WHY DON’T YOU GET ME?

In three consecutive Junes now, I have been privileged to attend the annual Frederick Buechner Spiritual Writers’ Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary across the Delaware.

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The conference is sponsored by the Frederick Buechner Center of Cambridge, MA, which is dedicated to promulgating the works and spirit of one of my favorite authors (and preachers), Frederick Buechner. Members of congregations I have served and Facebook friends have received from me a steady diet of “Buechnerisms”.

Fred himself is almost 92 years old now, and so the trip from Vermont to Princeton is very difficult now, and so he sends us his blessing from afar.  But each year, director Brian Allain gathers a stellar cast of inspiring speakers and workshop leaders to help budding authors hone their craft and navigate the befuddling publishing world.

Older Buechner

One of the keynoters this year was Brian McLaren, one of the most informed, courageous writers about the state of the Christian faith, of all faiths, for that matter, and religious institutions in North America today. The titles of some of his books will give you an idea of the novelty of his ideas: A New Kind of Christianity, Everything Must Change, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? and his latest, The Great Spiritual Migration.

Brian McLaren

In his second address to us, McLaren affirmed that we writers, preachers and teachers are passionate about helping people see the world in a different. Writing, preaching or teaching is an act of love, both for the reader or listener, and the subjects he or she is writing or talking about.   “But, why,” McLaren asked us, “when we writers and preachers and speakers use the best of the tools of our trade and our hard training in an effort to be clear and persuasive, do so many seem not to hear, or even bother to read or listen?” The frustrated writer or speaker asks, “Why don’t you get it?” If they’re writers who put themselves personally on the line, they ask, “Why don’t you get me?” (Don’t parents of teenage children ask that, too?)

McLaren pointed to at least eight psychological biases with which every human being is born and most likely raised that make honest, effective communication very challenging if not well-nigh impossible. These biases, which we all have, at least at the start, are particularly operational in divided societies such as ours today. But the identical biases get in the way of our communication in families, personal relationships and churches. The purpose of education and life experience, of course, is to help us see beyond these innate biases, but they don’t always succeed.

There isn’t enough space to talk about all eight of the elemental biases McLaren named for us, just four in this post. As you read about each one below, ask yourself whether this particular bias within yourself, or among those with whom you want passionately to communicate, has sabotaged your efforts to convey a message or understand it.

In his second address to us, McLaren affirmed that we writers, preachers and teachers are passionate about helping people see the world in a different. Writing, preaching or teaching is an act of love, both for the reader or listener, and the subjects he or she is writing or talking about.   “But, why,” McLaren asked us, “when we writers and preachers and speakers use the best of the tools of our trade and our hard training in an effort to be clear and persuasive, do so many seem not to hear, or even bother to read or listen?” The frustrated writer or speaker asks, “Why don’t you get it?” If they’re writers who put themselves personally on the line, they ask, “Why don’t you get me?” (Don’t parents of teenage children ask that, too?)

McLaren pointed to at least eight psychological biases with which every human being is born and most likely raised that make honest, effective communication very challenging if not well-nigh impossible. These biases, which we all have, at least at the start, are particularly operational in divided societies such as ours today. But the identical biases get in the way of our communication in families, personal relationships and churches. The purpose of education and life experience, of course, is to help us see beyond these innate biases, but they don’t always succeed.

There isn’t enough space to talk about all eight of the elemental biases McLaren named for us, just four in this post. As you read about each one below, ask yourself whether this particular bias within yourself, or among those with whom you want passionately to communicate, has sabotaged your efforts to convey a message or understand it.

  1. The Confirmation Bias: we tend to accept only what confirms what we already know, or believe we know. I, for example, would rather read an editorial and op-ed article in The New York Times than The Wall Street Journal, or prefer to listen to E.J. Dionne instead of Charles Krauthammer. The Times and Dionne allow me to remain cocooned comfortably within my liberal balloon where I have lived since the early 1960s.

"I trust this site to tell the truth."

  1. The Community Bias: It is very unlikely that people will accept an idea, no matter how true or logical, that will make them risk rejection from a community on which they depend. For many years, for instance, at least until seminary, I could not make sense of the fact that a person in a same-gender relationship could possibly be preparing to be a Christian minister. Once I began to meet with and form relationships such people, however, and my mind took even small steps to walk away from its original inflexible traditional viewpoint, I would hear the disapproving voice of my dear pious mother and the pastor of my childhood congregation trying to hold me back.
  2. The Complexity Bias: We prefer a simple solution (even if it’s a lie) to a complex one. The Germany of 1933 was beset by many complex, almost intractable social problems such as runaway inflation, widespread unemployment and profound spiritual malaise. Instead of having the courage to examine the knotty tangled roots of the problems, Adolf Hitler offered a simple solution: the Jews and the communists were to blame. Get rid of them, and Germany would be great again. The German people, for the large part, ate it up.

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  1. The Complacency Bias: People will resist calls for action, or even a change of heart, on the plight of marginalized and oppressed peoples because they experience psychic numbness. That is why, for example, I toss straight into the recycling bin most of the newsletters and requests for financial assistance from charitable organizations that have a proven record of making the world a safer, more just place. For one thing, I already support several of them and I have a finite retirement income to protect. But even more importantly, I come home some days psychically exhausted, my well of compassion almost empty, from helping my adopted Congolese refugee family face s seemingly endless stream of challenges in adjusting to a radically different society in a cultural and political environment that they fear is hostile to their even being here.

Of course, readers of my novel Accidental Saviors read the story of Felix Kersten and Algot Niska through the lenses of those and other psychic biases. Several readers have told me, in fact, that they read it in the hope of having some of those innate biases challenged or even removed.

At the same time, it occurs to me that the Confirmation Bias may actually work in the novel’s favor. The Diary of Anne Frank and Schindler’s List have undoubtedly given most of us a bias favorable to the suffering of the Jews during World War II in spite of stubborn remnants of anti-Semitism evident yet today. One reader did not publish his review of the book as a courtesy to me, he said, because his review was negative. He felt that I had been too sympathetic towards the villain, Heinrich Himmler, depicting him as a morally confused, though ethically defective, human being rather than as the monster as he is usually portrayed.

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Recognize those biases in yourself? In your readers or listeners? Let me know your reactions and thoughts in the Comments below.

Until the next post, enjoy the bright sunshine, find some shade, and relish the evening breeze.

JAS

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How Does the Story End?

This post, like so many others of mine, deals with writing, my new hobby and main enterprise these days. Some of you aren’t But, DON’T hit the delete button. Almost all of you are readers or watchers of movies or television. Thus, this post pertains to you, too.

As I was in the final stages of writing the initial draft of my first novel, Beginning Again at Zero (2016), my sister Karen warned me, “I won’t buy it or read it if it doesn’t have a happy ending.”

I certainly hope that Karen wasn’t disappointed with the ending of that novel. [Spoiler Alert!] While there are truly sad and unpleasant scenes in Beginning Again at Zero, the main character, the young Finnish immigrant Onni Syrjälä, finds marital happiness. The epilogue reveals that he and Helina have a little son named Toivo (“hope” in Finnish) who is very reminiscent of Onni when he was a little boy and is infused already at age six with a similar itch to explore faraway places. Here’s the final sentence of the last chapter: “They fell asleep immediately after [making love], the deep, restful soothing sleep of two immigrants finally rooted and at home in a new land.”

Well, Karen, doesn’t that sentence cause your heart to pulsate with hope and delight?

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I surprised myself when I got to the last few chapters by giving the novel close to what’s referred to as the HEA: Happily Ever After. When I started the novel, I had no idea that it was going to end the way it did. In fact, I usually don’t care for movies or novels that have a big red happy bow wrapped around the ending as in American sitcoms.

d119549           That may be problematic for me in the future. Another Karen in my life, my editor-publisher Karen Hodges Miller, expressed disappointment when I told her about my tentative plans for a third novel with the working title, Love Out of Reach. She said she’s unlikely to like it because she knows that one of the two main characters, German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhöffer, was executed by the Nazis in 1945, leaving a grieving fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer. Hence, the title Love Out of Reach.

            So, my editor, and now you, too, reader, know in advance that it will not have an HEA ending. I do, however, intend to write what I hope will be a fulfilling and satisfying ending. I can’t alter history, not even in historical fiction. Thus, Dietrich’s and Maria’s love will remain forever out of reach. However, I hope to leave readers with an ending that inspires a sense of hope and faith in the essential goodness of life in spite of or in the midst of tragedy.

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maria von wedemeyer in 1942

I can understand why my dear sister, editor and maybe you, too, reader, love happy endings in your movies or novels. When I suggested years ago to my wife Diane that we go see Schindler’s List together, she balked. “There’s already enough pain and suffering in life,” she said. “Why should I pay good money to sit and watch almost three hours of more of the same?”

That’s a shame, really. It’s certainly true that we see thousands of Jews carted off to their deaths at concentration camps. However, the movie depicts the gradual redemption of the rather greedy, opportunistic factory owner Oskar Schindler into an almost obsessive rescuer of his Jewish workers, even those who don’t work in his enamel works. Not an HEA ending, but I’d argue a fulfilling and inspiring one.

My favorite ending to a novel happens to be the ending of my all-time favorite novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. By the time we reach the last paragraphs of the book, the main character Jay Gatsby has been shot in his pool by the pathetic jealous garage mechanic George Wilson who assumes, understandably but mistakenly, that Gatsby had run over and killed his unfaithful wife, Myrtle The final events of the novel are unspeakably ironic and tragic.

As the morally ambiguous Gatsby’s neighbor, the narrator Nick Carraway is utterly disgusted by what he has experienced and witnessed in the vacuous people who surround Gatsby. Nick has had enough of wealthy Long Island society and manners and decides to return to his native Minnesota. “I felt I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.”

Yet, in the end, Nick closes the novel with the beautiful, elegiac and ultimately hopeful words that cap the otherwise messy, morally decrepit story with an unexpected sense of promise: “Gatsby believed in the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther…and one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The Great Gatsby

 

What kinds of endings to movies or novels do you like? Is there a particular film or book whose ending has been satisfying and fulfilling for you? Which one or ones? Let me know in the “Comments” space below.

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My second novel also ends on a hopeful, inspiring note. Available at http://www.amazon.com or https//: jacksaarela.com.

            Until the next post, keep reading and cherishing each unique day you are given.

JAS

 

A TRUE TALE OF HEARTBREAK AND RENEWAL

Imagine this pastoral scenario, a real and true one that I encountered in my first year of pastoral ministry. I had graduated from divinity school, one of the best and most highly-regarded, two years prior, and been ordained into the Lutheran ministry just the previous year. I was twenty-six years old.

A young couple whose wedding had been performed by the previous pastor of the congregation made an appointment to see me. Actually, it is important for what comes later in this blog to know that it was the wife who made the appointment. Not surprisingly, it was the wife who came to my office alone.

Recently, she had discovered that the man she had married after dating him for over two years had a strong attraction to men. He had divulged this rather calmly to his wife, adding that he wasn’t positively certain that he was actually gay. He also assured her he had never engaged in sex with a man…or any other woman, for that matter.

As she related to me her tale, poured out her grief that as far as she was concerned the marriage was over and expressed her fear for her own future, I rummaged madly through my mental notes from divinity school for any lecture or piece of advice about such a pastoral situation. Oh, my God! She’s come to the pastor seeking an answer, and actually expects me to have one! What do I say? What do I do?

 

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The topic of sexual orientation was out in the open in the media by 1976, and my own understanding of homosexuality had been evolving quickly to a more open and affirming stance. Nonetheless, I couldn’t recall a single lecture, article, or even conversation among my classmates about the scenario facing me in my office at the moment.

I wish I had read Vivian Fransen’s The Straight Spouse in 1976. I couldn’t of course, because, one, she only wrote and published the book in 2017; and two, such subjects were not discussed openly in the early years of my ministry.

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I had the pleasure of meeting Vivian at a workshop in Princeton, NJ in March sponsored and hosted by my editor/publisher, Karen Hodges Miller. She told me that once she heard the confusing and marriage-shattering news from Victor, her husband, that he was experiencing attraction to the same sex, her first instinct was to turn to the thirty-something assistant pastor at the church where they worshiped. To the poor guy’s credit, he was quite up-front about his lack of training and experience with their predicament. He did wisely suggest a referral to a professional with experience in helping couples like them deal with their dilemma and offered a compassionate prayer for strength for her. But he didn’t provide the spiritual solution that she was hoping for. She left the pastor’s office feeling very exposed.

Several years later of keeping the details of her marriage a secret, at her older sister’s suggestion, Vivian sought the direction and comfort of an Episcopal priest. However, this particular pastoral encounter was disastrous, to say the least. The priest offered a prayer for a reversal of her husband’s sexual orientation back to heterosexual—as though the priest simply assumed that the majority orientation is the only legitimate one, and if Victor were to resume behaving in a heterosexual manner, it would be the simple solution to the obstacles in their marriage.

In the epilogue of The Straight Spouse, the author states her fervent wish “for a world where all clergy are trained in seminary to embrace the needs of couples who are struggling with unresolved sexual orientation issues by showing Christ-like compassion and offering non-judgmental, practical guidance.” Amen, to that. I would add a fervent wish that family members, friends, and fellow congregants learn to provide the kind of understanding and acceptance to couples in this complex scenario that sadly, Vivian found lacking in her own experience.

As for may pastoral “performance” on that evening in 1976? What perhaps salvaged my clumsy attempt to provide pastoral care for that young shattered wife in my study was that I had had the opportunity to develop friendships at the divinity school with several gay and lesbian fellow students. At least the wife, I sincerely hope, did not feel shamed or degraded.

Vivian Fransen

 

Since 1976, I have become aware of similarly emotionally convoluted situations in several other heterosexual marriages, including that of a valued colleague. I suspect that more couples like Vivian and Victor exist in our society—and sit in our pews—than we are aware. Vivian even provides a helpful list of helpful resources.  I recommend Fransen’s The Straight Spouse to all who wish to have an enlightened and compassionate understanding of them.

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~~~

You may not need reminding, but my own second novel, Accidental Saviors, has been released. It will celebrate its launch into the literary world this coming Sunday. Accidental Saviors is less timid and shy than its author. I hope to see some Philly-area friends there.

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Accidental Saviors is available in both eBook and paperback version on www.amazon.com, and by sending me an e-mail order at jsaarela@gmx.com. Payment will then be handled by way of PayPal.

Till the next time, cherish each blessed day of the spring and sprinkle it with some reading. And, let me know what you’re thinking and reading.

JAS

LOOKING THE ORTHER WAY

Chris Bohjalian’s excellent novel Skeletons at the Feast has been a resource I’ve consulted in my research for both the novel I’ve just finished writing and which is about to be released on April 20: Accidental Saviors, and the one I will begin after a brief respite for my brain and my two typing fingers.

Skeletons at the Feast is a rare World War II novel in that it focuses on German refugees in the latter part of the war (1945) instead of Jewish refugees. An eighteen-year-old Prussian girl, Anna Emmerich, her mother (Mutti) and her younger brother pick up and leave their ancestral farmstead and join the stream of other German civilians heading westward to escape the rapidly advancing Russian army. In their party is also a Scottish POW, Callum, and Uri, who unknown to the family, is a Jew who escaped from a train headed to the extermination camp at Auschwitz. The family knows him only as a Wehrmacht corporal named Manfred, however, a false identity he assumed when he shot and killed a young German soldier and stole his uniform and papers.

 

Anna and Callum fall in love, and Uri (Manfred) falls in love with Anna.  There’s a lot in the novel, and I highly recommend this work by one of America’s better contemporary novelists.

 

One of the questions Bohjalian explores in the novel is the one about the possible complicity of ordinary Germans like the Emmerich family in the Nazi atrocities against the Jews, especially the Holocaust. He grants that the Nazi leaders tried to keep knowledge of the death camps instituted in 1941 from German citizens. But there was no hiding the notorious Nuremberg Racial Laws of 1935 which stripped all Jews of their German citizenship and prohibited marriage between a Jew and an Aryan German, among other repressive measures. Likewise, it was common knowledge that on the evenings of November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazis incited crowds to smash windows of Jewish shops throughout Germany, and set them on fire, and beat and murder Jews in the bloody event known as Kristallnacht.

            At the beginning of the novel, young  Anna is totally oblivious to Nazi atrocities committed in her name, and the name of her family and neighbors in the years leading up to 1945. She not only becomes defensive, but retreats into actual denial, when her lover Callum questions how much she actually knows about what the Nazis are doing.

Both of Anna’s parents had joined the Nazi party, but it was virtually impossible to carry on a dairy farming business without being such. The reader is not convinced that they are totally committed members of the party or adherents to the extreme Anti-Semitic party line. However, Anna’s mother has a subtle crush on Hitler and refuses to believe some of the rumors of the kinds of suffering the Führer has been wreaking on the Jews, Gypsies, and disabled, among others.

In a masterfully described scene, Anna and her family, as well as Callum hiding under the vegetables on their wagon and Manfred aka Uri, come upon a column of bedraggled, almost skeleton-like prisoners being marched for the almost umpteenth time from one work camp to another to prevent the Russians from discovering them.

The family assumes that the haunting figures are men.

“Old men? Are you blind?” Callum admonished. “They’re girls! Young women!..Some probably the same age as Anna here!”

“Are they….” Mutti (mother) asked.

“Yes, they’re Jews,” Callum chastises the woman. This, he was saying in essence, is what your people are doing. Have done. Here it is in full view. No more hiding it behind barbed wire fences and cement crematoriums, no more burying the corpses in ditches. Here’s a whole bloody parade of the walking dead.”

Still, Mutti is disbelieving.

Callum continues, “They’re Jewish girls! Here’s what your thousand-year Reich is really about.”

The truth dawns slowly to Mutti and Anna, not entirely. When it does, it’s absolutely devastating.

 

I ponder the very same question in my novel Accidental Saviors. One of the two protagonists, Dr. Felix Kersten, reflects on what he has witnessed in his seven years of semi-forced service as SS Chief Heinrich Himmler’s private masseur and living among the German people from 1938-1944. Here is an excerpt from a late chapter in the novel:

“Kersten still wondered if the brutal suffering Himmler had wrecked upon the Jews and others was simply a matter of a deep-seated hatred, or merely a product of his dogged devotion to conscientiousness, unquestioning loyalty, eagerness to please and methodical efficiency. Most would say “conscienceless efficiency”, Kersten supposed, but he was confident Himmler’s physical ailments were symptomatic of a fragile, tortured, split, pathetically disjointed conscience.

There will be simplistic minds and readers of history who regard evil as black and white, to be sure, and that the only solution is to eliminate evil completely somehow. The Allies and Russians may feel that by defeating Hitler, they will have erased forever the kind of evil perpetrated by the Nazis from the face of the earth, that it would never be allowed to happen again. I truly wish it were so.

            Whose hands are completely clean of the Jews’ blood, however? The blood of the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the mentally ill or retarded, the Poles, the Slavs? What about the hands of the ordinary German husbands and fathers who served in the police battalions, conducting routine police duties in the cities and towns, hired to merely maintain the rule of civil law…until they were assigned by the SS to round up Jews and deliver them alive to the train stations? Are their hands clean of blood?

            Or, the hands of the farmwife who came to market in town and saw a haggard group of exhausted, broken, demoralized Jews being marched forcibly through the center of town to the waiting trucks at the town square? Did it never occur to them to wonder who these Jews were and where the trucks were taking them? Or, didn’t they have the moral courage or imagination to wonder, and just went about making their purchases instead?

            What about the hands of the engineer of the cattle train that was requisitioned by the SS to transport these Jews from the trucks to the camps? Did he and his fireman ask each other what the Jews in the cattle cars would do once they arrived at the work camp? Did they ever discuss what the working conditions were like at the camp, and how the Jews were treated by the guards? Or, did they consider it none of their business?

            Or, the hands of the farmer out in his potato field. Did he not notice the unusual odor of smoke drifting downwind from the “work camp” between the neighboring village and his? Did he not know what…or who…was being burned? Did the men with whom he had a glass of beer or two at the local watering hole at the end of a workday ever mention to one another the odor or the smoke? Did they ever acknowledge, even to themselves, their suspicions about what really went on in the camp?

            If we don’t acknowledge to ourselves our own capacity for evil, we will, like Himmler, project it and attack it elsewhere.”

  

Bohjalian’s novel, and I hope mine, too, should make us ask ourselves if we, too, are looking the other way as the current administration in Washington is waging a war, not just of words, against immigrants, refugees and people of color?

 

            Accidental Saviors will be released approximately April 20 by Can’t Put It Down Books. You can preorder the ebook version for $2.99 at: https://www.amazon.com/Accidental-Saviors-Jack-Saarela-ebook/dp/B07BN5NBZ9/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1522629843&sr=8-1&keywords=Jack+Saarela. 

On April 20, the ebook will be delivered directly to your e-reader.

The paperback version will be available at the same time. You can pre-order for $9.99 on my website: jacksaarela.com. Click on “Purchase Jack’s Books”.

 

Until the next time, live this unique day given to us as a gift to its fullest. And, let me know what you’re reading and what you like.

 

FALLING UPWARD

The days and weeks have been busy working with my editor Karen Hodges Miller with last-minute adjustments to my new novel, Accidental Saviors, in preparation for its printing and release. I thought I’d piggy-back on my preaching this past Sunday at All Hallows’ Episcopal Church just up the street from my home in Wyncote by using the sermon as my post this week.

The message is specifically Christian, of course. But, like any of the good news Jesus proclaimed, I think these reflections on John 12:20-33 are applicable for anyone. So, whether you are Christian, Jewish, None or Other, I hope that you are edified today.

 

Text: John 12:23-26

Do you know what an oxymoron is? Notice, I didn’t say “moron.” I think if Rex Tillerson had used the word oxymoron to describe the President instead of moron, he might still be the Secretary of State.

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In any case. We use oxymorons all the time. It’s a statement that contains two ideas which seem at first glance to be diametrically opposed, but taken together, add up to a sentence that is eminently true. For example, Charlie Brown’s favorite slogan is “Good grief!” None of us really enjoys grief. But grieving someone or something we have lost really is “good”, isn’t it? Good for our emotions, and only fitting when we and a loved one are cut off.

We may have seen a hilarious video on America’s Funniest Videos, and commented to the others in the room, “That was seriously funny.” Well, which was it, funny, or serious? Both, of course.  Extremely sidesplitting.

I am writing my second novel since my retirement three years ago. The other day, my editor said to me, “Jack, less is more.” I knew what she meant, even though on the surface her statement is totally counter-intuitive.  Just as I did when she gave the following oxymoronic advice concerning marketing the book: “You’ve got to spend money to make money.”

The content of the Christian faith is full of oxymorons and paradoxes. Now, for people like myself who enjoy the cleverness and playfulness of oxymorons, they make the Christian faith interesting and attractive. But for others who are tired of scratching their heads trying to figure out the logic of oxymorons and paradoxes, the fact that the Christian is practically built on the foundation of a series of oxymorons uttered by Jesus renders Christianity too perplexing and illogical for them.

In today’s gospel lesson in John, Jesus is at his oxymoronic best. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” he says, “it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus agriculturally-oriented original audience knew experientially exactly what he meant. After a seed is planted, nothing appears for a long time, perhaps many months, and it’s logical to conclude that the seed has died. But come the spring here in the northern hemisphere, a rich harvest of wheat appears. Sudden life comes from death.

Then, Jesus proceeds to articulate the most profound, quintessential oxymoron in the Christian faith: “Those who love their life, lose it, and those who hate their lives in this world—that is, those who place a higher priority on clinging to the things of this life—will keep it for eternal life.” If you want to save your life, in other words, you can’t attach yourself to it too tightly. If you want life with a capital “L”, then you must share your life. Don’t be overly protective of your time or energy or other resources on which you depend for life. That’s not life as Jesus defines it. Real Life happens, Jesus says, when we give away our time and energy and resources for the sake of the Gospel to others. To gain is to lose, and to give away is to receive.” Talk about a mystifying oxymoron.

It’s precisely this puzzling oxymoron that is encapsulated in the famous Prayer of St. Francis: “O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

The well-known Lutheran pastor and theologian in Germany during the Second World War, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, paraphrased Jesus’ oxymoron in the baldest, starkest way possible. He wrote, “When Christ calls a man to follow him, he bids him come and die.? Perhaps I ought to bring the statement up to date by using inclusive language: “When Christ calls a person to follow him as his disciple, he bids him or her to come and die.”

In many places and on many occasions in the gospels, Jesus tells his listeners that one cannot follow him, be like him, or be his disciple, if one is not prepared to “pick up the cross.” In other words, to die. To die biologically eventually, of course. But, while still in this life, to die many times…to many things. To myself. To my own will. Rather, Jesus says, “Thy will be done, Father, not mine.”

To die to our culture’s conventional wisdom that my life is all about me, that we get most satisfaction in life, as Sinatra and Elvis and so many others sang, by living it “my way.” Rather, Jesus says, “I came not to be served, but to serve.”

To die to the Old Adam or Old Eve which was drowned in the waters of our baptism, and which we drown once again each day as we arise and remember our baptism.

To die to regarding people from a distorted, often prejudiced, judgmental, self-righteous human perspective, and rise to seeing others beneath the surface as God sees them.

To be a follower of Jesus today, or in any age, for that matter, requires a certain level of maturity and what author Daniel Goleman called “emotional intelligence”. Picking up a cross and dying to our former way of seeing and thinking and doing—repentance, in other words—is not for the immature or weak of heart. The former president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mount Airy, Dr. David Lose, paraphrased Jesus’ remark that he is “the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free,” in this way: “Yes, indeed, the truth will make you free; but first, it will make you miserable.”

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            Think of your own lives for a moment. Isn’t it true that any maturing you have experienced in your life is usually the result of some kind of error of judgment, one kind of failure or another, or a slip or fall from grace? It’s been that way in my life. I don’t go out of my way to make mistakes, or fail at something, or trip and fall in life. But, I’ve surely experienced all three. I’ve been blindsided and lost a job; I’ve discovered dysfunction within my family; and, not every dream I have had for my life has come true.  But, to quote a cliché, I’m a better man because of them. I’m a deeper, more mature, more committed Christian because of them.

St. Paul, perhaps, said it best in his oxymoron. “It is when I am weak that I am strong.” That’s because, he says, when he himself is at the end of his rope, he finally stops doing life his way, but looks to his God for direction and the strength to continue in God’s way. As the Franciscan priest and psychologist Father Richard Rohr puts in his phenomenal book, Falling Upward, “The way up in life is the way down.” As Jesus implied, “Those who are last in life really do have a head start in moving toward first, and those who spend too much time and energy being first all the time seldom get there.”

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Perhaps your congregation, Christian, Jewish or otherwise, is like the congregation where my wife and I belong, in bemoaning that there are very few young people in your pews.  There are probably many reasons why they aren’t. But at least one, I think, is that the young haven’t had sufficient time or opportunity yet to make many life-altering mistakes, or experience real failure, or have their dreams or ideals shattered. They may not have suffered profound loss yet.

I think of a song composed by the late ex-Beatle John Lennon before his 25th birthday in 1965. “Help, I need somebody. Help, not just anybody. Help!…When I was young, so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way.” The highly successful John Lennon, needing help? Yes. By 1965, he had discovered the essential hollowness of all the Beatles’ success. After such success at such a young age, what’s left? He felt trapped in life: trapped in a loveless marriage with his first wife Cynthia; trapped in the chaotic, relentless schedule and pressures of life as a Beatle. He fell, in other words, for one of the first times in his life. So, he continues the song: “But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured. Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors. Help!”

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I wonder, what might have transpired, how might John Lennon been transformed, if someone credible had been by his side to be a Christ to him, to listen to him, take him seriously as a human being, to empathize with his being down, which is precisely the prerequisite condition to be raised up to a new life, a new abundant life, freely given to him by Christ. Might he who went on to describe himself in another song as a “Nowhere Man, sitting in his nowhere land,” have been found?                                                    AMEN

Until the next time, live this unique day of opportunity to the fullest.

 

 

THE FROG IN BOILING WATER

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Most are familiar with the fable describing a frog being boiled alive slowly. The premise is that if a frog is suddenly dropped into boiling water, it will jump the heck out immediately. If the frog is put in tepid water, however, which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

I have been thinking of this fable a lot lately, particularly after the tragic shooting deaths of fourteen students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL (just an hour’s drive south of Lake Worth, where our family lived from 1981-86.)

Once I heard the news, I tried to think of the last school shooting that dominate the American news cycle, at least for a day or two. I remembered Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, of course, and Virginia Tech (mainly because I had two campus ministry colleagues there.) I also could conjure up memories of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, because Newtown is close to New Haven, where I went to seminary and served as an interim Lutheran campus pastor. (Since then I have come to know novelist Sophfronia Scott, whose son Tain was a pupil at the school at the time.)

A much-forgotten incident happened close to home in Lancaster County, PA, my wife Diane’s home stomping grounds. Charles Carl Roberts, an adult in the community, broke into a one-room Amish schoolhouse and killed six girls and then himself in 2006.

Do you remember what as the most recent school mass shooting episode immediately prior to Parkland? I’ll bet you cannot. If you answer, Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR, where ten students were shot and killed, I’ll suspect you were just looking it up online. It’s difficult to remember because there have simply been too many of them to remember.

Consider this: there have been thirty-one such shootings in which at least six people have died since Columbine in 1999. After Sandy Hook, there have been 148, 148!! incidents involving gun violence or attempted or intended gun violence in American schools. And, believe it or not, three students have been shot and killed at education institutions since Parkland.

I am wondering if we have become so inured to mass shootings in schools and elsewhere that we have come to accept them as the new normal.

You know the routine: a student, often bullied by others, isolated by poor social skills, brings a high-powered firearm into a school building and proceeds to kill either targeted teachers or students, or at people in the school randomly. The perpetrator, almost always male, is labeled as crazy, mentally ill, or a “monster”. We pay attention for a day or two. A few politicians (usually Democrats) call for tighter gun control. The public tells pollsters that it tends to favor stricter rules for gun ownership. The National Rifle Association expresses its opposition to such measures. Politicians go back to twiddling their thumbs. We the public go back to watching Game of Thrones or reading the latest John Grisham novel.

What we don’t notice, however, is that a part of us that makes us human, that reflects our status as children of God, has died in the boiling water.

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Actually, since the nineteenth century, scientists have proven that the frog-in-boiling- water fable is not true. The premise is false. Don’t try this at home. Scientists have observed the poor amphibians in water gradually brought to a boil. What they report is that eventually the frog finds the temperature too unbearable and does indeed jump out.

That gives me hope. It means that we are not doomed to remain stuck in the present boiling water in regards to gun violence. In fact, we may just be at the exact point when we are prepared finally, after all those school shootings, to jump out of the water.

It’s not just the frog, but young people who give me hope. How impressive was the response by a large portion of the student body of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in the days after the shootings? They refused to remain inundated in the boiling water. They demonstrated 1960s-style before the Florida legislature and lay down in protest in front of the White House. They have organized a March for Our Lives on March 24 in the city of Parkland, and in Washington, DC to which all gun control activists are invited to express their solidarity with the victims and survivors. The students have been a thorn in the side of politicians and the NRA. They are saying, “ENOUGH!” and asking the rest of us to join the chorus. They want to make sure that what didn’t happen after Newtown, except in the Connecticut legislature, will happen now in state legislatures all over the country and in the halls of a do-nothing Congress.

 

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Already, a miracle has happened. One of the most conservative legislatures in the United States, the Florida legislature, passed a law earlier this week to raise the legal age for the purchase of a firearm to 21 and require a three-day waiting period. Parkland students are not pleased that the legislators kowtowed to the NRA and failed to ban the kind of assault weapon used by Nicolas Cruz to kill thirteen of their fellow students.

Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart, among others, will no longer sell guns to young people under age 18.

Even the current president, the most NRA-friendly president elected since Ronald Reagan, has threatened to go against the organization that filled his election kitty in several ways, and chided his Republican colleagues for being afraid of the NRA. Wouldn’t it be an irony of Providence if this president so enthusiastically supportive of his election, is the one who breaks the back of the NRA, and helps bring about the end of the NRA’s stranglehold on our political process?

Friends, come on out of the water! The air is fine.

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The publication and release of my second novel, Accidental Saviors, is scheduled for mid-April. Stay tuned for updates.

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Until the next time, live this unique, God-given day to the fullest!

JAS

This and others of my blogs can be accessed on my new website: jacksaarela.com

CONFESSIONS OF A “BANDWAGON” FOOTBALL FAN

Everything in Philadelphia is colored green this week. In case there are any Philadelphians reading this blog who have not been paying attention, the green-clad hometown Eagles football team captured the NFC crown in the National Football League on January 21. That victory over the Minnesota Vikings qualifies the Eagles to proceed to next Sunday’s (Feb. 4) national, if not international, intemperate saturnalia known as the Super Bowl, this one the fifty-second edition. It’s been thirteen years since the Eagles were at the Super Bowl, against the very same opponent, the dynastic New England Patriots.

Locals are pretty excited about the game and their team, to say the least. Sales of Eagles’ jerseys, T-shirts, and miscellaneous memorabilia have gone through the proverbial roof. The Eagles’ fight song reverberates everywhere. Even our pastor, a native New Englander, has offered to sing it at church next Sunday if more than five congregation members donate to the ELCA World Hunger Appeal this week. The news department of every local television channel has sent a team of reporters and photographers to Minneapolis to relay reports and video back to the City of Brotherly love. The television ratings for the NFC championship game last week set a record.

Even I watched the game, or at least a nominal part of it. That’s news around my house because almost twenty years ago, I vowed to limit my attention to sports exclusively to two: hockey (my first love), and baseball. I would swear off football, soccer, tennis, basketball, NASCAR and the Indy 500, the World Series of Poker, and even the Olympics. With the introduction of the internet and television networks committed to 24 hours of sports content, I was finding that I wasn’t getting anything else done other than studying player statistics and or watching Morgan State and Lower Southwestern Idaho State University play each other in the annual tiddlywinks tournament. Besides, I woke up in a lousy mood each morning because, with that many sports to follow, it was inevitable that at least one of the teams I cheer for had lost badly the night before.

I may watch more than just a small portion of the Super Bowl game next Sunday, I don’t know. I’m not quite sure why I would break my vow to fast from watching sporting events other than the Toronto Maple Leafs or Philadelphia Flyers hockey teams, or the Toronto Blue Jays or Philadelphia Phillies baseball clubs. I guess its just because everybody seems to be talking about the upcoming game even more than the changeable winter weather. I confess that I am one of those whom really thoroughly devoted enthusiasts for all things sports love to hate: a bandwagon fan.

 

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In other words, a fan who cheers for a team either because everyone else is, and he or she doesn’t want to look uninformed or not appropriately civic-minded; or joins in the cheering in an opportunistic way when that team is seen to have become successful (although I think the latter may be called a fair-weather fan.)

Back in the nineteenth-century, the infamous Phineas T. Barnum (the subject of a current box-office blockbuster movie, The Greatest Showman) packed circus workers and a colorfully-decorated brass band onto a bright red horse-drawn wagon and paraded down the main street when the circus arrived in a particular town or city. It caught the attention of people for whom watch the grass grow and paint dry were the highlights of the week. The children especially would be drawn to the “bandwagon” and run home to beg their parents to let them go to the “big show” that evening.

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            Ever the opportunistic copycats, nineteenth-century politicians adopted, or rather co-opted, this same form of attracting followers during their campaigns. Switching allegiance to a particular candidate or party became known as “jumping on the bandwagon”. Personally, I hope for such a rush to jump on a different bandwagon in the November mid-term elections.

If the Eagles do win the Super Bowl (they are currently 6-point underdogs), I don’t think I’ll go down to Broad Street for the victory parade. For one thing, the commuter trains will be so crowded that they may not make a stop at the Jenkintown-Wyncote station at all, a repeat of the situation when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008.

 

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But more importantly, as a bandwagon fan who is barely holding on to the running board on the bandwagon because I got on so late, I don’t think I deserve to participate wholeheartedly in the exhilaration of a victory celebration the way the die-hard fans do who have cheered their team faithfully through some futile and depressing seasons since their last playoff appearance in 2010. In all generosity, I’ll be happy for the players, and for the true fans, and for the city of Philadelphia, but I have not merited the right to indulge in the merriment for myself.

 

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            However, I think worse than being a bandwagon or even fair-weather sports fan is to be a bandwagon participant in life. In my case, it’s my Christian faith (I know that for some readers, it’s another faith, or perhaps none at all) that impels me not to stand on the sidelines, but to jump in head-first and relish each moment of every single, unique, God-given day. Or, unlike a fair-weather fan of life, not wait until I feel like a “winner” and everything in my day goes as planned or as I wish it to go (it seldom does, in fact), but know that even in the temporary setbacks, there is the benefit of something new to learn and celebrate.

            OK, in honor of my adopted city, I’ll say it. “Fly, Eagles, fly on the road to victory.”

JAS

 

BOOK REVIEW This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World By Sophfronia Scott and Tain Gregory

Every now and then, I read a book that I would be remiss if I did not spread the word about it. Novelist friend Sophfronia Scott invited me to write a review of her newest book, which she co-wrote with her young son, Tain Gregory. As I say in the review below, I wish I had had it on my bookshelf during my days as a parish pastor to give to all those parents who came to me seeking advice as to how to instill faith in their child or children. As a matter of fact, I wish I had had a copy when my wife and I were raising our own two sons. Sophfronia and Tain tell the story of his initial growth in faith as a young child.

At the same time, the book is an account of Sophfronia herself grew in her own faith while talking about God with Tain. The book deals with Christian faith specifically, but I am sure that Jewish parents and those of other faiths will find inspiration and assurance here as well. A shorter version of this review can be found on http://www.goodreads.com:

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It has been said that any of the world’s religions, including Christianity, is always just one generation away from extinction. As an ordained clergyman, I was approached innumerable times by parents who felt one degree of urgency or other to help their child or children develop religious or spiritual faith to guide and direct their lives, and especially strengthen and uphold them with life’s challenges and inevitable disappointments and tragedies.
I sincerely wish I had had copies of this excellent book on my office bookshelf to give to such parents. Novelist and essayist Sophfronia Scott (All I Need to Get By, Unforgivable Love) has recruited her young son, Tain Gregory, to co-write a sensitive, insightful and loving book. She is emphatic that it is “not an instructional how-to book”; rather, she describes Tain’s journey of faith formation, the genesis of which is Tain’s own questions to her about God as a pupil in a pre-school housed in the local Episcopal church.
That, in fact, is what makes this “coming of age to faith” book so refreshing to read and so helpful for parents and families. Scott is wise enough to understand that as a mother, she cannot simply fill her son with faith as one would an empty vessel with a liquid. Rather, she would have to “be in a place to recognize the truth” when her son asks questions and “makes requests that come from a place of authentic desire or even divine guidance.”
Interestingly, Tain’s first questions related to God begin as queries about death. Why did his grandfathers die? “What does that mean?” And then, he utters the statement that launches him on his journey of spiritual and religious discovery: “I don’t want to die.”
It turns out, to be Sophfronia’s spiritual journey as well. Each of Tain’s questions and experiences takes her back to her own childhood and wonderings about God. She relies on such memories and her own feeling as invaluable resources for insight into her son, and his readiness for answers to his questions. Sophfronia describes her few experiences of church during her nominally-churched childhood and youth, which makes for interesting enough reading in itself. But after each narration of events in Tain’s and the family’s life and developments in his spirituality, she inserts a short section entitled “Tain’s Take” in which he describes and reflects on his new experiences in worship and church school.
Though Scott doesn’t quote the verse herself in the book, as one reads, one is made to recall the biblical verse, “A little child shall lead them.” One chapter is entitled, “Who is the Teacher and Who is the Student?” That applies to the whole book, in fact. Because Sophfronia and her husband Darryl make the decision to accompany their son on the journey of spiritual and religious discovery rather than simply abdicate the task to their church and its pastor, each of Tain’s breakthroughs along the way sparks insights and spiritual growth in Sophfronia herself.

 

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The authors live in Newtown, CT, which ought to ring an ominous bell for readers. At the beginning of his third grade in 2012, Tain asks to transfer from his private school to the local public school, the name of which is Sandy Hook Elementary School. That reality, though unnamed until the ninth of ten chapters, affects the reader deeply much as moviegoers were forewarned of an impending shark attack by John William’s hauntingly menacing oscillation between two simple notes in his soundtrack for the movie Jaws. As a gifted novelist, Scott has given the book the structure of a page-turner novel.
Indeed, disaster does strikes at Sandy Hook School on December 14, 2012. In the years before 12/14, Tain had grown substantially in his faith and understanding when he and his family endured the death of the father of one of his close friends, Scott’s sister, and Darryl’s mother. While grieving herself, Scott treated each instance as a “teachable”, and equally significantly, a “prayable” moment. Then, Tain experiences news of the violent death at Sandy Hook of the first-grade son of his godmother, Ben, whom he calls his “godbrother”. It turns out that all the conversation about death between mother and son prior to that were a source of strength and hope for both of them in the wake of 12/14.
This Child of Faith is not a “new-agey” tract about a generic spirituality. Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown plays a vital role in both Tain’s and Sophfronia’s spiritual growth and health. The congregation is particularly helpful to them in providing emotional and spiritual support in their grieving, especially after 12/14. Sophfronia and Tain discover that the journey of faith is not taken alone, but in community.

The authors are featured in the film documentary Midsummer in Newtown, available on Amazon Video and iTunes. The documentary deals with a creative artist’s project of helping survivors of the school at Sandy Hook heal from their trauma.

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PRAYERS AND VIOLENCE

Hi again, dear readers.

I’ll state up front that as I sit down to write this blog, I’m out of sorts

For one thing, I’ve come down with my first cold of the season. You know the drill: stuffy head, runny nose, achy muscles. an overall feeling of lethargy and irritability.

Current events have also led to my being out of sorts. The little boy in me lost one of his heroes this week. Roy Halladay, one of the best pitchers in the major leagues in the past two decades, died in a solo airplane crash in the Gulf of Mexico. Roy was only forty; the husband of his high school sweetheart, Brandy; father of two young teenage sons, Braden and Ryan. I was fortunate enough to follow his award-winning career while he played for both of my “hometown” ball clubs: 12 years with the Toronto Blue Jays, and four with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was a hero of the adult in me, too. Rarely does a great athlete come along these days who deflects glory from himself, shares it with his teammates, is abundantly generous with his time and money, particularly with children with special needs. I confess that in reflecting on Roy, I have wept tears of sorrow…and gratitude.

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We know that over 25 people of faith were gunned down in First Baptist Church in Sunderland Springs, TX. I admit that mass slayings have become almost the “new normal” so that they don’t make as deep an impact on my heart as I should allow them to make. However, I recognize that these victims are brothers and sisters in Christ with me as well as fellow humans.  I didn’t know a single one of the victims, of course, yet still, I feel a deep kinship and mourn their loss in a particular way.

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The holocaust at First Baptist itself was bad enough. But the President of the United States made my grief and anger deeper (he never fails to do so) by saying, “This was a mental illness problem, not a guns situation.” Isn’t it almost a cliché after such shootings to attribute the event to some “deranged loner.” Are such statements aimed, as I believe they are, to ease our fear and salve our corporate conscience as a people? It’s a cop-out, I truly believe. It distracts us from looking closely and in a spirit of repentance at the culture of violence, particularly violence inflicted by guns, which we have allowed to thrive, if we have not actually encouraged and applauded it.

Besides, I would like to ask the President, “If you truly believe mass shootings are a mental health issue, why did your administration block the Social Security Administration from reporting mentally impaired recipients of federal aid to a national background check database?”

To top all that, a Lutheran clergy colleague, the Rev. Hans Fiene, polluted the discussion with some simplistic, distorted theological claptrap. The title of his post in his The Federalist blog was, “When the Saints of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers.” His argument is based on the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil.” His only understanding of deliverance is to be “saved” from this world (that “God so loves”, mind you) and transported to the transcendent realm of glory “where no violence, persecution, cruelty or hatred will ever affect us again.” He thus concludes that Devin Patrick Kelley “only succeeded in being the means through which God delivered his children from this evil world into an eternity of righteousness and peace.”

Talk about putting the ultimate “good spin” on a tragic violent event which I believe breaks the heart of God! Following his ludicrous theological logic, couldn’t we argue that Mohammed Atta and the other 9-11 terrorists were serving God by delivering however many Christians were killed in the World Trade Center towers to their eternal peace and rest? Wouldn’t that or any other such act of violence please the heart of God in that God would be joined in heaven by a whole new slew of children while their time in this evil world was shortened?

It’s not that I don’t believe in that eternal realm. As a matter of fact, I rather look forward to it. But there’s plenty of evil right here in this world where we have been planted by divine design from which we need to pray to be delivered, and that I believe we are called to address and combat the best we can.

There. I’m not so out of sorts now at the end of my post. Oh, I’m still blowing my nose constantly; I still can’t believe Roy Halladay is dead; I continue to mourn the 26 brothers and sisters in Sunderland Springs; I’m not any better disposed toward President Trump’s explanation for the tragedy than when I began; and certainly Pastor Fiene’s misreading of Christian Scripture is a burr in my theological saddle. But as I said in my previous post about why I write, I knew that the exercise of simply sitting down and writing would be enough to make me feel better. And, it did.

Until the next time, cherish this unique and finite day.

 

JAS