Until two weeks ago, the name Kirsten Moore meant nothing to me; her powerful story, part tragic, part triumphant, never made headlines in Australia. But there I sat, on a Sunday evening, in front of my computer, learning of Kirsten's heartbreaking and heartwarming tale. Browsing some articles about the St. Louis Cardinals (I figure it's appropriate to discuss "saints" and "cardinals" while in a Catholic church), I found a link to a YouTube video where Kirsten was addressing a group of students in the chapel prayer session of Santa Barbara's Westmont College.
You may wonder what a Jew, a rabbi, was doing watching a half-hour of Christian preaching on YouTube. In the spirit of learning from one another, and appreciating one another's perspective, I found myself reflecting on Kirsten's message, and I spent most of that half-hour crying.
Kirsten Moore came to Westmont College with the hope of building the women's basketball team to the point where they could win a national championship. Wanting to become physically stronger, a colleague introduced her to Alex, another faculty member at Westmont. Alex taught Kirsten the art of mountain biking, and from the very beginning of their rides together, it was clear that Alex was interested in being "more than friends."
Kirsten had other ideas. Initially, she rejected Alex's invitation to go out on a date for breakfast. But their relationship only grew. Nearly every day for a year they would go riding together, talking about classes, students, sports, and faith. Alex was in the midst of deciding where to enroll in a doctoral program; it was a toss-up between UC-Santa Barbara, and the University of Missouri, some 2,000 miles away. And then, one morning, he said, "For weeks I've been trying to find every possible way to make this decision without you as a factor, but the bottom line is that I love you and if there is a slight chance that anything might happen between us, then I should go to UCSB."
Kirsten told Alex that there would never be anything but friendship between them and that he should go to Missouri. Kirsten shattered Alex's world. Or at least she thought she did. Alex said, "I really appreciate your being honest with me, and if you don't see me for the next few days, don't worry about me. I'm not mad at you, I just have a bunch of paperwork to send off to Missouri."
Kirsten mentions in her chapel speech that the walls that she had erected around her heart started tumbling down. She couldn't comprehend how she had robbed Alex of any hope that anything would ever happen between them, and yet Alex's response was only to care about what she might be feeling. Three days later, he came by her office, and expressed that he was "thankful for the wall that God had put up around her heart." She was stunned. His only thought was that God wanted him to go to Missouri, his best opportunity to maximize his God-given talents. Here he was, thankful for her rejection.
These moments led Kirsten to open herself further, to begin accepting Alex for the incredible person that he was, to begin loving him. Their relationship grew from there. Off he went to Missouri and they began a year of long-distance dating, a year that brought them even closer together, a year that culminated on top of the highest mountain in Santa Barbara, with Alex proposing to Kirsten.
But three more years of long-distance dating followed, during which time, Alex and Kirsten married. As a way of strengthening their faith in one another, and demonstrating great faith in God's intentions for them as a couple, Kirsten and Alex spent their free time (as couples are wont to do) memorizing the 8th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans.
At the heart of this text is a message of deep gratitude. According to Christian theology, (actually, my speechwriter includes a memorandum here which reads, "according to my limited understanding of Christian theology,") because of the way that Jesus suffered in death for humanity, nothing, no amount of suffering, no matter how painful or how profound, could draw a devoted Christian away from God's love. Christians can face life with what we might call in Hebrew "leivav shalem," a complete heart. Christians can be deeply thankful for God's love, knowing that God will lead them to salvation, offering them the greatest gift of all. Kirsten quotes Romans chapter 8, verse 18, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."
In the case of Kirsten and Alex, their knowledge of and faith in ultimate redemption was enough to make even the lengthiest trial seem bearable. A time of separation and heartache could be seen in a larger context of gratitude for what was, and hope for what would be, since both of them were imbued with God's love. Such a message of patience, of gratitude for the present situation no matter how difficult, steeled Kirsten and Alex for an even harder journey ahead.
Alex was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2008. He suffered painfully from his illness for many years, with one bright spot being his happy reunion with his wife, in California, in 2010, where he also re-joined the faculty at Westmont. At some points, he taught his classes from a chair, because his illness left him terribly weakened. And in 2012, doctors decided that the only way to bring him relief was to remove his entire large intestine.
Alex's surgery was a success. And upon awakening from the anesthetic, Kirsten sat on the edge of his bed holding his hand. He told her how much he loved her, how thankful he was that he got to marry her, and that he never felt as close to God as he did then. Kirsten was amazed at how her husband, in that moment of suffering, she says, "having just had his guts cut out," that all he could think of was gratitude.
At 9 pm, Alex told Kirsten that he loved her and sent her home to rest. By 4 o'clock the next morning, Alex was dead from a blood clot. He was only 31. And to add one other detail - Kirsten was eight months pregnant. She said that the seconds of that next day, her first day without Alex, ticked by so slowly. That evening, her friends gathered to pray with her. She felt moved to speak saying, "I know that God was good yesterday. And I know that God is still good today."
I have many Christian friends and I often marvel at their ability to express their faith so succinctly, so trustingly, so faithfully, just like Kirsten did. In the wake of tragedy, when we Jews are informed of a death, we are taught to recite the words "baruch dayan ha-emet," meaning "Blessed is the True Judge." At funerals, we recite the expression from Job, "Ado-nai natan, v'Ado-nai lakach, y'hi shem Ado-nai mevorach," the LORD has given, the LORD has taken back, blessed be the name of the LORD." We recite these words, in and of themselves, words of praise, words of gratitude for life, but we are ever hesitant, shattered, and doubtful. We question the time-honored truth of these words; we debate their validity. For there are no hearts that do not break, there are no eyes that do not shed tears; there are no words that do not get caught in our throats.
The ancient rabbis had something profound to say about this. In the 3rd century CE, the rabbis taught, "A person is obligated to bless God for the bad just as he blesses God for the good. As it is written [in the book of Deuteronomy], you shall love the LORD your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your being...Whatever He metes out to you, whether it be good or bad, you are to thank Him." Rava, a rabbi from the 4th century, added to this statement suggesting that we must "accept misfortunes with joy."
Easier said than done. Many of us know how easy it is to praise God and give thanks when things go our way. It's much harder, to remain thankful, to bless God, to "accept our misfortunes with joy," when the circumstances of life get us down, or such as in the story of Kirsten and Alex, when we find ourselves, or we encounter friends who are enduring unimaginable tragedy.
This teaching from our sages seems difficult to navigate. But Rashi, some years later, writing in 11th century France, commented upon this text and illuminated its meaning further. Rashi taught that the expression does not mean merely to accept our misfortunes with joy, but to bless our tribulations with leivav shalem, with a whole heart."
My teacher Rabbi Irvin Wise taught that it is the wholeness of one's heart that leads a mourner to recite Kaddish at the burial of a loved one. Kaddish is a praise of God for the gift of life, and at a burial, it seems almost paradoxical to give thanks to God. Rabbi Wise explained, "If we can praise God and give thanks to God there, we can praise God and give thanks anywhere." We have the power and the ability to be thankful, to express our gratitude for life's blessings, even amidst the suffering, the pain, the doubt, the heartache, the grief, the torment.
Such is the story of Kirsten and Alex. In the wake of Alex's death, the Westmont College community rallied around Kirsten, aided her in raising her newborn daughter named Alexis, and her team won the national championship. Bill Plaschke, of The Los Angeles Times wrote that in Moore's final speech to her team before they became champions she, "...thanked her team for keeping her soul alive. She thanked them for sitting in the third row for her husband's funeral, for playing with her infant daughter in the third row of the team bus, for sharing her pain and embellishing her joy. She thanked them for their patience when she was weeping at an unseen memory, or staring blankly into an uncertain future, or disappearing just before tipoffs to nurse her child. 'Thank you for loving me,' she said."
Even from a place of terrible emotional pain, Kirsten could see the blessings around her, and give thanks. There is no truer, no more deeply genuine, no more honest form of gratitude than that. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught that, "Nothing is so whole as a broken heart." The wholeness of our oft-broken hearts allows us to mourn what was, to be thankful for what is, and to hope for what will ultimately be.
 Epistle to the Romans 8:18.
 Job 1:21.
 Deuteronomy 6:5.
 Mishnah Berakhot 9:5.
 Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 60b.
 Rashi to Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 60b.