The Spiritual Utility of Discouragement

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1 Kings 19:4-16

2 Corinthians 6:1-10

Matthew 11:28-30

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Exactly one year ago, I was in Sewanee, Tennessee for a conference. One afternoon we went off campus for a hike, and as we were driving back in one of the big University of the South vans, we started to pass an historical marker on the side of the road, and the driver asked, “Does anybody know about the Highlander Folk School?” I said, “Stop the van!” We pulled over at the site where the original Highlander Folk School had stood. Founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton, Highlander’s first focus had been the education and empowerment of rural people in Tennessee. It became active for decades in the labor movement, but when the unions reneged on their commitment to racial equality, Highlander shifted its focus to the Civil Rights movement. It hosted Citizenship Schools and voter registration drives across the South, and held workshops that brought whites and blacks together for training and planning. It was shut down by the state of Tennessee in 1961, and then reincorporated as the Highlander Center in New Market, TN, where it continues its work today. Pete Seeger learned the song “We Shall Overcome” at Highlander. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended its workshops, and a photo of him there was plastered all over billboards in the South with the caption, “MLK attends Communist Training School.” I had learned about Highlander as part of my seminary education, and have long been inspired by its scrappy dedication to democratic education, creative resistance to prejudice and oppression, and perseverance in the face of long odds.

My favorite story about Highlander took place in 1955. A number of black and white civil rights activists had gathered from across the South for two weeks of training. At the end of the workshop, these men and women went around in a circle to share what they planned to do when they returned home to their communities. One woman, though, could not think of what to say. She was in her early 40s, the executive secretary of the NAACP in Montgomery. But she had grown discouraged, and the thought of returning home was daunting. “I’m from the cradle of the confederacy,”she said, when her turn came. “The whites won’t let the blacks do anything, and the blacks won’t stick together. I can’t think of anything I could do that would make a difference.”

That was 1955. In 1956, this same woman decided that she did have it in her, after all, to do something, at home in Montgomery. Or, rather, to not do something. She decided not to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, in defiance of Jim Crow law. Her name was Rosa Parks.

This sermon series at Marsh Chapel is on the theme of “Moving Towards Hope,” and my sermon this morning is titled, “The Spiritual Utility of Discouragement.” We can’t move through hope, without moving through discouragement. And yet, discouragement is a feeling that Christians are usually discouraged from having. It is seen as a trap, the gateway to despair, or just plain negative. Pessimistic. We have a sense that spiritual people, and especially Americans, should be able to look on the bright side, to see the silver lining, to remain optimistic and hopeful no matter what.

But you know, dumpster fires don’t have a silver lining. And there are many reasons why the phrase “dumpster fire” was added to the Merriam Webster Dictionary earlier this year.

So I guess I’m here this morning to preach some good news about discouragement, for those of you who, like me, find yourselves deeply discouraged about our national life, the state of our democracy, and even the state of our humanity. The good news is that we can engage our discouragement, learn from it, maybe even wrestle a blessing from it. We can do that, with God’s help. Our discouragement has things to teach us, if we let it. But we can’t learn from it unless we are willing to spend some time exploring what discouragement truly is, and what its utility might be. So first we’ll define it; we will consider three uses of it; and then we’ll talk about how to move through it, towards hope.

Were you surprised that Rosa Parks, one year before her famous act of civil disobedience, was in such a low place? That she felt that all her faithful work of many years had been futile? That even after experiencing two weeks of the kind of equality and harmony that she had dreamed of, that she still felt powerless?

\If we banish discouragement from the range of spiritually acceptable emotions, and view our own discouragement as a failure, then we usually also reason that spiritual giants like Rosa Parks, MLK, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the saints of the church—they must not have ever felt this way. Or, at least not for very long. But if you read biographies, or the lives of the saints—you’ll know this is not true. If anything, great souls have more and deeper bouts of discouragement, more intense periods of self-doubt, more times when they wonder if their work has been for nothing, than most of us. So the first step of grappling with our own discouragement, whether it comes from within, or from what is going on in our world, is to stop treating it like a sign of our weakness or failure, and instead to claim it as a rational human response to deep disappointment.

What causes discouragement? Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, has an alliterative answer: “fatigue, frustration, failure, and fear.” Discouragement is an emotional response to these four kinds of experiences. (http://www1.cbn.com/biblestudy/some-cures-for-discouragement)

I have a few different images for discouragement. The first is, discouragement as a crossroads. It is a disorientation that forces us to choose a new direction. It is a kind of reckoning. And just as a crossroads is between towns in a kind of no man’s land, our own times of discouragement can feel like a wilderness, where we don’t know which road to choose, or are too worn down to even make a choice, and so we’re stuck.

My second image is of a kind of sinking feeling. I think of discouragement as, when you are swimming in a pool, and you choose to allow yourself to sink to the bottom for a while. There might be lots of splashing and activity above, but you have sunk down so that, holding your breath, you are looking at the pool from below, from a new perspective. Now, if you stay there too long, you’ll drown. That is called despair. But this perspective, from the bottom of the pool, can be a useful vantage point, temporarily. You can see things with a stillness and a clarity that you can’t see from the surface. So while discouragement can feel like sinking, it is a sinking that can also allow us to go deeper.

And finally, discouragement is a heart condition. That is the root of the word, courage, cor, Latin for heart. To be encouraged is to take heart; to be discouraged is to lose heart. And this is “heart” in the sense of the Hebrew Bible, of heart, soul, and mind being wrapped up together: heart as the core, the center of our being. Discouragement rocks us to our core. It is destabilizing, diminishing; it’s a spiritual loss of oxygen.

So how can a condition like this have any kind of utility for us as Christians? Well, I’ll be frank with you: according to the great Google, most people think that it doesn’t. So this is some original theology happening, right now! But I am convinced, that in God, no part of our experience is wasted; what seems to be garbage turns out to be compost.

So here are three spiritual uses of discouragement, which we will look at through the lens of our scriptures for today.

First, discouragement throws us back on the mercy of God. Second, it gives us a unique perspective on our situation that is disorienting, but also valuable. Third, discouragement is an important part of the soul’s natural pendulum.  There are three uses, because three is the holiest number for preachers! Three persons of the Trinity; three points to every sermon.

So, use number one: Discouragement throws us back on the mercy of God. When I’m doing fine, when it’s smooth sailing, I tend to chalk that up to my own efforts. The temptation of peaceful times is to become spiritually complacent. Fatigue, frustration, failure, and fear shake off that complacency quickly. I turn back to God—for assurance, for solace, for wisdom, for clarity out of perplexity. We sang “Sweet Hour of Prayer” just now—I love the way this hymn depicts prayer as this sheltering relationship in the midst of the storm of life. “In seasons of distress and grief/my soul has often found relief.” Our trials and griefs make us turn back towards God, our creator, redeemer, and sustainer. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?”the Psalmist asks. In his distress, he longs for God, “as a deer longs for flowing streams.”Discouragement makes us thirsty for the waters of life. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give your rest. . . For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”Times of discouragement are painful—but they can also force us to seek God with a greater yearning; to go deeperin our relationship with God; to put away our stained-glass sentiments and to show up to prayer boldly, and with greater honesty and vulnerability. Our families, our friends, our colleagues may not want to see that side of us: but God does. Jesus says, take my yoke upon you. Let’s work on this together.

Secondly, discouragement gives us a perspective that is disorienting, but also valuable. It is the bottom of the pool. For Rosa Parks, the safety of the Highlander Folk School provided her with this kind of new perspective. She wrote, “At Highlander, I found out for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society, and that there was such a thing as people of different races and backgrounds meeting together in workshops, and living together in peace and harmony. It was a place I was very reluctant to leave.” (Myles Horton, The Long Haul, pp.149-150) This supportive environment allowed her to confront her discouragement honestly: to admit to herself that she felt the odds were too great, and the forces of segregation were too strong for her to confront. She said, “I gained there the strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks, but for all oppressed people.”But this strength came not by pushing away her feelings of doubt and discouragement, but by acknowledging them, and sharing them.

The prophet Elijah had a similar experience, of retreating to a place of safety, to confront the cost of facing the forces of oppression. Elijah is a political dissenter. He is a fighter and a crusader for justice. But in the lesson from second Kings, we see him exhausted, ready to give up in the wilderness, having fled for his life from Ahab and Jezebel. He is done. He is despairing. Huddled in a cave on Mt. Horeb, the word of the Lord speaks to him: “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah gives a summary of his career as a prophet, and ends with, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”It was all for nothing.

And then Elijah is granted this vision of the Lord passing by, where there is a gale force wind, and then an earthquake, and then fire. And the scripture says that the Lord was not in any of these; they were just the prelude to the presence of the Lord. Elijah knows the presence of the Lord is in that place when he hears this mysterious “sound of sheer silence.” Paradoxical. Ominous. The King James Version translates the Hebrew as “a still small voice.” But the “sound of sheer silence” has something very intense about it, something powerful.

When this reading appears in the lectionary, it ends at that verse. Sermons on this passage often end up being about listening to the voice of God within, and the importance of still small voices as opposed to displays of power, etc. And those are fine sentiments. But they ignore the main message of what the sound of sheer silence actually communicates to Elijah, which comes in the next several verses. And let me tell you, the still small voice throws it down. It tells Elijah to essentially go back, and foment revolution against Ahab and all the political powers that have become idolatrous and have abandoned the covenant with Yahweh. Elijah is told to start a holy war. He is to anoint two new kings, which of course is not going to sit well with the current kings, and also to anoint his own successor, Elisha.

And when these things come to pass, we learn that Elijah was wrong: he was not the only one left. There are seven thousand other prophets left in Israel who still worship the Lord. And through a long and circuitous path that is not without great cost, Israel returns to the Lord.

Elijah’s time in the wilderness forced him to answer some big questions. And if we sit with our own discouragement instead of pushing it away, we, too, will have some questions to answer: core questions about our identity, our deepest beliefs, and what is truly possible for us. Who do I think I am? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? And what can I really do?

Seasons of discouragement can be times of painful disillusionment in our lives. But you know, there’s a funny thing about the word “disillusionment.” To become disillusioned, is to experience loss. And yet, it is also a gain: because it is better to live without illusions! Disillusionment means we are no longer being deceived, or deceiving ourselves. The truth can hurt, but in the Gospel of John we are told that the truth will set us free.

The third utility of discouragement is that it is part of the soul’s natural pendulum. I’m thinking here of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16thcentury founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Ignatius knew the value of the emotions, all the emotions, in the life of the spirit. He knew that the so-called negative emotions, channeled correctly, could help us grow in love and grow closer to God; in fact, that they are essential to our life-long conversion. He talked about a movement of the soul between desolation and consolation. And this movement continues all our lives, back and forth. This is how we grow spiritually. It’s important to understand this, and to understand that both states are temporary, and neither is better than the other. In times of discouragement, we need to remember that engaging with the sources of our discouragement can propel us out of this state, and into consolation, into encouragement, again. Elijah did as the still small voice commanded him. He did return, in spite of his fears, to confront Ahab, and to triumph over the prophets of Baal. Rosa Parks admitted her discouragement, her feelings of the futility of her work. And then she participated in an act of civil disobedience that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights movement. In the middle of the bus boycott she wrote to a colleague, We are having a difficult time here, but we are not discouraged. The increased pressure seems to strengthen us for the next blow.” (https://rosaparksbiography.org/bio/the-boycott/)

So how do we come to that place, where in the midst of such struggle, we don’t feel discouraged, but empowered and equipped? That rather than disoriented, disillusioned, we feel grounded in our identity, our purpose, and in the truth of God’s love? I think here, the Apostle Paul is our man.

Paul certainly embraced the full range of his emotions. No recipient of any of his epistles ever asked, “But tell us how you really feel, Paul.”

Paul understood that Christianity is the religion of paradox—and that from a disciple’s point of view, that means holding contradictions together within oneself. As he says in 2nd Corinthians in describing his often-calamitous missionary journeys, We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

In other words, Paul had a really robust theology of down but not out. And I think we need to have one, too. Paul was willing to wrestle the blessing out of discouragement, to call upon the name of the Lord in his times of need, to sing out loud and proud in prison. Paul was in it for the long haul. He was committed.

Years ago in a parish where I once served, there was a woman named Roz who, whenever she ran into another member of the parish, would ask them if they were committed. You know, in the grocery store or at the dry cleaner’s. And it took a bit for these mild-mannered Episcopalians to realize that she was asking them if they were committed to Christ. Maybe we all need a friend like that—to challenge us and to provoke us into stating our deepest commitments, our truest purpose, wherever we are. Sometimes, our own discouragement is that friend—if we can befriend it.

         There is a wonderful few lines that I think sums up all I’ve been trying to say this morning. Margery Stoneman Douglas was the namesake of the high school in Parkland, Florida where, after the massacre in February, a number of students reignited the debate on gun control, all while in the earliest days of their own deepest grief. Margery surely would have been very proud of them. A journalist, advocate for women’s suffrage, ardent environmentalist responsible for the conservation of the Florida Everglades, and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, Stoneman Douglas passed away in 1998 at the age of 108. She once quipped, “I studied elocution at Wellesley College, and I’ve been going around elocuting ever since.”And her example has now inspired a new generation of courageous students, who are travelling the country, speaking and registering voters this summer. (https://www.teenvogue.com/story/who-marjory-stoneman-douglas-was) This is what Stoneman Douglas wrote in 1980:

“Be a nuisance where it counts, but never a bore. Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption, and bad politics—but never give up.”

We in the progressive Church need a robust theology of “down but not out,” and we need to engage in the spiritual practice of targeted nuisance-ing. This requires us to fully engage with our own discouragement, at the same time that we renew our trust in God, and cast ourselves on God’s mercy. To not be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed in all the violations of God’s law of love that make up the headlines today, would be to diminish our very humanity through callousness or willed ignorance. The odds are long: but God’s people are always in it for the long haul. We can learn from discouragement, and grow from it, without giving in to despair—and God’s grace will propel us into a new dawn of justice, compassion, and peace.

In God’s name, Amen.

 

Benediction:

May your own discouragement become a deep well from which you draw many gifts: reliance on God’s mercy; clarity from disorientation, and renewed purpose and commitment. May you wrestle a blessing from it, and widen the way of love in the world. And may God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless you and equip you to be a nuisance where it counts, to the glory of God’s holy name. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton, Pastor and Rector of Grace Episcopal Church, Newton Corner, Massachusetts; Denominational Counselor for Episcopal/Anglican Students, Harvard Divinity School

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