Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

First Hand Desperation (Sep-Dec 2004)

Filed under: — @ 1:46 pm and

Jeff Walling
September – December 2004

I think they were sweating. Actually, I have to believe that or I lose hope myself. If they were able to stand there, waiting for a life or death sentence, and not have a bead of perspiration anywhere in sight then they weren’t human after all. They really were just like the gold statues of them that clutter cathedrals from Norte Dame to North Dakota.

But they were human. They were appointed by Christ, empowered by his Spirit, ennobled by his truth, but human, none the less. So when Peter and John stood waiting for the other sandal to drop, possible endings for the scene must have rambled through their hearts. “They’ll stone us. No. First they’ll flog us, then they’ll stone us. Ok, Maybe they’ll beat us, then flog us then stone us … ” But that wasn’t God’s plan… at least not that time:

Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus…. And after further threats they let them go. (Acts 4:18, 21)

The scene would repeat itself countless times as the gospel exploded from Jerusalem throughout the world. Men and women coming within a hair’s breadth of martyrdom for telling the Good News in public. Riding an emotional rollercoaster to the edge of … what? Desperation. That moment when you believe that all hope might actually be gone, when there doesn’t seem to be any good way for the story to end. Most of us shudder at the thought of those moments. We catch a glimpse of them in the eyes of a parent with a child in ICU. We sense the smell of it on the young couple who are walking in to see the counselor for one last ditch effort at saving their marriage. We turn away from it when the doctor approaches the family in the waiting room with the look no one wants their doctor to wear. No one seeks desperation. But should we? Look at the prayer that follows the apostle’s desperate moments in Acts chapter 4:

“Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: “ ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’

Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:24-30)

Desperation has long been the mother of great prayers. Whether David crying from the cave or Jonah from the whale’s belly, God’s people have often ridden the wave of desperation onto the shores of faith. They and we are moved by visions of despair and destruction to new heights of worship and petition. You can criticize fox-hole prayers all you want, but they come from the most sincere, if aching, places in the heart and they are real:

Oh God don’t let my mother die!
Oh Lord forgive me, I can’t believe what I have done.
Please, God, please let her come back!

And when desperation is absent, when our hearts and bellies are brimming full of security and confidence our prayers and worship are at their most anemic. We sleepwalk through the communion and glance at our watch mid-verse as we sing the song by Dennis Jernigan,

You are my strength when I am weak,
You are the treasure that I seek
You are my all in all.

What’s wrong with that picture? Could it be a lack of desperation? Jesus gave us a clue to this power when he began his most studied sermon: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.” Wasn’t there more there than a bland assurance of a better life for the humble? Wasn’t he saying, “Blessed are the desperate … for they will be the ones who run and weep and cry out until they find the face of God.” Only through the desperate realization of my poverty and peril will my eyes open to the reality of God’s face, his presence. Only in the lonely pit of despair will I grow still enough to hear his soothing voice.

I remember asking my grandmother, after she and grandpa celebrated sixty years of marriage, “What will make my marriage as strong as yours?” She didn’t bat an eye: “Live through a depression and a world war.” Try putting that in your premarital counseling pamphlet. But she’s right: Desperation draws people together. It clarifies priorities and fortifies faith.

But therein lies the rub: Who wants to go looking for desperation? Not Mrs. Walling’s boy. My cupboards are stocked with extra batteries in case a hurricane should swing through our state. I’ve got a small stockpile of duct tape and plastic hidden away to keep any unexpected chemical weapons from killing my children. Why I even have my old “Earthquake Preparedness” kit handy from my California days … just in case. So I’m not caught unprepared and, well, desperate. Can’t I just read “Grapes of Wrath” three times and call that good?

No. Desperation is experienced first-hand or not at all. Empathy can only take me so far. But the good news is this: since the Garden of Eden we have all been in a desperate situation. We just need reminding. We have all “fallen short of the glory of God.” We all stand condemned and sentenced. We are lost and without hope … until we finally look to Jesus. The simple secret may be to embrace it. To admit it.

So come, join a band of desperados. With our toes hanging over the edge of eternity we call to one another, “Look down! See the bottom of the canyon and know that we are in peril . . . and then praise God for it!” We can even sing it out with the one who wrote those words:

I’m desperate for you!

And it is in the silence following than pitiful echo that I guarantee, if you listen, you will hear his voice.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. (Thomas Merton)

New Wineskins

Jeff WallingJeff Walling has spent the last twenty-five years preaching and teaching about Jesus. He is author of three books, including Daring to Dance with God. Jeff lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his wife, Cathryn and their three sons, Taylor, Riley and Spencer. He serves as senior minister for Providence Road Church of Christ.

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