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The Crown Of Thorns by E. H. Chapin

THE SHADOW OF DISAPPOINTMENT.

But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel. LUKE xxiv.21.

In the accounts of the disciples, contained in the New Testament, there is no attempt to glorify them, or to conceal any weakness. From the first to the last, they think and act precisely as men would think and act in their circumstances; -- they are affected just as others of like culture would be affected by such events as those set forth in the record. And the genuineness of their conduct argues the genuineness of the incidents which excited it. The divine, wonderworking, risen Jesus, is the necessary counterpart of the amazed, believing, erring hoping, desponding, rejoicing fishermen and publicans. This stamp of reality is very evident in the instance before us. The conduct and the feelings of the disciples are those of men who have been involved in a succession of strange experiences. For a little while they have been in communion with One who has spoken as never man spoke, and who has touched the deepest springs of their being. He has lifted them out of the narrow limits of their previous lives. From the Receipt of Customs, and the Galilean lake, he has summoned them to the interests and awards, the thought and the work, of a spiritual and divine kingdom. At first following him, perhaps they hardly knew why, conscious only that he had the Words of Eternal Life, the terms of this discipleship have grown into bonds of the dearest intimacy. Their Master has become their Companion and their Friend, and their faith has deepened into tender and confiding love. But still, theirs has been the belief of the trusting soul, rather than the enlightened intellect. From the fitness of the teaching, and the wonder of the miracle, they have felt that he was the very Christ; and yet, from this conviction of the heart they have not been able to separate their Jewish conceits. Sometimes, it may be, the language of the Saviour has carried them up into a broader and more spiritual region; but then, they have subsided into their symbols and shadows; -- only, notwithstanding the errors that have hindered, and the hints that have awed them, they have steadily felt the inspiration of a great hope, the expectation of something glorious to be revealed in the speedy coming of the Messiah's kingdom. And now, does not the account immediately connected with the text picture for us exactly the state of men whose conceptions have been broken up by a great shock, and yet in whose hearts the central hope still remains and vibrates with mysterious tenacity? -- men who have had the form of their expectation utterly refuted and scattered into darkness, but who still cherish its spirit? Christ the crowned King, -- Christ the armed Deliverer, -- Christ the Avenger, sweeping away his foes with one burst of miracle, -- is to them, no more. They saw the multitude seize him, and no legions came to rescue; -- they saw him condemned, abused, crucified, buried; and so, in no sense of which they could conceive, was this he who should have redeemed Israel. And yet the suggestion of something still to come, -- something connected with three days, -- lingered in their minds. And, in the midst of their despondency, striking upon this very chord, the startling rumor reached them that Christ had risen from the dead. It was in this mood that Jesus found the two disciples whose words I have selected for my text; -- faith and doubt, disappointment and hope, alternating in their minds; their Jewish conceit laid prostrate in the dust, and yet the expectation of something, they knew not what, now strangely confirmed. See how these feelings mingle in the passage before us. |What manner of communications,| said the undiscerned Saviour, |are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?|-|Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem,| says one of them, |and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?| What things? |Concerning Jesus of Nazareth,| replied they, |which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to-day is the third day since these things were done. Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre; and when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive. And certain of them which were with us went to the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.|

My hearers, I think we see, in this instance the minds of these disciples working as the minds of men might be expected to work under like conditions. And to me this casts a complexion of genuineness upon the transactions which, as stated in the record, account for these mental alternations. The entire passage is alive with reality. The genuine emotions of humanity play and thrill together, there, in the shadow of the cross and the glory of the resurrection.

But, if these feelings are thus natural, the experience itself indicated in that portion of this verse which constitutes the text is not entirely removed from our ordinary life. The incident which occasioned these sad words was an extraordinary one; but its moral significance, as it now comes before us, illustrates many a passage in man's daily course. The language, as we read it, appears to be the language of disappointment; -- -it was under the shadow of disappointment, though alternating with hope, that these disciples spoke; and it is to the lessons afforded by disappointment in the course of life that I now especially invite your attention.

And the precise point in the text, bearing upon this subject, is the fact, that while the disciples seemed to feel as though all redemption for Israel was now hopeless, that process of redemption for Israel, and for the world, was going on through the agency of those very events which had filled them with dismay. Even as they were speaking, in tones of sadness, about the crucified Christ, the living Christ, made perfect for his work by that crucifixion, was walking by their side. Looking far this side of that shadow of disappointment which then brooded over them, we see all this, that then they did not see; but now is it with ourselves, under the frequent shadows cast by more ordinary events? This suggestion may afford us some profitable thoughts.

I need hardly say, in the first place, that man is continually inspired by expectation. Every effort he makes is made in the conviction of possibility and the light of hope. This is the heart of ambition and the spring of toil. It is the balm which he applies to the wounds of misfortune. It is the key with which he tries the wards of nature. And from the morning of life to its last twilight he is always looking. forward. The saddest spectacle of all -- sadder even than pain, and bereavement, and death -- is a man void of hope. The most abject people is a hopeless people, in whose hearts the memories of the past, and the pulses of endeavor, and the courage of faith are dead, and who crouch by their own thresholds and the crumbling tombstones of their fathers, and take the tyrant's will, without an incentive, and without even a dream. The most intense form in which misery can express itself is in the phrase, |I have nothing to live for.| And he who can actually say, and who really feels this, is dead, and covered with the very pall and darkness of calamity. But few, indeed, are they who can, with truth, say this.

But if hope or expectation is such a vital element of human experience, so does disappointment have its part in the mechanism of things, and, as we shall presently see, its wise and beneficial part. For, after all, how few things correspond with the forecast of expectation! To be sure, some results transcend our hope; but how many fall below it, -- balk it, -- turn out exactly opposite to it! Among those who meet with disappointments in life, there are those who are expecting impossibilities, -- whose expectations are inordinate, -- are more than the nature of things will admit; or who are looking for a harvest where they have planted no seed. They carry the dreams of youth in among the realities of the world, and its vanishing visions leave them naked and discouraged. The light of romance, that glorified all things in the future, recedes as they advance, and they come upon rugged paths of fact -- upon plain toil and daily care, -- upon the market and the field, and upon men as they are in their weakness, and their selfishness, and their mutual distrust. Or they belong, it may be, to that class who are too highly charged with hope; whose sanguine notions never go by induction, but by leaps; who never calculate the difficulties, but only see the thing complete and rounded in imagination; -- men with plenty of poetry, and no arithmetic; whose theories work miracles, but whose attempts are failures. It is pleasant, sometimes, to meet with people like these, who, clothed in the scantiest garments, and with only a crust upon their tables, at the least touch of suggestion, mount into a region of splendor. Their poverty all fades away; -- the bare walls, the tokens of stern want, the dusty world, are all transfigured with infinite possibilities. Achievement is only a word, and fortune comes in at a stride. The palace of beauty rises, fruits bloom in waste places, gold drops from the rocks, and the entire movement of life becomes a march of jubilee. And they are so certain this time, -- the plan they now have is so sure to succeed! I repeat, it is pleasant, sometimes, to have intercourse with such men, who throw bloom and marvelousness upon the actualities of the world, from the reservoirs of their sanguine invention. At least, it is pleasant to think how this faculty of unfailing enthusiasm enables them to bear defeat, and to look away from the cold face of necessity; -- to think that, while so many are trudging after the sounding wheels and the monotonous jar of life, and lying down by the way to die, these men are marching buoyantly to a tune inside. And yet this is pleasant only from a hasty point of view. These people meet with disappointment, of course; and it is sad to think how many lives have come to absolutely nothing, and are all strewn over, from boyhood to the grave, with the fragments of splendid schemes. It is sad to think how all their visionary Balbecs and Palmyras have been reared in a real desert, -- the desert of an existence producing no substantial thing. And among these vanishing dreams, and on that melancholy waste, they learn, at last, the meaning of their disappointment. And from their experience, we too may learn, that we are placed here to be not merely ideal artists, but actual toilers; not cadets of hope, but soldiers of endeavor.

But there are disappointments in life that succeed reasonable expectation; and these are the hardest of all to bear. I say the expectation is reasonable; and yet, very possibly, the bitterness of the disappointment comes from neglecting to consider the infirmity of all earthly things. It is hard when, not dreaming, but trying our best, we fail. It is hard to bear the burden and heat of the day, through all life's prime, and yet, with all our toil, to earn no repose for its evening hours. It is hard to accumulate a little gain, baptizing every dollar with our honest sweat, and then have it stricken from our grasp by the band of calamity or of fraud. It is hard, when we have placed our confidence in man's honor, or his friendship, to find that we are fools, and that we have been led in among rocks and serpents. And hard indeed is it to see those who were worthy our love and our faith drop by our side, and leave us alone. This dear child, the blossom of so many hopes, -- hard is it to see him die -- to fold all our expectation in his little shroud, and lay it away forever. We thought it had been he who should have comforted and blessed us, -- in whose life we could have retraced the cycle of our own happiest experience, -- whose unfolding faculties would have been a renewal of our knowledge, and his manhood not merely the prop but the refreshing of our age. This companion of our lot, -- this wedded wife of our heart, -- why taken away now? She has shared our early struggles, and tempered our anxiety with cheerful assurance. She has tasted the bitterness; we thought she would have been a partner of the joy. She has borne our fretfulness, and helped our perplexity, and shed a serene light into our gloom; We thought she would have been with us when we could pay the debt of faithfulness; when the cares of business did not press and disturb us so. We thought it was she whose voice, sweet with the music of old, deep memories, would have consoled us far along; and that, in some calm evening of life, when all the tumult of the world was still, and we were ready to go, we should go -- not far apart -- gently to our graves.

Such are the plans that we lay out, saying of this thing and of that thing, |We trusted that it would have been so.| But the answer has been disappointment. The old, ay, perhaps the most common lesson of life, is disappointment.

And now I ask, is it not an intended lesson? Evidently it comes in as an element in the Providential plan in which we are involved. For we see its disciplinary nature, -- its wise and beneficial results in harmony with that Plan. Consider whether it is not the fact, that the entire discipline of life grows out of a succession of disappointments. That youthful dream, in which life has stretched out like a sunny landscape with purple mountain-chains -- is it not well that it is broken up, and we strike upon rugged realities? Does not all the strength of manhood, and the power of achievement, and the glory of existence, depend upon these things which are not included in the young boy's vision of a happy world. Welcome, O! disappointment of our hope that life would prove a perpetual holiday. Welcome experience of the fact that blessing comes not from pleasure, but from labor! For in that experience alone was there ever anything truly great or good accomplished. We can conceive no possible way by which one can be made personally strong without his own effort; -- no possible way by which the mind can be enriched and strengthened where it is lifted up, instead of climbing for itself; -- no way, therefore, in which life could be at all a worthy achievement, if it were merely a plain of ease, instead of holding every ward of knowledge and of power under the guard of difficulty and the requisition of endeavor.

And it is equally true that the greatest successes grow out of great failures. In numerous instances the result is better that comes after a series of abortive experiences than it would have been if it had come at once. For all these successive failures induce a skill, which is so much additional power working into the final achievement. Nobody passes at once to the mastery, in any branch of science or of industry; and when he does become a master in his work it is evident, not only in the positive excellence of his performance, but in the sureness with which he avoids defects; and these defects he has learned by experimental failures. The hand that evokes such perfect music from the instrument has often failed in its touch, and bungled among the keys. And if a man derives skill from his own failures, so does he from the failures of other men. Every unsuccessful attempt is, for him, so much work done; for he will not go over that ground again, but seek some new way. Every disappointed effort fences in and indicates the only possible path of success, and makes it easier to find. We should thank past ages and other men, not only for what they have left us of great things done, but for the heritage of their failures. Every baffled effort for freedom contributes skill for the next attempt, and ensures the day of victory. Nations stripped and bound, and waiting for liberty under the shadow of thrones, cherish in memory not only the achievements of their heroes, but the defeats of their martyrs; and when the trumpet-voice shall summon them once more, as surely it will, -- when they shall draw for the venture of freedom, and unroll its glittering standard to the winds, -- they will avoid the stumbling blocks which have sacrificed the brave, and the errors which have postponed former hopes. In public and in private action, it is true that disappointment is the school of achievement, and the balked efforts are the very agents that help us to our purpose.

And, if life itself -- life as a whole -- seems to us but a series of disappointments, is not this the very conviction we need to work out from it, through our own experience? Do we not need to learn that this life itself is not sufficient, and holds no blessing that will fill us completely, and with which we may forever rest? The baffled hopes of our mortal state; -- what are they but vain strivings of the human soul, out of the path of its highest good? The wandering bird, driven against the branches, and beaten by the storm, flutters at last to the clear opening, by which it mounts above the cloud, and finds its way to its home. This life is not ordained in vain; -- it is constituted for a grand purpose, if through its lessons of experience we become convinced that this life is not all. In the outset of our existence here, and merely from the teaching of others, we cannot comprehend the great realities of existence.

How the things that have grown familiar to our eyes, and the lessons that have sounded trite upon our ears, become fresh and wonderful, as life turns into experience! How this very lesson of disappointment lets us in to the deep meanings of Scripture, for instance! The Christ of our youth, -- a personage standing mild and beautiful upon the Gospel-page, -- -- a being to admire and love; how be develops to our later thought! how solemnly tender, how greatly real, he becomes to us, when we cling to him in the agony of our sorrow, and he goes down to walk with us on the waters of the sea of death! As traditional sentiment, -- as a wholesome subject for school-composition, -- we have spoken and written of the weariness of the world-worn heart, and the frailty of earthly things. But, O! when our hearts have actually become worn, and tried; when we begin to learn that the things of this life are evanescent, -- are dropping away from us, and we slipping from them, -- what inspiration of reality comes to us in the oft-heard invitation, |Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest!| What a depth of meaning flowing from the eternal world, in the precept we have read so carelessly, -- |Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and thieves break through and steal!| Thus the best results of life come from the defeats and the limitations that are involved with it.

And, in all this, observe how disappointment is the instrument of higher blessings. See how thus life itself suggests a higher good than life itself can yield. And so the attitude of the disciples, after the crucifixion, illustrates many experiences of our earthly lot. Those incidents which perplexed and grieved them were securing the very results they seemed to prevent. So, in our ordinary life, the things that appear most adverse to us are often the most favorable.

I may say, indeed, that to any man who is rightly exercised by it, disappointment always brings a better result. But this statement requires that I should say, likewise, that the result of disappointment depends upon the level and quality of a man's spirit. |One thing happens alike to the wise man and the fool.| But how different in texture and substance is the final result of the event! Disappointment breaks down a feeble and shallow man. There are those, again, whom it does not make better, -- in fact, whom nothing, as we can see, makes better. Everything glides easily off from them. Now, it is a noble thing to see a man rise above misfortune, -- a moral Prometheus, submissive to the actual will of God, but defying fate. But there are men whose very elasticity indicates the superficiality of their nature. For it is good sometimes to be sad, -- good to have depth of being sufficient for misfortune to sink into, and, accomplish its proper work. But the man who rightly receives the lesson of disappointment, and improves by its discipline, bent as he is on some great or good work, is impelled by it only to a change of method, -- never to a change of purpose; and the disappointment effectually serves the purpose. But the fact before us is most clearly seen when we contemplate the results of disappointment upon a religious and un-religious spirit. A man is not made better by disappointment to whom this world is virtually everything; -- to whom spiritual things are not realities. To him life is a narrow stream between jutting crags, and its substance flows away with the objects before his eyes. Nay, some men of this sort are made worse by the failure of earthly hopes, and their natures are compressed and hammered by misfortune into a sullen and granitic defiance. But he who sees beyond these material limits, looking to the great end and final relations of our being, always extracts from mortal disappointment a better result. In the wreck of external things he gathers that spiritual good which is the substance of all life; -- that faith, and patience, and holy love, which, when all that is mortal and incidental in our humanity passes away, constitute the residuum of personality.

Our hopes disappointed, -- our plans thwarted and overthrown; but out of that disappointment a richer good evolving than we had conceived; something that tends more than all our effort to produce the real object of life. My friends, what do we make out of this fact? Why, surely this, that life is not our plan, but God's. Consider what we, often, would have made out of life, and compare this with what Providence has made out of it. Contrast the man's achievement with the boy's scheme; the dream of care with the moral glory that has sprung from toil and trouble. Contrast the idea of the Saviour in the minds of those disciples with the actual Saviour rising victorious from the conditions of shame and death.

Life is God's plan; not ours. We may find this out only by effort; but we do find it out.

We are responsible for the use of our materials, but the materials themselves, and the great movement of things, are furnished for us. Let us fall into no ascetic view of life. Out of our joy and our acknowledged good the Supreme Disposer works his spiritual ends. But, especially, how often does he do this out of our trials, and sorrows, and so-called evils! Once more I say life is God's plan; not ours. For often on the ruins of visionary hope rises the kingdom of our substantial possession and our true peace; and under the shadow of earthly disappointment, all unconsciously to ourselves, our Divine Redeemer is walking by our side.

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