Life is salted with disappointments (pun on “salt of the earth” intended). Things become dark and stormy. Some of these times are fairly “manageable” and some so profound that getting to the other side of it seems impossible. We disappoint and are disappointed. Institutions and processes disappoint us and we disappoint them. What we do with disappointment is of utmost importance. Unattended to in the proper way, it becomes results in condemnation and disenfranchisement. Does God, through the Holy Tradition, have anything to say to us about disappointment – the dark times – and how to address it in creative and life-giving ways? The Scriptures assigned for today speak directly to this issue.

John 6.16-21
[16] When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea,
[17] got into a boat, and started across the sea to Caper’na-um. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.
[18] The sea rose because a strong wind was blowing.
[19] When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat. They were frightened,
[20] but he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”
[21] Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.

Don Schwager, offers this reflection on the passage:

Does the Lord Jesus ever seem distant to you? When John recounted the scene of the apostles being alone at sea in a storm he described the situation as “dark” (John 6:17). It was dark not only physically but spiritually as well. Although they were experienced fishermen, they were fearful for their lives. The Lord’s sudden presence – and his supernatural ability to walk towards them on top of the rough waves of the sea – only made them more fearful! John says they were frightened. And Jesus had to calm them with a reassuring command: “Do not be afraid because I am here with you!”

Aren’t we like the apostles when we experience moments of darkness, fear, and trials? While the Lord may at times seem absent or very distant to us, he, nonetheless, is always present and close-by. The scriptures remind us that the Lord is “a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Whatever storms may beset us, he promises to “bring us to our desired haven” and place of calm rest and safety (Psalm 107:29-30). The Lord keeps watch over us at all times, and especially in our moments of temptation and difficulty. Do you rely on the Lord for his strength and help? Jesus assures us that we have no need of fear if we put our trust in him and in his great love and care for us. When calamities or trials threaten to overwhelm you, how do you respond? With faith and hope in God’s love, personal care, and presence with you?

“Lord Jesus, may I never doubt your saving help and your watchful presence in my life, especially in times of trouble. Fortify my faith with courage and give me enduring hope that I may never waver in my trust in you.” (www.dailyscripture.net, Copyright © 2013 Don Schwager)

The tumultuous character of disappointment is not cured simply by changing our attitude or correcting our faulty thinking. It is not good enough to say, “Snap out of it!” Of course, we need to take charge of our thought life. That is the bedrock of transformation in Christ. But, the struggle to address our thought life takes place in a concrete environment that confirms and strengthens that work. The environment is not extra. It is normative and essential. The environment includes not only fellowship, prayer, sacraments, disciplines that address our bodily appetites, keeping the commandments, and Holy Scripture but a particular understanding and participation of these facets. If we take a look at Acts 2.42-47; 4.32-37 ; 5.12-16; 6.7 which are so often used in conversations about the “golden days” of “the Church that we have so sadly lost and its spirit we need to desperately recapture and replicate,” it is instructive to also read the passages BETWEEN them. They are stories of provision in the midst of disappointment and darkness. Very instructive little study.

Jesus was provided an environment for His disciples during His pre-passion relationship with them that was designed to show them how He addressed disappointment. It is this ongoing provision that Jesus speaks of in His discourse prior to His arrest in John’s gospel account. God the Father, He says, will continue to provide this environment in and through the gift of the Holy Spirit and His ministry. And, He attempts to explain, this environment will be (Mysteriously) Him – His very life in and through the Holy Tradition.

When we take a look at the Church in Acts after Pentecost, we see a community of believers who exhibit a characteristic response to disappointment. Many think of the Apostolic Church as an example of the ideal church. The one we should imitate and replicate. Well, that sentiment is a good one but sometimes misinformed. It is often fueled by a faulty view of the Apostolic community. The faulty view is that the Apostolic community was “problem free.” An ideal community without blemish that catapulted from one astounding success to another. It was, to be sure, a time of astounding fruitfulness and miraculous events. But, an honest look at the church of Acts of the Apostles shows a community continually addressing disappointment both internal and external. The community sought to learn and live the spirit-filled and guided Way, Truth, and Life. (Parenthetically, I want to make it abundantly clear that I do not believe the Apostolic Church was, during this time, creating the Church or developing traditions on its own. It was in a receptive mode. It was receiving the Holy Tradition as the Holy Spirit was revealing and offering it. The Church believed in the Holy Spirit’s provision and was dedicated to a faithful process of reception and integration. And, I would say, it has been doing so ever since. THAT in and of itself is another example of divine provision in the midst of disappointment!!)

The Apostolic Church was no stranger to disappointment and dark times that surround them. Opposition, arrest, beatings, martyrdom, disagreements over how to live a shared life, instances of partiality, deceit in sharing, disagreement over who is “in” and who is “out,” differing views regarding missional strategy, etc.

If we are to look to the Apostolic Church of Acts as a model to imitate, then we should imitate its way of addressing disappointment – times of trial that are a temptation to abandon the Way, Truth, and Life – and do likewise. We are living out the 29th chapter of Acts as the saying goes. The way of addressing disappointment and trial is, however, all too often overlooked as being the main reason it was so fruitful.

So, if we want to immolate the Apostolic Church and facilitate its “astounding successfulness” then we need to get ready to address disappointments and dark times. They go together in the economy of God’s saving work in the context of this world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer , makes this crucial point in his classic, Life Together. He says,

Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.

The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

Here is an example from the early experience of the Apostolic Church:

Acts 6.1-7
[1] Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.
[2] And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.
[3] Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty.
[4] But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
[5] And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Proch’orus, and Nica’nor, and Ti’mon, and Par’menas, and Nicola’us, a proselyte of Antioch.
[6] These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.
[7] And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.

Let me direct you to a fruitful reflection on this passage that can be found here:

What I took away from the reflection by Dennis Hamm, S.J. was the approach of the Apostles to a very real disappointment. They did not avoid, deny, or manage it. They sought to delve deeper into what it meant to be the Body of Christ and how to live out that identity. They followed what I have come to call the “contemplative-incarnational-missional pattern.” They sought, in essence, to apply in practical terms the Trinitarian life of God. And, they were, as a result “astoundingly successful” and fruitful.

I am reminded in all of this of Psalm 42 (43):

Psalm 42 (43)
[1] Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people;
from deceitful and unjust men
deliver me!
[2] For thou art the God in whom I take refuge;
why hast thou cast me off?
Why go I mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?
[3] Oh send out thy light and thy truth;
let them lead me,
let them bring me to thy holy hill
and to thy dwelling!
[4] Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise thee with the lyre,
O God, my God.
[5] Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

Notice the attitudinal struggle. As I indicated earlier, it is all too easy to reduce Christianity and our discipleship to an exercise in getting your thinking straight or getting your attitude right or praising yourself into a right attitude. I am not discounting the need for ALL of this. Remember, it is the bedrock of the Apostolic faith. But, it needs to be remembered, this inner ascesis exists as a facet of a larger transformative context. Lets remember who the Psalmist is and where that person’s struggle is taking place – the temple with all of its form, regularity, order, consistency, fellowship, prayer, scriptural encounter, bodily discipline, keeping the commandments, and sacramental opportunity. The Psalmist has an environment in which to address disappointment so it can result in fruitfulness — both personal and communal.

Once again, it is the lack of the environment or the negligence of that environment in which to address disappointment that results in it becoming the catalyst of avoidance, despair, alienation, and division. Without the environment we are left to our own sense of what is right. We repeat the mistake of the Israelites: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21.25) That is not just a individual behavior but one a whole community can embrace. We can adopt a posture of rationalization and avoidance — “What disappointment?!” or “Oh, its okay.” Or, we judge and compartmentalize.  We place ourselves too easily in the judgment seat regarding others and vice versa. Institutions cease to become responsive to their original mandate to be life-giving environments. People are relegated to the waste bin of humanity or relegate society to the waste bin as hopelessly dysfunctional. Trust? Compassion? Recovery? What do those terms mean when disappointment is the trump card?! No longer is disappointment an attitude we have regarding behaviors. People become disappointments. And, after a while, they and we begin to believe it. The environment is crucial. The Holy Tradition as an environment of transformation mediates against our passions of judgmentalism, condemnation, and avoidance regarding our “disappointing” behaviors or those of others. This is a matrix of life-creating and life-sustaining faith, hope, and love.

When we have found ourselves in the dire straits of disappointment and our boat was filling with water and we were asking ourselves, “How can we continue?,” we knew (because of the Holy Tradition) to how to look for the Lord and were equipped to do so. In the context of fellowship, prayer, Scripture, bodily discipline, sacraments, and keeping the commandments, we encountered and dwelt on Him. We were nourished and corrected and encouraged. (We may not have called it that or identified the facets of it but I contend they were present.) It was THEN that He turned our sadness into joy. Our disappointment and that of others was not the whole story even though it was a real part of the story. We struggled honestly in the sanctuary of our Lord toward a new day. “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30.5) Indescribable joy, rose as a seedling, out of the soil of the fertile soil of our disappointment that was farmed by the Holy Spirit. An indescribable joy and yet a joy we had to find words to express. We shouted from the mountain tops because we were so blessed. I felt and tasted what it meant to be filled with the goodness of God. Our cup overflowed and spread out into the world.

If it was true then, it is still true. Those were not the “good old days.” Today is that “good day” in which we can know the saving goodness of the Lord. Our Lord is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow – forever. The Apostolic Church has always believed it and experienced it. You and I as members of that community have believed it and experienced it too. So, today, “Yet I will praise Him!” and it will be that “…immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.”

Fr. Thomas


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