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.

The sacredness of space, and the writing life

sacredspaceBy Joe LaGuardia

It has been some time since I last wrote an article.  I no longer write a weekly column for the newspaper, so that has not helped my cause.

I also moved to a new state, started pastoring a larger church, tried to figure out how to get around town, and sold one house only to purchase another.  Life has not been easy; writing has been harder still.

My hectic schedule and lack of routine is no excuse.  I was just as busy in my old life in Georgia, but still managed to write two or three articles on a good week.

What is an excuse, however, has to do more with preferences than priorities: I don’t have a sacred space in which to write.

I believe it was Anne Lamott who once said that every writer has a talisman that helps inspire the muses.  Some have a special pen or brand of pencil; others use a particular sized notepad.  Barbara Brown Taylor writes everything in longhand; movie director Quentin Tarantino types scripts with a 30-year old Smith Corona; Annie Dillard locks herself in cells and cellars.

For me, spaces have always served as talismans.  One space was in my old house, a writing desk across from the foot of my bed.  I’d wake up early in the morning before the children arose and started typing away.

Another space consisted of the second to the back booth at my favorite chicken wings eatery, where I often read The Christian Century or innumerable books that provided fodder for article and sermon alike.

Moving to a strange land and living in a strange place (we are privileged to stay in a furnished condo until we close on our new home), I have not had a dedicated writing desk set up yet.  I have not found a local restaurant to call home.  I am still waiting for the good folks at The Christian Century magazines to change my mailing address (thank goodness the secretary at my old church loves me enough to mail me back issues!).  I can hardly write.

I may seem odd, but I am not alone in considering the sacredness and utility of space in the grand scheme of practicing my spiritual disciplines, writing included.   In fact, Christians have always considered the importance of sacred spaces.

The earliest space God in-dwelled was a garden, a very fit environment for a Creator whose greatest contribution to time and, well, space is the very act of calling things into being, some of which put us humans here in the first place.

Next was a tabernacle–God’s “throne room”– that was nothing short of a tent that moved with a nomadic people who escaped Egypt and ventured towards– you guessed it– a “promised land”.

In the person of Christ, God chose to “tabernacle” and live among us, declaring that even humans are sacred enough to call home: “And the word became flesh,” John’s gospel reminds us.

“Churches” grew soon after Christ’s death and resurrection, first in the homes of believers (Acts 20:20 tells us that the early Christian movement grew “from home to home”), and then to meeting places throughout the Roman empire.

Brick-and-mortar Churches resulted from a greater concentration of wealth among Christians.  The earliest edifices started as simple stone structures and then evolved into elaborate cathedrals still celebrated today.

Some Christians, tired of being too wealthy and privileged, chose to abandon their belongings and city life for the deserts of Egypt and Arabia.  These desert mothers and fathers noted that the very wilderness in which they sojourned merely reflected the wilderness of all our hearts–sacred spaces were just as important in the “interior” of the soul as exterior spaces were for gathering believers who longed to worship God.

Perhaps the creepiest spaces that Christians occupied were the catacombs of Europe in the darkest ages of Christian history.  Persecuted Christians took up residence among the buried dead to sing praises and proclaim a hope in the resurrection of the Lord.

Now, Christians have diversified sacred spaces so much that people forget the importance of space altogether.  Christians meet in bars, bookstores, coffee shops, cigar shops, beaches, abandoned banks, and “auditoriums.” Even then, regularly scheduled gatherings of believers only prove how ambiance shapes faith communities.

Spaces, whether we recognize it or not, have a sacredness to them that sometimes go unnoticed.  Just try to move states, sell a home, miss a favorite eatery, or close up a church and you will quickly understand how much space creates a place to belong as well as intimate settings where people meet God, hear from the Spirit, and find hope for a new day filled with ever expanding frontiers begging for the Gospel’s invitation.

I was lucky to write this article–I’m still not in a permanent home yet, and in many ways we are homeless until that time comes (but, lo, my cat still found her way onto my laptop keyboard, trying to get a backrub and leaving a wake of odd letters, numbers and symbols on the computer monitor…).    Yet, it helps to note that when we appreciate the spaces that are special in our lives, we can always make room in our hearts to help us along the way when we find ourselves “in between” those times and places most sacred in our life.

After all, we don’t invite Jesus into our houses.  We invite him into our hearts, for each home is where the heart is.