A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: The Power of Poetry

By Jackson Thomas

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 is an excerpt of a sermon by Jackson Thomas from 18 October 2017, preached at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers, Georgia during the church’s annual Christival: A Celebration of Faith and the Arts series.  Jackson Thomas serves as Youth Ministry Coordinator at Trinity Baptist Church.

Words are incredible tools. Speech is one of the many things that sets us apart from the rest of creation. We have a uniquely human ability to communicate with each other in a very definite way. If someone speaks with a different language, we can even learn that language.  Words are such powerful tools that with the advanced ability to communicate afforded us by the use of words, we have done some truly incredible things as a species.

The way we express ourselves using these tools is multi-faceted. We use words in the form of writing, speaking, and singing all to spread a message.  We have always tried to find a way to make our particular message be remembered for generations. Most prominently, we write the things we want remembered.

The written word is incredible and has an interesting history.  As writing gained popularity it was alleged that Socrates actually hated the concept of the written word because it would “create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls.”  Obviously, this thinking didn’t catch on as writing has become the cornerstone for spreading information.

In fact even that way of thinking wouldn’t be known about today had Plato not written about it for later generations to read. And more than passing along information, writing allowed for an entirely new form of art to express feelings or tell fantastic stories and even worship; especially worship.

The other interesting thing is the forms writing would take. Originally the only proper way of writing was poetry. Prose was considered lazy and uninspired.  There’s a bit of a pattern here, but poetry does provide a particular boon in that the human brain is predisposed to pick up on patterns.  We love patterns. It’s why there have been studies done in which the letters in the middle of a word are jumbled, but so long as the first and last letter are in their proper places, we can generally read what it says.

What’s truly interesting is where these patterns come from.  It’s as if when God breathed life into us, He did it in a song. Because of this rhythm, we have written poetry for as long as the written word has existed. Poetry was most notably utilized as worship in the forms of the Psalms, of which biblical book makes up the single largest text in the Bible.  Psalms express the whole spectrum of human emotion and how it all relates back to God. If God is the Word, how could we ever fully express our truth to Him without utilizing words?   God gave us perhaps an even greater gift in the concepts of meter and rhyme. So, in an attempt to fully utilize God’s gifts, so that we may fully worship Him, I’d like to share a poem.

Breath of life, expand my lungs
And make my life feel whole
Create a song behind my tongue
And let me sing my soul

Let my worship fill the air
And fully resonate
Within the souls of all who hear
So we may celebrate

And when the silence overcomes
And all the songs do end
Then let the rocks cry out their praise
Let them make us understand

Breath of life, expand my lungs
Help me find the words to say
Let me heed the words sang by the rocks
Who taught me to how to pray

It is fascinating to me that music and poetry always fit so nicely together. Probably because music is designed to take advantage of the rhythm poetry so naturally exploits anyway.  It is the most natural progression from poetry, and music is absolutely a fantastic form of worship that became so prevalent it is still actively practiced by most modern churches.  Because of that, music is one of the most fantastic and influential forms of worship, even if the actual words are unknown.

There is a song being sung throughout creation, and that song will never really be silenced. Jesus said as much when he talked about the rocks speaking up were everyone else to be silent. And while only humans respond to rhythm, we certainly aren’t the only beings who sing. We are but one voice of many on the choir of creation.  We, along with all other beings, are singing the song breathed into us during creation. We are writing and singing the creation song at all times. We are a part of something great, put together by God to connect us all so that we could understand what it is to really be a part of creation.

There is also song in silence, just as musicians are encouraged to “play the silence.”  Silence reveals parts of ourselves we probably would not have been able to see otherwise. For some, silence is uncomfortable. In a world as loud and hectic as it is today, is there any wonder why?

There is a song being sung throughout creation. There is poetry in the silence. In silence, it is possible to hear the voice of God speaking to us. It is because of this, Jesus often went off on His own to pray. So He could hear God speak back to Him. Silent prayer is often the best way to hear the words to write and, by allowing ourselves these moments of silence for writing, writing itself becomes worship and connects us to the song God breathed into our lungs at the beginning. We can connect wholly with God, the Word and truly begin to understand what that means.

That said, there is a sort of responsibility on our part to utilize those words correctly. Especially when it comes to what we write, our words will live on in some way. So when people hear you speak or read your writings, are they hearing the song of creation? Are you connected with God, the Word who spoke the world into creation? As we go out about our daily lives, I implore you to listen to the song creation is singing, and when you hear something that stands out as significant, write it down. Take a silent moment to really hone in and listen to the song and put into words the song being sung. Let God, the Word, speak through your life and your writings, so all of God’s gifts can be shown through you.

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Going Home, Looking Forward

By Joe LaGuardia

Since moving to Florida over a year ago, I have been reflecting on some aspects of my past: high school, college, my calling, friends with whom I’ve lost contact, and other nostalgic reminiscing.  With each memory I seek to “take every thought captive for Christ,” assessing what role the memory plays in my life and how it might shape my life now.  I was in Georgia for almost two decades; I moved from Florida where I had lived since childhood.  Now I’m back.

Writing about the sacredness of places and upbringing, author and poet Natalie Goldberg notes,

We hear about people who go back to their roots.  That is good, but don’t get stuck in the root.  There is a branch, the leaf, the flower–all reaching toward the immense sky.  We are many things.

My return to Florida has been a return to my roots.  Many of these roots, however, have become dormant.  Some have died out altogether–time spent with cousins now divorced, going to car shows with the old ’84 Camaro.  My “home church” in Pompano Beach is still active but too far to visit when I’m not in the pulpit at First Baptist.

Yet there are branches and leaves and flowers, as Goldberg puts it, that reminds me that there is new growth and new frontiers.  The “immense sky” is open to so many new opportunities, but I can’t help but notice that my writing, preaching, and prayers have been caught in a time loop, almost paralyzed by the past in some ways.

I wonder whether this “time loop” is a result of nearing 40 years of age.  I have heard of mid-life crises, and though I have no inkling to purchase a Porsche or travel to Europe to find myself, I hear the bells that toll at the end of one’s life a little louder than before.  Aches and pains in my back beckon the belfry on the horizon.

I have a long way to go–my congregation would laugh at me if I spoke of age at this point in my life–but my move to Vero Beach has captured me in a time stasis, hanging between my past–what once was–and my future, what God has in store as I continue to plug away at working with a great church to build a great and vibrant ministry that will last, I hope, for centuries.

These reflections were held in bold relief when I awoke from a bizarre nightmare this morning.  It was not a normal “pastor’s nightmare,” like the ones in which you start to preach only to have people walk out on you or you show up at church only to realize that you’re in the wrong church.  There weren’t any ghosts or ghouls or monsters.

Rather, I was sitting in the home of a parishioner who scolded me for hiding for hours in my office, not doing anything useful.  “Every day,” she said, “You sit in your office for two hours, and I don’t know what you do–you just sit there and twiddle your thumbs.  Four days a week, eight hours total every week–a whole work day of doing nothing.”

I can’t explain why that particular dream struck me, although I have always taken pride in my vigorous work ethic, but I can tell you that it has to do with time.  If I pray and all I think of are memories of times past while failing to cast a vision for what God has in the future, then I am stuck for sure.

“Don’t get stuck,” Goldberg says, like angels who once told the disciples to move things along when the disciples got stuck eyeing the heavens when Jesus ascended (“As they strained to see him rising…” the NLT states in Acts 1:10).  Don’t get stuck, move it along, look for new opportunities, new growth, it is all around us and it speaks to God’s beauty and activity in our life today.

For years I have had a guilty pleasure of watching Michael Mann’s 2006 Miami Vice with Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell.  I enjoyed watching it because it shows a slice of life in Florida, to which I wanted to return.  I realized yesterday, while sitting on the beach and watching my wife and duaghter search for shells and my son dodge waves, that I no longer wanted to watch the movie.  I do not crave Miami Vice anymore because I’m here, I’m home and the flowers are blooming.

One Pastor’s Reading List for 2017

books_journalBy Joe LaGuardia

It is the “in” thing these days for pastors to publish their reading list for the New Year.  Since I am an avid reader, I can’t help myself.

The notion is that clerics were once the storehouses of knowledge, when churches were at the center of town and of political and cultural life for any given county.  Also, there is the thought that parishioners might be interested in what their pastor is reading.  That may or may not be true.

What is true, at least for me, is that my spiritual mentors instilled in me the abiding ethic that pastors should be continually growing in their field, in learning about what stands on the horizon of cultural movements, and how God is at work in our world today.

It was Karl Barth (or was it Deitrich Bonhoeffer?) who said that a pastor must go about his or her vocation with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Additionally, I consider myself a writer, and what writer do you know doesn’t boast of a formidable home library or reading list?  So there you go.

Here are a few books I am looking forward to reading as the new year is upon us.

1-  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.  I fell in love with Dillard’s writing a little over a year ago.  I started with The Writing Life, read Holy the Firm, and moved on to a book of her essays in Teaching a Stone to Talk. I read The Writing Life for a second time when I moved to Vero Beach–all my other books were packed away in storage!

When I learned of her classic, Pilgrim, which won a Pulitzer, I set out to buy a copy at our local Vero Beach bookstore.   It is, in classic Dillard style, a meandering reflection of life at Tinker Creek in the Appalachian mountains.   Part memoir, part spiritual narrative, her writing moves between poetic reflection and naturalist exploration.

Dillard once stated that her goal was to write the “impossible page.”  In Pilgrim she does not disappoint (I started reading it before Christmas).  Her writing is heavy, rich like a meaty stew in which every bite contains enough nourishment and protein to fill you for the rest of the day.

2- Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  In a recent issues of The Christian Century, pastors submitted short paragraphs about the best book they’ve read recently.  A majority cited Just Mercy.  I better get on the bandwagon.

As director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, Stevenson mixes anecdotes and research to shed light on the underside of criminal (in)justice with the aim of bringing about real conversations on the need for criminal justice reform.

3-  The Everglades: River of Grass, by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.  I heard about Douglas and her memoir of conservation when I went to high school at none other than Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Coral Springs, Florida.

There was a joke about the school: What better way to honor her than by building a school right in the middle of the environment she longed to save?  (The ghost of Douglas struck, however–when I graduated, there was an urban legend that the school was sinking in the swamp at nearly a foot every ten years.)

This is not the only Florida-specific book on this list.  Over the years, I have come to love reading local authors about local places.  I’ve read scores of Georgia authors; now its time to read classics every Florida resident hopes to read.

4-  The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings.  Another Florida classic, a coming of age novel in the heart of the Florida wilderness.  I am not all that sure what this book is about, specifically, but it was recommended by a fellow Florida naturalist, so I figured I better read it.

5-  Communication in the Church, by Thomas Kirkpatrick.  One of the things I need to shore up in my first year at First Baptist is communication.  So many have cited communication as an issue for the church, partly because there was no figurehead–senior pastor–to really head that up.

This book came across my desk in an advertisement from the book’s publisher, Romman and Littlefield, and it caught my eye.  When I received it in the mail, I was delighted to find that it appeared to be both easy to read and practical.

When I spotted a chapter on how to lead a committee meeting, for instance, I knew I had made the right decision (not that I don’t know how to lead a committee meeting, but there is always room for improvement!).

6-  The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, by Roy Oswald.  In my previous church, we had an emotional intelligence guru in our associate pastor, the Reverend Karen Woods.  I was enthralled with the things she taught the staff and our church on this growing field in ministry, and I am still convinced its one of the most important things every church leader needs to understand.

I asked Pastor Karen what book would be best–give us the good stuff for people who want to read about EQ, but don’t have time to read every book on it.  She recommended Oswald’s book, and we purchased a half-dozen copies for staff and lay leaders.

I was grateful for her lessons, especially, since part of the interview process at First Baptist Church was to take an EQ test!

I began to read this book last month, and it is indeed still some of the most important material I’ve read of late.  What pastor does not want to learn more about empathy, self-awareness, and stress management.  Well, I am sure there are many–and this is the book to purchase for your stressed-out pastor!

7- The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben.  I read about this book somewhere along the way, maybe in an editorial or column in The Christian Century, and I was enthralled with the premise: A German forest ranger, Wohlleben, explores the science and theory behind the social life of trees.

I’m not sure what I will get out of this book, maybe that if trees are social, we humans can be too?  And, since moving to Florida, my family and I have made it a habit to hug a palm tree every now and then.  (We named the one palm tree on our property “Fred.”  We love Fred, but he gets grouchy sometimes if you get too close to him.)  This brings joy.  Maybe this book will explain why. Who knows?

8-  The Givenness of Things, by Marilynne Robinson.  A book of essays by the author of Pulitzer Prize-winner Gilead (one of President Barak Obama’s favorite books, by the way).  Robinson is known for her conversational tone and religious sensitivity.

Since I am a sucker for essays, hoping to publish two new books of essays in the next two years, I figure I better read Robinson’s.

9-  Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service, by Charles Deweese.  My personal history with this book is an interesting one.  Soon after I purchase it, about seven years ago, I lent it to my father-in-law, who was interested in how in the world Trinity Baptist made women deacons.

For some reason, he misplaced the book and it had been lost since then.  He and my mother-in-law just sold their house and moved here to Vero Beach.  In the packing and unpacking, the book turned up.  I hope to get a chance to read it, finally!

10-  Moby Dick, by Herman Mellville.  At the beginning of last year, friends and I joined an informal movement called “Sixteen books in 2016.”  We even devoted a Facebook group page to it.

This book was on my list, and, with the move to Vero and all, I never got around to it.  Maybe this year I will.  Until then, poor Ahab will continue his fateful search for the great White Whale.  I don’t want to leave the guy hanging, so I’ll try to make it my summer beach reading fare.  Beach + whale.  Sounds like a winning combination.

11-  Something about Henry Flagler.  I went to a college on Flagler Drive, which was across the bridge from the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.  Kristina and I went to St. Augustine for our honeymoon, and have visited many times since, including touring Flagler College.   What does all of this have in common?  Henry Flagler, the industrialist tycoon who founded Standard Oil and connected Florida by rail.  I’m sure there is a biography on him that I’ll pick up along the way.