I have been watching an Australian-New Zealand comedy drama TV program, entitled ‘800 words.’ In it, George Turner is a popular columnist for a top selling Sydney newspaper, writing an article which he insists must be exactly 800 words. After his wife dies, over the internet and unseen, he buys a house in New Zealand in a (fictional) small seaside town called Weld, where his parents took him on holiday when he was a child. He then has to break the news to his two teenage children. But the colourful and inquisitive locals in Weld ensure Turner’s dream of a fresh start does not go exactly to plan. I have been drawn to this program because of its title – I write frequently to a precise word count, so I like George’s ‘800 words’. But I also can connect to the characters because the theme of expectations is often woven throughout the episodes.
Expectations are part of all of our lives. Our own expectations. The expectations of others. The expectations of God. As a Minister, I am acutely aware of my own expectations and of those of others. And I am conscious when those marry together and when they do not. I know when: a Service has gone well, and when it has not; when I have found the right words to comfort someone, and when my words have failed; when I have not visited someone in time, and when my absence has caused hurt to another. And at times I also have to find a way to align those differing expectations in light of the expectations of God. In that there is always a tension, with which I and others must live. A seasoned colleague once said of the Christian life and ministry that, “The exercise of leadership is the management of the disappointment of expectations at a rate individuals can absorb.”
That has always resonated deeply with me. It has helped frame my understanding.
In such a heady mix of expectations though I must rely on the grace of God. Others must do the same. A friend shared a prayer she had written for use immediately after God’s people have shared Holy Communion.
“Heavenly Father, by your grace, we continue in this holy fellowship as we pray for our families and for the family of your church around the world… Keep us in fellowship with all who rest in you… for we have shared in the living bread and cannot remain the same. So, ask much of us, and expect much from us each day and every day for you have fed us at your heavenly table…. Amen.”
“Ask much of us and expect much from us” are sentiments I can relate to. The difficulty for us and others often lies in the understanding we have of expectations. When they are met and when they are not. And how we live with that tension when expectations remain unmet? Do we adjust our understanding, do we blame ourselves, others, or even God? There is a critical element to such reflection. To do that we need to take a step back from our situation and expectations. Often it is not about me. When others display disappointment, grief or anger towards us, we are not always the source of that emotion. Sometimes, though it is about me. When criticism is well founded we can discover an opportunity to clarify, to apologise, or to reconcile. Sometimes the voice of criticism is the voice of the Holy Spirit, speaking the truth, seeking to correct. But even when the criticism is well-founded, that does not make it easy to hear. In fact, legitimate criticism may be the most difficult to hear because it cannot be easily dismissed.
To flourish of course we need criticism and praise. Praise can build up where criticism can break down. For we who would follow Christ, we need both. We also must recognise that criticism and praise are twin impostors. Both are to be approached warily, because both can deceive and both can mislead.
So what are your expectations of the Christian life? Are they reasonable, do you expect enough of yourself, of others, of God? Or are they unrealistic somehow? Have you been too selective in your judgment of self, others, or God. The notion that we should not judge another until we have walked a mile in their shoes calls upon us to look at our expectations in a different light. It is easy to be selective with our judgement. It is more difficult to be understanding and compassionate. After all, why else did Jesus remind us in St. Matthew 7:1 “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Such an approach may well lead us to set for ourselves, others and God more appropriate expectations. Great expectations.
Rev Ian Taylor (800 words)