Hope…Even for the Past
“Getting Better Inside”
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Romans 5: 1-11
Tonight at sunset our Jewish sisters and brothers begin the commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on the Jewish calendar. So let us too begin there this morning.
psychiatrist Victor Frankl was sent with his wife Tilly to
During those three years his wife, his mother and his father died in the camps. He survived.
after he was liberated from Turkheim, a concentration camp near
When the book was translated into English it was given the title Man’s Search for Meaning.
Man’s Search for Meaning has now been translated into 24 languages and more than 12 million copies are in print.
I have gone back to reread Man’s Search for Meaning at least every five years of my adult life. It is a stark and dreadful description of life in the Nazi concentration camps, but it is also a celebration of the human capacity for dignity in the worst possible imaginable situations of life.
Victor Frankl says in his book that there were several things that kept people alive in the camps when it would have been easier to give up and die. One was work they still hoped to do in their lives. Another was love.
But Dr. Frankl says: “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his [or her] future – was doomed…the loss of hope and courage [had] a deadly effect.”
“Woe to [those] who saw no more sense in their life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no pint in carrying on. [They] were soon lost.” [ii]
Dr. Frankl talks about prisoners he saw give up on life. There were prisoners, he says, who suddenly refused to get up and go to work one morning. Instead they would stay inside the hut lying on the dirty straw they were forced to sleep on. “Nothing – neither warnings nor threats – could induce them to change their minds. And then something typical occurred;” he says, “they took out a cigarette from deep down in a pocket where they had hidden it and started smoking. At that moment,” he writes, “we knew that for the next forty-eight hours or so we would watch them dying.” They had lost hope and consequently the seeking of immediate pleasure had taken over, and death was not far away.[iii]
Our topic these 50 days of Easter 2007 is hope. And I want to suggest as a proposition for us to consider together that many more of us may have a “hope problem” than we realize. Our society, as optimistic and can-do as it seems, has, I suspect, a “hope problem,” but we are not aware of it. The reason we are not aware of our “hope problem” is because it manifests itself in other ways. We misdiagnose it.
We think we have a problem with balance and proportion in our lives, but this is really a “hope problem.” We think we have a problem with addictive behaviors in our society and in our lives but this is really a “hope problem.” We think we have a problem with a lack of motivation, but it is really a “hope problem.” Problems that seem to have to do with everything from money management to difficulty with intimacy may at their heart be “hope problems.”
It may manifest itself in more subtle ways, but without hope, we are all like the prisoner who chooses the cigarette buried deep in his pocket over life.
To try to get some insights into hope, we are turning to the book of Romans in the New Testament. Over the next six weeks we will be looking at passages from the book of Romans about hope. Hope is one of the themes of Romans.
is a unique book for Paul. It is the only epistle Paul wrote to a church that
he himself had not founded. It was written to the Christians in
written at major turning point in his life and ministry. He wrote the epistle
to the Romans from the city of
plan was to leave
a time of change and unusual anxiety in Paul’s life. He was anxious about how
his offering would be received in
Paul was convinced that God meant Jew and gentile to be reconciled in one community of faith and love, and that this reconciled community would be a foretaste, a prototype, of the Realm of God in which all humanity would be reconciled, but the evidence was suggesting that even Jew and gentiles who were both followers of Jesus were finding it difficult to understand and accept each other.
As Paul wrote his epistle to the Roman Christians at this turning point of his life, when the core commitments to which he had given his life seemed to him at stake, the theme of hope emerges again and again in his letter. To put his ministry and life into perspective, he found that he needed to turn again and again to a new and more profound understanding of hope than he had ever grasped before.
One of the conclusions he reaches is that hope is more about character than it is about circumstance. Hope is more about what is going on inside of us than what is going on in the world around us. Or to put it more precisely, hope is about what we trust is going on in the world around us because of what we experience inside of us despite the evidence of the circumstances.
Hope is a spiritual thing. But without hope, our lives will spiral out of control, either into the frenzied activism of those seeking to save themselves or the hedonism of those simply seeking to escape the pain of life.
Paul says in Romans 5, that hope comes from character, and character comes from endurance and endurance comes from suffering. And hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.
Joan Chittister says “Hope is not a matter of waiting for things outside of us to get better. It is about getting better inside about what is going on outside.”
Hope is a spiritual thing. We do not hope because things look hopeful but because we have experienced God’s love poured into our hearts and trust that this same love poured into our world will make possible a world of justice, inclusion, fulfillment and peace.
The fruit of hope in our lives is that we endure – we stay engaged even in the face of suffering, or defeat, or discouragement.
My proposition is that many of the problems in our lives that seem to be about balance and proportion and motivation are really ”hope problems.” The theologian Jurgen Moltmann says that hopelessness manifests itself in two ways in our world. One is what he calls “presumption.” Presumption is “a premature, self-willed anticipation of the fulfillment of what we hope from God.” Presumption is represented by the mythical figure Prometheus who stole fire from the Gods. It is the motivating force behind all cults and idealists, communism and fascism…anyone who seeks to build the Realm of God on earth through the force of our own wills. Presumption…an unwillingness to wait for God.
The other way hopelessness manifests itself, Moltmann says, is despair…which he defines as “a premature, self-willed anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope from God.” Despair is represented by the mythical figure of Sisyphus, who toils on although he believes that things will never change and always be the same. This is the motivating force behind all cynicism, stoicism, joyless and capitalism in its grossest expressions.[iv]
Whenever hopeless takes over, two things are likely to happen – either we burn down the stores or we loot them.
I want to suggest as a proposition for us to ponder that many of our problems personally and as a society that we think are about other things are really about hope. And hope does not come from the evidence we see in the circumstances of life but from God’s love we experience poured into our hearts. And when we ignore the spiritual either on behalf of a frenzied activism or a dissolute hedonism, we drift into hopeless – presumption and despair.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Frankl wrestled with the hopelessness that seemed almost inevitable for those imprisoned in the concentration camps. Only one in 28 prisoners would survive the camps. Life was almost unbearable. Prisoners would reach the point, he says, where they would say, “I have nothing to expect from life anymore.”
Dr. Frankl said at that point there was only one thing that could help. He writes: “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, teach the despairing [prisoners], 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 to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.[v]
Paul is saying something very similar in his own struggle to keep hope. The question is not whether the circumstances of life are hopeful enough for us to keep going, to keep trying, to stay engaged in spite of the discouraging evidence all around – in spite of racism that still festers and explodes from time to time like a ticking bomb, in spite of sexism and homophobia, in spite of xenophobia against the stranger and alien in our midst, in spite of global warming, in spite of poverty that seems to worsen, in spite of AIDS and cancer. The question isn’t how we stay hopeful, the question is what hope requires of us.
evening I was invited to be part of a group that met in the circle at
Ryan’s friends, like Lara, are organizing vigils around the country in city after city. Last evening Lara read a letter from Ryan’s mother. It is very painful to hear a mother trying to make sense of the brutal murder of her son because he is gay. She said something in the letter that sunk in for me after the events in our society of this past week – “Take prejudice and turn it into learning, be yourself and be of good character.”
In every crisis of life we make a choice. We can choose either destructive revolution or hedonistic abandon or we can ask what hope expects of us. Hope expects of us, Dr. Frankl, suggests this simple thing – to do what is right and good and truthful. This is to choose hope.
[i] Viktor Frankl, who died in 1997 at 92 years of age, left behind a delightful autobiography entitled Recollections. It was published in English by Basic Books in 2000.
[ii] Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press), 74-76
[iii] Frankl, Man’s Search, 139.
[iv] Jurgeon Moltmann, Theology of Hope (Fortress), 22-26.
[v] Frankl, Man’s Search, 77.