The Gift of Disillusionment – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson1 Corinthians 13:8-12 & Mark 8:22-26

Because children have a limited capacity to understand certain standard operating procedures of the adult world, they often come to conclusions that are very logical, but alas, entirely incorrect. National Public Radio’s Ira Glass calls this universal phenomenon “kid logic.”[i] For example, my younger sister was convinced that any building called a warehouse was a designated habitat for a werewolf, since these were the only two words she ever encountered with that particular prefix. Similarly, after overhearing an adult conversation featuring the improbable word “concubine” I became convinced that this was a rare species related to the porcupine. My parents patiently let us discover the errors of our “kid logic” on our own, and when we realized the inaccuracy of our theories, we were able to laugh at ourselves — and recalibrate. As children get closer to adolescence, they have a harder time with this gradual approach to revising their narratives. It’s a stage when many instances of “kid logic” collapse, often rapidly and ungracefully, in the face of new evidence about the world. That pre-teen struggle to integrate a vast range of new knowledge – along with the inner imperative to project a persona of effortless maturity to keep up with one’s peers – can make junior high school an unusually cruel boot-camp in disillusionment.

We continue our Epiphanytide preaching series this evening by exploring the gift of disillusionment, as it relates to following God’s call. Disillusionment is most literally “the state of being freed from illusion,” so as seekers of Christ’s light and truth, we can confidently call this a gift for the journey. But whatever the cause, disillusionment is often accompanied by pain: the pain of disappointment, the pain of frustrated expectations, or the pain of acknowledging a discrepancy between an ideal and a reality. To disillusion someone can even mean “to destroy someone’s false ideas.” You might ask how an experience that feels so painful, uncertain or destructive could possibly be a gift. Just as disillusionment is a frequent and necessary part of growing up and incorporating the truths necessary for functional adulthood, it is likewise an inevitable experience in our life of faith. Accepting the inevitability of disillusionment is one big step toward embracing it as a gift.  The lives of the saints show us that when a human will and God’s will are brought into harmonious alignment, that person comes to value growth in Christ over all else, and the basic impulse to embrace whatever promotes that growth becomes a home base. Now, whether we conceive of the direction of growth as up or down, in or out, we are never finished growing. Our spirits are equipped with a bottomless thirst for more and more Truth. If we continue to respond to this innate thirst, the junctures and thresholds by which such Truth enters in afresh will often be our experiences of disillusionment. This does not necessarily mean that our previous concept of God (or ourselves) or our way of relating to God (or ourselves) were inappropriate or false. After all, they carried us down a substantial leg of the road. Rather, it may simply mean that those understandings are too small or inadequate for the fullness of life into which we are being called now. To the hermit crab, a shell that is the right size for its growing body is indeed a gift. The same holds true for the soul.

At many crucial stages of our personal and spiritual growth, we are led away from one condition, or state of being, or state of seeing but find that we have not yet been led toward a  state of being that looks or feels anything like a new “normal.” Even if we have some idea of what to expect before such moments arrive, nothing can really prepare us ahead of time and on the other side we confess, “I had no idea it was going to be like this.” After illusions fall away, but before new truths are metabolized or a new set of inner resources emerges, we may simply feel caught in between.

Like the man in the eighth chapter of Mark, we “can see people, but they look like trees walking.” A strange, blurry world has made itself known just enough that the man can name a provisional experience of new orientation. He can see something instead of nothing. He probably has the accurate intuition that this disorienting experience is not yet the new orientation to which he is being led. But there is a moment in which all he can do is wait and watch.

For a story about a miraculous healing, this is a remarkable and unusual moment of suspended action. The mysterious process catalyzed by Jesus’s saliva, the physical contact of his hands, and the controlled laboratory environment – removed from the influences of the village – have all been introduced to the subject. But the reaction of those elements that we have come to expect as gospel readers, the satisfyingly instantaneous result of healing, hasn’t occurred yet. So is this a failed experiment? Did something go wrong?

I don’t think so. Although the story doesn’t explicitly mention faith or its absence, there is some implicit degree of faith that the crowd who have brought the man have placed in Jesus. At no point does the man get up and walk away disappointed; nor does Jesus. Jesus asks the man, “Can you see anything?,” expressing both care and curiosity about the man’s experience. The man keeps steadily looking and Jesus lays his hands on him a second time. It is the faithful persistence and steadfast patience of God that are the central themes here. The man is a recipient.

Mark’s gospel does not shy away from exploring the role of disillusionment in the life of discipleship. This story is the first incident in a sequence forming a bridge to the second half of the gospel. There follow three predictions of Jesus’s passion and crucifixion, placed in his own mouth. This is the most disillusioning truth that he will ask his disciples to accept, and they fail to do so, clinging tightly to their own illusions of what kind of Messiah Jesus must be. The sequence ends with the healing of blind Bartimaeus. Without even seeing Jesus, Bartimaeus knows who he is from a distance. Rather than being brought forward by a crowd, he must overcome the resistance of a crowd seeking to quiet him down. Rather than being sent home, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way. But while Bartimaeus’s healing may represent the idealized healing of an ideal disciple, this doesn’t render the healing of the first blind man any less significant, or any less a model for us. When we lack the clear orientation or initiative to lay hold of Jesus, there remains a way forward: being still, being known, being touched, and naming whatever few details we can see to the One who will not leave us at this threshold, but will continue to hold the door until we tiptoe, crawl, or even belly flop our way through it.

Theologian Andrew Byers suggests that the only authentic posture for a follower of Jesus in a disillusioning world is hopeful realism.[ii] Only a sober consent to recognize reality as it is, infused with confident expectation that God is working his purposes out will prove seaworthy on life’s stormy seas. Only hopeful realism will help us navigate between the perilous rocks of a false idealism on the one hand and a self-destructive cynicism on the other. False idealism maintains an illusion that our self-determined agenda or actions are enough to guide us through life or even to bring in the kingdom of God. Cynicism – so often the result of crushed idealism – controls a person’s life when disillusionment has calcified into a permanent condition, coloring all that we say, do, or even think.

So here are some questions for a prayerful self-diagnosis: Where are you right now on this spectrum of illusion and disillusion? How resistant or accepting are you of disillusionment? And if you are disillusioned at present, how can you receive the gifts hidden in your experience and slowly begin to move toward the hopeful realism to which Christ is calling you?

Naming the simple fact that you feel disillusioned may be a crucial first step, followed by giving yourself permission to feel it without too quickly returning to singing God’s praises in a major key. Lamentation may be a more suitable mode of prayer. Praying the many psalms that do not mince words and unabashedly give vent to the experience of disorientation can help. There may be stability in chanting them in a rhythmic and recollected way, as we do in this chapel. There may also be catharsis in writing a paraphrase and shouting it at the top of your lungs, as Jesus cried the words of Psalm 22 from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God’s love is strong enough to handle this, and rejoices in our honesty. Raw honesty is a sure sign that we are not avoiding our relationship with God.

We can also honestly assess where and in whom we have placed our hope, and distinguish the things that are worthy of our ultimate hope from those that are worthy of our provisional hope. “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them,” writes the Psalmist, and there are endless variations on this theme in scripture. Horses? No. Chariots? No. Riches? Nope. All of these will fail us. If we place our ultimate hope in provisional or temporal things, disillusionment will be sure to find us eventually. But when it does, it can be an aid in our discernment of how to hope in things like democracy, public education, community organizing or our network of family and friends. As creatures made to form community, we must hope in these things. It is often a joy to hope in them and to work to see them flourish. But our hope is provisional because it is light, gentle, and acknowledges human frailty – others’ and our own. The only One durable enough to hold our ultimate hope is God.

Finally, in seasons of disorientation or spiritual confusion, we can remain open to the possibility that God is turning up the lights rather than plunging us into darkness. The light of Epiphany can illuminate gently, conveniently casting a beam precisely where we need it, but it can also knock us off our horses, as it did to St. Paul on the road to Damascus. If your situation has left you momentarily unable to see, you might need the torch-light of a guide, or the campfire of community to make your way through the night. But you might also need a moment to be still and allow your eyes to adjust if what blinded you was in fact the dazzling light of a new and unexpected sunrise.

The choice to live a genuinely examined life in the knowing and loving presence of God is a challenge, but it is also full of meaning and rich with joy. Seasons of disillusionment are sure signs that God is leading us deeper in. When we are led into a healthy acceptance of its inevitability, we’re not far from accepting its blessings as a gift. When a human will and God’s will are brought into harmonious alignment, that person comes to value growth in Christ over all else, and the basic impulse to embrace whatever promotes that growth becomes a home base. Seasons of disillusionment are sure signs that we are not finished growing. Perhaps we are only really beginning.

[i] A hysterical and insightful episode of the podcast This American Life (“Kid Logic,” episode 188, 2001) explores this theme.

[ii] See Andrew Byers’ Faith Without Illusions (2011) and his blog, “Hopeful Realism.”


This sermon is part of the “Gifts for the Journey” series. We hope you’ll check out the other sermons in the series

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  1. rev. carol carlson on February 9, 2021 at 12:10

    Left alone by the pandemic, with the ‘normal’ re-evaluation of a long life in full swing, grappling with the still-ongoing need to ‘grow up’ despite three-quarters of a century spent trying – well, it’s a lot to handle. You’re so right, Br. Keith, that we all need to be dis-illusioned, and grateful for it; but a long stretch of silence and solitude is just the ticket for exposing the depth and breadth and, above all, length, of that need. The reminder to take it as a gift is well-timed. Bartimaeus’s function in Mark’s Gospel as the necessary introduction to Jesus’s Passion predictions is a brilliant insight – I’m taking him as the patron saint of this coming Lent, the very image of how such things must be received, and hoping that all the things that now – still – look to me like trees walking might turn out to be something else entirely, in the mercy (and spit) of God. Thanks!

  2. anna on February 9, 2021 at 09:28

    Great sermon!
    Old age is not particularly a time of disillusion, but it certainly is a time of confusion. “What am I doing here?” or, more accurately “What should I be doing here, seeing as I am still here and not of any use I used to be?” I pray this every day.

  3. Maria C. on January 25, 2020 at 18:51

    Thank you, I’m in a state of disillusionment, and it helps to understand it as the end of an illusion, the end of a false reality, and that Christ is calling me, keeps calling me. Lately I have questioned the reality of Christ in my life, so this piece has helped me a lot. THANK YOU!

  4. Alan on January 25, 2020 at 12:39

    Love this.

  5. marta J. engdahl on January 25, 2020 at 10:02

    Epiphany in January is such a wonderful change as we search for the Light within and without. Opportunity for growing more towards Christ. Thanks for your thoughts and inspiration for us to continue to refine the search.

  6. James Rowland on January 25, 2020 at 08:38

    Thank you, Br. Keith. “—to be still, to be known, to be touched”. This path seems real to me from a lifetime of the disillusioned experience of others”telling me about Jesus” from their own, maybe not too clear sight. Thank you for your clarity!

  7. Mike on January 25, 2020 at 08:34

    This teaching is pivotal to the future of my ministry life. I hope and pray I can grasp the depth and the reality of this word. Thankyou

  8. Beverly Deprey on January 25, 2020 at 08:34

    There weren’t any horses there in that day. So . . . speaking figuratively ???

  9. Jeanne DeFazio on January 25, 2020 at 08:20

    The light of Epiphany can illuminate gently, conveniently casting a beam precisely where we need it, but it can also knock us off our horses, as it did to St. Paul on the road to Damascus. If your situation has left you momentarily unable to see, you might need the torch-light of a guide, or the campfire of community to make your way through the night. But you might also need a moment to be still and allow your eyes to adjust if what blinded you was in fact the dazzling light of a new and unexpected sunrise!

  10. Jo Cooley on January 25, 2020 at 08:18

    Perfect for this day, for me. Thank you!

  11. COREY WALMER on January 11, 2019 at 06:27

    Thank you; I had to pull this up and re-read it today. Thank you.

  12. Dee Dee on January 10, 2019 at 20:29

    I really needed to hear this today. Thank you, Br. Keith, for you wise and gentle words.

  13. Margaret Dungan on January 10, 2019 at 11:33

    Thank you Br.Keith .I feel you have given me a great opportunity to grow with these insights. They are very timely.


  14. Elizabeth Hardy on January 10, 2019 at 09:12

    Thank you Brother. This makes my current struggle with disillusionment more promising! Even as I am wrestling with feeling rejected by God, when I see something lovely or something good happens, I can’t stop myself from saying “Praise the Lord”. So you have given me hope that I am not stuck, but rather moving deeper. Thank you. Elizabeth+

  15. Cate on January 10, 2019 at 09:11

    One of my favorite collection of poems is Mary Oliver’s “Thirst.” Highly recommended!

  16. Ruth West on February 1, 2018 at 21:45

    Br.Keith, this is an excellent sermon. Thank you! We all have periods of disillusionment, when we cannot see clearly. My Bible Study Group is finishing the study of Mark’s Gospel next week. The references to the stories related by Mark are fresh on my mind. It is my desire to live in realistic hope in the Presence of my Lord which truly is a life of joy. So often it is that second touch of Christ Jesus which clears our vision and heals our souls.

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