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Concerning Understanding

"And the preacher had understanding," so runs the ancient word, and
"understanding" the preacher must have. This is only another way of
saying that he must know what he is talking about. So much as this, at
least, is essential in every man who comes forth to teach others.

And this proposition has reference to more matters than such as are
theological or Biblical. It ought to go without saying that the
preacher should know as much as he can possibly learn about the book in
which is written the revelation he has to hand on to others. It ought
to be equally well understood that he obtain, at least, a working
knowledge of the theology of the church to which he belongs and for
which he speaks. Again, it is, surely, not unreasonable to expect that
he will have some acquaintance with the "evidences" on which rests his
appeal to his fellows. A preacher should certainly be as well able to
defend his faith as the average man is to attack it. It must be
frankly recognised, of course, that it is impossible for every preacher
to be an expert on every question of Biblical criticism and
interpretation that may arise. Especially is this true in a Church
drawing the great majority of its preachers from classes untrained, in
the ordinary sense of the word, for their work. Still, it is possible
for every man among us to have an intelligent grasp of the subject upon
which he discourses. It is possible, we say, and it ought to be
required. With so elementary a proposition we do not even tarry for
discussion, excepting to say that he who will not so far give himself
to study as to secure this simple furnishing should not be surprised if
the people cease to ask for his services. It was a wise word of Dr.
Adam Clarke:--"Study yourself to death, and then pray yourself to life."

For the purposes of this lecture we take it for granted that every
reader is already so convinced of the need just set forth that there is
no need to dwell upon it. We do desire, however, to emphasise the need
of that understanding which goes beyond what is particularly known as
the Gospel. There is no department of life and experience which that
Gospel does not cover, and, therefore, there is no one who needs to
speak of so many matters as the preacher. Carlyle proposed a
professorship of things in general. The pulpit within certain limits
is such a chair!

It has long been the reproach of the studious class to which the
preacher belongs that its members, in their devotion to book-learning,
too often remain ignorant of "life," that they live in a world of paper
and print, of speculation and theory, which is seldom a faithful
reflection of the real world of men and women and actual affairs. Such
a man, in short, is apt to live in a world of his own--a very
delightful world, it may be, intellectual, idealistic, spiritual; but
not the world of every day--the world in which the vast majority of men
have to spend fifty-two weeks of every year. Very delightful, too, is
the type of man thus produced--charmingly learned, sweetly innocent,
guileless, impracticable; walking the path of life with head in air,
with eyes unseeing and ears unhearing the things that fill the thoughts
of common men. Holding fellowship with the immortals, eating the bread
of philosophy, doctrinaire, drinking the wine of poetry--how good would
it be to live with such men if only there were nothing else to do in
this old world of ours. Dreamers of dreams; watchers of the stars;
spinners of speculative webs, in which they love to find themselves
gloriously entangled; Rip Van Winkles asleep to the actual, so wise
among books; so deliciously foolish among men and affairs--we know the
type, and we do confess we love it!

But, delightful as is this kind of scholar or preacher, he is often
far, very far, "out of it" in dealing with the needs and perils of
those around him. That was a significant passage in the will of the
South African Colossus in which, in forming a trust to administer the
scholarships he desired to found at the Universities of Oxford and
Cambridge, he provided that a number of men of business should find
places upon the board, in addition to the men of learning already
nominated, as the latter were often unlearned in the ways of business.
There is a statesman in this land who has lost the headship of a great
party largely because of a confession that he does "not read the
newspapers" and is "a child in these matters." Even political parties
require something more in their chiefs than an appreciation of the
subtleties of philosophic doubt. Of course there is a place in the
scheme of things for this type of man; there is no doubt a use for him
in certain fields of thought, and it is our good fortune that plants
amongst us men who are with us, but not of us, for to our ultimate
advantage may be their sublime detachment of mind. It is here simply
pointed out that their place is not in the pulpit of a busy, perplexed
and burdened age. Their use does not lie in inspiring men to deal with
urgent practical issues. True enough, the truth they discern may be of
the highest value in the matter of leading men out to the light of day;
but it will be found that the lamp will generally have to be kindled
and carried by other hands than his who found the wells of illuminating
oil. It needs genius to make discoveries and often quite other genius
to apply them. "He is a preacher to preachers," was said of one, and
said truly, as many hearers could testify. But this "preacher to
preachers," as a preacher to the people, failed!

And the misfortune is that often, alas! it comes to pass that just such
men as these do make the attempt to guide men through a world of which
they, the preachers, know nothing. To change the figure, they make the
attempt to treat by means of remedies which they have studied a little,
patients whom they have not studied at all, and of whose condition,
habits, history and surroundings they know next to nothing. There is
much of this kind of doctoring and what is the result of it? What but
the oft-repeated criticism that the sermon had small practical
application to the every-day side of things? It answered no present
questions, though it did, perhaps, throw light upon some period of
Jewish history. It solved no present problems, though it did contain
an interesting exegesis of a much discussed passage. It dealt with no
present difficulties, though it did suggest an entertaining theory as
to the authorship of such and such a psalm. It opened out no heart
before its own vision. It neither created nor deepened nor satisfied a
single desire. It might as well have been a disquisition on the fate
of the lost ten tribes of Israel, or a treatise on the properties of
the differential calculus, or a discussion of the politics of the
planet Mars for any application it had to the need of any one person,
young or old, in the congregation sitting there and providing that
example of patience which was the most edifying feature of the
occasion. It was eloquent, learned, poetic, profound, but it was not
life. It is because there is so much of this kind of preaching that
it has come to be said that the pulpit is out of touch with the needs
of men; that it is too otherworldly, and that it displays a knowledge
of everything but the necessities it pretends to meet. The criticism
may be exaggerated and unjust, but the contention it is meant to
enforce is true. Preaching must be life. Preaching can only be life
when the preacher has understanding!

Understanding of what? Of the human creature to be preached to and by
preaching saved, ennobled and led up, through almost infinite
opposition, to a glorious destiny. That human creature must be studied
at first hand. It is not enough to know the heart of man according to
theological classification and description. Consciously or
unconsciously, the effective preacher will be first a practical
psychologist and afterwards a theologian. If he cannot be greatly
both he had better be a psychologist with small knowledge of theology
than a theologian with small knowledge of psychology. He has not to
speak to abstractions; not to speak to sinners merely, nor to
saints as he knows them through descriptions whereof the subjects
were simply types, but he has to preach to men and women, men and
women who all have their individual and peculiar tastes, tendencies,
likes and dislikes, desires and passions; men and women looking at
things in ways of their own, influenced by such and such prejudices,
such and such hopes and fears. Every one has his own disposition, his
own history, which began long e'er he came upon the earth in far-off
ancestors, who bequeathed to him the inheritance of themselves to be a
blessing or a curse, or, what is more frequent, both a blessing and a
curse, as circumstances and free-will may decide. Here are racial
instincts, tribal qualities, individual idiosyncrasies, and all to be
studied with care and perseverance. The preacher may preach to five
hundred people to-night, and he has so to preach as to bless them all.

The first study of the messenger, then, must be the study of men. He
must specialise in human nature, and his understanding must go down
into its very depths. Every addition to the volume and accuracy of his
knowledge will mean addition of power and competence. Those writers
who impress us most are those who understand us best. The physician
who most commands our confidence and, as a consequence, does us most
good is he whose description of our symptoms most nearly corresponds
with our own experience, who, we reason, obviously "knows our case."
Putting his finger upon the painful spot, the aching limb, he says:
"Thou ailest here and here," and we feel the cure begun, for the
diagnosis is nine-tenths of the treatment. Similarly when the man in
the pew feels that the man in the pulpit understands him--and he
soon makes the discovery--he listens for what has yet to come. How
often the true preacher hears the remark:--"Sir, your sermon was about
me and to me!" That is a certificate of efficiency which may well
make a preacher glad.

To attain to this understanding men must be studied in all the ways we
can devise--individually and in the mass, for, strangely enough, men in
the mass often look at things very differently from the manner in which
the individuals, of whom the mass may be composed, would look at them
when alone. In books, too, man must be studied, but more especially
face to face, in constant, earnest observation. The preacher must get
out and about. A recluse he cannot afford to be. Pale-faced piety
cultivated in the cloister may be admirably adapted for Sunday
exhibition, but is apt to prove rather ineffective when brought into
active service in week-day tasks. Wisdom waits to be gathered in every
place where men do congregate. Earnestly must the preacher listen in
those moments--and they come to all true teachers of the things of
life--when some fellow-mortal, compelled by very need, opens to him the
secret chambers of his soul. Great, also, is the knowledge the
preacher may win from self-dissection. Let him analyse his own heart
unsparingly, his own motives and desires. His doubts and fears, his
aspirations and longings are for his teaching that he may be able the
more wisely to deal with those of other men. "Commune with thine own
heart and be still." There is one man whom every preacher needs more
frequently to meet, and whose acquaintance he needs to cultivate to a
point of greater intimacy, and that one man is himself. Know him, and
so know his race, for he is kindred, bone of bone and flesh of flesh,
with all who live. He who would explain a man to himself must first
have explored the dark continent of his own soul!

And the preacher's knowledge of men must include as large a measure of
information as can be acquired concerning the conditions under which
their lives are spent, and which so greatly influence a man's
character, and account, so largely, for what he is and does. The
preacher has to be Greatheart to his hearers in relation to the
temptations they are called upon to fight, and often our temptations,
when not the immediate product of our own hearts, grow out of the
circumstances under which our lives are lived. If, again, the
temptation be not the direct result of these circumstances, it is often
aided by them in the undoing of the soul. The poverty and
wretchedness; the low bodily state of the slum dweller, have, at least,
as much to do with making him the sot he often is as his intemperance
has in bringing him to indigence and misery. Criminality, we are
beginning to see, may be partly a vice, partly the result of bad
economic and social laws, and partly a disease inherited with life
itself. The same may be said of many forms of sin which do not,
perhaps, come within the scope of the law courts of the land. Not that
any conditions, or any personal history, abrogate responsibility in the
evil-doer. The final consent lies ever with a man himself, but the
conditions of his life may explain how many things came to be, and a
knowledge of them may point the way to help. The physician of to-day
not only feels the pulse and uses the stethoscope; he asks questions as
to drainage and ventilation, as to supplies of water and of light.

Let us remember, then, that the preacher needs to be in a very
considerable and general degree acquainted with the life of the world
around him. He should know something about business; something about
industry; something of the every-day round of those sitting before him
in free seat and cushioned pew. Ignorance of the world is worse than
ignorance of letters, or sciences, or arts. A preacher ought, if
possible, to know something of ancient oriental manners and customs and
languages; but it is infinitely more important that he know something
of the actualities of his own time. History tells us of the great
French lady who, hearing the people clamour for bread, remarked that
surely they need not make so great a noise about bread. Was there not
beef to eat? How interesting are those articles, with which our
newspapers are sometimes enlivened, wherein duchesses take in hand to
teach the wives of working men how to keep house on thirty shillings a
week. We have seen "A Guide to Cookery" written by a countess for the
use of families of moderate means, and the book was very well worth
buying if only for the sake of a little mild amusement when the spirit
is in danger of growing too serious for mental health. A great chapter
in humorous literature is that in which Mark Twain places on record how
for a few brief but exciting days he edited an agricultural paper while
the editor was, perforce, absent from his chair. Good, it is to read
the answers he returned to rural inquirers who wished for counsel in
relation to the difficulties of farm or garden. This kind of thing in
a newspaper is ridiculous; in a cookery book or an article on domestic
economy it is amusing; but in the pulpit it is disastrous.

Thus it comes to pass that while the preacher must not neglect his
study, he must just as certainly not fail to learn the lessons of the
home and of the street. He must talk often with his fellow-men. He
must drive conversation with the workman of the city and with the
master for whom he works. He must hold intercourse with the man of
business as well as with the brother minister with whom it is so
pleasant to chat on topics of mutual interest. He must cultivate the
friendship of the ploughman as he "homeward wends his weary way." He
must even condescend to little children. Men can only learn from him
as he first learns from them. Of course all this may mean some
little sacrifice, some self-denial. The tastes of the preacher may lie
in other directions. They are such pleasant company--those writers who
speak to us from pages waiting to open at our touch. It may seem such
a waste of good opportunity to leave the philosopher in half-calf for
the society of the workman in fustian. It may mean some coming down
from one's stilts, too, some forgetting of what is called "one's
position." It may involve, to put it in a word, the living of a human
life among human beings; still, the results will be worth the winning.

Again, an understanding of the material conditions under which life is
lived, greatly helpful to the preacher as it is, is not all that is
needed. The messenger must know in what direction runs the thought
of his age. The learned and able authorities dwelling within the
covers of the precious volumes upon his library shelves form an
interesting and inspiring society in which it is pleasant to spend his
hours. The religious people with whom the preacher mostly consorts
form a more, or less, agreeable circle in which it may be pleasant to
pass such time as he can spare for social enjoyment. But the world has
many men and many minds. Continually the ferment of intellect goes on.
Thoughts ripen into tendencies with wonderful rapidity. It is recorded
of a great emperor that he was wont to disguise himself and wander at
large among his people, listening to the talk of common men. As a
result he knew, even before his counsellors, how set the wind. Hence
he was "beforehand" in his government. There is no rebellion that is
not first a conspiracy, and no conspiracy that is not first a
smouldering, and then a blazing, discontent. The preacher must hearken
beneath the eaves for his people's sake. He must stand sentinel upon
the tower. He must be a watchman in the night. He must put his ear to
the earth that he may detect the far-off tramp of approaching foes.
What is being said in a whisper to-day will be cried from every high
place to-morrow, and he who listens to the whisper may be found ready
to answer or explain the cry--perhaps, even, to prevent it. "As those
who watch for your souls," so writes the Apostle. "As those who
watch." Behold the shepherd, as he tends the flock, sleeplessly
gazing for the approach of lion, or wolf, or bear, or prowling Bedouin
of the desert. So must the preacher sweep the horizon by day; so
listen to the speaking silences of the night.

Then to all this the messenger must add an intimate knowledge of the
Church, of her condition and of her needs. To know her history is
well. It is knowledge from which the Christian worker of every name
may derive many warnings. It will be found to contain many lessons
profitable for consolation and for inspiration. It will suggest many
an useful explanation of phenomena in the church life of to-day. But
the preacher must study the Church as she is in this very hour. How
beat her pulses now? How run the currents of her life in the days
that are? Does her faith wax, or wane? Does her love grow colder or
warmer with the passing years? Is it well with her, or is it ill?

In regard to all these things our friend will have--he must have if
he seek to feed the flock of God with food convenient--true
understanding. He will know how the work of God is moving in the
congregations. He will be able to distinguish between true, spiritual
success and that success which is noise and show alone. He will
discern the difference between the rosy flush that signifies health and
the hectic spot of burning red that speaks only of disease and death.
He must look deep. He must look far. He must look constantly.
He must look deep, because truth lies often at the bottom of a well,
and the true state of the Church is not always according to superficial
signs. He must look far, because he is surely more than a mere
denominationalist; he belongs to the Holy Catholic Church, and he must
know her life in other places in order to better judge her life at
home. He must look constantly, for "if the good man of the house had
known in what watch the thief would come he would have watched and
would not have suffered his house to be broken up."

For the effective delivery and application of his message, then, we
insist that the preacher needs to be in touch with every aspect of the
lives of those who come beneath the influence of his preaching. He
must know them; the conditions under which they live; the thoughts
upon which they feed from day to day. Oh, if only we knew more about
the people, how much more could we help and bless them! There they sit
before us as we speak. If only we could look down into their hearts;
if only we could hear the questions asking themselves in their minds,
the doubts and fears, the sad perplexities which, even within sound of
our voices, darken our counsel and come between the soul and God! If
only we knew the struggle maintained, the heavy burden borne, from year
to year by yonder man anxiously listening to our words! Silently he
comes and goes between his home and this house of prayer. He neither
pines nor whines; he does not rise to put the question which needs an
answer before his heart can be at peace. If we only knew--but oh! our
knowledge is so small at the best. The more reason then why we should
seek to make increase therein, that from the worst results of ignorance
in their teachers the people may be saved!

Lest some may think that, in emphasising the importance of that
understanding which is not altogether gained from books we have
under-valued the work of the study, let us, in closing our chapter,
describe what seems to us to be the highest type of training for the
work of the pulpit. It is the training in which the student gives to
every means of furnishing its due and proportionate place; in which
he turns to books and to life for the wisdom he seeks. We have
spoken of the impracticable scholar, but not all men of learning have
been of this order. Among the most practical of preachers; among those
who have displayed the greatest knowledge of the human heart and of the
times, their conditions and their problems, have been many renowned for
breadth and depth of scholarship. These men were mightier, and not
weaker, for their learning. They were able to apply the best of
everything to the uses and necessities of the hour. They brought out
of their storehouse, to quote a well-worn phrase "things new and old."
So let a man be diligent at his books and diligent, everywhere, in
using his eyes and ears, and so "let him go round the walls of the city
and let him tell the towers thereof."

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