I started to title this post, “I might be moving to Montana soon…,” but I decided after getting back from my semi-annual trip to the Northern Rockies that Jerry Garcia was looking a little more prophetic to me than Frank Zappa.
Did you ever have one of those vacations that just didn’t live up to expectations? Maybe part of it is in the anticipation. Every 2 or 3 years, I get to go out west with some fishing buddies and explore some of the great rivers of Montana on a sort of holy pilgramage to the flyfishing Mecca of the contiguous 48. In the past, each of these trips has sort of built on the last one, at least as far as fishing success goes (if you define success by numbers of fairly large trout caught, anyway). So you begin to anticipate that the next trip will be better still.
Leading up to the trip, we scoured the internet for streamflow information for weeks, followed weather reports almost by the hour, read reports from every fly shop in the greater Missoula area every day, and concluded that the stars were really lining up to hand us a week of excellent flyfishing. As we counted down the days and hours to our departure, we built this mental image up of how great this trip was going to be. How it was going to be just the greatest trip to Montana ever made by any group of anglers. People would write stories and sing songs about our mighty conquests over the browns of the Bitterroot, the rainbows of Rock Creek, and the cutthroats of the legendary Blackfoot….
Somewhere along the line, though, someone forgot to tell the trout. Oh, it was OK. I mean, we caught plenty of fish and we caught some nice ones. It’s just that the fishing part of the experience just wasn’t AS good as it had been the last couple of times. It certainly wasn’t as good as we expected it to be. And somehow, that was disappointing.
On top of all that was this kind of cloud of weird karma that hung over the whole experience. The first day on Rock Creek, we had a flat tire on one of the rental cars. The next day I slipped and fell in the water three times–not surprising to those who know how clumsily I can wade sometimes, but I hadn’t fallen in a river in probably 5 years. I guess I was due. The 3rd day, I fished for 6 hours before I finally caught a trout. Fishing was a little slow for everyone that day, but I like to think of myself as being a better angler than that. On day 4, two of us broke fly rods on a float trip. The next day another rod was broken and one of the guys chipped a tooth. And it seemed like every day, there was some little distraction that kept us off task. Now, I know stuff happens, but after 5 consecutive days of this kind of thing, you begin to wonder what’s going on!
So the disappointment of relatively mediocre fishing was compounded by this odd string of coincidences. And it all just built up. Guys who have been fast friends for years began to grow impatient with each other. Tempers never really flared, but they certainly rose. And the nice rosy aura around the anticipation and beginning of the trip began to turn dark. Not quite toxic, but certainly not healthy.
On the way home, reflecting on the notion that the trip just didn’t live up to expectations, I decided that the problem wasn’t with the trip. The trip was fine. The problem was with the expectations themselves. You see, what I had done, and what I guess the other guys in our group had also done to some extent, was to create this experience in our minds before we actually HAD the experience. We fantasized about grand numbers of really big fish. We presumed we would be high-fiving each other over 20″ trout and filling up the memory cards of our digital cameras with photo after photo of big fish. We allowed anticipation to grow into an experience that the actual experience couldn’t live up to.
And that realization led me into some larger thoughts about our human experience.
Why is it that we have a need to impose expectations on our experiences? Not just experiences like recreational outings, but even our days at work, or our evenings at home, or our Sunday mornings in church. And beyond that, why are our expectations so often just SO unrealistic?
What’s worse, we extend those expectations to our experiences with other people. And more often than not, those expectations have to do with how others will serve us. How they will meet our needs.
Lately I’ve been reading a book called Uprising by an LA pastor named Erwin McManus. One of the key things McManus talks about is the idea of generosity, and how it grows out of an attitude of wanting to give more than we take. And how generosity extends beyond our finances and even our time, but also to the simple way we deal with one another. When we go into a situation with expectations of how another person is going to meet our needs, we immediately become takers rather than givers. Now, imagine two people going into an encounter with one another, both carrying that same expectation…one taker plus one taker equals zero givers. And so conflict ensues.
Or maybe you’re not even coming into that situation as a taker. Maybe you’re just trying to do all you can to meet your own needs, and someone suddenly demands that you drop everything to meet their needs. So how do we respond? Usually, it’s more defensive than generous. And who can blame us, right? I mean, haven’t we earned the right to respond to a jerk by acting like a jerk? Doesn’t our thought process go something like: “Who does he think HE is, treating me like that. I’ll show him!” Again, the outcome is conflict.
We’ve been having a lot of very healthy growth at our church lately. But it comes at somewhat of a cost. For a hundred years, we’ve been a relatively small, “family” church. For generations, everyone has known one another. The pastor and staff have been able to more or less meet everyone’s needs and expectations, because the number of members was relatively low and the expectations manageable. But as we grow, and as more people come to experience a relationship with Christ through our church family, it becomes harder and harder for the paid and/or volunteer staff to meet everyone’s needs all the time. The problem is, the expectation hasn’t changed with the times and the growth. A consumer mentality to ministry persists. That spirit of generosity hasn’t fully taken hold yet. And so “takers” become angry. Again, conflict.
At first, I was a little ticked off about how things went on my Montana trip. It’s hard to accept when things don’t meet your expectations. Our human instinct is to try to assign blame. When we’re in conflict with someone else, it’s always their fault, isn’t it? And when expectations aren’t met, someone or something has to be held accountable, right?
But as I mulled things over for the next few days, and had the audacity to ask God what He was trying to teach me through all this, this whole notion of unrealistic expectations began to really take form.
My trip to Montana was a lot of fun. We caught some fish, even some nice ones if no really big ones like we have before. We saw some beautiful country, some of Creation’s finest work, in my opinion. I got to hang out for 8 days with five good men. We enjoyed each other’s company and got to meet some really cool people, like the guy who rented us the rafts and the waitresses at the local greasy spoon. Even with the broken rods, wet socks and flat tire, we had a good experience.
I think that’s how Jesus would want us to see our experiences with one another. Our selfish human nature is hard to overcome. Exchanging our agendas for someone else’s needs does not come naturally to us. Being generous in our encounters with each other requires a sacrifice of self that we’re not comfortable with. But even when our expectations may not be met, that shouldn’t diminish our experiences. Rather than blaming each other for failing to meet our needs, maybe we should try seeing the exchange from their perspective. Rather than entering every encounter by demanding our expectations be met, we should try first to fulfill others’ expectations.
Yep, it’s a long, strange trip we’re on. We shouldn’t expect it to be anything else.