By Joe LaGuardia
As I am writing this, the weather is a warm 80 degrees, and my wife and children are at the beach collecting shells. There is a slight breeze. I can tell by the waving palm trees just outside my office window.
All of this is a reminder that I am not in Georgia anymore. After serving in ministry there for over a dozen years, I will spend my first Christmas season in Florida since we moved to Atlanta in 2001. Something feels askew, and my biological clock is confused by the lack of changing leaves, “sweater weather”, and frequent wintry trips for hot coffee at Dunkin Donuts.
As my body adjusts, I have become mindful that as I spend this “first” Advent and Christmas at my new church, First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, other people will be spending their holidays with “firsts” as well. In the last year at FBC, there have been several deaths that have shaped the community in significant ways.
One person who passed, “Chubby” Bass, was well-known for his leadership and commitment to the church. I am currently in the Sunday School class he once taught. I gather from the group that he was a legend, and I assume its for good reason.
Another person, Hiram Henderson, was chair of the FBC Pastor Search Committee. I had two in-person interviews with the Search Committee, and both afforded me some time with Hiram. He was a sweet and gentle person, and he listened intently as I told the committee of my philosophy of ministry and vision for my future at FBC. I don’t remember a time when he did not have a big smile on his face–very assuring for me, a candidate nervous about his next call.
When I came to preach in view of a call, there were only a few empty seats in the crowded sanctuary. One was next to Hiram. He and I shared a hymnal, and I remember him embracing me strongly, despite his failing health, in the wake of an affirmative vote. It was the last time I saw him.
Today I visited with a family members who stood sentinel with their mother, grandmother. She passed away peacefully and seemed as beautiful as she was on the first day I met her six months ago. She was 103 years old and had been the oldest living member of First Baptist Church.
There are countless other individuals I can think of who will be grieving a lost loved one this season: Families of Pappy Kouns, a local baseball legend in these parts, and Dana Howard, to name a few. Then there are friends and families in the church who lost loved ones in the wider Vero Beach community. I may not have officiated these funerals, but attending them has made me experience the depth of love and grace that exists in this place I now call home.
When I lost my father some three years ago, I knew from experience that the first year is often the hardest. Shit hits you over and over again like those constant waves my kids are spying at the beach right now.
Every birthday, holiday, season, and transition can bring back both the celebration that memories evoke, as well as the sadness of grief which seems just as fresh as on the first day of a person’s loss.
Coincidentally, the Advent and Christmas theme at FBC this year is “‘Tis the Season,” and it certainly is. It is the season for many firsts. All we can hope for is that there will be those who walk alongside us, helping us find a sure footing even when we may only have enough strength to put one foot in front of another.