“The Space Between Fear and Hope”
by Don Ludwig, July 19, 2020
Psalm 109:21-25; Luke 17:11-19
We continue with our monthly theme of “Presbyterian.” Some people are not all that clear on the differences between denominations and so I found a story that might clear it up for you.
There were three country churches in a small Oregon town: Presbyterian, Methodist, and Catholic.
Each church was overrun with pesky squirrels. One day, the Presbyterian church called a meeting to decide what to do about the squirrels. After much prayer and consideration, they determined that the squirrels were predestined to be there and they shouldn’t interfere with God’s divine will.
The Methodist group got together and decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God’s creations. So, they humanely trapped the squirrels and set them free a few miles outside of town. Three days later, the squirrels were back.
It was only the Catholics who were able to come up with the best and most effective solution: They baptized the squirrels and registered them as members of the church. Now they see them only on Christmas and Easter.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story
One of the hallmarks of our presbyterian heritage is the way we view God’s word. Theologian Karl Barth once said, “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” As people of reformed faith, we simply can not interpret the bible without putting it into the historical and current context. Today, I want to talk a bit about fear and hope from a biblical, historical, and current perspective. What does it mean to “be not afraid”? And if we are only hoping for some grand utopian future, what are we supposed to do in the here and now?
One of my favorite movies is, “It’s Kind of A Funny Story” based on a 2006 novel by American author Ned Vizzini. The story is about Craig, a teenager living with his family in upper-middle-class Brooklyn. He attends a prestigious prep school, where there is constant academic pressure. The pressure to succeed in school and life plunges Craig further into a state of depression.
The movie opens with Craig consumed by fear and feeling so overwhelmed with “life” and thoughts of suicide that he decides to check himself into a nearby psychiatric ward for the weekend. In the ward, he meets other patients–each with their own story of what has become so unmanageable in life that they could not cope. As predicted, Craig discovers a form of “community” among the patients. As he listens to each of their life stories, he slowly begins to reflect on his own life and the sources of his fear and anxiety.
What makes the movie so relatable is that this could be the very backdrop to our own lives. We all teeter close to the edges of disillusionment, apathy, profound grief, or utter despair. We dare to become hopeful about the prospects of the world-changing for the better, only to be let down by reality time and time again or overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems all around. Hope can quickly turn into fear – fear into anger or denial – and we are left wondering whether our efforts are worth it. What’s the use anymore? Hope will only let us down. Fear will end up devouring us.
The Place beyond Fear and Hope
Is there a place beyond fear and hope? Margaret Wheatley once wrote: “In difficult times it takes effort to stay grounded in the present, but it is only there, that we will find a place unclouded by hope and fear.” When I survey the landscape of the world today, I can easily become dismayed and disheartened as I know you can too. There are countless reasons to be afraid. One of my own spiritual practices these days is to limit myself to no more than 45 minutes of watching the news from a trusted source. I have heard many people say to me, as long as we have the current administration, there is no hope. And so many of us are painstakingly waiting until the first Tuesday in November!
But is that a way to live? Living only for the future that may or may not be. Don’t get me wrong, hope can be a good thing. But history has shown that hope can also be a bad thing —especially when our hope prevents us from living fully and courageously in the present. We often see fear and hope at the extremes when in reality there is very little space between the two. Fear, being a good thing, can motivate us to act but hope, being a bad thing, can allow us to escape reality. It seems to me, faith lives in between the two. Do not be afraid is a calling to remember that we are not alone and hope is our challenge to find our own meaning and purpose in the here and now!
This month, in one of the book clubs at our church, we read the book “Man’s search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. Since I was on vacation last week, I did not have the opportunity to share my thoughts about the book with the group—so I will do it here—lucky you! Some of you may know that Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who founded a school of psychology called Logotherapy. But more importantly, Frankl was a holocaust survivor. When the Nazis sent him to Auschwitz in 1944, this was the most horrible and dehumanizing experience of his life. And yet, he was able to observe a distinct difference between those who survived the experience and those who did not: namely, those who survived had a sense of purpose. He writes:
“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing ‘people around us’ that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life–daily and hourly.”
Frankl survived the experience of a concentration camp because he realized that there was an important task he personally needed to complete: the completion of a manuscript he had been working on. That manuscript later became one of the most influential books of the post-war period: Man’s Search for Meaning.
In it, he writes: “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.” As a church, even when we look to the future, and today there are many reasons to be hopeful as we elect our Pastor Nominating Committee—we should be reminded that our greatest task is to find meaning and purpose in our life together right now.
The Space between Fear and Hope
In the movie, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Craig is profoundly impacted by the stories of others and the ability to focus on his life, his own story—he became grounded in the present and recognized the gifts within the people around him and within himself. He found the space between fear and hope. In our Christian lesson today, ten people were healed, and yet only one was mindful enough to return to Jesus and give thanks. Nine were so clouded by their hopes and fears that they could not find meaning and purpose in the moment—one found the space between fear and hope. In the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Frankl would not let his fears and hopes get in the way of living each day with a sense of purpose—it was his unfinished manuscript that kept him alive—the space between fear and hope.
In our current pandemic and political upheaval and racial divides all around—what is our response? When history is written about us, will we be remembered as people who were grounded in the present or paralyzed by our fears? Will we let hope for the future distract us from our calling in the present? Will we find the space between fear and hope—space that finds meaning and purpose—space that listens and is empowered by the stories of those around us—space that returns to Jesus to give thanks to the source of our faith—space that writes our own unfinished manuscript?
Guided Meditation (adapted written version from today’s streamed worship service):
Reflecting on Viktor E. Frankl quotes, Man’s Search for Meaning
I invite you to take a few moments to center yourself and quiet the noise around you. Relax your body…. Breathe in—Breathe out. Breathe in—Breathe out. Breathe in—Breathe out.
Now read the following quotes from Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning—allowing spaces of silence and reflection after each quote. Can you find the space between fear and hope in your own life? What is the meaning and purpose of your life?
- “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
- “In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning.”
- “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
- “If there is any meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
- “I do not forget any good deed done to me and I do not carry a grudge for a bad one.”
- “The world is in a bad state, but it will become worse unless each of us does their best.”