Being True when Others Disappoint

March 17, 2019

Rev. Dr. David Clark

Senior Minister

John 13:1-7 

Today we continue our sermon series about maintaining integrity in the midst of conflict. We look to how Jesus handled himself in some of the kinds of situations we find ourselves in all the time. By looking to his example, we can find approaches that will help break cycles of frustration and pain. Last week we explored how to be true to yourself when you know it will mean you have to disappoint others. Today we are going to look at how to handle it when others disappoint you.

I’ve always been touched by the scene of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet on the night he was arrested. The gospels portray it as Jesus knows they will let him down. In the other gospels, he says, By the time this night is over,you will all deny me. You will all desert me. They had disappointed him before and you could see his frustration bubble over. He asks, “You’ve been with me all this time and still, you do not understand?” He asks God, “How long must I put up with these people” (Matthew 17:17).

Sometimes my prayers go something like this, “Jesus, remember when you said that? I like that you know what this feels like. I’m feeling that way now. Help me remember that although others disappointed you, you remained true. You did not discount or abandon them. You responded with grace and dignity. Help me do the same.”

On the night of the last supper Jesus senses how the disciples will disappoint him again. Yet, he dines with them. Prays with and for them. Breaks bread with them. Before the meal, he wraps a towel around his waist and takes a basin of water and drops to his knees to wash their feet. In that culture it was a sign of great respect and reverence. How did he do that? I mean he had other options. Might have snapped the towel at them and told them to straighten up but his posture wasn’t one of imposing demands but of leading by example through service. What was he modeling for us?

I wonder how you respond when you are disappointed with someone. What do you do, how many chances do you give? How do you stand up for yourself and hold someone accountable?

I think most of us go along and try to give others the benefit of the doubt. But when it just keeps happening over and over again, then what?

By far, the most popular strategy for dealing with it is to endure it until you are annoyed enough to try to change the other person. Maybe you articulate your expectations. Try to help them succeed in meeting your expectations. Suggest classes they go to. Send them articles about how not to be such a screw-up. Although it’s a very popular strategy, it never works. You cannot change someone else. Period. You can knock your head against a brick wall and have more to show for it that you will have from trying to change someone. At least you get a lump, something visible to show for your frustration. Our job is to love people, not to change them. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment—that you love each other as I have loved you.”

When we realize changing others doesn’t work the second popular strategy is to fall back into despair. Maybe you take on yourself what they really should be doing. Perhaps there is some task they are responsible for but they often don’t follow through, so instead of getting mad, you just start doing it yourself. Situation solved? On the one hand, you don’t have to risk getting disappointed because the task gets done. But on the other hand, you start building resentment and teach them that all they have to do is neglect their responsibility and you are going to be the one who swoops in and does it, taking it off their plate. So the next time they don’t feel like doing something, what happens? You get dumped on again.

Maybe you don’t intervene and do their part for them, you just build up resentment. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like Charlie Brown with Lucy who pulls away the football every time and every time Charlie Brown finds some reason to believe that this time it will be different? He runs up to the football only to have it swiped away at the last second and he winds up flat on his back, again. Have you ever had a Lucy? What do you do with a Lucy? Without setting boundaries and a clear path back to establishing trust, letting resentment build inside only winds up making you miserable.

Then what? You just go around miserable, complaining? Former Notre Dame football coach gave a commencement address where he told the graduates to never complain. “Never complain because 90% of the people don’t care about your problems and the other 10% are glad you’ve got them.”

The third approach involves looking inward to see what is getting triggered inside of you and getting curious about it and how you react. You cannot change them, but you can always change how you react to it, how you can keep it from triggering your fears and insecurities.

Most importantly, you can change your expectations. For some, this means lowering the expectations. But for me what has worked best is changing the expectations to something more realistic. If we go with the principle I spoke about a few weeks ago of assuming people are doing the best they can with the resources at their disposal, we have to realize sometimes that we have placed expectations on people that they just cannot meet.

I think about my relationship with my dad and how much time in my life I spent frustrated that he wasn’t a better dad, the dad that I wanted. I remember standing in the grocery store looking for an obligatory Father’s Day card. Reading a few was sad. It reminded me that he wasn’t the dad who gave good advice or taught me how to use tools or was a good moral example or showed me how to be a source of strength and stability for your family. I thought, Where are the cards that say, “Thanks for showing me how to be self-centered, underachieving, foul-mouthed, crass and rude, a consistent example of what not to do?” Where are those cards?

We spent years where there wasn’t much interaction. If there was, I’d have to initiate it. We were on such different trajectories that the only thing we really talked about and bonded over was our misery of being Cleveland Browns fans. Never a reach out on birthdays or holidays or just to check in. Never being there for some advice and counsel when I really could have used some.

I went through the steps, tried to change him, tried to set out expectations. Promises turned into pulled away footballs. I got tired of getting disappointed and hurt.

The breakthrough came when I stopped expecting him to be what I had in my mind as a decent father–the father I wanted. I let him be and who he is. Dad is dad became my mantra. He isn’t ever going to be the guy who offers sage, serious advice. He isn’t going to be the guy who leads by example, or take the initiative to reach out to me. There was some grief with that but when I was able to let it go of expectations that weren’t ever going to be fulfilled, a sense of peace came to me.

I could find other sources, other advice givers, other examples other sources of support, people who were interested in the things I am. I stopped expecting those things out of him and once I let go the sting of the disappointment went from bumblebee to a mosquito. Manageable.

Dad is dad. You only get disappointed if you have expectations that he’s going to be different. That insight it freed up was a way to appreciate more the things I never saw because I was obsessed about grumbling about his failures. So I got to fall in love with his twisted sense of humor, his perspective on our family. I even found out that he does have a tender heart, he just doesn’t have the tools to be able to show anybody or to be vulnerable enough to let it show. I didn’t get anyone who resembled the people in the dad of the year cards, but I did get someone I can turn to when I get a hankering for crass-inappropriate humor,  a perspective on past events, someone to root for the Browns with and someone who keeps plugging away despite all his faults, and mine–you know, a friend.

So the deal is to change your expectations to something that is more realistic, into something they can be and let go of the rest.

What this means is that sometimes you don’t change people, you change the people who fill particular needs. That is, you can’t change anybody but you can explore your relationship with someone who is constantly disappointing you and figure out your frustration. What are they not providing that you are expecting them to provide? What are you looking for? Validation, a listener, an advice giver, a playmate, a source of stability? Maybe the expectations you’ve placed on someone to provide those things just aren’t realistic and instead of going around frustrated and disappointed and resentful you let people be themselves, figure out what positives they can bring to your life and let the rest go. Find others who can fill those things you need.

One of the roles of the church is that we have a sanctuary, a safe place where people can go to find support, positive energy in their lives instead of getting caught up in destructive ways of coping with the disappointment. You can add positive people into your life who are not draining your energy, making you frustrated. It’s on you to find a way to get those needs met. No one can do it for you.

Invest in friends. Sometimes couples get into trouble when they don’t have any friends or close family members and they rely on the other to fill too many emotional roles all at the same time and they can’t do it. All studies on the sense of wellbeing indicate that when we are connected with a variety of people and have a collection of close friends we are happier. Want to make a good investment? Invest the time and energy in making dependable friends who can be there for you. In an age where there is an epidemic of loneliness remember to be a friend and reach out.

It’s interesting that Jesus needed friends. When Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, he makes sure that they know he sees them as friends. He didn’t need them to be his spiritual advisors or cabinet to vet his ideas. He just needed friends. Even though he knew they could disappoint, he took them as they were and broke bread with them and even got on a knee and washed their feet–which was always a servant’s job. He served and loved.

How do you treat someone who disappoints you? Take a cue from Jesus. With respect. Finding with they can provide and be and let them be successful at that.

When others disappoint that motion of going to the knee is helpful. When I was a football player and the coach saw that we were getting worn out he’d say take a knee. Rest. Reflect. Refocus.

The image of Jesus taking a knee is a sign of his humility. When others disappoint it’s good to have some humility and realize we are not perfect. We let others down and try to be as gracious as possible. When someone lets you down take a knee. Rest. Reflect. Refocus.

Sometimes it’s God who lets us down. We get mad, disappointed because God didn’t meet our expectations. Maybe looking at the relationship. Are you there to serve him or the almighty to serve you? Can you take no for an answer. Or maybe you are expecting Jesus to give you something he never promised. An easy path, to protect you from hardship, to say “You’ve been so good that I’m going to make sure you don’t get cancer, or have heartache or miracles to take away all your pain.” That’s not really how Jesus portrays the divine.

Maybe you change your expectations. And realize that you have a friend. Someone who walks with you on your path. Someone who gets how hard it is. Someone who tries always to bring the best out of you.  Someone you can count on when others disappoint. Amen.