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Individuality





Another essential quality of the effective and successful messenger of
Christ is individuality.

The preaching of the truth is, after all, man's work for the sake of
man, and the man is needful to the completeness of the definition.
It has ever been God's way to work His will and reveal Himself to
mankind through members of their own race. He does not speak to the
nations in a supernatural voice rolling over the land. He does not
write His word across the arch of the sky in any way plainer than in
that language of which the stars are syllables. It is true that
everywhere the inscription of His power and Godhead may be seen; but
neither in nature, nor in history, nor in human instincts does He
declare Himself on the deeper needs of the soul. His way is to use men
whom He calls, trains and equips. Even Jesus, Himself, came in fashion
as a man, that He might speak with the speech of a man to the
generations for whom He was to die. One meaning of this must surely be
that true preaching derives power from the man himself as well as from
the truth expressed. In His infinite resourcefulness the Creator has
made all men different. Wonderful it is, but true, there are no two
men who are, in all things, each a duplicate of the other. Physically,
mentally, morally, spiritually, every man is another man. We speak
of the average man; really there is no such being. No average can be
struck which takes account of all that every man is and includes every
quality and peculiarity of body, mind and spirit. Each birth is a new
creation. Here comes one into the world to occupy a new point of view.
He will see things with other eyes; he will hear them with other ears.
He will relate them in his own way, if only he be permitted to do so.
Should he become a preacher, the message will be new in his newness.
It will gather something for its commendation to the few or to the
many, in that this man looks upon it from his own standpoint and
expresses it in his own tongue.

It is sometimes complained that in these days the pulpit is in danger
of losing that which the individuality of the preacher should bring
into it, for the reason that such individuality is being improved out
of existence. "There are few personalities that count nowadays," we
are told. Time was when there were more. Names occur to all of us,
each of which stands in our mind for someone who, as we put it, was a
man of himself. All Churches have had such men; our own was rich in
them. To-day, they tell us, we are all in real danger of becoming
decorously, decently, conventionally alike. We have conceived a
typical preacher and we try to approximate to our conception; a typical
sermon, and we try to preach it. "He is a typical curate," "a typical
Presbyterian minister," "a typical Baptist pastor," "a typical
Methodist travelling preacher;" "he is a typical local"--how often we
hear these expressions!

It may be well to give to this complaint at least so much consideration
as to ask whether it is true. At once we may say, if it is "the
truth," it is not "the whole truth," neither is it "nothing but the
truth." There are still among us, thank God! preachers who bring the
aroma of individuality into their ministrations, and are a brand of
themselves. Some turn of speech, some tone of voice, some distinctive
way of putting a thing, some mysterious, but unmistakable, difference
of flavour they have managed to preserve, and how grateful we are when
we hear or see or taste or feel it. It is like the discovery of a new
flower in the woodland, of a new star in the constellation! "It's no
a'thegither what he says; it's the way on't," said the old Scots woman
in eulogy of her minister. We could mention little traits, which,
small as they are, have been on the human side the success of
ministries familiar to us all. There was a message and there was a
man. But while the complaint is not all true, it is not for us to
say that it is made without reason. It is possible that what many a
preacher needs, before the success he desires can be his, is to recover
nothing more, nor less, than his own lost self. It may be that some of
us present a ministry true to type, but false to our own personality.

The fact is that willingly or unwillingly, consciously or
unconsciously, everybody (and everything) seems to-day to be combined
in a huge conspiracy to crush out the individuality of the individual.
This is seen in every department of life. It is the inevitable result
of all highly developed civilisation. Before society is formed the
individual is everything and "one of himself." After society is formed
he is one among many; sometimes even rather less than one. In the
police-force men are known by numbers. In the world of industry they
are described as "hands." Civilisation brings infinite advantages, and
life would be impossible without it; but we have to pay the price
thereof, and it is part of it that the individuality of its subjects
must be subordinate to the communal interest. It will be well if, in
surrendering ourselves so far as is necessary for the public good, we
do not go beyond this requirement to a degree of sacrifice which
involves the loss of our own individuality.

From this danger the preacher has hard work to accomplish his
deliverance. It is not only the peril of social life; it exists in the
Church, and the more highly organised the Church the greater the
danger. Referring again to our own denomination, there was a time, not
so very far behind us, when the preacher was largely left to work out
his own development. As a result, individuality had in those days
every chance to assert itself. The tree grew much as it would, for
there was no one to lop off a branch here, to bend one there, or to
graft upon this stem a shoot from some other variety. Of course the
growth was often very peculiar; luxuriant on the sunward side, starved
on the northern aspect, disproportionate, maybe, though often on those
curious branches fruit was abundant for those who sought. Probably
we would train those oaks, and cedars, and apple-trees in the midst
of the wood to more conventional shapes if we had them to-day. Hugh
Bourne might have to overcome that habit of putting his hand before his
face as he talked, and he would certainly have to use language much
less lurid than he occasionally employed. William Clowes might have to
abandon his practice of repeating a sentence over and over again in
animated crescendo. Henry Higginson might be instructed not to lapse
into impromptu rhyme in his Camp Meeting addresses. Joseph Spoor might
be informed that if he wanted gymnastic exercises he must take them in
private, and never by way of standing with one foot on the pulpit seat
and the other on the book-board the while he illustrated, by means of a
roll of bills, his conception of the trumpet call to the Last Judgment.
These men and a host of others we might put into a correcter shape
to-day.

Now it is not contended that gifts are not to be trained, or that it is
undesirable to teach and practise a certain self-restraint. No doubt
buffoonery has often masqueraded as originality; and the great results
which have undoubtedly attended ministries in which extremely bad taste
and irreverence have been prominent have not been in consequence of
these things, but in spite of them, and by the power of a passion for
souls underlying them all. "Other times, other manners," is a proverb
we must not forget. That there are risks in courses of study imposed
without distinction upon one and all alike cannot be denied, but
abundant and convincing reasons support their adoption notwithstanding
the risks. It is an old objection to ministerial colleges that they
spoil able men and are unable to do much for feeble ones. We hear,
often, that such and such a man "is not half the man he was when he
left home to keep his terms." There may be truth in it all; but it is
equally true that a polished instrument is better than a blunt one;
that in the hands of a wise man every atom of knowledge means more than
an atom of power. Moreover, it can never be proved that a man who
comes from college to fail, would not have failed, even more terribly,
without the training he there received. Again, it can be proved that
out of our colleges have come men whose ministries have been of
incalculable blessing to the Church. In the end, after all, the
preservation of a man's individuality rests with himself. The fact is
that often we lack the necessary courage to be ourselves, and as a
result, we give in too soon and too readily, to what appear to us to be
demands to sacrifice our soleness that, thereby, we may become
something higher and better than we are. In this way men degenerate
into imitators and echoes. Such a man is a power and has such a
manner. He moves us deeply, shows us heights we have never seen and
reveals to us visions of which we have not dreamed. We are not content
to appropriate his donation of truth and rest satisfied with the
intellectual and moral stimulus he bestows. God did not make two of
him, but we think there ought to be another, and we try to be he.
The attempt is always a failure. The worst of it is that in our effort
to be another we have ceased to be ourselves, and after such a loss
what do we still possess? Perhaps the disaster comes in another way.
Conventionality has certain curious notions about the pulpit, the
fulfilment of which it paradoxically despises as it demands it. The
preacher is expected to speak in a different voice and wear a different
expression in the "sacred desk" from his voice and expression in other
places. In some churches he is expected to read the Bible in a
strange, archaic sort of way, pronouncing the words which appear upon
its pages with a pronunciation never employed under any other
circumstances. The newspaper is read, the psalms are intoned. It
is a crime to be natural. All the time men are sick of the whole
fabric of artificiality, and long for that touch of nature which makes
the whole world kin.

Another way of losing individuality is to allow oneself to be drowned
in officialism, buried beneath its trappings, interred in its
dignities. Many a man spends his life in a futile attempt to live up
to some official tradition, even as he might pass his time in a family
picture gallery cultivating the expression of some ancestral portrait
on the wall. There is also to be remembered the possibility of a
slavery to books. There is such a thing as the spell exercised by a
great author through the printed page. We heard the other day of a
contemporary literary man who is understood to pose as a second edition
of William Shakespeare on the strength of some asserted resemblance to
a bust of the poet. Certainly it cannot be on the strength of any
intellectual inheritance. We could name men who have preached in a
thousand times more pulpits than they have ever seen through the lips
of others whom they have subdued to bondage by some famous volume. We
could name the books if we cared to do so. Perhaps we could recall
periods in our own life when such a spell cast its glamour over us.

To resist all these influences successfully, or, rather, to so
appropriate what is good and helpful in them, which it is our duty to
do, and still remain a full blooded, virile individual, will require
resolution. To give due meed of homage to the great, due
recognition--and there is a certain recognition due--to the conventions
of our church life--to realise the office of the preacher, to
assimilate the book, to grind and polish one's gifts--to do all this,
and yet be at the end of the doing of it our own natural, unaffected
selves, is far from easy. It can only be done as the preacher
remembers two or three things which are all too often forgotten or
ignored.

And the first of these is surely this: That each and every man's
individuality is a gift from God, the basal talent on which the rest
are built. It was of the wisdom of God that you were born you and I
was born I. Here is the one and only possession which is our very
own, and which none other can share, however ready we be to barter it
away for something of less value. "Do you know who I am?" said the
nobleman, swelling with importance, to the boy who failed to lift his
cap in the lane. "I am the Marquis." "An' does yer honour know who I
am?" said the lad. "I am Patrick Murphy from the cabin by the bog."
Within that ragged jacket was an inheritance which could not be
measured as could land, or counted as could money, or appraised as are
titles and coronets, but which was as real as any of them and more
valuable than all; an inheritance to be improved, perhaps extended,
ennobled, but never changed into something other than itself. Let us
remember this. With all humility, it is capital for pulpit business
that we are what we are.

And another thing is written in our experience for our reflection, and
it is this:--That it was for what we were that God called us into this
preaching work. He had discernment of natural qualities in calling
even us, and counted upon them to be serviceable in His Kingdom. There
is surely no need to deny our manhood, or become ashamed of this being
that is "I" when He chose it for employment in ambassadorship. It
was for what Peter was as Peter, dashing, impetuous, impatient, full of
driving power and combative energy, that Jesus called him from the
fishing of Galilee into the ministry of the word. It was for what John
was as John, intense, clear-eyed and trustful that he, too, was called.
Thomas was also called--that Thomas who found it hard to believe but
easy to love, and whose faith, when once achieved, brought a whole
heart's devotion to its gracious object--even he was called, not as
another, but as himself. Very different from them all was Saul of
Tarsus; logical, incisive, proud with the pride of ancient lineage and
of high culture, descendant of armoured kings, citizen of the first of
cities--he, too, was called for he, for himself, was needed. So
through the ages--what contrasts we behold, what differences as between
a Chrysostom and an Augustine, a Calvin and a St. Francis of Assisi, a
Wesley and a Fletcher of Madeley; as between William Booth and Charles
Haddon Spurgeon, called, every one of them, because he was what he was.

Then let us remember that if He chooses a man for what he is, it is
because He knows that the work needs just this very man. Many tools
will be called into service before the brown pebble hidden away in the
blue clay beneath the South African veldt becomes the glorious star of
a monarch's crown. One will tear it from its age-long concealment;
another will test and prove its value; others will grind; others
polish, and by others will it be set in its place of pride. Very
mysterious, again, are the correspondences and affinities existing
between human souls. It is very curious how one hearer will respond to
an appeal which would never touch another. "There is something about
him that always gets at me," remarked a hearer, adding, "and I cannot
tell what it is, or how it does it." The "something" was
individuality. Why it did it, was because, somewhere in the soul of
the hearer was a chord tuned to some string in the preacher's nature.
Such ships are reached by a given set of wireless apparatus as have
their instruments tuned to that apparatus. There is something between
men reminding us of this. Again, for a man's own sake it is a pity to
surrender this individuality of his. For in holding on to it with grim
resolve lies the only possibility of full self-realisation. Let a man
cultivate himself along the line of what he is if he would come to his
best and achieve any genuine success, any real happiness in life. The
world is full of men who have failed, simply because they left
untrained what they were, to try to be what they were not and never
could become. Nowhere is this more true than in the pulpit. Many an
excellent Brown, or Jones, or Robinson has been spoiled by his attempt
to become a Beecher, a Joseph Parker, an Archdeacon Farrar. Many a
David, less wise than he of history, has failed against his Philistine
because he discarded the sling he knew so well how to use, the smooth
stones from the brook he knew so well how to aim, for the panoply and
ordnance made for the greater limbs of Saul. Along one line, and one
line only, was victory possible to the son of Jesse, and from that line
he would not be diverted. It was a shepherd who came from the hills as
a shepherd armed. It was this same shepherd with this same weapon who,
resisting temptation, went out to the apparently unequal conflict from
which he returned bringing the head of his adversary. This history is
surely written for preachers that, for their own sake, they may be
encouraged to give exercise to their own spiritual genius. Along one
path alone lies, if not greatness, at least usefulness for every truly
called messenger of Christ. It is along the path of faithfulness to
self in the development, the polishing, the use of his own gifts in his
own way.

Only one other word remains to be added:--That, as already hinted, the
pew hails always with respect the man who is brave enough to be
himself. Let no one imagine that he can try to be someone else, or
even that, without trying to be anyone in particular, he can surrender
himself to a conventional ideal of clericalism without discovery and
loss of the esteem and reverence of men and women of sense. The pew is
very quick to see through disguises, be they worn never so skilfully.
No voice rings true in a man's throat excepting his own. The people
are sick of the cleric in the pulpit; they want the man. They had
rather hear you when you are planned than any one, or anything, you may
try to be.

Here then is the true originality by which the gospel is made new by
every new preacher of it and by every new telling of its wondrous
story. The old truths may be repeated in almost the same old words,
but here and there will come a new tone, a breath of new influence, a
new personal aura. Oh, for the individual in the pulpit, the
preacher who is not an echo, but comes to relate the evangel as it has
been unfolded to himself! Oh, for the brother who will bring us, not a
sermon only, but a man--a man discovered, saved, cleansed, polished
by God; improved into value and profitableness, but still a man! In
these words we express one of the greatest needs of the hour, and
define a quality absolutely essential to the successful and effective
preacher.





Next: Concerning Understanding

Previous: The Need For Certainty



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