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.
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A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Benedictions and Farewells

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.  This article concludes the series.

Benedictions are important in every Order of Worship.  Whether tied to a traditional or contemporary service, the last words that a pastor or music leader says to her congregation or the final words that a congregation sings together is often remembered long after the words of the sermon fades.

For some pastors, the benediction is a blessing–a final word echoing the blessings of the Bible like those from St. Paul for the churches to whom he wrote, or the one that God commanded Moses to say to the people of Israel:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you…
And give you peace” (Numbers 6:22-27).

For others, the benediction is a charge or commission to empower people for the week ahead.  Reminiscent of the Lord’s “Great Commission” in his blessing to the disciples in Matthew 28, this type of benediction serves to inspire confidence that God is active in the world.  It is a final reminder that the real work of the church happens beyond the church campus where people spend a majority of their time.

For many of us pastors, the benediction is a little bit of both: We bless our churches with a word of peace, but we also encourage each parishioner to see that they too are agents of blessing and peace for others.  We hope that in blessing and charging our congregation, people will live for Christ, represent Christ, and put faith into action–that they may live the Gospel, not merely believe in it.

Benedictions are often coupled with benediction hymns.  One such hymn is a classic in Baptist life- Blest Be the Tie That Binds.  I guess it is a Baptist classic precisely because a Baptist minister wrote it.

In the mid-1700s, John Fawcett served a poor congregation in Wainsgate, England.  He was offered a job at a larger, more affluent church but was grieved to leave Wainsgate.  He declined the offer and, instead, stayed with that little church until his death in 1811.

Legend has it that it was in the throes of indecision and anxiety over leaving Wainsgate Baptist that Reverend Fawcett wrote this brief hymn.  It expresses charity and unity of the Body of Christ, the power of prayer and intercession, of mutual encouragement — even unto “sympathizing” tears — and includes the hope that believers will come together whether in this life or the next.

The song balances the longing we have of sharing time with our church family, as well as the call to bear the burdens of others in the world.  All of this, of course, is to take place in the posture of blessing and “kindred minds,” a clarion call for any benediction hymn worth its salt.

Another favorite benediction hymn is the concise “Christian goodbye”* hymn, God Be With You, by Congregational pastor Jeremiah Rankin.  The song was first sung in Washington D.C., making it a perfect chorus to conclude worship, as well as a treasure born in the heart of a nation still healing from Civil War.

The words speak of Old Testament images of a Shepherd-God who provides, secures, protects, and guides.  It is a perfect addendum to Psalm 23 or the Exodus story, in which the provision of God’s promises and blessings to Israel take center stage.

A last type of benediction hymn is that which challenges and commissions.  A contemporary hymn by Ken Medema, penned in 2003, Let Truth and Mercy Find Here*, charges the church with putting feet to faith.  It is not enough for people to meet at church–they must transform that time of fellowship into friendship and push the bounds of justice beyond brick and mortar.

The last verse is particularly challenging:

So now let peace and justice be never far apart,
but flowing like a river for every thirsty heart.
These two shall be united, a mighty moving stream,
Upon whose bands we gather to work and pray and dream.

Set to the tune of AURELIA, the words may be foreign but the tune familiar.

That is what benedictions are, after all–familiar.  They are the earworms that stick with people, the melodies that carry us into a new week, and the words that ring over and over again for a people who are defined not always by their diversity, but their unity in spite of it.

 

*William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976): 72.
*Let Truth and Mercy Find Here
is hymn # 692 in the Celebrating Grace hymnal published by Celebrating Grace, Inc., Macon, GA.

 

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Songs of Christmas, Part 2

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

So the shepherds went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed” (Luke 2:16-18).

Christmas is a magical time of year.  Many people decorate with lights and greenery.  Ugly seasonal sweaters are common and unashamedly adorned, and the smell of hot chocolate and peppermint fill the air.  There is something communal about the season, and even Black Friday–which stands a week before Advent–has a charm to it as people begin their gift collecting.

Yet, the hustle and bustle of Christmas can be overwhelming and distracting.  Just as Christmas gifts collect under Christmas trees, crowding the porcelain nativity and keeping it from view, so too our shopping and cooking rituals–and all the Christmas parties!–can get in our way of remembering the reason for the season.  It does not take store clerks and coffee cups to remind us to put “Christ” back in Christmas–we need to do it for ourselves: Don’t worry about putting Christ back in “Christmas”; we should be focused on putting Christ back in “Christian.”

Lessons and carols that we hear and sing during this time draw our attention back to Jesus.  In fact, very many of the most beloved hymns of the church are those that we sing at Christmas time.  For some of us, that means rushing to church on Christmas Eve–(for others, its the only time to go to church–a travesty, by the way!)–to sing our favorite carols such as It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and Silent Night, Holy Night.

Even then, the more we sing these songs over the years, the more they seem to lose their meaning.  (Some songs have words that lost their meaning ages ago: Take The First Nowell, for instance — we have no idea what a “nowell” is!)

We need to take a second look at these hymns too.  A deeper look reveals the rich theological tradition that accompanies Christmas, the many reasons why we should be at church and put Christ back in focus.  This theology is more than the stuff of a greeting to the grocer or a pithy poem on a Hallmark card, it makes up the difference between a life short-lived and an eternal life well-lived in which God embraces us in the person of Jesus our Lord and Savior.

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is one of my personal favorites.  It is a perfect song to sing in the solemn shadows of a sanctuary on Christmas Eve, an expression that peace comes with the coming Prince of Peace to a world that toils with fragile haste.

This song has everything you might expect in a Christmas carol: Angels singing, heavenly music, peace on earth, ancient splendors, and glad and golden hours.  Its invitation to “rest beside the weary road” challenges us to put aside the hot chocolate and the latest fads we purchase for our children, and reflect on Jesus, our Lord.

What makes this hymn so unique, aside from its content, is that it is uniquely American.  Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister penned the poem in 1849, with an emphasis on the work that Christmas inspires–not a work that is toilsome, but one that promotes “peace on earth and goodwill toward” others.  This, in opposition to the pain and suffering in a world that is lowly, crushing, and painful.

I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.  Your new moons and appointed festivals, my soul hates…Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:13C-14a; 17).

Oddly enough, Jesus is nowhere mentioned in the hymn.  For me, this reminds me of nativities under our trees that are crowded out and hidden by the hullabaloo of Christmas.  The angels sing just as we sing, but we need to look carefully and find Christ behind the veil of our seasonal traditions.  Christ may not be in the hymn as an explicit Savior, but the hymn affirms that the Savior is present if we slow down and experience the stillness that we only find in that lowly manger.  Then, and only then, will our darkness and midnight of the soul become ever “clear.”

All this talk of stillness, silence, and midnight reminds me of another favorite hymn appropriate for Christmas day: Silent Night, Holy Night.  Among the most popular of Christmas carols, this hymn comes to us from the darkest pinnacles of the Alps, the very geography from whence our traditions of evergreens and Christmas trees arose.

It was there that two clergymen, Joseph Mohr and Francis Gruber, wrote and scored the hymn in 1818.  Silent Night, Holy Night actually came about by accident.  Before service, they found the organ broken, and Father Mohr went for a walk to clear his head.  On the journey, he enjoyed the silence of the evening and wrote the poem that very night.  The next day, Francis Gruber wrote the score with his guitar, and the two men saw it as a gift to the community and the “perfect Christian hymn” for Christmas Mass (Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 222).

When the repairman came to repair the pipe organ, he took copies of the music and spread it across Austria in his travels.  An English translation came two years later at the gifted hands of Episcopal priest John Young (Bishop of Florida), and it became an instant Christmas classic.

People who gather at candlelight services and get to sing Silent Night, Holy Night acapella have experienced first-hand the power of this famous carol.  It puts us in the Christmas story, sets us beside the Christ child, encourages us to feel shepherds quaking, and implores us to see that wondrous star that wise men beheld so many centuries ago.  Its repetition of the simple refrain, “Christ the Savior is born” is a truth that echoes through the ages and rings deep in our hearts.  It is a truth that is personal, yet grand, filling all of creation–if not the entire cosmos–with the beauty of Christ’s birth.

The song is not merely reflective; it also demands a response.  In its singing, we are to quake too.  We are to receive Christ’s light and love, to look upon his gleaming face and discover radiant beams of a personal relationship with him.

Our response can be spurned by questions: Will the dawn of God’s grace rise in your heart this season?  Will you finally push aside the busyness and consumerism that plagues your life that you may be filled with God’s love?  Will you come to the manger in silent repose, focusing on Christ, and humbly submitting your life to the Savior born unto us, God with us, Redeemer for us?

Our response can be inspired by shepherds.  In The Stories Behind the Magic, Luke and Trisha Gilkerson write:

The song describes the moment when the shepherds stood before the baby Jesus and all was silent.  They just stood in awe thinking about the angels and staring into the face of the baby Jesus…How could someone so important be so small, so helpless, so sweet? (p. 47)

So the shepherds don’t remain at the manger; rather, they go and tell others about Jesus.  Just as a traveling pipe-organ repairman took Silent Night, Holy Night to churches across Austria, so too does God challenge us to spread the gospel to a land in need.