Desperation Melts under the Morning Star

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Do most of us live in “quiet desperation”? Maybe the answer depends on your faith in something bigger than yourself. The question was inspired by a quote from Transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It comes from his collection of meditations, titled, Walden, written in 1854. Modern philosophers still apply it to the human condition. Thoreau continued:

“What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”

One noted commentator/podcaster cited Thoreau’s quote as one of his favorites, saying he’s been that guy.

“You have an apartment to pay for, you have a car you leased, you have a wife to feed, a child to raise. You have your mortgage. You have your this, you have your that…and that’s where it all comes from,” he added.

Really? Modern Thoreaus don’t know desperation until they study scripture. This Sunday’s readings are good examples of our desperation for truth. It’s evident among those who heard Paul and Barnabas testify to experiencing Christ’s truth. Sunday’s first reading (Acts 13:14, 43-52) says these disciples urged their audience to “remain faithful to the grace of God.” But if you read the full account from Acts, you see how desperate these Temple attendees were for what Paul and Barnabas had to say about Jesus:

“You must know, my brothers, that through him forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you, [and] in regard to everything from which you could not be justified under the law of Moses, in him every believer is justified.”

This account states that as Paul and Barnabas were leaving the temple, these desperate people invited them to speak on these subjects the following Sabbath.”

Of course we know where speaking the truth eventually led Paul. Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941), a renowned writer on the impact of Paul’s mystical experiences, put desperation in perspective when analyzing Paul’s statement that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). He wrote this from a prison cell, after, as Underhill explains, “twelve years of superhuman toil, privation, and ill-usage, accompanied by chronic ill-health; years which had included scourging, stoning, shipwreck, imprisonments, and as Paul testified, “in journeying often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watching often, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness” (2 Corinthians 11:26–27).”

Sunday’s second reading from the Book of Revelation (Rev 7:9, 14b-17) multiplies such desperate souls by the thousands as John details his vision “of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb.”

“Who are these people?” John asks the elders. “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; the one who sits on the throne will shelter them. … will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The gospel of John quotes Jesus directly (Jn 10:27-30): “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”

This is the knowledge that strengthened Paul through years of desperate situations, and his testimony caused desperate souls to seek the same strength.

Let’s give voice to our own quiet desperation and raise it up through prayers for the courage that comes with faith in one whose spirit is ours now and forever:

Thoreau: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

Revelation: “I, Jesus, sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the root and offspring of David, the bright morning star.”

Both Thoreau and The Book of Revelation promise a bright future to those who look for it so they can face it.

–Tom Andel

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