The Disappointment Blues

“Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Mark 9:30-32

Let’s face it—the disciples are a pretty disappointing lot.

When it comes to understanding the nature of Jesus’ mission, the disciples, to say the least, are slow on the uptake.

Jesus seems repeatedly disappointed that the disciples are so dense and obtuse, so slow to catch on to this new gospel way of life, so stuck in their old egotistical mode of trying to outdo and outshine one another —as in today’s reading when Jesus overhears them arguing about who among them is the greatest.

But, of course, the disciples are also disappointed in Jesus.

Jesus and his comrades have just completed a successful swing through a series of villages where they have been lauded and applauded, and they are riding the crest of public acclaim and popularity.

But just as the disciples are reveling in their new-found fame and celebrity status and the prospect of being major players in Jesus’ new kingdom, this Jesus, who always seems to keep them guessing, throws a big, gloom and doom damper on their frivolity and high spirits.

He completely deflates their merrymaking by telling them that he must undergo betrayal, suffering, and death—which leaves the disciples speechless and afraid.

Jesus mentions something about resurrection—but surely the disciples can only hear those ominous words that point to their leader’s destruction and the destruction of all their hopes—betrayal, suffering, and death!

Jesus’ words take the joy out of their joy ride—the disciples sense that their glory days are going to be short-lived—Jesus is turning out to be a huge disappointment!

The disciples disappoint Jesus and he, in turn, disappoints them.

Sound familiar?

Aren’t we all well versed in the disappointment blues?

Aren’t we all intimately acquainted with being on both ends of the disappointment syndrome? Don’t we all have a long history of both being disappointed by others and also being the ones who disappoint?

Belonging to a tradition that continually reminds us in our liturgy that we are fallible, flawed, myopic, anxiety-driven creatures should give us a leg up in understanding this universal phenomenon of disappointment.

How helpful it is to have several thousand years’ worth of stories and images that put our perennial tendency to disappoint one another in perspective!

Look, we have all these great old stories in the Bible about people disappointing each other, even the great and the near great—Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, David and Absalom, Joseph and his brothers, etc., etc.

And in one of the apostle Paul’s most oft-quoted utterances, he declares, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” which is another way of saying that everyone is disappointing—everyone is less than what he or she could have been, should have been, might have been.

These texts suggest that at least for a million years or so we have all been disappointing each other.

We could give the doctrine of original sin a contemporary spin by saying we come into this world with a predisposition to disappoint and be disappointed.

This means that none of us, no matter how sterling our character or how admirable our virtues, can escape the sting of repeatedly disappointing and being disappointed by those whose lives are bound up with ours.

When a couple shows up for premarital counseling, they should have ample opportunity to describe all the impressive qualities of their respective partners and why they are well suited to each other—but at some point they should probably be asked some version of this question: How have you dealt with your mate disappointing you?

Because the path from that first stage of romance and infatuation when she says to him, “You’re Mr. Wonderful” and he says to her, “You’re my everything!” to a love that is substantial and enduring is long and crooked and strewn with innumerable let downs and disappointments.

Parents, no matter how dedicated, will invariably disappoint their children, and the children, no matter how much they want to please their parents, will inevitably disappoint them.

Parents of a conservative bent are taken aback when their 20 something daughter, whose college education they are paying for, comes home at spring break spouting radical liberal notions which, needless to say, leads to some acrimonious dinner conversations.

Parents want their son to choose a career that’s practical and has a reliable income and he decides to be a composer—and he’s disappointed that they’re disappointed.

A child whose parents are divorced and lives with her mother is distraught when the father fails to show for a promised visit—and the mother is furious and sorrowful as she tries to explain to her daughter that it’s not her fault.

Or take the case of volunteers for a political candidate who spend countless hours making calls and knocking on doors—when their candidate wins, they celebrate into the wee small hours—but within several months they are already disappointed because she has compromised on certain issues on which she had pledged to take a firm, unwavering stand.

Friends disappoint each other.

I remember reading a comment years ago in an alumni newsletter by the university president which has stuck with me—he said that if we wait to find friends who will not disappoint us, we will be consigning ourselves to living in an isolation tank.

Now the fact that this gentleman resigned some time later after his affair with his secretary came to light does not detract from the validity of his observation that friendships that last are friendships that have weathered serious incidents of disappointment.

And need I mention that no matter how productive and progressive the work place, bosses and employees are inevitably involved, to some degree or other, in a round robin of disappointing each other.

And then there’s the matter of clergy and congregations.

When a parish is going through the search process, the head of the search committee should stroll through the congregation each Sunday with a large placard with big, bold letters stating, “Whoever is chosen as priest in charge will disappoint us and we will disappoint her!”

Simply put, it’s in the cards for us to disappoint one another—and it definitely behooves us to recognize this as part of our reality.

So what is the gospel remedy for the disappointment blues?

The gospel intercepts the cycle of disappointment by, first of all, confronting us with our own disappointing ways and then announcing that our personal “disappointing-ness” is unequivocally, absolutely forgiven.

The gospel says to us, in effect, “You are forgiven for all the disappointing you have done; now go and forgive those who have disappointed you.”

Of course, left to our own devices, forgiving ourselves and others is something we are utterly incapable of.

In fact, we are usually incapable of even wanting to forgive those who have disappointed us.

It is far more natural for us to cling stubbornly to a delectable self-righteousness or an even more delicious self-pity than respond forgivingly to those who have offended us.

We can say that forgiveness runs counter to our natural instincts, that we are naturally inclined to nurse grudges and grievances indefinitely or at least keep them in reserve as ammunition for the future.

But on those occasions when we are able to forgive ourselves and others for being disappointing, perhaps we sense that a power beyond us has suddenly infused us with a new generosity, a new urgent desire for reconciliation and restitution, a new realization that “disappointing-ness” is a condition that we all share and that the forgiveness and mercy of God extend to all.

To be able to forgive ourselves and others is something of a miracle.

And it is a miracle that needs to happen to us again and again for the ability to forgive is never a permanent possession—we have it one moment and suddenly we realize it has slipped through our fingers and we are back to our old ways of rationalizing and resenting.

But once having known this forgiveness and the freedom and elation it brings, we can never be satisfied with anything less.

The kind of forgiving that comes upon us as a gift from the God who is beyond us and yet closer to us than breath is both costly and jubilant.

It is costly because it always acknowledges the pain and grief we have caused and that others have caused us.

But, more than anything, this forgiving is jubilant because it releases us from the guilt of disappointing and the resentment of being disappointed.

The gospel offers us a power of forgiveness that repairs relationships, heals estrangement, and creates new beginnings.

Amazingly enough, the gift of forgiving that comes from God is actually able to turn our disappointment blues into a laughing matter and a source of celebration.

For this forgiveness can transform the tragedy of disappointment into the comedy of redemption.

And in this assembly where we continually celebrate the reality that our disappointing ways have been thoroughly and utterly forgiven, it is the note of laughter and jubilation that should resound.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
16 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
9/20/09

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