Swiftness or slowness in duty is very much a matter of habit. As one is trained in early life, one is quite sure to continue in mature years. A loitering child will become a loitering man or woman. The habit grows, as all habits do.
"Lose this day loitering, 'twill be the same story To-morrow, and the next more dilatory; The indecision brings its own delays, And days are lost, lamenting o'er lost days.
"Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute. What you can do, and think you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, magic in it. Only engage, and then the mind grows heated; Begin it, and the work will be completed."
Many people lose in the aggregate whole years of time out of their lives for want of system. They make no plan for their days. They let duties mingle in inextricable confusion. They are always in feverish haste. They talk continually of being overwhelmed with work, of the great pressure that is upon them, of being driven beyond measure. They always have the air of men who have scarcely time to eat or sleep. And there is nothing feigned in all their intense occupation. They really are hurried men. Yet in the end they accomplish but little in comparison with their great activity, because they work without order, and always feverishly and nervously. Swiftness in accomplishment is always calm and quiet. It plans well, suffering no confusion in tasks. Hurried haste is always flurried haste, which does nothing well. "Unhasting yet unresting" is the motto of quick and abundant achievement.
"'Without haste! without rest!' Bind the motto to thy breast; Bear it with thee as a spell; Storm or sunshine, guard it well; Heed not flowers that round thee bloom, Bear it onward to the tomb.
"Haste not! let no thoughtless deed Mar for aye the spirit's speed; Ponder well and know the right; Onward then with all thy might; Haste not; years can ne'er atone For one reckless action done.
"Rest not! life is sweeping by, Do and dare before you die; Something mighty and sublime Leave behind to conquer time; Glorious 'tis to live for aye When these forms have passed away.
"Haste not! rest not! calmly wait; Meekly bear the storm of fate; Duty be thy polar guide; Do the right whate'er betide. Haste not! rest not! Conflicts past, God shall crown thy work at last."
There is another phase of the lesson. Not swiftness only, but patient persistence through days and years, is the mark of true living. There are many people who can work under pressure for a little time, but who tire of the monotony and slack in their duty by and by, failing at last because they cannot endure unto the end. There are people who begin many noble things, but soon weary of them and drop them out of their hands. They may pass for brilliant men, men even of genius, but in the end they have for biography only a volume of fragments of chapters, not one of them finished. Such men may attract a great deal of passing attention, while the tireless plodders working beside them receive no praise, no commendation; but in the real records of life, written in abiding lines in God's Book, it is the latter who will shine in the brightest splendor. Robert Browning puts this truth in striking way in one of his poems:—
"Now, observe, Sustaining is no brilliant self-display Like knocking down or even setting up: Much bustle these necessitate; and still To vulgar eye, the mightier of the myth Is Hercules, who substitutes his own For Atlas' shoulder and supports the globe A whole day,—not the passive and obscure Atlas who bore, ere Hercules was born, And is to go on bearing that same load When Hercules turns ash on Oeta's top. 'Tis the transition-stage, the tug and strain, That strike men: standing still is stupid-like."
So we get our lesson. There is so much to do in the short days that we dare not lose a moment. Life is so laden with responsibility that to trifle at any point is sin. Even on the seizing of minutes eternal issues may depend. Of course we must take needed rest to keep our lives in condition for duty. But what shall we say of those strong men and women who do almost nothing but rest? What shall we say of those who live only to have amusement, who dance away their nights and then sleep away their days, and thus hurry on toward the judgment-bar, doing nothing for God or for man? Life is duty; every moment of it has its own duty. There is no malfeasance so sad and so terrible in its penalties as that which wastes the golden years in idleness or pleasure, and leaves duty undone.
Shall we not seek to crowd the days with most earnest living? Shall we not learn to redeem the time from indolence, from loitering, from unmethodicalness, from the waste of precious moments, from self-indulgence, from impatience of persistent toil, from all that lessens achievement? Shall we not learn to work swiftly for our Master?
"You must live each day at your very best: The work of the world is done by few; God asks that a part be done by you.
"Say oft of the years as they pass from sight, 'This is life with its golden store: I shall have it once, but it comes no more.'
"Have a purpose, and do with your utmost might: You will finish your work on the other side, When you wake in his likeness, satisfied."
THE SHADOWS WE CAST.
"The smallest bark on life's tumultuous ocean Will leave a track behind for evermore; The slightest wave of influence set in motion Extends and widens to the eternal shore."
Every one of us casts a shadow. There hangs about us a sort of penumbra,—a strange, indefinable something,—which we call personal influence, which has its effect on every other life on which it falls. It goes with us wherever we go. It is not something we can have when we want to have it, and then lay aside when we will, as we lay aside a garment. It is something that always pours out from our life, like light from a lamp, like heat from flame, like perfume from a flower.
No one can live, and not have influence. Says Elihu Burritt: "No human being can come into this world without increasing or diminishing the sum total of human happiness, not only of the present, but of every subsequent age of humanity. No one can detach himself from this connection. There is no sequestered spot in the universe, no dark niche along the disk of non-existence, to which he can retreat from his relations to others, where he can withdraw the influence of his existence upon the moral destiny of the world; everywhere his presence or absence will be felt, everywhere he will have companions who will be better or worse for his influence." These are true words. To be at all is to have influence, either for good or evil, over other lives.
The ministry of personal influence is something very wonderful. Without being conscious of it, we are always impressing others by this strange power that goes out from us. Others watch us and their actions are modified by ours. Many a life has been started on a career of beauty and blessing by the influence of one noble act. The disciples saw their Master praying, and were so impressed by his earnestness, or by the radiancy they saw on his face, as he communed with his Father, that when he joined them again they asked him to teach them how to pray. Every true soul is impressed continually by the glimpses it has of loveliness, of holiness, or of nobleness in others.
One kind deed often inspires many kindnesses. Here is a story from a newspaper of the other day, which illustrates this. A little newsboy entered a car on the elevated railway train, and slipping into a cross-seat, was soon asleep. Presently two young ladies came in, and took seats opposite to him. The child's feet were bare, his clothes were ragged, and his face was pinched and drawn, showing marks of hunger and suffering. The young ladies noticed him, and, seeing that his cheek rested against the hard window-sill, one of them arose, and quietly raising his head, slipped her muff under it for a pillow.
The kind act was observed, and now mark its influence. An old gentleman in the next seat, without a word, held out a silver quarter to the young lady, nodding toward the boy. After a moment's hesitation, she took it, and as she did so, another man handed her a dime, a woman across the aisle held out some pennies, and almost before the young woman realized what she was doing, she was taking a collection for the poor boy. Thus from the one little act there had gone out a wave of influence touching the hearts of two score people, and leading each of them to do something.
Common life is full of just such illustrations of the influence of kindly deeds. Every good life leaves in the world a twofold ministry, that of the things it does directly to bless others, and that of the silent influence it exerts, through which others are made better, or are inspired to do like good things.
Influence is something, too, which even death does not end. When earthly life closes, a good man's active work ceases. He is missed in the places where his familiar presence has brought benedictions. No more are his words heard by those who ofttimes have been cheered or comforted by them. No more do his benefactions find their way to homes of need where so many times they have brought relief. No more does his gentle friendship minister strength and hope and courage to hearts that have learned to love him. The death of a good man, in the midst of his usefulness, cuts off a blessed ministry of helpfulness in the circle in which he has dwelt. But his influence continues. Longfellow writes:—
"Alike are life and death When life in death survives, And the uninterrupted breath Inspires a thousand lives.
"Were a star quenched on high, For ages would its light, Still travelling downward from the sky, Shine on our mortal sight.
"So when a great man dies, For years beyond our ken The light he leaves behind him lies Upon the paths of men."
The influence which our dead have over us is ofttimes very great. We think we have lost them when we see their faces no more, nor hear their voices, nor receive the accustomed kindnesses at their hands. But in many cases there is no doubt that what our loved ones do for us after they are gone is quite as important as what they could have done for us had they stayed with us. The memory of beautiful lives is a benediction, softened and made more rich and impressive by the sorrow which their departure caused. The influence of such sacred memories is in a certain sense more tender than that of life itself. Death transfigures our loved one, as it were, sweeping away the faults and blemishes of the mortal life, and leaving us an abiding vision, in which all that was beautiful, pure, gentle, and true in him remains to us. We often lose friends in the competitions and strifes of earthly life, whom we would have kept forever had death taken them away in the earlier days when love was strong. Often is it true, as Cardinal Newman writes:—
"He lives to us who dies; he is but lost who lives."
Thus even death doth not quench the influence of a good life. It continues to bless others long after the life has passed from earth. It is true, as Mrs. Sangster writes:—
"They never quite leave us, our friends who have passed Through the shadows of death to the sunlight above; A thousand sweet memories are holding them fast To the places they blessed with their presence and love.
"The work which they left and the books which they read Speak mutely, though still with an eloquence rare, And the songs that they sung, and the dear words that they said Yet linger and sigh on the desolate air.
"And oft when alone, and oft in the throng, Or when evil allures us, or sin draweth nigh, A whisper comes gently, 'Nay, do not the wrong,' And we feel that our weakness is pitied on high."
It must be remembered that not all influence is good. Evil deeds also have influence. Bad men live, too, after they are gone. Cried a dying man whose life had been full of harm to others: "Gather up my influence, and bury it with me in my grave." But the frantic, remorseful wish was in vain. The man went out of the world, but his influence stayed behind him, its poison to work for ages in the lives of others.
We need, therefore, to guard our influence with most conscientious care. It is a crime to fling into the street an infected garment which may carry contagion to men's homes. It is a worse crime to send out a printed page bearing words infected with the virus of moral death. The men who prepare and publish the vile literature which to-day goes everywhere, polluting and defiling innocent lives, will have a fearful account to render when they stand at God's bar to meet their influence. If we would make our lives worthy of God, and a blessing to the world, we must see to it that nothing we do shall influence others in the slightest degree to evil.
In the early days of American art there went from this country to London a young artist of genius and of a pure heart. He was poor, but had an aspiration for noble living as well as for fine painting. Among his pictures was one that in itself was pure, but that by a sensuous mind might be interpreted in an evil way. A lover of art saw this picture and purchased it. But when it was gone the young artist began to think of its possible hurtful influence on the weak, and his conscience troubled him. He went to his patron and said, "I have come to buy back my picture." The purchaser could not understand him. "Didn't I pay you enough for it? Do you need money?" he asked. "I am poor," replied the artist, "but my art is my life. Its mission must be good. The influence of that picture may possibly be harmful. I cannot be happy with it before the eyes of the world. It must be withdrawn."
We should keep watch not only over our words and deeds in their intent and purpose, but also in their possible influence over others. There may be liberties which in us lead to no danger, but which to others, with less stable character and less helpful environment, would be full of peril. It is part of our duty to think of these weaker ones and of the influence of our example upon them. We may not do anything, in our strength and security, which might possibly harm others. We must be willing to sacrifice our liberty, if by its exercise we endanger another's soul. This is the teaching of St. Paul in the words: "It is good not to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor to do anything whereby thy brother stumbleth"; and "If meat maketh my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I make not my brother to stumble."
How can we make sure of an influence that shall be only a benediction? There is no way but by making our life pure and good. Just in the measure in which we are filled with the Spirit of God and have the love of Christ in us, shall our influence be holy and a blessing to the world.
THE MEANING OF OPPORTUNITIES.
"'To-day' unsullied comes to thee—newborn, To-morrow is not thine; The sun may cease to shine For thee, ere earth shall greet its morn.
"Be earnest, then, in thought and deed, Nor fear approaching night; Calm comes with evening light, And hope and peace. Thy duty heed 'to-day.'" —RUSKIN.
If people's first thoughts were but as good and wise as their after-thoughts, life would be better and more beautiful than it is. We can all see our errors more clearly after we have committed them than we saw them before. We frequently hear persons utter the wish that they could go again over a certain period of their life, saying that they would live it differently, that they would not repeat the mistakes or follies which had so marred and stained the record they had made.
Of course the wish that one might have a second chance with any past period of time is altogether vain. No doubt there ofttimes is much reason for shame and pain in our retrospects. We live poorly enough at the best, even the saintliest of us, and many of us certainly make sad work of our life. Human life must appear very pathetic, and ofttimes tragical, as the angels look down upon it. There are almost infinitely fewer wrecks on the great sea where the ships go, than on that other sea of which poets write, where lives with their freightage of immortal hopes and possibilities sail on to their destiny. We talk sometimes with wonder of what the ocean contains, of the treasures that lie buried far down beneath the waves. But who shall tell of the treasures that are hidden in the deeper, darker sea of human life, where they have gone down in the sad hours of defeat and failure?
"In dim green depths rot ingot-laden ships, While gold doubloons, that from the drowned hand fell, Lie nestled in the ocean-flowers' bell With love's gemmed rings once kissed by now dead lips; And round some wrought-gold cup the sea-grass whips, And hides lost pearls, near pearls still in their shell Where sea-weed forests fill each ocean dell, And seek dim sunlight with their countless tips.
"So lie the wasted gifts, the long-lost hopes, Beneath the now hushed surface of myself. In lonelier depths than where the river gropes, They lie deep, deep; but I at times behold, In doubtful glimpses, on some reefy shelf, The gleam of irrecoverable gold."
Glimpses of these lost things—these squandered treasures, these wasted possibilities, these pearls and gems of life that have gone down into the sea of our past—we may have when the reefs are left bare by the refluent tides, but glimpses only can we see. We cannot recover our treasures. The gleams only mock us. The past will not give again its gold and pearls to any frantic appealing of ours.
There is something truly startling in this irreparableness of the past, this irrevocableness of the losses which we have suffered through our follies or our sins. About two centuries ago a great sun-dial was erected in All Souls' College, Oxford, England, the largest and noblest dial, it is said, in the whole kingdom. Over the long pointer were written, in large letters of gold, the Latin words, referring to the hours, "Pereunt et imputantur." Literally, the meaning is, "They perish, and are set down to our account"; or, as they have been rendered in terser phrase, "They are wasted, and are added to our debt."
It is said that these words on the dial have exerted a wonderful influence on the boyhood of many of the distinguished men who have received their training at Oxford, stimulating them to the most conscientious use of the golden hours as they passed, and bearing fruit in long lives of earnestness and faithfulness. The lesson is one that every young person should learn. In youth the hours are full of privileges. They come like angels, holding in their hands rich treasures, sent to us from God, which they offer to us; and if we are laggard or indolent, or if we are too intent on our own little trifles to give welcome to these heavenly messengers with their heavenly gifts, they quickly pass on and are gone. And they never come back again to renew the offer.
On the dial of a clock in the palace of Napoleon at Malmaison, the maker has put, the words, "Non nescit reverti"; "It does not know how to go backward." It is so of the great clock of Time—it never can be turned backward. The moments come to us but once; whatever we do with them we must do as they pass, for they will never come to us again.
Then privilege makes responsibility. We shall have to give account to God for all that he sends to us by the mystic hands of the passing hours, and which we refuse or neglect to receive. "They are wasted and are added to our debt."
The real problem of living, therefore, is how to take what the hours bring. He who does this, will live nobly and faithfully, and will fulfil God's plan for his life. The difference in men is not in the opportunities that come to them, but in their use of their opportunities. Many people who fail to make much of their life charge their failure to the lack of opportunities. They look at one who is continually doing good and beautiful things, or great and noble things, and think that he is specially favored, that the chances which come to him for such things are exceptional. Really, however, it is in his capacity for seeing and accepting what the hours bring of duty or privilege, that his success lies. Where other men see nothing, he sees a battle to fight, a duty to perform, a service to render, or an honor to win. Many a man waits long for opportunities, wondering why they never come to him, when really they have been passing by him day after day, unrecognized and unaccepted.
There is a legend of an artist, who long sought for a piece of sandal-wood out of which to carve a Madonna. At last he was about to give up in despair, leaving the vision of his life unrealized, when in a dream he was bidden to shape the figure from a block of oak-wood, which was destined for the fire. Obeying the command, he produced from the log of common firewood a masterpiece.
In like manner many people wait for great and brilliant opportunities for doing the good things, the beautiful things, of which they dream, while through all the plain, common days, the very opportunities they require for such deeds lie close to them, in the simplest and most familiar passing events, and in the homeliest circumstances. They wait to find sandal-wood out of which to carve Madonnas, while far more lovely Madonnas than they dream of, are hidden in the common logs of oak they burn in their open fire-place, or spurn with their feet in the wood-yard.
Opportunities come to all. The days of every life are full of them. But the trouble with too many of us is that we do not make anything out of them while we have them. Then next moment they are gone. One man goes through life sighing for opportunities. If only he had this or that gift, or place, or position, he would do great things, he says; but with his means, his poor chances, his meagre privileges, his uncongenial circumstances, his limitations, he can do nothing worthy of himself. Then another man comes up close beside him, with like means, chances, circumstances, privileges, and he achieves noble results, does heroic things, wins for himself honor and renown. The secret is in the man, not in his environment. Mr. Sill puts this well in his lines:—
"This I beheld, or dreamed it in a dream: There spread a cloud of dust along a plain; And underneath the cloud, or in it, raged A furious battle, and men yelled, and swords Shocked upon swords and shields. A prince's banner Wavered, then staggered backward, hemmed by foes. A craven hung along the battle's edge, And thought, 'Had I a sword of keener steel— That blue blade that the king's son bears—but this Blunt thing.'—He snapt and flung it from his hand, And lowering crept away and left the field. Then came the king's son wounded, sore bestead, And weaponless, and saw the broken sword, Hilt buried in the dry and trodden sand, And ran and snatched it, and with battle shout Lifted afresh he hewed his enemy down, And saved a great cause that heroic day."
With the blunt sword, broken now, which the craven had flung away as unfit for use, the princely hand won its great victory. Life is full of illustrations of this very experience. The materials of life which one man has despised and spurned as unworthy of him, as having in them no charmed secret of success, another man is forever picking up out of the dust, and with them achieving noble and brilliant successes. Men, alert and eager, are wanted, men with heroic heart and princely hand, to see and use the opportunities that lie everywhere in the most commonplace life.
There is but one thing to do to get out of life all its possibilities of attainment and achievement; we must train ourselves to take what every moment brings to us of privilege and of duty. Some people worry themselves over the vague wonder as to what the divine plan in life is for them. They have a feeling that God had some definite purpose in creating them, and that there is something he wants them to do in this world, and they would like to know how they can learn this divine thought for their life. The answer is really very simple. God is ready to reveal to us, with unerring definiteness, his plan for our life. This revealing he makes as we go on, showing us each moment one little fragment of his purpose. Says Faber: "The surest method of aiming at a knowledge of God's eternal purposes about us is to be found in the right use of the present moment. Each hour comes with some little fagot of God's will fastened upon its back."
We have nothing to do, therefore, with anything save the privilege and duty of the one hour now passing. This makes the problem of living very simple. We need not look at our life as a whole, nor even carry the burden of a single year; if we but grasp well the meaning of the one little fragment of time immediately present, and do instantly all the duty and take all the privilege that the one hour brings, we shall thus do that which shall best please God and build up our own life into completeness. It ought never to be hard for us to do this.
"God broke our years to hours and days, that hour by hour And day by day Just going on a little way, We might be able all along To keep quite strong. Should all the weight of life Be laid across our shoulder, and the future, rife With woe and struggle, meet us face to face At just one place, We could not go, Our feet would stop; and so God lays a little on us every day, And never, I believe, on all the way Will burdens bear so deep, Or pathways lie so threatening and so steep, But we can go, if by God's power We only bear the burden of the hour."
Living thus we shall make each hour radiant with the radiancy of duty well done, and radiant hours will make radiant years. But the missing of privileges and the neglecting of duties will leave days and years marred and blemished and make the life at last like a moth-eaten garment. We must catch the sacred meaning of our opportunities if we would live up to our best.
THE SIN OF INGRATITUDE.
"The sun may shine upon the clod till it is warm, Warm for its own poor darkling self to live. He smites the diamond, and oh, how glows the gem, Chilling itself, irradiant, to give.
"The silent soul, that takes but gives not out again, In shining thankfulness, a smile, a tear, Absorbing, makes none other glad, and misses so The purest and the best of love's rich cheer." —MARY K. A. STONE.
A blessing given ought always to have some return. It is better to be a diamond, lighted to shine, than a clod, warmed to be only a dull, dark clod. We all receive numberless favors, but we do not all alike make fitting return.
Krummacher has a pleasant little fable with a suggestion. When Zaccheus was old he still dwelt in Jericho, humble and pious before God and man. Every morning at sunrise he went out into the fields for a walk, and he always came back with a calm and happy mind to begin his day's work. His wife wondered where he went in his walks, but he never spoke to her of the matter. One morning she secretly followed him. He went straight to the tree from which he first saw the Lord. Hiding herself, she watched him to see what he would do. He took a pitcher, and carrying water, he poured it about the tree's roots which were getting dry in the sultry climate. He pulled up some weeds here and there. He passed his hand fondly over the old trunk. Then he looked up at the place among the branches where he had sat that day when he first saw Jesus. After this he turned away, and with a smile of gratitude went back to his home. His wife afterward referred to the matter and asked him why he took such care of the old tree. His quiet answer was, "It was that tree which brought me to him whom my soul loveth."
There is no true life without its sacred memorial of special blessing or good. There is something that tells of favor, of deliverance, of help, of influence, of teaching, of great kindness. There is some spot, some quiet walk, some room, some book, some face, that always recalls sweet memories. There is something that is precious to us because in some way it marks a holy place in life's journey. Most of us understand that loving interest of Zaccheus in his old tree, and can believe the little fancy to be even true. In what life is there no place that is always kept green in memory, because there a sweet blessing was received?
Yet there seem to be many who forget their benefits. There is much ingratitude in the world. It may not be so universal as some would have us believe. There surely are many who carry in their hearts, undimmed for long years, the memory of benefits and kindnesses received from friends, and who never cease to be grateful and to show their gratitude. Wordsworth wrote:—
"I've heard of hearts unkind, Kind deeds with coldness still returning; Alas! the gratitude of men Hath left me oftener mourning."
However, Archdeacon Farrar, referring to these words, says, "If Wordsworth found gratitude a common virtue, his experience must have been exceptional." There certainly are hearts unkind that do return coldness for kind deeds. There are children who forget the love and sacrifices of their parents and repay their countless kindnesses, not with grateful affection, honor, obedience, thoughtfulness, and service, but with disregard, indifference, disobedience, dishonor, sometimes even with shameful neglect and unkindness. There are those who receive help from friends in unnumbered ways, through years, help that brings to them great aid in life—promotion, advancement, improvement in character, widening of privileges and opportunities, tender kindness that warms, blesses, and inspires the heart, and enriches, refines, and ennobles the life—who yet seem never to recognize or appreciate the benefit and the good they receive. They appear to feel no obligation, no thankfulness. They make no return of love for all of love's ministry. They even repay it with complaint, with criticism, with bitterness. We have all known years of continued favors forgotten, and their memory wiped out by one small failure to grant a new request for help. We have all known malignant hate to be the return for long periods of lavish kindness.
Ingratitude is robbery. It robs those to whom gratitude is due, for it is the withholding of that which is justly theirs. If you are kind to another, is he not your debtor? If you show another favors, does not he owe you thanks? True, you ask no return, for love does not work for wages. Only selfishness demands repayment for help given, and is embittered by ingratitude. The Christly spirit continues to give and bless, pouring out its love in unstinted measure, though no act or word or look tells of gratitude.
"If thy true service mounted, in its aim, No higher than the praise that men bestow On noble sacrifice, there might be shame That thou hast missed it so.
"But not for selfish gain or low reward, Didst thou so labor under shade and sun; But with the conscious sense that for thy Lord This weary work was done.
"He asked no thanks, no recognition nigh, No tender acceptation of his grace, No pitying tear from one responsive eye, No answering human face.
"To do God's will—that was enough for Christ, 'Mid griefs that make all agonies look dim. It shall for thee suffice—it hath sufficed, As it sufficed for him."
Yet while love does not work for wages, nor demand an equivalent for its services, it is sorely wronged when ungrateful lips are dumb. The quality of ingratitude is not changed because faithful love is not frozen in the heart by its coldness. We owe at least loving remembrance to one who has shown us kindness, though no other return may be possible, or though large return may already have been made. We can never be absolved from the duty of being grateful. "Owe no man anything but love" is a heavenly word. We always owe love; that is a debt we never can pay off.
Ingratitude is robbery. But it is cruelty as well as robbery. It always hurts the heart that must endure it. Few faults or injuries cause more pain and grief in tender spirits than ingratitude. The pain may be borne in silence. Men do not speak of it to others, still less to those whose neglect or coldness inflicts it; yet It is like thorns in the pillow.
"Blow, blow, thou winter wind; Thou art not so unkind As man's ingratitude."
Parents suffer unspeakably when the children for whom they have lived, suffered, and sacrificed, prove ungrateful. The ungrateful child does not know what bitter sorrow he causes the mother who bore him and nursed him, and the father who loves him more than his own life; how their hearts bleed; how they weep in secret over his unkindness. We do not know how we hurt our friends when we treat them ungratefully, forgetting all they have done for us, and repaying their favors with coldness.
There is yet more of this lesson. Gratitude, to fulfil its gentle ministry, must find some fitting expression. It is not enough that it be cherished in the heart. There are many good people who fail at this point. They are really thankful for the good others do to them. They feel kindly enough in their hearts toward their benefactors. Perhaps they speak to other friends of the kindnesses they have received. They may even put it into their prayers, telling God how they have been helped by others of his children, and asking him to reward and bless those who have been good to them. But meanwhile they do not in any way express their grateful feelings to the persons who have done them the favors or rendered them the offices of friendship.
How does your friend know that you are grateful, if you do not in some way tell him that you are? Verily here is a sore fault of love, this keeping sealed up in the heart the generous feeling, the tender gratitude, which we ought to speak, and which would give so much comfort if it were spoken in the ear that ought to hear it. No pure, true, loving human heart ever gets beyond being strengthened and warmed to nobler service by words of honest and sincere appreciation. Flattery is contemptible; only vain spirits are elated by it. Insincerity is a sickening mockery; the sensitive soul turns away from it in revulsion. But words of true gratitude are always to human hearts like cups of water to thirsty lips. We need not fear turning people's heads by genuine expressions of thankfulness; on the other hand, nothing inspires such humility, such reverent praise to God, as the knowledge which such gratitude brings,—that one has been used of God to help, or bless, or comfort another life.
Silence is said to be golden, and ofttimes, indeed, it is better than speech. "It is a fine thing in friendship," says George MacDonald, "to know when to be silent." There are times when silence is the truest, fittest, divinest, most blessed thing, when words would only mar the hallowed sweetness of love's ministry. But there are times again when silence is disloyalty, cruelty, unkind as winter air to tender plants. Especially is this true of gratitude; to be coldly silent, when the heart is grateful, is a sin against love. When we have a word of thanks in our heart, which we feel we might honestly speak, and which we do not speak, we have sorely wronged our friend.
Especially in homes ought there to be more grateful expression. We wrong home friends more than any other friends. Home is where love is truest and tenderest. We need never fear being misunderstood by the loved ones who there cluster about us. Yet too often home is the very place where we are most miserly of grateful and appreciative words. We let gentle spirits starve close beside us for the words of affectionateness that lie warm, yet unspoken, on our tongues. None of us know what joy and strength we could impart to others, if only we would train ourselves to give fitting, delicate, and thoughtful expression to the gratitude that is in our hearts. We would become blessings to all about us, and would receive into our life new gladness. Nothing is sadder than the sorrow witnessed about many a Coffin; the grief of bereavement and loss made bitter by the regret that now the too slow gratitude of the heart shall never have opportunity to utter itself in the ear which waited so long, hungry, and in vain, for the word that would have given such comfort.
"Over the coffin pitiful we stand, And place a rose within the helpless hand, That yesterday, mayhap, we would not see, When it was meekly offered. On the heart That often ached for an approving word, We lay forget-me-nots—we turn away, And find the world is colder for the loss Of this so faulty and so loving one.
"Think of that moment, ye who reckon close With love—so much for every gentle thought, The moment when love's richest gifts are naught: When a pale flower, upon a pulseless breast, Like your regret, exhales its sweets in vain."
But it is not enough that we be grateful and show our gratitude to the human friends who do us kindnesses. It is to God that we owe all. Every good and perfect gift, no matter how it reaches us, through what messenger, in what form, "cometh down from above, from the Father of lights." All the blessings of Providence, all the tender things that come to us through human love and friendship, are God's gifts.
"Whence came the father-heart in man, The mother-heart in woman? The love throughout the cosmic plan Which makes God's children human?
"These never came: what we control Is good because 'tis given, And all made better to man's soul By the sweet touch of heaven."
We owe thanks to God, therefore, for all that we receive. When we have shown gratitude to our human benefactors, we still owe our Heavenly Father thanks and gratitude. It is possible, too, for us to be grateful to the friends who help us, and yet be as atheists, never recognizing God, nor giving him any thanks. This is the sorest sin of all. We rob God, and hurt his heart, every time we receive any favor at whatsoever hand, and fail to speak our praise to him.
Whatever we may say about man's ingratitude to his fellow-men, there is no question about man's lack of gratitude to God. We are continually receiving mercies and favors from him, and yet, are there not days and days with most of us, in which we lift no heart and speak no word in praise? Our prayers are largely requests and supplications for help and favor, with but little adoration and worship. We continue asking and asking, and God continues giving and giving; but how many of us remember always or often to give thanks for answered prayer? The angel of requests—so the legend runs—goes back from earth heavily laden every time he comes to gather up the prayers of men. But the angel of thanksgiving, of gratitude, has almost empty hands as he returns from his errands to this world. Yet ought we not to give thanks for all that we receive and for every answered request? If we were to do this our hearts would always be lifted up toward God in praise.
There is a story of some great conductor of a musical festival suddenly throwing up his baton, and stopping the performance, crying, "Flageolet!" The flageolet was not doing its part and the conductor's trained ear missed its one note in the large orchestra. Does not God miss any voice that is silent in the music of earth that rises up to him? And are there not many voices that are silent, taking no part in the song, giving forth no praise? Shall we not quickly start our heart-song of gratitude, calling upon every power of our being to praise God?
SOME SECRETS OF HAPPY HOME LIFE.
"The primal duties shine aloft like stars; The charities that sooth and heal and bless Are scattered at the feet of men like flowers. * * * * The smoke ascends To heaven as lightly from the cottage hearth As from the lofty palace." —WILLIAM WORDSWORTH.
Home life ought to be happy. The benediction of Christ on every home to which he is welcomed as an abiding guest is, "Peace be to this house." While perfection of happiness is unattainable in this world, rich, deep, heart-filling happiness certainly may be, and ought to be, attained.
Yet it requires wise building and delicate care to make a home truly and perfectly happy. Such a home does not come as a matter of course, by natural growth, wherever a family takes up its abode. Happiness has to be planned for, lived for, sacrificed for, ofttimes suffered for. Its price in a home is always the losing of self on the part of those who make up the household. Home happiness is the incense that rises from the altar of mutual self-sacrifice.
It may be said, in a word, that Christ himself is the one great, blessed, secret of all home happiness; Christ at the marriage altar; Christ when the baby is born; Christ when the baby dies; Christ in the days of plenty; Christ in the pinching times; Christ in all the household life; Christ in the sad hour when farewells must be spoken, when one goes on before and the other stays, bearing the burden of an unshared grief. Christ is the secret of happy home life.
But for the sake of simplicity the lesson may be broken up. For one thing, the husband has much to do in solving the problem. Does a man think always deeply of the responsibility he assumes when he takes a young wife away from the shelter of mother-love and father-love, the warmest, softest human nest in this world, and leads her into a new home, where his love is to be henceforth her only shelter? No man is fit to be the husband of a true woman who is not a good man. He need not be great, nor brilliant, nor rich, but he must be good, or he is not worthy to take a gentle woman's tender life into his keeping.
Then he must be a man, true, brave, generous, manly. He must be a good provider. He must be a sober man; no man who comes home intoxicated, however rarely, is doing his share in making happiness for his wife and family. He must be a man of pure, blameless life, whose name shall grow to be an honor and a pride in his household. Husbands have a great deal to do with the matter of happiness at home.
The wife, too, has a responsibility. It should be understood at the very beginning, that good housekeeping is one of the first secrets of a happy home. If a man must be a good provider, a woman must be a good home-maker. No woman is ready to marry until she has mastered the fine arts of housekeeping. Home is the wife's kingdom. She holds very largely in her hands the happiness of the hearts that nestle there. The best husband, the truest, the noblest, the gentlest, the richest-hearted, cannot make his home happy if his wife be not in every sense a helpmeet. In the last analysis, home happiness does depend on the wife. She is the true home-maker.
Children, too, are great blessings, when God sends them, bringing into the home rich possibilities of happiness. They cost care, and demand toil and sacrifice; ofttimes causing pain and grief: yet the blessing they bring repays a thousand times the care and cost. It is a sacred hour in a home when a baby is born and laid in the arms of a young father and mother. It brings fragments of heaven trailing after it to the home of earth. There are few deeper, purer joys ever experienced in this world than the joy of true parents at the birth of a child. Much of home's happiness along the years is made by the children. We say we train them, but they train us ofttimes more than we train them. Our lives grow richer, our hearts are opened, our love becomes holier when the children are about us. Croons a young mother over her babe:—
"And art thou mine, thou helpless, trembling thing, Thou lovely presence? Bird, where is thy wing? How pure thou art! fresh from the fields of light, Where angels garner grain in robes of white.
"Didst thou bring 'sealed instructions' with thee, dove, How to unlock the fount of mother-love? Full well dost thou fulfil thy winsome part; With holy fire they're writ upon my heart.
"My child, I fear thee! thou'rt a spirit, soul! How shall I walk before thee? keep my garments whole? O Lord, give strength, give wisdom for the task, To train this child for thee! Yet more I ask:
"Life of my life, for thee I crave best gifts and glad, More than, even in dreams, thy mother had! O Father! fine this gold! Oh, polish this, my gem! Till it is fair and fitting for thy diadem."
Jesus said of little children that those who receive them, in his name, receive him. May we not then say that children bring great possibility of blessing and happiness to a home? They come to us as messengers from heaven, bearing messages from God. Yet we may not know their value while we have them. Ofttimes, indeed, it is only the empty crib and the empty arms that reveal to us the full measure of home happiness that we get from the children. Those to whom God gives children should receive them with reverence. There are homes where mothers, who once wearied easily of children's noises, sit now with aching hearts, and would give the world to have a baby to nurse, or a rollicking boy to care for. Children are among the secrets of a happy home.
Turning to the life of the household, affectionateness is one of the secrets of happiness. There are hundreds of homes in which there is love that would die for its dear ones; and yet hearts are starving there for love's daily bread. There is a tendency in some homes to smother all of love's tenderness, to suppress it, to choke it back. There are homes where the amenities of affection are unknown, and where hearts starve for daily bread. There are husbands and wives between whom love's converse has settled into the baldest conventionalities. There are parents who never kiss their children after they are babies, and who discourage in them as they grow up all longing for caresses. There are homes whose daily life is marred by incessant petty strifes and discourtesies.
These are not exaggerations. Yet there is love in these homes, and all that is needed is that it be set free to perform its sweet ministry. There are cold, cheerless homes which could be warmed into love's richest glow in a little while, if all the hearts of the household were to grow affectionate in expression. Does the busy husband think that his weary wife would not care any longer for the caresses and marks of tenderness with which he used to thrill her? Let him return again for a month to his old-time fondness, and then ask her if these youthful amenities are distasteful to her. Do parents think their grown-up children are too big to be petted, to be kissed at meeting and parting? Let them restore again, for a time, something of the affectionateness of the childhood days, and see if there is not a blessing in it. Many who are longing for richer home happiness, need only to pray for a spring-time of love, with a tenderness that is not afraid of affectionate expression.
"Comfort one another; With the hand-clasp close and tender, With the sweetness love can render, And looks of friendly eyes. Do not wait with grace unspoken While life's daily bread is broken: Gentle speech is oft like manna from the skies."
We ought not to fear to speak our love at home. We should get all the tenderness possible into the daily household life. We should make the morning good-byes, as we part at the breakfast-table, kindly enough for final farewells; for they may be indeed final farewells. Many go out in the morning who never come home at night; therefore, we should part, even for a few hours, with kindly word, with lingering pressure of the hand, lest we may never look again in each other's eyes. Tenderness in a home is not a childish weakness, is not a thing to be ashamed of; it is one of love's sacred duties. Affectionate expression is one of the secrets of happy home life.
Religion is another of these secrets. It is where the Gospel of Christ is welcomed that heaven's benediction falls: "Peace be to this house." There may be a certain measure of happiness in a home without Christ, but it lacks something at best, and then when sorrow comes, and the sun of earthly joy is darkened, there are no lamps of heavenly comfort to lighten the darkness. Sad indeed is the Christless home, when a beloved one lies dead within its doors. No words of Christian comfort have any power to console, because there is no faith to receive them. No stars shine through their cypress-trees. But how different it is in the Christian home, in like sorrow! The grief is just as sore, but the truth of immortality sheds holy light on the darkness, and there is a deep joy which transfigures the sorrow.
Then may we not even put sorrow down as one of the secrets of happiness in a true Christian home? This may seem at first thought a strange suggestion. But there surely are homes that have passed through experiences of affliction that have a deeper, richer, fuller joy now than they had before the grief came. The sorrow sobered their gladness, making it less hilarious, but no less sweet. Bereavement drew all the home hearts closer together. The loss of one from the circle made those that remained dearer to each other than before. The tears became crystalline lenses through which faith saw more deeply into heaven. Then in the sorrow Christ came nearer, entering more really into the life of the home. Prayer has meant more since the dark days. There has been a new fragrance of love in the household. There are many homes whose present rich, deep, quiet happiness sorrow helped to make.
But it is not in sorrow only that religion gives its benediction. It makes all the happiness sweeter to have the assurance of God's love and favor abiding in the household. Burdens are lighter because there is One who shares them all. The morning prayer of the family, when all bow together, makes the whole day fairer; and the evening prayer before sleep, makes all feel safer for the night. Then religion inspires unselfishness, thoughtfulness, the spirit of mutual helpfulness, of burden-bearing, and serving, and thus enriches the home life.
After a while the young folks scatter away, setting up homes of their own. How beautiful it is then to see the old couple, who, thirty or forty years before, stood together at the marriage altar, standing together still, with love as true and pure and tender as ever, waiting to go home. By and by the husband goes away and comes back no more, and then the wife is lonesome and longs to go too. A little later and she also is gone, and they are together again on the other side, those dear old lovers, to be parted henceforth nevermore. And that is the blessed end of a happy Christian home.
GOD'S WINTER PLANTS.
"The wind that blows can never kill The tree God plants; It bloweth east; it bloweth west; The tender leaves have little rest, But any wind that blows is best. The tree God plants Strikes deeper root, grows higher still, Spreads wider boughs, for God's good-will Meets all its wants." —LILLIE E. BARR.
One of the papers tells of a newly discovered flower. It is called the snow-flower. It has been found in the northern part of Siberia. The plant shoots up out of the ice and frozen soil. It has three leaves, each about three inches in diameter. They grow on the side of the stem toward the north. Each of the leaves appears to be covered with little crystals of snow. The flower, when it opens, is star-shaped, its petals being of the same length as the leaves, and about half an inch in width. On the third day the extremities of the anthers show minute glistening specks, like diamonds, which are the seeds of this wonderful flower.
Is not this strange snow-flower an illustration of many Christian lives? God seems to plant them in the ice and snow; yet they live and grow up out of the wintry cold into fair and wondrous beauty. We should say that the loveliest lives of earth would be those that are reared amid the gentlest, kindliest influences, under summer skies, in the warm atmosphere of ease and comfort. But the truth is that the noblest developments of Christian character are grown in the wintry garden of hardship, struggle, and sorrow.
Trial should not, therefore, be regarded with discouragement, as something which will stunt and dwarf the life and mar its beauty. It should be accepted rather, when it comes, as part of God's discipline, through which he would bring out the noblest and best possibilities of our character. Perhaps we would be happier for the time if we had easier, more congenial conditions. Children might be happier without restraint, without family government, without chastening—just left to grow up into all wilfulness and waywardness. But there is something better in life than present happiness. Disciplined character in manhood, even though it has been gotten through stern and severe home-training, is better than a childhood and youth of unrestraint, with a worthless manhood as the outcome. A noble life, bearing God's image, even at the price of much pain and self-denial, is better than years of freedom from care and sacrifice with a life unblessed and lost at the end. "To serve God and love him," says one, "is higher and better than happiness, though it be with wounded feet and bleeding hands and heart loaded with sorrow."
"So much we miss If love is weak; so much we gain If love is strong. God thinks no pain Too sharp or lasting to ordain To teach us this."
It is well that we should understand how to receive trial so as to get from its hard experience the good it has for us. For one thing, we should accept it always reverently. Resistance forfeits the blessing which can be yielded only to the loving, submissive spirit. Teachableness is the unvarying condition of learning. To rebel against trial is to miss whatever good it may have brought for us. There are some who resent all severity and suffering in their lot as unkindness in God. These grow no better under divine chastening, but instead are hurt by it. When we accept the conditions of our life, however hard, as divinely ordained, and as the very conditions in which, for a time, we will grow the best, we are ready to get from them the blessing and good intended in them for us.
Another important suggestion is that we faint not under trial. There are those who give up and lose all their courage and faith when trouble comes. They cannot endure suffering. Sorrow crushes them. They break down at once under a cross and think they never can go on again. There have been many lives crushed by affliction or adversity, which have not risen again out of the dust. There have been mothers, happy and faithful before, out of whose home one child has been taken, and who have lost all interest in life from that day, letting their home grow dreary and desolate and their other children go uncared for, as they sat with folded hands in the abandonment of their despairing, uncomforted grief. There have been men with bright hopes, who have suffered one defeat or met with one loss, and then have let go in their discouragement and have fallen into the dust of failure, never trying to rise again.
Nothing is sadder in life than such yieldings. They are unworthy of immortal beings. The divine intention in trial never is to crush us, but always to do good to us in some way, to bring out in us new energy of life. Whatever the loss, struggle, or sorrow, we should accept it in love, humility, and faith, take its lessons, and then go on into the life that is before us. When one child is taken out of a home, the mother should, with more reverent heart and more gentle hand, turn the whole energy of her chastened life into love's channels, living more than ever before for her home and the children that are left to her. The man who has felt the stunning blow of a sudden grief or loss should kiss the hand of God that has smitten, and quickly arise and press onward to the battles and duties before him. We should never accept any defeat as final. Though it be in life's last hours, with only a mere fringe of margin left, and all our past failure and loss, still we should not despair.
"What though the radiance which was once so bright, Be now forever taken from my sight; Though nothing can bring back the hour Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind."
There is nowhere any better illustration of the way we should always rise again out of trial than we have in the life of St. Paul. From the day of his conversion till the day of his death, trouble followed him. He was misunderstood; he was cast out for Christ's sake; he met persecution in every form; he was shipwrecked; he lay in dungeons; he was deserted by his friends. But he never fainted, never grew discouraged, never spoke one word about giving up. "Cast down, but not destroyed," was the story of his life. He quickly arose out of every trial, every adversity, with a new light in his eye, a new enthusiasm in his heart. He could not be defeated, for he had Christ in him. Shall we not catch St. Paul's unconquerable spirit, that we may never faint in any trial?
It requires faith to meet trouble and adversity heroically. Undoubtedly, at the time, the blessing is not apparent in the sorrow or the defeat. All seems disastrous and destructive. It is in the future, in the outworking, that the good is to come. It is a matter of faith, not of sight. "All chastening seemeth for the present to be not joyous, but grievous; yet afterward it yieldeth peaceable fruit unto them that have been exercised thereby, even the fruit of righteousness." Oh, the blessing of God's "afterwards"! Jacob one day thought and said that all things were against him, but afterward he saw that his great afflictions and losses were wrought in as parts of a beautiful plan of love for him. The disciples thought that the cross was the destruction of all their Messianic hopes; afterward they saw that it was the very fulfilment of these hopes. The pruning, which at the time cuts so into the life of the vine, lopping off great, rich branches, afterward is seen to have been the saving and enriching of the whole vine. So we always need faith. We must believe against appearances.
"Under the fount of ill Many a cup doth fill, And the patient lip, though it drinketh oft, Finds only the bitter still.
"Nevertheless, I know, Out of the dark must grow, Sooner or later, whatever is fair, Since the heavens have willed it so."
Back and forth the plough was driven. The field was covered with grasses and lovely flowers, but remorselessly through them all the share tore its way, cutting furrow after furrow. It seemed that all the beauty was being hopelessly destroyed. But by and by harvest-time came, and the field waved with golden wheat. That was what the ploughman's faith saw from the beginning.
Sorrow seems to destroy the life of a child of God. Its rude share ploughs again and again through it, making many a deep furrow, gashing its beauty. But afterward a harvest of blessing and good grows up out of the crushed and broken life. That is what God intends always in trial and sorrow.
Let us have the ploughman's faith, and we shall not faint when the share is driven through our heart. Then by faith we shall see beyond the pain and trial the blessing of richer life, of whiter holiness, of larger fruitfulness. And to win that blessing will be worth all the pain and trial.
"Let me not die before I've done for thee My earthly work, whatever it may be. Call me not hence, with mission unfulfilled; Let me not leave my space of ground unfilled; Impress this truth upon me, that not one Can do my portion, that I leave undone."
We are all builders. We may not erect any house or temple on a city street, for human eyes to see, but every one of us builds a fabric which God and angels see. Life is a building. It rises slowly, day by day, through the years. Every new lesson we learn lays a block on the edifice which is rising silently within us. Every experience, every touch of another life on ours, every influence that impresses us, every book we read, every conversation we have, every act of our commonest days, adds something to the invisible building. Sorrow, too, has its place in preparing the stones to lie on the life-wall. All life furnishes the material.
"Our to-days and yesterdays Are the blocks with which we build."
There are many noble fabrics of character reared in this world. But there are also many who build only low, mean huts, without beauty, which will be swept away in the testing-fires of judgment. There are many, too, whose life-work presents the spectacle of an unfinished building. There was a beautiful plan to begin with, and the work promised well for a little time; but after a while it was abandoned and left standing, with walls half-way up, a useless fragment, open and exposed, an incomplete, inglorious ruin, telling no story of past splendor as do the ruins of some old castle or coliseum, a monument only of folly and failure.
"There is nothing sadder," writes one, "than an incomplete ruin; one that has never been of use; that never was what it was meant to be; about which no pure, holy, lofty associations cling, no thoughts of battles fought and victories won, or of defeats as glorious as victories. God sees them where we do not. The highest tower may be more unfinished than the lowest to him."
We must not forget the truth of this last sentence. There are, lives which to our eyes seem only to have been begun and then abandoned, which to God's eyes are still rising into more and more graceful beauty. Here is one who began his life-work with all the ardor of youth and all the enthusiasm of a consecrated spirit. For a time his hand never tired, his energy never slackened. Friends expected great things from him. Then his health gave way. The diligent hand lies idle and waiting now. His enthusiasm no more drives him afield. His work lies unfinished.
"What a pity!" men say. But wait! He has not left an unfinished life-work as God sees it. He is resting in submission at the Master's feet and is growing meanwhile as a Christian. The spiritual temple in his soul is rising slowly in the silence. Every day is adding something to the beauty of his character, as he learns the lessons of patience, confidence, peace, joy, love. His building at the last will be more beautiful than if he had been permitted to toil on through many busy years, carrying out his own plans. He is fulfilling God's purpose for his life.
We must not measure spiritual building by earthly standards. Where the heart remains loyal and true to Christ; where the cross of suffering is taken up cheerfully and borne sweetly; where the spirit is obedient though the hands lie folded and the feet must be still, the temple rises continually toward finished beauty.
Or here is one who dies in early youth. There was great promise in the beautiful life. Affection had reared for it a noble fabric of hope. Perhaps the beauty had begun to shine out in the face, and the hands had begun to show their skill. Then death came and all the fair hopes were folded away. The visions of loveliness and the dreams of noble attainments and achievements lay like withered flowers upon the grave. An unfinished life! friends cry in their disappointment and sorrow. So it seems, surely, to love's eyes, from the earth-side. But so it is not, as God's eye looks upon it. There is nothing unfinished that fulfils the divine plan. God cuts off no young life till its earthly work is done. Then the soul-building which began here and seemed to be interrupted by death, was only hidden from our eyes by a thin veil, behind which it still goes up with unbroken continuity, rising into fairest beauty in the presence of God.
But there are abandoned life-buildings whose story tells only of shame and failure. Many persons begin to follow Christ, and after a little time turn away from their profession and leave only a pretentious beginning to stand as a ruin to be laughed at by the world and to dishonor the Master's name.
Sometimes it is discouragement that leads men to give up the work to which they have put their hand. In one of his poems, Wordsworth tells a pathetic story of a straggling heap of unhewn stones, and the beginning of a sheepfold which was never finished. With his wife and only son, old Michael, a Highland shepherd, dwelt for many years in peace. But trouble came which made it necessary that the son should go away to do for himself for a while. For a time good reports came from him, and the old shepherd would go out when he had leisure and would work on the sheepfold which he was building. By and by, however, sad news came from Luke. In the great dissolute city he had given himself to evil courses. Shame fell on him and he was driven to seek a hiding-place beyond the seas. The sad tidings broke the old father's heart. He went about as before, caring for his sheep. To the hollow dell, too, he would repair from time to time, meaning to build at the unfinished fold. But the neighbors in their pity noticed that he did little work in those sad days.
"'Tis believed by all That many and many a day he thither went And never lifted up a single stone. There by the sheepfold sometimes was he seen Sitting alone, with that his faithful dog, Then old, beside him, lying at his feet. The length of full seven years from time to time He at the building of his sheepfold wrought, And left the work unfinished when he died."
Years after the shepherd was gone the remains of the unfinished fold were still there, a sad memorial of one who began to build but did not finish. Sorrow broke his heart and his hand slacked.
Too often noble life-buildings are abandoned in the time of sorrow, and the hands that were quick and skilful before grief came, hang down and do nothing more on the temple-wall. Instead, however, of giving up our work and faltering in our diligence, we should be inspired by sorrow to yet greater earnestness in all duty and greater fidelity in all life. God does not want us to faint under chastening, but to go on with our work, quickened to new earnestness by grief.
Want of faith is another cause which leads many to abandon their life-temples unfinished. Throngs followed Christ in the earlier days of his ministry when all seemed bright, who, when they saw the shadow of the cross, turned back and walked no more with him. They lost their faith in him. It is startling to read how near even our Lord's apostles came to leaving their buildings unfinished. Had not their faith come again after their Master arose, they would have left in this world only sad memorials of failure instead of glorious finished temples.
In these very days there are many who, through the losing of their faith, are abandoning their work on the wall of the temple of Christian discipleship, which they have begun to build. Who does not know those who once were earnest and enthusiastic in Christian life, while there was but little opposition, but who fainted and failed when it became hard to confess Christ and walk with him?
Then sin, in some form, draws many a builder away from his work, to leave it unfinished. It may be the world's fascinations that draw him from Christ's side. It may be sinful human companionships that lure him from loyal friendship to his Saviour. It may be riches that enter his heart and blind his eyes to the attractions of heaven. It may be some secret, debasing lust that gains power over him and paralyzes his spiritual life. Many are there now, amid the world's throngs, who once sat at the Lord's Table and were among God's people. Unfinished buildings their lives are, towers begun with great enthusiasm and then left to tell their sad story of failure to all who pass by. They began to build and were not able to finish.
It is sad to think how much of this unfinished work God's angels see as they look down upon our earth. Think of the good beginnings which never come to anything in the end; the excellent resolutions which are never carried out, the noble life-plans entered upon by so many young people with ardent enthusiasm, but soon given up. Think of the beautiful visions and fair hopes which might be made splendid realities, but which fade out, not leaving the record of even one sincere, earnest effort to work them into reality.
In all lines of life we see these abandoned buildings. The business world is full of them. Men began to build, but in a little time they were gone, leaving their work uncompleted. They set out with gladness, but tired at length of the toil, or grew disheartened at the slow coming of success, and abandoned their ideal when it was perhaps just ready to be realized. Many homes present the spectacle of abandoned dreams of love. For a time the beautiful vision shone in radiance, and two hearts sought to make it come true, but then gave it up in despair.
So life everywhere is full of beginnings never carried out to completion. There is not a soul-wreck on the streets, not a prisoner serving out a sentence behind iron bars, not a debased, fallen one anywhere, in whose soul there were not once visions of beauty, bright hopes, holy thoughts and purposes, and high resolves—an ideal of something lovely and noble. But alas! the visions, the hopes, the purposes, the resolves, never grew into more than beginnings. God's angels bend down and see a great wilderness of unfinished fabrics, splendid possibilities unfulfilled, noble might-have-beens abandoned, ghastly ruins now, sad memorials only of failure.
The lesson from all this is, that we should finish our work, that we should allow nothing to draw us away from our duty, that we should never weary in following Christ, that we should hold fast the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end. We should not falter under any burden, in the face of any danger, before any demand of cost and sacrifice. No discouragement, no sorrow, no worldly attraction, no hardship, should weaken for one moment our determination to be faithful unto death. No one who has begun to build for Christ should leave an unfinished, abandoned life-work to grieve the heart of the Master and to be sneered at as a reproach to the name he bears.
Yet we must remember, lest we be discouraged, that only in a relative, human sense can any life-building be made altogether complete. Our best work is marred and imperfect. It is only when we are in Christ, and are co-workers with him, that anything we do can ever be made perfect and beautiful. But the weakest, and the humblest, who are simply faithful, will stand at last complete in him. Even the merest fragment of life, as it appears in men's eyes, if it be truly in Christ, and filled with his love and with his Spirit, will appear finished, when presented before the divine Presence. To do God's will, whatever that may be, to fill out his plan, is to be complete in Christ, though the stay on earth be but for a day, and though the work done fulfil no great human plan, and leave no brilliant record among men.
"Thy work unfinished! Do not fear Though at his coming may be found The stone unset. Yet, for thy faith, beyond the skies Thine own shall be the longed-for prize. He knoweth best who calls from labor now To rest, to build no more."
IRON SHOES FOR ROUGH ROADS.
"Our feeble frame he knoweth, Remembereth we are dust; And evermore his face is kind, His ways are ever just. In evil and in blindness, Through darkened maze we rove, But still our Father leads us home, By strength of mighty love." —MARGARET E. SANGSTER.
The matter of shoes is important. Especially is this true when the roads are rough and hard. We cannot then get along without something strong and comfortable to wear on our feet. One would scarcely expect to find anything in the Bible about such a need as this. Yet it only shows how truly the Bible is fitted to all our actual life to discover in it a promise referring to shoes.
In the blessing of Moses, pronounced before his death upon the several tribes, there was this among other things for Asher: "Thy shoes shall be iron." A little geographical note will help to make the meaning plain. Part of Asher's allotted portion was hilly and rugged. Common sandals, made of wood or leather, would not endure the wear and tear of the sharp, flinty rocks. There was need, therefore, for some special kind of shoes. Hence the form of the promise: "Thy shoes shall be iron."
Even the Bible words which took the most vivid local coloring from the particular circumstances in which they were originally spoken, are yet as true for us as they were for those to whom they first came. We have only to get disentangled from the local allusions the real heart of the meaning of the words, and we have an eternal promise which every child of God may claim.
Turning, then, this old-time assurance into a word for nineteenth-century pilgrims, we get from it some important suggestions. For one thing it tells us that we may have some rugged pieces of road before we get to the end of our life-journey. If not, what need would there be for iron shoes? If the way is to be flower-strewn, velvet slippers, as Dr. McLaren somewhere suggests, would do. No man wants iron-soled shoes for a walk through a soft meadow. The journey is not likely to be all easy. Indeed, an earnest Christian life is never easy. No one can live nobly and worthily without struggle, battle, self-denial. One may find easy ways, but they are not the worthiest ways. They do not lead upward to the noblest things. One reason why many people never grasp the visions of beauty and splendor which shine before them in early years is because they have not courage for rough climbing.
"I reach a duty, yet I do it not, And, therefore, climb no higher; but if done, My view is brightened, and another spot Seen on my mortal sun; For be the duty high as angel's flight— Fulfil it, and a higher will arise Even from its ashes. Duty is our ladder to the skies, And climbing not, we fall."
We shall need our iron shoes if we are to make the journey that leads upward to the best possibilities of our life.
But the word is not merely a prophecy of rugged paths; it is also a promise of shoeing for the road, whatever it may be. One who is preparing to climb a mountain, craggy and precipitous, would not put on silk slippers; he would get strong, tough shoes, with heavy nails in the soles. When God sends us on a journey over steep and flinty paths he will not fail to provide us with suitable shoes.
Asher's portion was not an accidental one; it was of God's choosing. Nor is there any accident in the ordering of the place, the conditions, the circumstances, of any child of God's. Our times are in God's hands. No doubt, then, the hardnesses and difficulties of any one's lot are part of the divine ordering for the best growth of the person's life.
There was a compensation in Asher's rough portion. His rugged hills had iron in them. This law of compensation runs through all God's distribution of gifts. In the animal world there is a wonderful harmony, often noted, between the creatures and the circumstances and conditions amid which they are placed. The same law rules in the providence of human life. One man's farm is hilly and hard to till, but deep down beneath its ruggedness, buried away in its rocks, there are rich minerals. One person's lot in life is hard, with peculiar obstacles, difficulties and trials; but hidden in it there are compensations of some kind. One young man is reared in affluence and luxury. He never experiences want or self-denial, never has to struggle with obstacles or adverse circumstances. Another is reared in poverty and has to toil and suffer privation. The latter seems to have scarcely an equal chance in life. But we all know where the compensation lies in this case. It is in such circumstances that grand manhood is grown, while too often the petted, pampered sons of luxury come to nothing. In the rugged hills of toil and hardship, life's finest gold is found.
There are few things from which young people of wealthy families suffer more than from over-help. No noble-spirited young man wants life made too easy for him by the toil of others. What he desires is an opportunity to work for himself. There are some things no other one can give us; we must get them for ourselves. Our bodies must grow through our own exertions. Our minds must be disciplined through our own study. Our hearts' powers must be developed and trained through our own loving and doing. One writes of two friends and two ways of showing friendship:—
"One brought a crystal goblet overfull Of water he had dipped from flowing streams That rose afar where I had never trod— Too far for even my quickened eye to see. They were fair heights, familiar to his feet— They were cool springs that greeted him at morn, And made him fresh when noon was burning high, And sang to him when all the stars were out; His hand had led them forth, and their pure life Was husbanded, with sacred thrift, for flower, And bird, and beast, and man. The hills were his, And his the bright, sweet water. Not to me Came its renewal. I was still athirst.
"The other looked upon me graciously, Beheld me wasted with my bitter need, And gave me—nothing. With a face severe, And prophet brow, he bade me quickly seek My own hard quarry—there hew out a way For the imprisoned waters to flow forth Unhindered by the stubborn granite blocks That shut them in dark channels. I sprung up, For that I knew my Master; and I smote, Even as Moses, my gray, barren rock, And found sufficient help for all my house, All my servants, all my flocks and herds."
The best friend we can have is the one, not who digs out the treasure for us, but who teaches and inspires us with our own hands to open the rocks and find the treasures for ourselves. The digging out of the iron will do us more good than even the iron itself when it is dug out.
Shoes of iron are promised only to those who are to have rugged roads, not to those whose path lies amid the flowers. There is a comforting suggestion here for all who find peculiar hardness in their life. Peculiar favor is pledged to them. God will provide for the ruggedness of their way. They will have a divine blessing which would not be theirs but for the roughness and ruggedness. The Hebrew parallelism gives the same promise, without figure, in the remaining words of the same verse: "As thy days so shall thy strength be." Be sure, if your path is rougher than mine, you will get more help than I will. There is a most delicate connection between earth's needs and heaven's grace. Days of struggle get more grace than calm, quiet days. When night comes stars shine out which never would have appeared had not the sun gone down. Sorrow draws comfort that never would have come in joy. For the rough roads there are iron shoes.
There is yet another suggestion in this old-time promise. The divine blessing for every experience is folded up in the experience itself, and will not be received in advance. The iron shoes would not be given until the rough roads were reached. There was no need for them until then, and besides, the iron to make them was treasured in the rugged hills and could not be gotten until the hills were reached.
A great many people worry about the future. They vex themselves by anxious questioning as to how they are going to get through certain anticipated experiences. We had better learn once for all that there are in the Bible no promises of provision for needs while the needs are yet future. God does not put strength into our arms to-day for the battles of to-morrow; but when the conflict is actually upon us, the strength comes. "As thy days so shall thy strength be."
Some people are forever unwisely testing themselves by questions like these: "Could I endure sore bereavement? Have I grace enough to bow in submission to God, if he were to take away my dearest treasure? Or could I meet death without fear?" Such questions are unwise, because there is no promise of grace to meet trial when there is no trial to be met. There is no assurance of strength to bear great burdens when there are no great burdens to be borne. Help to endure temptation is not promised when there are no temptations to be endured. Grace for dying is nowhere promised while death is yet far off and while one's duty is to live.
"Of all the tender guards which Jesus drew About our frail humanity, to stay The pressure and the jostle that alway Are ready to disturb, what'er we do, And mar the work our hands would carry through, None more than this environs us each day With kindly wardenship—'Therefore, I say, Take no thought for the morrow.' Yet we pay The wisdom scanty heed, and impotent To bear the burden of the imperious Now, Assume, the future's exigence unsent. God grants no overplus of power: 'tis shed Like morning manna. Yet we dare to bow And ask, 'Give us to-day our morrow's bread.'"
There is a story of shipwreck which yields an illustration that comes in just here. Crew and passengers had to leave the broken vessel and take to the boats. The sea was rough, and great care in rowing and steering was necessary in order to guard the heavily-laden boats, not from the ordinary waves, which they rode over easily, but from the great cross-seas. Night was approaching, and the hearts of all sank as they asked what they should do in the darkness when they would no longer be able to see these terrible waves. To their great joy, however, when it grew dark they discovered that they were in phosphorescent waters and that each dangerous wave rolled up crested with light which made it as clearly visible as if it were mid-day.
So it is that life's dreaded experiences, when we meet them, carry in themselves the light which takes away the peril and the terror. The night of sorrow comes with its own lamp of comfort. The hour of weakness brings its own secret of strength. By the brink of the bitter fountain itself grows the tree whose branch will heal the waters. The wilderness with its hunger and no harvest has daily manna. In dark Gethsemane, where the load is more than mortal heart can bear, an angel appears, ministering strength that gives victory. When we come to the hard, rough, steep path we find iron for shoes. The iron will be in the very hills over which we shall have to climb.
So we see that the matter of shoes is very important. We are pilgrims here and we cannot walk barefoot on this world's rugged roads. Are our feet shod for the journey?
"How can I get shoes, and where?" one asks. Do you remember about Christ's feet, that they were pierced with nails? Why was it? That we might have shoes to wear on our feet, and that they might not be cut and torn on the way.
Christ's dear feet were wounded and sore with long journeys over thorns and stones, and were pierced through with cruel nails, that our feet might be shod for earth's rough roads, and might at last enter the gates of pearl and walk on heaven's gold-paved streets.
Dropping all figure, the whole lesson is that we cannot get along on our life's pilgrimage without Christ; but having Christ we shall be ready for anything that may come to us along the days and years.
THE SHUTTING OF DOORS.
"Never delay To do the duty which the hour brings, Whatever it be in great or smaller things; For who doth know What he shall do the coming day?"
The shutting of a door is a little thing and yet it may have infinite meaning. It may fix a destiny for weal or for woe. When God shut the door of the ark the sound of its closing was the knell of exclusion to those who were without, but it was the token of security to the little company of trusting ones who were within. When the door was shut upon the bridegroom and his friends who had gone into the festal hall, thus sheltering them from the night's darkness and danger, and shutting them in with joy and gladness, there were those outside to whose hearts the closing of that door smote despair and woe. To them it meant hopeless exclusion from all the privileges of those who were within and exposure to all the sufferings and perils from which those favored ones were protected.
Here we have hints of what may come from the closing of a door. Life is full of illustrations. We are continually coming up to doors which stand open for a little while and then are shut. An artist has tried to teach this in a picture. Father Time is there with inverted hour-glass. A young man is lying at his ease on a luxurious couch, while beside him is a table spread with rich fruits and viands. Passing by him toward an open door are certain figures which represent opportunities; they come to invite the young man to nobleness, to manliness, to usefulness, to worth. First is a rugged, sun-browned form, carrying a flail. This is labor. He invites the youth to toil. He has already passed far by unheeded. Next is a philosopher, with open book, inviting the young man to thought and study, that he may master the secrets in the mystic volume. But this opportunity, too, is disregarded. The youth has no desire for learning. Close behind the philosopher comes a woman with bowed form, carrying a child. Her dress betokens widowhood and poverty. Her hand is stretched out appealingly. She craves charity. Looking closely at the picture we see that the young man holds money in his hand. But he is clasping it tightly, and the poor widow's pleading is in vain. Still another figure passes, endeavoring to lure and woo him from his idle ease. It is the form of a beautiful woman, who seeks by love to awaken in him noble purposes, worthy of his powers, and to inspire him for ambitious efforts. One by one these opportunities have passed, with their calls and invitations, only to be unheeded. At last he is arousing to seize them, but it is too late; they are vanishing from sight and the door is closing.
This is a true picture of what is going on all the time in this world. Opportunities come to every young person, offering beautiful things, rich blessings, brilliant hopes. Too often, however, these offers and solicitations are rejected and one by one pass by, to return no more. Door after door is shut, and at last men stand at the end of their days, with beggared lives, having missed all that they might have gotten of enrichment and good from the passing days.
Take home. A true Christian home, with its love and prayer and all its gentle influences, is almost heaven to a child. The fragrance of the love of Christ fills all the household life. Holiness is in the very atmosphere. The benedictions of affection make every day tender with its impressiveness. In all life there come no other such opportunities for receiving lovely things into the life, and learning beautiful lessons, as in the days of childhood and youth that are spent in a home of Christian love. Yet how often are all these influences resisted and rejected. Then by and by the door is shut. The heart that made the home is still in death. The gentle hand that wrought such blessing is cold. Many a man in mid-life would give all he has to creep back for one hour to the old sacred place, to hear again his mother's voice in counsel or in prayer, to feel once more the gentle touch of her hand and to have her sweet comfort. But it is too late. The door is shut.