Fear and Hope
Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham, a good Episcopalian and graduate of Sewanee, has a new book entitled The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels which is well worth reading. In some ways it is a challenging commentary on current politics but it is refreshingly non-partisan and above the fray. Meacham recounts various times in our country’s history when fear has threatened to rule our citizens. He writes about the Civil War, Reconstruction, the birth of the Lost Cause, the backlash against immigrants in World War I, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s, the fight for women’s rights, and the Civil Rights Movement, among other things. While Meacham questions the character and action of our political leaders, he mainly writes to offer encouragement. In all these times when fear has come to rule our hearts, a great hope has emerged. It’s a good read.
This past Sunday I quoted one of our oldest members who likes to say, “People are no damn good.” She always utters that phrase with a smile. It’s more of a humorous observation on her part than a bitter assessment of the human condition. In a way her observation is like Meacham’s book. We repeatedly get stuck in life. And repeatedly something un-sticks us. Life is that journey back and forth.
Two things I’d like to emphasis here. First, we do repeatedly fall into fear and we are responsible for tremendous horrors. Second, we can’t really solve the problem of fear and horrid behavior but we can participate in the solution that is woven into life.
I have heard that understanding history is important so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. I do think being a student of history is very important but it seems pretty clear that we almost always repeat the mistakes of the past. Just reading that people were ruled by fear in another era does not keep me from falling into fear today.
The main reason I am still a person of faith is that, while humanity keeps on doing horrible things, some force in life sustains us, corrects us, guides us, and provides joy. Our crummy behavior hasn’t destroyed the healing grace of God that is woven into life. Theologians would call that a high doctrine of sin and a high doctrine of grace. People are no damn good. But God is very good. You can count on both.
In a real way a high doctrine of grace says that everything is going to be okay because God is good and goodness ultimately wins out over evil. We should relax and trust God’s goodness. God will heal all that is amiss. You can count on that above anything else in life. Even if you’re a disbelieving schmuck, God isn’t so small as to be affected by your lack of participation. God will work around you if need be.
But another reason I am still a person of faith is that this grace which does not even need us to be effective, doesn’t only work around us. The grace of God works in us to change us and to bring about hope. Force is not the way of God but persuasion is. God’s love works to make us more loving, less fearful, more hopeful.
I write to assure you that, because of God, all things are being made well. And I write to ask if you’re willing to let your heart embrace God’s goodness and become more hopeful than fearful. Life is that journey back and forth between fear and hope. Embracing God’s goodness doesn’t mean you’ll never be fearful but it does mean that you’ll recognize that the resolution to the human dilemma doesn’t rest with you or people in general. Becoming more hopeful about God being able to do God’s work means that I’m more forgiving of my own sinfulness and that of others and less willing to participate in that sinfulness myself. Generally it means letting go of the sins of the rest of the world and looking more at my own journey between fear and hope. When I do that, I am humbled by the action of God which keeps on saving me.
It’s pretty easy to get focused on the sins of others. That is a way of living in fear. When I focus on your sins, I overlook my own sins and yours keep getting worse. Pretty soon I’m self-righteous and mean-spirited. When I focus on my own journey between fear and hope, I become easier to live with, wiser, humbler, and generally more encouraged about God’s ability to straighten out a screwed up world.
Fear is real and it is inevitable in life. Hope is even more real and it will win the day. Any heart that is capable of living in fear is just as capable of living in hope. It’s not a problem you have to solve, or can solve, by yourself. God brings hope to us when we need it most. Our job is to look for it and grab hold of it.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.