Hope and Despair

by Laura Smith

1 Samuel 20: 1-42; Psalm 1; 40

Dear Lord, may these words bless Your name and help us to think about our human emotions, through the wisdom of Your word. Amen.

The themes today are the contrasting emotions of hope and despair – emotions that many of us know and live with every day.

Hope is perhaps the more familiar word, not just wishful thinking – but an active, positive feeling – having a clear idea of a want or need and having the plan and motivation to work towards achieving it.

And then on the other hand, we’ve got despair or hopelessness, which to me seem a bit harder to define because they are not just about not having hope, but a more deeply involved, extremely individual, story of losing all hope.

Experiencing despair can be overwhelming, intense, relentless, filled with anguish, and pain. (And speaking as a chronic pain sufferer or rather someone who battles with pain on a daily basis) When you are stuck in the middle of these emotions they seem never ending because you just can’t see how to get away from them.

Today’s bible reading gives some insight to the life of David – the lowly shepherd boy destined to become a great king. As a boy – he slayed the giant, Goliath, in battle, and was honoured by all the people, praised, and brought into the royal family.

But then he was faced with king Saul’s anger and jealousy towards him. In the end the threat to his life forced him to run away from Saul, who he had served and loved.

David had formed a strong friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan and this, in part, helped David to survive the attempts of Saul to kill him, as they planned a way for Jonathan to warn David of the danger, using arrows, fired to land in different positions.

Fortunately, Jonathan had a good aim – a misplaced arrow might have sent a different message.

David had many qualities, he was brave, strong and above everything else – loved God, and had a trusting and lasting relationship with Him. Maybe God was watching and sent a well-directed breeze to make sure the arrows Jonathan sent, landed correctly?

David was a man of emotions and knew what it was like to really feel – with deep intensity, and he knew what it was like to be completely afraid for his life, forced to live on the run.

Have you seen the TV programme ‘hunted’? Or similar in film, tv or books.

In this reality show teams of two ordinary people are chased by ‘the hunters’ who come from military or policing backgrounds, and have access to certain information like, if they have phoned a loved one, or used their bank account. The teams have to get to a meeting place at a specific day and time, and not get caught to win the show.

As a viewer, you feel like you are almost running and hiding alongside the contestants, who depend on help from strangers and well planned strategies. Then you see ‘the hunters’ following their activity and movements, as they close in to capture the teams. (I’m sure there must be some clever editing to add to the tension).

David also relied on the secrecy of trusted people to move hiding place when Saul’s spy’s and soldiers moved in on him, which might have been almost exciting at first – but I think would soon become exhausting. This was his real life after all, not a reality TV show.

Not having a place to feel safe and secure, or experiencing continued fear in what should be trusting relationships, can be damaging, and are known to have negative effects on mental health and wellbeing.

Neuroimaging gives evidence of the physical changes in the brains of people who have experienced such things. The connections that form thoughts and influence behaviour have, over time, become misaligned because of their experiences.

The positive news presented by the professionals in this field, is that these changes are not necessarily permanent. Given the correct help, support, and nurturing, new and healed connections can be formed, inside the brain. What a brilliant creator we have!

Maybe we should just take a moment to think about people in the world today, who live in fear, for any reason. And let’s remember the abusers, bullies, or those causing fear, and ask that God fills their hearts with so much love and peace, that they change their behaviour, Amen.

We are able to get an idea of David’s self-awareness of his feelings in many of the Psalms he wrote. One example is Psalm 40 – here David describes his despair and misery, describing it as being in a slimy pit, mud, and mire. Just try and imagine what that looks, feels, and even smells like.

Now, the thought of having my feet in mud or slim makes me squirm. So, I’m just imagining standing on the beach at the edge of the sea, and as each wave washes over my feet, I start to sink, and then another wave, and I go a bit deeper, the cold wet sand creeping up over my toes – or at least it would if I could bare it any longer!

In this situation I just hope that no seaweed touches me while I’m trying to run away up to dryer sand!

I wonder what this place looks like for you. Literally or metaphorically?

Next in Psalm 40 David does something amazing in his writing, he gives thanks and glory to God, for lifting him out of these terrible places and providing a solid ground to stand on. Not once complaining about his situation but patiently waiting for God to rescue him. Then in praising God by singing a new song, David witnesses to the people, to trust in the Lord, as David trusts that God will save him.

Writing his Psalms, David expressed every emotion, a full spectrum – the extremes of these sometimes only one line apart.

They are poetic, like lyrics in a love song, an expression of the greatest love and awe – followed by heartbreak or frustration – returning to thankfulness and exalting God in the highest way our humanness allows.

Writing (or drawing) can be both a therapeutic and encouraging activity to try and is something that I’ve done from time to time in the form of journaling. There are many products and stationary items available for journaling, and Christian journaling, where bibles are printed with extra space at the side to doodle, draw or make notes.

These items can provide beautiful images to inspire and offer an outlet for creative expression with prompts and ideas to get going.

Asking yourself questions about yourself in order to know yourself better! – As a tool to learn self-awareness.

Now don’t get me wrong – I love a matching pen and ombre effect spiral bound notebook. But, well I think anyway, there is a problem – they can be a bit girlie and feminine. A bit pink and flowery, or sparkly, or both.

And this doesn’t really do much to encourage boys and men to take part, only adding to the perception that this is a female pass time. Perhaps this is part of a bigger conversation to be had about men’s mental health, and cultural expectations around self-expression.

But where would we be if the men of the bible did not express themselves in these ways. If Paul and others had not recorded events in Acts 27 and 28, we might not have known about they’re adventures across the sea, the dangers they faced, the healing, preaching, and teaching that took place, for example.

So, whatever your notebook, journal, art pad, scrap book looks like, please be encouraged to have a go. Maybe write a letter to God, be real, honest, and as expressive as you like about your difficulty, either past or present, and by doing this God will lift you up and be a firm rock to stand on. In doing this you can learn things about yourself and God that you never imagined and grow in faith, regardless of despair.

I’ll finish with a quote that I found when researching for this talk, the perceptive and wise words of Dr Suess, from the book ‘oh the places you will go!’

“When you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.”

But we don’t have to ‘un-slump’ ourselves because freedom and rest from our desperation and slump, is found in God and at the cross.

So, if you feel you are in a slimy pit of despair – please reach out and talk, and if you know someone in this position, let them know you are there for them – and offer to listen.