This is one of the most interesting plot twists in all of Scripture. More than any other Israelite in the desert, Moses has earned the right to cross that river and enter the Promised Land. From the fiery shrubbery that first called him out of shepherding, through the Red Sea and the tempests of whining and complaint he has endured, Moses should be a shoo-in for a passport.
What’s striking here is that, while later interpreters will spend countless pages trying to make sense of this turn of events, Deuteronomy, back in chapter 32, simply states it is a result of the misdemeanor at Meribah (Numbers 20:1-13). Moses didn’t follow the letter of the law, and as a result God will keep him and his brother from setting foot in the Promised Land.
It’s easy to read a passage like this and become distracted by questions of God’s seemingly graceless treatment of Moses. After all, we are told at the end of this passage that “no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” Surely that’s worth some sort of extra credit. So it would be easy to spend this entire sermon trying to justify God’s actions or explain, since the ancients would have interpreted events like death to have divine meaning and purpose, how Moses’ dying was really better than entering some dumb, old Promised Land.
But perhaps the deeper truth here is the universal reality of disappointment, that sometimes life, even the life of faith, does not make much sense. The word disappointment means just what it sounds like – it means to have a previously scheduled appointment canceled, an expected opportunity erased, or a promise broken. For some, that disappointment comes when the reality of a project doesn’t come anywhere close to the vision
I learned early in life to stay out of the garage if my dad’s work bench project wasn’t meeting expectations. His disappointment could be loud and stormy. Of course, disappointments like that are a dime a dozen and we can pass them off pretty easily.
But what happens when the disappointments go deeper; what happens when they are even life altering? Some of us have experienced the disappointment of unrequited love, or not getting into the school, college, or career field we dreamed of. Still deeper disappointments have been experienced by those who have endured the disappointment of a lost pregnancy or the inability to ever conceive the children they dreamed of; or when fervent prayers for the person who does so much for others seem to fall on deaf ears as the cancer takes its course. Perhaps someone who is right and true and always colors inside the lines finds themselves standing atop their own Pisgah, so close to what is desired but unable to touch it.
The uncertainties of life throw each of us into the pool of disappointment at times, where we bob around, sometimes feeling as though we are sinking or drowning. When we are disappointed, it is only natural that sometimes, we react by complaining, we experience bitterness, even anger. Yet, we all know people who do, in fact, drowned in their disappointment; people who cannot get past it. God or the church or a friend or a spouse have done them wrong and they don’t ever move beyond that point in their lives. It’s hard to be grateful when the thing you most want and need and desire and pray for is taken away. So their disappointment comes to define them.
It helps when we can find the power available in seeing our own stories as a part of something greater. Scripture tells us that Moses knows in advance that his ministry will end just short of his intended destination, yet he spends his last breaths in blessing and praise of the same Lord who has passed that judgment on him. Maybe he wasn’t taking this journey just for himself.
So, how do we become like Moses? How do we live in gratitude even when our hearts have been broken and disappointments assail us? Experts in the field of psychology conclude the attitude of gratitude to be a choice that we make.
Viktor Frankl, for instance, was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who, along with most of his family, was sent to concentration camps during World War II. During their years in those camps, Frankl’s mother, father, brother and wife all died. The only person in his family to survive the Holocaust, aside from himself was one sister.
From his observations and personal experience, Frankl developed theories that he later wrote, taught, and spoke about. In his best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote that people are primarily driven by a “striving to find one’s meaning in life.” It is this sense of meaning that helps people survive and even thrive following painful experiences. Frankl wrote, “The last of human freedoms [is] the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances, especially in difficult circumstances.” Can we do that? Can we make the choice to be grateful no matter what our circumstance?
Frankl considered gratitude to be a choice one makes in the face of adversity as well as blessing. As people of faith, we don’t have to look far to find meaning in life. We have been entrusted with the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have the joy of knowing that no matter what might befall us in this life, nothing can separate us from the love of God known and experienced in Jesus Christ. We live each day knowing that we are created in the image of God for the purpose of sharing God’s love and compassion with the world. We live with the assurance that not only will God never let us go, but that God’s Holy Spirit is with us through every trial and joy, disappointment and success in life. Yet, sometimes, we forget.
In an age of instant gratification and convenience, we lose the understanding that there is a discipline to disappointment; there is a discipline to gratitude. Indeed, it takes practice to react with gratitude and not resentment to the disappointments of life.
During a particularly stressful time in my life, I was challenged by a colleague to try an exercise to help me focus on gratitude. He suggested that I begin making mental lists of what I was thankful for and give a prayer of thanks and praise to God for each one. He said I should do that each morning before my feet hit the floor and the negatives began to assault me and each night as I went to bed – to dispel the abundant negativity of the day. I found myself trying to continue the practice even when things aren’t so rough.
The idea is that even in the depth of our dark days, because of the love of Jesus, there is still light. Even when we are sad, there is something to be grateful for. We are in some way blessed. This is not to deny the fact that sometimes life just stinks. But it is a way to retrain the brain to see not only the most obvious, negative stuff, but also to see the positive things in life, and to develop a healthy and spiritually grounded attitude of gratitude about them. But, as I said, this is a discipline and I have to remind myself regularly to maintain the practice.
It’s never our work to assign meaning to others’ dashed hopes and dreams or to command joy in the face of disappointment – as I just said, “Sometimes life just stinks!” But what we can do is look to the faith of Moses, perhaps best displayed not in front of Pharaoh but as he sat alone with his God watching the horizon of his life’s work, feeling not resentment but grateful. What we all need is a little perspective – what is the grander story being told? What is the greater story of which we play a part?
We are part of the story of the Church of Christ that, in gratitude for the life-giving blood of Christ on the Cross, gather each week to worship and praise our Lord. We are the grateful recipients of God’s love; sent into the world to bring the healing love of Christ to our neighbor. We are God’s children, redeemed for the sake of the Kingdom of God, filled with gratitude for God’s unerring love, acceptance, forgiveness, healing, and presence in the midst of our deepest disappointments. We can rejoice and give thanks for our place in God’s story, in spite of disappointments we’ve faced along the way.
As Christians our sense of gratitude comes from a deep well of faith and hope given to us through baptism, reinforced by the Word of God and grown and nurtured through the sacraments. It is profound. It forms in us generosity. It encourages our efforts to respond to the blessings of God with our lives. It influences our sense of stewardship, citizenship, and everyday living.
In his book, On Fire, writer and speaker John O’Leary writes, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
May it always be that, whether we are experiencing pasture or desert, joy or sorrow, gain or loss, we might learn to be grateful for the grace, mercy and love of Jesus that accompany us on the way.