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The Message And The Man by J. Dodd Jackson

CHAPTER II. On Transparency.

There is one quality of such vital importance to the effectiveness of our sermons as to merit more than passing mention, and that is the quality of lucidity. The business of the preacher is to make his meaning understood, to make his audience see what he sees, understand what he understands. It is laid upon him as a special instruction to present the truth with such plainness that |a wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein.| Failing here, he fails badly. It is possible, perhaps, to excite a hearer's admiration without clearness. There is to be found in some men a curious liking for being puzzled; and they will credit with high talent and deep learning him who is able thoroughly to mystify them. We have more than once heard a man described as |far learned| because of a style in which polysyllables, not always correctly chosen, did duty for thought, as polysyllables often do. But the mere winning of ignorant admiration is a poor result of pulpit work, and no manly man will set such an end before him as the goal of his ambition. Admit that hearers may receive a measure of blessing out of all proportion to the degree of their understanding -- a friend of ours tells us that he has had wonderful times in listening to sermons in the Welsh language of which he knows not a word, -- it still remains true that men are saved through the knowledge of the truth. In joining himself to the Eunuch from Ethiopia who, sitting in his chariot read the Prophet Esaias, Philip asked, |Understandest thou what thou readest?| and all his effort went to make the dusky stranger comprehend. To make men understand, is our bounden duty still.

And to accomplish this necessary achievement is not invariably the easiest thing imaginable. Indeed, it may well be contended that in none of his aims does the preacher fail more frequently than in this. Often would we be greatly surprised and deeply discouraged had we the means of comparing the idea received with the idea we meant to convey. The reticence of our hearers is wisdom in them and mercy to us.

For it is absolutely certain that most preachers overestimate -- we do not say the intelligence of their congregations, -- but their ability to grasp the truth presented at the speed, and in the way in which it is brought before them. Because the trained mind of the preacher can readily and easily understand religious literature and speech, it does not follow that the hearer has the same power; nor does it follow that the lack of it proves him a person of smaller intellectuality than the man whose utterances bring perplexity to his mind. The preacher should remember that what are matters of daily thought and research to him are not so familiar to his hearers. To him they form a well-known country. He should not assume that the man who turns to him for direction as to the points and places of this holy land will always be able to comprehend these directions as easily as he gives them. We speak from experience when we assert that it is much easier, in a land one knows very well, to direct the traveller on his way than it is to understand such directions when, from strangeness in the path, we have in turn to seek them ourselves.

Not only is this true, but it is also true that we are too apt to take for granted that what is knowledge to the preacher is knowledge to the hearer. It is to be feared that in these days the average church-goer is not so well versed in Biblical knowledge as the assumptions of our sermons might suggest. Most men nowadays live in a hurry, and are busy about many things, and it cannot be pretended that the Scriptures receive that reading and study which give such advantage to the hearer of preaching. Probably an examination of any ten men chosen without discrimination out of the congregation of one of our churches would reveal a state of things both startling and sad. It is so easy to be misled by appearances. The congregation is well dressed, respectable, keen. There are the usual signs of education, even of culture. All these things are consistent with great shallowness of sacred knowledge. Men are careful to till their own fields, but common land is generally sorely neglected. There is a scientist in yonder pew; in his own science he is supreme. Near him sits a politician; few there are who know the questions of the hour better than he. In the pulpit stands the preacher; he is -- shall we venture the assertion? -- a man mighty in the Bible. It is his book. It is, in a general way, the book of the scientist, of the statesman, of every person in the congregation, but the preacher specialises in it and in all that relates to it. He will make a mistake if he assumes too much either to the credit of one man before him or another. Here a memory of many years ago rises to the surface. Having to preach one Sunday to an audience which usually contained two or three men of positions rather above the common run, we confessed great nervousness to an aged minister of our church now no more. |Never bother a bit, lad,| was the reply; |remember one thing: -- You will know more about that subject than any man in the chapel, because you will have been working at it. The doctor will have spent his week mixing physic, the lawyer his in mixing law. You will have spent yours in getting to know all about this text of which, like as not, neither of them has ever heard.| There was consolation in the old man's assurances, though they recognised a sorrowful fact too often forgotten. Probably if we knew everything we should come to the conclusion that one fault of our sermons is that they are not half sufficiently elementary.

Along the same line follows the remark, that it is also a mistake to assume that the terminology familiar to the preacher and conveying to his mind certain ideas, must of necessity be equally familiar and convey the very same ideas to every other man. Much of this language is technical; much of it consists of words and phrases which have long been obsolete so far as daily use and wont are concerned. Let the preacher set himself to listen to a professional man who elects to speak upon the subjects in which he is most interested in the language of his profession; or let him hearken to an artisan who talks about his craft in the terms in use at the bench, or in the factory, and then he will in some degree comprehend the effect of technical language in mystifying the uninitiated hearer. We recall in this connection a sermon in which, years ago, we heard a very young preacher declaiming to an audience of labouring men and women concerning a certain |anthropomorphic| passage. As we say he was very young, and probably no longer uses the word outside the study. Another worthy man in our hearing solemnly advised a congregation largely composed of factory girls to make their lives |Christo-centric.| We acknowledge our indebtedness to the Rev. W. L. Watkinson, himself a splendid example of the excellence for which we plead, for two humorous illustrations of the mistake now being considered. One is that of a local preacher who, during a revival of religion, most earnestly counselled his auditors to exercise |fiduciary| faith; the other, of a learned divine whose appointment in a certain village coincided with the visit of a travelling menagerie. |I perceive,| he said, in sensational tones, |that a spirit of German transcendental ratiocination is creeping into the Church.| The congregation, remembering the adjacent caravans, left at once in hurry and alarm.

In that very interesting volume in which the proprietors of The Daily News tabulated the results of a census of church attendance in the metropolis, Mr. F. C. Masterman, writing on the religious problem of South East London, has the following words: --

|The prevailing theology, even more perhaps than the prevailing liturgy, is wrapped up in an ancient language. The very terms are technical -- grace, justification, conversion, perseverance. They flow out glibly from the student who has soaked himself in their historical meanings; they are Greek to the general. They were once living realities for which men fought and gladly died; they still symbolise realities, the permanent elements of the life history of the soul -- but they are wrapped around in cobwebs and the complications of a technical system, frozen into sterility; and they have no more meaning and no more appeal to the audience at whom they are thrown in such profusion than the details of the performance of the Mosaic ritual, or the genealogies of the legendary heroes of the Hebrew Bible. We want neither edifying lessons drawn from the wanderings of Israel or the Book of Joshua; nor brilliant 'word-painting' of some of the scenes described in the Bible with a more appealing eloquence; nor the exposition of the machinery of schemes of salvation once real from which the life has departed; but some message concerning the things of the spirit, delivered in simplicity and humility and sincerity to men who would fain be simple and humble and sincere.| These are weighty words, and many a preacher might do worse than take them seriously to heart. Such an event might mean the blessing of many who have so far been mystified rather than edified. Mr. Masterman represents, we are sure, multitudes who could add proof to his words from frequent experience; he speaks, also, for many more who, because of similar experience, come no more to the house of the Lord.

But the difficulty does not always arise from the preacher's terminology alone. It is possible to fall into the fault of over-condensation in our preaching. Highly concentrated foods are proverbially hard of digestion, and the same may be true of highly concentrated sermons. |Words packed with profoundest meanings| are apt to pass over the mind carrying much of their meaning with them undiscovered. A |highly sententious style| may have some of the qualities of a thunder shower, in which the rain falls so fast as to be of little use in watering the thirsty ground, over which it courses unabsorbed to join the brook down yonder in the vale. The maxim |multum in parvo| may be an admirable one for an author whose book will lie in the reader's hand the while he has time to grasp the full significance of every well-filled sentence. By a public speaker, however, packing may easily be overdone; and here is one of the dangers of the written sermon as compared with one in which the preacher, having gathered together his knowledge and his thought upon a matter, leaves the choice of words to the hour of delivery. A little wise prolixity may be necessary to the speaker. A little repetition; the putting of a truth, first in this way, then in that, and again perhaps in quite a different fashion, so that different minds may have in turn their chance -- even this may be needed, and though the preacher's impatience may find such a method irksome, duty may lie that way while inclination turns to a more sententious and expeditious mode. When all has been done that can be done to render every argument and lesson absolutely transparent there will still be some who will not have quite understood. The simplest of preachers must some day encounter the old lady who accosted, so it is said, a former Bishop of Chester, who, at great pains to be lucid, had unfolded the argument against the errors of atheism, with the words, |Well, my lord, I must say as I think there is a God after all you've told us.|

Another thing to be remembered is, that much depends upon the order and arrangement of a sermon whether it is |easy to follow| or not. We are old-fashioned enough to believe rather strongly in the method according to which the preacher divided his subject into |heads.| We had heard that this method was falling into disuse, but have been surprised during recent months to discover how many of the more acceptable and successful preachers still find it the most effective plan. Of course there are those who vote the method out of date; and we have listened to the preaching of some who hold this view and act upon it. Our experience teaches us that in respect of clearness and, perhaps especially, of memorability, the method of distinct division has many advantages. It is easier to the preacher; much easier to the hearer. Only, let it be remembered that an |introduction| should introduce; that |divisions| should divide, and sub-divisions sub-divide. Needless and trifling |majors| or |minors| are irritating and confusing. |Firstly,| |Secondly,| |Thirdly,| and -- under very special circumstances -- even |Fourthly| may contribute to the making of the dark places plain, but the days have long since passed away in which |Ninthly| and |Tenthly| could be borne; though there have actually been such days. We have read, or tried to read, discourses whose major divisions ran to |eighteenthly| with minor divisions grouped under each like companies in a regiment. People came to preaching early in those days and stayed late. Can it be one result of their experiences that we, their posterity, have inherited that strange weariness which so frequently attacks us as |One word more| is announced from the sacred desk?

Simplicity in language, and in putting things; as much repetition as may be needed; great care not to assume more knowledge in the hearer than he possesses; much allowance for the fact that the minds addressed may not be trained in the theme under discussion, and that there is a wide difference between the catching of an idea which waits upon a printed page and of an idea in flight of spoken discourse; clear and memorable arrangement of the whole address -- all these concessions must be made if men are to be sent away from the sanctuary carrying with them any considerable part of the provision with which the preacher climbed the pulpit stair. And after all these concessions have been allowed the great effort to make things plain has yet to be begun!

This great effort for the attainment of transparency will be made, we need hardly say, along two lines, the line of illustration and the line of application. Possibly it may be held by some that these two lines are really one.

And concerning illustration: -- The greatest preachers, and the most effective, have been those who have shown the greatest mastery of this art. The writing of these words brings to our minds names sufficient to establish their truth. Who can forget the illustrations of C. H. Spurgeon; the illustrations of McLaren of Manchester, whose expositions of Scripture received illumination in this way at every turning of the path along which the preacher led us, happy and entranced? It has been pronounced by some a mistake to class D. L. Moody among the great preachers. The answer will depend upon our definition of a great preacher. We would support the inclusion and our reason lies here: -- We heard the man in boyhood and so clear, by simplicity and aptness of language, of phrase and of illustration did he make his every contention, that we understood him from beginning to end. An example happily still with us has already been named in the earlier part of this chapter. Every preacher should hear the Rev. W. L. Watkinson, if he walk a score of miles to do it!

But the art of illustration, excepting in those rare cases where a man brings to its learning a natural gift waiting only to be brought into use, is not easily acquired. Every preacher of experience will be prepared to testify that in attempting to illustrate it is not only easy to make mistakes but difficult to avoid making them at times. Sometimes an illustration, intended to light up a subject, rather takes away the thought of a congregation from that subject than otherwise. Sometimes, again, the illustration may be found to carry other suggestions than were intended. The lad, to whom the wisdom of early rising was sought to be illustrated by the good fortune of the early bird in securing the first worm, drew precisely the opposite moral, holding that the fate of the worm taught the wisdom of remaining in bed until a later hour. Then an illustration may be even less clear than the argument to be illustrated. We have heard scientific illustrations of this character, from which the hearer derived a supplementary dose of mystification rather than an elucidation of the problem with which he was already manfully grappling. An illustration may be too pathetic, and people may weep from the wrong cause, an event which often occurs in church. It is one thing to shed tears over a touching story and another to shed them from penitence. An illustration should not be more sublime than the lesson to be taught lest there follow a swift descent with loss of reverence by the way. There is a place for humour in the pulpit, if it be natural to the preacher and flow spontaneously, but a humorous illustration requires to be very carefully chosen, lest, instead of the healthy and holy laughter often so fatal to anger and meanness and pride, you have the guffaw in which blessing is lost in excess. Other reflections as to illustrations are the following: -- First, the illustration, if a story, ought at least to contain the element of probability. No preacher can always satisfy himself as to the literal truth of a story he may hear and wish to use, but he can, at least, consider whether the event recounted was possible. We have heard stories from the pulpit which were so hard to swallow as to leave no room for the moral. We have heard illustrations in sermons which have led to criticisms wherein the strength of the preacher's imagination has not been passed over unrecognised. Further, an illustration derives power from being drawn from sources familiar to those to whom it is addressed. In some confessions regarding his early ministry, Henry Ward Beecher enforces this very lesson in telling of his failure to impress the people until he turned for his illustrations to fields well known to them. Who has not seen a farm-labouring audience lift their heads when a preacher, saying, |It is like,| has led his hearers into the fields where they had toiled during the previous week? Often have we seen a mining congregation captured en bloc when some brother miner, speaking in native doric from the wagon at a camp meeting, has taken them |doon the pit,| or |in bye.| We have watched the faces of sea-going men gleam with a new interest as the preacher drew a simile, or caught a metaphor from the mighty deep. Only, in using such illustrations as these, let the user be quite certain that he is accurate. One mistake about the farm, the mine, the sea, and all is over! With accuracy as a quality constantly present, those illustrations are most effective whose material is most homely and familiar. Things startling, novel and foreign, may arouse interest and excite wonder, but it will probably be at the expense of that realisation of truth which was sought to be created. Jesus said |Like unto leaven,| |Like to a grain of mustard seed,| |Behold a sower went forth to sow,| |Consider the lilies of the field.| His hearers saw these things every day. Perhaps they were in view as He spoke. Finally, the less hackneyed our illustrations are, the better. If this were more generally remembered we would miss, and that with a sense of relief, a few grey-headed similes which, having haunted our youth, threaten to haunt also our age; and which have assailed us so often as to create the kind of familiarity that breeds contempt. In how many Sunday school addresses -- and a Sunday school address is preaching in a way -- in how many such addresses have we seen the twig bent; in how many the giant oak which none can train? How often have we heard of that boy in Holland who saved his country by the simple expedient of pushing his finger into a hole in the dyke through which the dammed-up waters had begun to escape? There is that other lad, too, who has come down in history by reason of his insane resolve to climb |one niche the higher| -- how often have we been told his thrilling story? These two boys are no longer young and have surely earned an honourable superannuation. That little incident of Michael Angelo and the block of marble from which he |let the angel out| -- even that improving narrative might with advantage be pigeon-holed for a generation or two. The reason why these hardy perennials are seen in the gardens of so many preachers must surely be, that every |Treasury of Illustrations| contains them. We have nothing to say in praise of such treasuries. We have none to recommend for purchase. The best treasury of illustrations is the memory of that man who keeps his eyes and ears open and has a preaching mind.

Following the naming of illustration as a means of lighting up the sermon comes the mention of application. Truth must be related to be understood. How wonderfully the application of a truth to familiar circumstances makes it clear. It may be laboriously defined and leave but a dim and indistinct impression upon the mind; but apply it to the age, to the life of men; show its relation to the passing days, to daily duties, daily trials, daily sins, and how deeply is it impressed. In the greater shops are models whose business it is to |show off| the gown the shopkeeper wishes to sell by wearing it before the possible purchaser. The advantage of the plan is obvious. We must show truth in the wear to make it understood!

After all these reflections, the fundamental word still remains to be said: -- Clear preaching can only come from clear thinking. What we see ourselves we may, by great effort and rare good fortune, make others see; but when the preacher only beholds men as trees walking, how can he make clear their features to his fellows? The foggy sermon often proves the preacher's possession of a foggy mind. |If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness,| so said One of old.

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