For everything, a season…

house

By Joe LaGuardia

The following article is reprinted from The Rockdale Citizen.  Please note that although Joe LaGuardia will no longer publish in the Citizen after April 29th, he and a community of Baptists will continue to publish for Baptist Spirituality and other publications.  Please be sure to subscribe to our blog to keep up on our inspiring and thought-provoking publications. 

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Well, dear reader, it is about that time I say, “Goodbye!”  God has called me to new horizons.  As of May, I will head south to serve as pastor of First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, Florida.

Moving out of Rockdale County means having to move out of the religion section of The Rockdale Citizen.  I have done all the reporting and commentaries that I can do; you’re on your own now.

I started writing for the Citizen about 8 years ago.  Back then, we got the newspaper nearly every day.  Some dude in a hatchback tried to knock over my mailbox with the daily edition.  The religion section was indeed a section–in color, of course.  It came out on Saturday, when people actually had time to read the religion section.

Now we’re in the back of the Friday sports section–just a different type of religion section, if you think about it– which people rarely read because they are getting boats ready for Lake Jackson rather than reading the newspaper on Fridays.

Nevertheless, my time with you every week has been a blessing.  I enjoyed writing about the Bible, but I cherished reporting on stories from around the world and about religions not necessarily my own–weird stories, such as people coloring in adult coloring books as an act of worship, or the persecution of Muslims by Buddhist terrorists in Myanmar.

What I love most about writing is not just reporting on faith and culture, but engaging a community I have grown to love.

Rockdale County is a great place to worship and work.  Anyone who tells you otherwise may need to pray about how they view the world around them.  If you see the world as hostile and dangerous, that’s what you’re going to get.

Everywhere I go in the county, I meet the nicest people, many of whom are committed to raising their families right and living decent lives built on integrity, faith, and hard work.

I’ve never felt compelled to carry a gun; I’ve always believed that the Gospel was good enough.  The only time I got scared about living in Rockdale was when I received word (from the Citizen, of course) that “City Slickers” was closing.

Having great people means everything else is great too.  Conyers is one of the few communities I know where churches collaborate more than compete, pastors and directors of non-profits are close friends, and the local government is run by people who know you by name.

That is why Trinity Baptist has had an easy time working with so many people and agencies since its founding over 30 years ago.  It’s also why we believe strongly in participating in Family Promise and other non-profits that help the neediest families in our community.

Jesus seems all the more glorified when we work together.

When my family and I made the decision to follow God’s call elsewhere, we had a church family to consider at Trinity–but we had an entire community to consider too.  This is our home and, as much as its worth, this is our family.  We are excited about obeying God, but sad to leave.

With only a few more articles to go (my last article in the Citizen will run on April 29), I wanted to mention what I loved about this place this time around.  Next week, I hope to give a few challenges and words of wisdom for the road ahead.

When you sit and think about it–and consider that the Bible is correct when it says that for everything there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3:1)–I hope your memories and thoughts bring few regrets, warmed hearts, and a positive outlook for our community and the days ahead.

Trinity Baptist celebrates 30 years of faith and the arts

By Joe LaGuardia

Aside from some favorite times during the Christian year, such as Pentecost and Advent, we here at my church practice another event that has become a favorite: Christival.   Every October for the past thirty years, Trinity has observed Christival–a combination of “Christ” and “festival”–to celebrate faith and the arts.

Each year, local art adorns the sanctuary, worship services incorporate dramas and other creative elements, and guest musicians gift us with amazing talents.  The season never gets routine or stale, and it has a way of reminding me that the One whom we serve is indeed “Creator God, creating still.”

The celebration of faith and the arts was always an intentional decision on the church’s part because art, in so many ways, has become a touchy subject for Christians.

Art is sometimes risky, sometimes questionable.  At other times, art is secular rather than sacred.  Many times art is viewed as being on the margins rather than in the mainstream of society.

Yet, for all its nuance and diversity, art is, as author Leland Ryken states, “A window or lens through which we see ourselves and our world” (“The Liberated Imagination”).  Art, therefore, serves as iconography: It can bolster our perspective of God and our relationship to God.

More significantly, art can remind us of just how redeemed–or depraved–we humans really are.  Of course, I’m not promoting all art because not all art is wholesome or even spiritually beneficial art.  Beauty is–and always will be–in the eye of the beholder.

But, art, whether good or bad, reminds us that we are mere co-creators with God.

In fact, the first story in the Bible is of God creating, painting creation into existence with a palate of light, dark, water, earth, and Spirit.  It seems to be a part of God’s nature, and it is inevitably a part of our nature, to create and invent, dabble and weave.

We are, after all, made in this Creator’s image, knit together in our mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13).

The earliest story in scripture also tells us that humans can be so creative that they can sin creatively too.  This reminds us that all of us have gifts, but we must use those gifts for God’s kingdom and glory rather than our own.  We have inherited Adam and Eve’s exploration of good and evil, so we must always strive for that which is good.

Paul also encourages us “to excel in gifts that build up the church” (1 Cor. 14:12).  God intends for gifts, whether artistic or otherwise, to serve His Church and His people.  Art always has a public impact, but it works best when it helps others experience the Creator and creation in fresh ways.  When we do art for our own sake, it threatens to be self-absorbed and pretentious.

I am also reminded that we Christians, like all artists, are called to be people of vision.  Artists see things as they really are and see things that have yet to be; artists weave meaning into the mundane and can picture the implications that our actions have yet to generate.

Art critics keep artists accountable to the craft, but artists can keep us accountable to our actions, beliefs, and worldview in the public spaces of our lives.

Not everyone can paint a great picture or write a captivating poem, but all of us have something to offer God that is a product of inspiration and creativity.  It may be as simple as a knitted pot holder, or it may be as routine as telling your grandchild an action-packed bedtime story about your youth.

Let us always use those gifts to inspire others to see the world–and God–in new ways.  And, for those of you who do not have a church home, we hope to see you at worship at Trinity Baptist on October 5th at 10:30 AM for our first Christival service of the season.

Being a people of Baptist vision (part 3/4)

This is the third sermon in a five-part series at Trinity Baptist Church entitled, “A People of Vision.”

Text: Romans 6.  Suggested hymns: In Christ, Our Liberty (# 626 in The Baptist Hymnal 1991); and In Christ Alone (#569 in Celebrating Grace: Hymnal for Baptist Worship 2010).

“We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin…So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ” (Romans 6:6, 11).

I.

 

Trinity Baptist: A church that cherishes freedom in Christ and religious liberty

My son Hayden’s third birthday is right around the corner.  I can notice that, as he ages, he is growing an “independent” streak.  He wants to do more things himself; he wants a say in decisions (he loves saying, “no”); and he longs to explore his little world without the confines of his parent’s watchful gaze.

We humans are like my son.  We tend to favor independence and liberty.  We long for freedom from authority.  Although some men have chosen the path of tyranny–to be a tyrant over others or lord their power over others–they always bend towards (as Martin Luther King, Jr. would say) liberation and freedom.

 

As we seek to form the vision for our church’s future, I think it is important to consider how our Baptist heritage informs our vision.  The main contribution that Baptist heritage can provide is that of liberty–freedom in Christ.  Baptists, after all, have a history of championing liberty.  Liberty is the calling card for Baptists.

II.

Baptists originated in a time of political, religious, and economic upheaval about sixty years into the Protestant Reformation.  In England, King James I took the throne and prided himself on a strong government of absolute monarchy and a divinely-inspired state church.

James, (like other monarchs at the time), were having issues with several radical Protestants groups in his empire.  One group were the so-called Puritans, who thought that the Church of England was corrupt and grandiose.  They favored a split with the Catholics, but thought that Canterbury (the seat of the Church) did not go far enough in its reforms.

Then there were the Separatists.  These were Anabaptists, Mennonites, and other churchgoers who wanted out altogether.  They despised a church hierarchy and established democratic, “congregational,” churches that were autonomous.

 

John Smyth: Founder of the FIRST Baptist Church, 1609

John Smyth and Thomas Helwys were two such separatists.  They fled to Holland and  learned about the Mennonites and a fringe form of Baptism–“adult baptism”–that became popular in separatist circles.   There they grew in spiritual stature and studied the Word of God unhindered.

James and the Church of England, meanwhile, were trying to increase the State’s power.  In 1604, Richard Bancroft, then Archbishop of Canterbury, published several canons, one of which declared that the episcopacy (the Church’s hierarchy) was of divine origins.   That whole “priesthood of all believers” business was heretical.*

According to historian, William Bradford, Smyth and Helwys’ group rebelled all the more:

They shook off this yoke of antichristian bondage, and as the Lord’s free people joined themselves (by a covenant of the Lord) into a church, in the fellowship of the Gospel, to walk in all His ways made known, or to be made known unto them, according to their best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them.*

By 1609, John Smyth (a one-time Anglican priest) established the first (the first!) Baptist church in Holland.  Helwys founded the first Baptist church in England two years later.

Those early Baptists prized liberty in four ways:*

  1. Soul freedom: They valued each individual’s relationship with God, knowing that no person or creed can mediate that very relationship.  Also, each person must come to Christ on his or her own volition.  “Believer’s Baptism” means that a person must choose to believe before being baptized.  The “priesthood of all believers” means that people serve one another in a mutual covenant.
  2. Church freedom:  Baptists valued the autonomy of the local church.  Each church elected its own leaders, ministers, and government.  Each church ministered in its community according to its own values and preferences.
  3. Bible freedom:  Baptists knew that Christians meet God in the midst of Bible study, and that the Holy Spirit alone is interpreter of God’s Word.
  4. Religious freedom:  Baptists knew of the harsh persecution that any State church can bring, so they championed the right of each individual to worship where and how they please.  This includes freedom of religion, as well as freedom from religion.   One-time Baptist, Roger Williams, for instance, established the first truly religiously free colony, Rhode Island.  There, the first North American synagogue was founded; and Protestants and Catholics (even some atheists) lived in harmony.

III.

As Christians, we talk about this type of liberty often, but we must be careful that when we discuss freedom that it is freedom in Christ rather than freedom from Christ.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Roman churches, he was trying to reconcile a conflict between two groups of believers.  On the one hand, there were gentiles who used their “freedom in Christ” to live ostentatiously and lavishly.   Their behavior bordered on anarchy and reflected little of God’s holiness.

On the other hand, a group of Jewish converts believed that the Law of the Torah still applied to the code of conduct for believers.  Whereas one group were anarchists, this group were strict legalists.

Paul sought a middle ground by explaining that Jesus’ death and resurrection saved both groups from the shackles of sin and law, and that freedom came with a price.  The groups were once a slave to sin; Christ ransomed, purchased, redeemed those “slaves” out from sin to make them God’s very own children.

In doing so, the community became “slaves” to God.  They owed God their very life, and their conduct was going to fall in line with their Lord and Master.  “You are not your own,” Paul writes elsewhere, “You were bought with a price.”  Therefore, “Present yourselves to God as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13).

We can start to see certain principles tied to freedom in Christ:

  • Liberty originates from God’s grace, not from anything we do, say, or believe.  Therefore, we cannot abuse this liberty or take it for granted; we are merely stewards of this liberty.
  • Liberty is a result of salvation, as expressed in the act of Baptism–we die to our old selves and join Christ in his death (through baptism), but then rise from the waters as a sign that we join Christ in his resurrection as well.
  • The goal of liberty is to be freed from the shackles of this world, including the shackles of sin, of death, of a culture of violence, of vitriol and competition.
  • Liberty helps us live life to the fullest.  In the words of John Drear, “We’re free to live life to the full now, knowing that eternal life has already begun.”*

IV.

When Paul encouraged his readers to be free in Christ, he also gave them warnings to not fall back into a life of sin.  He posed this question in several different forms:  “If grace abounds as a result of sin, should I sin all the more so that grace will increase? …I think not!”

Rather, Paul–and the church–encouraged measures in order to live as “slaves” to God.

  1. Prayer and Bible Study keep us in the middle of God’s will so that we will know Him and embody His lordship.
  2. Worship in church and out, knowing that worship is the primary way to relate to God and glorify Him in all we do.
  3. Commit to discipleship and spiritual growth.  As “slaves,” we are responsible for growing in our knowledge of the Master.  We are to follow God daily and in community, seeking out a variety of methods to grow in Him.

V.

How does this Baptist liberty inform our vision?  For one, it teaches us that we are a people on a journey, seeking out what it means to balance freedom in Christ with servanthood to one another.  It also informs how we:

Live in Christ’s liberty (worship).

Grow in holiness so as to please the Lord (discipleship).

Share God’s liberty and love with those still in bondage to sin and despair (evangelism).

Connect people with a liberating Gospel (missions).

And in all things, our Baptist vision stresses that we are free!  (We are free indeed!)

Let us use that freedom to serve God and His kingdom, not to fall into the desires and “old life” of our unredeemed past.  Amen.

*Sources:

“Bancroft…”  Source: Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity vol. 2 (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), p. 152.

“Bradford…” Source: Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1993), p. 12.

“Four fragile freedoms…” Source: Shurden, The Baptist Identity.

“We’re free to live…”  Source: John Drear, Put Down Your Sword: Answering the Gospel Call of Creative Nonviolence (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 18-19.