No one should have to bury their twenty-one-year-old daughter. It’s just not right, especially when she was murdered in a senseless act by a broken man who somehow thought shooting up a local bar and grill would do something for his pain. Yesterday, Sara and I attended her funeral just to be with our community in the midst of its pain and to pray. We didn’t know Noel, or any of the other 11 victims of that mass shooting, but a good friend of ours was one of Noel’s best friends, and we wanted to support her and her family.
Our community has been through so much over the last two weeks. The shooting happened on a Wednesday night at 11:20 pm. The next day two wildfires broke out on either side of Thousand Oaks and by 3:00 am on Friday many residents were told to evacuate their homes in advance of the fire. Fortunately, only three people were killed in these fires, but over 1000 homes and businesses burned. In Northern California they are dealing with a fire that destroyed 6,000 buildings, killed almost a hundred, with a thousand more missing. Sara and I have personally escaped unscathed from these twin tragedies, but know many who have not.
And now, it’s Thanksgiving. This holiday always centers around the images of home and family, expressing gratefulness for the bounty of blessings they’ve enjoyed in the last year. But not everyone had a good year. Some had their houses burned or their child murdered. Others have been through divorce, or cancer, or being laid off from their job. What if you have been abused by someone you love or abandoned by your family? Where do you find your Thanksgiving then?
Pain—and this world can deal it out in some horrible ways—can make us question the goodness and beauty of Creation and the One who made it. But Paul expressed a different point of view in his trials, which were many and vast, from shipwrecks to beatings, he wrote in II Corinthians 4:7-9:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
No matter what circumstances brought to Paul, he knew of an inner refuge that could carry him through it and in the process seed the ground for greater joys to come. If we look for joy only in our circumstances, our sense of security will rise and fall with capricious tides of life. We’ll then see God as the one who must fix all our circumstances to make us happy, or be disappointed with him when he doesn’t. But if our pain can remind us to look deeper, to find a God who is bigger than the most atrocious things life can deal out to us, then we can find joy and thanksgiving no matter what goes on around us.
My heroes of the Old Testament include Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three children of Israel living in the Babylonian exile. They were threatened with being burned alive if they wouldn’t bow down to a golden idol that King Nebuchadnezzar had built. They refused. They were given another chance to comply and refused again, uncertain how things would turn out:
“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Their trust in God was not attached to the outcome of their circumstances. I know wonderful people whose homes were spared in the fires, and wonderful people whose homes were burned right across the street or next door to those who were spared. Our temporal blessings, even survival, is not proof of God’s favor or his judgment. These children of Israel could trust God whether or not he delivered them from their persecution and pain. There is always something more than what is right in front of us. Tuning into that reality gives us cause for thanksgiving no matter how bleak circumstances might appear.
So where do we find gratefulness in times of crisis? Here’s where I find it:
I am grateful that he is always with me, even if my feelings try to tell me otherwise.
I am grateful he has given me life, breath, and subsistence to get through this day.
I am thankful that I have a Father who loves me more than anyone on this planet ever has or ever will.
I am thankful there’s nothing I can do to make him love me one bit less or one bit more than he already does.
I am thankful that every breath I take is in his hands.
I am grateful that Jesus has a way to navigate me through anything life can throw at me, including when others treat me unfairly.
I am grateful that all my hopes and dreams don’t have to be satisfied on this side of eternity.
I am grateful that nothing in this world, or the actions of any person, can keep me from the life and freedom he has for me.
I am grateful that Jesus will get the last word on every one and everything in this world. He hasn’t yet, but he will.
I am grateful he is bigger than any injustice, calamity, lie, or failure.
I am grateful that there’s always a way for me to encourage and be helpful to others who are going through difficult times.
I am grateful for friendships that love through anything, and don’t assume the worst of motives in moments of pain.
And, I am grateful that beauty and joy will once again rise from the ashes of my calamities and lead me to peace.
So, whether you find yourself on this Thanksgiving in abundant circumstances or in painful ones, there are real reasons to be thankful. And, finding our way to a place of thankfulness is often the first step to finding our way beyond the pain and into his reality of life and peace.