Project Canterbury

The Hopes of the Future: A Sermon Preached in St. John's Church, New Haven, Sunday Morning, May 3, 1908

By Stewart Means, D.D.

New Haven: Printed by request, 1908.

Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth towards those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. PHIL. III: 13, 14.

THERE are few men probably whose words describe their own character so accurately as these words describe St. Paul. Always eager, always hopeful, always earnest and always aspiring. He was growing every day he lived. What he had been and what he had done were only reasons for doing more. He aimed so high that he could not see the end and so he simply strove all the time to make life count and reach as far forward as he could. One feels sure that he was a stronger, better, nobler man the last year of his life than he was when we first know him. This ability to grow is one of the surest and most convincing signs of real life. A man who does not grow is a man who surely loses power. All the things which count for most in this life are stamped with this mark of vivid and vital energy. They create hope and inspire faith from the constant manifestation of higher and better things at which they are aiming. So it is with a church, for a congregation is simply a larger man and has all the essential elements of character which belong to the individual.

It is not possible to tell what the parish is to grow into or grow to, but there are some plain indications of the lines [3/4] along which it must move if it is to be a real force in the community, and a church which stands for nothing in the life of the people where it is placed has no reason to live. Let us first deal with some of the material aspects of the future. Like so many other things, machinery is helpful for the highest efficiency, though not necessary. It facilitates progress, but does not create it. It is perfectly apparent that some time in the future the unoccupied territory in this district will be built upon and the population very largely increased. There will be a number among those who will be naturally inclined toward our church. The present phase of indifference towards religion, which is so characteristic of the well-to-do people in most of our American cities, is but a phase and will pass away. Religion is a permanent force in human life, and any one who thinks that its full energy is to be measured by his expression of it is wonderfully mistaken. Nothing is more certain that here the most thoughtful men have again and again underestimated its force. The story is told of Bishop Butler that he was once offered the Archbishopric of Canterbury but declined it on the ground that it was too late to save a falling Church. He was one of the wisest men in the eighteenth century, yet the history of the Church of England in the nineteenth century is the most magnificent period in its long career. There is a slowly gathering power which sooner or later will result in a great expansion of religion, and with it will come an increase in the energy and activity of the different churches. I cannot undertake to say either when the population will fill up this territory or when an increase in the [4/5] religious spirit will make the church of greater importance. But when that time comes some things will be really needed. Among the first, I should place a parish house and all that goes with it. It would be folly to attempt to state just what the requirements are to be, for the situation will be different then, and any predictions would be of little value. That it will come, however, is something very sure if the parish is to grow into the place it should hold and do the work which will come to it to do in the years which lie before it. I know there are some who think this is a dream, but there were more who thought the new church was a dream, and now it all looks so natural, and it makes one feel sure that the hand of God was in it, for had we remained in the old church it is perfectly apparent that we should long since have grown so weak that we should be unable to maintain ourselves. We must not think meanly of the future or measure the work God gives us to do by our personal necessities. Individually, I suppose we could all get along without a parish house, but it is to be hoped that the parish will be a great deal larger in the future than it is at present, and that of itself will create needs which do not at present exist very strongly.

Another matter, but one, however, of no urgency, is a new organ. The present organ has been in use about forty years. It was neither a large or expensive organ and is not at all what the church should have if we could afford a better one. The main reasons why it has been as satisfactory as it is, are the church itself with its fine acoustic properties and the softening and refining effect of the building; also the [5/6] fact that it has been handled in such a way as to lead one to think it a better organ than it is. I merely refer to it because there is a general impression, I find, that we have a very good organ, where, as a matter of fact, it would make a good deal of difference in our public worship if we did have a good one.

And now I wish to speak of a matter which has been often in my mind, and which I will speak of to-day for the first time, and probably the last time. I can do so because I know the facts as no one else does know them. The matter I refer to is memorials to former members of the congregation in the church. I had hoped when we had a permanent building that the members of the congregation would realize the opportunity it afforded of honoring those whom they had loved and lost. The habit of building more or less costly tombs in the graveyard has little meaning or value. I have known men and women who have passed away from this church who, in all the elements which go to make a strong character, were richly endowed. They were true and pure and patient and brave. They worked hard and did good and served God in their day and generation. They loved this church, and were for years identified with its history, and did much to make it what it is. One can think of them without the least fear of exaggerating their virtues. Their lives were worth living, and what they were and did deserves to be remembered. They have a right to be remembered here where so much of their life and deepest interests were centered. It is not a matter of vanity nor a mean wish to have the church ornamented, but there are [6/7] people who ought to be remembered. It is their right, though they would be the last to claim it. You remember them and I remember them, but in a few years their names will be forgotten, and you are partially responsible for that fate if it comes upon them. It is, of course, the fate of the vast majority of the human race, but human love has its claims, and Christian virtues have their honor, and it makes life richer and stronger if the influence and faith of the past live on in the future. Where should a good man or a good woman be remembered if not in the church of God? What meaning is there to a stone which only marks the place the body was laid? Here is where the heart and life had their finest and fullest expression. Here is where they prayed to and praised year after year the Father who loved them and whom they served. Here, year after year, they joined in heart and soul in that Supper which makes us feel our fellowship with Christ arid our communion with each other. There seems no place where they ought to be remembered so much as just here, and yet, singularly enough, it is one of the last. Nothing could be more suitable for either young or old. It is their Father's house, and their religious faith was one of the deepest, if not the deepest, springs of life and energy within them. There is nothing which keeps the continuity of the church's life so vividly before the mind as these long rolls of names of the good and the true who have kept the lamp of faith burning through generation after generation. For the Gospel of Christ has been made a living force in the world, not by the great and the wonderful geniuses who have from time to time sat at [7/8] the feet of their Master, but by the plain and simple natures who have faithfully clung to the path His feet have marked out, and lived their honorable lives in a world that did not seem to regard them. They do not need to be remembered, but we need to remember them. They do not call for any honor from us, but we need to honor them. There are times when those shadowy faces rise vividly before the inward eye and one can hear the voices of long ago with a strange pathos in the memory. One comes into the church with these silent impressions still keen and the church looks painfully forgetful of those who did so much and were so much in the real life of our little flock. You gather around you in your own home the little tokens of the past, of friends now with God, and you feel that you would not care to have them unless you could have them with you. Where is there a more natural place than in the church of God, where year after year they sat side by side with you or knelt together at the table of the Lord? Sometimes on Sunday afternoons when the shadows begin to gather it seems almost as if they might be here again, and one feels how thin the wall is which separates this life from the next. They may or may not be here, but one can feel reasonably confident that they are not in the graveyard. There is a time when thoughts of old friends appeal very strongly to one and it is when some milestone on the road is passed which will never be passed again. And I am sure that the sense of our common life with the future, as well as the past, is strengthened by all these tokens which keep alive the love and faith and brave and sweet memories of other years.

[9] Before concluding the discussion of this side of my subject, I wish to call your attention to another matter which has always been important and always will be. You know this is not a large congregation, and you also know it is not a rich one. The financial problem, therefore, will always be one of more or less difficulty, according to circumstances and the disposition of the congregation. Two things are absolutely necessary: first, that each one shall do all that it is possible for him or her to do in a conscientious spirit. The matter has been presented to you before, but it cannot be insisted upon too often, that pew rent, for instance, is not giving. There is a certain definite equivalent which one receives and which one expects for the money so employed. Again, in our church, the pew rental was intentionally placed as low as possible in order to allow every one to have that sense of place which most people like. But the real support of the church is after all resting upon the generosity of the people. This cannot be too much taken to heart. Another and no less important matter is the unity of the congregation in this as in other respects. Some years since, in order to provide for the irregularity of attendance during the year, and for the long absences of many of the congregation during the summer, it was decided, after careful study, to introduce the pledge and envelope system into the congregation. After the matter was thoroughly discussed it was voted by the vestry unanimously. The difference was at once noticed, but here came the real difficulty. A very large part of the congregation refused to adopt the system, preferring their own wishes in this matter not only to that [9/10] of the majority but also to the real welfare of the parish. It is not an unimportant or insignificant matter at all; quite the contrary. Especially is it important, when the financial condition of the country is disturbed, to have a well arranged system which will produce the largest revenue with the smallest item of labor and anxiety. It is also wise to have a well ordered method always, and the present commercial disturbance, in spite of its hardships, will be a welcome experience if it will only teach our people simplicity, prudence, self-restraint and unselfishness. The world has never known such reckless and meaningless extravagance as our country has indulged in for the last ten years. When the business revival comes, as it certainly will in no long time, it will be a blessing only if it is welcomed as offering larger opportunities, not for self-indulgence, but for doing good. Taking the city as a whole, I should say that in the entire twenty-five years I have been here, all things considered, the condition of the churches is less satisfactory in many respects than in any other period of the past, though I did not know the circumstances as well then as now. It is not that the city has been growing poorer. On the other hand, it is richer, far richer, and the population has vastly increased, but the spending of money for pleasure, for the gratification of the sense of comfort and luxury has also increased. The old, simple, prudent New England ways are no longer in favor and as a result the higher interests of life are more or less crowded into the background. These matters, however, do and will correct themselves or be corrected when there is an increase in religious interest and a growth of the spiritual life.

[11] I am perfectly frank to say that I wish you all were more religious, not only for your own sake, but for the sake of the church and the community. I have no disposition, however, to find fault with the congregation on the score of giving, but rather to advise better methods and a more scrupulous and conscientious consideration of the subject. If not, I fear that in, no long time some important and serious rearrangement of our affairs will be required. The matter is quite in your own hands, however, and can be quite satisfactorily settled by three things only, union or cooperation in one well-tested system, a real sense of personal responsibility and, thirdly, a sense of the goodness of unselfishness and personal sacrifice for things which go to make life pure and calm and true. For the more you have of the better and the higher things the less you want the things which now seem so much. The man who loves knowledge cares little for money or the things money can get, and the man who first and above all other things loves goodness and God cares for the money for what it enables him to do in making life finer and nobler.

And, now, turning from the things which are seen to the things which are unseen, from the things which are temporal to the things which are eternal, what shall we say of that future which lies before us? For in the soul is the source of all, both good and evil. One knows not what it will be, but one can tell what it ought to be. Among the things which stand first is the same unity of spirit and kindly affection which has made the life of our parish a real help to all of us. Those who are strangers to the little [11/12] family should be made to feel more and more that which is part of our best life. You are not mere things swept together here Sunday after Sunday for the purpose of going through certain religious services, but you are all children of God, bound together by a common faith in a loving Father and a common love for the Master who claims us all. We are members of a family and the root of our best life is to feel more and more deeply that which makes us one, and the common and reciprocal claims which we have upon each other, for sympathy and faith, and help and affection. Nothing could be or would be more disastrous to the best life of the church than a cold and formal feeling in the heart, a silent unfriendliness, or a chilly contempt. No matter what else we may seek for, let us place that first as the real heart of our common life. The perversities of human nature, the weaknesses and faults of human character, the things which are hard to understand and also hard to forgive, the failures and irritabilities of different souls, all these at times make one feel like living by oneself and letting this exasperating human nature take care of itself. But that is all wrong, and it is for the larger culture of the soul, the broadening of the disposition, the widening of sympathy, the deepening of charity, in other words, the making of human souls into real brothers, the church into an actual family, that we are here together. The life of the church, the common purpose and the common worship are of the utmost value in making large, wise, generous-minded and unselfish human beings. There is no doubt whatever about this, and the finest type of human character [12/13] you will find to-day, as you have always found it in the past, in the Christian church. I do not mean, of course, to say that every church member is this, but there is one thing almost absolutely certain, that most of those in the churches would be far less pure and true and unselfish than they now are if they were not under its influence. They would care less for God. You know yourself, however careless you may be about your worship, that if the church were not here, if you almost never knelt with others in prayer to God, you would be harder, more worldly and less tender in your thoughts than you now are. The saving of our church's life in its simple love and friendship, in the plain faith of men and women who believe that God is their Father and really care to do His will, is one of the things we should care more and more about in the years that lie before us than we have done in the past, and yet the strength of the past lay just there. And when we look at the future from the point of view of the individual, I have nothing new or strange to suggest. You will forgive, I know, if I tell you frankly that I do not think you pray to God enough. It is not that I have pried into your secrets, nor do I cherish any spirit of unkind criticism. I am sure you will acquit me of that. But you know as well as I, that the soul that is living close to God, the heart that is filled with thoughts of the love of Christ and is turned day by day and hour by hour in silent fellowship and joy in Him, is sure to have something about it that makes us feel how close the best things are to the soul. I do not know how to describe it, but something like the touch of Christ's [13/14] presence is in such lives. If we had all been living with Him, I do not mean talking about living with Him, but if we had thought about Him and loved Him and prayed to Him more and more each year we lived, we would surely see traces of that unseen communion and be quite as sure of His presence as we are of anything else which is very real. No one has ever found any other way than the old-fashioned way which has been common to all the best men and women since the world began, and that is, prayer. Our world to-day is filled up with so many, many things, our days are crowded with all kinds of distractions and interests, and our nights are not very profitable for either old or young. And there does not seem to be much time for prayer, and God seems far away from the secret places of the soul, where is his abiding place. Life has been very hard for many of you in the years that are past, that I well know, and it is hard for some of you now. And yet the strength and the life which made the best of those sad years came to you through God and from God. It was when you prayed to Him, when you took up your tasks and your duties hoping that He would help you, when you tried to live the best you could under the circumstances, that you found how much prayer was and how strong and good God is, though we know so little about Him and live oftentimes so far away from Him. I do not see how you are going to live through the years which lie before you in any way that is at all fine or noble, if you are not praying more and more. Remember the older you grow the deeper the loneliness of life becomes. Early friends pass away, old [14/15] associations are broken, and we each silently wonder more and more about that future which stands so near at hand. What is there then which can be so much to the soul as God? How are you going to live those years without growing dull and indifferent or hard and selfish unless you more and more live with God present to the soul, making the life sweet and pure and bright with love and tenderness, and all the noble fidelities which make life great? I am sure you believe with me that if you were to live that way it would be well with you. The petty irritations, the trivial disappointments, the selfish failures, the harsh judgments, the unkind thoughts, the little resentments and the wretchedly small way in which we look at life would all pass into a great and beautiful calm if God would lay His great cool hand upon our hot hearts and make us feel His strength and His love. When anything is so sure as this should we not more and more make its truth part of all our common every-day life? You will not be so restless or so dissatisfied. You will not be swept away by the frantic hunger for pleasure or selfish things, but you will be a good man doing good things and living a strong, helpful life, and you will be a good woman whose pure and silent faith in God will help the heated souls of the unhappy and the sorrowing to feel how perfectly God's goodness can take life up to that which makes it a noble blessing and a light to the world in which it is passed. There are many changes for some of us in the years which lie before us, more and greater than any which are in the past. How shall we face this flood of things if there [15/16] be no high faith, no trusting hope, no patient loyalty which will bear us on to meet all that God in the mystery of our life sends us? What you will each become in those years which are in front of us I do not know. I know what I wish you would be, and you know what you ought to be. To be of some little help in those better things is all that Task and more than I dare hope, judging from the years that are gone. But still I shall live for this purpose and with this hope. And when the time comes that I shall make way for a better and wiser man than myself, and you too find one who will help you more than I have done, I ask you to remember only that however I failed I really did wish and I really did try. I do not know, no one knows, how long I may be here with you in the relation which has lasted through twenty-five years, but whether I am here or elsewhere, there is only one thought in my heart for you all, and that is that God may bless each one of you with the best blessing of all, the presence in your soul of His perfect spirit and the power for each of you to grow into the stature and likeness of the perfect One whom we all love and whom in some measure, at least, we try to serve.

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