“Set not self to work” (Book of Discipline, chap. iv. sec. 8, 1742.)
“We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. iv. 5).
Before bringing this series of letters to a conclusion, there are a few points still untouched to which I feel it will be right for me to direct attention, if my brethren are still further willing to “suffer the word of exhortation.”
The importance of right guidance before commencing a public ministerial address has already been dwelt upon. It is of scarcely less importance to be watchful for Divine direction as to the point at which it should be brought to a conclusion. Many an excellent sermon has been spoiled by additions to it after the real message it contained had been delivered. The zeal of the preacher, and that state of spiritual and mental stimulation which is inseparable from a sustained extemporaneous discourse, carry him onward. He is anxious to emphasise some particular point. It may be that he fears lest the burden of his “concern” may not have been clearly apprehended. And so he begins to recapitulate. The course is a perilous one; and is very likely to obscure rather than to elucidate; to lead into discursive additions without the “life” which marked the original utterance. The late Richard Cobden, after one of his great speeches in the House of Commons, said, “I never perorate. When I have finished what I have to say, I sit down.” The example is an excellent one for us Friend preachers. If the Holy Spirit be directing us, our words, once spoken, are sufficient for His purpose, and we may leave the application to Him.
Apologies for speaking are mostly out of place. The Gospel of Jesus Christ needs no apology, for it is “the power of God unto salvation.” And no one need apologise for speaking it if the Lord Himself condescends to call for the service. If He does not do so, it is better to be silent. The worst apology one can make is to say that one speaks for the relief of one’s own mind. No one has a right to “relieve his mind” in a meeting for worship at the expense of the rest of the congregation. If a man believes it to be his duty to speak, let him be faithful. And if he is under the impression that his action needs explanation, he will probably do no harm by saying that he speaks from a sense of duty; but on the whole it is better simply to deliver one’s message, and let it carry its own evidence of origin.
Too often we hear from those who speak in our meetings protestations of their own unfitness, lamentations concerning their own weakness or shortcomings. This is one way of “setting self to work.” The preacher’s duty is to direct his hearers to the Mighty One, from whom alone spiritual strength is derived, and not to his own infirmities. If poverty of spirit is the preacher’s own portion, as it often is even when he is seeking to make others rich, he will honour his Master best by wearing the sackcloth underneath, out of sight. It will help us to bear our weakness and poverty with serenity if we learn to regard their presence as an established fact, an axiom of our inner being, to be taken for granted without special allusion. “Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me,” is the soul’s true attitude in this matter.
Personal confessions or allusions have a right place in religious discourses, but should be used with discretion. Here again the terse, pungent, practical, counsel which stands at the head of this letter has its application. “Set not self to work.” A personal experience of the Lord’s goodness, and of the converting power of His grace is a most important part of the qualification for witness-bearing. “We are witnesses of these things.” “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you.” These are examples of apostolic authority for the ministers of Christ; and I doubt not that there are experiences appointed, or at least permitted, to the servants of Christ, for the very purpose of instructing and qualifying them in their service of administering counsel and comfort to others. The watchful mind, ever waiting upon God for direction, will know how to use these in their proper places, without unduly bringing merely personal affairs into notice. One has sometimes heard in meetings for worship public professions of conversion, uttered under very humble and solemn feeling, as testimonies to the mercy and lovingkindness of our God and Saviour. These are doubtless acts of obedience and consecration, and are helpful both to those who make them and to those who hear. But there is danger in too often repeating such confessions. They are apt to lose their freshness and virtue by frequent repetition in meeting after meeting.
One thing to be greatly desired in our meetings is that those who address us should speak so as to be generally audible. The primary object of speaking is that we may be heard; and it is a grave question whether it can be right for a person to attempt to address a congregation in which it is physically impossible for the speaker to be heard. I have known of at least one Friend who, when called to the ministry, very laudably took lessons in elocution, and thereby greatly added to his usefulness. This would not be the place to discuss questions of oratory; but I may venture to remark that it is not necessary to raise the voice to an unnatural pitch in order to be well heard; distinct pronunciation of every syllable is the chief point. The speaker should address himself to the most distant person in the room, and speak to him in as natural a tone as possible. Raising the voice to a loud pitch at the beginning of a sentence, and dropping it so as to be almost inaudible at the end, is a very common, but a very unwise, and to the listeners very disappointing, practice. We have most of us known dear friends who could be audible enough and lively enough in common life; but who, when speaking in public on the highest of all themes, would drop into what was little better than an inarticulate murmur. Surely we ought to devote to the service of God the very best of the facilities with which He has endowed us!
In very many of our meetings there are Friends who occasionally speak to us quite briefly, and whose communications in testimony or in prayer are very generally acceptable and helpful, though perhaps they may not be classed as Gospel Ministry in its more technical sense. We shall all desire that faithfulness in these smaller gifts may lead on to larger trusts. Those amongst us who have become largely gifted have had their small beginnings; but whether the talents committed to us be few or many, watchfulness and self-consecration in the employment of them are equally the duty of all. It may seem to some perhaps that in this and foregoing letters the writer has had in view somewhat exclusively the larger callings, but his hope is that in what has been said some useful hints may be found applicable to all. It is in the desire for the full development of the power and influence of the Society of Friends in evangelical work that they have been written, and that they are now committed to the disposal of Him from whom all truth proceeds.
Throughout the letters the writer has spoken of ministers in the masculine gender, for the sake of perspicuity, and for the avoidance of the awkward double use of pronouns; but he has never failed in his own thoughts to include ministers of the other sex. Some of the most highly valued and warmly cherished religious lessons of his life are associated with the ministrations of sisters in Christ. He does not forget that the first human herald of the risen Saviour was a woman; and he will not cease to believe that one of the honours conferred upon the Society of Friends has been the place they have held, centuries in advance of most other religious bodies, in asserting and maintaining woman’s position as man’s equal helpmeet in Christian standing and labour. It has often been a subject of much regret with him to note that whilst this truth is coming into fuller recognition outside the Society, and whilst the number of men giving themselves up for Gospel labour within our own body has increased, the list of our women ministers has been a diminishing one. The sterner work of the reprover for sin, and the “speaking with the enemy in the gate,” in the arena of doctrinal controversy, may more properly belong to man, but there are instruments in the hands of woman which none but she can wield.
Finally, dear brethren, let us all continually remember that Christian ministry is the service of Christ; that Christian testimony is witnessing for Christ, and of Christ; that our constant aim must be to bring men to Christ, and to seek to build up the believer upon Christ, Wherever upon the broad circumference of religious truth a discourse may begin; through whatever labyrinth of human error, sin or sorrow, it may have to pass, there should ever run through it a golden thread leading into the centre, which is Christ. “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”
The witness anointed by the Holy Ghost will proclaim, not men, not theological opinions, not ritual, not sacraments, not churches, but Jesus Christ and Him crucified; “for it pleased the Father that in Him should all fulness dwell.” This is the ministry for which the world is waiting. This is the ministry which the Lord is waiting to bless.
Joseph John Dymond
Ilkley, August, 1892.
Part 14 of this series is here.