Posted by: Joe LaGuardia | September 17, 2013

An open letter to families who lost loved ones in the DC shooting

(This is reproduced from a version online by Gina LaGuardia-Schrecker)
September 16, 2013

Dear Brokenhearted,

I am so very sorry for your loss. I know your pain all too well. Six weeks ago tonight, my father was killed in a mass shooting in Pennsylvania. He was merely attending a township meeting with his neighbors. Little did I know that a phone conversation I had with him only two hours earlier – he had called to wish my oldest daughter a happy 10th birthday – would be our last.

My father, someone who was always the life of the party and the light of our lives, had his light extinguished in a senseless act of violence in Ross Township on Monday, August 5th. It is still difficult for me to type those words, let alone say them out loud, but alas, this is our new reality.

Unfortunately, this, too is your new reality. Even more frightening is that news of gun violence shattering innocent lives has, sadly, become weekly, if not daily, headlines. It’s overwhelming to reconcile the fact that there are individuals who feel justified to carry out their grievances and anger via bloodshed.

“Overwhelmed” is going to be one of the few words that will almost suffice to describe your many feelings over the next few days, weeks, and months. More likely than not, you are experiencing shock right now, interspersed with moments of panic and sheer despair. You may sit idly for hours, staring at a wall, unable to get your mind to process anything. Every phone in your house will ring and beep incessantly, with family and friends calling, texting, Facebooking, or Tweeting, to see what exactly has happened. They, too, will be incapable of wrapping their heart around the fact that your loved one, someone so important and influential as a father, husband, uncle, brother, cousin, sister, mother, daughter, wife, grandparent, aunt, friend, coworker, colleague, or customer, is simply no longer with us.

Your heart will ache with the realization that though our God may have deemed it time for your loved one to come home, we were not at all prepared to have that action carried out by an act so violent. That someone with a grievance and/or a mental illness picked up a gun and pointed it at innocent people, and that they did so with no respect for humanity, love, family, laughter, or lifetimes of memories that will forevermore be just that – memories.

Once your loved one’s name is released to the media, a new heartache will begin. Reporters will arrive at your doorstep with notebooks in hand. They will slip their business cards under your front door and leave voicemails that will sound surreal to you upon playback. You will hear mispronunciations of your loved one’s name on TV and be heartbroken again and again as you listen to 45-second sound byte summaries of his or her life set to the rhythm of a broadcaster’s cadence.

Then you may also become inundated with the “Why’s?” Why did the gunman do what he did? Why was your loved one in harm’s way? Why did he or she, like my father, choose the “wrong” door?  You will be sickeningly enthralled by news reports, will scour through online search results about the event only to be dismayed by reader comments, infuriated by ignorant and intelligent individuals alike who choose to use your family’s tragedy to set an agenda or justify criminal behavior.

You will vow to never again read reports of what happened, and promise to no longer partake in reviewing play-by-play accounts from witnesses that lead you to dream of scenarios in which things turned out differently. You will wish with all you have – all that you are – that your loved one came home that Monday night, not that you are left with a piece of your heart now missing.

And then your intellect and spirit will wane like a willow tree in the wind, shifting between sessions of practicality and emotion-driven action about which you’re unsure. You will begin doubting everything you’re feeling and how you react to things; even something as simple as writing a note like this will keep you up for hours because you’re unsure if this is “how you’re supposed to handle things” or if you should just be still.

Yet through all of the madness, grief, and inconsolable moments, there will be glimpses of hope. You will see compassion from hundreds upon hundreds of people. You will still be overwhelmed, but this time it will be from all the love, prayers, and concern showered upon you by those who care for you. And you will be enveloped not only by those you call family and friends, but also your co-workers and clients – ones you haven’t worked with in years or decades; people who attended grammar school with you; others who deliver your mail, newspaper, and packages; those who walk your dog, clean your office suite, or sit beside you at church. Even still, you’ll hear from strangers moved by news accounts, and those who you know only through social media – Facebook friends who send flowers and care packages; Twitter contacts who reach out to you via direct message everyday to make sure you’re trying your best to function among the living. People you’ve merely traded Instagram “Likes” with in the past will now post messages of encouragement that have the potential to uplift you in ways you’d never imagined.

And in those times when you can cry no longer, you will have moments of clarity. You will feel that in the end, love – not evil – will triumph. If you allow Him to embrace you, you will feel God’s grace as you hold tight to your faith that you will see your loved one again someday.

Of course, you will also return to periods of confusion and sadness; for me, today is one of those days. But you will figure out a way as each day passes to manage it the way your loved one would want you to. My father always took pride in my ability to make a living (“PD,” he called it — his acronym for “pay day”) by writing. So it is that I felt compelled to pen this letter.

Although I am far from “healed,” I do find myself gaining more and more strength and feel God’s grace increasing in abundance as each new day begins. So that is what I leave with you at this moment – strength that will overtake your despair, and grace that will sustain you through your darkest hour.

Blessings and peace,

Gina LaGuardia-Schrecker

2 Corinthians 12:9-10: But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Posted by: Joe LaGuardia | September 9, 2013

Those who wait shall receive strength…

prayerOn the first day of school over a month ago, I did what I always do every year and walk each of my children to their classes to personally drop them off.

My daughter, ready to start her day, practically ran ahead of me and my son to get to class.  My son, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure about the day.  By the time we got to his class, I was tripping over him because he was holding on to my leg so tightly.

As any father would do, I tried to put on my best game face when we entered: I unpacked his book bag and pointed out toys spread throughout the room, and “Wow—wee, this is going to be a great day!”

His eyes became puffy, and I saw a tear well up in his eye.

Before entering the building I told my children that I would visit each of them once more before leaving to work.  Now that I dropped off my son, I had to go back to check on my daughter.  I told him that I had to visit his sister, that I would be back to see him too before I left.  He was a bit clingy, but he let me go.

When I returned to my son’s classroom, I was him and his teacher standing at the threshold of the classroom door.  I heard his teacher say, “See, I told you your daddy would be right back.”

I couldn’t get my son out of my mind that whole day, how he stood at the threshold with anticipating, anxious eyes—eyes that trusted in the single promise that I would return.

Psalm 27:14 tells us to “Wait upon the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage.”  Like my son waiting for me in the threshold of the classroom, we have found ourselves waiting eagerly for the Lord so many times in our own life.

We’ve waited on the Lord for employment, for retirement, for that doctor’s appointment we’ve been anticipating, or for that diagnosis or prognosis.  Caregivers wait for care receivers to find resources, fulfill obligations, and receive much-needed health benefits that lighten the load for the entire family.

Often, our anticipation turns into a slow prayerful meditation with a hope that the Lord will work a miracle.  Some of us are still waiting for our prayers to be answered.

Waiting is hard work and, too often, we end up moving on and doing our own thing because we get impatient or anxious.  While we toil while the Lord tarries,  our own trust and faith in him begins to wane and decay.

Its times like that when I think of Abraham and Sarah and God’s promise to let them bear a child.  God’s promise of an heir came to Abraham in the middle of his life.  I’m sure, because of his age, Abraham expected that promise to come to fruition quite quickly; Sarah had been barren, and she certainly wasn’t a spring chicken by the time she and Abraham left Ur at the Lord’s bidding.

So by the time we get to Genesis 15, we find a very anxious and uncertain Abraham, tossing and turning under the weight of having to wait so long.  It was in his darkest and most worrisome hour, however, that Abraham received a vision of the Lord.

“Do not be afraid,” God told Abraham, “I am your shield, and your reward will be great…You shall have an heir and your offspring shall number as many as there are stars in the sky.”

I could picture Abraham standing at his threshold door even after that night like my son, waiting for the return of the Lord and the promise that some time, some day, God would follow through with allowing Sarah to bear a child.

When God and God’s Word encourages us to “wait upon the Lord,” it is an active waiting that makes us aware of where God is at work.  Like Abraham hearing from the Lord, our own waiting fine-tunes our spiritual ears to perceive in the Spirit what God might be telling us to do today.   It’s filled with a hope to expect the unexpected at the least expected hour, and to place our trust in Christ every step of the way.

When God does show up, I picture the Holy Spirit, hands upon our shoulders reassuring us, “See, I told you your Father would come back.”


Posted by: Joe LaGuardia | August 27, 2013

Jeremiah the prophet speaks to our grief

sorrowI’ve spent a lot of time with Jeremiah these past couple of days.  You know him.  He’s the prophet whom God called to declare judgment upon Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, around 600 BC.  He’s the prophet who faced traumatic adversity, house arrest, and exile.  He is the one known as the “Weeping Prophet.”

I had to hang out with Jeremiah because it was from his book that I had to preach my first sermon upon returning to the pulpit after losing my father to a fatal shooting several weeks ago.  I didn’t want to hang out with Jeremiah (would’ve rather spent time with somebody more cheerful!) but that’s what God had me to do.

So, Jeremiah and me, we just spent time together to see what happened.  The first thing Jeremiah told me about was his calling.  God called him when he was very young and, like Moses, he felt ill-prepared.

Then God gave him the outline of what was to be said, “I appoint you over the nations: to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10).

Then Jeremiah told me about the long days of preaching, the oracles of judgments, the hostile crowds.  He told me about his eventual house arrest, how he lost his land, and how he had wept.  Oh, did he weep.

Then Jeremiah told me that it got so bad, he had to speak in poetry because no normal speech–no prose–would do.  I knew what he was getting at: He was trying to describe what its like to walk that fine line between clarity and chaos. It’s when the chaos comes that our prose-world comes to an end.

Poetry erupts when someone’s grief and despair become so bad and catastrophe so great, silence and speechlessness and sound itself cease to exist.  The narrative a person lives by, a narrative that helps make sense of the world, no longer works and is dismantled by tragedy.  It’s what one theologian calls “narrative wreckage.”

Jeremiah told me about his poetry.  Some of it was lament, some of it was consolation, but all of it promised to birth something new, even if it wasn’t familiar, even if something was missing.

After our time together, Jeremiah’s testimony kept resonating with me, and I realized that we had some things in common and some other things that were different.

God put him into a position he didn’t want to be in.  I could relate.  He had to come to a point in his relationship with God in which words—prose at least—became useless, “narrative wreckage.”  Check!

Jeremiah had to find some redemption somewhere in the whole mess, and it was at this point that we differed: Whereas he had words to describe what God was doing in his life, I still found myself struggling and wrestling with God.  I was still at a loss for words.

Whereas Jeremiah could rest assured that God was there for him, I still had difficulty finding consolation in a gospel I was so sure would bring hope in my life no matter what happened to me.

And, unlike Jeremiah, who had a powerful prayer life, my only prayers come right now by way of singing hymns.

So, Jeremiah and I, we have spent some good time together this past week, and he has shown me how to put some things into words and some things I need to work on.

He taught me that even though all of us have similar experiences in the midst of grief, our own individual journeys of lament, and prayer, and of processing our sense of sorrow is uniquely different, and that’s okay.

He taught me how God works even in the face of tragedy.  God puts people in your life and songs in your heart.  He shows you scriptures that come at the right time because God is in the business of bending our will to His own.  It hurts some times, but it happens one way or another, even if we find it nearly impossible to respond, even when we can only take it one day at a time.

Posted by: Joe LaGuardia | August 21, 2013

Even in hardship, we answer the call to “Rejoice always!”

Bible_101Have you ever confronted a scripture verse that makes you wonder how to live up to God’s Word?  Take this one for example penned by Paul in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”

Rejoice always?  I barely have enough energy to pay attention to my children whenever they are around much less try to “rejoice always” while going about my day.  And what about those difficult times in our life when bad things happen?  What about when we wake up on the wrong side of the bed?  Does God still expect us to rejoice?

I’m not 100% positive of what Paul means by asking Christians to rejoice always, but I’m fairly certain he does not expect us be happy all of the time.  The translation of this verse in the recently published Common English Bible, “Be glad always” is misleading.

To rejoice always is not the same as being “glad” or happy always.  Paul knew that the Christian life is not an easy one and that happiness comes and goes.  After all, he was in prison when he wrote his letter to the Philippians, and he understood that thorns in the side existed and made things difficult a time or two (2 Corinthians 12:5).

Besides, have you ever met someone who is happy all the time?  That constant energy can get really annoying, and eventually the facade of sustained enthusiasm crumbles under the weight of life’s hardships.  If God expected us to always be happy or always be glad or always have a smile on our face, then we all might as well skip church and stay home on Sunday mornings.  It would be an impossible expectation to fulfill.

I think that when Paul told the Philippians to rejoice always, he meant that we Christians should exhibit exuberant confidence in the midst of the roller coaster of life.  We are to trust in the purpose, plans, and mission that God has for us.  We may waver in our faith, but our diligence in seeking God and making God a priority in our life–to make Him the object of our rejoicing–should be sustainable and constant.

Even when caregiving becomes most difficult, we can answer the call, without words if necessary, to “rejoice always.”

Consider this: Paul was in prison at the time he wrote his letter to the Philippians–not a lovely place to be during the first century–but he still knew that God had a purpose for his life.  He was confident in a God whom Paul insisted makes “all things work together for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).

Rejoicing is what happens when we rely on the joy that God puts in our hearts when we believe in him.  Difficulty and hardship may come, but joy is like a flickering flame that persists even in the face of overwhelming darkness.  It is not something that is easily extinguished, and it is something that lingers even if only a spark.

I can’t tell you how inspiring it is to meet people in hospital, rehab, or hospice situations who continue to rejoice in God even when the odds are stacked against them.  When I visit, I find that these folks hold such a confidence in the Lord that they end up ministering to me.

I don’t expect caregivers to put on a show, and it is tiring for some to smile and make visitors feel welcome.  I don’t expect them to show enthusiasm for the Lord; in fact, many a people who suffer get angry or resentful at times.  That’s natural.

Yet, even in the harshest of situations, believers in God have a joy that not even cancer can kill.  There is a resilience that is inexplicable and transcendent, a resilience that attests, “Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

That kind of joy produces rejoicing that sings hymns when hardship comes, proclaims Gospel news in a bad-news world, and prays for the Spirit’s guidance when the voices are too overwhelming.

Posted by: Joe LaGuardia | May 31, 2013

Trusting God can be a challenge for caregivers

learningProverbs states, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding” (3:5).  My son learned that the hard way when I tried to teach him how to ride a bike without training wheels last week.

It was a great day at the time.  My family and I were going along our merry way when I came up with the idea that it might be time for my son, 5 years old, to learn how to ride that big two-wheeler of his.  When I recommended it, he jumped at the chance.

At first, my wife suggested we simply raise the training wheels higher to keep him from falling over.  We tried that, and my son simply bounced from one side to the other down the road.  It didn’t require any balance.

I suggested taking the training wheels off altogether like the big boys do.  I grabbed my tools, took off the training wheels, and stood the bike up.

“Alright, son,” I said confidently, “It’s time to learn how to ride.”   He looked at the bike, now modified, and had to make a decision.   It took a little convincing that he would be safe, that I would not let the bike go, and that we would teach him every step of the way.  We assured him that we would not let him fall.

My son didn’t learn how to ride his bike that day.  It was a start.  What he did learn, however, was that he can trust my wife and me with the harder things in life, that he can trust us not to put him on a bike just to watch him fall.

That night, I reflected on just how much my son’s trust in us is like our trust in God.  God gives us a bicycle now and then–something He calls us to do, be it a task, a mission, or simply someone to befriend–and tells us to get on.   Like my son, we often have a decision to make.  Are we going to trust God with the plans God gives us?

Some of us jump on the bike with gleeful abandon; faith comes easier to some more than others.  Then there are people who take their time to decide whether they can trust God.

We know God has a future for us, but we are just not sure if we want to follow through on it.  We’d rather play where its familiar and safe.

Then there are folks who simply don’t trust God and live with training-wheels religion.  We get by and say the right things, but we don’t trust that God has the best intentions for us.  We don’t trust God with the details, and we take matters into our own hands more often than not.

Trust is a hard thing to do in our day and age.  We are cynical about others and whether they deserve our trust.  We can’t help but remember all of the times people have let us down.  Sometimes, we find it hard to trust God because we feel that God let us down a time or two also.

Yet, there is another scripture in Proverbs that applies to those who find it hard to trust: “In all your ways acknowledge God and God will make your paths straight” (3:6).

Only when we get on the bicycle without the training wheels and put our trust in God can we experience the straight path that God has in store for us.  After all, God has “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

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