Friday, May 1, 2020

Missed Graduation

     Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.
     We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.
-Romans 5:1-5 (New Living Translation)

This weekend, we were supposed to be in Tennessee. We were supposed to be on the campus of Lipscomb University as our son graduated from college, celebrating with him and with other family. We made those plans months ago. We were looking forward to marking this important milestone in Josh’s life with plenty of joy and festivities. 
     Instead, the three of us will be home watching some sort of online graduation. There are vague promises that he can walk in December if he wants to. 
     Not exactly what we planned for.
     Understand, our “problem” is such a minor one that it requires quotation marks. We’re able to be home, together. We’re all healthy. Josh has been able to finish his classes online, Laura and I are employed but able to mostly stay home and practice social distancing. It isn’t like Josh doesn’t get his degree. Having a graduation ceremony canceled is a disappointment, not a catastrophe. And, as disappointments go, this one doesn’t hurt too much. Others have much bigger problems.
     I’m not writing this to complain, that’s what I guess I’m saying. I’m making a point.
     Disappointments happen.
     You probably know that by now. We learn pretty early in life that things don’t always go the way we hope that they will. Hope: disappointment is often tied to hope, isn’t it? Hopes get dashed, people let us down, events don’t unfold as we’d envisioned. Sometimes the disappointment we feel is fairly minor, on the order of a canceled ceremony. Sometimes it’s life-changing: a marriage ends, a job offer falls through, someone we love lets us down, a promising treatment doesn’t work. Disappointment is varied because the things in which we put our hope are varied, and I don’t suppose there’s anything in which human beings put their hope that won’t at least sometimes fail to deliver. 
     The word most often translated “disappoint” in the New Testament has to do with feeling shame or embarrassment. In fact, in a lot of English translations you’ll see something like “put to shame” instead of “disappoint.” I guess that comes from that feeling we sometimes have when we’re let down, that sense that we’re stupid or naive or gullible for having put our hope in this thing or that person. 
     The Gospel of Luke tells the story of two followers of Jesus traveling between Jerusalem and a town called Emmaus on the Sunday after Jesus’ death. As they travel, they meet up with a stranger and begin telling him about Jesus. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people,” they tell him. They go on to explain to this stranger how the leaders of Israel handed Jesus over to the Romans for execution. And then you can almost hear the disappointment as you read their next words: “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
     No doubt they had that feeling of shame for having hoped, that sense that they were the world’s biggest dopes. It can make you angry to have your hopes crushed like that. It can make you bitter. Enough of that, and out of self-defense you might just stop allowing yourself to hope at all, in anything or anyone, just to avoid that terrible feeling of disappointment. 
     The thing is, as much as disappointment can hurt, I think human beings need some kind of hope. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why we come back to hope again and again. As Springsteen sings, in a song about disappointment piled on disappointment from the day we’re born until the day we die: “at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe.”
     That stranger on the road to Emmaus in Luke? Turns out he’s not so much a stranger at all. They’d been walking with the risen Lord while they talked about their disappointment, and they had no idea. Isn’t that a lesson for us? Even as we feel our hopes crushed, even as we feel shame for having hoped at all, even as we swear we’ll never hope again — the risen Jesus walks beside us. And, if we listen, maybe we can hear him say gently, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe.”
     Jesus comes to us in our worst moments of disappointment and reminds of what we should have already believed.  
     Oh, there will come times when you think Jesus has disappointed you. Those disciples on the road to Emmaus thought so. So did the ones hiding in Jerusalem. But after they knew he had risen from the grave, they never thought so again. They became world travelers to tell people about him. Some of them died for him, but went to their graves saying that they had hope. When your hope is in Jesus, not even death will disappoint you.
     If Christ is risen, if he has filled us with the Holy Spirit and the love of God, then it’s just kind of foolish to imagine that any disappointment is anything more than temporary.
    Paul says that what Jesus has done gives us peace with God and a place of “undeserved privilege” where we have the vantage point to “look forward to sharing God’s glory.” From that vantage point, the problems and difficulties we deal with in our lives just teach us how to endure, harden our resolve and help us to hope more firmly and certainly in the salvation God has for us. 
     So, if you’re feeling disappointed right now, then you’re just in the process of learning to endure and learning to place your hope more completely in God’s salvation. Disappointment can sting, and ache, and feel devastating. But one day we all will graduate. When we do, our disappointments will fade away in the light of God’s glory.
     In Christ, that’s a celebration none of us will miss.

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