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?

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Facing Father’s Day without a father

dadI’ve written extensively for my county’s newspaper, The Rockdale Citizen, about the hardship and grief associated with motherloss during the holidays and Mother’s Day (read it about it here and here).  What about the loss of fathers during Father’s Day?

Grief hits us most profoundly when special occasions occur, especially firsts.  This weekend, grief will confront me in a unique way because its my family’s first Father’s Day without Dad.

This thought hit me when I was shopping for Hallmark cards earlier this week.  I had to get three instead of four: two for my brothers-in-law and one for my godfather.

I spotted a card that was from a child to “Pop Pop.” That was my children’s nickname for my father.

I looked at the card for a few minutes, wondering whether I should buy it just to have it and put it in my journal.  I moved on, picked up another card with peanuts on it for one of my in-laws instead: “Happy Father’s Day from a couple of nuts.”

The trip to the card aisle reminded me just how helpless we all feel after the loss of a loved one.

For my family, personally, it is helplessness in the wake of the tragedy we experienced nearly ten months ago when a irate shooter killed three people, Dad included, in a town hall meeting in Ross, Pennsylvania.

As a result of a powerful firearm, we were rendered powerless and were torn asunder, not only from a great father, but a best friend to many.

Since that time, I have faced many firsts, and I have tried to follow the advice that I give parishioners who are in my situation.

We’ve started new traditions that honor my father, and we have grieved the loss of other traditions.

We acknowledge the loss, and we feel our way through our emotions as they come about.  (Daphne Reiley accurately describes grief as a series of waves and undercurrents that ebb and flow each day in A Tapestry of Love.)

We draw encouragement from the Bible.

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is especially helpful: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope…God will bring with him those who have died” (4:13, 14b).

I know we will be reunited in heaven, but the separation from our loved one feels like hell right now.

Prayer is also helpful, but sometimes falls short.  Silence in the presence of God is golden.

Poetry has been the most helpful avenue of healing for me.  I’ve picked up Book of Hours by poet, Kevin Young, a professor at Emory University here in Atlanta.

The book balances poetry about his own father’s death (in an accidental shooting while hunting) with the birth of Young’s first child.  His poetry is a bluesy, meandering stream of consciousness that expresses the on-again, off-again nature of loss:

“Strange how you keep on dying–not once then over and done with…each morning a sabbath of sundering, then hours still arrive I realize nothing can beg you back.”

It’s helplessness in those lines, but also hope.  “I do not want you to be uninformed,” Paul writes, its a timeless lesson echoing in my heart.

But uninformed I am.  As Father’s Day creeps up on us, we will stand in darkness yet again.  It feels like an old record skipping and repeating the same dirge over and over.

My only solace is that the day falls on a Sunday.  My church family will comfort me, as I’m sure church families everywhere will comfort all who those who miss fathers on that special day.

We will celebrate too, because there are plenty of fathers in our midst that make up the difference.

And then there is our Father in heaven.  Even when darkness falls, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds” (Psalm 9:1), because God is good (…all of the time; and all of the time…).

The Not-So-Good Goodbye

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By Joe LaGuardia

Authors note: This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Daphne Reiley and Joe LaGuardia for people who are receiving care from others.  We hope the book will be published in the next year or two.  It is posted on our current book’s blog, A Tapestry of Love.

This past autumn I lost my father to gun violence.  A disgruntled citizen of the township of Ross, Pennsylvania, entered a public town hall meeting and indiscriminately fired off nearly 30 rounds in the crowd.

I remember the night vividly.  I received a call a little after 9 PM from my sister who was beside herself.  She didn’t know details but only knew that Dad had been involved in a shooting.

Over the next several weeks, I spent time with family in New York and Pennsylvania grieving the loss.  My father lived a wonderful life, and he didn’t have any regrets.  He was the life of the party and loved his Lord and his church; we grieved as Christians do: with hope and peace that all who call Christ Lord share in the promise of eternal life.

Yet, I am still bothered to this day that I never got to say “Goodbye” to my father.  As a pastor, I have sat with numerous individuals at their bedside and with families of loved ones whose hours on this earth were coming to a close.  I tell them that its important in those final minutes of life to say “Goodbye” and to confront any unresolved issues…Click here to read more.