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THE THRESHOLD GRACE
_MEDITATIONS IN THE PSALMS_
PERCY C. AINSWORTH
AUTHOR OF 'THE PILGRIM CHURCH.' 'THE BLESSED LIFE,' ETC.
During his brief ministry Mr. Ainsworth published a series of meditations
in the columns of the _Methodist Times_, which are here reprinted by the
kind permission of the Editor, Dr. Scott Lidgett. The rare interest aroused
by the previous publication of Mr. Ainsworth's sermons encourages the hope
that the present volume may find a place in the devotional literature to
which many turn in the quiet hour.
I. THE THRESHOLD GRACE
II. THE HABIT OF FAITH
III. THE ONE THING DESIRABLE
IV. EYES AND FEET
V. THE SAFEGUARDED SOUL
VI. A PLEA FOR TEARS
VII. DELIVERANCE WITH HONOUR
VIII. PETITION AND COMMUNION
IX. HAUNTED HOURS
X. THE WINGS OF THE DOVE
XI. A NEW SONG
THE THRESHOLD GRACE
The Lord shall keep thy going out and thy coming
in, from this time forth and for evermore.
Ps. cxxi, 8.
Going out and coming in. That is a picture of life. Beneath this old Hebrew
phrase there lurks a symbolism that covers our whole experience. But let us
just now look at the most literal, and by no means the least true,
interpretation of these words. One of the great dividing-lines in human
life is the threshold-line. On one side of this line a man has his 'world
within the world,' the sanctuary of love, the sheltered place of peace, the
scene of life's most personal, sacred, and exclusive obligations. And on
the other side lies the larger life of mankind wherein also a man must take
his place and do his work. Life is spent in crossing this threshold-line,
going out to the many and coming in to the few, going out to answer the
call of labour and coming in to take the right to rest. And over us all
every hour there watches the Almighty Love. The division-lines in the life
of man have nothing that corresponds to them in the love of God. We may be
here or there, but He is everywhere.
_The Lord shall keep thy going out._ Life has always needed that promise.
There is a pledge of help for men as they fare forth to the world's work.
It was much for the folk of an early time to say that as they went forth
the Lord went with them, but it is more for men to say and know that same
thing to-day. The _going out_ has come to mean more age after age,
generation after generation. It was a simpler thing once than it is now.
'Thy going out'--the shepherd to his flocks, the farmer to his field, the
merchant to his merchandise. There are still flocks and fields and markets,
but where are the leisure, grace, and simplicity of life for him who has
any share in the world's work? Men go out to-day to face a life shadowed by
vast industrial, commercial, and social problems. Life has grown
complicated, involved, hard to understand, difficult to deal with. Tension,
conflict, subtlety, surprise, and amid it all, or over it all, a vast
brooding weariness that ever and again turns the heart sick. Oh the pains
and the perils of the going out! There are elements of danger in modern
life that threaten all the world's toilers, whatever their work may be and
wherever they may have to do it. There is the danger that always lurks in
_things_--a warped judgement, a confused reckoning, a narrowed outlook. It
is so easily possible for a man to be at close grips with the world and yet
to be ever more and more out of touch with its realities. The danger in the
places where men toil is not that God is denied with a vociferous atheism;
it is that He is ignored by an unvoiced indifference. It is not the babel
of the market-place that men need to fear; it is its silence. If we say
that we live only as we love, that we are strong only as we are pure, that
we are successful only as we become just and good, the world into which we
go forth does not deny these things--but it ignores them. And thus the real
battle of life is not the toil for bread. It is fought by all who would
keep alive and fresh in their hearts the truth that man doth not live by
bread alone. For no man is this going out easy, for some it is at times
terrible, for all it means a need that only this promise avails to
meet--'The Lord shall keep thy going out.' He shall fence thee about with
the ministry of His Spirit, and give thee grace to know, everywhere and
always, that thou art in this world to live for His kingdom of love and
truth and to grow a soul.
_The Lord, shall keep ... thy coming in._ It might seem to some that once a
man was safely across the threshold of his home he might stand in less need
of this promise of help. But experience says otherwise. The world has
little respect for any man's threshold. It is capable of many a bold and
shameless intrusion. The things that harass a man as he earns his tread
sometimes haunt him as he eats it. No home is safe unless faith be the
doorkeeper. 'In peace will I both lay me down and sleep, for Thou, Lord,
alone makest me to dwell in safety.' The singer of that song knew that, as
in the moil of the world, so also in the shelter of the place he named his
dwelling-place, peace and safety were not of his making, but of God's
Sometimes there is a problem and a pain waiting for a man across his own
threshold. Many a man can more easily look upon the difficulties and perils
of the outer world than he can come in and look into the pain-lined face of
his little child. If we cannot face alone the hostilities on one side of
our threshold we cannot face alone the intimacies on the other side of it.
After all, life is whole and continuous. Whatever the changes in the
setting of life, there is no respite from living. And that means there is
no leisure from duty, no rest from the service of obedience, no cessation
in the working of all those forces by means of which, or in spite of which,
life is ever being fashioned and fulfilled.
And now let us free our minds from the literalism of this promise and get a
glimpse of its deeper application to our lives. The threshold of the home
does not draw the truest division-line in life between the outward and the
inward. Life is made up of thought and action, of the manifest things and
the hidden things.
'Thy going out.' That is, our life as it is manifest to others, as it has
points of contact with the world about us. We must go out. We must take up
some attitude toward all other life. We must add our word to the long human
story and our touch to the fashioning of the world. We need the pledge of
divine help in that life of ours in which, for their good or ill, others
must have a place and a part. 'And thy coming in'--into that uninvaded
sanctum of thought. Did we say uninvaded? Not so. In that inner room of
life there sits Regret with her pale face, and Shame with dust on her
forehead, and Memory with tears in her eyes. It is a pitiable thing at
times, is this our coming in. More than one man has consumed his life in a
flame of activity because he could not abide the coming in. 'The Lord shall
keep ... thy coming in.' That means help for every lonely, impotent, inward
hour of life.
Look at the last word of this promise--'for evermore.' Going out and coming
in for evermore. I do not know how these words were interpreted when very
literal meanings were attached to the parabolic words about the streets of
gold and the endless song. But they present no difficulty to us. Indeed,
they confirm that view of the future which is ever taking firmer hold of
men's minds, and which is based on the growing sense of the continuity of
life. To offer a man an eternity of music-laden rest is to offer him a poor
thing. He would rather have his going out and his coming in. Yes, and he
shall have them. All that is purest and best in them shall remain.
Hereafter he shall still go out to find deeper joys of living and wider
visions of life; still come in to greater and ever greater thoughts of God.
THE HABIT OF FAITH
Trust in Him at all times, ye people.
Pour out your heart before Him.
God is a refuge for us.
Ps. lxii. 8.
Here the Psalmist strikes the great note of faith as it should be struck.
He sets it ringing alike through the hours and the years. _Trust in Him at
all times._ Faith is not an act, but an attitude; not an event, but a
principle; not a last resource, but the first and abiding necessity. It is
the constant factor in life's spiritual reckonings. It is the
ever-applicable and the ever-necessary. It is always in the high and
lasting fitness of things. There are words that belong to hours or even
moments, words that win their meaning from the newly created situation. But
faith is not such a word. It stands for something inclusive and imperial.
It is one of the few timeless words in earth's vocabulary. For the deep
roots of it and the wide range of it there is nothing like unto it in the
whole sweep of things spiritual. So the 'all times' trust is not for one
moment to be regarded as some supreme degree of faith unto which one here
and there may attain and which the rest can well afford to look upon as a
counsel of perfection. This exhortation to trust in God at all times
concerns first of all the _nature_ of faith and not the _measure_ of it.
All real faith has the note of the eternal in it. It can meet the present
because it is not of the present. We have grown familiar with the phrase,
'The man of the moment.' But who is this man? Sometimes he is very
literally a man of the moment--an opportunist, a gambler with the hours, a
follower of the main chance. The moment makes him, and passing away unmakes
him. But the true man of the moment is the man to whom the moment is but
one throb in the pulse of eternity. For him the moment does not stand out
in splendid isolation. It is set in its place between that which hath been
and that which shall be. And its true significance is not something abiding
in it, but something running through it. So is it in this great matter of
faith. Only the faith that can trust at all times can trust at any time.
The moment that faith heeds the dictation of circumstance it ceases to be
faith and becomes calculation. All faith is transcendent. It is independent
of the conditions in which it has to live. It is not snared in the strange
web of the tentative and the experimental. He that has for one moment felt
the power of faith has got beyond the dominion of time.
_Trust in Him at all times._ That is the only real escape from confusion
and contradiction in the judgements we are compelled to pass upon life.
Times change so suddenly and inexplicably. The hours seem to be at strife
with each other. We live in the midst of a perpetual conflict between our
yesterdays and our to-days. There is no simple, obvious sequence in the
message of experience. The days will not dovetail into each other. Life is
compact of much that is impossible of true adjustment at the hands of any
time-born philosophy. And in all this seeming confusion there lies the
necessity for faith. Herein it wins its victory. We are to trust God not
because we cannot trace Him, but that by trusting Him we may ever be more
able to trace Him and to see that He has a way through all these winding
and crossing paths. Faith does more than hold a man's hand in the darkness;
it leads him into the light. It is the secret of coherence and harmony. It
does not make experience merely bearable, it makes it luminous and
instructive. It takes the separate or the tangled strands of human
experience and weaves them into one strong cable of help and hope.
_Trust in Him at all times._ Then faith at its best is a habit. Indeed,
religion at its best is a habit, too! We are sometimes too ready to
discount the worth of the habitual in our religious life. We put a premium
on self-consciousness. We reduce the life of faith to a series of acts of
faith of varying difficulty and import, but each detached from the rest and
individually apprehended of the soul. Surely this is all wrong. In our
physical life we are least conscious of those functions that are most vital
and continuous, and the more perfectly they do their work the less we think
about them. The analogy is incomplete and must be drawn with care. But when
you have conceded that faith has to be acquired, that it has to be learned,
there is still this much in the analogy. If faith is a long and hard
lesson, the value of the lesson to us is not the effort with which we learn
it, but the ease with which we apply it. The measure of conscious effort in
our faith is the measure of our faith's weakness. When faith has become a
spontaneity of our character, when it turns to God instinctively, when it
does its work with the involuntariness of habit, then it has become strong.
_Pour out your heart before Him._ How this singer understood the office and
privilege of the 'all times' trust! He knew that there is a fullness of
heart that is ill to bear. True, in more than one simple way the full heart
can find some slight relief. There is work. The full heart can go out and
do something. There is a brother's trouble in which a man may partly forget
his own. There is sympathy. Surely few are so lonely that they cannot find
any one ready to offer the gift of the listening ear, any one willing to
share with them all of pain and burden that can be shared. Ah! but what of
that which cannot be shared? What of the sorrow that has no language, and
the shame and confusion that we would not, and even dare not, trail across
a friend's mind? So often the heart holds more than ever should be poured
out into another's ear. There are in life strained silences that we could
not break if we would. And there is a law of reticence that true love and
unselfishness will always respect. If my brother hath joy, am I to cloud it
with my grief? If he hath sorrow, am I to add my sorrow unto his? When our
precious earthly fellowship has been put to its last high uses in the hour
of sorrow or shame, the heart has still a burden for which this world finds
no relief. But there is another fellowship. There is God our Father. There
is the ear of Heaven. We may be girt with silence among our fellows, but in
looking up the heart finds freedom. In His Presence the voice of confession
can break through the gag of shame, and the pent-up tide of trouble can let
itself break upon the heart of Eternal Love.
_God is a refuge for us._ That is the great discovery of faith. That is the
merciful word that comes to be written so plainly in the life that has
formed the habit of faith. God our refuge. It may be that to some the word
'refuge' suggests the occasional rather than the constant need of life. But
the refuge some day and the faith every day are linked together. A thing is
no use to you if you cannot find it when you want it. And you cannot find
it easily if it be not at hand. The peasant built his cottage under the
shadow of his lord's castle walls. In the hour of peril it was but a step
to the strong fortress. 'Trust in Him at all times.' Build your house under
the walls of the Eternal Help. Live in the Presence. Find the attitude of
faith, and the act of faith will be simple. Trust in Him through every
hour, and when a tragic hour comes one step shall take you into the
THE ONE THING DESIRABLE
One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will
I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of
the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the
beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple.
Ps. xxvii. 4.
_I have desired ... I will seek._ Amid the things that are seen, desire and
quest are nearly always linked closely together. The man who desires money
seeks after money. The desire of the world is often disappointed, but it is
rarely supine. It is dynamic. It leads men. True, it leads them astray; but
that is a reflection on its wisdom and not on its effectiveness. Among what
we rightly call the lower things men do not play with their desires, they
obey them. But amid the unseen realities of life it is often quite
otherwise. In the religious life desire is sometimes strangely ineffective.
It is static, if that be not a contradiction in terms. In many a life-story
it stands written: One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I dream
of, that will I hope for, that will I wait for. Many things help to explain
this attitude, and, explaining it, they condemn it also. We allow our
surroundings to pass judgement on our longings. We bring the eternal to the
bar of the hour, and postpone the verdict. Or it may be in the worldliness
of our hearts we admit the false plea of urgency and the false claim of
authority made by our outward life. And perhaps more commonly the soul
lacks the courage of its desires. It costs little to follow a desire that
goes but a little way, and that on the level of familiar effort and within
sight of familiar things. It is another thing to hear the call of the
mountains and to feel the fascination of some far and glittering peak. That
is a call to perilous and painful effort. And yet again, high desire
sometimes leaves life where it found it because the heart attaches an
intrinsic value to vision. It is something to have _seen_ the Alpine
heights of possibility. Yes, it is something, but what is it? It is a
golden hour to the man who sets out to the climb; it is an hour of shame
and judgement, hereafter to be manifest, to the man who clings to the
comforts of the valley.
_One thing have I desired._ When a man speaks thus unto us, we have a right
to ponder his words with care. We naturally become profoundly interested,
expectant, and, to the limit of our powers, critical. If a man has seen one
thing that he can call simply and finally the desire of his heart, it ought
to be worth looking at. We expect something large, lofty, inclusive. And we
find this: '_That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my
life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple._' Let
us examine this desire, And, first of all, we must free our minds from mere
literalism. If we do not, we shall find in this desire many things that are
not in it, and miss everything that is in it. This is not the longing for a
cloistered life, the confession of one who is weary of this heavy world,
doubtful of its promises and afraid of its powers. 'The house of the Lord'
is not a place, but a state, not an edifice, but an attitude. It is a fair
and unseen dwelling-place builded by the hands of God to be the home, here
and hereafter, of all the hearts that purely love and worship Him. We read
of one who, a day's march from his father's house, lay down and slept; and
in his sleep God spake to him, and lo, out in a wild and lonely place,
Jacob said, 'This is none other but the house of God.' For every one to
whom the voice of God has come, and who has listened to that voice and
believed in its message, the mountains and valleys of this fair world, the
breath of every morning and the hush of every evening, are instinct with a
Presence. Wordsworth dwelt in the house of the Lord all the days of his
life. And if the wonder and beauty of the earth lift up our hearts unto our
God in praise and worship, we dwell there also.
Yes, but this world is a world of men. In city or on hillside the great
persistent fact for us, the real setting of our life, is not nature, but
humanity. Life is not a peaceful vision of earthly beauty. Our experience
is not a dreamy pastoral. There are shamed and broken lives. The world is
full of greed and hate and warfare and sorrow. Nature at its best cannot by
itself build for us a temple that humanity at its worst, or even at
something less than its worst, cannot pull down about our ears. For the
Psalmist, probably David himself, the temple was symbolic of all heavenly
realities. It stood for the holiness and the nearness and the mercy of God,
and for the sacredness and the possibility of human life. In the light and
power and perfect assurance of these things he desired to dwell all the
days of his life. For us there is the life and word of One greater than the
temple. Jesus of Nazareth dwelt in the house of the Lord. Between Him and
God the Father there was perfect union. And no one ever saw the worth of
human life as Jesus saw it. And no one ever measured the sacred values of
humanity as He measured them. And now, in the perfect mercy of God, there
is no man but may dwell in the house of God alway and feel life's
sacredness amidst a thousand desecrations, and know its preciousness amidst
all that seeks to obscure, defile, and cheapen it.
_To behold the beauty of the Lord._ It is only in the house of the Lord,
the unseen fane of reverence, trust, and communion, that a man can learn
what beauty is, and where to look for it. Out in the world beauty is held
to be a sporadic thing. It is like a flower growing where no one expected a
blossom. It is an unrelated and unexplained surprise. It is a green oasis
in the desert of unlovely and unpromising things. But for the dweller in
the house of the Lord beauty is not on this wise. Said one such dweller,
'The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.' He looked across the
leagues of burning sand and saw the loveliness of Carmel by the sea, and of
Sharon where the lilies grow. To the artist beauty is an incident, to the
saint beauty is a law of life. It is the thing that is to be. It is the
positive purpose, throbbing and yearning and struggling in the whole
universe. When it emerges and men behold it, they behold the face of truth;
and if it emerges not, it is still there, the fundamental fact and the
vital issue of human life. To dwell in the Divine Presence by faith and
obedience; to live so near to God that you can see all about yourself and
every human soul the real means of life, and straight before you the real
end of life; to know that though so often the worst is man's dark choice,
yet ever the best is his true heritage; and to learn to interpret the whole
of life in the terms of God's saving purpose,--this is to behold the beauty
of the Lord.
_And to inquire in His temple._ The Psalmist desired for himself an inward
attitude before God that should not only reveal unto him the eternal
fitness of all God's ways and the eternal grace of all His purposes, but
should also put him in the way of solving the various problems that arise
to try the wisdom and strength of men's lives. Sometimes the first court of
appeal in life, and always the last, is the temple court. When all the
world is dumb, a voice speaks to them that worship. Reverential love never
loses its bearings. In this world we need personal and social guidance, and
there must be many times when both shall be wanting unless we have learned
to carry the burden of our ignorance to the feet of the Eternal Wisdom. And
perhaps a man can desire no better thing for himself than that the
reverence and devotion of his life should be such as to make the appeal to
God's perfect arbitrament an easy thing.
EYES AND FEET
Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord,
For He shall pluck my feet out of the net.
Ps. xxv. 15.
In any man's life a great deal depends upon outlook. In some ways we
recognize this fact. We do not by choice live in a house whose windows
front a blank wall. A little patch of green grass, a tree, a peep of sky,
or even the traffic of a busy street--anything rather than a blank wall.
That is a sound instinct, but it ought to go deeper than it sometimes does.
This outlook and aspect question is important when you are building a
house, but it is vastly more important when you are building a character.
The soul has eyes. The deadliest monotony is that of a dull soul. Life is a
poor affair for any man who looks out upon the blind walls of earthly
circumstance and necessity, and cannot see from his soul's dwelling-place
the pink flush of the dawn that men call hope, and who has no garden where
he may grow the blossoms of faith and sweet memory, the fair flowers of
holy human trusts and fellowships. Only the divinity of life can deliver us
from the monotony of living. 'Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord.' This man
has an infinite outlook. It matters not whether he looked out through
palace windows or lived in the meanest house in Jerusalem's city. It is the
eye that makes the view. This man had a fairer prospect than ever man had
who looked seaward from Carmel or across the valleys from the steeps of
Libanus. It was his soul that claimed the prospect. From the window of the
little house of life he saw the light of God lying on the everlasting
hills. That is the real deliverance from the monotony of things. The man
who is weary of life is the man who has not seen it. The man who is tied to
his desk sometimes thinks everything would be right if only he could
travel. But many a man has done the Grand Tour and come back no better
contented. You cannot fool your soul with Mont Blanc or even the Himalayas.
So many thousand feet, did you say?--but what is that to infinity! The cure
for the fretful soul is not to go _round_ the world; it is to get _beyond_
_Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord._ That is the view we want. We gaze
contemptuously on the little one-story lodge just inside the park gates,
and fail to get a glimpse of the magnificent mansion, with its wealth of
adornment and treasure, that lies a mile among the trees. No wonder that
men grow discontented or contemptuous when they mistake the porch for the
house. If a man would understand himself and discover his resources and put
his hand on all life's highest uses, he must look out and up unto his God.
Then he comes to know that sunrise and sunset, and the beauty of the earth,
and child-life and old age, and duty and sorrow, and all else that life
holds, are linked to the larger life of an eternal world.
That is the true foresight. They called him a far-seeing man. How did he
get that name? Well, he made a fortune. He managed to make use of the ebb
and flow of the market, and never once got stranded. He was shrewd and did
some good guessing, and now, forsooth, they say he is 'very far-seeing.'
But he has not opened his Bible for years, and the fountains of sympathy
are dried up in his soul. He can see as far into the money column as most
men, but the financial vista is not very satisfying for those who see it
best. The Gospel of St. John is a sealed book to him, and that is in God's
handwriting and opens the gates of heaven. Far-seeing? Why, the man is in a
tiny cell, and he is going blind. 'Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord.'
That is the far-sighted man. He can see an ever larger life opening out
before him. He can see the glory of the eternal righteousness beneath his
daily duties and the wonder of eternal love in the daily fellowships and
fulfilments of the brotherhood. This is measuring life by the heavenly
measurement. This is the vision we need day by day and at the end of the
days. For interest in some things must wane, and life must become less
responsive to all that lies about it, and many an earthly link is broken
and many an earthly window is darkened, and the old faces and old ways
pass, and the thing the old man cherishes is trodden under foot by the
impetuous tread of a new generation, and desire fails. Then it is well with
him whose eyes have already caught glimpses of 'the King in His beauty,'
and 'the land that is very far off.'
But think for a moment of the present value of the divine outlook upon
life. It brings guidance and deliverance. Set side by side the two
expressions 'eyes unto the Lord,' and 'feet out of the net.' Life is more
than a vision; it is a pilgrimage. We see the far white peaks whereon rests
the glory of life, but reaching them is not a matter of eyes, but of feet.
Here, maybe, the real problem of godly living presents itself to us. Here
our Christian idealism lays a burden on us. It is possible to see distances
that would take days to traverse. Even so we can see heights of spiritual
possibility that we shall not reach while the light holds good unless we
foot it bravely. And it is not an easy journey. There are so many snares
set for the pilgrims of faith and hope. There are subtle silken nets woven
of soft-spun deceits and filmy threads of sin; and there are coarse strong
nets fashioned by the strong hands of passion and evil desire. There are
nets of doubt and pain and weakness. But think of the man whose eyes were
ever towards the Lord. He came through all right. He always does. He always
will. He looked steadily upward to his God. When we get into the net we
yield to the natural tendency to look down at our feet. We try to discover
how the net is made. We delude ourselves with the idea that if only we take
time we shall be able to extricate ourselves; but it always means getting
further entangled. It is a waste of time to study the net. Life is ever
weaving for us snares too intricate for us to unravel and too strong for us
to break. God alone understands how they are made and how they may be
broken. He does not take us round the net or over it, but He does not leave
us fast by the feet in the midst of it. He always brings a man out on the
heavenward side of the earthly difficulty. Look upward and you are bound to
THE SAFEGUARDED SOUL
The Lord shall keep thee from all evil;
He shall keep thy soul.
Ps. cxxi. 7.
One of the great offices of religion is to help men to begin at the
beginning. If you wish to straighten out a tangle of string, you know that
it is worth your while to look patiently for one of the ends. If you make
an aimless dash at it the result is confusion worse confounded, and
by-and-by the tangle is thrown down in despair, its worst knots made by the
hands that tried in a haphazard way to simplify it. Life is that tangle;
and religion, if it does not loosen all the knots and straighten all the
twists, at least shows us where the two ends are. They are with God and the
soul. God deals with a man's soul. We cannot explain the facts of our
experience or the fashion of our circumstance save in as far as we can see
these things reflected in our character. The true spiritual philosophy of
life begins its inquiry in the soul, and works outward into all the
puzzling mass of life's details. And the foundation of such a philosophy is
not experience, but faith. It is true that experience often confirms faith,
but faith interprets experience. Experience asks more questions than it can
answer. It collects more facts than it can explain. It admits of many
different constructions being put upon it. It puts us first of all into
touch with the problem of life rather than the solution. If the gentle,
patient words of the saint are the utterance of one who has suffered, so
also are the bitter protests of the disappointed worldling. The fashion of
the experience may be the same in each case. It is faith that makes the
lesson different. It is a want of faith that makes us expect the lower in
life to explain the higher, the outward to shed light upon the inward. We
pluck with foolish, aimless fingers at this strange tangle of human life.
We judge God's way with us as far as we can see it, and we think we have
got to the end of it. We draw our shallow conclusions. Faith teaches us
that God's way with us is a longer and a deeper way, and the end of that
way is down in the depths of our spirit, hidden in the love of our
character. It is not here and now. It is in what we shall be if God have
His will with us.
All the true definitions of things are written in the soul. It was here
that the Psalmist found his definition of evil. 'The Lord shall keep thee
from all evil; He shall keep thy soul.' Then evil is something that
threatens the soul. It is not material, but spiritual. It is not in our
circumstances themselves, but in their effect upon the inward life. The
same outward conditions of life may be good or evil according to their
influence on our character. Good and evil are not qualities of things. They
have no meaning apart from the soul. The world says that health and wealth
are good, and that sickness and poverty are evil. If that were true the
line that separates the healthy from the sick, the rich from the poor,
would also separate the happy from the miserable. But we find joy and
sorrow on both sides of that line. We are drawn to look deeper than this
for our definition of good and evil. We have to make the soul the final
arbiter amid these conflicting voices. Here we must find the true
definition of evil. The first question we ask when we hear of a house
having been burnt down is this: 'Was there any loss of life?' All else lies
on a vastly lower plane of interest and importance. So must we learn to
distinguish between the house of circumstance, or the house of the body,
and the soul that dwells in it. The only real loss is the 'loss of life,'
the loss of any of these inner things that go to make the soul's strength
and treasure. The man who has lost everything except faith and hope has,
maybe, lost nothing at all. There are some among the pilgrims of faith
to-day who would never have been found there had not God cast upon their
shoulders the ragged cloak of poverty; and if you know anything about that
band of pilgrims you will know that the man who outstrips his companions is
often a man who is lame on both his feet.
O sceptic world, this is the final answer to your scepticism, an answer
none the less true because you cannot receive it: _The Lord keepeth the
souls of His saints._ Have you not seen men thinning out a great tree,
cutting off some of its noblest branches and marring its splendid symmetry?
And very likely you have felt it was a great shame to do so. But that work
of maiming and spoiling meant light and sunshine and air in a close and
darkened room. It meant health to the dwellers in the house over which the
tree had cast its shadow. It is much to have tall and stately trees in the
garden of life. But by-and-by that great oak of vigour begins to darken the
windows of faith, and God lops some of the branches. We call it suffering,
but it means more light. Or it may be that those firs of lordly ambition
have grown taller than the roof-tree, and God sends forth His storm-wind to
lay them low. We call it failure, but it means a better view of the stars.
Ah, yes, we are over-anxious about the trees in the garden. God cares most
of all that the light of His truth and the warmth of His love and the
breath of His Spirit shall reach and fill every room in the house of life.
_He shall keep thy soul._ That is a promise that can fold us in divine
comfort and peace, and that can do something towards interpreting for us
every coil of difficulty, every hour of pain. But if this is to be so, we
must ourselves be true to the view of life the promise gives us. We must
think of the soul as God thinks of it. We live in a world where souls are
cheap. They are bought and sold day by day. It is strange beyond all
understanding that the only thing many a man is not afraid of losing is the
one thing that is really worth anything to him--his soul. Sometimes the
lusts of the world drag down our heart's desire, and we have to confess
with shame to moments in our experience when we have not been at all
concerned with what became of our soul so long as the desire of the hour
was fulfilled or satisfied. We need to seek day by day that the masterful
and abiding desires of our heart may be set upon undying good, and that our
aspiration may never fold its wings and rest on anything lower than the
highest. This shall not make dreamers of us. It shall stand us in good
stead in the thick of the world. The man who gets 'the best of the bargain'
is always the man who is most honest; for the most precious thing that a
man stands to win or lose in any deal is the cleanness of his soul. The man
who gets the best of the argument is always the man who is most truthful;
for a quiet conscience is better than a silenced opponent. The man who gets
the best of life is the man who keeps the honour of his soul; for Jesus
said: 'What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his
So then, amid the manifold uncertainties of human life and the
ever-changing forms and complexions of human experience, one thing is
pledged beyond all doubt to every man who seeks the will of God and the
promise for the safeguarding of his soul. He may write this at the top of
every page in the book of life. He may take it for his light in dark days,
his comfort in sad days, his treasure in empty days. He may have it on his
lips in the hour of battle and in his heart in the day of disappointment.
He may meet his temptations with it, interpret his sufferings with it,
build his ideal with it. And it shall come to pass that he shall learn to
look with untroubled eyes upon the outward things of life, nor fear the
touch of its thousand grasping hands, knowing that his soul is in the hands
of One who can keep it safe in all the world's despite, even God Himself.
A PLEA FOR TEARS
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed,
Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,
Bringing his sheaves with him.
Ps. cxxvi. 5, 6.
It is almost impossible to recall the joys and sorrows of life without
having some thought of their compensative relation. We set our bright days
against our dark days. We weigh our successes against our failures. When
the hour through which we are living is whispering a bitter message, we
recall the kindlier messages of other hours and say that we have much for
which we ought to be thankful. And such a deliberate handling of
experience, such a quiet adjustment of memories, is not without its uses.
Any view of life that will save a man from whining is worth taking. Any
reckoning that will prevent a man from indulging in self-pity--that
subtlety of selfishness--is worth making. There is, moreover, something
very simple and obvious in this way of thinking and judging. To make one
kind of experience deal with another kind, to set the days and the hours in
battle array--or shall we say to arrange a tourney where some
gaily-caparisoned and well-mounted Yesterday is set to tilt with a
black-visored and silent To-day--is a way of dealing with life which seems
to have much to commend it. But it has at the best serious limitations, and
at the worst it may issue in a tragedy. The wrong knight may be unhorsed.
The award may go to him of the black plume. Pitting one experience against
another has gone to the making of many a cynic and not a few despairing
souls. The compensative interpretation of joy and sorrow may bring an
answer of peace to a man's soul, or it may not. But in this matter we are
dealing with things in which we cannot afford to risk an equivocal or a
despairing answer. We must win in every encounter. It is not an hour's joy,
but a life's outlook that is at stake. No hour's fight was ever worth
fighting if it was fought for the sake of the hour. The moments are ever
challenging the eternal, the swift and busy hours fling their gauntlets at
the feet of the ageless things. The real battle of life is never between
yesterday and to-day; it is always between to-day and the Forever.
To isolate an experience is to misinterpret it. We may even completely
classify experiences, and yet completely misunderstand experience. To
understand life at all we must get beyond the incidental and the
alternating. Life is not a series of events charged with elements of
contrast, contradiction, or surprise. It is a deep, coherent, and
unfaltering process. And one feels that it was something more than the
chance of the moment that led the singer of old to weave the tears and the
rejoicings of men's lives into a figure of speech that stands for unity of
process, even the figure of the harvest.
_They that sow in tears shall reap in joy._ The sweep of golden grain is
not some arbitrary compensation for the life of the seed cast so lavishly
into the ground, and biding the test of darkness and cold. It is the very
seed itself fulfilled of all its being. Even so it is with the sorrows of
these hearts of ours and the joy unto which God bringeth us. He does not
fling us a few glad hours to atone for the hours wherein we have suffered
adversity. There is a deep sense in which the joys of life are its ripened
_They that sow in tears.... He that goeth forth and weepeth._ These are not
the few who have been haunted by apparent failure, or beset with outwardly
painful conditions of service. They are not those who have walked in the
shadow of a lost leader, or toiled in the grey loneliness of a lost comrade
or of a brother proved untrue. For apparent failure, outward difficulty and
loneliness, often as we may have to face them, are, after all, only the
accidents of Godward toil. And if the bearer of seed for God's great
harvest should go forth to find no experience of these things, still, if he
is to do any real work in the fields of the Lord, he must go forth weeping.
He must sow in tears. Let a man be utterly faithful and sincere, let him
open his heart without reserve to the two great claims of the ideal and
sympathy, and he shall come to know that he has not found the hidden
meaning of daily service, nor learned how he can best perform that service,
until he has tasted the sorrow at the heart of it. The tears that are the
pledge of harvest are not called to the eyes by ridicule or opposition.
They are not the tears of disappointment, vexation, or impotence. They are
tears that dim the eyes of them that see visions, and gather in the heart
of them that dream dreams. To see the glory of God in the face of Jesus
Christ and the blindness of the world's heart to that glory; to see
unveiled the beauty that should be, and, unveiled too, the shame that is;
to have a spiritual nature that thrills at the touch of the perfect love
and life, and responds to every note of pain borne in upon it from the
murmurous trouble of the world,--this is to have inward fitness for the
high work of the Kingdom. Yes, and it is the pledge that this work shall be
done. There is such a thing as artistic grief. There is the vain and
languorous pity of aestheticism. Its robe of sympathy is wrapped about
itself and bejewelled with its own tears. And it never goes forth. You
never meet it in 'the darkness of the terrible streets.'
_He that goeth forth and weepeth._ It is his tears that cause him to go
forth. It is his sorrow that will not let him rest. True pity is a mighty
motive. When the real abiding pathos of life has gripped a man's heart, you
will find him afield doing the work of the Lord. You will not see his
tears. There will be a smile in his eyes and, maybe, a song on his lips.
For the sorrow and the joy of service dwell side by side in a man's life.
Indeed, they often seem to him to be but one thing. It were a mistake to
refer the whole meaning of the words about a man's coming 'again with
rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him' to some far day when the reapers
of God shall gather the last great harvest of the world. Through his tears
the sower sees the harvest. Through all his life there rings many a sweet
prophetic echo of the harvest home.
_He that goeth forth and weepeth._ No man ever wept like that and went not
forth, but some go forth who have not wept. And they go forth to certain
failure. They mishandle life, and with good intent do harm. But that is not
the worst thing to be said about these toilers without tears. It is not
that they touch life so unskilfully, but they touch so little of it. It is
only through his tears that a man sees what his work is and where it lies.
Tearless eyes are purblind. We have yet much to learn about the real needs
of the world. So many try very earnestly to deal with situations they have
never yet really seen. For the uplifting of men and for the great social
task of this our day we need ideas, and enthusiasm, and all sorts of
resource; but most of all, and first of all, we need vision. And the man
who goes farthest, and sees most, and does most, is 'he that goeth forth
DELIVERANCE WITH HONOUR
He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble:
I will deliver him, and honour him.
With long life will I satisfy him,
And show him My salvation.
Ps. xci. 15, 16.
_He shall call upon Me._ He shall need Me. He shall not be able to live
without Me. As the years pass over his head he shall learn that there is
one need woven into human life larger and deeper and more abiding than any
other need--and that need is God. Thus doth divinity prophesy concerning
humanity. Thus doth infinite foresight predict a man's need.
We peer in our purblind fashion into the future and try to anticipate our
needs. We fence ourselves in with all sorts of fancied securities, and then
we comfort ourselves with the shrewdness and completeness of our
forecasting and provision-making. And sometimes it is just folly with a
grave face. 'He shall call upon Me.' A man has learned nothing until he has
learned that he needs God. And we take a long time over that lesson. It has
sometimes to be beaten into us--written in conscience and heart by the
finger of pain. How the little storehouse of life has to be almost stripped
of its treasures, how our faith in the things of the hour has to be played
with and mocked, ere we call upon God in heaven to fill us with abiding
treasure and fold us in eternal love.
_He shall call upon Me, and, I will answer him._ But I have called, says
one, and He has not answered. I called upon Him when my little child was
sick unto death, and, spite my calling, the little white soul fluttered
noiselessly into the great beyond. My friend, you call that tiny green
mound in the churchyard God's silence. Some day you will call it God's
answer. Our prayers are sometimes torn out of our hearts by the pain of the
moment. God's answers come forth from the unerring quiet of eternity. 'He
shall call upon Me.' 'He shall ask Me to help him, but he does not know how
he can be helped. He is hedged about by a thousand limitations of thought.
His life is full of distortions. He cannot distinguish between a blessing
and a curse. I cannot heed the dictations of his prayers, but I will answer
him.' This is the voice of Him to whom the ravelled complexities of men's
minds are simplicity itself; who dwells beyond the brief bewilderments and
mistaken desirings and false ideals of men's hearts.
Oh these divine answers! How they confuse us! It is their perfection that
bewilders us; it is their completeness that carries them beyond our
There is the stamp of the local and the temporary on all our asking. The
answer that comes is wider than life and longer than time, and fashioned
after a completeness whereof we do not even dream.
_I will be with him in trouble._ Trouble is that in life which becomes to
us a gospel of tears, a ministry of futility. This is because we have
grasped the humanity of the word and missed the divinity of it. We are
always doing that. Always gathering the meaning of the moments and missing
the meaning of the years. Always smarting under the sharp discipline and
missing the merciful design: 'With Him in trouble.' That helps me to
believe in my religion. Trouble is the test of the creeds. A fig for the
orthodoxy that cannot interpret tears! Write vanity upon the religion that
is of no avail in the house of sorrow. When the earthly song falls on
silence we are disposed to call it a pitiable silence. Not so. Let us say a
divinely opportune silence, for when the many voices grow dumb the One
Voice speaks: 'I will be with him in trouble,' and the man who has lost the
everything that is nothing only to find the one thing that is all knows
what that promise means.
_I will deliver him._ What a masterful, availing, victorious presence is
this! How this promise goes out beyond our human ministries of consolation!
How often the most we can do is to walk by our brother's side whilst he
bears a burden we cannot share! How often the earthly sympathy is just a
communion of sad hearts--one weak hand holding another! 'I will deliver
him.' That is not merely sympathy, it is victory. The divine love does not
merely condole, it delivers.
You cannot add anything to this promise. It is complete. The time of the
deliverance is there, the manner of it is there, the whole ministry of help
is there. You say you cannot find anything about time and manner. You can
only find the bare promise of deliverance. My friend, there are no bare
promises in the lips of the Heavenly Father. In the mighty, merciful
leisure of omnipotence, in the perfect fitness of things, in a way wiser
than his thinking and better than his hoping and larger than his prayer, 'I
will deliver him.'
_And honour him._ It will be no scanty, obscure, uncertain deliverance.
There shall be light in it, glory in it. The world battles with its
troubles and seems sometimes to be successful, until we see how those
troubles have shaken its spirit and twisted its temper; and see, too, how
much of the beautiful and the strong and the sweet has been lost in the
fight. 'I will deliver him' with an abundant and an honourable
deliverance--he shall come forth from his tribulations more noble, tender,
and self-possessed. Hereafter there shall be given him the honour of one
whom the stress of life has driven into the arms of God.
Oh how we miss this ministry of ennoblement! We reap a harvest of
insignificance from the seeds of sorrow sown in our hearts. We let our
cares dishonour us. The little cares rasp and fret and sting the manliness
and the womanliness and the godlikeness out of us. And the great cares
crush us earthward till there is scarcely a sweet word left in our lips or
a noble thought in our heart. A man cannot save his _soul_ in the day of
trouble. He cannot by himself make good the wear and tear of anxieties and
griefs. He can hold his head high and hide his secret deep, but he cannot
keep his life sweet. Only Christ can teach a man how to find the nameless
dignity of the crown of thorns. The kingship of suffering is a secret in
the keeping of faith and love. If a man accepts this deliverance of his God
folded in flashes of understanding, ministries of explanation, revivals of
faith, and gifts of endurance, he shall find the honour that is to be won
among life's hard and bitter things.
_With long life will I satisfy him, and show him My salvation._ We have
seen a grey-headed libertine, and we have missed from among the
clean-hearted and the faithful some brave young life that was giving itself
vigorously to the holy service. But perhaps we have had the grace not to
challenge the utter faithfulness of God. The measure of life is not written
on a registrar's certificates of birth and death. There is something here
that lies beyond dates and documents. Life here and hereafter is one, and
death is but an event in it. Who lives to God lives long, be his years many
or few. It is reasonable to expect some relationship between godliness and
longevity. But we are nearer the truth when we see how that faith and
prayer discover and secure the eternal values of fleeting days.
_And show him My salvation._ That is the whole text summed up in one
phrase. That is the life of the godly man gathered into the compass of the
divine promise. For every one who goes the way of faith and obedience, life
in every phase of it, life here and hereafter, means but one thing and
holds but one thing, and that is _the salvation of the Lord_.
PETITION AND COMMUNION
Hear me speedily, O Lord....
Cause me to hear ...
For I lift up my soul unto Thee.
Ps. cxliii. 7, 8.
You will notice that the first verse begins 'Hear me,' and the second
begins 'Cause me to hear'; and the second is greater than the first. Let us
look, then, at these two attitudes of a man in his hour of prayer.
_Hear me._ The Psalmist began, where all men must begin, with himself. He
had something to utter in the hearing of the Almighty. He had something to
lay before his God--a story, a confession, a plea. His heart was full, and
must outpour itself into the ear of Heaven. 'Hear me speedily, O Lord.' We
have all prayed thus. We have all faced some situation that struck a note
of urgency in our life, and all your soul has come to our lips in this one
cry that went up to the Father, 'Hear me.' A sudden pain, a surprise of
sorrow, a few moments of misty uncertainty in the face of decisions that
had to be made at once, times when life has tried to rush us from our
established position and to bear us we know not where--and our soul has
reached out after God as simply and naturally as a man grasps at some fixed
thing when he is falling.
There are times, too, when prayer is an indefinable relief. We all know
something about the relief of speech. We must speak to somebody. Our need
is not, first of all, either advice or practical help. We want a hearing.
We want some one to listen and sympathize. We want to share our pain. That
is what 'Hear me' sometimes means. Whatever Thou shalt see fit to do for
me, at least listen to my cry. Let me unburden my soul. Let me get this
weight of silence off my heart. This fashion of relief is part of the true
office of prayer. Herein lies the reasonableness of telling our story in
the ear of One who knows that story better than we do. We need not inform
the All-knowing, but we must commune with the All-pitiful. We make our life
known unto God that we may make it bearable unto ourselves.
But let us look at the attitude of mind and heart revealed in this second
position, _Cause me to hear_. Now we are coming to the larger truth about
prayer, and the deeper spirit of it. Prayer is not merely claiming a
hearing; it is giving a hearing. It is not only speaking to God; it is
listening to God. And as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are the
words we hear greater than the words we speak. Let us not forget this. Let
us not pauperize ourselves by our very importunity. Maybe we are vociferous
when God is but waiting for a silence to fall in His earthly temples that
He may have speech with His children. We talk about 'prevailing prayer,'
and there is a great truth in the phrase. All prayer does not prevail.
There is that among men which passes for prayer but has no spiritual grip,
no assurance, no masterful patience, no fine desperation. There is a place
for all these things, and a need for them, in the life of prayer. We need
the courage of a great faith and the earnestness that is born of necessity.
We need to be able to lift up our faces toward heaven in the swelling joys
and the startling perils of these mortal hours and cry, 'Hear me,' knowing
that God does hear us and that the outcrying of every praying heart rings
clear and strong in the courts of the Heavenly King. But we need something
more; we need a very great deal more than this, if we are to enter into the
true meaning of prevailing prayer. The final triumph of prayer is not ours;
it is God's. When we are upon our knees before Him, it is He, and not we,
that must prevail. This is the true victory of faith and prayer, when the
Father writes His purpose more clearly in our minds, lays His commandment
more inwardly upon our hearts. We do not get one faint glimpse into the
meaning of that mysterious conflict at Peniel until we see that the
necessity for the conflict lay in the heart of Jacob and not in the heart
of God. The man who wrestled with the Angel and prevailed passes before us
in the glow of the sunrise weary and halt, with a changed name and a
changed heart. So must it be with us; so shall it be, if ever we know what
it is to prevail in prayer. Importunity must not become a blind and
uninspired clamouring for the thing we desire. Such an attitude may easily
set us beyond the possibility of receiving that which God knows we need. We
must not forget that our poor little plea for help and blessing does not
exhaust the possibilities of prayer. Our words go upward to God's throne
twisted by our imperfect thinking, narrowed by our outlook, sterilized by
the doubts of our hearts, and we do not know what is good for us. His word
comes downward into our lives laden with the quiet certainty of the
Eternal, wide as the vision of Him who seeth all, deep as the wisdom of Him
who knoweth all.
So, however much it may be to say 'Hear me,' it is vastly more to say
'Cause me to hear.' However much I have to tell Him, He has more to tell
me. This view of prayer will help to clear up for us some of the
difficulties that have troubled many minds. We hear people speak of
unanswered prayer; but there is no such thing, and in the nature of things
there cannot be. I do not mean by that, that to every prayer there will
come a response some day. To every prayer there is a response now. In our
confused and mechanical conception of the God to whom we pray, we separate
between His hearing and His answering. We identify the answer to prayer
with the granting of a petition. But prayer is more than petition. It is
not our many requests, it is an attitude of spirit. We grant readily that
our words are the least important part of our prayers. But very often the
petitions we frame and utter are no part of our prayers at all. They are
not prayer, yet uttering them we may pray a prayer that shall be heard and
answered, for every man who truly desires in prayer the help of God for his
life receives that help there and then, though the terms in which he
describes his need may be wholly wide of the truth as God knows it. So the
real answer to prayer is God's response to man's spiritual attitude, and
that response is as complete and continuous as the attitude will allow it
to be. The end of prayer is not to win concessions from Almighty Power, but
to have communion with Almighty Love.
'Cause me to hear'; make a reverent, responsive, receptive silence in my
heart, take me out beyond my pleadings into the limitless visions and the
fathomless satisfactions of communion with Thyself. Speak to me. That is
In the quietness of life,
When the flowers have shut their eye,
And a stainless breadth of sky
Bends above the hill of strife,
Then, my God, my chiefest Good,
Breathe upon my lonelihood:
Let the shining silence be
Filled with Thee, my God, with Thee.
Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil,
when iniquity at my heels compasseth me about?
Ps. xlix. 5.
Iniquity _at my heels_. Temptation is very often indirect. It is compact of
wiles and subtleties and stratagems. It is adept at taking cover. It does
not make a frontal attack unless the obvious state of the soul's defences
justifies such a method of attempting a conquest. The stronger a man is,
the more subtle and difficult are the ways of sin, as it seeks to enter and
to master his life. There are many temptations that never face us, and
never give us a chance of facing them. They follow us. We can hear their
light footfall and their soft whisperings, but the moment we turn round
upon them they vanish. If they disappeared for good, they would be the
easiest to deal with of all the ill things that beset our lives. But they
do not. The moment we relax our bold, stern search for the face of the
enemy, there the evil thing is again--the light footfall and the soft
voice. It is terrible work fighting a suggestion. There are the thoughts
that a man will not cherish and cannot slay. They may never enter the
programme of his life, but there they are, haunting him, waiting, so to
speak, at the back of his brain, till he gets used to them. When he seeks
to grapple with these enemies his hands close on emptiness. One straight
blow, one decisive denial, one stern rebuke, one defiant confession of
faith will not suffice for these things. They compass a man's heels. He
cannot trample them down. The fashion of the evils that compass us
determines the form of the fight we wage with them. Preparations that might
amply suffice the city in the day when an army with banners comes against
it are no good at all if a plague has to be fought. So there is a way we
have to take with 'the iniquity at our heels.' It calls for much patience
and much prayer. If we cannot prevent sin from following us, we can at
least prevent ourselves from turning and following it. A man can always
choose his path if he cannot at every moment determine his company. And as
a man goes onward and upward steadfastly toward the City of Light, the evil
things fall off and drop behind, and God shall bring him where no evil
thing dare follow, and where no ravenous beast shall stalk its prey.
The battle with sin is not an incident in the Christian life; it is the
abiding condition of it. While there are some temptations that we have to
slay, there are others we have to outgrow. They are overcome, not by any
one supreme assertion of the will, but by the patient cultivation of all
the loftiest and most wholesome and delicate and intensely spiritual modes
of feeling and of being.
Again, let me suggest that iniquity at our heels is sometimes an old sin in
a new form. You remember the difficulty that Hiawatha had in hunting down
Pau-puk Keewis. That mischievous magician assumed the form of a beaver,
then that of a bird, then that of a serpent; and though each in turn was
slain, the magician escaped and mocked his pursuer. Surely a parable of our
strife with sin. We smite it in one form and it comes to life in another.
One day a man is angry--clenched fingers and hot words. He conquers his
anger; but the next day there is a spirit of bitterness rankling in his
heart, and maybe a tinge of regret that he did not say and do more when his
heart was hot within him and fire was on his lips. The sin he faced and
fought yesterday has become iniquity at his heels. Having failed to knock
him down, it tries to trip him up. Maybe many waste their energies trying
to deal with the _forms_ of sin, and never grapple with the _fact_ of sin.
Hence the evil things that compass men's souls about with their dread
ministries of suggestion, and flutter on unhallowed wings in the wake of
life. The sin that confronts us reveals to us our need of strength, but the
sin that dogs our steps has, maybe, a deeper lesson to teach us--even our
need of heart-deep holiness. Good resolution will do much to clear the path
ahead, but only purity of character can rid us of the persistent haunting
peril of the sin that plucks at the skirt of life. The deliverance God
offers to the struggling soul covers not only the hour of actual grappling
with the foe, but all the hours when it is the stealth and not the strength
of evil that we most have cause to fear.
_Iniquity at my heels._ These words remind us that sin is not done with
after it is committed. God forgives sin, but He does not obliterate all its
consequences, either in our own lives or in the lives of others. A man may
have the light of the City of God flashing in his face, and a whole host of
shameful memories and bitter regrets crowding at his heels. We do not know
what sin is till we turn our backs on it. Then we find its tenacity and its
entanglement. What would we not give if only we could leave some things
behind us! What would we not do if only we could put a space between
ourselves and our past! The fetters of evil habit may be broken, but their
marks are upon us, and the feet that bore the fetters go more slowly for
them many days. The hands that have been used to grasping and holding do
not open without an effort, even though the heart has at last learned that
it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Yes, and our sins come to life again in the lives of others. The light word
that ought to have been a grave word and that shook another's good
resolution, the cool word that ought to have been a warm word and that
chilled a pure enthusiasm--we cannot have done with these things. Parents
sometimes live to see their sins of indulgence or of neglect blighting the
lives of those to whom they owed a debt of firmness and kindness. It is
iniquity at the heels. These passages of carelessness and unfaithfulness
haunt men, be their repentance never so bitter and their amendment never so
sincere and successful. But all this is for discipline and not for despair.
It casts us back upon God's mercy. It keeps the shadow of the cross upon
all our path. It has something to do with the making of 'a humble, lowly,
penitent, and obedient heart.' The memory of the irreparable is a sorrow of
Saint, did I say? With your remembered faces,
Dear men and women whom I sought and slew!
Ah, when we mingle in the heavenly places,
How will I weep to Stephen and to you!
Only let us not be afraid nor wholly cast down. Rather let us say,
'Wherefore should I fear when the iniquity at my heels compasseth me
about?' By the grace of God the hours of the soul's sad memory and of
clinging regrets shall mean unto us a ministry of humility and a passion of
prayer. And through them God shall give us glimpses of the gateway of that
life where regret and shame and sorrow fall back unable to enter. There is
a place whither the iniquity at a man's heels can no longer follow him, and
where in the perfect life the soul, at last, is able to forget.
THE WINGS OF THE DOVE
And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove!
Then would I fly away, and be at rest....
I would haste me to a shelter
From the stormy wind and tempest.
Ps. lv. 6, 8.
These words are the transcript of a mood. The writer is not unfolding to us
any of the deep persistent longings of his spirit; he is telling us of a
thought that shadowed his soul for an hour. Let us look into this mood of
his. It is not his in any unique or even peculiar sense. In moods, as in
manners, history is wont to repeat itself. The writer of this poem has
voiced one of the great common experiences of humanity. But let us be quite
clear as to what that experience really is. Let us not be misled by the
music and the seeming unworldliness of these words about winged flight from
a world of trouble and strife. The Psalmist was not looking heavenward, but
earthward, when this plea for wings broke from his heart. He was moved to
speak as he did, not by the surpassing charm of a heavenly vision, but by
the dark unrest of the earthly outlook. The emphatic note here is that of
departure, not of destination. It is necessary to remind ourselves that
this is so, for these words have become the classic of the home-sick soul.
They have been used to voice the farthest and most truly divine desires of
the human heart. And by virtue of such use they have gathered a meaning
which was not theirs at the beginning. At that meaning we will presently
look, but let us first of all look at this longing as it stands in the
psalm and as it represents an experience that is threaded through the
history of humanity.
_Oh that I had wings ... then would I fly away._ Here the idea of fleeing
away suggests itself as a possible solution of life; and whenever it comes
to a man like this it is a source of weakness. It is not a desire to find
the joys of heaven; it is a desire to escape the pains of earth. There is
no vista, no wistful distance, no long, alluring prospect. The soul is
hemmed in by its enemies, crushed down by its burdens, beset on all sides
by the frets of the earthly lot; and there comes a vague desire to be out
of it all. It is not aspiration, it is evasion. It is not response to the
ideal, it is recoil from the actual. It is not the spell of that which
shall be that is upon the soul, but the irksomeness or the dreadfulness of
that which is. This is a mood that awaits us all. No man faces life as it
should be faced, but some can hardly be said to face it at all. Their face
is ever turned towards a seductive vision of quietness. The solution of
life for them is not in a fight, but in a retreat. Of course we know there
is no going back, and no easy deliverance from the burden and the battle,
but in the thick of any fight there is a great difference between the man
who wants victory and the man who merely wants a cessation of hostilities.
This plea for wings does not necessarily betoken 'a desire to depart.' It
rather indicates a desire to remain under more favourable and comfortable
conditions. Such a mood is not the highest and the healthiest experience of
the soul. It is rather something against which we must fight relentlessly.
Very often the longing for wings results only in lagging footsteps.
Picturing to ourselves the luxury of laying life down will not help us to
face the duty of taking life up. The secret of enervation is found not in
the poverty of our resources, but in the cowardliness and selfishness of
our attitude towards life. The battle is half won when we have looked the
enemy in the face. The burden is the better borne as we stoop under the
full weight of it.
_Oh that I had wings like a dove!_ That is a short-sighted and a selfish
desire. Supposing you had wings, what would you do? Fly away from the moil
of the world and find rest and shelter for yourself? Is that the best and
noblest thing to desire to do? After all, we know other and loftier moods
than this. We know that staying is better than going when there is so much
to stay for. We know that working is better than resting when there is so
much to do. We have something better to think about than a quiet lodgement
in the wilderness, we who live in a world where the strength of our hands
and the warmth of our hearts count for something. To give your tired
brother a lift is a vastly more profitable occupation than sitting at the
roadside and wishing you could fly. Man, you ought to be glad that you can
walk--in a world where there are so many cripples that want help.
_Oh that I had wings!... then would I fly away._ That desire has never
taken any one to heaven, but it has made them less useful upon earth. The
breath of this desire is able to blight the flowers of social service. No
one would be foolish enough to indict suburbanism as a mode of life. The
day must surely come when few or none will dwell in the smoke-grimed heart
of the city. But in as far as a man seeks the fairest suburb open to him in
order that he may see little of, and think little of, 'the darkness of the
terrible streets,' then the very life that restores health to his body
shall sow seeds of disease in his soul.
There is only one way to rest, and that lies right through the heart of the
world's work and pain. Rest is not for those who flee away from life's
difficulties, but for those who face them. 'Take my yoke ... and ye shall
find rest.' It were not well for our own sakes that we had wings. It were
not well for us to be able to avoid the burden-bearing and the tale of
tired days, for God has hidden the secret of our rest in the heart of our
toiling. They who come unto the City of God come there not by the easy
flight of a dove, but by the long, slow pilgrimage of unselfishness.
Yet there is a beauty and a fitness in this longing. It is expressive of
more than the weariness of a world-worn spirit, or the thinly disguised
selfishness of one who fears to pay the price of life.
When the long working-day of life is wearing away its last hours and
verging towards the great stillness, the voices of time fall but faintly on
the ear, the adorations and ideals and fashions and enthusiasms of the
world come to mean little to a man who in his day has followed them as
eagerly as any, and the heart within him asks only for rest.
God, if there be none beside Thee
Dwelling in the light,
Take me out of the world and hide me
Somewhere behind the night.
When, like Simeon the seer with the Christ-Child in his arms, a man feels
that for him life has said its last word and shown its last wonder and
uttered its last benediction, the desire for rest is a pure and spiritually
normal thing; it is just the soul's gaze turned upward where
beyond these toils
God waiteth us above,
To give to hand and heart the spoils
Of labour and of love.
And maybe this mood of which we are thinking may have a not unworthy place
in a strenuous life. As a tired woman pauses amid her tasks and looks out
of her cottage window to take into her heart the quiet beauty of the woods
where she knows the ground is fair with lilies, so do we find ourselves
looking out of life's small casement and thinking upon the fresh, free,
'outdoor' life the soul will some day live. And such a mood as this is
surely a sign of the soul's growth, a testimony of its responsiveness to
the divine touch, a sudden sense of its splendid destiny borne in upon it
among the grey and narrow circumstances of its service.
Oh that I had a dove's swift, silver wings,
I said, so I might straightway leave behind
This strife of tongues, this tramp of feet, and find
A world that knows no struggles and no stings,
Where all about the soul soft Silence flings
Her filmy garment, and the vexèd mind
Grows quiet as there floats upon the wind
The soothing slumber-song of dreamless things.
And lo! there answered me a voice and said,
Man, thou hast hands and heart, take back thy prayer;
Covet life's weariness, go forth and share
The common suffering and the toil for bread.
Look not on Rest, although her face be fair,
And her white hands shall smooth thy narrow bed.
A NEW SONG
O sing unto the Lord a new song.
Ps. xcvi. 1.
Time and again in the Psalter we find this appeal for a new song. First of
all, and most obviously, the appeal concerns the contents of the song. It
reminds us of the duty of making our grateful acknowledgement of God's
goodness to us expand with our growing experience of that goodness. It is,
if, one may so phrase it, a reminder to us that our praise needs bringing
up to date. A hymn considerably later in date than this psalm exhorts us to
'count' our 'blessings,' and to 'name them one by one.' This exhortation to
attempt the impossible is perhaps more worthy of being heeded than the form
in which it is presented to us might lead some to suppose. There is no
getting away from the simple fact that a man's thankfulness has a real and
proportionate relationship to the things for which he has cause to be
thankful. If in our daily life the phrase 'the goodness of God' is to have
a deepening and cumulative significance, it must be informed and vitalized
continually by an alert and responsive recognition of the forms in which
that goodness is ever freshly manifested to us. Whilst the roots of the
tree of praise lie deep beneath the surface, and wind their thousand ways
into dim places where memory itself cannot follow them, yet surely the
leaves of the tree are fresher and greener for rain that even now has left
its reviving touch upon them, and for the sunshine that is even now
stirring the life in all their veins. The figure is imperfect. We are not
trees. We do not respond automatically to all the gracious and cheering
ministries of the Eternal Goodness in our lives. We may easily overlook
many a good gift of our God. And though in our forgetfulness and
unthankfulness we profit by the sunlight and the dew and by each tender
thought of God for His creatures, yet the full and perpetual profit of all
good things is for each of us bound up with the power to see them, the
wisdom to appraise them, the mindfulness that holds them fast, and the
heart that sings out its thanksgiving for them. 'O sing unto the Lord a new
song.' Bring this day's life into the song. Bring the gift that has come to
thee this very hour into the song. Look about thee. See if there be but one
more flower springing at the path-side. See if the bud of yesterday has but
unfolded another leaf. Behold the loaf on thy table, feel the warmth of thy
hearth, yea, feel the very life within thee that woke again and stirred
itself with the morning light, and say these gifts are like unto the gifts
of yesterday, but they are not yesterday's gifts. Yesterday's bread is
broken, and yesterday's fire is dead, and yesterday's strength is spent. O
God, Thy mercies are new every morning! So shall a new song break from the
It is quite possible, in taking what we believe to be a broad view of life,
to overlook many of the things that go to make life. Too much generalizing
makes for a barren heart. The specific has a vital place in the ministry of
praise. It is true that the highest flights of praise always carry the soul
beyond any conscious reckoning with the details of its experience.
Tabulation is not the keystone of the arch of thanksgiving. But to behold
the specific goodness of God in each day's life, to review the hours and to
say to one's own soul, Thus and thus hath my God been mindful of me, is
perhaps the surest and the simplest way to deepen and vitalize the habit of
praise in our life, and to set the new notes ringing in our psalm of
But in this appeal for a new song of praise to God there is something more
than a recognition of new blessings. The new song is not merely the
response to new mercies and the tuneful celebration of recent good. If
there is to be ever a new note in the song, there must be ever a new note
in the singer's heart. And this cometh not by observation, but by
inspiration. You may change the words of the song and it may still be the
old song. You may sing the same words and it may yet be a new song. For as
is the singer, so is the song.
_O sing unto the Lord a new song._ That is a plea for a deeper and a wider
life. It is a plea that sounds the depth of the heart and takes the measure
of the soul. The new song comes not of a truer enumeration of life's
blessings, but of a truer understanding of the blessedness of life itself.
The key to such understanding is character. When by the grace of the clean
heart and the enlightened and responsive spirit a man can get beneath the
events of each day's life and commune with that eternal law of love to
which each one of those events bears some relation--or had we not better
say commune with the Eternal Father by whom that law exists?--then is his
song of praise ever new. It is something to catch a glimpse of the mercy of
God, and to think and feel as one has not thought or felt before about some
part of life's daily good. But it is vastly more to learn to interpret the
whole of life in the terms of the goodness of God. The saint sings where
the worldling sighs. And if we find in that song only the apotheosis of
courage and resignation, we have neither found the source of the song nor
the message of it. The new song comes not from the thrill of peril faced
and defied, nor from the victorious acceptance of hard and bitter things.
It comes from that deep life of the soul in God, a life beyond the threat
of peril and beyond the touch of pain. It finds its deepest and freshest
notes not in contemplating the new gains and good of any day, but in a
growing sense of the timeless gain and eternal good of every day.
And if all this be so, it surely follows that the service of praise is not
something unto which we may pass by one effort of the will or that depends
upon the stimulus of outward experience. It is conditioned rather by our
character, and by our power to see the unveiled face of life reflecting
always the light of perfect love. And it is to produce in us the right
character and the true insight that God disciplines us all our days. It is
to set a new song in our hearts. Said a professor of music at Leipzig of a
girl whom he had trained for some years and who was the pride of the
Conservatoire, 'If only some one would marry her and ill-treat her and
break her heart she would be the finest singer in Europe.' He missed
something in the song, and knew it could never come there save from the
heart of the singer. Trouble always strikes a new note in life, and often
the deepest note that is ever struck. But, be our experience joyous or
sorrowful, the true end of it must ever be to deepen our own hearts that
there may be in us ever a more catholic recognition of, and response to,
the Eternal Love.
The human soul is not a mere repository of experiences. Memory is not the
true guardian of life's treasure. That treasure is invested in character.
In the moral world we _have_ what we _are_. So we may recall that which we
have never possessed, and may possess that which we can never recall. And
it is out of that which we have _become_ by God's grace, rather than out of
that which we have received of that grace, that the new song comes.
So, as day by day we pray for the grace of new thanksgiving, we are seeking
something more than a new power to behold what good things each day brings
us, a readier way of reckoning the wealth of the passing hours. We are
seeking for a larger life in God, and for a spirit able, as it were, to
secrete from every experience its hidden meed of everlasting blessing. For
if the heart grow purer, the will stronger, the vision clearer, the
judgement truer--indeed, if there come to the soul each day some increase
of life--it shall surely find its way into living praise. And a living song
is always a new song.