A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Hopes and Fears
December 12, 2019
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight. (Phillips Brooks, 1868)
These familiar words from verse one of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” rightly place hopes and fears together. If we faced no fears, we would need no hope.
“Hope” is one of Advent’s primary themes. We hope for what we do not yet see, namely the fullness of all that God has promised in and through the coming of Jesus. As we wait for that fulfillment, we do so in company with the great father of faith, Abraham, “hoping against hope” (Romans 4:18). Hope is always a battle, and its primary combatant is fear.
Fear is part of our human condition. Many public figures prey on our struggles with fear toward their own benefit. Stir up enough fear, and people will go almost anywhere, will believe almost anything, and will follow almost anyone.
Healthy fear is normal and helpful. Without it, we would engage in reckless behavior. I have a fear of heights, it’s called “acrophobia.” It keeps me from going out on ledges from which a fall would bring me certain death. Fear of heights is normal and healthy. But when it prevents me from moving about in safe conditions, it becomes an enemy rather than a friend.
Our problem is not fear itself, but an excess of fear, or fear of the wrong things. The best antidote for unhealthy fear is hope. And the center of our hope is the One for whom we wait during Advent, a season for cultivating the hope that all too easily dissolves in the face of inflammatory rhetoric from preachers, politicians, and pundits.
When a furor arose at the 2001 General Assembly around the question of what exactly our church teaches and believes about Jesus, some colleagues and I wrote an essay in response, lifting up from Scripture and our Book of Confessions the core of our belief in who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Based on 1 Thessalonians 1:3, we entitled the essay Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. We chose to foreground “hope” because it is the source of our faith in Jesus and the basis of our practice of following him.
I have to admit that I react viscerally against the inflammation of fear that some public leaders use as a tool to gain a following. Yet I must admit that fear is not itself irrational. We would do well to acknowledge that healthy fear is beneficial, and naming the objects of such fear can be critical to survival. I should well be afraid to place my hand on a hot stove, or to jump into crocodile-infested waters. What is the line between healthy and unhealthy fear?
When fear eclipses hope, it becomes a curse rather than a blessing. Cultivation of hope is a sure defense against overblown fear. Jesus is the source of our unquenchable hope, the pioneer of the pathway through death – our greatest fear – into life – our surest hope. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Hope must be cultivated and nourished. It does not spring up unprovoked. It grows from the practices of disciplined attentiveness to God and stalwart resistance to being swept up by fearmongering. It requires vigilance in both what we take in and what we turn away from. Advent devotionals are a wonderful tool for helping us take in the message of hope. Turning off the constant TV newsfeeds may be equally important to our maintaining good hope.
When fear is met with hope, we can join our hearts and voices with the fourteenth-century saint Julian of Norwich as she declares, “It behoved that there should be sin; but all shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Revelations of Divine Love, 1373)
Yours in steadfast hope,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister