Proverbs 14:15 MSG
It’s a little before noon and 39-year-old, history teacher, Mr. Beckley’s stomach is growling. His last meal was breakfast at home before he left for school at 6:45AM. It’s also a little too warm in his classroom because the gosh darn heaters are on the fritz again and, apparently, there’s nothing that can be done.
That one student who is always a pain in the keister was his usual self, this morning, trying to be funny, making stupid remarks, not paying attention. The rest of the class was as usual: a few bored, a few distracted, and a small few who, bless their hearts, actually seem to care about American History. He gives the class the last 10 minutes to start their reading for tomorrow and sits down to rest and dream of the corned beef sandwich stowed in his briefcase under his desk.
THE FIRE ALARM SOUNDS!
Okay, stay calm, he thinks. Probably a drill but his kids are well trained. Even before he can get out of his chair they are moving in a neat, orderly procession out the door and on to the exit and the front yard of the school. He steps into the hall to monitor the evacuation and everything seems to be going okay.
Someone in another hallway screams and a group of kids come running around the corner and into Mr. Beckley’s hall. He hears the word “gun” as they run by and before it has had time to fully register in his mind that those pop, pop, sounds were gunfire, all of those kids who were making egress in a quick but orderly manner are now screaming, pushing, and running for the door. He is nearly knocked down in the sudden crush. He hollers, “Walk! Walk!” but no one is listening.
He can feel a sense of panic start to burn like a hot needle in the base of his skull and the pit of his stomach. Adrenalin starts to flood his nervous system and his normal “flight or fight” responses kick in. What he really wants to do right now is run with these kids as fast as he can go, right out that door and on to his home and the arms of his wife and children.
But he’s a teacher, sworn to himself and God, if not to the school district, to always act in the best interest of his students.
And, he has a gun.
It’s locked in a safe on the top shelf of the supply closet in the place where he used to store historic copies of Life magazine – a nine-millimeter semi-automatic hand gun with a 12-round clip that he bought at a local gun shop and the price of which was reimbursed to him by the school board on the promise that he would take a weekend concealed-carry course (which he did) (six months ago) and the gun would be the school’s property and could be removed from the classroom at any time.
He drops his shoulder and pushes through the crush of students, back into his classroom. His purpose in doing so is to get that gun and take it to the fight, to protect his kids, for that is how he thinks of them: “his kids.” First, though, he has to find the key to the safe. The key. The key. Shit! Where did I put that damn key?
Did those pops sound closer? The adrenalin is flowing freely now. His heart is racing. His empty stomach is rolling over. His hands are shaking. He’s sweating and his mouth is dry.
In truth, he hasn’t had the gun out of its case since he completed the concealed carry class six months ago. He was going to. He was going to go to the range and practice on human shaped targets every week but he never got around to it. Papers to grade. Lesson plans to create. His son’s baseball practice and games, his daughter’s dance recital, his wife’s desire to repaint the kitchen, all got in the way.
His briefcase! That’s where the key is. He fishes his briefcase out from under the desk pops the lid and the smell of corned beef rolls out and sours on his adrenalin filled stomach. He lifts his lunch bag out of the case and there’s the key, wedged into the corner. He takes it to the supply closet, stands on his tiptoes to reach the safe… and drops the key.
He finds it on the floor and, hands still shaking, on tiptoes, again, unlocks the safe and reaches blindly in to get the gun which is already loaded but he grabs the small box of cartridges as well, just in case.
The gun is concealed in a case designed for it to keep moisture out and prevent rust. He opens the case and there is the gun, smelling strongly of cleaning oil, and looking powerful, lethal, and, well, masculine.
Breathing slowly, deeply, trying to get control of his emotions – fear, excitement, anger, frustration, panic – he lays gun and ammunition on his desk. He takes the gun from the case, weights it in his hand, pulls the clip to make sure it’s loaded (just like they taught him at the C.C. Class.) He cranks a round into the firing chamber and walks purposefully toward the door, gun held in both hands, pointing upward, finger outside the trigger guard.
Most of the students are gone from the hallway but a dozen or so stragglers round the corner running full speed and, startled, he comes a millimeter from pointing the gun at them. He moves quickly to the T where his hallway adjoins the main hallway of the school. He peeks around the corner. Students running the other direction, teachers locking their doors. Several bodies on the floor. He does a quick count. Eight. Blood all around. He has no idea whether they are kids or adults, alive or dead.
Mr. Beckley ducks back out of sight raises his gun next to his right ear, pointed upward, finger still outside the trigger guard, takes a deep breath
POP…POP…POP…POP (Closer this time?)
He lets the breath out, takes another, holds it a moment, lets it out slowly and, while he is exhaling, steps around the corner and levels the gun, pointing it down the hallway. And just as he does this a young man in blue jeans and collared t-shirt steps out of a classroom and faces Beckley. It’s the math teacher, a new guy. Brian Cox. Beckley knows nothing about him.
What the hell? Has Cox lost his mind? Is he shooting up the school, killing his students? Why? What happened? Or, wait, maybe Cox is an armed teacher like himself. Beckley wonders: Maybe he thinks I’m the one shooting up the school!
Seconds tick by. Lives are at stake. The POP’s seem to have stopped. Decide, Beckley. Decide! Background, behind Cox: a few students running away, concrete block walls, hard, linoleum floors, a few windows in classroom doors. Anyone in those classrooms? Foreground between Beckley and Cox: bodies, blood.
Cox raises his weapon and points it toward Beckley.
Psychologist and Rabbi Edwin Friedman was one of the pioneers of family systems theory in understanding and perfecting human relationships. He was also the author of Friedman’s Fables, short stories that invite the reader to contemplate human condition and human interactions.
As we try to figure out a way to live in a country where gun ownership and use are largely unchecked, I thought of this fable. Enjoy.
The Friendly Forest
Once upon a time in the Friendly Forest there lived a lamb who loved to graze and frolic about. One day a tiger came to the forest and said to the animals, “I would like to live among you.” They were delighted. For, unlike some of the other forests, they had no tiger in their woods. The lamb, however, had some apprehensions, which, being a lamb, she sheepishly expressed to her friends. But, they said, “Do not worry, we will talk to the tiger and explain that one of the conditions for living in this forest is that you must also let the other animals live in the forest.”
So the lamb went about her life as usual. But it was not long before the tiger began to growl and make threatening gestures and menacing motions. Each time the frightened lamb went to her friends and said, “It is very uncomfortable for me here in the forest.” But her friends reassured her, “Do not worry; that’s just the way tigers behave.”
Every day, as she went about her life, the lamb tried to remember this advice, hoping that the tiger would find someone else to growl at. And it is probably correct to say that the tiger did not really spend all or even most of its time stalking the lamb. Still, the lamb found it increasingly difficult to remove the tiger from her thoughts. Sometimes she would just catch it out of the corner of her eye, but that seemed enough to disconcert her for the day, even if the cat were asleep. Soon the lamb found that she was actually looking for the tiger. Sometimes days or even weeks went by between its intrusive actions, yet, somehow, the tiger had succeeded in always being there. Eventually the tiger’s existence became a part of the lamb’s existence. When she tried to explain this to her friends, however, they pointed out that no harm had really befallen her and that perhaps she was just being too sensitive.
So the lamb again tried to put the tiger out of her mind. “Why,” she said to herself, “should I let my relationship with just one member of the forest ruin my relationships with all the others?” But every now and then, usually when she was least prepared, the tiger would give her another start.
Finally the lamb could not take it anymore. She decided that much as she loved the forest and her friends, more than she had ever loved any other forest were friends, the cost was too great. So she went to the other animals in the woods and said goodbye.
Her friends would not hear of it. “This is silly,” they said. “Nothing has happened. You’re still in one piece. You must remember the tiger is a tiger,” they repeated. “Surely this is the nicest forest in the world. We really like you very much and we would be very sad if you left.” (Though it must be admitted that several of the animals were wondering what the lamb might be doing to contribute to the tiger’s aggressiveness.”
Then, said two of the animals in the friendly forest, “Surely this whole thing can be worked out. We’re all reasonable here. Stay calm. There is probably just some misunderstanding that can easily be resolved if we all sit down together and communicate.” The lamb, however, had several misgivings about such a meeting. First of all, if her friends had explained away the tiger’s behavior by saying it was simply a tiger’s nature to behave that way, why did they now think that as result of communication the tiger would be able to change that nature? Second, thought the lamb, such meetings, well-intentioned as they might be, usually try to resolve problems through compromise. Now, while the tiger might agree to growl less, and indeed might succeed in reducing some of its aggressive behavior, what would she, the lamb, be expected to give up in return? Be more accepting of the tiger’s growling? There was something wrong, thought the lamb, with the notion that an agreement is equal if the invasive creature agrees to be less invasive and the invaded one agrees to tolerate some invasiveness. She tried to explain this to her friends but, being reasonable animals, they assured her that the important thing was to keep communicating. Perhaps the tiger didn’t understand the ways of the lamb. “Don’t be so sheepish,” they said. “Speak up strongly when it does these things.”
Though one of the less subtle animals in the forest, more uncouth in expression and unconcerned about just who remained, was overheard to remark, “I never heard of anything so ridiculous. If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don’t try to make them communicate. You cage the bloody tiger.”
MORAL: Reasonableness is the natural manure of terrorism.
Friedman’s Fables by Edwin H. Friedman (The Guilford Press, 1990), pp.5,25-28
In the debate on gun safety and gun regulation communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.
Thanks to David Smith preaching minister with the Missouri Street Church of Christ (aka: MoSt Church) in Baytown, Texas, from whose blog I lifted the story.
February 11, 2018 -- Transfiguration Sunday
Mark 9: 5-6 and Job 2: 11-13
We are in the season of words.
Recently, the president delivered the annual State of the Union Address to congress and we were invited by the news media to listen in.
It wasn’t always this way. For most of our history the president’s report on the state of the union was delivered to congress in a letter which was then read aloud in both houses. Not until Woodrow Wilson did the president’s report on the state of the union become a speech delivered to a join session of the two houses of congress. And even after Wilson not every president gave a speech every year. That’s a relatively new phenomenon which has grown along with the power of the electronic media to broadcast it to large numbers of people
And, as it became an annual rite, so it also became a somewhat empty ritual.
Listening to the current version of the SOTU, I was astounded at how much like former examples it was. The state of the union is strong because it’s people are strong. The military is strong (and here’s a person who exemplifies that strength, sitting among us as I speak) because the people who serve in it are strong but it could be even stronger if some more money was given to it.
I have done an awesome job running things up to now.
Taxes are bad but some are, regretfully, necessary.
Our youth hold the future of our country in their hands. And here are some youth looking freshly scrubbed and bored.
We need better crime prevention and better ways to fight crime that isn’t prevented.
We need to speak to our national adversaries from a position of strength.
All I want is unity which we could have if you would all just do as I say.
Blah, blah, blah, on and on. The form, if not the content, is pretty much the same as its predecessors.
Don’t have anything to say? Make a speech!
Politicians are not the only ones who abide by the rule that the best thing to do when you don’t know what to say is to talk. Watch the awards ceremonies that are on TV. The Grammies, the Emmys, the Tonys, the Oscars. At least a few recipients always say, “I don’t know what to say,” and then take five minutes to say it.
The Super Bowl and the Olympics offer sportscasters filling empty air with words. Often, it seems that more airtime is given to talking about sports than showing the sports themselves. And much of that talk is done not because anyone needs to hear it but because sponsors have purchased airtime and the airtime between commercials needs to be filled with something.
With all these words flying around, it is hard to remember that sometimes the best thing, the prudent thing, the most effective thing to say is nothing at all.
In the Scripture
Compare these two passages:
Mark 9: 5-6 -- Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
Job 2: 11-13 -- Now when Job's three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him…They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
In the first passage, Peter has just had an experience of awe and wonder. He’s afraid, as such experiences can sometimes leave us, and he doesn’t know what to say. So, like preachers and politicians have done down through history, he talks.
He fills the air with words not because he has something important, something worthwhile, something astute or bright or apropos to share. He fills the air with words because (1.) he’s afraid, (2.) the silence is awkward, and (3.) he doesn’t know what else to do.
And when he speaks, he falls back on the old and the familiar. First, he evaluates the situation and decides that it’s good, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.” And then, having established that the situation is a good one, he suggests that they all get busy and do something, something tried and true, something traditional, something familiar, something religious. “Let us build three dwellings…”
In the second reading above, Job’s friends have heard of Job’s misfortune, the tragedies that have befallen him, and they go to visit him. When they are not far away they see him but so miserable is he that they don’t even recognize him. So heartbroken are they for their friend’s miserable condition that they rip their garments and put dust and ashes on their heads as signs of their grief on his behalf. Then they sit down with him and simply share his pain for seven days and seven nights and “no one spoke a word for they saw that his suffering was very great.”
Now that, my friends, is friendship. Most of us would, like Peter, break under the strain of being silent for 15 minutes, much less seven days.
But, alas, on the eighth day Job cries out his misery and despair, he puts his anguish into words and his friends begin to speak in reply and that is when the quality of their friendship begins to crack. That is when they start making a mess of things.
Interestingly, when God finally steps into the scene and starts to speak – to Peter, James, and John in the Gospel, and to Job and his friends in the book of Job – his answer is much the same. And, if you will allow a paraphrase, it is, pretty much, this that God says: “Shut up and listen.”
To Job and his friends, God says, “Shut up and listen to me.”
To Peter, James and John, God says, “This is my son, the Beloved; shut up and listen to him!”
When you are having or have just come out of a situation that is so overwhelming, so amazing, so awesome, or so horrible that it shocks you and makes you afraid, the thing to do is to “shut up and listen.”
In Our Lives
Most ministers are not strangers to the experience of awe and wonder. For many of us, it is why we became ministers. It’s the context in which we heard the call to ministry.
For me, it was at a weekend retreat when I was in college. We were studying Paul Tillich’s sermon “You Are Accepted,” and I heard his words, really heard them, for the first time in my life: Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”
A typical oldest child (of five), I had spent the first 20 years of my life trying to please people, especially the parental figures in my life: my parents, my teachers, my coaches, my youth group leaders, etc. And when I read those words from Tillich’s sermon it was as though a huge, heavy backpack had been lifted from my shoulders.
I was accepted. God’s loving, reconciling, healing grace was ladled over my head and shoulders and I was accepted, just as I was, by the greatest parental figure that I could imagine, the God and creator of the universe.
I left that seminar walking about six inches off the floor, not giddy or excited, but relieved. The burden of earning acceptance had been taken away. I could be the me that I was, not the me that everyone else expected or wanted me to be.
And as I look back upon that wonderful, transformative, salvation experience in my life I am thankful that no one tried to explain it to me or expand on it for me.
They just let the experience wash over me and they said nothing. (Later, they said and did much.)
Maybe for you the experience happened in your childhood or youth. Maybe it was in a Sunday School class, in a worship service, at Vacation Bible School or at summer church camp or on a mission trip. Maybe it was words that brought God’s grace into your life, or maybe it was music, or acts of service, or a special relationship.
Regardless of how it came to you, you have experience God’s grace and, hopefully, those who loved you did not try to explain it to you or question you about it, at least not at first. Hopefully, they loved you enough to just “shut up and listen.”
At the other end of the continuum, we ministers are not strangers to experiences of abject suffering and grief , often not unlike that of Job.
In my years as a pastor I was called to the scenes of murders, suicides, and horribly tragic deaths from illnesses and injuries, deaths that were premature and all the uglier because the victim was so young and full of life with so much more for which to live.
I was called to hospital rooms where hopelessness and despair seemed to saturate the very air to the point that you could not breath without inhaling it and feeling its corrosive effects upon your soul. I stood at the graves and spoke the ritual words of committal that nearly stuck in my throat as I spoke them.
And in nearly all of those cases I heard people, well meaning people, people with good and generous hearts, say things, as Peter did, not because they needed to be said, but because the silence was so awkward, the occasion so unfathomable, the pain so intolerable, that they just felt that someone ought to say something if, for no other reason, to fill that leaden air with light, sweet, fluffy words. And often, those words were not only unnecessary but ill advised and even hurtful, as well.
In all those cases I just wished God’s voice would come out of a big, dark cloud and say to whoever was trying to give comfort with platitudes and clichés, “Hey! Shut up, and listen.”
Listen as this mother pours out her grief. Listen as this father tears open his heart. Listen as this widowed wife screams her shock and anger. Listen as this child sits in fearful silence because she has not learned words to apply to a situation such as this. Listen to the sniffs and snuffles and wails and moans and know that your presence, your hand placed upon a shoulder, your arms enfolding in a hug, your own tears shed in empathy, are comfort enough without the need for words to shore them up and make them effective.
Words are gifts from God, to be used in God’s service for the purpose of bringing joy, understanding, edification, enlightenment, reconciliation, comfort, and caring to our brothers and sisters. They are too powerful, too dangerous, and too precious to simply be thrown into the air because we don’t know what else to do and the silence is getting awkward.
Dean Feldmeyer is the author of 5 novels, 4 non-fiction books, three plays, and over 100 essays, articles, poems, and short stories, some of which can be found on this web site.