Celebration & Grief: A Season of “Firsts”

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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.

Snowy, steepled church inspires Christmas blessings

churBy Joe LaGuardia

Just mention the word “church”, and people do not think of auditoriums with coffee shops, but the classic one-room, steepled church set in a snowy, foothills environment.  A red door stands ready to greet visitors and large windows provide light even on the darkest of days.  Perhaps there is a bell tower, chiming people to worship on the Sabbath.

Although I grew up in a congregation that met in a renovated library, this was always my picture of the stereotypical church.  There is something beautiful about it, something naïve. It’s like a Thomas Kinkade painting, an escapist perspective that makes us feel that all is well in the world.

I enjoy seeing churches like this on our family trips across the South.  We even purchased Christmas cards this year with a picture of one on the front.  “Christmas blessings,” it reads, anticipating a snowy Christmas in an otherwise mild-weathered year.

These churches also remind me of a song my children used to sing with clasped hands in front of them: “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple; open it up, and here are the people.”

Their fingers, waving in the air, represented the people of course.  It is not the building, but the people who make the church what it is.

The only problem is that the people who make up the church are imperfect, flawed individuals.  Get into the life of the congregation and remove the building, and issues arise in our perception for what it means to be Christian.

No wonder there are those who call Christians hypocrites.  Ask any churchgoer why he attends church, however, and he will be the first to tell you that he attends precisely because of his sins.

Like St. Paul, we Christians want to do what the Spirit tells us, but we mess things up instead:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” Paul wrote to churches in Rome (Romans 7:15).

You can keep your perfect people; I’ll take the misfits, thank you very much, because the very meaning of being a church is of being the people of God gathered together to bear witness to salvation that comes with grace and grace alone.

Several weeks ago, our church ordained our associate pastor, Karen Woods, to the gospel ministry.  Somewhere along the way, we read passages from Romans 12 and 1 Peter 3.  Both scripture lessons affirmed the gifts that God gives us, the gifts of the Spirit, and the gifts that empower us to do the work of the church and be the church in the world.

The passages also encourage us to give God the gift of our very life:

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).

Christmas is a time of gift-giving and receiving, and though our perspectives of church become a little more serene and nostalgic during this time of year (how many people return to church after being absent all year long?), we are reminded of the great gifts we exchange with God in time for Jesus’ birthday.

We give God the gift of our life as a response to the great gift that God has given us in spite of our weaknesses and sin.  We acknowledge God’s grace although we are undeserving.  We celebrate our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to live for us, lead the way, die for us, and rise from the dead in order to give us eternal life.

What better time to come back to church than during Christmas?  Our churches may not look the same, but the feelings of entering the sacred space of what is historically called “God’s womb” remains constant.  It is there that we receive the singular mandate to repent, believe, and then share the good news of the Gospel with others.

A Christmas Prayer

untitledBy Matt Sapp

At a recent Wednesday Bible study group at my church, we spent time talking about what we would pray for if we really believed that God came to earth at Christmas to redefine justice, righteousness and peace.

I organized the group’s thoughts and wrote them down. What follows is our collective prayer:

God who comes to us at Christmas,

We honor you with our focused attention as we pray for your growing presence in us and in our world this Christmas season.

As we wait for your arrival, we remember the power you have to redefine our world. We pray that you will bring us new definitions of justice, righteousness and peace.  We pray that we can receive and apply those definitions with hope, joy and love.

JUSTICE
Lord, show us true justice.  Show us the justice of the Bible, and help us understand how that justice is different from the world’s justice. Show us a justice marked by equity and fairness and compassion and mercy.  Teach us that care for the vulnerable—the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the poor, the sick—is a central element of the justice represented in the manger of Christmas.

Open our hearts to the needs of others.  Make us consistent bearers of your image, and give us eyes to see your image in everyone else, too.  Give us the courage to represent you every day—even when it’s hard, even when it’s dangerous.  Give us the courage to name injustice when we see it—racism, discrimination, bigotry and hatred.  Give us compassion and empathy for people who are different than us.

We pray for justice in our nation and in our court systems.  Raise up fair and honorable judges and prosecutors and representatives in our court system who seek and distribute justice evenly, impartially and equitably.

RIGHTEOUSNESS
On this Christmas we pray not only for the world around us, but also for ourselves. We pray that you would lead each of us to new understandings of righteousness.  We pray that you would change us.  Change our hearts and our minds and our attitudes.

Help us find more space to focus on the needs of others.  Give us a spirit of neighborliness and friendliness to share with all in our communities.

Make us more tolerant and more forgiving.  Make us more accepting of differences.  Help us to be people who listen to others, who pray for others, and who have the right words and the right helping hands for others.

And in all these things help us to overcome the fear and mistrust and selfishness that often prevents us from doing the good we know we should do.

HOPE
As we wait for the arrival of your justice and righteousness, we do so with great hope: Hope for health and contentment and peace in our families and in our hearts.   Hope for a renewed faith that reminds us we can trust in you no matter what. We wait with hope for balance and harmony among all people, and with hope for spiritual rejuvenation and vitality here and all over the world.

We pray for our church with hope, too. We pray with hope for spiritual and physical growth, with hope for the courage to speak together with a prophetic voice and with hope for the wisdom to know what to say.

We pray with hope for a continued and expanded ability to look after the marginalized and the poor in our community.

PEACE
We pray for peace–for a new attitude and a new feeling in our world and in our hearts. We long for a peace that is more than the absence of hostility. We pray for a positive and active peace that itself represents the enactment of your justice in this world.

Help us find peaceful ways to express our differences.

Rid us of violence, anger and fear. Remind us that kindness doesn’t equal weakness. Help us create a world where tough exteriors are not required and where gentleness is celebrated and admired.

Help us to remember that our eternal security lies in you, that war is never in your will, and that one day you will reign on earth in peace upheld by your justice and your righteousness. We pray for that day to come.

JOY
Heavenly Father, even as we look toward an eternal future, we take joy in the assurance of your presence with us now. We pray with joy at our ability to be distributors and champions of your justice today. We pray with joy in our responsibility to reach out and speak out. We pray with joy in doing what is right. We pray with joy in our call to reach future generations for you. And with pray with joy in our salvation.

LOVE
Fill us with love this Christmas–love for you and love for others as we passionately pursue your justice in our world and your righteousness in our lives. Give us love that lasts even when we don’t get our way.  Give us love that endures through fear.  Give us strength to love even when we don’t feel like loving.  Give us love that helps us realize we always have more to give.

Help us remember that your love in us is only multiplied as we give it away.  Give us a love that is as perfect and innocent and holy as the baby in the manger and a love that is as transformative and self-sacrificing as the Savior on the cross.

We pray with hope, joy and love for your justice, righteousness and peace to come to earth with Christ this Christmas.

May they and we be made perfect in your name, AMEN.