Earthen vessels, frail and slight,
Yet the golden Lamp we bear;
Master, break us, that the light
So may fire the murky air;
Skill and wisdom none we claim,
Only seek to lift Thy Name.
I have on purpose reserved the subject of Preaching for our closing pages. Preaching is, from many points of view, the goal and summing up of all other parts and works of the Ministry. What we have said already about the Clergyman's life and labour, in secret, in society, in the parish; what we have said about his study and use of the Book of Common Prayer; all, so far as it has been true, ought to contribute its suggestions as we approach this great theme.
THE PULPIT THE CENTRAL POINT.
For, indeed, |the Pulpit| (I use the word in its widest application, wide enough to cover the mission-room desk, or the preaching place in the open air) is no mere isolated item in the midst of other matters which call for a Clergyman's attention. If the man is working, and ordering his work, aright, the Pulpit will not be a something which has to be taken by the way, a link in a long chain in which committees, clubs, and social gatherings, and the like, are other and co-ordinate links. It will be a sacred central point, the living heart of the busy life, to which everything will bear relation. To the Pulpit everything will somehow converge, and from the Pulpit everything will be influenced. As the Pastor moves about amongst his people, he will be gathering incessantly, from all parochial places and seasons, material which will tell upon his sermons; he will be getting to know his people's minds and lives with an intimacy which will give his preaching to them a point which otherwise it could not have. And when he stands in the Pulpit, this continually accumulating knowledge will come out, not indeed in the way of diluting or distorting his Gospel, but so as to give its eternal and holy message a point and closeness of application which will ensure its |coming home,| as God gives the blessing.
TEMPTATIONS TO FORGET THIS.
It needs thought and care to keep the parish and the sermon thus en rapport. But such thought and care is infinitely well worth taking. The Clergyman who longs to be useful for his Lord in the highest degree he can be, cannot possibly think lightly of his sermons. Yet he may be tempted, half unconsciously, to treat them too lightly in practices, particularly if he is beset with a consciousness that he is not |a born preacher,| or if he stands in the opposite danger of having a |fatal| facility of speech. Let the Clergyman only remember that his sermon, his public delivery of instruction, of exhortation, in the Lord's name, is not to be an exhibition of his own powers of thought or utterance, but a faithful message-bearing to his own flock, in the light of what he knows of Christ and the Word on the one side, and of the needs of the flock on the other, and he will find a most useful encouragement, or a most useful corrective, as the need may be. |O my Lord, I am not eloquent,| [Exod. iv.10.] will be no disheartening thought, as he carries to the pulpit the ever-growing weight of pastoral experience, all giving point and freshness to the unalterable message. And the secret temptation to think the sermon a light thing because mere words come easy, will be powerfully counteracted in the other case not only by contact with the realities of life in the daily work, but by remembering that the sermon will have to do with not an abstract audience but these particular souls and lives thus laid on the man's conscience and affections.
THE PASTOR PREACHES TO THOSE PARTICULAR HEARERS.
Let me repeat it as earnestly as I can. The sermon, if it is to be what it should be, should be affected at every point by the facts of the preacher's own inner life, and by those of his intercourse with his people. Those facts must, of course, be thoughtfully weighed and handled. The tact which is so important in a Pastor, and which is best learned and developed in the school of Christ's love, will see instinctively how to apply in preaching the experience gained in prayer, in conversation, in every branch of ministering life. We shall remember that indefinite harm, not good, may be done when a man, particularly a young man, unwisely preaches what may fairly seem to be personalities; I have known some sad instances in point here. But taking that for granted, assuming the good sense and sympathy of the preacher, I am quite sure that the most eloquent sermon, adapted to any audience, is far less likely to be blessed and used by our Lord than the sermon which is penetrated with the Pastor's personal intimacy with that particular audience, and which goes therefore straight from him to them.
It has been well said that preaching may be described as |truth through personality|; not merely the presentation somehow of so many facts and thoughts, but the presentation of them through the medium of a living man, who brings into the pulpit his heart, his character, his experience, and so gives out his message. We may add to this suggestive dictum that the true pastoral sermon is also |truth to personalities|; the living man's delivery of the message to living men and women whose life, more or less, he knows. And so it presupposes some real amount of pastoral intercourse, intelligently brought to bear on pulpit work.
PREPARE SERMON IN THE PARISH.
I linger a little over these thoughts, though they are little more than introductory. For experience tells me how easily, in these days, the Clergyman is tempted to dislocate his |parish work| from his sermons, to the great loss of one or both parts of his duty. And if once he begins to think of his sermons as a thing really apart, which must be got through somehow, but rather as a mere duty than as a vital ministerial function, the results will be sad for the sermons. So I lay stress on the thought that the sermon-preparation ought to go on not only in the study, over the Word, but in the parish, over the hearers of it. The more constantly this is recollected, and put in practice, the less fear will there be that the sermon will be a weariness either to people or to preacher.
|LABOUR IN THE WORD.|
But let me, however, entreat my younger Brother, by any and every means, to watch and pray against a slack or low view of his function as a preacher. From very many quarters at the present day we are invited to slight our sermon-labour. Sometimes it is |work,| organization, committees, which is set against the sermon; sometimes it is the reading-desk and the Communion Table -- the liturgical functions of the Ministry. Let pastoral activities and holy rites alike have ample place in our thoughts and work; but for Christ's sake, my Brother in the ministry of the Word and Sacraments, do not forget the Word. A Christian Church where preaching sinks to a low ebb, where the labour of public teaching and exhortation is neglected, in favour either of machinery or ritual, cannot possibly -- I dare to say it deliberately -- be in a truly healthy state now, and most assuredly is not laying up health and strength for years to come. For the very life of our flocks, and of our Church, and for the dear glory of our Master, let us |labour in the Word and teaching.| [1 Tim. v.17.]
Is it necessary, in the case of any reader of these pages, that I should not only appeal thus in general, but add one special entreaty -- always to preach your own sermons? Probably it is not necessary; but it may be |safe| [Phil. iii.2.] nevertheless. Not long ago I was distressed to read, in the advertisement columns of an excellent Church newspaper, a conspicuous announcement of a series of |litho sermons,| that is, I suppose, sermons so printed as to look like manuscript. If such literature has a sale, it is a miserable fact. Can these discourses possibly be either written by a |man of the Spirit,| or used by such a man? I say, No. The production of them (in order to be lithographed), and the use of them in their |litho| state, are untruthful acts, untruthful in the very sanctuary of truth. The Lord pardon -- and the Lord forbid!
Better the most stammering and incoherent utterances of a man who loves the Lord, and the Word, and the flock, and who in Christ's Name does his best, than the unhallowed, and usually, I think, vapid glibness of such acted as well as spoken falsehoods. And surely, the more the Clergyman keeps his pulpit and his parish in living relation, the less will he be tempted, be it ever so remotely, by any exigencies, to dream of expedients such as these.
I am far from saying that the preacher should never get help from other men's sermons. This may be done honestly and usefully, in many ways. But to let another man's sermon pass as one's own is a sin.
|DR SOUTH IN THE AFTERNOON.|
Quite conceivably, there may be rare occasions when another man's sermon may be rightly used by you. But then, of course, you will do it honestly and above-board, telling your people whose it is. In Addison's Sir Roger de Coverley there is a pleasant scene, where the venerable Knight asks the Parson who the preacher for next Sunday is to be. |The Bishop of St Asaph in the morning,| replies the good man, |and Dr South in the afternoon.| That is, he was about to read, openly and honestly, a sermon of Beveridge's, and then a sermon of South's; neither, certainly, in lithograph. I do not say he did the best for his people in so doing; most certainly he could not |speak home| to the details of their village life, and its temptations, if he spoke only in the phrase of the two classical pulpit-masters. That rapport of parish and pulpit of which I have spoken could not have been much felt, at least on that coming Sunday. But the good Parson was honest, however. The practice of which I speak is not honest.
|He then shewed us his list of preachers for the whole year, where I saw with a great deal of pleasure Archbishop Tillotson, Bishop Sanderson, Dr Barrow, Dr Calamy, with several living authors.| (Spectator, No.106, July 2nd, 1711.) Calamy by the way was a Presbyterian, made one of the King's chaplains at the Restoration.
WE MUST PREACH ATTRACTIVELY.
Let me come now to a closer view of the preacher's work, and I will be as practical as possible. I have besought my Brother to let nothing tempt him to push his preaching into a neglectful corner. Let me now beseech him to remember that he must not only be a diligent preacher, but do his very best to commend his preaching to his people, -- to be, in a right sense, attractive.
I deliberately say, attractive. That word, of course, suggests some very undesirable applications. It is only too possible to aim at attractiveness by bad methods. We may tone down the Gospel-message, leaving out unpopular and man-humbling truths, and try to |attract| people so. We may strive to |attract| them to hear us by doubtful external accessories (of very different kinds), which, after all, will rather attract attention -- for a season -- to themselves, than to the message, and the Lord. But none the less it is every Clergyman's plain duty to make his preaching, so far as he can, lawfully attractive. It is his duty to see that he preaches Christ Crucified; and |the offence of the Cross| [Gal. v.11.] will always occur, sooner or later, in such preaching; but it is his duty to see that there is no other |offence| in it, so far as he can help it. If he so speaks of sin, and righteousness, and judgment, that the unregenerate heart does not like it, though the preacher has spoken wisely and in love, that is not the preacher's fault. If he has so magnified Christ, and the glory and fulness of His salvation, that it sounds like exaggeration to the unspiritual hearer, though the words have been said in all reverent reality, that is not the preacher's fault. But it is his fault if he has repelled his hearers from his message by what is not the message, but his own setting of it; his spirit, manner, his delivery, his neglect of some plain precautions against prejudice and weariness. Of a few such precautions I come now to speak; and first, of what I may call the most external amongst them.
NEEDFUL AND NEEDLESS OFFENCES.
Beginning, then, with physical precautions against needless |offences,| [Greek: skandala], in our preaching I say first, let us do our best to be audible.
AUDIBILITY: MEANS TO IT.
The word sounds almost amusingly commonplace. But it must be said. Many more of us Clergymen than know it, or think about it, are not audible. The lack of training for the bodily work of the pulpit, in our Church, is serious; far more is done in this way among our Nonconformist brethren. And accordingly there are numbers of young English Clergymen who read and speak without a thought of methodical audibility. They do not articulate distinctly. They do not remember that the pace and force of utterance, fit for a private room, are quite unfit for a large building. They do not know, perhaps, how extremely important is the articulation of consonants, and of final syllables of words, and of closing words in a sentence. They do not know that a certain equability (not monotony) of voice is necessary, if the utterance is to |carry| to the end of a long church, or a church of many pillars.
Let me cordially commend the Rev. J.P. Sandlands' book, The Voice and Public Speaking. Mr Sandlands has done, and is doing, admirable work as an oral teacher of clerical elocution, in the intervals of his parochial labours.
Or again, they do not know, or do not remember, that audibility is not secured by mere loudness and bigness of voice, nor again by raising the voice to a high pitch. |People tell you to speak up,| said that excellent elocutionist, Mr Simeon; |but I say, speak down,| down as regards the musical scale. Again, the larger the building the more accentuated must be the articulation, and the more limited the variation of pitch; but too often this is not thought of by the preacher.
Further, it has to be remembered, but it is frequently forgotten, that the audibility we should aim at is a pleasant and attractive audibility. It is a great thing to be easily heard; which of us does not know the combined physical and mental labour of listening to a sermon, or a speech, which only reaches us indistinctly? But it is a greater thing to be pleasantly heard; heard so that the listener finds nothing to tire and repel in the utterance. Here, of course, different voices give very different advantages; but there are some common secrets, so to speak, which all -- who will make a sacred business of it -- may profitably and effectively use. Above all, there is the secret of quiet naturalness; the watchful avoidance (do not forget this) of tricks and mannerisms in delivery; the watchful cultivation of the sort of utterance which we should use in an earnest conversation on grave subjects, with only such differences as are suggested by the size of the place in which we speak. Of some other |common secrets| I shall speak when I come to the question of style and phrase.
I have known a sermon which in matter and style were really excellent made, to some hearers at least, almost unendurable by the accident that the preacher had got the habit of (needlessly) clearing his throat at the end of almost every sentence.
FIND A CANDID FRIEND.
How shall we best work upon such hints? Very largely, by the use of the plainest common-sense and every-day observation on our own part. But largely also by trying to find some friend, equally kind and candid, who will help us |to hear ourselves as others hear us.| For myself, after twenty-five years, I welcome more and more gratefully every such criticism as the occasion presents itself. Let the Curate ask his Vicar to tell him without mercy if his utterance, his articulation, is clear; if his manner is natural; if his preaching is or is not easy to listen to in these respects. And let friend ask friend; let pastor ask parishioner; let husband ask wife!
There are other directions in which we must cultivate attractiveness. There is English style. Here, again, gifts differ widely in detail, yet there are common secrets open to common use. It is open to every one to avoid, on the one hand, an ambitious, long-worded style; on the other, a style which many young men of our time are in more danger of patronizing -- the slovenly, shapeless style, in which the Queen's English is very |freely handled,| and into which the broken English of an ever-growing slang not seldom makes its way. These defects have only to be recognized, surely, to be avoided, by keeping our eyes open as we read and our ears as we hear, and by remembering that the sacred message of the King, while it is too great to be tricked out with false rhetoric, is also too great to be slighted, not to say insulted, by a really careless phraseology.
A GOOD STYLE IS A PRACTICAL POWER.
Pains will be needed, of course, as we pursue the object of a good style. We must watch and think. We must read and observe good models, the written words of men who have proved themselves powerful preachers to the people, and indeed of men generally who are known masters of English. We shall have, again, to consult candid friends. But my point is, that all this is abundantly worth our while. A neat, straight, well-worded sentence is not a mere literary luxury. It is a practical power. It is far easier to listen to than a careless, formless sentence is, and it is far easier to remember. The truth which it conveys is much more likely, therefore, to find its way securely into the mind, and to lie there ready for the vivifying touch of the Spirit of God.
I emphasize this matter of style, for in many quarters it is much neglected, and some of my younger Brethren do, if I mistake not, entertain the thought that the simplicity of the Gospel is best set forth, and God most honoured, where plans and methods of language are neglected. To speak about |a good style| to those who think so, may seem perhaps little else than a recommendation to bid for human applause in the line of literature. But my intention is far enough from this. Mere literary ambition, the quest of the glory of self in this as in every other line, is a forbidden thing to the true bondservant of the Lord. But it is by no means forbidden him, for his Lord's sake, to aim at clearness, point, force of expression, that the message may be the better taken in. God is as little glorified by a bad style as by a bad voice, or bad handwriting, or bad reasoning. And by a good style I mean not a style polished and elaborated to please fastidious tastes (the best taste, by the way, is best pleased with correct simplicity), but a style which shall be both pure and plain in word and phrase, |understandable of the people| yet such as not to vex those who care for their native tongue, and just enough formed and pointed to make attention pleasant to the ear. For average audiences, I know no style more perfectly answering my idea than that of Mr Spurgeon, in his printed sermons of recent years. And I happen to know that Mr Spurgeon has always taken great and systematic pains with his English.
Since these words were written this great Christian and preacher has passed away to his Master's presence.
FRENCH HEARERS OF ENGLISH.
Some preachers need much more than others a hint to keep their sentences straight, and to avoid the tangle of parentheses, long or short. Here, again, Mr Spurgeon gives me an admirable illustration. His sentences, never thin or weak in matter, are always straight. If any of my younger Brethren are tempted, as I confess I am, in the digressive direction, I would recommend them (if they usually preach without writing) to write a sermon now and then, and rigorously to exclude, or re-write, all sentences which transgress. It occurred to me recently, when acting as a summer chaplain in Switzerland, to find the benefit of a different corrective. On one particular Sunday I had among my hearers in the morning a French Presbyterian, in the afternoon a French Roman Catholic, each understanding a little English; and in each case I had special reasons for hope and longing that the sermon might bring some spiritual help. Instinctively, I avoided every expression which could in the least complicate my English and thus obscure the message to my foreign friends. And so thankful was I for the pruning of periods that resulted, that I am much disposed, in all future preaching, to put mentally before me those same two hearers.
|WRITTEN OR EXTEMPORE?|
On that great question, Shall I preach from writing, or not? I say very little. Speaking quite generally, and thinking now only of the regular church congregation, not of the mission-room or open air, I would advise my younger Brethren to write for some while, but usually with an ultimate view to speech without writing. No hard rule can be laid down. One man is so gifted that from the first he can express himself correctly and well without any manuscript before him. Another finds, all his life through, that he speaks best, and his people listen best, when he reads (vividly and naturally) from his prayerfully-prepared manuscript. But on the whole, I repeat it, writing is the best discipline for a man in his early days of Ministry, while beyond doubt the freely-spoken sermon, like the freely-spoken speech, (carefully enough prepared as to matter and order,) is usually best to listen to, and therefore should be the preacher's goal. Some men write their sermons and then learn them by heart for delivery. For myself, I own this would be a severe ordeal to nerve; and in very few cases, if I am right, does it produce a perfectly natural effect. Not long ago, if not now, it was a frequent custom in Scotland; and one amusing story comes to my mind. A good minister, known to a near relative of mine, always thus |mandated| his sermon, and punctually delivered it word for word. One day a tremendous hailstorm assailed the church windows, and not only did his parishioners fail to hear him, but literally he lost the sound of his own voice. Yet he dared not stop, lest memory should play him false; and when the storm ceased, |I found myself,| he said, |with some surprise, in a quite distant part of the sermon.|
ORDER AND DIVISION.
Another important aid to attractiveness is order and division, simply and sensibly managed. Nothing is much more repellent, at least to modern hearers, than an excess of arrangement; headings and subdivisions overdone. But nothing is more helpful to attention than a simple, natural, luminous division, present in the preacher's mind, announced to the audience, and faithfully carried out. Remember this, among many other things, in the choosing of the text; ceteris paribus, that text is best which best lends itself to natural division.
PAINS AND FAITH.
There are many other points, more or less of the exterior kind, so to speak, which concern the attractiveness of our preaching. There is the question of length, which can only be settled by careful and prayerful consideration of special circumstances, with recollection of the general principles that the morning sermon should be short compared with that of the evening, and that he who would reach the hearts of the poor must not give them |sermonettes,| but sermons. There is the question of action, a large subject. All that I can say is, that some action is almost always a help to attention, but that it proves the very opposite as soon as it seems uneasy, or a mannerism.
I have yet to deal with some thoughts about the preacher's message, and the inmost secrets of his power. Meanwhile, may our Lord and Master enable us so to |labour in the Word| that we shall think no means too humble which will really help us to make His message plain, and no dependence on Him too absolute for the longed-for spiritual results.
|Would I describe a preacher, such as Paul,
Were he on earth, would hear, approve, and own,
Paul should himself direct me. I would trace
His master-strokes, and draw from his design.
I would express him simple, grave, sincere,
In doctrine uncorrupt; in language plain,
And plain in manner; decent, solemn, chaste,
And natural in gesture; much impress'd
Himself, as conscious of his awful charge,
And anxious mainly that the flock he feeds
May feel it too; affectionate in look,
And tender in address, as well becomes
A messenger of grace to guilty men.|