My first marathon ever — 2003 in New York City — did not go according to plan. On the positive side, I would never have guessed that P. Diddy would be running the same marathon and at the same pace for much of it, providing an entertaining entourage to distract me from my exhaustion. On the negative side, my name, which I had taped to my tank top so the crowds could give me much-needed encouragement, quickly peeled off, and I was anonymous in the crowd. My plan had been to run that last mile to the mantra “you can do anything” or “you are power,” but instead, my legs barely moving and my husband and close friend no longer by my side, I chanted dejectedly to myself: “Never again, never again.”
I didn’t know what misery associated with a marathon really was, though, until I heard about the Boston Marathon bombings, which took place one year ago today. On this day, two young brothers set off two bombs at the end of the Boston Marathon. As we waited to understand the damage, I remember thinking about the juxtaposition of the runners’ feelings of accomplishment setting in just as shrapnel began to fly. Then I received the painful — even if relieving — news that my first cousin had been right at the finish line with her husband and baby (born a year ago exactly on that marathon Monday) and had escaped the violence only because the baby needed her nap. We eventually learned that three people were dead, hundreds were injured, and the two suspected perpetrators were associated with radical Islam. I felt disgust and horror.
Moments such as this challenge each of us to live up to the “better angels of our nature,” as President Abraham Lincoln put it. As has been borne out by various terrorist attacks around the globe, terrorism breeds fear — its intended consequence. Too often this fear becomes fear of a religious group. We, as Jews, know intimately the perils of a society surrendering to this type of fear.
As anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps passes on to whatever is his reward, we need to ask how he managed to inspire a following.
His was hardly an exemplary life. One neighbor remembers seeing his children in Topeka, Kan., in the 1970s and noticing they were bald. He was told Phelps sent his kids out to sell some product, and if they didn’t make their quota, he shaved their heads as punishment.
Many tell how Phelps and his followers at Westboro Baptist Church sent vicious faxes when gay men were dying of AIDS, picketed military funerals with “God hates you” signs, and blamed terrorist attacks and fallen soldiers on America’s growing tolerance of homosexuality.
He was consistent, that’s for sure. Brutish and bullying from home to pulpit to public forum. Filled with anger and hate. And totally unrestrained in how he expressed his rage.
Have you ever watched a chick break out of its shell?
My first experience with hatching was at the poultry barn at the Indiana State Fair. The building is the temporary home for hundreds of chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons each summer. And they make quite a ruckus. There’s a constant din of crowing and honking and cooing and whatever other adjectives you care to apply. Colorful feathers drift through the air.
As you walk through the front door, there’s a protected case for baby birds that have just hatched. And there’s an incubator full of eggs that are slowly being pecked and pushed apart by the little ones inside.
If you have some time, you can stand and watch a miracle unfold, peck by peck.
It takes hours for the chick to work its way out of the shell, sometimes an entire day. A 4-H volunteer sits by the incubator and records each chick’s progress during the exhausting escape from the shell into the greater world.
The chick has spent its entire life in its protective shell. But now, the nourishment of the yolk is all used up. The chick no longer fits comfortably inside the oval confine. It has no clue what lies outside the shell, but it knows instinctively that it has to break out or it will die.
Is that a good analogy for what we experience in our lives? Do we often find ourselves breaking out of shells?
Last December, I decided to run after dark and entertain myself by running through neighborhoods, looking at lighted Christmas decorations as I passed by. It was a novel twist on my regular exercise, and I enjoyed gazing at the beautiful, the creative, and the tacky alike.
Then, I started noticing the insides of houses, too. The Christmas trees were lit and decorated; the insides of the houses seemed warm and inviting. Suddenly, instead of an independent adult on a crisp winter jog, I felt more like a homeless orphan from a George MacDonald Christmas story looking in at something I did not have and of which I could not be a part. Needless to say, the run lost its sense of adventure.
Recently, it has struck me how strange the situation was, both in what I saw Christmas to be and in my decision that I “didn’t have it.”
Fear sold the National Security Agency’s phenomenally intrusive program of spying on everyone and everything, but fear doesn’t explain it.
A nation reeling from terrorist attacks, the thinking went, would excuse the NSA’s vast eavesdropping on Americans and non-Americans, even friendly heads of state.
The reason for doing so, however, probably lay in something more mundane, more like the all-night party outside our apartment window last weekend.
Young men and women stood on a patio facing the courtyard of our U-shaped apartment building. They drank, and they talked. They drank more, and their talking turned to shouting.
By 4 a.m., their shouting and chugging were out of control. Who was going to stop them? No neighbor would dare knock on a door to confront drunks.
This was self-centeredness run amok. It was complete unawareness of consequences, complete disregard for the rights of others. An essential freedom to act had become a license to violate.
The bearer of Good News, the one who carries the message of Resurrection, is not motivated by fear of punishment (either for herself or others) but by confidence in her experience of the love of God. She knows God's love is greater than anything in herself or in her hearers; that Jesus can conquer anything in them that is not controlled by holy love.
"Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love." 1 John 4:18
God's love has the final word, for Jesus has conquered the sin of the whole world and has defeated the grave. Christ's best messengers know this love by its all-consuming redemptive activity in themselves and confidently carry this love to others, without fear.
Welcome to Ecclesiastes. All is vanity. Nothing ends up mattering. Everything for which we toil is fricken pointless.
If the writer of Ecclesiastes were around today, I’m pretty certain s/he would be a really emo teenager in black skinny jeans who smokes clove cigarettes alone in his/her room listening to Morrissey or My Chemical Romance.
For someone like myself who is just a wee bit prone to cynicism, the fact that there is something in the Bible so whiny and sardonic about the futility and pointlessness of human activity is kind of delightful.
Because oh my gosh do people busy themselves with some fleeting ridiculousness while thinking it matters.
The National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago has an unusual work of art.
When visitors first enter the museum, they hear a sound like wind chimes coming from above them. Their attention is drawn upward 24 feet to the ceiling of the two-story high atrium.
The metal dog tags of the more than 58,000 service men and women who died in the Vietnam War move and chime with shifting air currents. The 10-by-40-foot sculpture, titled “Above and Beyond” was designed by Ned Broderick and Richard Steinbock.
Family and friends locate the exact dog tag of a loved one as a museum employee uses a laser to point to the tag with the name imprinted on the dog tag, now part of a chorus of wind chimes.
After the horror and tragedy in Boston, our heads have been down. This work of art serves as a reminder to look up to hear the sound of the spirit of goodness, compassion, and creativity that can turn tragedy and death into wind chimes played in silence by the air.
If one were to conduct a nationwide survey to learn the most common human fears, it is safe to conclude thatfailure would be near the top of the list. Due in part to the high value that North American society places upon success and achievement, we recognize through the twists and turns of daily life that everyone has – in some shape or form – firsthand experience of the fear of failure. We fret over falling short, we agonize about disappointment, and we even lose sleep from the potential shame of letting others down.
What if we, as a Lenten discipline, make a commitment to give up the fear of failure — for such fears are too often personally devastating and publicly debilitating if left ignored or unresolved?
“Now I’ve gone completely over to the dark side,” I laughed as I unpacked an Apple iMac desktop computer and set my last Dell Windows PC to the side.
Such is the teasing that goes on among computer users — teasing that occasionally turns to irate bristling and strident claims of supremacy.
But becoming “all Apple” (iPhone, iPad, MacBook, iMac) isn’t the “dark side,” is it? It’s the “other side.” It’s a new product, not a corrupt soul.
Product decisions aren’t expressions of ultimate value. They’re like selling my automobiles and moving to a walking culture in Manhattan, putting aside suits, and starting my own company. It’s the “other side,” not the “dark side” or the “light side.”
I won’t be using my new iMac to steal money from people. That would be “dark side” behavior. I won’t engage in identity theft, patent trolling, luring people into danger, slandering people with whom I disagree, threatening children, starting phony charities. Those would be “dark side” activities.
In recent years, we have seen serious confusion between “other side” and “dark side.” Led by politicians, ideologues and religious zealots, we have been encouraged to view opponents as evil, unpatriotic, a menace worthy of destruction. The opposition wasn’t content to disagree; it also wanted also to dehumanize and demolish.
The Angels of Advent are saying, "Do not be afraid" -- we bring good news of immigration reform.
And what does fear do to us?
We disregard the good news at our doorstep, the opportunity to live with Jesus among us, and keep on building walls at our threshold. Perhaps that's why the angels of the Bible repeat this admonishment -- Do not be afraid -- over and over again, for fear inhibits our ability to see and hear a new vision.
I remember as a child wanting to leave the lights on in my room at night. The shadows and sounds were too much for an imagination that could run wild to handle. As adults, of course, it's our duty to assure children that nothing is living in their closets or under their beds. We offer the comfort of reality so that the child will go to sleep and have sweet dreams.
But you have to admit, as adults we are gripped by the same fear but on a different level. We may compulsively check to make sure the front door is locked. We don't look strangers in the eye (especially those we deem to look "strange") as we pass them on the street.
#5. Delivery complications: Amy was a real trooper when Mattias was born, but nothing about it was easy. Actually he and I had eerily similar experiences making our way into the world. We both were exactly the same length and weight, we both were faced the wrong way, and both of us were finally delivered by caesarian section, after putting our moms through hours of hardcore labor.
The story I’ve heard is that my delivery was a big part of why my folks decided not to have any more children. Before that, they planned on having more but it was too much to deal with. And let me tell you that I can sympathize. I was in the room both when Amy tried to deliver naturally, and when they cut her wide open and yanked the little peanut out. His face was blue from a lack of oxygen, and his umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck. Though I’ve never experienced such awe and joy in my life, I also have no desire to relive that sort of terrifying vulnerability.
#4. Postpartum: We didn’t recognize it as such for almost a year, but Amy suffered from pretty severe postpartum depression after Mattias was born. In a phrase, it sucked. I also happened to be running for local political office at the time, which added stress to the situation, but I didn’t know what the hell was going on. It was our first time, after all, and no one really warned us about what to do if your wife has quasi-psychotic images of herself pushing your baby down the stairs. She was so worried she was going crazy that she didn’t tell anyone for fear that they might take Mattias away from her. So instead, she tried to manage it, quite unsuccessfully, on her own for nearly 12 months.
The breaking point finally came one night when we were lying in bed and I laid it all out. I knew something was really wrong, but I had no idea what it was. I could feel her withdrawing farther away from me every day, and I felt like I couldn’t do anything about it.