Being formed by the hope that is in us: A challenge for the new year

January 8, 2003

January 9 , 2003

I write these words in the early days of December, as I look ahead to Christmas and the beginning of the new year. What we shall be, as scripture tells us, has yet to be revealed, and therefore in our unknowing our challenge is to keep our eyes fixed on the hope that is at the heart of the faith we profess. In these present days this seems particularly difficult.

Part of my early morning routine is to go to the gym, and as I while away the time on a cross trainer, I usually watch the news on the television attached to the wall in front of me. One morning it struck me how the tone of much of the news seems designed to create fear and anxiety. Every utterance must be calculated to have all of us on the edge of our chairs, presumably so we will keep listening. This came home to me particularly one day last week when I noticed that the weather report was styled “storm watch,” even though the five-day forecast called for warm and sunny weather.

In addition to keeping us glued to our television sets and reading newspapers, fear also has the capacity to galvanize nations and unify the citizenry. This presents a much greater danger: fear has become part of the public rhetoric of our nation and increasingly the concern with national security is used to justify the abrogation of fundamental freedoms. Day after day our national consciousness is being shaped by anxiety and a concern for self preservation which makes it increasingly difficult for us to think beyond our own immediate safety and self-interest. Our circle of concern steadily becomes more narrow and defensive.

Of course, there is every reason for us to be attentive to security and the ever-present threat of further terrorist attacks, but to live with that awareness as our defining mode of consciousness is to open the way for the erosion of the best within us. Terrorism succeeds not only through the devastation wrought by specific acts but by the ongoing anxiety and fear that such acts bring into being, and the destructive effects that anxiety and fear can have upon other aspects of lives – individually and as a nation. Our lives and view are in flux; we are always being formed and shaped, in part by the events of our daily lives and our response to them. The question is: what will shape our lives? Is it a sense of hope rooted in our faith, or intemperate rhetoric designed to manipulate?

Scripture contains many instances in which people act out of fear in ways that wreck havoc and destruction. King Herod after hearing a report from the wise men of a new born king became fearful. Out of his fear he ordered the massacre of “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” To this very day we commemorate each year the victims of one man’s fear.

As well, scripture is full of accounts of fear being overcome. In this season particularly I think of Gabriel’s encounter with Mary. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel declares. And though deeply perplexed by the declaration that she is to bear “the son of the Most High,” she is able to overcome her fear and wonderment and cry out: “Let it be with me according to your word.”

I just received a Christmas card that consists of a text from the Letter to the Romans familiar to us as a possible conclusion to Morning and Evening Prayer. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13.

Hope is the counterbalance to fear. Hope is not the consequence of careful planning or wishing, or the fruit of rational expectation or the result of positive thinking. Rather, it is the work of the Spirit and emerges as an unexpected gift, often out of the most drastic of circumstances. Hope comes to us often as a complete surprise and supplies with it a resiliency, a confidence and a courage that give us the ability to remain steadfast in the midst of situations that might well do us in.

“Hope that is seen is not hope,” Paul tells us. We see the truth of Paul’s words in people of faith who remain steadfast in the face of what appear as hopeless situations. I think of the Headmistress of the Episcopal school in Ramallah, who is able to look to a day when there will be peace in the Middle East even as her school has gone through the ordeal of being occupied by soldiers with tanks.

Such hope in the midst of seemingly hopeless circumstances is an encouragement to us all to open ourselves more deeply to the Spirit who can ground us in the reality of God’s larger view and purpose which is the reconciliation of all things in Christ. With that larger view rooted deeply in our consciousness and at home in our hearts we can be signs of hope to our needy and desperate world which longs for such a sign.

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA

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