Thanksgiving and Grief

Humans are complicated beings.  Sometimes joy and sorrow mutually co-exist.

About a year ago, on Nov 26th, 2019, news ran of the release of three men who had spent thirty-six years in jail.  The three men – Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stewart, and Ransom Watkins had been (wrongly) accused at age sixteen of the murder (and theft of a jacket) of a fellow student in Baltimore, Maryland.  Turns out to have been a case of police and prosecutorial misconduct.  Justice finally done, the men went free.

With faces covered with joy the men reunited with their families.  Yet, it is impossible to consider this happy story without being filled simultaneously with a strong sense of sadness.  Sure…they’re free.  But what a grief accompanies that joy.  No one can restore thirty-six years’ worth of life, liberty, family, marriage, children….  The joy and sadness necessarily co-exist.

Ezra 3:1-13 tells a happy story.  It’s the story of the return from seventy years of exile and the restoration of worship in the life of Israel.  After decades of misery and suffering, sacrifice is made anew and the foundation of the Temple is re-laid.  The priests of Israel recite anew the great refrain, “He is good; his love endures forever.”  And from the people there is jubilation.  “And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.”

This is a happy day.  And yet…it isn’t just a day of exaltation.  Emotions are complicated things.  There are also tears and sadness on this day.  “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. 13 No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

Why the sadness?  Because although there is much to be thankful for, there is simultaneously much to grieve.  Much has been lost.  And the good news doesn’t undo all the pain and loss that preceded it.  We might wish it did (we certainly do wish it!).  But the pain, grief, and sense of loss remain nevertheless.

My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving.  It’s the one time of the year I get to see my whole family.  We eat too much (including Mom’s pie), and we play football.  It’s great!  We aren’t doing it this year – thirty people gathering from the four winds seems like a bad idea.  Plus, my usual substitute preacher is quarantined for COVID exposure (his 90-year-old mother has COVID-19, prayers for Mrs. Pierce).

This is kind of a weird year.  There is certainly plenty to be thankful for.  I hope you have the opportunity to gather with at least a portion of your family to give thanks this year.  But it is certainly a year in which joy and thanksgiving merge quite closely for many with pain, loss, and grief.  In the midst of the complicated and simultaneous emotions of joy and grief, let us affirm anew the great truth, “His love endures forever.”