The Gift of Disappointment

One of my favorite films is Rudy. If it’s on, we watch it. If we don’t have time to watch it, we DVR it. A pivotal scene takes place when Rudy speaks with a priest he has befriended. Rudy has done all he can to get into Notre Dame. The priest has pulled every string he can to give Rudy an opportunity. But Rudy wants an assurance from the priest that is almost, God-like. The priest gives him the best answer he can. It is a good answer, a right answer, even a wise answer. “Son, in 35 years of religious studies, I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts; there is a God, and I’m not Him.”  Rudy is clearly disappointed with the answer. Fortunately, the priest leaves Rudy in his disappointment…and with God – the One Rudy needs more than the priest.

There have been times in my pastoral journey when I would not have done as the priest did. I would have tried provide answers beyond my knowledge, results beyond my control, and be what was beyond my capacity to be. In God’s name, doing God work, I would have sought to take God’s place.

Eventually I learned that my limitations do more to point people to God than my feeble attempts to take God’s place. The very things parishioners find disappointing in my ministry are the very things needed for their faith in God to deepen.  So I’ve learned to be grateful for the way I disappoint people. I’ve learned to lean into my limits – to do my best knowing my best is not good enough. That’s okay because there are two incontrovertible facts; there is a God and I’m not Him.

Therefore, to my fellow pastors, especially those working in God’s name to take God’s place. I’d like to share with you a beautiful letdown. You’re not God. Since you’re not God, perhaps the greatest gift you can give your parishioners is the gift of disappointment.

We are not omniscient – You don’t know everything… and that’s a good thing.

There is simply no way for us to know about every need. Yes, it may have been on the prayer list, along with many other needs that change week to week. Which prayer list? The one for the whole church, the one for the deacons, or any of the ones exclusive to a small group? Which list contained that need?

Yes, your parishioners may have sent an email about the need. You will no doubt do our best to read and answer those. But there were 26 new messages in my inbox this morning, and another 30 came in before lunch. You’ll try and get to them all, but you are one person. Do the best you can.

Yes, it’s possible a member told you about the need in the hallway on Sunday. Was it before or after the first, second or third service? I know you regret not being able to recall the details of that conversation.  It’s important to that member and you hope they know that it’s important to you, but more often than you’d care to admit, you will get the details confused with other hallway conversations.  Also, please understand that many other people with needs, questions, critiques, prayer requests and book suggestions will want your exclusive and undivided attention. It will hurt when some play the game of keeping their need private, then getting angry that you didn’t respond. You will get that a lot. The expectations will be impossible to fulfill, so don’t take it to heart when you inevitably disappoint them.

You certainly will not have an answer for every question, and even wrestle with uncertainty and doubt on your own faith journey. It would be easier in the short term to act as if you had it all figured out. It feels good to explain the mysteries of God according to a predictable and controllable systematized theology. Eventually though, God breaks out of the neat little theological containers you put him in. So, unless you deliberately stop thinking and learning, the questions arising from God’s mysterious and paradoxical behavior will quickly outnumber those pat answers.  Eventually, you will learn to disappoint people with how often you respond, “I don’t know for sure.”  Because if you’re honest, you really don’t know for sure. It’s impossible for you to know everything because you are not omniscient.

If their disappointment with your finite limitations awakens them to God’s infinite grace, then they will mature and you will have done your job.

There is a God who is omniscient. God knows keenly and cares deeply. To the best of our ability we as ministers serve others in God’s name, but we’re not God.

We are not omnipotent – Try as you might, you do not have the power to control or change everything… and that’s a good thing.

We cannot change the heart, so that member’s loved one may reject the amazing grace of Jesus as long as they live. But that church member was sure that if you just went and talked to their lost loved one, they would repent and turn to Christ. Except you went and they didn’t. You tried, but failed. You’re not God.

A hopeful wife believes that your counseling will save her marriage, but it doesn’t. After weeks of sessions and hours of prayer, he moves in with the other woman. We cannot force reconciliation, so the couple whose marriage people want you to save may still divorce. You tried, but failed. You’re not God

You cannot force that intervention to work, so that teenager may still die from a drug overdose. You tried, but failed. You’re not God.

We cannot control the weather, so yes, snow, ice, hurricanes, dust storms, or other weather issues will cause you to cancel church on occasion. Some will be upset because you didn’t cancel sooner. Others will question why you cancelled at all. Both will be disappointed.

We will use all the persuasion, prayer, and passion available to us, and may even cross the line into manipulation if it will work. But ultimately, we do not have the power to make anyone change their minds, their hearts, or their actions.

The looks of disappointment from people who believe in us can be paralyzing. So maybe that’s the lesson – they believed in us. If their disappointment with us beckons them to the greatness of the One who brings the dead to life, they will marvel and we will have done our job. We do what we can, but we’re not omnipotent. We’re not God.

 We are not omnipresent – You cannot be present at everything…and that’s a good thing!

I understand how affirming it is to be wanted. It feels good at first to have so many invitations. Sooner or later, they will overlap. You will have to choose, which will please some and, you guessed it, disappoint others.

The young adult Sunday School class’ monthly dinner invitation – which you’ve had to decline the last two months comes the same weekend the senior adults want you accompany them to a Gaither concert – which they believe you aren’t attending because you like that rock music.  This falls on the same night a mission group will deliver sandwiches to the needy – a group that has complained the staff aren’t supportive of hands-on missions. This also overlaps with a party you’ve been invited to by a family that has asked again and again if you would stop by and meet their unchurched neighbors. Tragically though, the phone rings and a devastated member shares that their mother has taken a turn for the worse and will not make it through the night. As much as they appreciate the associate pastor being with them right now, their mother is asking for the senior pastor to come and pray. So, you call your spouse to let them know you’ll get to your child’s band concert just as soon as you can…if you can.

Each will be disappointed that you’re not present. Some will assume you don’t care, others will call you lazy, some may understand, but will keep track of where you do show up.

What will your child think?

You cannot be everywhere. You should not go to everything. You will not be cloned anytime soon. Every “yes” is a “no” to something else. You must become selective with your “yesses” and generous with your “no’s”. Only God can say “yes” to more than one place at a time. You are bound by time and space. Others will have to learn to do what you are doing. Members will have to learn to see ministry from deacons, associates, and friends as equally valid to yours. You must learn to trade the disappointment of every parishioner for the smile of your child. You must pray as Pope John XXIII is said to have prayed: “Well, Lord, it’s your church. You take care of it. I’m going to bed.”

If their disappointment with your absence creates in them a longing for the presence of Immanuel, God with us, then they will deepen in their understanding and awareness of Christ, who abides in us and has promised to never leave or forsake us. And you will have done your job.

No doubt you will do your best to be as present as possible. But you are not omnipresent. You’re not God.

Perhaps the greatest gift you will give your people is an ever-increasing awe of our Lord through an ever-present familiarity with your limitations. May our ministry of disappointment always convey to ourselves and our people the reality that God is great, God is good, and we’re not God.

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