July 21, 2019 — Rev. Dr. Nancy Parent Bancroft
Readings: Excerpts from the Gospel of John, Chapters 14 and 15; Discouragement by Deborah Burke
Discouragement can be defined as a loss of confidence or enthusiasm. It can feel like dispiritedness,downheartedness, dejection, depression, demoralization, disappointment, despondency, hopelessness, or a lack of enthusiasm. It can lead to a lack of confidence, pessimism, despair, and gloom. It can be a disincentive to act, a hindrance to putting forth all of our effort. It can dissuade us from even trying to achieve. Yet, discouragement is part of life. We can become discouraged with life’s circumstances discouraged by family and friends discouraged with ourselves even discouraged with God.
Discouragement can come when we do the right things but experience poor results. We work hard, but we don’t make progress or we don’t reach the goal we envisioned.
Discouragement happens, even to the strongest and best of people. There are many examples of discouragement in the Bible itself. The prophet Elijah became so discouraged with life’s circumstances at one point that he sat down under juniper tree and prayed that he might die. The Book of Numbers records the discouragement of the whole nation of God’s people after their defeat of the Canaanites. They had had an amazing victory, but as soon as they took their eyes off of God, everything started to look really bad. One reason for their discouragement is that they were getting tired. Remember that the Israelites journeyed for forty years before they reached the Promised Land. Having much shorter lifespans than we have today many Israelites who were freed from Egyptian captivity never reached it. They started off ecstatic when God parted the Red Sea and they escaped, but as the time of their journey dragged on, they became discouraged. It’s often the same with us. Most endeavors we take on seem manageable before we start it, but sometimes right in the middle they may start to look impossible. What the project requires probably hasn’t changed that much, but our exhaustion can make it look a lot bigger than it really is.
Sometimes we become discouraged because despite our persistent efforts and fervent prayers, things don’t turn out the way we’d hoped they would. Elijah hoped that after all the miracles the Israelites saw performed on Mount Carmel, they would repent and put God first, but they didn’t and Elijah felt discouraged, exhausted, and told himself that his entire ministry was a waste. Perhaps we can identify with Elijah. Maybe we’ve worked towards accomplishing something very important to us and feel discouraged by our lack of success.
Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero, spoke out against military oppression in his country and as a result, in 1980, was murdered as he was celebrating Mass. Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, Michigan wrote a prayer on the anniversary of Bishop Romero’s martyrdom, remembering him and his cut-short life. What he wrote may help us in our discouragement:
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith…No program
accomplishes the Church’s mission… We plant a seed that will one day grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
Another cause of discouragement is a loss of confidence in the sufficiency of God’s grace and a focus instead on our own inability. We become discouraged with ourselves. We hear about terrible things going on in our country, in our world and we feel powerless. It’s discouraging. Recognizing our inability is a good thing. We need to understand that we cannot make the world a better place by relying solely on our own might or wisdom. Our success is really God’s success working in us.
Peter felt discouraged with himself when he realized that he wasn’t as courageous as he thought he was. Jesus had warned him that he would deny him, but Peter’s pride kept him from seeing himself clearly. We too can feel discouraged when we recognize how little we can do, or when we fail to live up to our own or someone else’s expectations.
Lona Fowler wrote a beautiful prayer entitled Middle Time that addresses this discouragement with ourselves. This is some of what she wrote:
“Between the exhilaration of Beginning and the satisfaction of Concluding is the Middle Time
of enduring, changing, trying, despairing, continuing, becoming.
“Jesus Christ was the man of God’s Middle Time between Creation and . . . Accomplishment… And we, in our Middle Times of wondering, waiting, hurrying, hesitating, regretting, revising; We who have begun many things—and seen but few completed; We who are becoming more—and less; through the evidence of God’s Middle Time have a stabilizing hint that we are not mistakes, that we are irreplaceable, that our Being is of interest and our Doing is of purpose, that our Being and our Doing are surrounded by AMEN. Jesus Christ is the Completer of unfinished people with unfinished work in unfinished times. May he keep us from sinking, ceasing, wasting, solidifying—that we may be for him experimenters, enablers, encouragers, and associates in Accomplishment.”
Job felt discouraged with his wife and friends. They didn’t get it. In the midst of his suffering and questioning God, they tried to be helpful, but they ended up heaping more shame and blame on him. We, too, can feel let down by our friends and family. They don’t relate to us the way we wish they would. Our disappointment can turn to discouragement.
Jeremiah felt angry and discouraged with God when he believed God was against him, and because of that perspective, he temporarily lost hope in God . The disciples too felt discouraged after Jesus was crucified. They said, “We were hoping that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel”. They couldn’t see the bigger picture and felt disappointed that Jesus did not fight for his kingdom.
St. Theresa of Avila was a sixteenth century Spanish noblewoman, a Carmelite nun, prominent mystic, religious reformer, author, and theologian of the contemplative life. She was a tiny but feisty woman who once said of herself sometimes she felt like “a lion,” and other times like “an ant.” As a woman religious reformer she often had cause to feel discouraged. One day when she was having a particularly difficult time she fell off a horse into the mud. This was the last straw. She got up and screamed at God, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!
All of us attempt to make sense of the things that happen in our lives. We try to figure out why they happen and what it all means. It’s crucial that we pay attention to what stories we are telling ourselves a particular situation, about ourselves, about others, or about God and whether or not those stories are actually true, or whether it is discouragement that is writing the narrative.
Life is hard, people do disappoint and hurt us, and we don’t always understand God or God’s ways. We are in Middle Time. Even if we are old God is not finished with us. Our family and friends are in their middle time. God is not finished with our country or our world.
The French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin trained as a paleontologist and geologist and took part in the discovery of Peking Man. He also taught physics, chemistry and theology. Eventually he synthesized his scientific, philosophical and theological knowledge in the light of evolution. Here is some of his wisdom:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time . . . will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
When the apostle Paul counsels us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, he is telling us that our mind needs to be trained to think differently than we normally do. Part of this training is to learn to see both the temporal (life is hard) and the eternal (We are part of something bigger than ourselves) at the same time. St Paul speaks openly of his temporal pain when he says he is hard pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. Yet he overcomes the temptation to remain discouraged. He did not become crushed, despairing, feel abandoned, or destroyed. Why not? Because he came to believe that we are part of something much bigger than we can imagine. He says, “Therefore we do not lose heart.… So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Life is hard, people do disappoint and hurt us, and we don’t always understand God or God’s ways. David Frenette, a practitioner and teacher of centering prayer, urges us to take to heart the meaning of the word “Amen.” Amen” is used in Western religions to express profound faith, assent to Mystery and surrender to God. We use “amen” to end our prayers. Amen literally means “so be it” or “let it be.” Frenette says, “After any petition or prayer , “amen” is the “so be it” or the “let it be” which releases that prayer or petition into God with the radical trust that nothing more needs to be said, nothing else needs to be done.
“With amen, our words and actions yield to God’s presence.” Amen doesn’t mean being passive; it doesn’t mean that we don’t work towards good. Amen means that our prayer is a relationship with God rather than with ourselves; it means that rather than trying to succeed through effort alone we let the Spirit pray in us. Amen means that we recognize that we can’t confront the evils and needs of this world on our own and that at some point we need to let go of our own, self-initiated efforts and agenda and trust in God.
The ever-present God is eternal. We are in middle time. We are still becoming, as are our friends and our family, as is this nation and our world. Let us trust in the slow work of our loving God. Can I have an Amen?
Are you ready to lay down your discouragement?
Are you ready to Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that God’s hand is leading you?
Do you believe Jesus Christ is the Completer of unfinished people with unfinished work in unfinished times?
Amen and Let it be!
by Deborah Burke
(Loosely based on Wislawa Szymborska’s Poem: Life While you Wait)
Is it stress, sickness, sorrow?
Am I worried or wearied?
Am I angry, anxious–or discouraged about aging?
Does discouragement sneak up on me?
Or is it a life choice I can exchange for something else,
like a dress that doesn’t fit?
Often I can barely keep up with the pace
demanded by whatever is going on in any particular day
on this planet spinning into space, heading fast toward Hercules
I stumble and trip all the time – in a stage play
Where I never learned my lines.
tripping over myself and my mood
as that loathing ogre discouragement sneaks into my life
A burglar! A leaching, laughing liar!
I often get stage fright. Living perfectly is never a good and gracious goal
I can’t rehearse for Monday on Sunday so I can get it right on Monday
When I don’t even know the script for Sunday let alone Monday
Though I’ve wanted it, I’ve never yet gotten the chance
for a Thursday do-over
It’s a slabdash rush through most days
As our planet home Earth still rotates every day on its axis, without much ado
As sun and moon eclipse regularly
And the farthest galaxies are bursting with energy
I am not bursting with energy on my Discouragement Days
I’m a 2 watt bulb on those days. I’m certain I was created to be a 100-watter
My day is what I make of it
And what I make of it–joy, poetry, hard work, or doubt and discouragement
Is what this day will forevermore be. That’s the hard truth
Life is not a dress rehearsal as someone famous once said
Every day, I write the lines of the play I live.
Everyday a new script I haven’t had a chance to study
Everyday new characters arrive,
New weather, new thoughts, new opportunities, new challenges
That I can meet with discouragement or
–if I choose–
something riveting, exciting, wild and outrageous, something luminous
I’m always able –if I choose– to write
a more fun and fantastic script as I go
Discouragement or Joy–or any other feeling
Begins in my thoughts.
I have to watch them closely
Thoughts are like air-raid sirens alerting me to
The danger of flubbing my lines
Dismal thoughts attract dismal everything
At the first sign of Poor Me
I will try–my intention–to do something I love,
Be with someone I love,
Go dancing, listen to music
Lie in the grass and watch the wonder of the night sky
I will try with all the intention I can muster
to become re-spirited
as I run from the forest ogre
Re-joyed by the world’s wonder
Re-attentive to the numerous and luminous
Possibilities for a script change if I so choose
I can write the lines for my character
On any given day until this Sad-Sack,
Which I can surely be
Remembers who she really is–
Chosen to be here by the Energy Force of the Creator
On this day, in this place
Where the luminous is everyday possible.
Thanks be to the Creator Godde
Who encourages us all to not let not our hearts be troubled.