A Pastor appreciates the hymns: “Be Still, My Soul”

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.

When my father passed away tragically four years ago and we were planning his service with ministers at his home church in Staten Island, New York.  I had only one request.  I did not want to speak, preach, or pray.  I did not want to give a eulogy or read scripture.

All I wanted was one congregational hymn to be played since I knew that the rest of the service incorporated contemporary music.  I chose Be Still, My Soul, set to the tune of Finlandia.

Be Still, My Soul certainly seemed out of place at the time.  The rest of my family did not know it.  Its slow–(and, I would argue, haunting)–cadence threatened to slow down an otherwise long funeral.  Why sing something nobody heard of, and why sing a song that was set to Irish, nineteenth-century music?  We even had doubts that the minister of music would be able to play it, let alone fit it into the Order of Worship.  But, as I mentioned, it was my one and only request.

During the funeral, people spoke.  The pastor preached for a good while.  We did have praise and worship, and rightly so, for all funerals for believers are worship services to the God who is giver and author of our lives.  But it was Be Still, My Soul that made me feel right at home, right where I belonged.  It was my way of bringing my tradition–my church family (nearly 800 miles away)–into our worship of God that day.

When we sang the song it was lovely.  It was indeed haunting, and it did invoke a theological voice that otherwise would have been lacking.  I barely sang it, and most of the time I held my nephew who wept in my arms.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In every change God faithful will remain.

Here I was, stricken into speechlessness at my father’s death, nearly drowning under a deluge of thoughts that things will never be the same, and the hymn communicated what I did not have the words or strength to say: That although my family and I were facing the worst situation we had ever faced–in the midst of change and grief and pain–God is faithful and God would provide.  We worshiped God together that day, but only this song, this hymn, reminded us about who God is and who we are to God.

The second verse goes on to declare that life is full of mystery, that in darkness we can still stand solidly on Christ who upholds our confidence and hope, to whom waves and wind–the chaos of life–still obey.  The song nurtured me as I nurtured my nephew.  My father died in a dangerous world, but in the embrace of God and each other, we were “safe and blessed.”

I have heard it said that the songs shared at funerals touch the lives of so many people who sing those same songs on random Sunday mornings in worship services and churches across America.  People still cry, for example, when we sing I Come to the Garden Alone because it reminds them of Grandma’s funeral or Father’s celebration of life.

For me, Be Still, My Soul will forever have that peculiar hypnotic hold upon my life.  It is more than captivating, it holds me captive to the Spirit–for it is within this song that I find myself as beloved, as hopeful, or rather hope-filled: “Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.”  Until that day, we have a song to sing, and that’s good enough for now, especially when words fail us.

Advertisements

A Pastor appreciates the Hymns: “God of Grace…”

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.

Most ministers I know pray for courage on a daily basis.  Ministry is a sacrificial act that requires risk, reconciliation, and intuition.  It is a craft that pastors shape over time, a vocation forged in the throes of experience and ever-evolving knowledge.  So goes the prayer in God of Grace and God of Glory in which the author, Harry Emerson Fosdick implores the Lord, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage.”

Penned soon after the First World War, God of Grace and God of Glory  was Fosdick’s confession of having supported the “War to end all Wars,” only to realize that violence only begot more violence.  Like other progressives of his time, Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York, repented of his ideals and wrote this hymn in which he asked God to “cure thy children’s warring madness.”

Fosdick’s beloved hymn captures the spirit of historic progressivism in its lofty lilt, set to the music of John Hughes, while birthing notions of non-violence that shaped much of the progressive church into recent days.  In fact, after Fosdick, Riverside Church became a beacon for peace and non-violence. One of the church’s pastors, William Sloane Coffin, gained notoriety for preaching against the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation in the 1970s Riverside pulpit.

It is this legacy that spurned controversy over Fosdick’s hymn in the first place.  If you look at hymnals from the Vietnam War era onward, notably hymns published in the 1970s, such as the 1975 Baptist Hymnal, many editors removed the third verse which asks God to undo a nation’s penchant for war.

Even moderate-leaning hymnals of late, including the Celebrating Grace hymnal published in Macon, Georgia, in 2010 excludes the verse in favor of asking God to “set our feet on lofty places.”  This contemporary spin is more a hymn for hikers than it is one that shapes theological engagement of peacekeepers for the 21st century.  (The 2008 Baptist hymnal by Lifeway does include the classic 3rd verse.)

I have grown to love the historic version of God of Grace and God of Glory for both its musical artistry and its message ever since my earliest years in seminary.  It was then that I studied Fosdick and his historic tenure at Riverside.  I learned how he moved his church into the “Christian century”, battled the shortfalls of religious fundamentalism, and gave rise to a new style of homiletics that inspired preachers to utilize sermons as “pastoral care on a group scale.”

I got a hold of Fosdick’s memoir, For the Living of These Days, and read about his own struggles in ministry.  For all his boldness in the public square–he had his own radio show and all–he had a fairly weak constitution that led to multiple nervous breakdowns.  He did not just preach God’s Word, he wrestled with God’s Word.  His movement from warmonger to non-violent activist evolved out of one such struggle.

Whenever I face difficult times in ministry, I often find myself praying Fosdick’s words.  It is comforting that hundreds of thousands of Christians have sung this song, and it is in the company of saints that I still sing (or pray!) to ask God to grant me wisdom and courage for the facing of difficult hours.  It is a prayer for the soul as well as the church, which is the womb of Christ’s budding story.

In a world that debates left versus right, liberal versus conservative, one political party versus another, Fosdick, his legacy, and his hymn remind me that all our Christian leanings, wielded over a hundred years, have all contributed greatly to a magnificent Church, a rich tapestry of worship, and an artistic depth to hymnody and liturgy that still wrestles with text and scripture even today; for, at the end of the day, God is still One who is both grace-filled and glorious!

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.