"Please tell me a story," says the child; and "the child is father to the man." It is a common remark of preachers that nobody listens more eagerly to the children's address, with its anecdotes, on Sunday morning than the grown-up people. Mr. G. K. Chesterton said that when a grey-bearded gentleman goes into a book-shop just before Christmas and says he wants to see the fairy-books, as he desires to buy some for his nephews and nieces, he is really intending to buy them for himself. The books that are most circulated from the free libraries are novels; the magazines that circulate the most are story magazines. We may look askance at the people who read little besides stories, but their fondness for stories is inherited from their ancestors hundreds of generations back. Before Abraham was, Oriental story-tellers amused and instructed the peoples of the East. Centuries before Moses, the novelette, often with a "moral," was the popular reading of the Egyptians. Homer and the rhapsodists told their stories of the war of Troy to the soldiers round the camp fires and to the grouped peoples of the villages and towns of Hellas. Plato, the supreme teacher and preacher of Greece, charmed his age, and every following age has been charmed, by his stories "with a moral." In the Middle Ages the tales of chivalry were listened to by barons bold and bright-eyed ladies in castle halls, and the "common people" had their legends of the saints and their boisterous tales that often conveyed shrewd wisdom in homely language and with rough humour. We live now in the age of science, of machinery, of education, of philosophy, the age of "the march of the men of mind," and yet people are fonder of stories than ever. They seek escape in stories from the dull grey monotony of the routine of toilsome lives, and the writer who knows how to tell stories that appeal to them is certain of an exceeding rich reward.
But what about the preacher? Is he to put to no account the average man and woman's love of a tale? He wants to open their mind and heart to truths of the most solemn import, on the reception of which the happiness of their lives here and the shaping of their destiny depend. How is he to make them listen, to make them comprehend "the mystery of love," to make them realise that God is their Father, that Christ is the Life and the Light of men, that they are all members of each other, that they are builders of a New Jerusalem; that as they are the heirs of ages of men and women who have created for them a splendid inheritance, so they are bound to add to the inheritance and pass it on to those who come after them, that so they may hasten the time when the dreams of prophets and apostles, of saints and martyrs, of heroes of the faith and warrior knights of the Holy Ghost, shall be glorious realities?
Preachers always need to remember that the congregation consists of "the common people," that is, average people. The congregation is not a congregation of scholars, of theologians and philosophers, whose primary interest in religion is the intellectual interest. It is a congregation of men and women who feel rather than reason their way to faith, whose interest in religion is the practical interest of men and women who feel their need of the help in the crises of life that only a vividly realised supernatural power can give. That power has to be presented to them in concrete dramatic forms rather than in the abstract conceptions of the intellect. They can understand the Christ who walked the holy fields of Galilee, who was a Man with men and yet more than man, who "wrought with human hands the creed of creeds"; but they are listless or impatient when the preacher—who has lived more among books than among men, and is more interested in philosophies, ideas, thoughts, criticism, questions, and what not, than in people, in the colour and drama and crowded incidents of human life—is expounding his thoughts to them, in however well-informed, logical and literary a way it may be. Should such a preacher treat the congregation to an illustration that has a human touch in it, at once they prick their ears, and the illustration will be remembered, with the point illustrated, for years perhaps, whereas the "thoughtful sermon" as a whole will scarcely survive the following week. It is worth the while of preachers to study the psychology of the congregation, and to condescend to that psychology, for it is the psychology of men and women as God has made them, rather than for them to expect the average people in the congregation ever to be able to take the thoughtful preacher's interest in the mainly intellectual aspects of religion. Let no dull reader imagine that this is a plea for "anecdotal preaching," the stringing together of ear-tickling stories for their own sake, or that it is a condemnation of the preacher's intellectual self-cultivation. On the contrary, in these days the preacher's brain needs the most intensive cultivation, and the mere pulpit anecdotist is a desecrator of the pulpit and a cheater of the congregation out of its most precious rights. But the preacher preaches for results, and even to get his thoughts infixed he must know how to impress them in ways that will commend them to the common mind, and make a lasting impression on the memory; and there is no way that does this so surely as the way of apt and attractive illustration.
In the "White City" there were English and French pavilions devoted to the "Applied Arts." The gift of illustration is a fine art, and it should be applied to the noblest use—that of elucidating and adorning the points of the preacher's messages. Such masters of the art as Rev. J. H. Jowett, Rev. F. B. Meyer, and Dr. W. L. Watkinson are welcomed by crowded congregations, and they find that the most intellectual people, as well as the less educated, delight in their unforgettable stories and comparisons, by which, as nails driven well home, they fix their lessons in the hearers' memories.
What a field for illustration the preacher has in these days, when we have come to see, as never before, that Christ is the Lord of all life, and that His religion should touch and transform life in all its expressions! The "spiritual" is not now regarded as a tiny circle in the centre of a great sphere of the "secular" all round it. "The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof"—not merely "the cattle upon a thousand hills," and the fruits and the flowers; but "the King of kings and the Lord of lords" claims to rule by right Divine not only over the saints in the churches, but in Parliament, in the county and borough council and the board of guardians, in the factory, the shop and the counting-house, in the home, in literature and the theatre, in the football field and every other field. But if this be so—if, in the words of the Latin poet, nothing human is foreign to him—then the preacher may gather his illustrations from every field. No novel, no play, no book of science or travel, nothing that happens in common life, no process of art or industry, but will yield its telling illustrations to the skilful preacher. If there is natural law in the spiritual world, there is spiritual law in the natural world, and the natural world will give the preacher innumerable concrete illustrations of spiritual truths. Dr. W. L. Watkinson is particularly happy in his illustrations from science. The illustrations that follow, from Dr. Watkinson and others, will repay study as examples of natural analogies of spiritual truths.
In South America a phosphorescent spider is found that attracts and dupes its prey by successive flashes of light; the moth is apparently dazed, and with the emission of each gleam creeps closer to the transfigured assassin. This is a parable of the process of sin. By successive radiations it also hypnotises its victims to an awful doom. The broad road is a path of enchantment to the natural man even when he treads it with bleeding feet; but when the promenade is gold, broidered with roses and enlivened by applause, it is irresistible except one is arrested as Balaam was (Job 26:6).—Dr. W. L. Watkinson.
I have read that when a sea-worm perforates the shell of an oyster, the oyster immediately closes the wound with a pearl. I think it is something like that which happens when God helps me to forgive a man who has wronged me to the very heart. For thine own sake, forgive. And for thy brother's sake, forgive. "What am I brothered for?" says George Macdonald, "if not to forgive" (Matt. 18:21, 22).—Rev. George Jackson.
They tell us that there is a mountain in the swampy districts of Central Africa that people only see for an hour or two in the morning, and as soon as the mists drawn up by the sun rise from the swamps round about it, it is shrouded in cloud. That is like the hopes of a great many Christian people, gleaming out now and then, and then shrouded, and shrouded by the mist that comes up from the undrained swamps. Hope perfectly (1 Pet. 1:13).—Dr. Maclaren.
One of the strange freaks of Japanese horticulture is the cultivation of dwarf trees. The Japanese grow forest-giants in flower-pots. Some of these strange miniature trees are a century old, and are only two or three feet high. The gardener, instead of trying to get them to grow to their best, takes infinite pains to keep them little. His purpose is to grow dwarfs, not giant trees. From the time or their planting they are repressed, starved, crippled, stunted. When buds appear they are nipped off. So the tree remains only a dwarf all its life. Some Christian people seem to do the same thing with their lives. They do not allow themselves to grow. They rob themselves of spiritual nourishment, restrain the noble impulses of their nature, shut out of their hearts the power of the Holy Spirit, and are only dwarf Christians when they might be strong in Christ Jesus, with the abundant life which the Master wants all His followers to have (2 Pet. 3:18).—Dr. J. R. Miller.
"There is no music in a rest, but there is the making of music in it." In our whole life melody the music is broken off here and there by "rests," and we foolishly think we have come to the end of the tune. God sends a time of forced leisure, sickness, disappointed plans, frustrated efforts, and makes a sudden pause in the choral hymn of our lives, and we lament that our voices must be silent, and our part missing in the music which ever goes up to the ear of the Creator. How does the musician read the rest? See him beat the time with unvarying count and catch up the next note true and steady, as if no breaking-place had come in between. Not without design does God write the music of our lives. Be it ours to learn the time, and not be dismayed at the "rests." They are not to be slurred over, not to be omitted, not to destroy the melody, not to change the key note. If we look up, God Himself will beat the time for us. With the eye on Him, we shall strike the next note full and clear. If we say sadly to ourselves, "There is no music in a rest," let us not forget "there is the making of music in it." The making of music is often a slow and painful process in this life. How patiently God works to teach us! How long He waits for us to learn the lessons (Ps. 37:7).—Ruskin.
Pilate thought it an undertaking simple enough when "he took water and washed his hands before the multitude." Many today count it easy. Yet the washing of the hands is a sterner task than at first sight appears. Dr. Leedham-Green, in his work on "The Sterilisation of the Hands," proves the extreme difficulty, nay, the veritable impossibility, of cleansing the hands from bacteria. Simple washing with soap and hot water, with use of sand or marble dust, however energetically done, does not materially diminish the number of microbes; the mechanical purification is practically useless. Turpentine, benzolene, xylol, alcoholic disinfection, and various antiseptics equally failed to render the hands surgically clean. Is not this unsuccessful quest for physical purity a vivid metaphor of the impossibility of cleansing the hands from the stain of sin and the heart from its virus? (Matt. 27:24).—Dr. W. L. Watkinson.
Professor Plateau, of Ghent, who was well known for his remarkable series of observations and experiments on the relations between insects and flowers, tells of an interesting fact in his researches. For a certain purpose he determined to find out how far insects could be attracted by the reflection of flowers in a mirror. A mirror being placed behind the plant in flower so as to give a good reflection, the visitants were watched. It was all in vain; the insects went straight to the real flowers, and occupied themselves on them without paying any attention to the reflection. Whilst duly appreciative of all aids to Biblical interpretation, let them not divert you from the living flowers wet with dew, rich with honey, and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (John 6:63).—Dr. W. L. Watkinson.
A newspaper not long ago contained an article on "The Humble Gems." It was directed to condemn the prevailing fashion of affecting rare and garish jewellery, whilst the more modest gems were neglected. The article proceeded to explain that numbers of jewels hitherto known only to the lapidary are yet of exceeding beauty. "Cinnamon stones," which afford a perfect series of chrome shades from fiery red to golden orange, the white sapphire, the blue spinel, the whole chromatic gamut of zircons, white and pink topazes, and many other tertiary-tinted gems, we were assured await the prevalence of a purer taste. The writer proceeded to say that in Ceylon there is a perfect waste of most beautiful material. Part of a railway is ballasted with white crystalline limestone studded with lovely blue spinels; the foundations of a bridge were laid in a bed containing myriads of decomposed rubies in rose-red flakes of singular beauty; sapphires were found in the broken metal used to mend the roads; and whole lengths of rose quartz were laid in the ruts to be ground to powder by bullock carts. Just as there are heaps of modest jewels of special beauty entirely overlooked, and cart-ruts gleaming with disregarded treasure, so are there humbler gems of humanity whose strong pure life is the poetry of city street and obscure hamlet. These lowly toilers reveal the rarest qualities of conscience and heart; and although they do not captivate the carnal eye as do fashionable brilliants and historic diamonds, yet are they His jewels who knows the exact value of us all, and they shall have their honoured place in His diadem in the great day (Mal. 3:17).—Dr. W. L. Watkinson.
The illustrations given should open the preacher's eyes to the use he can make of facts of science, art and industry. The study of science and nature books will have the incidental advantage of opening his eyes to the wonders of the world he lives in, and he will cultivate his own powers of observation in order to collect original illustrations, for none are so effective as those of the preacher's own finding. The late Dr. C. A. Berry was keenly interested in machinery, and often drew illustrations from what he had noticed at a railway station or in going over some works. He used to tell how once he went over a works and was nearly deafened by the rattle of the machinery. He was finally taken into a room where there was very little noise, although powerful engines were at work. "This," he was told, "is the power house, that keeps all the machinery going." The spiritual power house, Dr. Berry said, is the prayer meeting or the chamber where the Christian in secret pours out his soul in prayer. All there is quiet, a solemn hush, and apparently little is being done or produced; but stop the engine of prayer, and all the machinery will come to a standstill; let down the fires in the power house, and all the machinery will slacken.
Another excellent machinery illustration, teaching a different lesson, is this by Dr. Lyman Abbott:—
Go into a factory full of spindles and wheels and all intricate machinery; all are connected with some great driving wheel, and when the band is connected all the wheels begin to revolve and all the spindles to play their music. Now imagine every wheel and spindle with a will and purpose of its own, and keep the bands off and let every spindle dance to its own tune—what product would you get from your factory? The world is out of gear with God, that is the trouble; and you and I, if we are lawless, are just in so far out of gear with God, and nothing can make our life right save by swinging back into oneness with God, to will what He wills, to do what He would have us do (1 John 3:4).—Dr. Lyman Abbott.
Such illustrations, to a congregation that includes employers and working men in the great industries, cannot fail to strike home. They will be impressed by the essential reasonableness of the appeal to keep the power in adequate supply, and the machinery, on the working of which progress and profits depend, in good going order, and all the processes of industry well coordinated. An incidental advantage will be that their respect will be increased for a preacher who is not too much absorbed in other-worldly concerns to take an interest in such matters.
—Art of Sermon Illustration, The