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

reacher 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."