King Solomon wrote, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was worthless, even futile… like chasing the wind.”
Three people. Three pastoral conversations in a row. Folks laid low, almost paralyzed by disappointment.
One person’s job and career aren’t working out like expected or hoped for. He had treasured his job, and his work had always been appreciated, until a new boss arrived. They didn’t click, and the criticism and negative evaluations started not long after. It’s a long story, but finally, he was let go, though he admits he was ready to leave.
Another person has been let down by family members drifting from one another as if there’s no reason for them to stay connected. Their family life had never been easy; and she hadn’t really ever known emotional closeness like others described. But she never thought her family would just slowly dissolve.
The third person has mounting medical complications that are making life harder and harder to manage. A malignancy was diagnosed some years ago. But now the cancer has spread, and with other medical complications, daily tasks and living on one’s own are no longer certain.
It’s not unusual for ministry to keep the pastor in touch with the brokenness and sadder sides of life. But striking in all three conversation was each person invoked almost the same line “I’m not sure what to do / how to move through the disappointment.”
And I don’t wish to pretend that I am a stranger in my own life to disappointment.
As I thought about all this, it occurred to me: much of the political morass our world is suffering these days is also about disappointment, or our inability to cope well — or positively — with it.
Beloved, life often enough doesn’t work out like we expect or want. And difficult or unexpected life circumstances are hard to deal with. Everyone knows disappointment. Disappointment that is as uncomfortable as it is complex — a confabulation of other emotions like anger, hurt, impatience, sadness — and probably others subtle enough to evade our identifying.
Church can be disappointing too. Pastors know that! And I often worry for all the new folks who show up at our congregation — excited and hopeful to have found a unique community like ours. How will they navigate the inevitable letdown? No matter how great one’s church — or deep one’s faith — there will still be bumps in life. Your experience of church folks or the congregation as a whole (the church is only made up of people after all…) can add disappointment that can be hard to reconcile with your expectations that church should add only positives!
Which is my invite to offer some counsel:
Don’t deny your disappointments.
Let them out; place them on the table; be ready to live with them awhile.
Yes, I’m contradicting my grandmother’s teaching which was to just pretend there were never any disappointments. She tried to ignore away all negatives. …As if that could make them go away!
Do you think Jesus wasn’t ever disappointed? With the disciples he had trouble leading, or with the road towards Jerusalem he was to hoe? I think that’s why he kept going off to pray — he needed to sit with himself, and with God, and with his situation. It’s how he managed his disappointments. He wanted to see deeply — into and perhaps through the let downs, rather driven to react blindly, emotionally, unreflectively. If Jesus could experience disappointments, why shouldn’t you?
Give yourself time and space with them, admit them, and figure out what they might mean for you. Is there something to learn? Something to change? A need to grow your patience or your empathy for others and what they are going through?
One of the hardest things to do in our world where everything is immediate — we are all under external pressure because time is a scarce and unrenewable resource — is to just let yourself experience a negative feeling. (I read recently that most people give themselves a week or two with grieving the loss of a loved one, and then expect their life to be back to normal?!?)
We human beings are not very good at allowing the experiencing of emotions in full, without trying to speed up the process. Children will tantrum and cry and scream or laugh until it runs out, and can move on — because they have not yet been retrained by society that they aren’t supposed to!
Beloved, be wary of your sense of obligation, that you need to “just get over it.” Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling without trying to rush through the emotional process. There might be a deep well to mine. Take some time to sit with your emotions; experience them without moving to fix or change them! Giving yourself time like this makes it easier to do the same for others who are in troubled waters. Don’t shy away from the difficult moments; instead, be present to them.
Jesus’ capacity as a person came in large part, I believe, because he wasn’t afraid to be completely human. He willingly faced the limitations. He understood that his humanity did not diminish, but rather completed how he was also a reflection of the Divine.
Live with your disappointment; “figure it out a little” and come to a calmer state of heart and mind, a new emotional equilibrium from which to respond more creatively, faithfully, broadly.
Jesus also offers us an example about not taking his disappointments personally. So often, something goes wrong; we are let down; and we are all too ready to blame ourselves or others. We attribute what we experience negatively to our not being “good enough,” or others being “out to get us,” or “evil.”
Doesn’t church teach us humbly that we live in a world where much is out of our control, and even beyond our understanding? Jesus gives others responsibility for themselves, and retains his own freedom of choice — so he can choose to try and follow God’s will alone rather than be driven to distraction or reaction by all that happens to him.
The disciples, however, often offer us examples of taking things personally. We can see how such a tack unnecessarily narrows a person’s point of view. It may sound ironic, but confessing that one can’t figure completely out what’s happening (or why!) is often more freeing than believing “it’s all about me.” Sometimes you need to simply wait, rather than expect understanding right away. When we are impatient and personalize troubles, we lose the ability to act drawing from acquired and inherited wisdom or following the Spirit. Why take it personally, and blind yourself to seeing life in a deeper, broader, more meaningful perspective?
Do you think Jesus could forsee Jerusalem when he started ministry by inviting his first disciples by the seashore? I don’t. I think when we read the Gospels clearly, we see the Jesus was growing spiritually throughout his ministry, and his understanding of himself and God developed and changed over time. In time, he came to see that the road was leading to Jerusalem and his death. I think he accepted his fate because he’d come in his years of service to be able to see that deeply.
Likewise, aren’t your expectations changing and growing as you move through life? I think they should be. We get to jettison the unrealistic. Adjust for a closer “ap-proximity” to who we are and how life is, and adjust them more for specific situations or new realities.
Beloved, accept that we will continue to be disappointed: it is a part of life, part of being human. And accept that we will continue to struggle with this acceptance, at least from time to time throughout the rest of our lives.
It is a life-long challenge dealing with disappointment. I will be disappointed. I will disappoint. You will be disappointed. And you will disappoint. Life will be disappointing.
But, no matter how it feels sometimes, it’s never the whole or the end of the story. Maybe, paraphrasing Jesus talking about the Sabbath, it’s important to point out that our expectations are created to serve us, not the other way around.
Prayer is above all else about asking God to help you beyond what you are capable of yourself. To reflect more. To perceive more. To understand more. To accept more. To give thanks more. Pray your disappointments… that you might find God in them, and that God might help you explore what is happening to you — what they could mean to you and what they can teach you.
I also like to counsel “horizontal prayer” too: talking with another person who can listen and have your best interests at heart. Keeping them quiet may not be the best strategy. Sharing them with someone you can trust however, might help a great deal.
We all get thrown off balance sometimes. Life’s that way. But that doesn’t mean we can’t recover, re-evaluate, gain insight, and make decisions or undertake changes that will help us get past the disappointments.
Most of you know now of the 4-part meeting I often invoke. After acknowledging a blessing and confessing your challenge, the 3rd step, before prayer, is doing something to make your life better “because God always gives us something we can do — and often more room than we tend to think we have” — in order to make our lives better.
Take care of yourselves. Ask and expect others to take care of you too. And believe God is caring too, actually best of all.
See you in church,