I’ve been thinking a lot lately about fear and courage. What is this stuff called Courage that we all aspire to, that so inspires us, but in the end, even for the best of us, can be so tantalizingly elusive? We lionize those who have the nerve to summon it up and make it stick, and rightly so. So it has me wondering: Where do we find this Courage; where does it reside? What is the shape of Courage, and what does it look like?
Many of you may have seen the Steven Spielberg film, The Terminal. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, it’s about a man who, because of political strife that essentially dissolves the government in his home country, gets stranded in John F. Kennedy International Airport for an entire year. Armed with a passport from nowhere, the U.S. government will not allow him to enter the country, and yet, he has no country to which he can return. And so he becomes the accidental tourist, living a life in limbo in the airport terminal from which he has no place to go.
What you may not know is that this story is based upon the life of a real person, an Iranian by the name Alfred Merhan. Merhan lived on a bench in Terminal 1 of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport from 1988 until he was hospitalized in 2006. That’s 18 years. When he first arrived at the airport, he basically became stuck in a political holding pattern: because of previous militant activities, his home country wouldn’t have him back; but no other country would grant him asylum. So he stayed in Terminal 1, getting comfortable in his new surroundings, eating the available food, living in a shrunken world that had all the focused busyness of real life, but very little of the freedom.
In 1999, the French authorities decided that Merhan had suffered enough. They granted him the one thing that would release him from that great bustling microcosm of an airport by giving him refugee status. But the very next day, Merhan was found still sitting on his bench in Terminal 1.
Months later, representatives from Spielberg’s production company came to that bench in Terminal 1. They paid Merhan $300,000 for the rights to his life story (which they significantly altered to create The Terminal, by the way). Merhan was grateful. He put the money in his pocket and continued to sit on his bench.
A man with wealth fit for a king in his pocket and airplanes leaving every few minutes all around him, and yet he sat there. Ironic, isn’t it? The odd thing is that Merhan dreamed of escaping to the outside world. In an interview with a Reuters reporter, he confided, “I don't want to stay forever, but I'm happy with it as a short-term solution. I don't feel like I'm in prison. I'm not bored.” And yet, for 18 years he never ventured more than 100 yards outside of the airport.
My purpose for bringing this up isn’t to disparage Merhan. To be honest, I don’t know what motivated him. But I do know what motivates me to get stuck in my own private airports.
One of the statements of bumper-sticker theology that I disagree with the most is this one: “The safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.” Having been in Hollywood for a while now, I don’t buy that for a second. For one thing, if we believe that, we run the risk of confusing safety with God’s will. After all, if God’s will means safety, then anytime I'm safe, it must mean I'm in God’s will! That’s simple logic! It’s a case of x is y, so y must be x, right?
Wrong. Quite frankly, I can be safe in my own private airport, getting used to my surroundings, eating the available food, and experiencing all the focused busyness, and still not be walking in the life for which God created me, artistically or otherwise. Instead of letting perfect love drive out fear, I end up putting myself in positions where it’s difficult to encounter fear in the first place.
On the other hand, some of the scariest places in the world are where God’s presence is.
The other problem with that bumper-sticker theology is that it gets us longing for the wrong thing. If we’re only searching for safety, we will be missing out not only on the Adventures that God has called each of us to, but also on the very character of God Himself. Because when it comes down to it, while God can grant us safety at times, He is not very safe. He is very, very dangerous.
Of course, that dangerousness is encapsulated – though not tempered – by His goodness. Good and dangerous. The temptation is to want all of His goodness, and none of His danger. But to worship part of His character and deny another part is only to create a god in the image of my choosing. I dare not. I dare not worship the Lamb of God and avoid the Lion of Judah. Rather, I must learn to revel in His dangerousness as much as I do His goodness. And in so doing, recognize that He often calls us to dangerous things.
So many times the thing that keeps us from stepping out into the danger of the Adventures to which we know that God is calling us is, simply put, fear. I’m slowly finding, though, that if I intentionally walk forward, I discover that fear is almost always a great, big, ugly... puff of air. There is an incomparable thrill to walking in and through it like a hazy mist, finding that God was there all along in the middle of it all, and discovering what is on the other side. The danger of the situation may be tangible, but the fear becomes much less so.
What is the shape of Courage, and where does it reside? This is an important lesson for us artists to learn: Courage is discovered only in the midst of fear – courage without fear is not courage, it is bravado – and so we must each intentionally enter in and do that thing of which we are afraid. It is there, with a spiritual wealth fit for a king in our pockets, that we will keep our life stories from becoming terminal ones.
All my best,