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“The wise man in the storm prays, not for safety from danger, but for deliverance from fear. It is the storm within that endangers him, not the storm without.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“What am I supposed to do now? “

The young mother kept looking at me with bloodshot, broken eyes, yelling for an answer to a question she knew I could not provide.

Minutes earlier as a hospital chaplain, I’d been part of the team that informed this young mom that her little girl, the one she brought into the ER because she was ‘acting a little funny’, the one she had raised as a single mom for seven years, the one she could not go through life without, was dead.

What am I supposed to do now?

It’s a question she wanted answered.

Seven days after a horrifically tragic massacre, it’s a question that 20 sets of parents are asking right now; a question a 300-year-old idyllic town in Connecticut is asking; a question that many of us around the United States and world are asking.  It’s even a question my seven-year-old asked regarding his own Christmas.

So, how do we make sense of tragedy?  Whether that means a town of families devastated by senseless violence, the loss years ago of a little girl to a previously unknown medical condition, or the challenges we all face in life today?

My friends, a chance encounter with that young mother helped me answer that question — and I hope it empowers you, too.

You see, several years after I walked that young mother out of the hospital and to her car we saw each other in a store.  It was right before Christmas, the store was packed, and I didn’t recognize her at first.  But she came over, hugged me, and thanked me for being with her during the most painful day of her life.  I asked how she was.

She remained crushed everyday, but for the first time she understood what Christmas and life was really all about.  It was about celebrating all you have – and all you lost.  It was about being grateful for yesterday and hopeful for tomorrow.  It was about realizing that in the midst of tragedy, triumph is born.  She gave me the Christmas card she sent to all her friends for the holiday.

It was a scene familiar to many of us: a silhouette of three kings making their way to the nativity scene.  On the top of the card in bold, black letters “Be Not Afraid.”

Be not afraid.

“John, if it was good enough advice for Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds, it’s good enough for me, too.“

She continued, “I wake up every morning and still cry.  Then decide every day to live in such a way that I make my little girl proud.  Every experience, every meal, every laughter, and every tear I imagine that she is sharing it with me — and in my heart I know she is.  She was so beautiful, so vibrant, and wanted to make the world a better place. Now that’s what I try to do, too.”

My friends, this time of year we all have various reasons to celebrate (Christmas, Hanukah, Ramadan, festivus, Santa Claus, the end of a difficult year, or the possibility of next year being the best one yet).  My wish for you is that during this holiday season you realize that it is in the least likely of places, least likely of people, and least likely of events in which positive change in the world is born.

It was true 2,000 years ago.  It remains true today.

Be not afraid.

John O’Leary


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