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This sermon was preached at the Columbiana Community Thanksgiving Service on November 22, 2015.  There is no audio.

That’s the Main Thing

November 22, 2014

Rev. Fritz Nelson – Columbiana Community Thanksgiving

Text: Psalm 77

 Back when I used to live in Long Island, I would go and visit with the older men in my church – many of whose families stretched back generations to the original English and Dutch settlers. At some point in our conversation, there would be a pause, and then my host would say: “Well, that’s the main thing.”

A typical conversation would go something like this:

How are you doing?

Well, my arthritis is really acting up, the furnace just went out and, you know my son Billy? Well his wife just left him. Took the kids too. But, you know, I got up this morning.

Well, that’s the main thing.


How are you doing?

Oh, its been hard. You know Carol, my wife, she was just diagnosed with cancer. And, on the way back from the doctors we got into this wreck. Got hit by this woman. Three kids in the car. Both cars totaled. Four ambulances. Two fire departments. That had to use those jaws of life to get one of the kids out. But nobody got hurt too bad. Everyone should be okay.

Well, that’s the main thing.

Well, that’s the main thing.

These men had lived lives of great joy – they’d experienced love and birth, financial stability and life milestones, made good friends and outlived their enemies. They’d also experienced great pain – the trauma of combat, the death of friends, family, spouses; the estrangement of children; the frustration of failing health. As the years went by, the pain often threatened to drown out the joy. But they’d always search for the kernel of hope in the litany of pain. “That’s the main thing,” they would say to each other – acknowledging the pain while also affirming God’s continued blessings.

“How can I keep going?” a friend who is going through an extremely hard time recently asked me. It’s the same question asked by the psalmist as he endures the despair of a comfortless soul, the weariness of sleepless nights, the sense of abandonment by his God. Has God, he wonders, shut up his compassion? Is God’s anger so great that he has abandoned his faithfulness?

What do we do when the world seems to be falling apart? How do we hold it together when pain engulfs and joy is nowhere to be found – nowhere to be found even while lights sparkle, carolers sing, feasts prepare and family gather? What to do? What to do?

In the midst of his despair, the psalmist makes a proud declaration. “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord. I will remember your deeds of old. I will remember how you redeemed your people. I will remember how you controlled the waters, how in your might you plowed a way through the seas. How your presence was everywhere even though your footprints were unseen.

Now that’s the main thing.

We survive by finding the main thing and giving thanks. We survive by remembering God’s faithfulness in the past and having faith his steadfast love will endure into the future. We survive by picking out the kernels of joy, of hope, of grace amidst the pain. WE survive by giving thanks.

Two years ago family thanksgiving preparations were interrupted by a phone call. The Nelson household was already stressed out to the wazoo. Food is big in my family. Feasts have standards that must be met. And this would be the last Thanksgiving with my mother, who was dying of cancer. But she ended up going back into the hospital right before Thanksgiving. A nurse was on the other end of the line. Come quick. We think it might be the end.

A few days later, my mother significantly improved, we decided to take the whole family – myself, Elisabeth and Eric, my sister, her husband and daughter, and my father into the hospital. It was my son’s fourth birthday and my mother was determined to celebrate. We packed up Eric’s presents, scoured Boston’s financial district for an open bakery; got some cup cakes and had a party in my mom’s hospital room. My mom was like that. She may have been dying, but her grandson had a birthday. We could get cupcakes. We could have a party. We could be family. That’s the main thing.

A month later, the day before Christmas, my mother checked herself out of in-patient hospice. She knew she only had a few days left. In fact she was already borrowing time. But her grandkids were coming. There were presents to be opened, hugs to be given and received. God’s faithfulness was to be remembered and celebrated. She would die tomorrow. Today she would give thanks. That’s the main thing.

We survive all the pain, hurt and suffering by giving thanks. If the big stuff is too painful we give thanks for the little stuff. If the little stuff is too elusive, we give thanks for God’s past faithfulness. And, if like the Psalmist, we can’t reach into our own past we remember the stories of old, the stories of God’s faithfulness to our ancestors. We remember and give thanks. And in gratitude we find the strength to journey a little further down the road.

That’s the main thing.