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The Note Of Cheer





The chapter now to be added is written under the influence of a Sabbath
afternoon service in which, a few hours ago, we occupied a pew. The
scene was a village chapel among the mountains of the North of England.
The preacher was a layman well advanced in age, who told us that, for
five-and-forty years, he had been coming from the head of the circuit
to take appointments in the village. The sermon was not eloquent. It
was neither learned nor profound. It gave no evidence of any great
acquaintance with modern thought. There was absolutely no attempt at
exegesis. Indeed, the discourse would have failed to satisfy most of
those elementary canons upon which the homiletical professors lay such
stress. Yet, one great excellence it had, which, to its simple-minded
auditors, more than atoned for all its many imperfections:--It was
effective; it was successful. We came away thanking God for the
testimony we had heard.

And herein lay the success of this local brother's unpretentious
discourse:--It cheered us, one and all. Faces brightened and
drooping heads were lifted up as the old man pursued his way. The last
hymn was the heartiest of all, not because, as is sometimes the case,
the people were encouraged by the thought of approaching liberation,
but because of the spiritual "uplift" they had realised. We heard a
happy buzz of pleasant talk from young and old as they poured through
the door to assemble in friendly groups for mutual "good-days" on the
pavement in front of the little temple. With most of them we were well
acquainted. Some were aged and infirm. Others found the struggle of
life a hard one. One pew was filled with mourners who, during the
latest week, had stood around an open grave. There were Christian
workers to whom recent days had brought disappointments and
weariness--labourers in the vineyard who had much to try their faith,
for religious work in the villages has many difficulties in these days
when the great towns attract so many of our most hopeful young people
from the lanes to the streets. The widow was there, the orphan, the
poor, the man who had failed in life. Ah! those people had come
together bringing with them to the sanctuary much doubt and care and
perplexity and fear. It was good to watch them as the preacher went
on; good to feel that these hearts were losing their loads, these minds
their anxieties. "Not a great discourse," the critic would have said.
Perhaps not--from some standpoints. Having reached the end of fifty
years of preaching, this white-haired patriarch had long given up the
idea of great discourses. To him the Master had said, "Comfort ye,
comfort ye My people," and he had walked long, long miles up the
mountain side to do it. Pace the critic! This preaching was the
very thing for those needy folk this wintry afternoon.

And now, in recollection of that blessed sermon, and under its gracious
influence, we are strengthened to assert that it is an essential of the
message that it contain good cheer for those who need it. The preacher
is more than the accuser of men in Christ's stead; more, even, than the
mouthpiece of a divine invitation. His task is not completed in the
edifying of churches, in the building up of individual souls in faith
and doctrine and righteousness. Jesus saw the sorrow of the world,
anticipated the afflictions through which men would have to pass and
the burdens they would have to bear. "He was touched with the feeling
of our infirmities," He drank of our bitter cup. Our griefs were in
His mind when He sent His preachers forth. To be the agents of a great
purpose of consolation, ministers of cheer and encouragement to
hard-pressed and burdened men and women to the end of time were they
sent!

And for this work of consolation He not only gave a commission but He
furnished, as well, an example to all who should ever preach His word.
Surely one great secret of the wondrous effectiveness of that brief
ministry lay in the fact that while, as we have seen, it spoke to the
consciences of men, bringing home the truths of righteousness and
judgment; while it set before them the way of spiritual salvation and
formulated the demands and conditions thereof, indicating the higher
path, the strait gate and the narrow way, it was also directed to the
bruised hearts and broken spirits of those who attended His steps. We
are told, after all, but very little of the words and deeds of Jesus
during those eventful years in which He trod the highways and byeways
of the land breaking the bread of life from city to city. Of the
period passed in Nazareth in preparation for the strenuous days to come
we are told nothing at all. The world, it is said, would hardly
contain the books if all had been written down. But enough is told to
give us visions of those unrecorded days, and to show that He was a
cheering Christ, a messenger of comfort--this Saviour of ours. Healing
was in His words. "Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked
with us by the way, and while He opened to us the Scriptures?" said,
one to another, those two disciples who, with saddened countenances,
had set out together to Emmaus on that troubled day. Watch Him yonder
in the house at Bethany, what time bereavement casts its shadow upon
the dwelling. "And He took little children in His arms and blessed
them." Here, again, is a whole history of tenderness. From this one
act a flood of light streams backward and forward upon His whole
earthly life, and we can see the kindly glance that brought the little
ones around Him. We can hear the gentle voice that dispelled their
shyness and gave confidence to their hearts. Even in that old time,
and in the quiet and dreamy East, life had many cares. There were push
and drive and hard and grinding rivalry even then. Those days had
their economic questions as well as ours. It was only by hardest
struggle that many a cupboard was furnished and many a table spread;
for poverty is no new thing, and sorrow, affliction, oppression, dread
and death are as old as the hills. We read of the beggar by the
wayside, of Lazarus writhing in hunger and smitten with sores on the
threshold of Dives, who wore purple and fine linen and fared
sumptuously every day. The widow's house was robbed; the orphan was
cheated of his small inheritance; life, even for the fortunate, went
much as it does now--the music of gladness to-day, the solemn tones of
the dirge to-morrow. How gracious to many a hearer would be that
Sermon on the Mount with its passages for the special blessing of
perplexed and worried souls, spoken, also, for the teaching of all who
may be called to stand before the children of grief and want.
"Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall
we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?" .... "For your heavenly
Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things." .... "Take
therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought
for the things of itself." .... "And why take ye thought for raiment?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither
do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his
glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe
the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the
oven, shall He not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?" ....
"Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings? And not one of them is
forgotten before God: But even the very hairs of your head are all
numbered. Fear not, therefore: ye are of more value than many
sparrows." .... "Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap;
which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much
more are ye better than the fowls?" Think of it all! Imagine that
great multitude gathered out of the cities and villages round about.
It was a hard world from which they had come to hear this man of
Nazareth, and, even as they came, care had tugged at their skirts; fear
had rattled upon the doors of their hearts. Think what music would be
in that sweet new Gospel of divine providence and affection, spoken in
that calm and gentle voice whose every tone was vibrant with
understanding, sympathy and love! Can we not see the people as
darkness throws its veil across the blue Syrian sky turning once more
to their distant homes, new hope and courage enthroned upon the
forehead so recently seamed by care? Can we not follow them to the
dawning of another day, and behold their going forth, once again, to
the tasks of life brightly, bravely, cheerily? To them, indeed, had
come glad tidings of great joy!

And if the Master so gave Himself to this ministry of brightening the
lives of men, His first preachers caught the lesson and went forth, the
same good purpose lively in their hearts. To "lift up the hands which
hang down, and the feeble knees;" to heal "that which was lame," that
"it be not turned out of the way;" "to visit the widow and the
fatherless;" to "speak peace" to the people--in these happy duties lay
a large part of their work. Dark, indeed, were those early days for
the infant Church; heavy the clouds above her; terrible the storms of
hate and persecution which spent their fury upon her and scattered
abroad her fellowship, but amidst it all more songs were heard than
sighs, more triumphs than complaints. In the midnight hour a strange
new music ran through the prison, for Paul and Silas "prayed and sang
praises and the prisoners heard them," and so, to crushed and bleeding
souls, even there, a breath of heavenly comfort came. We have
sometimes heard people talk of St. Paul in such a way as to picture one
who was above the tenderness wherefrom sad hearts are blessed--the
great theologian, the mighty logician, the lone, strong, sublime man
whose self-mastery lifted him above sympathy with common men. Great he
was, but great in compassion as well as in mind. Among the watchwords
of encouragement you will find none more inspiring than those written
by his fettered hand. Was it not he who wrote that assurance which has
so often come between us and despair:--"And we know that all things
work together for good to them that love God"? From him, also, came
that glowing word which has shed radiance upon many a couch of pain:
"For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a
far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." There is a more noble
picture of the great Apostle to the Gentiles than that above referred
to. The ship is "driven up and down in Adria." Euroclydon roars
through the rigging. Mighty billows come crashing over the bulwarks.
"Neither sun, nor moon nor stars" have "for many days appeared."
Nearer and nearer the helpless craft is being swept to the cruel rocks
of yonder savage coast. The ship's company is in an agony of dismay.
Suddenly from the cabin comes he of Tarsus. "Wherefore, sirs, be of
good cheer," he cries, above the blast, "for I believe God." Thus does
he summarise in one great assuring word the message learned at the foot
of the cross. Behind it is all the authority of God's revelation to
his soul upon the Damascus road!

So ministered the Master, and so, His first preachers, and hence it
came to pass that the early disciples of the infant faith were known
for their calmness, their courage and their joy. Men "took knowledge
of them that they had been with Jesus." This was the very age of which
the poet has told us:--

On that hard Pagan World disgust
And secret loathing fell;
Deep weariness and sated lust
Made human life a hell.

But the servants of the Galilean, more persecuted than any other men,
walked abroad with a gladness which was at once the perplexity and the
condemnation of the time. "Rejoice evermore" was a sacred command and
a glorious possibility of the new religion, for they were taught to
believe that "All things are yours and ye are Christ's and Christ is
God's"; they were assured that "Nothing shall be able to separate us
from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord"!

That was the first century, and with us now is the twentieth; and it
is said that the burdens of men become more numerous and more heavy as
the years pass on. Older grows the world, but there is no lessening of
its care, no relief from its perplexity, its pain, its sorrow. As
civilisation becomes more complex the "drive" of life waxes ever more
and more fierce. Along with this complaint, it is said by some, that
in the Church there is less joy than in those old days--less, indeed,
than in times within the memory of the grey-haired among us. We who
are Methodists are often reminded of a former Methodism which was vocal
with praises and electric with joy. They whisper that it is different
with us now; that even the pulpit has lost its note of gladness. Care
sits upon the preacher's brow. The songs of Zion are timed to the
throb of hearts that lag for very weariness. "Some are sick and some
are sad." "Cares of to-day and burdens of to-morrow" haunt us in the
very means of grace, and little is said to make us forget. "Fightings
without and fears within," from these we seek deliverance in vain. The
prophet has forgotten how to comfort or, if he have not forgotten, he
thinks the task unworthy of hours which might be more learnedly and
impressively employed.

If we admit, as perhaps we may, the existence of a measure of truth in
this complaint, it will only be to claim that there is some excuse for
those whom it asperses. The intellectual problems bred of a
materialistic age have so compelled the preacher to the defence of the
walls of Zion that it may well have come to pass that the inhabitants
of the city--the men and women down in the streets and dwellings, for
the security of whom he has been contending--may have had to go short
of many things; a time of siege is a time of deprivations and hardships
for citizens as well as soldiers. The great social questions of the
present day have also claimed much of his thought and effort. He has
felt, and justly, that these questions ought to receive more pulpit
recognition. It is possible, and should not be thought surprising,
that in the ardour of the social crusade the preacher may have
sometimes given to these things time and strength which might have been
better spent in ministering to the personal griefs and perplexities of
such as sat before him for their need's sake. It may be well for us
each to make inquiry concerning ourselves in these matters. As a
result we will realise again, no doubt, how numerous and insistent are
the demands made upon us to turn aside in our ministry to treat of a
hundred things which once upon a time we did not think of as pulpit
questions. Be this as it may, here lies work for the preacher which he
must not neglect. It is as certainly his duty to cheer and encourage
the heart of the individual as to indicate the path to better
conditions of life for the multitude.

And this he can only effectively do as he perfects himself in his
understanding of their needs. Of this understanding, and of the ways
in which it must be sought, we have already written and will say no
more, except to point out how every new discovery concerning the
preacher's duties furnishes additional illustration of the absolute
necessity that he study not books only, but also men and the conditions
of their lives. It is of little use knowing the contents of
well-filled shelves if we have never read the living volumes before us
in the pews. Again we say, "if we only knew."

Still knowledge is not the whole of the preacher's need in order that
his message may contain this cheering quality. It is even more needful
that he shall, himself, be one of those who abide in the comfort of
God. He must have learned the efficacy of the great consoling and
gladdening verities by experience of their application to his own soul.
He only can surely cheer others who himself is cheerful, and no man who
has ever felt the pressure and care of life can be cheerful excepting
in so far as these great guarantees have become real to his own spirit.
Only with "the comfort wherewith he is comforted of God" will he
comfort others!

And what are the verities whose application he must have experienced?
There is not one of all the glorious circle of revealed truths that is
not of use for the strengthening and encouraging of men; but there are
some of these truths which might almost have been designed for this
special use. Do we receive--do we preach them as we ought?

There is the doctrine of Divine Providence. Surely this truth should
be preached more frequently than it is. Surely, too, it should be
preached in such a way as to link its meanings to the common hours, the
common needs and anxieties of life. For the vast majority of men life
is actually a struggle for bread for themselves and their dependants.
We had almost said that it is a constant escape from ever threatening
evils. The question of food and raiment is full for them of the direst
probabilities. Many a man listens to the preacher whose life is,
indeed, from hand to mouth. Fierce competition seeks at every turn to
rob him of his little opportunity of bread winning. Such a man had
rather be told of a providing God than of the newest discoveries in
Biblical criticism. If we forget his need and suffer him to go from
the Sanctuary no more hopeful and brave than when he came--then, so far
as he is concerned, we have surely failed.

There is again the doctrine of the Divine Presence. "I will be with
thee in the six troubles, and in the seventh I will not leave thee."
The wonderful truth of Jesus Christ in living, constant, saving
nearness to every man, ready to help, to deliver and guide--here is a
doctrine, mighty to comfort all the world. Before us are men who,
morning by morning, go forth with trembling to spend the day in
associations full of such temptations and dangers as are undreamed of
by us. Here are men and women haunted by bitter memories, whose
midnight solitude is disturbed by the ghosts of buried years. There
are many lonely people in the world, many from whom lover and friend
have been put far away. For such is this treasure of promise committed
unto us. Send yonder man back to his conflict; yonder stranger to his
loneliness; yonder memoried soul to his solitude to face again the
spirits of his bygone days, with this thought: that every step of the
way--whether in the city or in the desert--Jesus Christ will be by his
side. Such a preaching will be sweeter to him a thousand times than
perplexing metaphysical discussions.

Then let us not forget to apply the promises by which the Master has
strengthened the exhortations given to His servants in all times to
labour in the fields of Christian service. Of such promises there is
surely a varied and glorious store, and for all of them there is need
enough. Never do we preach but before us is some toiler almost ready
to give up because of long delay in the appearance of the first signs
of harvest. Encourage him! Tell him that the God of the sowing is
also the God of the reaping. Tell him not to be "weary in well doing,
for in due season" he "shall reap if" he "faint not." Tell him that
"he that goeth forth weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless
come again rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him." Tell him this.
He has heard it all before, of course, or else he had not so long
struggled on in the work. Tell it him again and again, for again and
again the need to hear it all will come. Tell it him gloriously,
confidently. He will go back to his Sunday School class, back to his
labour among the poor, out to his next appointment on the plan, with a
new hope which will be also a new power!

And let us remember that there has been given unto us for the
comforting of His people the revelation of the glory laid up for them
that fear Him. To the writer a little while ago an able and
spiritually minded Unitarian minister made this statement:--"In every
service I conduct I announce, at least, one hymn on immortality. The
people need to hear of it." There is food for thought in such a
confession from such a source. Once upon a time it was common in
Methodism to hear sermons on Heaven. To-day how infrequent such
sermons are! Yet surely the King has not withdrawn this portion of the
message from our hands. And surely there is occasion for such
reminders to be given. How many there are to whom "Earth's but a sorry
tent;" how many, again, who go in bondage to the fear of death all
their days; how many more who look mournfully after departed dear ones
and wonder how it goes with them across the stream. To all such people
is the preacher commissioned, and they look wistfully toward him for
the word that may let the glory in!

And that word we do not speak nowadays as often as we might, perhaps
not as often as we ought. Here, again, is something to be recovered by
the present-day preacher. Possibly when he comes to talk of the
glories "laid up," this same preacher may find need for some new forms
of expression. Perhaps he will not find it possible to speak with the
old literalism of his predecessors. But the living core of the message
is still his as it was theirs. The divine example, too, is before him
every time he harks back to his Master's presence. In that great day
of sorrow when He spake to the disciples of His early departure, He,
seeing their grief, said, "In My Father's house are many mansions ....
I go to prepare a place for you." Preach Heaven! This very day
there are hearts breaking for the story!

To cheer the souls of men by the use of this, or any other material,
and in any legitimate way we can--to this must our preaching be
absolutely and resolutely bent. To make brighter the lives of men; to
take out of the future its dark dreads and fears and to fill it with
beckoning blessings; to make the sanctuary a place of healing, a house
of bread, a rock of cooling streams; to make of every service a season
of refreshing--for all this are we responsible to the King who sent us
out to His suffering children. The message He entrusted to us contains
the sufficiency for it all!

But more, we repeat, than the mere letter of the message is needed.
The best of words may be so spoken as to bring but small assistance to
such as hear. Again we say that the preacher must, himself, live in
the comfort and courage he preaches to others, or else there will be
somewhat in his voice that will spoil it all. The word and also the
tone! "The tone" must be the tone of absolute realisation and
assurance. Pronounced in any other accent the words of the Gospel of
joy sound impossible; the blessings they promise seem dim and far away;
the fact of providence becomes a mere theory; the future harvest of
holy sowing a pious but foolish hope; the sweet fields of Eden a fair
but airy dream. Nothing is colder than perfunctory, official,
professional consolation and encouragement. When fear whispers
"Courage!" the chattering of his teeth makes our terror worse!

So, once again, the preacher's success and effectiveness are found
largely to depend upon his own heart's condition. The message will
carry little more cheer than the messenger can pour into it out of the
stored up happiness and confidence of his own breast. In the cheer of
God must he abide who would scatter a little comfort among his fellow
men!





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Previous: The Note Of Edification



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