Thanksgiving Reflection: The Fragility of Life and Gratitude

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By Joe LaGuardia – A Thanksgiving reflection.

Reflecting on the fragility of life and the significance of gratitude, the poet of Psalm 39 wrote, “Hear my prayer, O Lord . . . for I am your passing guest, a sojourner, like my ancestors” (v. 12).

This author is not alone in facing the finality of life, the gloom of grief, and the dark of night.  Most of us, be it at a funeral, in solitude with God, or even driving down the interstate while in prayer, have contemplated the brief existence that all of us share on our tiny planet in the cosmos.

When that realization comes, people take one of two paths:  Some take the path of despair and resignation, forgetting to give thanks to God.  They brood on the morbid and slowly isolate themselves under the dark clouds of negativity and regret.

This path often ends at the bottom of a spiritual well, where the only light that provides any rescue is far overhead.

The second path is that of gratitude and appreciation.

Even when great calamity strikes, these folks ride above the storms of hardship and thank God for every breath that comes with the gift of life.

Things are not perfect, but hope is accessible.   There may be doubt, but that does not lead to despair.

Happiness may be hard to find, but joy continues to define a life well-seated in trust and faith in God.

People on that second path know that all of life is a movement of worship, even when worship is expressed in lament.  (It is unfortunate we forget that lamentation is a part of worship, not solely reserved for funerals or memorial services.)

St. Paul is an example for those who choose to follow in the second path.  He made an intentional effort to approach all of life in a state of worship even when conflict and the threat of death overshadowed his desire to spread the Gospel of Christ.

In the second letter to Corinthian churches, he wrote, “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.  For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2:14-15).

A pleasant fragrance passes through space and time briefly.  A person enjoys it for a moment, and it dissipates as soon as one feels its breezy touch.  The author of Psalm 39 wrote, “You have made my days a few handbreaths…we go about like shadows” (v. 5, 6).

From Paul’s perspective, even a moment in the presence of God provides an eternity of bliss and fulfillment.  Each passing instance was a gift from the Lord.

Do you see life (as fleeting as it is) as a breath that passes through the universe or like a sweet fragrance rising before the very throne of God?

In his commentary on Psalm 39, scholar F. B. Meyer noted that the good news in this poetry, even for those who face uncertain days and have but miniscule joy, is that God will never leave our side:  “We are sojourners ‘with God,’ he is our constant companion…We may be strangers [in life], but we are not solitary.  The Father is with us.”

After spending many years in ministry and too many days beside the beds of loved ones facing hardship, I have come to realize that all of us face a choice each day: Will this day be lived out in desperation and self-centered striving, or will the day be welcomed as a gift to be enjoyed, one filled with the promise of hope and gratitude, held firmly in the embrace of the God who promises eternal life?

Job’s 4 Lessons for Redeemed Living

By Matt Sapp

Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, estimated that as many as 10,000 American churches would close their doors in 2013, a number that is forecasted to grow each year for the foreseeable future. The church in America is facing unprecedented pressure as culture shifts and church attendance and giving decline.

Bill Wilson, at the Center for Healthy Churches, writes insightfully about the particular struggles Baptists are facing in a blog post this week.

Families are under pressure, too.  Stagnant wages, credit card debt, a tough job market, rising healthcare and education costs, and widening income inequality all leave families in increasingly stressful and precarious situations.

It’s enough to leave our churches and families and individuals feeling broken, betrayed even.  We used to believe that if we played by the rules and were individually responsible, morally upright, industrious and faithful, then God would take care of us.  It’s a worldview as old as the oldest books of the Bible; God will bless people who are good and curse people who are bad.

It’s a view that continues to dominate, so much so that the exception to the rule — when bad things happen to good people — is one we can’t seem to account for.

At HERITAGE, we’re working our way through the Book of Job on Wednesdays in preparation for an October worship series we’re calling “Broken: learning to be OK again.”

The story of Job is challenging and compelling. It asks real questions based on experience and challenges real assumptions and pervasive worldviews. The story starts as Job, a man who has everything, loses everything—his family, his wealth, and his health.  Fire and tornado and rivals from across the border steal or destroy everything he has. And just when it seems things can’t get any worse, he’s afflicted with a terrible disease that leaves him with no rest or comfort.

Job’s loss is total.  And it’s apparently senseless.  There’s no easy answer to explain it.

The Book of Job then becomes a penetrating exploration of who we are and who God is.  It all starts from a place of brokenness.

But it also explores how God speaks healing and wholeness and hope into individual, human brokenness.

Job cuts through the clutter and the bad advice and the fingers of accusation that always seem to come with challenging circumstances.  It moves beyond speaking in anger and fear OUT OF our brokenness and instead lets God speak INTO our brokenness.

When we experience loss and hurt–or even just change–our natural inclination is to start asking, “Why?”

Job experienced many of the things that churches and families are experiencing now—the loss of comfort, position, security, financial stability. And just like Job and his friends, we have to get beyond the natural human impulse to come up with a reason why. We have to move beyond the stage of finger pointing and assigning blame.

If we can get there—as individual Christians, as churches, even as the universal Church—then scripture teaches that we have an opportunity to grow in four distinct ways.

We can gain a greater understanding of who we are. Challenge and loss and struggle can give life a whole new perspective.

We can gain a Greater understanding of who God is. The self-revelation of God to man is the only way we have any idea who and what God is. Many times God is revealed most powerfully in the midst of struggle.

We can gain a greater understanding of what it means to be faithful. Are we faithful to God because of the blessings God provides or are we faithful simply because of who God is?  Are we people whose faith is tied to the gift or the giver?

And finally, as broken people learning to be OK again, we have an opportunity to challenge prevailing worldviews. Is there a truth beyond the adage that God blesses good people and curses bad people?  Can brokenness provide us a fresh opportunity to claim forgiveness and grace and mercy and hope in Jesus Christ?  I think it can.

As my church and I explore these lessons at Heritage Baptist, you’re invited to join us either by listening to our messages online (through our website or iTunes) or by joining us in person.

“I Got Nothing”: Narrative Wreckage and Charleston

CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 21:  Parishioners embrace as they attend the first church service four days after a mass shooting that claimed the lives of nine people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Church June 21, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Chruch elders decided to hold the regularly scheduled Sunday school and worship service as they continue to grieve the shooting death of nine of its members including its pastor earlier this week.  (Photo by David Goldman-Pool/Getty Images)

Photo courtesy of CBS New York. (Photo by David Goldman-Pool/Getty Images)

By Joe LaGuardia

In the wake of last week’s domestic terrorist attack against Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show delivered an extemporaneous monologue.

Stewart said that he was unable to focus on prepping for his show all day, and he did not have any jokes to tell.

“I got nothing,” Stewart repeated, alluding to his speechlessness over the loss of nine lives in one of Charleston’s oldest black churches.

As I combed through social media thereafter, I noticed other people echoing Stewart’s mantra.  One person on Facebook said the event rendered her speechless.  Another person quipped that no words could communicate his grief.

I only posted a news article and a prayer released by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship because I know speechlessness well: In the aftermath of my own father’s death, the result of a mass shooting in a Pennsylvania town hall meeting, I too plummeted into what Elisabeth Gold calls “narrative wreckage.”

“Narrative wreckage” happens when a person’s or a community’s grief is so unbearable and helpless that no speech, utterance, or proclamation fits the situation.  Nothing makes sense, and the logic we apply to life no longer holds water.

The stories that make meaning in the world come to a screeching halt and are dismantled.  As Stewart said, “I got nothing.”

Certainly, initial reactions to tragedy, mostly resulting in yelling across political aisles pertaining to racism, gun control, or other cultural factors, arise but are far from helpful.  In fact, they are so distracting, the long road of reconciliation gets ignored entirely–and our conversation only hobbles from one tragedy to the next with no real solutions in sight.

But if we take our time, words will eventually start to reform in our mouths.  Yes, there will always be words of protest, anger, cliche, acceptance, among others.  For victims of the Charleston shootings, words of forgiveness were the only ones that erupted on the scene.

Some people simply expressed prayers of lament, supplying clergy with the appropriate verbiage used to describe their own feelings the best they knew how.

But lament does not find a comfortable home in a prose world.  It is the language of poetry and prophetic preaching, the theme of biblical books such as Lamentations, Isaiah, and post-traumatic stress-laden Ezekiel.  It is the narrow road less traveled because it doesn’t place blame–it rips us from the very disillusionment in which blame enshrouds us.

Musical verse (sometimes in the form of dirges), metrical units, and oddly paired phrases that do not fit any narrative framework are the only ones available for those prophets who lived in war-torn, exiled Israel under Babylonian, terrorist rule.

Truth is, I–and folks at Trinity–did not do much of anything in the wake of the shootings at Emanuel.  A few leaders from our worship team decided against a formal moment of silence during Sunday service.  I did not attend any  prayer vigils held in our county.

This is not because we don’t care.  Quite the opposite:  Trinity did not lament like other churches because lament has become a part of our community for the past few years.

The loss of my father was not only my loss, but the entire church’s loss.  And we have faced loss of various kinds.

Frankly, we are sick of the violence that has erupted since a semi-automatic wielding terrorist took my father’s life on 5 August 2013.

And we are sick of death wrought by war, cancer, accidents, domestic abuse, stillbirth, and addiction.  We are sick of death despite the geography: be it in beautiful Charleston, across amber waves of grain in our nation, or not five minutes from us at a local liquor store.

We only stand as a silent witness that enough is enough.

Yet, we are humble enough to admit that we don’t have all of the answers.  When we are in pain, we pray honest prayers to God.  When we discuss politics, sometimes we leave the table without any compromises.  When we cry together, our eyes fill with resignation more than they ought.

And although lament is our second language, it is hope that is our native tongue: We know that the Christ story doesn’t end at the cross, but at the victory of an empty tomb.

We know that Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of our resurrection to come.  But until then, its narrative wreckage for us once again.  We still feel the warm blood stains on the cross more than the soft, white linens Jesus left behind on Easter morning.

Like Stewart, our hurt runs deep.  So, sorry folks, for now, “We got nothing.”