– and is–radically different than the militaristic values that set the tone of violence in Rome.  God’s peace in Christ sets a new tone for today too.

Yet, peace has been hard to find this season.  Leading up to the Christmas weekend, there was talk among politicians on Twitter concerning, of all things, nuclear escalation.  When we sang, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” in our hymnody this past weekend, there were over 50 shootings with at least a dozen fatalities in the city of Chicago alone.

Across the nation, there were multiple reports of violence and fighting–and at least one mass shooting threat–in malls, the very places where we purchase gifts for our children to remind them of the gift of Jesus.  Violence erupted in a Aurora, Colorado, mall of all places, a town victimized by a mass shooting some years back.  People should know better.

I am not sure how people who celebrate or observe Christmas can become violent, but this seems to play into the narrative that anger in America (or at least the perception of anger, as reflected in the nightly news and in our political rhetoric) is becoming a new norm this year.

Anger can only be tempered with intentional acts of love and kindness, and in the actual testifying to and spreading of the Gospel –the Good News– of Christ in our midst.  It was Jesus who walked among angry Roman soldiers who derided, dehumanized, and tortured him.  It was in the middle of that kind of storm that Jesus ushered in a silent witness of Good News of peace and calm, perhaps the loudest plea for non-violence anytime in history (Mark 15:16-20).

Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales learned long ago that tempering violence may be resolved with asking different questions of those who are angry and to do so right in the midst of violent communities.  She learned to ask, “Where does it hurt?”

We too–the church as a whole–must learn how to ask this question and listen to the answers.  Then we must, in turn, go into the public square and ask that question of neighbors and communities alike.

God came to us as Emmanuel not in places where we ought to be, but where we are: right in the middle of our hurt.  Jesus was born there not to leave us where we are, but to mature us to be vessels of peace who have experienced forgiveness and healing once and for all.  Remember that is was in the Gospel of Mark where a Roman soldier–once angry, but healed at the cross of Christ, who was the first human on record to declare, “This Jesus is indeed the Son of God!”

God’s peace in Jesus was a bold scheme, and I agree with Robert Parham that it does sound ridiculous, especially when we see a different picture painted across our nation on the nightly news.  But if we Christians can’t be the ones to be intentional in sharing God’s love and peace–to ask the hard questions of where it hurts–then who will?