Fruitful Disappointments

“I’ll visit you when I go to Spain. I hope to see you while I’m passing through. And I hope you will send me on my way there, after I have first been reenergized by some time in your company.”

Romans 15:24 (Common English Bible)

I once knew a woman whose romance had gone on the rocks. She made a grand announcement to her work colleagues that she was never going to permit herself to fall in love again. “You only get hurt,” she said. I was a young graduate student struggling in the romance department myself so I remained silent. Fortunately, an older and wiser woman who was our supervisor made the observation, “If you deal with each disappointment that way, you don’t live.” I don’t recall how many work associates where present at that moment but each of us became silent as those few words sunk deeply into our hearts. The supervisor continued, “Reassess that relationship. Take something useful from it. Make it fruitful for the next.”

The Apostle Paul wanted to go to Spain. He had his heart set on it. Paul’s zeal for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ compelled him to reach the outermost rim of the world. What Paul got was a prison cell in Rome. Like my work colleague, Paul was disappointed. Life’s unexpected turns and twist never permitted Paul to take that journey to Spain. That one historical fact dispels the notion that those who follow Christ are never disappointed, never experience disruptions in their own life journey. Paul wanted Spain. Paul got a prison cell. How Paul responded is instructive for us. Paul used that time in prison to reassess God’s claim upon him, Paul wrestled something useful from his disappointment. Imprisonment provided quiet time to penetrate deeply into the mysteries of Christ.

Psychologists tell us that suicide, addictions, and some forms of nervous breakdowns is evidence that people are ill equipped to manage disappointment. Loss and disappointment, regardless of the magnitude, deprive us of our ability to think and act beyond ourselves. Our focus on the disappointment becomes so sharp that we are unable to see what remains that is positive in our lives. Consequently, loss and disappointment shrinks our life to the exact size of our desire that is unmet. Popular speaker and author, John Maxwell, encourages us along a different path – encourages us to embrace failure and disappointments, extracting from them lessons that results in us “failing forward.” It is then that mistakes, failures, and disappointments become stepping-stones to something so much more.

Few people have the opportunity to live life on the basis of their first choice – whether that be a choice in career, a spouse that “checks all the boxes,” or some other longing. Paul wanted to go to Spain. He got a prison cell. A large majority of us will find that life moves in directions not of our choosing. That is precisely when the Christian faith tells us that we should get something out of every experience, every new direction, even out of disappointment. The bulk of the New Testament is letters written by Paul – many of them written while in prison! After twenty-some years as an iterant preacher, Paul gets a prison cell. At last, Paul found the quiet time to think deeply about what he had learned of Jesus Christ and pour those thoughts out in written form that would be Paul’s greatest contribution to the Christian Church.



A Multitude of Anna’s

The following was written by Dr. Doug Hood’s son, Nathanael Hood, a second year student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

“There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. She was now an eighty-four-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Luke 2:36-38 (Common English Bible)

Of all the things in the Bible that puzzle and frustrate historians and theologians, perhaps the greatest is the nearly thirty-year gap in the story of Jesus’ life between his birth and the start of his ministry. What happened during these lost years? The Bible only gives us a few details. One of the most significant happens in the second chapter of Luke when Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for the first time. During this presentation, the Holy Family meets a man named Simeon. The text doesn’t tell us much about Simeon—all we know for certain is that he was a “righteous and devout” man who had received a promise from the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he laid eyes on the Messiah. And indeed, on that day, that promise was fulfilled. The text tells us that the Holy Spirit itself came to Simeon and guided him to the Temple whereupon he took the infant Jesus in his arms and praised God, proclaiming him a revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for Israel.

Although he may have fallen a little out of importance in our Protestant tradition, Simeon is a very important figure in both Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. In addition to being canonized as a saint in both traditions with multiple feast days, he is also venerated as a prophet. He has been immortalized in paintings, stained glass, and altarpieces all over Christendom, and he has been the subject of music from some of the greatest composers in history, such as Johann Sebastian Bach. Not just that, but the aforementioned blessing Simeon gave while holding the Infant Jesus—known as the Nunc Dimittis—has been used by the Catholic Church as a prayer since the fourth century. Truly, Simeon is a model for steadfast faith being richly rewarded.

But I suspect Simeon’s story provides small comfort for most people looking for evidence of God’s presence in the world. Most of us will never witness a miracle like Simeon. Most of us will live lives like Anna. For you see, Simeon wasn’t the only one who recognized the infant Jesus when he was first brought to the Temple. There was another—there was an old woman named Anna who lived in the Temple courtyard. She was unique in her familiarity with loss and heartbreak. According to the text, she was widowed only seven years after getting married. According to Luke, she never remarried, and depending on how you translate the original text, she spent either the next sixty-odd or eighty-four years living in the temple courtyard without means or family which, in the time of ancient Israel, made her a non-person. She was a prophet, yes, but a prophet on the margins, well familiar with all the pains, and disappointments, and injustices of life.

And yet! Anna recognized the Messiah. Unlike Simeon, Anna recognized the Christ all by herself. Then she did something even more extraordinary: she spread the Word! Shortly after his blessings, Simeon disappears from the biblical record. But not Anna. She stayed. She witnessed. Indeed, most of us will not live lives like Simeon. Most of us will live quiet, unseen, under-appreciated lives. Most of us will wonder if the world ever will get any better, if our prayers truly mean anything, if our lives are being used by God at all. One can’t help but wonder if Anna, in her loneliness, ever felt the same. But again, it was Anna who recognized the Messiah and witnessed to the world. Perhaps it was because of her difficult life, not despite it, that she was so capable. We cannot all be Simeon. But we can all strive to be Anna. And in that striving, by touching others with our quiet Christian compassion and love, we can create a chain of healing greater than anything any of us will ever be able to comprehend. It takes a Simeon to shock the world. But only a multitude of Anna’s can save it.