Fear

Beanie Babies, Scarcity, and Vanity

Pile of Beanie Babies. Photo courtesy joeltelling/flickr.com
Pile of Beanie Babies. Photo courtesy joeltelling/flickr.com

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.

Keep On Keepin' On

IN ORDER TO imagine the solutions needed for our environmental crises, we must understand the depth and breadth of their severity—but understanding can all too easily lead to guilt, despair, and hopelessness.

Our response to climate change can no longer be about fear. The more overwhelmed, fearful, guilty, or bitter we are, the less likely we are to spring into action. Corporate monopolies, fossil fuel industry giants, and big money lobbyists have succeeded in getting us to be our own worst enemy. Anger and outrage can only get us so far, and no one knows that better than they do. And in my case, only the good Lord, and my loving husband, know the depth of my daily, ongoing struggle with this.

So what is a faithful, God-fearing, creation-loving person to do? One thing that I have found helpful is to purposefully set aside time to immerse myself in nature, appreciating God’s creation in its vast and intricate beauty. Even a 15-minute stroll through a city park helps me to calm down and regain perspective. Watching fuzzy animals, finding colorful creepy crawlies, and overhearing snippets of people’s conversations gives me pause and reminds me that ours is very complex and witty God.

Another thing essential to sustaining myself in this work is to interact with others for whom creation care and eco-justice is a passion or vocation. The interpersonal relationships build community and nurture my soul. And in them we most deeply experience the grace and presence of the Holy Spirit, at work among us, inspired by one another through our faith and common efforts.

Prior to coming to Sojourners, I coordinated multiday workshops for Lutherans Restoring Creation. Each one gave pastors and lay leaders an opportunity to share best practices and resources for integrating creation care into all areas of church life: worship, education, buildings and grounds, advocacy, and discipleship at home and work.

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After Boston: Above and Beyond

Above and Beyond Memorial. Photo via National Veteran's Art Museum, Chicago
Above and Beyond Memorial. Photo via National Veteran's Art Museum, Chicago

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.

Guns, Culture, and Sanity

I DON'T OWN any guns, and I've only fired them at inanimate objects, but I live in the country, so guns are a part of my life.

During deer season, the woods around our place sometimes sound like Baghdad circa 2006. We used to have a close neighbor who regularly fired a gun in his backyard, usually on Sunday afternoons—at what, we're not entirely sure. Our family has a three-legged dog that lost his right rear appendage to a gunshot wound. Our kids in Boy Scouts get gun safety training and rifle and shotgun shooting lessons in a program certified by the National Rifle Association.

So when the gun control debate heats up, as it has since the Sandy Hook School massacre, I come down with a serious case of mixed feelings. I think rural gun lovers are at least partly right when they say that urban gun control advocates look down on them as ignorant primitives. Many city people, and I'd dare say most urban liberals, don't understand the rural culture of hunting and shooting and can't be bothered to expend the moral energy that act of empathy would require. For me, that part of the gun control discussion pushes the same outrage buttons that go off when an economist says people in dying rural communities just need to move, or when someone else suggests eliminating all farm subsidies from the federal budget. Such comments betray the fact that the speakers neither know, nor care, about rural communities and rural culture.

On the other hand, fear of outsiders is also a part of rural culture. Groups like the NRA, and gun manufacturers themselves, have done a pretty good job of exploiting that flaw, to the point that some of my neighbors are convinced that they need assault weapons to defend themselves against some vague, unnamable "them." And my experience of rural life, which has all been in the South, confirms that this can apply doubly or triply to "outsiders" with a different skin color.

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Connecting the Dots

OVER THE PAST few years, we have seen tangible proof that creation is terribly off balance. Global warming is causing droughts and heat waves around the world and is making hurricanes more powerful. In my hometown of New York City, we have experienced the effects of severe weather: Hurricane Irene in 2011 and, most recently, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Sandy was an eye-opening demonstration that climate change is a poverty issue, a race issue, and an immigration issue.

Though neighborhoods of all socioeconomic statuses were affected by Sandy, poorer communities are taking longer to recover. Many of them were without electricity, heat, and water longer than were more affluent communities. For instance, residents of Red Hook's public housing projects in Brooklyn were without power and water for two weeks after the storm. My cousin Dabriah Alston, a Red Hook resident, told me that the city ignored residents' repeated requests for information about when the heat would come back on: "The bottom line is, they don't care about us. Projects are filled with poor folk, and as we all know, the poor are seldom a priority."

Hurricane Sandy shone an uncomfortable light on racial and economic disparity in New York City. As someone who was born and raised in Brooklyn, I am very familiar with Red Hook's history of poverty, and the neglect by local government. For example, only when the community near the housing projects began to gentrify did the city start to repair the nearby subway station.

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A Lenten Commitment to Give Up the Fear of Failure

Desolate landscape, Phil MacD Photography / Shutterstock.com
Desolate landscape, Phil MacD Photography / Shutterstock.com

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?

Going Over to The Other Side

Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images
An original Darth Vader costume from the Star Wars films. Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

“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.

Been There, Bordered That. So Why Are We Still So Afraid?

Maryada Vallet stands in Nogales, Mexico, pondering this wall.
Maryada Vallet stands in Nogales, Mexico, pondering this wall that separates communities and families.

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.

Daddy’s Top Ten Childbirth Freak-Outs (Pt. 2)

The Piatt kiddos
The Piatt kiddos

#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.

Daddy’s Top Ten Childbirth Freak-Outs (Pt. 1 of 2)

Zoe Piatt, at age 2.

Don’t ever kill me, OK? Killing me is not safe.
—Mattias, 3 years, 0 months

“What’s your greatest fear about having another baby?”

I don’t think Amy was just goading me when she asked me this back in the early stages of impending double fatherhood, but she knows we’re both pretty good worriers (though I’d argue she’s better at it than I am, and since I’m the one writing this book, we’ll assume she’d agree with me).

Talk about an open invitation to worry! I don’t spend a lot of energy worrying about day-to-day matters; I’m more of a saver. But when something comes along that’s really worth worrying about, you can bet I’ll draw down that worry account a bit.

After Amy asked me the fateful question, I started compiling a mental list. I figure I’ll lay out at least my top ten here for your edification, or at least for simple amusement:

#10. We could have twins...

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