|In My Fiftieth Year, and Getting Old|
by C. H. Spurgeon
From the March 1884 Sword and Trowel
HIS fiftieth year of mine has not been without its peculiar heart-searchings. When feeling weary with an unbroken stretch of work, I began to fear that it was the age of the man, as well as the work of the office, which was causing sluggishness of mind. We all remember how Bunyan says of his "Pilgrim's Progress," "as I pulled, it came." So did my sermons; but they wanted more pulling, and yet more. This is not a good sign for the quality of the discourses. If I judge rightly, the best juice of the mind's vintage is that which leaps from the cluster at the first gentle pressure of the feet; that which is squeezed out by heavy machinery is poor stuff: and therefore I have feared that, with increasing labor, I might only manage to force forth a viscid liquid acceptable to none. I hope it has not been so; I cannot judge my own productions, but I think, if I had greatly flagged, some of those delicious people, called "candid friends," would have been so kind as to drop the acid information into my wounds at a time when they perceived that the vinegar would cause the most smart. Still, the critics may have formed very humiliating judgments on the subject, and may have been so fearful of the consequences to my feeble mind that they have in great tenderness repressed their verdict. An American brother says that "People's tastes are such that preachers on the wrong side of fifty may consider that they are about done with the gospel trumpet." Judicious friends may have reached that stage of feeling with regard to me, but may not care to express it.
Such were my lucubrations: they were humbling, and so far healthy; but one can drink so much of the waters of self-depreciation as to grow faint of heart; and this is not healthy, but the reverse.
Over all this, in the worn-out hours, came the dark suspicion that the morning time was over, and the dew was gone, and that the beams of the sun were falling more aslant, and had less light and warmth in them; and the dread that the gloom of eventide would soon darken thought and expression, and show that the prime of the work-day was past. Faith saw the God-ward side of the matter, and sang, "At evening time it shall be light"; but prudence also whispered that the human side must be considered too, and that dulness would injure force, and weaken interest, and diminish usefulness.
In my rest-time I have been able to survey the situation with some fair measure of deliberate impartiality, and also to call in the aid of a considerable observation of the result of years upon other men. No one can deny that there is such a thing as "the tameness at forty, and the going-to-seed at fifty." The lively evangelist of former years has sobered down into the prosy sermon-reader, a man much respected by all who know him, but rather endured than enjoyed by his regular congregation. The brother who flashed and flamed has, by reason of age, become a strangely quiet fire: a live coal, no doubt, but by no means dangerous to the driest fuel. A brother of our own profession, by no means censorious, has said, "A very little examination will convince the most sceptical that an appalling percentage of preachers are dull, dry, and tiresome." Surely these men did not begin at this pitch, or why were they allowed to begin at all? They must have grown into a routine of sermonizing, and have settled down into a flat, unprofitable style through the lapse of time. They were green and juicy once, but they have dried in the suns of many years, till the vulgar speak of them as "sticks." Shall we all go that way? Must my next volumes of sermons, if the sermons ever see the light in that form, become mere faggots, which none but the old man in the moon would care to be burdened with? A heart-rending question to me. I fear my personal observation of the bulk of preachers does not help me to a consolatory answer. Perhaps the remark may offend my brethren. Courage, my heart, it, will not offend those of whom it is not true; and those of whom it is true will be sure not to take it to themselves, and so I may escape.
But this writer whom I have quoted, whose somewhat lengthy and Latinized words persist in ringing in my ears, has done much to cheer me. He says, "The dismal decadence of a multitude of well-intentioned men is quite preventable." Brave news! I will bestir myself to prevent it in my own case, if it be preventable. He adds, "No doubt any of us can number a score of men, in the range of our personal knowledge, who at sixty are fresher in thought, more attractive in manner, and in higher demand in the churches, than they were twenty years ago." I am not sure about "a score" whom I know at this present; but I certainly know, or have known, more than that number who answer to the description. There rises before me now a brother, whose age I will not even guess at, but he is certainly over sixty, who is as vigorous as he was twenty years ago, and more prominently useful than ever before throughout a singularly useful life. I knew another who, towards his later days, largely increased the number of his always numerous hard words, and did not therefore increase the pleasure of his auditors; but with this exception he hardly showed a sign of flagging, and went off the field because his wisdom urged him to make room for a younger man, and not because he could not still have held his post with honor. A third conspicuous instance is before me of a preacher, who, however he may have declined in faith, and erred in doctrine, to the inexpressible grief of thousands, is still mentally as vigorous and fresh as aforetime. Our statesmen are many of them ancients; our greatest political leader is "the Grand Old Man." Observation therefore gives a second deliverance, which, if it does not reverse, at least qualifies the former verdict.
"Soon ripe, soon rotten," is a proverb which warns the precocious of what they may expect. He who is a shepherd at sixteen may be a mere sheep at sixty. One can hardly eat his cake and have it too. When a third of a century of work has already been done, the laborer may hardly expect the day to last much longer. In my own case, the early strain has been followed by a continuous draft upon the strength through the perpetual printing of all that I have spoken. Twenty-nine years of sermons on those shelves; yet one must, go plodding on, issuing more, and yet more, which must all be in some measure bright and fresh, or the public will speedily intimate their weariness. The out-look to those eyes which are only in the head is not cheering. Happily there are other optics, and they shall be used.
It is the Rev. Martyn L. Williston that I have quoted, and I will borrow from him again.* "It is not the first intrusion of gray hairs in the pulpit which is a signal of alarm to the pews. No man, in average health, should be less of a man at fifty, or seem so, than at twenty-five; but many are so in appearance and in fact; and to them, not to the people, is chargeable the slackening demand for their services. The most of our professional feebleness is traceable to our own want of mental virility. If we will, we can remove a great deal of uneasiness from our congregations. Preachers who grow duller as they count their years, this side of sixty at least, do so from simple mental shiftlessness, very much as the Virginia planters have let their lands run waste from mere depletion. We must perpetually replenish heart and brain, or the fields of thought will turn meagre and barren."
This is sound sense, and stirs the aging man to an increase of diligence in reading and study. But it should also be clear to him that he must have more time than ever for these purposes. He must conscientiously use his hours, and his people must as conscientiously yield them to him. The Israelites made bricks without straw, but they could not have made them without time. Increased space will be needed for collecting useful materials, and preparing them for the upbuilding of the church.
The peculiar danger of advancing years is length of discourse. Two honored brethren, have lately fallen asleep, whose later years were an infliction upon their friends. To describe one is to depict, the other. He is so good and great, and has done such service that you must ask him to speak. He expects you to do so. You make bold to propose that he will occupy only a few minutes. He will occupy those fear minutes, and a great many more minutes, and your meeting will die out under his protracted periods. Your audience moves, all interest is gone, your meeting is a failure, and all through a dear old man whose very name is an inspiration. The difficulty is not to start these grand old men but to stop them when started: they appear to be wound up like clocks, and they must run down. This is a seductive habit to be guarded against when years increase: it may be wise to resolve upon being shorter as age inclines us to be longer. It would be a pity to shorten our congregation by lengthening our discourse.
It is also frequently true that elderly speakers become somewhat negligent in their oratory. It has been said that a young man is mainly taken up with the question"How shall I say it?" and hence he attains a good and pleasing style; while the older man thinks only of"What shall I say?" and thus, while he improves as to the matter of his discourse, his manner is all too apt to become slovenly and drowsy. If it be so, it ought not to be so. We ought to improve in all respects, so far as our powers have not declined. We cannot be blamed if memory does not serve us quite so nimbly as aforetime, or if imagination is not quite so luxuriant; but we deserve to be censured if in any point within our power we decline even a hair's breadth. We must not make a mistake as to what really is improvement. It is possible to preach better according to the canons of taste, and to preach worse as to real usefulness: God grant that we may not improve in this fatal way! It is easy to become more weighty, and at the same time more dull, so that though more is taught less is learned; may we have grace to avoid this form of unenviable progress! The art of growing old wisely will need to be taught us from above. May we be willing scholars of the Great Teacher!
When all is said and done, the jubilation of our Jubilee does not call for any great blowing of trumpets, but rather for uplifing of hand and heart in prayer to God for further help. It may be that we are only in mid-voyage. May that voyage end in landing our freight in port, and not as some life-passages have terminated, namely, in an utter wreck of every hope! Our friends and fellow-helpers will, we trust, supplicate on our behalf that we may receive a fresh anointing from on high, and we will begin life again without fear. The Scripture remains as our inexhaustible text-book, the Lord Jesus as our boundless subject, and the Holy Ghost as our infinite Helperwhat therefore have we to fear? What is lost in sparkle may be gained in value; the departure of vivacity may be made up by the incoming of experience; and thus the old man may be as useful as the young. "Such an one as Paul the aged" is an honor to the church: we are not such as yet, but grace can cause the middle-aged to mellow into fathers of that order.
To this end I have printed this personal morsel, that I may sit by the wayside, and beg the prayers of the faithful. It may be that it is folly to make public such maunderings; be it so confessed; but hitherto I have lived these many years in the hearts of ten thousand willing helpers, and their affectionate sympathy has been my solace, and I cannot do without it now. I would enlist their loving prayers upon my side, at this hour, with double force. If there should seem to be no special need, yet renewed prayer will not be wasted. There is ample room, and verge enough, for increased usefulness in the multiform directions in which my strength is already engaged. While I would stand in line with all my brethren, and swell the common pleading, "BRETHREN, PRAY FOR US," I also venture, in this my fiftieth year, to take up my own personal place as a beggar, and cry,
"BRETHREN, PRAY FOR ME."
* Lobb's Theological Quarterly. No. 1. Vol. I. A paper upon "The Imaginative Element in Preaching."