Thursday, January 25, 2007


The Long Road Home a funeral meditation

When the children of Israel journeyed toward the sun-rising, they followed the course which they believed would lead them into a land of wider liberty, larger opportunity, richer experience, and nobler service. These were to be entered into at the gates of the sunrise. Alas! for all of us these gates are never reached. Such is life. The pursuit of the ideal is always a long, long trail. Life is made up of many things, but among these there are at least three con­spicuous features which characterize the life of all.
The first is discontent. A well-known French writer referring to himself says: ' There is something in me that has never been satisfied.' This is the experience of the race. We are not content. We were not intended to be content. Contentment means stagna­tion. For two thousand years China has been con­tented. They believed that their ancestors exhausted all the possibilities of knowledge. They worshipped the dead that cannot speak, and the past that cannot inspire. Until the introduction of Western civiliza­tion they suffered from arrested development. Discontent has been the greatest impulse to civiliza­tion known to man. When we were babies, we were given a rattle, and for a time were contented. Then we outgrew the rattle and were given a drum or a doll, and for a time were again contented. Then we were given a profession or a trade, and still we were dis­contented. Ruskin says: 'No picture satisfies us which does not let us out into the horizon.' And no condition of life satisfies us that does not let us into the infinite, that does not open to us a perspective of endless progress.
Our idealism is our greatest asset. It is a ceaseless impulse pushing us up and on. In the long drama of man's history there is no .more illuminative feature than his vivid and painful consciousness of the wide distance between his aspirations and his achievements. Our discontent will not let us rest in ignoble ease. What other creature is capable of such aspiration? Nowhere is the utility of our discontent more clearly seen than in human progress.
what is progress?
When we speak of progress we do not mean the national acquisition of territory or the per­sonal acquisition of wealth. W. J. Dawson reminds us that progress is deliverance. When a people is delivered from ignorance by free education, that is progress. When a nation is delivered from the tyranny of autocratic kings, that is progress. When the working classes are delivered from the pressure of unjust factory laws, that is progress. When fair wages and honest work characterize masters and men in the realm of industry, that is progress. When Christian churches are delivered from unholy jealousies, and Christian ministers are delivered from professional airs and arrogant assumptions, that is progress. Progress is the fruit of a noble discontent. Russell Lowell puts the truth finely in these lines—
Life is a leaf of paper white,
On which each one of us must write
Our line or two, and then conies night.
If thou have time for but one line,
Be that sublime.
Not failure, but low aim is crime.

Let us journey toward the sunrising, even though we never get there. The culture of the soul is the ideal life. The spiritual life is the essential nature, which is capable of endless growth.
Unless above himself he can
Erect himself, how mean a thing is man !

It is the consciousness of our relation to something higher, and of our duty to strive after its attainment, which gives us pre-eminence above all that God has created.
This text suggests another fact in the experience of life, namely disappointment. The bitterness of human life is not its brevity so much as its disappointments. Think of the hopes you have never realized. Think of the plans you have never completed. Think of the tasks you have never finished. What prophet ever fully realized all his dreams? What philanthropist ever achieved all his reforms? What statesman ever
made concrete all his ideals? These men journeyed toward the sunrising, but they never got there. All the same we need to be careful as to what we call failure and what we call success. As a matter of actual fact, failure is a purely relative term. It belongs to the near-sighted view. It is entirely a question of aspect. Think of what we owe to the X-ray. It has revolutionized the science of surgery. It has made the invisible visible, the obscure conspicuous. I have placed two thick ledgers on the back of a friend, and with the aid of this penetrating light have been able to look through them and watch the beating of his heart. And yet the X-ray is in one sense a failure.
It is a ray that was turned out of its direct path through meeting with an obstacle. Obviously its failure is only relative. Much the same may be said of copper. Geologists affirm that copper was on its way to become gold, but got shunted on to the wrong track. Even though it missed becoming gold, it has served a highly useful purpose in the industrial and commercial world. Its failure therefore was only relative.
Take an army about to attack. The commanding officer maps out his scheme of battle. He places one regiment in one place, another in another. His plan, however, includes the disposition of both. In order to withdraw the attention of the enemy from the vital point of attack, he commands one regiment to capture a certain position. He knows, and the men know, that death is inevitable. But up they charge and are badly shaken. Another gallant rush, and again they leave half their number]'either dying1 or dead on the battle nearer their objective, until they are finally wiped out. But while the attention of the enemy has been occupied in this attack, progress has been made on another part of the field and victory has been achieved. Did the first regiment fail? It looks like failure to lie there dying or dead. But when the story of the battle comes to be written, history will assign the place of honour to those who made victory possible for their comrades by accepting defeat for themselves.
Human life is full of illustrations such as this. The fact is that success and failure are so intermingled that one has difficulty in disentangling them and determining which is which. Even though our failure may seem absolute, it is only a coward to whom defeat is final. There is always a future for the courageous man, however ignominiously he may appear to have failed. One historian reminds us that Augustine had the courage and the faith to forget the things that are behind with all their stain and shame and build his life anew. Galileo had the courage to persist in the declaration of scientific truth, though his fellows counted him a heretic and a blasphemer. Disraeli had the pluck to declare himself fitted for the highest office of State, even when a scornful House of Commons thought him an impecunious adventurer. Sorrow, struggle, and failure marked all these lives, and yet they overcame. Their message to all those who 'journey toward the sunrising' is
Stand out in the sunlight of promise, forgetting
Whatever the past holds of sorrow or wrong.
We waste half our strength in a useless regretting,
We sit by old tombs in the dark far too long.
Have you missed in your aim ?
Well, the mark is still shining.
Did you faint in the race ?
Well, take breath for the next.
Did the clouds drive you back ?
Well, see yonder their lining.
Were you tempted and fell ?
Let it serve for a text.
As each day hurries by let it join the procession
Of skeleton shapes that march down to the past,
While you take your place in the line of progression,
With your feet on the path and your face to the blast.

Success is not in the acquisition of money. Success is in the acquisition of character. Character is that solitary possession which defies the havoc of time and the insolence of death and remains the one imperishable thing when all else has passed like The baseless fabric of a dream. Those who live in the region of easy success never come to much. They match themselves against small things. Some lower the jump to the level of their powers. These we speak of as successful. Others Hitch their waggon to a star.
And these the world calls dreamers and failures, It is in attempting great things we come to our best, though we may seem to have failed. The only worthy goal of a true man is that which is at the gates of the sunrise.
This is the truth Browning emphasises when he affirms—
A man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for ?
This text also suggests that a third conspicuous feature in the life of all men is its direction. No one can state in terms of distance how far it is from East to West. That which separates 'them is not a matter of distance; it is a matter of direction. And life in its final analysis is not a question of the distance we have travelled towards our goal, but rather the direction in which we have travelled. Achievement may be desirable, but it is not imperative. Achievement does not create character; it only reveals it.
Not on the vulgar mass
Called work must sentence pass.
Things done, that took the eye and had their price,
O'er which, from level stand,
The low world laid its hand,
Found straightway to its mind, could value in a trice.
But all the world's coarse thumb
And finger failed to plumb,
So passed in making up the main account—
All instincts immature,
All purposes unsure,
That weighed not at his work, yet swelled the man's account.
Thoughts hardly to be packed Into a narrow act,
Fancies that broke thro' language and escaped—
All I could never be,
All men ignored in me,
That I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped.

God knows our life's purpose, its plan, its direction. The grievous fall we experienced, regrettable as it was, does not necessarily indicate the main direction and purpose of one's life. The Mississippi river flows south for hundreds of miles and empties itself into the sea. There are elbows in it, however, where for a short distance it runs north. But north is not its main direction, and we do not judge its course by these bends. Life is often like such a river. Peter, for instance, once denied his Lord with curses; yet how unfair it would be to this devoted disciple to regard that solitary incident as a sure indication of his attitude to Christ. David also grievously sinned. No one who respects moral standards could condone his act. Nevertheless, it would be manifestly unjust to judge the direction of his life by this bend in the river. For a brief moment David was 'possessed.' Let him cool down. Wait until he comes to himself, then you can determine the direction of his river. Should he laugh at his frenzy, should he treat lightly the moral wreckage his act has produced, you will then know how to classify him. But should he bend his head with grief and shame, should he pass from an agony of remorse and repentance to a sincere endeavour to repair his wrong, you will know whether he is journeying 'towards Sodom' or 'towards the sunrising.' One has only to read David's history from beginning to end, to note his struggles, to observe his penitence, to recall his restitution, in order to discover how much better a man he was than some of his actions suggest. True, the river of his life had an ugly elbow, but its main direction was toward the light of the sunrise.
Admirers of the poet Burns maintain that the late R. L. Stevenson's essay on Burns was most unjustifiable, because he failed in that essay to consider the poet's life as a whole. Stevenson simply dwelt on the black spots of it. Our judgements of each other are usually based on a superficial knowledge of each other. The disciples at one time wanted to separate the wheat from the tares, but Jesus said: 'No; let both grow together till the harvest.' Their powers of discrimination were not fine enough.
Who made the heart 'tis He alone
Decidedly can try us.
He knows each cord, each different tone,
Each spring, each various bias.
For at the balance we are mute,
We never can adjust it,
What's done we partly may compute,
We know not what's resisted.

the vital question
The vital question for us is, in which direction are the main currents of our life flowing? What do I most desire? What is the one thing I deem best worth having? What is my ultimate hope or fear? We are missing the best unless our face is toward the sunrise. We must have the sun; no life can function at its highest without the sun. The sun ripens the corn. The sun paints the flowers. The sun creates the morning. The sun sustains the day. Jesus is the Sun. He is the Light of the World. If any man follow Him, he shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. The mission of Jesus was to turn the world's face to the light. He called men to repentance. And what is repentance, but a change of direction? Which way then are we facing? That is the supreme question
for each one of us.
One ship goes East, another West,
With the self-same winds that blow,
'Tis the set of the sail and not the gale
That determines the way they go.
Like the ships of the sea are the ways of men,
As they journey along thro' life,
'Tis the set of the soul that determines the goal,
And not the calm or the strife.

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