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Fear is not the final answer

In the documentary “Last Letters Home,” Paula Zasadny, mother of 19-year-old Specialist Holly McGeogh (killed by a bomb in Kirkuk), talks about a visit from marines in dress uniform.
“It was the lightest tap on my door that I’ve ever heard in my life,” says Zasadny. “I opened the door and I see the men in the dress greens and I knew. I immediately knew. But I thought that if, as long as I didn’t let him in, he couldn’t tell me. Then it–none of that would’ve happened. So, he kept saying, “‘Ma’am; I need to come in.’ And I kept telling him, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t come in.'”

I cannot relate to Paula Zasadny’s loss.
But I can relate to “light taps at the door,” whether real or imagined.
So can you.
We all have parts of our life that unravel or splinter or reduce us thunderstruck. While we never know what the trigger (whether immense or trivial) may be…
While we never know whether it will be wrapped in tragedy or hurt or misunderstanding or simply accumulated aggravation…
We do know that it will be, somehow, woven into the fabric of our days.

My favorite scene in the movie Forrest Gump, is one where Jenny (Forrest’s girlfriend for life) stands in front of a dilapidated house. The house represents years of abuse and disappointment from her childhood. As she faces the demons of her past, she begins to pick up rocks and hurl them–with every scrap of her being–towards the house. She is, possibly for the first time, acknowledging years of anger, pain, hatred and fear. She eventually collapses to the ground and Forrest Gump’s simple commentary is this: “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. (The beloved rocking horse in The Velveteen Rabbit) “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
It is easy to say. And easy to read.
And it is most certainly true.
But saying and doing are two different things.
I know this: Some days I do “mind” being hurt. And I want to run away. Or I want someone to fix it. Or I want to tell whoever or whatever is tapping at my door, “You can’t come in.”

On Wednesday, we watched, with heavy sadness, the news feed of students being led out of a high school after a killing rampage. Another unimaginable senseless school shooting.
And no, I cannot relate.
Even so, our world is rocked. As it should be. Because it hits every single one of us.
“I hope you’re not going to get political,” someone told me, referring to the Sabbath Moment.
“Seriously?” I asked him. “That’s your primary concern?”
I watched as one of the students pleaded to the TV camera, “You are the adults. Do something.”
“I’m sorry,” I said to the TV. “I’d like to do something. But I can’t be political.”
Lord help us. Political, now code for caution and shutting down. Because I know what happens when I shut down.
The movie Crimes of the Heart (based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play written by Beth Henley) is the story about three sisters surviving crisis after crisis in a small Mississippi town. The youngest, Rebecca or ‘Babe,’ finds a sort of solace in an almost comical practice, contorting her body in order to stick her head into the oven. One day, older sister Meg asks exasperated, “Why’d you do it, Babe? Why’d you put your head in the oven?”
Babe, “I don’t know… I’m having a bad day.”
Meg, “Well… we’ve got to find a way to get you through these bad days.”

On the ferry this week, I am eavesdropping. And I honor one cardinal rule: eavesdropping on a good conversation always trumps whatever else is on my list.
Two women are commiserating about life’s vicissitudes. They tell stories filled with culprits and villains. I’ll give you the abridged version. There are parents not talking with grown children. There are life-threatening medical conditions. There are relationships gone awry. There are friends who turn out not to be real friends. There are betrayals and secrets. And, there are men who are idiots. (I could have guessed that last one.)

Life is difficult, Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled.
Yes. Haven’t we all felt near the breaking point?

Okay, if sticking our head in the oven is not the answer, what can we do?
Here’s the deal: Yes, sorrow is a part of my life. But sorrow does not get to say how the story ends.

That is good news… We still have choices available to us…
One… Fear is not the final answer.
Last week I read Tears of Salt, Dr. Pietro Bartolo’s heartrending story about hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern refugees fleeing civil war and terrorism and hoping to make a new life in Europe. Pietro runs the lone medical clinic on the rocky island of Lampedusa, the first port of call. Unforgettable tales of pain and hope, of those who didn’t make it and those who did. Why keep trying? (As in, to keep trying here against all odds, makes no sense.)
“We can’t, and we won’t, be governed by our fears,” Pietro writes.

Two… Create safe (sanctuary) places.
Sqababsh (meaning Swiftwater People), is the preferred name for Vashon Island’s band of native people. (S’Homamish is another version of the name). They were known for creating safe havens for people seeking refuge from violence.
We can do that. We can do that for people we know who live with emotional or spiritual or even physical harm.
And we can work to do that for our schools. It is not a place for guns.

Three… Appeal to our better angels.
What are we going to invest in, with our time, energy, heart and passion?
I have an idea. With our moments and day… We serve. We help. We hug. We heal.

It snowed today, here on Vashon. Not enough to stick, but even so. I thought we left winter behind. It will be in the 20s, and the wind tonight thrashes the trees behind the house. Even so, our spring heralds–Iris Reticulata—offer hope in deep lavender falls, effervescent tapers of delight. Hope lives…

Quote for your week…
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Elie Wiesel

This week, go deeper. Chose a phrase from Sabbath Moment that invites you to revisit and remember.

Notes:  The Paula Zasadny story is adapted from a Paul Krugman column, in the New York Times. And Last Letters Home — HBO Documentary


Lent is the time to rekindle the heart. If the fruit of faith is charity – Mother Teresa used to say – then the fruit of distrust is apathy and resignation. Distrust, apathy and resignation: the demons that deaden and paralyze our soul.  This year Pope Francis chose three words. Pause, see and return.
Pause for a little while, refrain from the deafening noise that weakens and confuses our hearing, that makes us forget the fruitful and creative power of silence.
See the gestures that prevent the extinguishing of charity, that keep the flame of faith and hope alive. Look at faces alive with God’s tenderness and goodness working in our midst.
Pause, see and returnReturn to the house of your Father. Return without fear to those outstretched, eager arms of your Father, who is rich in mercy (cf. Eph 2:4), who awaits you.

This Lent, Lord, help me to:
Fast from criticism, and feast on praise
Fast from self-pity, and feast on love
Fast from ill temper, and feast on peace
Fast from judgment, and feast on forgiveness
Fast from resentment, and feast on contentment
Fast from jealousy, and feast on humility
Fast from selfishness, and feast on service.
Have a Loving Lent!

Opening Prayer For the Colorado State House in the Aftermath of a Tragedy February 15, 2018
Our God and God of all people,
God of the Rich and God of the poor.
God of the teacher and God of the student.
God of the families who wait in horror.
God of the dispatcher who hears screams of terror from under bloodied desks.
God of the first responder who bravely creeps through ravaged hallways.
God of the doctor who treats the wounded.
God of the rabbi, pastor, imam or priest who seeks words of comfort but comes up empty.
God of the young boy who sees his classmates die in front of him.
God of the weeping, raging, inconsolable mother who screams at the sight of her child’s lifeless body.
God of the shattered communities torn apart by senseless violence.
God of the legislators paralyzed by fear, partisanship, money and undue influence.
God of the Right.
God of the Left.
God who hears our prayers.
God who does not answer.
On this tragic day when we confront the aftermath of the 18th School shooting in our nation on the 46th day of this year, I do not feel like praying.
Our prayers have not stopped the bullets.
Our prayers have changed nothing.
Once again, a disturbed man with easy access to guns has squinted through the sights of a weapon, aimed, squeezed a trigger and taken out his depraved anger, pain and frustration on innocents: pure souls. Students and teachers. Brothers and sisters. Mothers and fathers- cut down in an instant by the power of hatred and technology.
We are guilty, O God.
We are guilty of inaction.
We are guilty of complacency.
We are guilty of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by politics.
The blood of our children cries out from the ground.
The blood of police officers cut down in the line of duty flows through our streets.
I do not appeal to You on this terrible morning to change us. We can only do that ourselves.
Our enemies do not come only from far away places.
The monsters we fear live among us.
May those in this room who have the power to to make change find the courage to seek a pathway to sanity and hope.
May we hold ourselves and our leaders accountable.
Only then will our prayers be worthy of an answer.

Rabbi Joe Black


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