How the game of golf may teach us a parable of life concerned with religion and the making of character, is shown us in a recent book by Dr. Vander Meulen, entitled Getting Out of the Rough; an essay made timely by the fact that the world, as well as the Church, has of late years been far off the green in the rough ways of rancor, reaction and revolt. The spirit of the book, and its practical spiritual wisdom, make it both an inspiration and a delight; and the book is like its writer.
Dr. Vander Meulen was born in Milwaukee fifty-six years ago; educated at Hope College and Columbia University; and took his theological training at Princeton and McCormick Seminaries. Ordained to the Presbyterian ministry in 1896, his first charge was the Second Reformed Church of Kalamazoo. After two years of Home Mission work in Oklahoma, he taught psychology and pedagogy in Hope College; returning to the pastorate in the Hamilton Grange Reformed Church, New York City, in 1909. Since 1920 he has been President of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.
If Dr. Vander Meulen plays golf as he preaches, we know that be drives straight down the green, with no erratic stroke. In the following sermon he makes a sure drive, if not “a hole in one,” when he makes us realize the new loneliness which has overtaken men in our day, and the deep need for the fellowship of social worship in the House of God.
How lovely are thy tabernacles, 0 Lord of Hosts. Psalm 84:1.
Thousands of years have passed since the Psalmist uttered this great, upswelling sentiment. They have been centuries of change and progress, in which the appeals to human interests have grown immensely in number and variety. But it is still true, as in the days of the Psalmist, that men love the worship of God and still, as then, are willing to make great sacrifices for it of time and energy and love. There is not much in all the world that can compare with the continuity and significance of the fact that men in this modern age can sing with the same fervor as the men of that ancient day, “How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts.”
So I want to stop and ask with you the basis for this enduring sentiment. Why are the tabernacles of God so lovely? I find three reasons for this loveliness. The first is because of their great superiority; the second is because of their high fellowships; the third is because of their supreme Presence.
First of all, the Psalmist sees the superiority of the tabernacles of God over the resorts of the ungodly world. His expression of that is a beautiful one: “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Now worldliness has become a much more subtle and refined thing since then. The temptations that come to men today are not so much to choose evil, as to choose that which is evil chiefly because it is the enemy of the best. One cannot well indiscriminately call golf or baseball or motion pictures on the Sabbath “wickedness.” They merely prevent men from realizing their highest possibilities. As such, the havoc they have wrought is tremendous. There is many and many an otherwise fine man today who has sold his soul not to Bacchus, but to Pan. He carries about in his well-kept body and his polished mind a spiritual corpse. And a corpse, even in a polished coffin, is still an ugly thing.
The most pathetic thing about it is that he is not even himself conscious of the tragedy. But it may be diagnosed by the fact that he no longer knows what these words of the Psalmist mean, “How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts.” He is incapable of that note. He may still feel, How entertaining is thy acting, O ladies of Hollywood. He may be able to say with fervor, How refreshing are thy twosomes and thy foursomes, O Lords of the Golf Links. But he is dead to this sentiment of the Psalmist. The Lord God is no longer to him “a sun and a shield.” The Lord God is to him merely an electric light and a mid-iron.
Now it can scarcely be denied, even by a modern worldling, that, when the sense of worship has been sacrificed to even the very best he can get on the links or in any other place of amusement whatever, something higher in him has been sacrificed to something lower. The desire for amusement or even the concern for the body can scarcely be compared to the sense of duty or gratitude or reverence with which a man goes to the House of God. The scene of adventure or over-florid romance which is presented to him at the motion picture show or the winning of a game on the golf links can hardly be rated as an object of thought or sentiment with the Gospel. So much, I think, the average absentee from the House of Worship, if, indeed, he has not already lost all sense of values, would be willing to grant. It would seem, then, that, if he is honest, he can scarcely escape the conclusion that he is less of a man when he can no longer say with the Psalmist: “How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts.”
Why, as over against all these countless attractions and distractions of this age and in a day when all the old external compulsions, even that of respectability, are gone, do so many men and women still attend church? Why, save for the deep abiding instinct and sentiment voiced in my text? Somewhere in the upper ranges of the gamut of what makes a man lie these chords of reverence and worship and obedience and faith that vibrate in response to the thought of God. They are not reached in places of amusement. They are not even reached in the laboratory, the art gallery or the library. The man that is conscious of them at all is conscious also that they are the finest strings in the harp of his soul. And, though these lower chords are in him, too, it is with a sense of the superiority of the others that he sings: “How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts.”
And together with that individual satisfaction goes the conviction that it is precisely this keeping alive of the thought of and the feeling for God which the world most needs. There have been ages which have been preëminently periods of theological thinking and other ages which have been characterized by mystic feeling. The religion of our age, on the other hand, has been marked by zeal for practical humanitarian service. As a wise teacher has put it: “The rapture of the mystic’s transcendent ‘twenty minutes of reality’ and the midnight oil of the thinker have been superseded by the cup of cold water.” But let us not be deluded. When worship goes, so-called practical religion and social service will not long survive. The latter cannot continue to live without the inspiration of the former. As Dr. Sperry goes on to observe: “Organized altruism has not plucked the heart out of the secret of perpetual moral motion. Here is the old dogma of salvation by works and its consequent religious misery. Modern Protestantism is thus in danger of getting back again to the slough from which Luther rescued it with his rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith.” The Church will not continue to go about doing good, unless, like the Master, she keeps going up into the mountain to pray. Social and altruistic service in the world, too, with all the forms of beneficence in which they find expression, will hardly remain a going concern in a godless world. The thing that must keep them from dying is the leaven of that group of men and women who have kept alive in their hearts the faith and feeling of the Psalmist, “How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts.”
But if the Psalmist felt the superiority of God’s tabernacles over the resorts of the world, he felt their superiority, likewise, over the haunts of nature. His expression of that is quite unique. He says: “Yea, the sparrow hath found a house and the swallow a place where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of Hosts, my King and my God.” It is as if he is thinking of these little creatures out there in peril of the serpent and the storm. They have come out of those ambiguous resorts; they have found a safer place to build their nests, right under the eaves and rafters of God’s temple. It is a superior retreat for them. Now such a sentiment is quite out of the fashion with our modern poets. For if our times do not love the attractiveness of God’s tabernacles less, they at least love the attractiveness of nature more. They spell it even with a capital N. Wealth and transportation facilities and scientific discovery and invention have combined to make nature seem both beautiful and beneficent. And so she is. She is our storehouse, our laboratory, our picture gallery. And so some men have thought that they could find in her their sufficient temple, too.
But let us not forget, there are two crushing indictments to be made against nature. The first is her moral ambiguity. If she is something to be resorted to, she is likewise something to be fled from. If smiling fields and golden fruit and mellow sunshine and beautiful landscapes and rippling brooks and singing birds are an integral part of her, so are cyclones and earthquakes and influenza germs and cancer and hyenas and serpents and decay and death. No one has more sharply set forth this dual character of nature than the Dutch poet, De Genestet. A man is pointing out to his little boy the beauties and beneficences of nature and ends by telling him how joyously the little bird in gratitude sings its matin song after it has filled its crop with worms, and nature has thus beneficently satisfied its hunger. Then the little boy, after the manner of little boys the world over, asks one shattering question: “Do the worms sing along, too, pa?”
To him who in the love of Nature
Holds communion with her visible forms.
What are these “visible forms of Nature”? The highest one I know intimately is my dog. He is higher in organization and intelligence and rank than a mountain or a tree or a landscape. Suppose I were to try to commune with him in any thought or sentiment worthy of a man. Suppose I speak to him of my love and ideals for my children, my desires for the peace of the world, my hopes of immortality, what response do I get? Communing with nature is obviously only listening to the echo of one’s own voice. Is there nothing better than that for a man? Nature holds my true response for the highest aspirations and the deepest needs of our human souls. There is no response to them unless back of nature we shall hear the voice of One, to whom we are sufficiently akin by nature to make communion more than an echo.
There was a second reason why the Psalmist found the tabernacles of God to be so lovely. It was because of their high fellowship. The thing that divided those ancient Israelites was space. It was a matter of physical geography. The men of different villages in the same tribe were often really farther apart than friends from different states are here in America. Life in such a primitive community, especially if it be an agricultural community, is a lonely one. But there was one thing they looked forward to all the year long. It was their annual pilgrimage to the sanctuary in Zion. What fellowships and friendships must have been formed on the way! The journey was a hard one—on foot. But the companionship took all consciousness of that away. They went on their way in social singing so that even passing through the valley of weeping they made of it a well of joy. It was in large part, at any rate, because of these fellowships that another Psalmist could sing: “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go unto the house of the Lord.”
Now remarkable as it may seem, the sanctuary is as much needed today for the high fellowships of men as it was in that day. The world has not only become crowded today, but also space has been annihilated. And yet men are about as lonely as they were before and more afraid of it than ever. There is today both a new loneliness and an old loneliness in the hearts of men. There is a new loneliness of specialization and strenuousness. A man’s occupation has often become so specialized today that his next door neighbor understands nothing about it, cannot enter with him into it enough to talk intelligently about it. Often in the same profession, medicine for example, so far has the specialization gone, one expert often no longer knows, except in a very vague way, the problems and trials and successes of another expert.
Moreover, life has become busy and strenuous. A man’s specialization, whether his labor be manual or mental, has absorbed so much of him that he no longer has a margin for the cultivation of interests more common to his fellows. Indeed, industry frowns upon any such attempt at fellowship during the working hours of the day. It does not make for the highest mechanical efficiency. It has been well said that the sign, “Do not talk to the motor-man,” represents pretty well the whole spirit of our modern industrial life. The roar of machinery today drowns out the former hum of human conversation. And when the modern working man, be his labor manual or mental, comes home at night, instead of spending it with his neighbors, as he used to do, he takes himself and his family off to the “movies” and there he sits, in a crowd of men and women, to be sure, but as effectually separated from them by a wall of silence as if by the stone walls of his house and theirs.
The modern city man—let us not forget it—is, despite the fact that he lives in a crowd, a lonely fellow. What men need for this new loneliness is some common meeting-ground, some fellowship. The age is conscious of that and tries to provide for this new loneliness of specialization and strenuousness some mechanics of fellowship like the Rotary Club or the Kiwanis Club or something of the sort. And all this is good as far as it goes, but one who has observed it thoughtfully cannot help being impressed with the mechanical and superficial character of it all. What is needed is something deep enough to tunnel under or high enough to overfly these modern barriers between men. And there is no institution or invention that offers such a solution for this as the House of God. Here all men are just children before a Father who recognizes no distinction of occupation or class or even of race. Here they are all brought face to face with sin and God and the coming of His Kingdom in their hearts and society. The Sanctuary represents, as nothing else in the world, a common humanity and the one and the same Saviour for all. It is the high fellowship of God’s tabernacles.
And if this is the cure for the new loneliness, it is the cure for the old loneliness too. For beside this new loneliness of specialization and strenuousness there still lives on the old loneliness of sorrow and loss, of temptation and guilt. It matters not how far apart the paths of men’s specialized interests may take them today or how fast they drive, these common tragedies overtake and “get” them all. There is one great cure for the old loneliness as for the new. It is the deep and high fellowship of God’s tabernacles. For sorrow is lonely, but think how solitary a thing it would be if none other had so suffered. And guilt is lonely, but how bitter and desperate a thing it would be if no one else had ever sinned. But here is the place where a man will meet the fellow pilgrims that, like himself, have been wounded by the way. The heart-broken and the guilty are elsewhere, also, to be sure. Indeed, they are everywhere. But elsewhere it is all covered over. Only here do the sorrowing come to have their burdens lifted. Only here do the guilty come to have their sins forgiven. Only here do the tempted come to receive their strength for the battle.
So this is the second great reason for the loveliness of God’s tabernacles. It is the comfort and strength of high fellowship. And even this is not quite all even in the way of fellowship. There is one thing more. I am glad that when The Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in the communion of saints” it does not specify that this shall be communion between saints on earth or limit it to that. How they rise in memory before me, ofttimes as I stand in the pulpit or sit in the pew—these saints of former years! How shall I still maintain any continuity and fellowship with them, a continuity and fellowship that will overleap the silent and fearful chasm of death? I know of but one place of tryst high and holy enough for me to dare hope for that. It is in the tabernacles of God. Here is where they loved to come themselves for help and inspiration. And here is where they dedicated us and taught us to come. This, not in the darkened room of some medium, is still their trysting place with our spirits.
Oh, the way sometimes is low,
And the waters dark and deep,
And I stumble as I go,
But I have a tryst to keep;
It was plighted long ago
With some who lie asleep.
Even so, we have not thus far reached the highest note of the Psalmist’s song. There is a higher reason for the loveliness of God’s tabernacles than either their superiority to other haunts or their opportunity for fellowship with God’s people. It is because of the supreme presence in them of God himself. They are God’s tabernacles. They are the place where the Omniscient One specially dwells. It is this which gives the House of God its uniqueness. No man goes customarily to any other place where men congregate, be it what it may, to meet God. This distinction belongs to the House of God on the Sabbath day.
I spoke a moment ago of the folly of seeking communion with Nature as such. It is, of course, an entirely different thing when men seek to commune with God through Nature and back of Nature. I am sure God’s presence can be found in Nature. But it will be only to those that seek him there. God is at the end of a search. God, so His Word tells us, “is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” And that is precisely one of the reasons why He is so much oftener and more readily found in the sanctuary. What a wonderful thing it is you men and women have done here today, do each Sabbath day! It is for no mere subjective purpose you have come, to cultivate the highest there is in your nature, though incidentally you are doing that. You have come here for an objective reality. You have set out from your homes, as you do each Sabbath, on this unique and gallant pilgrimage to meet God.
Think of it! What is all the romance of Columbus sailing to America or the voyage of the Golden Fleece or the adventure of the Crusaders compared to this! No wonder it seems quixotic to a prosaic, scientific, materialistic age. Look at the stars. The vastness and sublimity of this physical universe grows greater with each new disclosure of science. The figures of it simply stagger the mind. We cannot take it in. He made all that—God. And you, like your fathers, dare set out each Sabbath on this adventure to meet the Lord God of these Hosts in this temple which your love and sacrifice have built for Him. No scientist with any glass however powerful has yet found the seat of His presence. But you dare to believe that He is here and that you will find Him. Was there ever such a romantic adventure? If it does not seem thrilling, it is because of the limitations of our sense of wonder. Surely the Romance of the World is all with that group of men and women who make this weekly pilgrimage to their temples, supremely because He is to be found there.
What if they should be right! It is enough to make the heart leap to think of it. But if they be not right, if this be not true, if there be a God but He is not sufficiently responsive to human need and affection to meet the men and women who seek and sacrifice for Him here in the place they built for that high purpose, then there are no high and holy human values that are objectively worth anything in this universe and we might well with Huxley welcome some kindly comet that would sweep it all away. The men and women of yore who, like the Psalmist, loved His worship, your own father and mother among them, and have gone down into bitter death—do they still survive? Did God care enough about them to save them from destruction? Why should He if He did not care enough about their love and adoration to meet them in the tabernacles they had reverently built for that purpose? Everything we hold most dear is staked on the assumption underlying the sentiment of my text. This strange but high weekly pilgrimage you make to God’s tabernacles is basic for all the highest you are and hope to be. It is lovely chiefly because of the Supreme Presence there.
And for those of you who have entered most deeply and genuinely into this experience of seeking His presence, it has done several things. I would like merely in the briefest fashion to suggest three or four. It has been, first of all, a spiritual cleansing. With all sorts of lower and less worthy ideals and conventions does a man come into contact through his daily association with the world. He needs the washing that comes to him here each Sabbath from the consciousness of God’s presence. In proportion to the earnestness and genuineness of his seeking, out from this presence he goes a finer man, a finer man through the years, bathed and perfumed.
A Persian fable says: One day
A wanderer found a piece of clay
So redolent of sweet perfume
Its odor scented all the room.
“What art thou?” was the quick demand,
“Art thou some gem from Samarcand?
Or spikenard rare in rich disguise?
Or other costly merchandise?”
“Nay, I am but a piece of clay!”
“Then whence this wondrous sweetness, pray?”
“Friend, if the secret I disclose,
I have been dwelling with a rose!”
And what shall be the moral cleanness and fragrance of him who, mere mortal clay though he may be, has truly learned to dwell, even if it be but for an hour a week, “in the secret place of the Most High”? For “He will give grace and glory.”
To how many a spiritual pilgrim seeking God in His sanctuary has it been like that. The man has gone there with a sorely burdened heart pursued by disappointment and sorrow and anxiety or by temptation and sin and remorse. And then something has happened there; some word has been spoken or read; some hymn has been sung; some thought has come to him unbidden and it may be not even mediated by any human lips, direct from God. And lo! it has been as the opening of a concealed door. He has gone in and been safe. For he has crept “under the shadow of the Almighty.”
And if it is a place of safety for you, it is that for your children. All creatures capable of a real parenthood seek a safe place “where they may lay their young.” Your children have got to meet sorrow and temptation. They are especially exposed to it because of their plasticity and inexperience. There is no possible way by which you can save them from that. The only thing you can do is to form in them the habit of going to the tabernacles of God. You can thus beat a way for them to the sheltering presence of the Lord of Hosts.
Then, for those who truly enter into the House of God it is a place of strength and inspiration for the battle of life. “They go from strength to strength.” For when the Psalmist says the Lord God is a shield, he does not mean for defense only. A shield is as much for the soldier who attacks; more, in fact, since he has no rampart behind which to hide. For every true man has battles to fight for God and the right and humanity. And what a place throughout all ages the Sanctuary of God has been to fire men on to the battle.
It was, therefore, by a true instinct that the knights of the olden time came to the church to have their arms blessed and themselves fortified for the warfare of chivalry to which they then went forth. The sanctuary is for the fighter. And so I want to send you forth, young and old, raw recruits and veterans, the enthusiast and the loyal though disillusioned, with this “Prayer of Richard the Lion-Hearted”:
Once in this chapel, Lord,
Young and undaunted,
Over my virgin sword
Lightly I chaunted:
“Dawn ends my watch, I go
Shining to meet the foe.
“Swift with the dawn,” I said,
“Set the lists ringing;
Soon shall the foe be fled
And all the world singing;
Bless my bright plume for me,
Christ, King of Chivalry.”
War-worn I kneel tonight,
Lord, by thine altar;
Oh! in tomorrow’s fight
Let me not falter;
Bless my dark arms for me,
Christ, King of Chivalry.
Keep thou my broken sword
All the long night through,
While I keep watch and ward;
Then, the red fight through,
Bless the wrenched haft of me,
Christ, King of Chivalry.
Keep thou my sullied mail,
Lord, that I tender
Here at the altar rail;
Then, let thy splendor
Touch it once, and I go
Stainless to meet the foe.