I mentioned a month ago Viktor Frankl’s extraordinary 1959 book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl, an Austrian neurosurgeon and psychologist was, along with his family, deported first to a ghetto, then Auschwitz. He was moved to a camp near Dachau, which is where he was when the camp was liberated. His parents and wife were killed. After this experience his work shifted to assessing the psychological impact on both prisoners and guards in the camps. How did some survive and others not? What mattered? He did some important work, writing and teaching in Europe and the US. “Man’s Search for Meaning” begins with a lengthy description of his experience, then some analysis. His key insight was that life was not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Adler believed, or for power, with Freud. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. He saw three sources for this meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless, he wrote, but we give it meaning by the way…we respond to it.
Towards the end of the book he writes:
Let me recall that which was perhaps the deepest experience I had in the concentration camp. The odds of surviving the camp were no more than one in 28…It did not even seem possible, let alone probable, that the manuscript of my first book, which I had hidden in my coat when I arrived at Auschwitz, would ever be rescued. Thus, I had to undergo and to overcome the loss of my mental child. And now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a mental child of my own! So I found myself confronted with the question whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of any meaning.
Not yet did I notice that an answer to this question with which I was wresting so passionately was already in store for me…This was the case when I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chamber immediately after his arrival at the Auschwitz railway station. Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in a pocket of the newly acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael. How should I have interpreted such a “coincidence” other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?
“Who is understanding among you?” James begins. “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” Show me, James says. James knows that it is not by our words, but by our actions, that we show ourselves, and others, what we believe. Wisdom, like Joe Harvard mentioned in his helpful sermon last week, is different from knowledge. Wisdom doesn’t cultivate credentials or degrees. Goodness, a good and gentle life – that’s how you can pick out what wisdom is.
To underline this James steps back, pushing us to explore our hearts. BUT if you have bitter envy, selfish ambition, don’t try to be someone you’re not. Envy is about wanting something someone else has –sometimes it’s not even wanting but just knowing you could have something. I don’t know if I want a fancy international vacation right now, but I’m sure envious of folks who have the time and money to consider it. I imagine most of us would be fine more money and a few things, yet at this point in my life I’m even more envious of people who are transitioning into their middle 40s in really good health, fast and strong. I’m terribly envious of people who are patient, people who are unfailingly gracious even when those around them aren’t. People who don’t get overwhelmed by things and take it out on other people, because I know I do sometimes. I suspect you have some of those things, too.
This bitter envy is not of God. Where this ambition resides, there is disorder and wickedness of every kind. Underneath our envy, our selfishness, are our own needs – and we’re back to Frankl, here, along with some of his colleagues who persuade is that all of those desires within us, all the holes we perceive in our lives, all the stuff we do that cause disruption and disorder, are because we are lacking pleasure, or lacking power, or, lacking meaning. We all in our own ways seek after those things. We all want to be known and loved. We all want to do work that matters. We all want the relationships and groups and institutions that we love and have invested in to matter, to be what we want and need them to be. Being aware of this stuff within ourselves, James says, paying attention to our hearts, is what frees you to live a life of faith, for God.
The wisdom from above – James makes the contrast clear – is first pure – something true, sure, something – someone – you can count on. Peaceable. I’m just going to say each word slowly and I want to think about how often you exercise these virtues that James says are at the heart of following Jesus. Peaceable. Gentle. Willing to yield. I got stuck on that one and immediately went to how others should have yielded to me. Don’t do that. When were you willing to yield, to let something slide, perhaps for a greater good. Full of mercy and good fruits. Without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. That is the toughest so far. And a harvest of righteousness, James says, is sown in peace for those who make peace.
These are not the values our world cultivates. I looked around this week and couldn’t find a single example of who in our public life is held up as wise because of their consideration and humility. Our political leaders brag and posture, blaming someone else for their problems. Listen carefully for a moment, consider compromise, and you get labeled as weak, loser, sellout. In sports we have brash heroes, bold and powerful, as we start the fall and stadiums fill with our modern-day gladiators. I have watched this week with deep sadness the Senate hearings for a seat on the Supreme Court, a lifetime appointment on an institution that is core to our democracy. Questions about a tragic encounter some years ago, and victim who is batted around by both parties. This is another Rorschach test for your political affiliation – how you see the whole situation is defined by the party you tend to vote for. Both individuals and their families have received death threats this week from cruel and crude partisans. And we have people, human beings. And I would love to see someone, I’ll take just one, with mercy and good fruits, without a trace of hypocrisy and partiality, but we can’t pull off this confirmation hearing without it being a circus, and underneath that, and this is not new at all, we have a victim, a woman, dismissed and defamed. It breaks my heart that this is where we seem to be.
Do not these conflicts, James asks, come from your cravings that are at war with you? You want something you don’t have so you go get it. Even more so, we step on people, don’t care who is in the way, are more concerned with the end goal that we are convinced is righteous than who gets hurt. You covet something, James says, and you take. James specifically mentions in verse 4 that the lectionary skips adultery, another way of destroying relationships to feed our desires. James wants us to be keenly away of our own stuff, asking: What in this is FOR ME, O God, and what is for YOU? Being prayerful about our, as James calls them, cravings. The Greek for ‘cravings’ in verse 2 is hedone, pleasures, the source of our word hedonism.
The answer, for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, is clear. Submit yourself to God. A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. James is writing to a bunch of Christians, Christians who think a lot about what they believe. James is saying that he’s not sure how much that matters if we aren’t LIVING IT. If loving God and our neighbor isn’t – like with Frankl’s coat – if loving God and neighbor isn’t stuck in the pocket of the clothes we wear, day after day after day, then I don’t know how much of this matters. If we don’t – here and far beyond here – treat every single person with kindness, then we’re not doing it right, James says.
How do you know? “13Who is wise and understanding among you?” James begins. “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” Show me, James says. Show me.
May it be so, for you and for me. All praise be to God. Amen.
 Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” (Boston: Beacon Press, orig. 1959, 1992 edition), from Harold Kushner’s foreword, x.