James Howell: Lessons in disappointment

Disappointment can be debilitating. But it can also teach us about Christian witness.

I was preaching recently to some clergy down in Atlanta, and heard myself blurt out something unscripted, a silly notion that had not occurred to me until that moment. Referring to our quadrennial denominational meeting, General Conference, I said, “That’s the place people in hell hope they don’t have to go.” This elicited uproarious laughter, and was instantly tweeted and retweeted.

Beyond the exhausting unpleasantness of such important but often tedious gatherings, the resulting mood of disappointment in your denomination and chagrin over your church can be debilitating. But it can also teach us something about Christian witness.

At General Conference, all the worship and hype is about Jesus, “holy conferencing,” evangelism and where God is calling the church. But then the proceedings devolve into gridlock, turf defense, rancor, manipulation and bitterness; distrust and fear riddle the room. The dissonance, the schizophrenia, is harrowing.

How do we recover back home? Sometimes I just ignore the voting results and do what I feel is right. Actually, if the real church isn’t some sprawling international institution but the local body of Christ, this helps -- a little. Do what God is calling you to do where you are.

But we are bound by mystical bonds with our brothers and sisters around the globe, or even across the street. So we look for hope, little shimmering glimpses that the church really is of God and will be preserved to the end of time. It really is God’s church, and I’m not entirely panicked about our future because I’m amazed we’re still here in the first place.

We express our disappointment. We try to learn to love each other; for all our talk about love we’re not very good at it. In response to things I tried to get done at our General Conference, I’ve had many well-meaning people say frankly insulting things, like “Haven’t you read your Bible?” How is that helpful to ask? But then how do I avoid the recoil insult?

The Bible is an odd book; you wonder how its first readers ever bought in. It’s a book about disappointment. God’s pretty disappointed in Adam and Eve, Israel’s kings and people, not to mention Peter, Judas and the rest of us by implication. Jacob is disappointed to wake up next to Leah, Sarah just can’t get pregnant, and Paul sees his fledgling churches slipping into tomfoolery. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples were devastated. It seems that in such places, life happens. If we “win,” all we do is win; but if we are disappointed, we need grace and mercy, and desperately.

We discover a marvelous camaraderie with others who are disappointed. What great, deep friendships I have made with folks working for change -- even when we know we don’t stand a chance of success. I made a speech on the floor of the General Conference, knowing the vote would fail -- but how important is it to say true things? And who is enfranchised, supported, included simply because faithful words were spoken, even in the face of defeat? Even the snarky tweets (something at which I discovered I am embarrassingly gifted): we cope, we joke, and thus we bond, fellow-sufferers, joined at the hip by deep beliefs and the giddy delight of laboring together.

Our theology really can save us. We live on the dark side of what doctrine has dubbed “the fall.” We are fallen, and broken, all of us, and so are our institutions. Brokenness is at the very heart of the human condition. This is why we need grace, mercy and a few challenges to keep us busy and humble.

And so we continue. What else would we do? Take our toys and go home? Lew Smedes once said that when we won’t abandon ship, when we stick with lost causes, when we make and keep our commitments, we are like God. Perhaps it is only the disappointed who can truly bear witness to God in this world.

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.