3 Reasons why the Christian Calendar is Meaningful for today’s Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Our church, First Baptist of Vero, is hosting a short-term study on the Christian calendar during the season of Lent.  Although the sacred calendar has always been a part of First Baptist’s 101-year history, the church has often made an effort to educate the congregation on the importance and meaning of the Christian year.

Much of this work has come under the 20-year tenure of the Reverend Dr. Michael Carter, our music minister, who received a doctorate under the leadership of Robert Webber, a name church liturgists associate with the Christian calendar and ancient-future worship.

When I interviewed with First Baptist over a year ago, I was delighted that Dr. Carter was the resident theologian on liturgy.  I fell in love with the Christian calendar while attending a Presbyterian church in high school and Palm Beach Atlantic University, a Baptist college out of the Charleston tradition–a tradition that champions both biblical scholarship and orderly, liturgical worship.

On the heals of Ash Wednesday and while sitting under Dr. Carter’s teachings this past Sunday as he began his study on the Christian calendar, I remembered all of the reasons why I–and the churches I have belonged to and have known–cherish the sacred year.

First, the Christian Calendar reminds me that my faith in and with Christ is not all about me.  I grew up in a northern evangelical church that promoted a simple, but strong Protestant faith devoid of anything “ritualistic.”  We celebrated Christmas and Easter, but outside of that we tried to live by the adage that our Christian witness was more about a relationship with Christ rather than religion.

But something was missing in my Christian upbringing.  By the time we moved to South Florida when I was a boy, we were so “spiritual but not religious,” that it turned out that we were neither spiritual nor religious.  In fact, my tradition was so devoid of any ritual, my only memories of spiritual experiences were limited to attending Miami Dolphins football games and that one time I walked down the aisle to make a decision for Christ at First Baptist Church of Perrine.

When I started attending New Covenant Presbyterian Church during high school and, later, PBA, I experienced all of the nuances of the Christian year.  It did not come off as ritualistic, but a way of bolstering my relationship with Christ.  I felt that I was part of something larger than myself, part of a movement–the Christian faith–that stretched two millennia into the past and connected me to the larger story of God.

As Dr. Carter stated last Sunday, “The Christian year is about sacred time that tells of God’s story, about fusing our story with God’s story, and about making the Christ event the center of that story.”

I had a strong faith from my upbringing, but now I had the skeleton to hang–and to build–some serious Christian muscles in my walk with Christ.

Second, the Christian Calendar sustains me during seasons of spiritual drought.  We all have seasons in our walk with Jesus.  Sometimes we are on fire; other times, we feel distant from God, as if we are only stepping into each day with little connection to God.  That is natural; there is a rhythm to our faith that often mimics the four seasons of the very creation of which we are a part.

It is during those times of drought and “winter” of my soul that I come to rely on the Christian year.  The rhythm of sacred time gives me the bearings and the strength to keep walking, keep at it, to hang in there.  It encourages me to keep going because, though “sorrow may last for the night, joy cometh in the morning.”

It’s like brushing teeth.  We brush our teeth because its more than a routine, it keeps us healthy and keeps cavities away.  So too the Christian calendar is good for the soul; it keeps our hearts focused on God even when God seems far from us.

I found this out the hard way after my father died tragically as a result of gun violence.  After his death, I could not pray.  I could not focus.  I did not return to the pulpit for over a month.

The liturgy–specifically the hymnody, doxology, and congregational singing–was the only thing that got me through that time of grief and heartache.  If Jesus was hard to find in the midst of tragedy, I certainly found him in the midst of song–of hearing the congregation sing, and in following those notes sprawled across that trusty Baptist hymnal.

Third, the Christian Calendar teaches us good theology. At best, theology in the contemporary church is piecemeal, the sum of a thousand topical lessons and sermons that often fail to communicate the entirety of scripture.  I have heard this first hand–a 45-minute sermon in which the pastor presents a topic or thesis, and then strings together a barrage of scriptures as if those scriptures stood independently from the context of their respective books and of the scriptural canon as a whole.

The church year walks us through the entire Bible–starting with creation, the fall of humanity, climaxing with the birth, life, death, and resurrection in Christ; and culminating with the hope of the Second Coming of Christ.  It does not stumble from Christmas to Easter and to the next topical sermon; rather, the story of Christ stands central as we learn to be born again with him, pick up our own crosses, follow Jesus into baptismal waters, through hardship of Lent and finally the joy of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Dr. Carter quoted Robert Webber as stating, “The life, death, and resurrection of Christ stands at the center of time.”  This is not an event divorced from the rest of God’s story, but entangled with the whole of scripture.

I am far from idealistic.  I will continue to visit with churches and Christians who have no place in their life for the Christian year.  That is okay; people walk with Christ on their own terms.  But for me and my family, being intimately bound with a story much larger than the “LaGuardia” story brings liberation, healing, a sense of purpose, and theology that corrects and rebukes and reproves.

It is sacred, and that is something to behold.

Celebrating 20 years of Dr. Michael Carter, worship minister at First Baptist Church of Vero Beach

choir

By Joe LaGuardia

This invocation began the “Michael, Patti, and Friends” concert that celebrated Dr. Michael Carter’s 20 years (and more to come!) of worship leadership and ministry at First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, Florida.

The first time I met Dr. Carter was during my interviews with First Baptist Church. Here was this guy with blue, kind eyes and the type of smile that only a granddaughter can carve, who made it his life’s work to study and practice the intersection of liturgy, theology, and the Christian year in the midst of the worshiping community.

I asked two questions that day when we met and he told me of this life’s work: First, have I died and gone to heaven? Someone pinch me!

And second, “Are you sure Michael’s a Baptist?”—But, yes, he is; and there we were talking of Lent, and Advent, robes and stoles, of doxologies and sacred pulpits, and, of course, his and Jill Truax’s insistence that the pipe organ breathes and proclaims a distinct voice in the same space where the Holy Spirit wills, and moves and has its being, anointing a people deeply engaged in ministry and missions, as well as Christ’s worship, work, and witness.

And then I had to ask the first question again, “Are you sure I haven’t died and gone to heaven?”

If that wasn’t icing on the cake, I was hired as senior pastor and found that Michael and his team not only maintained that integrity of liturgy and worship in our church, but sought to defy stereotypes and the usual milieu of sacred ritual by providing two opportunities to meet with God on Sunday morning.  Our praise team for the 8 AM contemporary service, for instance, is not a stacked deck against any one age group or musical preference. There was the embedded conviction about worship that acknowledged that even the vibration of guitar strings and the melodic, tribal cadence of percussion also spoke God’s language as much as the organ or piano or choir, that the Spirit is loosened by the clapping of hands as much as it is by participating in responsive readings and doxology and hymnody.

Just take a look on any given Sunday morning, and there you have a portrait of God’s Kingdom: The youngest musician in our 8 AM praise team is about 17 years old; our oldest is 90.  In our 10:30 service sanctuary choir, the youngest voice is 10 years old, and our oldest is—well—90. Ours models the diverse and rich tapestry that is the Body of Christ gathered together week after week only to be sent out on mission in a diverse world in which God is still at work.

Today is a celebration of how our Lord and Savior Jesus has used Michael and Patti and their friends in the greater liturgical community over the last 20 years in order to bring glory and honor to God.  It is also a celebration that the Spirit is not confined to any one church or denomination or personality or musician, but liberates us to sing the community’s embodied memory together and emboldens us to share the Gospel in ever creative ways, to be attentive liturgical artists who give a united voice to the gratitude, hope, faith, and love that inaugurates anew God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Spiritual highs, bypass just as dangerous as other addictions

 

Walking on water at sunset

By Joe LaGuardia

I am a firm believer that we are all creatures of habit and, therefore, susceptible to addictions that come in many guises.  A habit turns into an addiction when that which intends to assist us along the journey of life becomes the end goal of life.

The objects of our addictions are what become dangerous: substances and drugs, alcohol, and other self-destructive behaviors, to name a few. Innocuous addictions that people can pass for “normal” behaviors also exist and are just as threatening.

One such addiction is spiritual addiction: No, not addiction that is spiritual in nature, but actual addictions to spiritual experiences related to religion, a search for transcendence, or personal spiritual disciplines, such as worship attendance or yoga.

A recent blurb in the Baptist Herald (March-April 2016, p. 7) explores how spirituality and religion can become dangerously addictive for adherents to a particular faith:

“Christians continually striving for the feeling they experienced at a key spiritual moment, or who church-hop in search of the more inspiring preacher and worship, likely have fallen into” addiction.

In other words, believers who are addicted to spiritual experience need a constant spiritual high, one “mountain-top experience” after another.  The valleys of life and the lows of faith are to be avoided at all costs.

The mundane routines that mark life’s passage and often provide insights for deeper trust in the Divine are not adequate for those who feed on what Nietzsche called the “opium of the masses.”

The technical term for this oft-neglected, but dangerous addiction is spiritual bypassing.  According to Ingrid Mathieu, writing for Psychology Today, spiritual bypassing happens when a person engages in a type of spirituality or spiritual discipline not as a healthy form of self-care that aids coping and holistic healing, but as an escape that avoids deeper issues.

The spiritual or religious experiences do not help the situation but exacerbate the situation by becoming a person’s primary focus.

“The shorthand for spiritual bypass is grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting. It is spiritual practice in the service of repression, usually because we can not tolerate what we are feeling, or think that we shouldn’t be experiencing what we are feeling.”

How do you know if you’re experiencing or suffering from spiritual bypass?  Just consider how you respond to stress.

In many stressful situations, people turn to prayer or meditation to quiet the mind or gain a sense of perspective.  This typically empowers a person to tackle that which creates conflict, or at least maximizes the use of resources that can help get a person past a conflict.

Spiritual bypass, however, is not a resource for the journey of life, but the end and goal of it.  It does not empower, but leads to avoidance and ever-increasing “doses” of spiritual or transcendent encounters.

It does not prepare a person for coping with a situation, but avoiding responsibility in a situation.

“A spiritual bypass occurs when people use their spiritual practice as a way to avoid dealing with and taking responsibility for their feelings. Anything that is used to avoid feelings and taking responsibility for feelings becomes an addiction,” according to Margaret Paul writing for The Huffington Post.

Like any other addiction, spiritual bypass and addiction to religion requires intervention.  The first step is admitting there is a problem–people around you can usually help, especially if they see that you are talking too much about your spiritual experience or a church more than resolving issues that overwhelm you.

The second step is to get help from a professional.  If spiritual bypass is just as destructive as other addictions in the long run, its worth seeking advice and gaining the tools needed to break this stronghold.

When Jesus began his ministry, his first sermon dictated the mission of his ministry.  In Luke 4, he stated that he came to “set the captives free” (Luke 4:18).  If spirituality is holding you captive, then it is only logical that Jesus needs to set you free too.