Finding God in Disappointment

[Adapted from Sunday’s sermon at The District Church, “Finding God in Disappointment.”]

Have you ever been disappointed?

Have you ever experienced disappointment in your life with any of the following:

  • something you bought, some event you attended, some movie you watched;
  • some job that wasn’t all you thought it was going to be, some degree program that turned out to be lame, some move that wasn’t everything you’d hoped, some politician who let you down;
  • your friends, your family, someone you looked up to, someone you trusted, a romantic relationship—even a marriage?

How about this: have you ever experienced any disappointment in your life because of Christians, because of the church, or because of God?

Everyone experiences disappointment, but not everyone finds God in it; and I think God is there to be found. God is certainly at work in the midst of it all—that we can rely on, even if we can’t see him. But often when we experience disappointment, our first reaction is to pull away and to give up, instead of trusting that God is still at work even when things don’t seem to be going our way and seeking where he may be found, even in those places.

Think about how we perceive the relationship between God and our well-being even today: there’s a widely-held (and sometimes unspoken) assumption that if you’re doing well financially or relationally or materially or professionally, God is blessing you—and that may well be the case. But the problem comes when we assume:

  1. that that’s always the case—that material prosperity and God’s blessing are the same thing; and
  2. that the converse is also always true—that if you aren’t doing well, then God isn’t with you.

Even if we might say those things aren’t true, there’s still a sense in which we make judgments about others and about ourselves when things don’t go our way. I remember, when I was still single and a relationship didn’t work out, wondering why God would put me through that again. Or when I was applying for jobs and didn’t hear back from a single one, being like, “God, haven’t I done everything you wanted me to do? What gives?”

In Luke 24:21, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus say, “We had hoped that [Jesus] was the one”, but they had to lay those hopes to rest. What hopes have you had to lay to rest? In the wake of a loss, a breakup, a letdown, a layoff, an unfavorable decision; love denied, job denied, school denied. “We had hoped …” The disciples’ hope was that Jesus was the one to bring redemption to Israel. What disappointments have you experienced when it relates to the resurrection and all of the things you feel like you were promised because of Christ?

In the 1500s, a Spanish monk by the name of Juan de la Cruz—in English, John of the Cross—wrote about what he called “the dark night of the soul,” which is not simply the experience of suffering but the experience of suffering in what seems like the silence of God. Can you relate?

Last week we remembered Christ’s death on Good Friday and we celebrated Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, but one day we didn’t talk about was Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the day when Jesus was dead and in the tomb, and there was no guarantee that he was coming back. Holy Saturday is the day when doubt and despair and darkness held sway, and hope and faith were hanging by a thread. Holy Saturday is the day that reflects the reality of how many of us experience life right now—even after the resurrection: it’s the time theologians describe as the “already but not yet,” when Christ has already come but not yet come again, when Christ has already won the decisive battle but the full restoration is not yet here, when sin and death and evil were defeated on the cross but they have not yet been obliterated.

I think Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus were still living in a Holy Saturday reality—they’d heard about the resurrection but they hadn’t seen the risen Jesus; they weren’t sure if it was even true or not; their disappointments and their doubts still dominated. For them, Jesus was dead and God was silent; hope was gone and God was silent.

Something that struck me this week as I was reflecting on Luke 24 was verse 16: “they were kept from recognizing him.” The disciples, shorn of hope, weighed down by disappointment, experiencing a dark night of the soul, were kept from recognizing Jesus. He could have shown up and said, “What’s up, guys? It’s me! Rumors are true. Back from the dead.” Their hearts would have been lifted, their hopes would have been restored, and their souls would have rejoiced. But instead, he keeps them from recognizing him for the whole journey; he pretends not to know what’s going on; he allows them to stay in their disappointment. Why would Jesus do this?

John of the Cross writes:

There will come a time [in a person’s spiritual life] when God will bid them to grow deeper. He will remove the previous consolation of the soul [the sense of his presence] in order to teach it virtue.

John Goldingay said this:

When John [of the Cross] talks about the dark night, he talks about it in terms of stripping away the things that do not really matter to us. The dark night takes us back to basics. It raises the questions of who we really are and what we are really aiming at … makes us concentrate on what deserves concentration.[1]

In February, we talked about uncertainty, and I said:

Sometimes God has something to teach us in the midst of uncertainty that we could never learn—or never be open to learning—in the midst of certainty. [Uncertainty] can provide perspective for us and give us the opportunity to see unimaginable beauty that we would otherwise miss, just like darkness allows us to see things—like the stars—that we could never see in the light.

Darkness allows us to see things we could never see in the light. Disappointment allows us to see things we could never see in success. Discomfort allows us to see things we could never see in ease. In Psalm 131, one of my favorite psalms, the writer says: “But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” Ah, contentment with God, quietness and stillness and calm. Isn’t there a part of us that, in the midst of busyness and stress and anxiety, really longs for that? But what else does the psalm say? “Like a weaned child.”

What is weaning? A series of small disappointments effected in order to help the child move from their mother’s milk to an adult diet, to help the child grow up? It’s a series of “No’s” so that the child might arrive at a better, healthier, more mature relationship with their parents, and with their own needs and desires. The purpose of weaning is to help the child grow into a place of contentment and satisfaction. But to get there, they have to pass through the land of disappointment. “There will come a time when God will bid them to grow deeper.”

Why were the disciples kept from recognizing Jesus? Maybe because they needed to work through some things; maybe they needed to hear what Jesus had to tell them—he doesn’t mince words when he says, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe!”; maybe they needed to see that the women whose testimony they had disparaged (see Luke 24:11) were right; maybe they needed to learn what faith looks like when it’s tried and tested; maybe they needed to grasp that the expectations they had had of Jesus, the expectations that had not been met, the ways they thought Jesus had let them down, that those expectations were actually wrong.

The relationships that didn’t work out—the ones that broke my heart—I needed to experience those to realize that my worth doesn’t come from what someone else says about me but it is grounded in God. The jobs that I applied for but didn’t get—I needed to experience those rejections in order to focus my attention more fully on what God was really calling me to; if I’d gotten any of those jobs I’d applied for—jobs in advocacy and politics—I may not have ended up as a pastor, I may not have ended up doing what I know I was made to do. But when I was going through those times, I couldn’t see that. When I was going through those times, they were absolutely dark and disappointing—I couldn’t discern what God was doing through them; they just seemed like closed doors.

Maybe there are places in your life that feel dark or disappointing where Jesus is with you but he’s actually keeping you from recognizing him right now. Maybe because you need to work through some things—and he’ll be with you in it, even if you aren’t aware of him; maybe you need to listen to what Jesus has to say to you—truths you’ve dismissed or convicting words you’ve tried to ignore; maybe you need to see that someone you wrote off was right; maybe you need to learn what faith looks like when it’s tried and tested; maybe you need to grasp that the expectations you had had of Jesus, the expectations that have not been met, the ways you thought Jesus has let you down, that those expectations are actually wrong.

Sometimes Jesus keeps us from recognizing him immediately because there are things we need to learn and work out and realize, because faith grows in all sorts of ways, even in darkness and disappointment. In fact, sometimes darkness and disappointment are invitations and unique opportunities to press in. Let me ask you this: What if you can’t actually truly experience resurrection unless you press in to it?

Here’s what I mean. Jesus called the disciples “foolish”—as in, slow to understand (hence his explanation)—and “slow of heart”—that’s how it’s phrased in the Greek. The heart is not about your cognitive understanding but rather your inner commitments, dispositions, and attitudes, the things that determine your life. See, you can sit back and complain when things don’t go your way—as if that were ever promised; you can do only what’s necessary to get by—show up at church once in a while, show up at small group as long as it doesn’t interfere with your social schedule.

Or you can press in—you can pursue God and life and truth and hope in the midst of whatever darkness and death surrounds you, entrusting yourself fully into the hands of God, leaning into God and caring for others even when things don’t go your way. Only one of those postures opens your eyes to what God is doing in and through and around you. Maybe, just like the disciples, it is as we press in to the resurrection of Jesus, walking in community, sharing our sorrows with God, listening and learning from Scripture, inviting others to speak truth into our lives, that we cultivate the conditions for growth and healing and learning and maturation and sight, that we create space for God to transform us and we begin to find God in the midst of disappointment.

Rembrandt’s “Christ at Emmaus”

When they got to Emmaus, the disciples invited Jesus to stay the night—it was late and the road wasn’t safe after dark. And as they sat down for dinner, “Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him …” (24:30-31). It was only then that they recognized him—after experiencing crushing doubt and cruel disappointment and community division, after walking with Jesus unbeknownst for two hours, after listening to the words he had to say, after inviting him to share a meal with them. It’s only then that they’re able to look back and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” I long for these moments when our eyes are opened and we recognize God, when our hearts burn within us with the realization that God is here now; I pray for these moments—for myself and for all of you—but only in God’s time, because we might not even recognize God in those moments if we aren’t looking with the right eyes, if we aren’t living with the right heart, if we aren’t seeking to understand with the right mind, if we aren’t practicing resurrection as active participants.

So remember these two words, recite them and remind yourself of them no matter what you encounter:

Press in.

Press in to Jesus in the midst of your doubts and your disappointments and your darkness.

Press in to Jesus by reminding yourself of his promises in Scripture.

Press in to Jesus by seeking genuine community—friends who will encourage you and challenge you, people who will help knock off those rough edges and refine you for the kingdom.

Press in to Jesus and find God.

He is with you, even in your disappointments.

[1] John Goldingay, Walk On, 66.

Race, a black president, and the gospel

As I read, tears came to my eyes, my heart broke a little, and a sense of (what I pray was) righteous anger began to rise.

Bill Sanderson

I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest piece in The Atlantic magazine, entitled “Fear of a Black President,” which looked at race, racism, and how both had thus far impacted Barack Obama’s campaign and presidency, and the pall that they continue to cast over the future of this country.

I was heartbroken and angered at being reminded that this is the world in which we live. Where racism still flourishes. Where politicians can’t speak the truth openly or address issues head-on because it will rile up a small but powerful base of people who prefer ignorance or to maintain a status quo that privileges them. Where we are reminded that sin and brokenness and evil are real, not only on an individual level but become enshrined and ossified on a structural and systemic level, that they can become a part of a nation’s history and culture. Where, despite all protestations to the contrary, despite all the declarations about liberty and freedom and equality, our actions and inactions demonstrate that our actual values fall far short of the mark. Where, though large swaths of the country declare their followership of Jesus Christ, neither he nor his prodigal love and grace and welcome are to be found in the public square: not in our policies or our politics or our practices, not in our treatment of the widow, the orphan and the immigrant, nor–to speak more broadly–of our fellow human beings.

I was heartbroken and angered because I am complicit in this, as are we all. I am not a black man; I will never fully know or understand or experience the realities of life as a black man. I can empathize, I can learn, I can fight for equality, I can preach the gospel of Jesus Christ that breaks down all the barriers that humans have built to divide us–race being not the least of these–the gospel that raises valleys and topples mountains, and I can pray for change to come in the hearts and minds and lives of all people by the power of the Spirit of God. But I am who I am, and I am not who I am not.

As an Asian American, growing up in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, experiencing life in Southern California and now in Washington, DC, spending all of my life in cosmopolises, I have rarely been faced with overt racism. I suppose that in some ways, I have even benefited from it, perhaps unbeknownst to me, in the form of the myth of the model minority. I have never been told that I needed to be “twice as good” but “half as Asian.”

There is much in the Asian American experience to be mourned over too, much that remains largely hidden in the pages of history, not often brought to light, much that even I have yet to familiarize myself with. The Chinese people who came to work in gold mines and on the railroads. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

But injustice is injustice, and the first step is acknowledging the reality of the world in which we live and our part in it. I’m reminded of Nehemiah, who, upon hearing of the state of Jerusalem, came before God to confess and repent on behalf of his people and their history of disobedience. He didn’t apologize simply for the sins of others–as if he were blameless–but recognized his own complicity in the situation: “we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned” (Nehemiah 1:6).

The second step was to act: Nehemiah gained permission from the king of Babylon, whom he served, to return to Jerusalem and restore the city (Nehemiah 2).

Likewise, we are not called simply to be upset by the injustices of the world–whether it is abuse, modern slavery, sexism, or racism. We are called to partner with God in proclaiming the kingdom of God, in announcing–by the words that we speak, by the actions we take, by the lives we lead–that we are under new management, and that the God of the universe, who revealed himself most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, is at work to make all things new.

There’s a misconception that the concept of forgiveness means that the offense doesn’t mean anything any more, that there are no consequences. But true forgiveness is acknowledging the reality of the offense and understanding the full impact of the consequences, and then restoring and renewing right relationship. And this is possible for us as Christians because Jesus took on himself the consequences of our offenses.

Saying that race doesn’t matter, or “They should just get over it,” not only misunderstands the reality of the offense and the full impact of the consequences, it not only denies complicity in the system and culture in which one lives; it prevents true reconciliation, true restoration, and true freedom.

From the day God broke my heart over issues of injustice, and over the years, as I’ve continued to learn just how big God really is, how expansive his mission, how all-encompassing his love, and how far he goes to reconcile all things to himself, until the day that I die, I have chosen to follow, to love, to serve, and to obey Jesus–whatever that means, and in this case, whatever that means for race and racism.

To be humble, cognizant of my part in a system built on injustice and oppression. To be attentive, discerning the movement of the Spirit of God to bring good out of all things, even the most heinous. To be loving, welcoming and honoring of all human beings, created as we are in the image of God. And to let my heart be broken by the things that breaks God’s; to be angered and upset by the things that anger and upset God–wherever one of his children is denigrated and oppressed and marginalized; and to be at work wherever God calls me to be at work.

And all by the grace of God.

I’ve included some excerpts from the piece below, but I’d encourage you to read it yourself. It’s worth it.

The irony of President Barack Obama is best captured in his comments on the death of Trayvon Martin, and the ensuing fray. Obama has pitched his presidency as a monument to moderation. He peppers his speeches with nods to ideas originally held by conservatives. He routinely cites Ronald Reagan. He effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square. Despite his sloganeering for change and progress, Obama is a conservative revolutionary, and nowhere is his conservative character revealed more than in the very sphere where he holds singular gravity—race.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government.

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be “twice as good.” Hence the need for a special “talk” administered to black boys about how to be extra careful when relating to the police.

… aggregating his findings nationally, Stephens-Davidowitz has concluded that Obama lost between 3 and 5 percentage points of the popular vote [of the 2008 election] to racism.

While Beck and Limbaugh have chosen direct racial assault, others choose simply to deny that a black president actually exists. One in four Americans (and more than half of all Republicans) believe Obama was not born in this country, and thus is an illegitimate president. More than a dozen state legislatures have introduced “birther bills” demanding proof of Obama’s citizenship as a condition for putting him on the 2012 ballot. Eighteen percent of Republicans believe Obama to be a Muslim. The goal of all this is to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.

What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness. Confronted by the thoroughly racialized backlash to Obama’s presidency, a stranger to American politics might conclude that Obama provoked the response by relentlessly pushing an agenda of radical racial reform. Hardly. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—­proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961.

Thus the myth of “twice as good” that makes Barack Obama possible also smothers him. It holds that African Americans—­enslaved, tortured, raped, discriminated against, and subjected to the most lethal homegrown terrorist movement in American history—feel no anger toward their tormentors. Of course, very little in our history argues that those who seek to tell bold truths about race will be rewarded. But it was Obama himself, as a presidential candidate in 2008, who called for such truths to be spoken. “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” he said in his “More Perfect Union” speech, which he delivered after a furor erupted over Reverend Wright’s “God Damn America” remarks. And yet, since taking office, Obama has virtually ignored race.

The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.

I’m on Aslan’s side

This Sunday, I’ll be preaching from Daniel 3. I’m always challenged by the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in response to Nebuchadnezzar’s threat of death by blazing furnace, because they demonstrate the kind of trust and faith I aspire toward:

If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up. (vv.17-18)

C.S. Lewis, through the character of Puddleglum in The Silver Chair (book six in the Chronicles of Narnia series), draws this out yet further:

Suppose we have only dreamed or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right.  But four [or more] babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia … Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.

Easter messages

If you’re wanting to listen to one sermon series this Easter …

… go listen to The District Church podcast. 🙂 I preached this past (Palm) Sunday, on expectations and reality–“What are you expecting?” And Aaron will be preaching this coming Sunday. (We’ll have a Good Friday service tomorrow evening, but won’t have recording capacity.)

But I also highly recommend this short series from John Ortberg and Menlo Park Presbyterian Church–“Friday, Saturday, Sunday.” John’s a pastor and author I respect greatly, and the first two messages of this series have really hit home for me. Go listen to 1) Friday and 2) Saturday.